The wait will soon be over. Star defenseman Erik Karlsson confirmed that he will make his season debut Tuesday against the visiting Vancouver Canucks after missing the first five games coming back from offseason foot surgery for an injury he played through during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.
That will be a huge addition to a Senators lineup that, despite missing their best player and one of the best players in the entire NHL, is on a three-game winning streak and returns from a trip out west that yielded convincing victories over Calgary and Edmonton on back-to-back nights, with Ottawa scoring six goals in each of those contests.
“I think he’s the best player in the world,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Citizen. “It just brings you basically an impact on everything — your breakouts, your transition, your (offensive) zone, your power play, you defensive play, (he’s) your leader. He is who he is. He has such a presence. It’s not just a hockey player. It’s everything around it, too. And it’s time.”
Karlsson’s last game was on May 25, in that thrilling Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Pittsburgh. He underwent foot surgery a few weeks later, and was at the time slated to miss four months. So, as he acknowledged Monday, he could be a little rusty to begin.
Karlsson returned to the ice in September, well after training camps had started. That was another (positive) step in his comeback, though understandably, the Senators and Karlsson didn’t want to risk anything by rushing him back into the lineup before he was absolutely ready.
He’ll return to a team that is 3-0-2 so far, having shaken off two straight shootout losses to begin the season.
The Senators still have yet to lose in regulation, getting off to a solid start following last spring’s surprising playoff run. During that time, Karlsson was the team’s dominant player all while playing injured. So good was Karlsson that he actually garnered a vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy even though his team didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Teams haven’t yet figured out how to play defense, goaltenders can be a little rusty, goal scoring briefly spikes and the season is still so young that we can’t really get a firm grasp on what teams are going to look like.
Which team off to a fast start is for real? Which slumping team is truly doomed? Should we pay attention to any of this so far because the early season results can lie to us.
That’s what we attempt to look at in our first installment of the PHT Power Rankings: Which teams are as good as they look, which teams are as bad as they look, and which teams have played better than their early terrible records.
At the top of the rankings we have the Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of four out of their first five and the highest scoring team in the league. Is Mike Babcock satisfied with the fact they are giving up nearly as many goals and chances as they score? Probably not. But these young kids can flat out fly and once they get turned loose there are not many defenses in the league that can slow them down.
From there, we break the 31 NHL teams down into four tiers: Teams as good as they look, teams likely to fall, teams likely to rise, and the teams at the bottom that are exactly what they look like.
As good as they look
1. Toronto Maple Leafs —Auston Matthews is better than the pre-draft hype. We knew he was a slam-dunk No. 1 pick. We knew he had All-Star potential. He is still better. And not by a little, either. Five goals and eight points in his first five games to start the season and a 58.6 percent Corsi mark. Just a dominant, dominant, dominant player.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Injuries, especially the season-ending one to Steven Stamkos, decimated this team a year ago. Fully healthy this is still a Stanley Cup contender.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets —Artemi Panarin is showing that he doesn’t need Patrick Kane next to him to produce and that is great news for the Blue Jackets. They needed a game-breaking forward up front, and now they have one.
4. Chicago Blackhawks — It has been the Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad show in Chicago this year. Just when you think the Blackhawks might start to slow down or that their run as one of the NHL’s top dogs was starting to come to an end, they find a way to stick around.
5. Los Angeles Kings — Is it possible that they just needed a new voice, a new system and a new approach? I have my doubts, but it is hard to argue with the results thus far … both the record and the underlying numbers.
6. Calgary Flames — If Mike Smith can give them competent goaltending (and so far he has!) this team could be a serious threat in the Western Conference, especially with that top-four on defense.
Fast start, but not as good as they look (Teams likely to fall)
7. St. Louis Blues — Pretty amazing start given the injury situation, but they have been absolutely crushed on the shot chart and you have to wonder how long they can withstand that.
8. New Jersey Devils —Nico Hischier gets all of the headlines as the No. 1 overall pick, but don’t sleep on defenseman Will Butcher. He already has eight assists in his first five games. An improved team for sure, but probably not one that is as good as its early record.
