NHL Power Rankings: Best season starts in league history

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New York Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha are two of the most surprising — and productive — players through the first week of the NHL season.

Zibanejad is already up to eight points in the Rangers’ first two games, while Mantha is coming off a four-goal effort on Sunday and already has seven points (including five goals) for the Red Wings.

With their fast starts in mind, we wanted to use this week’s Power Rankings to take a look back at some of the best individual starts to past seasons.

Which fast starts make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers/Los Angeles Kings (1983-84 and 1988-89). Bless the 1980s NHL and its lack of defense and overmatched goaltenders. Gretzky’s 1983-84 season was one of those truly baffling years where no one could stop him. He opened with 15 points in five games and then went on to record at least one point in each of his first 51 games. He was held without a point in just three games all year! A few years later Gretzky moved to Los Angeles where he posted 13 points in his first five games in 1988-89 as part of a 22-game point streak to open the year.

2. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins (1988-89 and 1992-93). Lemieux was a hockey cheat code in the late ’80s and early ’90s and had two different starts where he recorded at least 17 points in the first five games of a season. He first did it in 1988-89 with nine goals and 10 assists, including an eight-point game in a 9-2 win against the St. Louis Blues. He went on to finish that year with 85 goals, 199 points, and one of the most controversial second place MVP finishes ever. The ’92-93 season was Lemieux at his most dominant, and it began with him putting 17 points on the board in the first five games. He would go on to record at least two points in each of his first 12 games. This was also the year he missed nearly two months battling Hodgkin’s disease, only to return in early March and overcome a 17-point deficit in the scoring race to top Pat LaFontaine for the Art Ross Trophy.

3. Mike Bossy, New York Islanders (1984-85). This was a truly dominant start for one of the best pure goal scorers the league has ever seen. Bossy started the ’84-85 season with nine goals and 18 points in the Islanders’ first five games and he never really slowed down after that. He went on to score at least one goal in each of his first 10 games (including two four-goal efforts) with 32 total points.

4. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (2017-18). He opened the Capitals’ Stanley Cup winning season with seven goals in his first two games and nine in his first five. It was the best start to a season in his career. Those are the type of numbers you would have expected from the 1980s era NHL. Doing it during this era, and over the age of 30, was truly incredible.

5. Michel Goulet, Quebec Nordiques (1987-88). Goulet had some massive years for the Nordiques in the 1980s, with the ’87-88 season being one of his best. He finished with 48 goals and 106 points and it all started with a dominant run at the start that saw him score six goals to go with 12 assists in his first five games. He had nine three-point games before Thanksgiving, including four four-point games.

6. Peter Stastny, Quebec Nordiques (1982-83). The Stastnys were wildly productive players from the moment they arrived in the NHL. Peter opened the 1982-83 season with eight goals in his first three games. Since the start of the 1979-80 season, no player in the NHL has scored more goals in their team’s first three games.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild (2014-15). His 2014-15 season did not end up being a great one overall, but he started the year about as well as any goalie has ever started a season in recent memory. He recorded a shutout in three of the Wild’s first five games, allowing just four total goals during that stretch.

8. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers (2005-06). Still probably the most under appreciated great goalie in NHL history simply because he never ended up getting his name on the Stanley Cup. During his first stint with the Panthers he took on a massive workload and was peppered with shots every night and almost always giving his team a chance. He opened 2005-06 with back-to-back shutouts in his first two games and had a save percentage over .960 through Florida’s first five games. It was the second year in a row he led the league in shots faced and saves. He was traded to Vancouver after the season.

9. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks (2012-13). Marleau was one of the league’s top goal-scorers between 2008 and 2012 and looked like he was on track to continue that run when he opened the lockout shortened 2012-13 season with two goals in each of his first four games. Just for good measure, he scored one goal in his fifth game to give him nine goals in his first five games. He was never able to maintain that pace all year and finished with just eight goals over the remaining 43 games. He did, however, open the playoffs that year with a goal in five of his first six postseason games, including each of the first four. It was a very streaky year.

10. Mark Parrish, New York Islanders (2001-02). I mainly just wanted to include this one because I vividly remember it for its total randomness. Mark Parrish? Scoring all of the goals? For the early 2000s Islanders? It made no sense at the time. Parrish was in his second year with the Islanders after being acquired in the doomed-from-the-beginning Luongo trade and opened the 2001-02 season with eight goals in the team’s four games, and then 12 goals through 12 games. He went on to score 30 that year (the only 30-goal season of his career) and while he was a very good player, he was never productive enough to make up for being traded for Luongo and Olli Jokinen.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Zucker walks the walk for Wild; Goalies come up big

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Three Stars

1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Mike Smith and the Oilers goaltending received (well-earned) attention with this post, but Hellebuyck Jets won the duel of shutouts via a shootout.

