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Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

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Coming off of a season where they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, expectations were remarkably low for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season. Being on the outside of the playoff picture for the third year in a row seemed like a given. Being one of the worst teams in the league again, if not the worst team, seemed like a real possibility.

But entering play on Saturday they have been, by far, the NHL’s biggest surprise with a 13-5-4 record through their first 22 games, putting them in third place in the Metropolitan Division just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only three points behind the New York Rangers with multiple games in hand on both teams. It is still the best start in the history of the franchise.

Let’s take a look at what is behind their newfound success.

Sergei Bobrovsky is back

One of the biggest factors in Columbus’ miserable start a year ago was the struggles of starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. A former Vezina Trophy winner, the 2015-16 season was by far Bobrovsky’s worst campaign since arriving in Columbus. So far this season, he is back on track and once again playing like one of the top goalies in the league.

In 20 starts this season he owns a .929 save percentage and has already recorded three shutouts.

At this point last season he was carrying around a .905 save percentage and talking about how he had little confidence in his game.

How much of a difference is that swing in his performance making? A massive one. He has faced an almost identical number of shots through his first 20 starts (562 in 2015-16, 566 this year), but the difference in his performance has shaved 13 goals off of the Blue Jackets’ goals against total. Add 13 goals to that total right now and they go from second in the NHL, all the way down to 15th. That alone has to be worth a couple of wins.

Goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and if you have a good one, or one that is simply on an incredible hot streak, it is going to mask a lot of flaws. Likewise, a goaltender that is struggling can make an otherwise good team think it has a lot of problems.

Some young talent is making a big impact

One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Blue Jackets’ roster entering the season was the amount of money they had tied up in veteran players that were starting to get into their late 20s or early 30s and how little some of them had produced a year ago. Nick Foligno. Scott Hartnell. Brandon Dubinsky. Jack Johnson. Long-term some of those contracts are still a concern (though, Foligno is having a nice bounce back season with 20 points in 22 games), but what is really helping Columbus this season is the number of young players that have stepped into the lineup and are making huge contributions.

Six of the team’s top-10 scorers, including three of the top-five, are age 24 or younger.

Among that group is 19-year-old Zach Werenski who has been a huge addition to the team’s blue line. With 16 points he is the leading scorer in the NHL among rookie defensemen and is one of the best possession drivers on the team.

Up front, Alexander Wennberg, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 (No. 14 overall) is taking a huge step in his development and has seen his production skyrocket across the board while playing alongside Brandon Saad and Foligno.

Even though his minutes have been limited and coach John Tortorella still wants to see more consistency out of him, 22-year-old Josh Anderson already has seven goals on the year.

There is probably a little bit of luck on their side

When trying to figure out if a team is for real or not there are a couple of underlying signs you need to look for.

For example: A team that is getting badly outshot and is winning because of a sky high shooting percentage or save percentage (or both) is probably a team that is getting a lot of good luck and is setting itself up for a big collapse in the future (take, for example, the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the 2014 Colorado Avalanche. Or the  2015 Calgary Flames).

And while that is not entirely the case with the Blue Jackets right now, they have been a little on the lucky side so far.

Their shot on goal and shot attempts numbers are decent and have them around the middle of the pack in the league, but there is still probably a regression coming in the future when it comes to their offense which is currently tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.

At the moment they are scoring on nearly 11 percent of their shots, while five individual players are carrying shooting percentages higher than 15 percent. Those are all numbers that are likely to drop as the season goes on. It’s just too hard, both for teams and individuals, to maintain that type of shooting success over the course of an 82 game season. Over the past five years only 11 teams (total) have finished an 82-game season with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent, and none have been over 11. In 2015-16 only 32 individual players (minimum 100 shots) finished the season with a shooting percentage higher than 15 percent. Again, the Blue Jackets right now have five of them. Some of that is going to regress a bit.

But again, they also aren’t the 2013 Maple Leafs or the 2014 Avalanche here when it comes to luck. They are keeping teams to less than 30 shots on goal per game, and while their possession numbers are not great, they are not exactly overly concerning, either. They are probably not playing that far over their heads at the moment.

As long as Bobrovsky stays healthy and keeps playing like the goalie he’s been for most of the past five years (the 2015-16 season excluded) they are going to have a shot to hang around in this thing.

The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

(As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

(For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

“Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

(Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

What to expect

While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

How they’ve been playing

Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

  • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

  • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
  • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

  • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

***

Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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