9. Ottawa Senators — The most confusing team in the league? Their run to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago was a shock. They were a double-overtime Game 7 on the road away from being in the Stanley Cup Final, but it wasn’t really a team that made you think they could do it again. Now, they have started the season with eight out of a possible 10 points without getting a single minute of play from Erik Karlsson. Stunning. They also have the second worst shot attempt numbers in the league. Not an encouraging sign for future play.
10. Detroit Red Wings — After missing the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades expectations were near an all-time low for the Red Wings this season. They are off to a great start, but this roster is still problematic.
11. Colorado Avalanche — That defense will not hold up. It just won’t. Have to be encouraged by Nail Yakupov’s start up front though.
12. Vegas Golden Knights — One of the best starts ever by an expansion team, but how long is it going to last? The best thing about James Neal’s start is what it is doing to his trade value for the deadline.
Slow start, but better than they look (Teams likely to rise)
13. Edmonton Oilers — Making them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season is premature. Also premature? Writing them off after a slow start. They are the top possession team in the NHL and they still have Connor McDavid.
14. Pittsburgh Penguins — After dropping their first two games (where they gave up 15 goals!) they have won three out of their next four and seem to be starting to get back on track a little. They still need to make another move or two to fix that center depth.
15. Washington Capitals — Are they going to win the Presidents’ Trophy again? No. But they have three of the top offensive players in the NHL and Alex Ovechkin is still the best pure goal scorer in the league.
16. Nashville Predators —Filip Forsberg looks like he is well on his way to another 30-goal season and Scott Hartnell has looked like a steal of a pickup.
17. Montreal Canadiens — They have some question marks, but they have played significantly better than their early season record indicates. A true test of process vs. results. If the same process continues, the better results are going to come.
18. Minnesota Wild — They have earned at least one point in three of their first four games and Nino Niederreiter, arguably their best two-way player, has yet to hit the score sheet. He will be fine and so will they.
19. Boston Bruins — They are a top-heavy team, but the guys at the top of the roster can be some of the best in the league. Let’s see how they look when Patrice Bergeron and David Backes get back in the lineup.
20. Philadelphia Flyers — There is a lot of young talent on this team and they can be really good, really fast … if they get the goaltending.
21. Florida Panthers — Their possession numbers look fantastic so far and having a full season of a healthy Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov will be game-changing for them. Last season might have been the fluke.
22. Carolina Hurricanes — Only three games to go by at this point, but the roster looks good, the young talent seems to be for real. If they do not contend for a playoff spot this season something is very, very wrong.
23. San Jose Sharks — Four games into the season and Brent Burns and Joe Thornton have combined for only two assists. That will not continue.
24. New York Rangers — The results (1-5-0) are lousy, but like Montreal and Edmonton ahead of them they have played much better than that record indicates. Mika Zibanejad has been a real bright spot so far, already scoring five goals.
25. Anaheim Ducks — I know, they were in the Western Conference Finals. They have had back-to-back 100-point seasons. But they have just looked lousy so far. That can not continue, can it?
Exactly what they look like
26. Dallas Stars — Still not entirely sold on this team, even after another offseason of blockbuster moves. Sometimes you need to actually just win.
27. New York Islanders — Once John Tavares starts to get going things will get better, and Joshua Ho-Sang can be a fascinating player if they turn him loose. But after that it’s a pretty dull team.
28. Winnipeg Jets — This should be a good team. This looks like a good team on paper. They have great individual talent up and down the lineup But it never materializes on the ice.
29. Vancouver Canucks — Rebuilding team that isn’t really rebuilding and doesn’t have anybody that is truly exciting as a long-term building block. Bo Horvat is good, but with all due respect to him and his ability if he is your player and top scorer that is probably not a good situation to be in.
30. Buffalo Sabres — Five games into the season and an eight-year contract and Jack Eichel is already frustrated with losing. That is not a promising start.
31. Arizona Coyotes — Better days are ahead, but when you have a team with his many young players and so many new faces there are going to be some pretty fierce growing pains along the way. The Coyotes are experiencing that so far this season. First-year coach Rick Tocchet already had to apologize to the fans.
