Between the blue lines: Opening week reactions

As the NHL season rolls by, Sam Hitchcock will offer his week-by-week reactions to action across the league. Sam also operates the website Here are his thoughts from the first week (or so) of games:

The Birds Will Be Fine:

As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their prime, the expectation is that the Pittsburgh Penguins, because they are in a weak conference, should at least reach the Stanley Cup final. When that didn’t happen last season, Pittsburgh replaced its coach and general manager. The Ducks finished one point shy of the Presidents’ Trophy in 2013-14, and finished the regular season second in 5 on 5 goals for/against and first in scoring. Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf finished second to Crosby in the Hart Trophy voting. Both teams entered this season with questions surrounding their Cup windows.

The good news is that the Penguins’ and Ducks’ dynamic duos look spectacular, as Crosby and Malkin have combined for 10 points and Getzlaf and Corey Perry have combined for 12. As long as both teams’ superstars stay healthy, their supporting casts will be ample reinforcements.

The Penguins are leading the NHL in goals per game and Anaheim is in the top eleven in goals per game, 5 on 5 goals for/against, and faceoff win percentage. Patric Hornqvist has been a terrific fit with Crosby, and Anaheim’s young talent has been influential.

Boston and New York Might Be Slightly Worse Than They Were Last Year, But This Won’t Alter the Eastern Conference Hierarchy:

The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers were both juggernauts in the East last season, but the Bruins are currently 2-3 and the Rangers 1-3. A combined -12 goal differential is bound to raise some eyebrows, yet the rest of the conference is so mediocre that both teams should be able to survive some growing pains.

The Bruins played without David Krejci for its first three games, but now their playmaking center is back and looking good. Trading Johnny Boychuk days before the season started expectedly hurt the team’s defensive depth, and Boston has missed Jarome Iginla’s offense on the wing. Personnel changes have thrust young players like Reilly Smith and Torey Krug, and auxiliary contributors from last season like Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg, into more prominent roles. Milan Lucic is a browbeating power forward with Krejci on his line, but he looked much less formidable without him. With Krejci back, the Bruins will adjust.

The Rangers miss Derek Stepan a lot. He does not have the top-flight impact of many marquee No. 1 centers filling NHL rosters, but without him the already-thin center position is a messy blotch on a pleasing canvass. Defenseman Dan Boyle was signed as a top-four defenseman to help mitigate the loss of Anton Stralman and improve the power play, and his injury has tested the defensive group in an uncomfortable way.

The Rangers are different from last season, but not enough so to disrupt them in any meaningful way. They still have Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist, and Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis are off to great starts. Chris Kreider has contributed some spurts of really strong play. New York still has have the skating, passing, and goaltending to win enough games to make the postseason. With Boyle injured and no Stralman, the zone exits have been gruesome, but if Boyle stays healthy once he returns, New York should remain a high-end Eastern Conference team that is above average in puck possession.

This Islanders Team Can Make the Playoffs

The New York Islanders are off to a 3-0 start and have a plus-six goal differential, so it is natural to overreact and proclaim them this season’s surprise team. On a more micro scale, the Islanders are playing significantly better hockey in all three zones.

The Islanders’ breakout can survive an unsuccessful first attempt on the strong side, patiently resetting and trying to flush the puck out through the far side. Their players know their defensive assignments and are finding their outlets. In the neutral zone, there is conscious support on the puck and much improved gap control from both the forwards and defensemen. Forwards are helping out on defense, and the defense is activating when there is open ice. The Islanders have exhibited an ability to score off the rush and on the cycle. They are playing confidently and aggressively, but also intelligently. And it has been a long, long, long time since that has been true.

The trade for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy days before the season started completely changed the season’s trajectory. New York’s defensive group went from unproven to competent. These two defensemen, formerly on the Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, are poised and offensively capable and can post good possession numbers and play assertively. Boychuk’s best attribute is his shot; Leddy’s is his skating. In their own zone, both are calm and shrewd about how to manage the puck and lead the zone exit. Boychuk and Leddy lead the Islanders’ defensive group in Corsi – through two games, per — and attacking from the back end.

Leddy was used in a sheltered role with Chicago, and his confidence in his own ability to penetrate the defense and make plays can sometimes lead to odd-man rushes by opponents. But he is nevertheless a young, skilled, mobile defenseman – a coveted commodity.

On Tuesday night, when Leddy made the zone entry against the Rangers that would lead to the Kyle Okposo goal, this was exactly what the Islanders have been missing, a young playmaking defenseman. Installing Leddy and Boychuk as the first pair allows everyone to slot down, and one of those other blueliners is the former fourth overall pick from 2012, Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart has had an up-and-down start – he was just demoted to the AHL team in Bridgeport – but he has evident upside, which should eventually help lift the ceiling for New York. And the Islanders have another former first-round pick, Calvin de Haan (12th overall), who they can plug into their top six.

