Early season games tend to be treated as throw away games because, well, they are early and there is always the assumption that even if a team starts slow there is plenty of time to get back on track and make up the points.
It doesn’t really work that way. Two points in October are the same as two points in March, and while nobody is going to win the Stanley Cup based on what they do in the first month of the season, teams can cost themselves a chance to win it by not making the playoffs at all based on what they do in these early games.
There are a couple of teams that were thought of as potential playoff teams at the start that are currently running the risk of putting themselves in early season holes they may not be able to dig themselves out of.
It is not crazy to worry about a slow start; it is crazy to not worry about a slow start.
Let’s start with the Florida Panthers who are doing it again!
There was some real excitement for the Panthers heading into this season, largely because of the way they finished the 2017-18 season, going 25-8-2 over their final 35 games.
On top of that they were bringing back a good, strong core built around Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck up front, and added a top-six winger in Mike Hoffman for next to nothing. There was reason to put stock in them as a potential playoff team.
But as they showed last season it really does not matter how well you play in the second half of the season if you completely fall on your face and lay an egg in the first half. For as good as they were over the final 35 games, it still was not good enough to get them in the playoffs as they fell just a single point short.
They have only played seven games so far this season but they are in danger of putting themselves in a similar hole if they do not turn things around. Quickly.
After Tuesday’s loss to the New York Rangers — an especially ugly loss considering the current state of the Rangers — they have managed to win just one of their first seven games, and are still searching for their first win in regulation.
This is potentially problematic.
Let’s just look back over the past 10 years as an example and look at teams that won only one of their first seven games to start a season. There have been 15 of them before this season. Only four of them were able to make the playoffs after that start: The 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks, the 2012-13 Washington Capitals, and the 2008-09 and 2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers.
None of those four made it out of the first round of the playoffs.
If you’re looking for some optimism as a Panthers fan there is the possibility that the return of Roberto Luongo could help solidify a goaltending situation that has been abysmal to start to the year, as well as the fact they have lost a couple of coin flip games in overtime and the shootout, and that they’re not that far away from having three or four wins right now.
But the point is, they don’t have them, and those are important points that have been left on the table for one reason or another. Those points are hard to get back because everyone else in the conference is going to keep collecting points, and as the season progresses whatever games in hand a team may have are not necessarily *wins* in hand.
They are not alone.
Then there is the Los Angeles Kings.
While the Panthers at least have some reason to believe they can maybe get back on track at some point, the Kings don’t really have anything going in their favor.
The Kings are already nine games into their season, and as of Wednesday have won just two of them and they have not looked particularly good in any of them, including during their current five-game losing streak where four of the losses have been by at least three goals … and three by at least four goals.
Over the same 10-year time span mentioned above, there have been 25 teams that have won just two of their first nine games.
Only three ended up making the playoffs (2015-16 Ducks, 2013-14 Flyers, 2012-13 Capitals).
So, yeah, it is early.
But recent history suggests teams that start like these two have (both of whom are already at least five points back of the playoff teams ahead of them) do not usually make the playoffs.
Not saying they absolutely can not; but recent history is not on their side.