But the player of the night had to be Claude Giroux as he finished with four points (two goals, two assists) and is now up to seven points in his first five games this season.
The 2016-17 season was a bit of a down year for Giroux as he finished with only 58 points, his worst offensive output (not counting the lockout season in 2012-13) since 2009-10, his second year in the league. He is off to a great start so far this season.
Highlight of the night.
Another huge play from Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin, this time in overtime as he made another slick entry into the offensive zone to help set up Alexander Wennberg for the game-winning goal. He finished the game with three assists, already his second three assist game of the season. He is now up to seven points in five games. Huge pickup for the Blue Jackets.
— The Ottawa Senators have collected eight out of a possible 10 points without the services of their best player, Erik Karlsson. Pretty good sign for the Eastern Conference runners up. They completed the Alberta sweep on Saturday night with a 6-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Following their blowout win in Calgary on Friday night that means they beat the Oilers and Flames by a combined margin of 12-1. That is pretty impressive.
— With their 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins the Arizona Coyotes are off to their worst five-game start in franchise history at 0-4-1. Not a great start for a young team.
— Corey Crawford has been pretty much unbeatable for the Chicago Blackhawks so far this season, allowing just a single goal in four of his first five starts. That includes Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win agains the Nashville Predators when he stopped 37 out of 38 shots.
— Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov continued his fantastic start to the season by scoring in his fifth consecutive game. He has now scored in every game this season and helped lead the Lightning to a 2-1 win on Saturday night. He is one of the top offensive players in the league and is picking right back up from where he left off a year ago.
Scores and recaps.
Philadelphia Flyers 8, Washington Capitals 2
Winnipeg Jets 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 2, St. Louis Blues 1
New Jersey Devils 3, New York Rangers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Florida Panthers 3
Dallas Stars 3, Colorado Avalanche 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Minnesota Wild 4
Chicago Blackhawks 2, Nashville Predators 1
Boston Bruins 6, Arizona Coyotes 2
Calgary Flames 5, Vancouver Canucks 2
New York Islanders 3, San Jose Sharks 1
Los Angeles Kings 4, Buffalo Sabres 2
Mike Green, NHL points co-leader, and other odd early stats
Kuznetsov and Green both subsist off assists with eight, while Ovechkin’s mind-blowing sniping gives him eight goals and zero helpers through a week-plus.
Yep, pretty weird stuff.
Consider this a little time capsule of trends that (cough) might not last through the entire 2017-18 season. Not that it wouldn’t be fun for Green to finish with 164 assists and Ovechkin to hit 164 goals, mind you.
That would call for an HBO 24/7-inspired joy ride reunion, eh?
Poor Rick Nash. Considering his crazy-low career playoff shooting percentage numbers, he might be worthy of induction into an imaginary Hall of Fame for bad bounces.
Anyway, it’s one thing for defensemen to have low shooting percentage numbers; Rielly and Keith could both enjoy fine seasons, even if they continue to shoot at a low clip (though zero percent would, naturally, be infuriating). Those forwards, on the other hand, should start getting some breaks.
Drouin must be especially steamed, as he’s likely dying to score his first goal in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, what with the big trade and big extension. If you need further evidence that the Habs are better than their scoring stats would indicate, consider that promising forward Hudon is similarly stalled despite firing four SOG per game.
(It’s still confounding that the Vegas Golden Knights balked on Hudon. But that’s the NHL.)
Whoa, Brandon Saad and James Neal both already have three game-winning goals. Last season, Rickard Rakell was the only guy in double digits with 10, so Neal and Saad afforded themselves two tremendous head-starts.
(They have a solid chance of sticking at the top of those rankings if they stay healthy.)
Between August’s “Team of the Day” series and all the other articles that gets published, Pro Hockey Talk generates a ton of material to get you hyped for the 2017-18 season.
With that in mind, it’s understandable if you missed some great stuff. While these collections aren’t comprehensive, consider these divisional previews to be a good way to get hyped for the rapidly approaching season.