Adding two legitimate defensemen, along with some promising youth, is what has given the Islanders potency on offense. Astutely, New York placed bottom-six forward Cory Conacher with John Tavares and Okposo, and has rolled out second and third offensive lines comprised of offseason acquisitions Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovksi as well as several former first round picks: Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, and Josh Bailey. Add in two-way center Frans Nielsen, and this is a deep and skilled forward group. Strome and Nelson especially have demonstrated strong decision-making and poise with the puck. The carry-in is a more effective way to generate offense than the dump-in, but Nelson’s goal against the Rangers was a textbook forecheck. The triangle practically jumped off the ice.

At this pace, Nelson is projected to get 191 points and Boychuk 164. The Islanders are averaging five goals a game. It is impossible for them to keep up this torrid scoring rate. But this does not mean that what happened in the first three games is a mirage.

Philadelphia’s Problems Are Real and So Are Toronto’s

Toronto and Philadelphia both have salary caps beset with awful long-term contracts, and their current personnel is exceedingly mediocre. Thus far, each team has looked capable at times and haphazard at others.

Toronto has four points to Philadelphia’s two, with the Maple Leafs showing conviction in the ideology change that the front office preached this offseason. Toronto has utilized more creativity and freedom with the puck on zone entries, displayed more aggression from its defensemen, and played at a quicker pace  – but the upshot is that a lot of average players can only do so much by carrying the puck more. This team’s success relies on Tyler Bozak’s first line and parts of Nazem Kadri’s second line, and in their two wins, the Maple Leafs were buoyed by both.

The Flyers are also top heavy and injuries have factored into their ugly start. The Flyers have trailed in three of four games – against Montreal they blew a 3-0 lead – and this team is dependent on scoring by its top forwards, and its defense maintaining some semblance of fortification. Claude Giroux has been very good and Wayne Simmonds has been excellent, but the Braydon Coburn injury left the Flyers without their top defensive pair from last season (Kimmo Timonen is out indefinitely with a blood clot).

The Flyers’ defensive group was not good with Coburn in the lineup, and without him, they have been messy on breakouts and aimless in defensive zone coverage. Offensively, Vincent Lecavalier provided another offensive option, but he is out for two weeks. If the Maple Leafs’ thin lineup suffers injuries to their primary contributors, they too will depreciate.

The Maple Leafs and Flyers have more in common than one might think. Both teams started out with weak possession metrics – as of this writing both clubs were in the bottom third of the league, per – but more importantly, aside from some internal improvements from the younger players on the current roster, it is hard to see a roadmap for how they can improve.

Winnipeg isn’t getting better and Edmonton could be in trouble

Proclaiming four games into the season that a team is in serious trouble is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that Internet sports journalism is based on these days, but still, the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers have not demonstrated the improvements that their organizations must have been hoping for.

Against Arizona, the Jets scored four goals in the first period, and some strong play by their nucleus was assisted by a meltdown from Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith. In the same game, the Jets also saw Evander Kane suffer a knee injury, which was a debilitating blow to the offense, but overall the team was moving the puck well and showed some firepower from the forward and defensive groups.

But the Jets followed their first win on the season by being shutout by the San Jose Sharks (Winnipeg committed eight penalties!), and then got manhandled by the Los Angeles Kings. Aside from a good penalty kill this season, it is hard to determine what this Jets team does well. They have some good players — Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, and Tobias Enstrom are off to hot starts — but goaltending is still a major issue and the play from this squad is too inconsistent and too undisciplined. They lead the league in penalty minutes per game and are 27th in minor penalties, statistics that are crippling for a team that is also less talented than the Western Conference hegemony.

And Winnipeg’s situation is arguably rosier than the Oilers’! Edmonton has a throng of young, highly drafted talent and is gradually improving its supporting cast, but the results have been negligible so far. Taylor Hall is a great player, one of the best wingers in the league, but he has been the lone bright spot. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins does not look like he is getting markedly better and is probably not the No. 1 center the Oilers envisioned when they drafted him first overall. Health is a skill, and his durability is a concern as well.

Nail Yakupov has ghastly possession stats and his good play on the ice has come in flashes. Leon Draisaitl looks like an 18-year-old thrust into an important center role, which is what happened. Jordan Eberle is a skilled offensive player, but does not drive play or make the little plays that strong two-way wingers need to make to win games. The veterans (David Perron, Benoit Pouliot, and Matt Hendricks) are not making a consistent positive difference. The Oilers may not be quite as bad as their record suggests, but they have been unsatisfactory.

The Oilers are allowing 5.50 goals against per game – easily the worst in the NHL. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth are not a dynamic goaltending duo, but the defensive support has not been good either. The defensive group is still a work in progress, although new acquisitions Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin have made that unit better. But the Oilers are still terrible, and they play in the brutal Western Conference. There are more questions than answers with this team. The Oilers got destroyed by the Kings, and the other three of their first four games were against teams who did not make the playoffs last season. Edmonton gleaned only one point from those contests.





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