Hellebuyck collected 28 saves, including 10 combined from Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and James Neal. Hellebuyck also stopped both of the attempts he faced during the shootout, turning aside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

After Smith made a save after a strong move by Mark Scheifele, Hellebuyck didn’t blink against McDavid during this blistering overtime exchange:

2. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

Quite a week for a Wild forward who also had quite the offseason, where he was almost-traded.

Zucker included Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau’s name while pointing to how everyone on the team could get better following a loss. With controversy swirling over that comment, Zucker apologized to Boudreau.

One could picture Boudreau saying “Just make it up to me on the ice,” and Zucker did just that on Sunday. The strong two-way player scored the game’s opening goal on the power play, and sent a fantastic pass to Zach Parise for the game-winner.

He also had another attempt that could have easily counted as a second goal, but Keith Kinkaid made the save that will be featured later in this post …

3. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

Sunday was a night of rest for NHL offenses, as few players really lit up the scoreboard.

You can boil some of that down to strong netminding. Above, you have Hellebuyck, who was nearly met by Smith in that game. Braden Holtby made 41 saves for a win, and Cam Talbot had a nice night for Calgary, stopping 29 of 30 shots.

Markstrom gets the slight edge over those goalies – plus his opponent Henrik Lundqvist, who made 40 saves, but allowed three goals – by generating 38 saves while allowing two goals in Vancouver’s tight win against the Rangers. Read this for more about the start for Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

Highlight of the Night

Here’s that Kinkaid stop on Zucker:

Factoids

  • Every game was either decided by one goal, or one goal plus an empty-netter. NHL PR notes that about 53 percent (68 of 128) games this season have been that close.
  • The Jets note that Paul Maurice became the seventh coach in NHL history to reach 700 wins. In case you’re wondering, Maurice got there in 1,539 games, which gets complicated thanks to the way the NHL handled ties and shootouts over the years. Dude’s been able to keep jobs over the years to a remarkable degree, whichever way you slice it.
  • John Carlson really slacked on Sunday, only getting an assist. He’s at 18 points, becoming one of only three defensemen to manage that many through 10 games, joining Paul Coffey (20[!] in 1988-89) and Bobby Orr (who did it twice), according to NHL PR. Carlson’s 18 points stands alone as the top mark in the NHL so far, as Connor McDavid remained parked at 17.
  • NHL PR points out that the Wild are 7-0-0 in their last seven home games against the Canadiens, and Montreal hasn’t even earned a pity point during that stretch, going 0-7-0.

Scores

VAN 3 – NYR 2
MIN 4 – MTL 3
WSH 5 – CHI 3
WPG 1 – EDM 0 (SO)
CGY 2 – ANA 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Canucks, Oilers are getting great goaltending so far

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When an NHL season is young, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that “This is the year,” or that a great season is going to come tumbling down. Sometimes those assumptions end up being correct, but it’s often far too easy to be roped in by a strong sprint and forget how much of a marathon an 82-game season can be.

Well-oiled machine … running a bit on luck

The Edmonton Oilers came into 2019-20 with very low expectations, yet they’re off to a hot start, even after falling 1-0 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

It’s been easy to focus on Edmonton’s skaters for much of the Oilers’ 7-1-1 start.

How could you not, really, with Connor McDavid looking even better than usual, Leon Draisaitl seemingly continuing to prove that he’s probably worth more than his $8.5 million AAV, and James Neal getting off to such a strong start that he’s already blown away his 2018-19 goal totals from that disastrous year with the Flames?

This strong start isn’t just about that, though.

Still-new head coach Dave Tippett made his reputation on insulating goalies with great defense, so he’s probably most excited about strong early returns in that area.

It’s too early to say that GM Peter Chiarelli should feel vindicated for the baffling final move of his run, as he signed Mikko Koskinen to a risky contract basically right before he got a pink slip. But there’s little denying that Koskinen is off to a strong start. The 31-year-old has a marvelous .934 save percentage and 4-0-0 record so far.

Tippett’s old buddy Mike Smith tended net on Friday, and produced what was likely the best game of his run with the Oilers. Yes, the Jets won 1-0 via a shootout, but Smith stopped all 23 shots he faced between regulation and a scintillating 3-on-3 OT period; 10 of those saves came on power play opportunities, as the Jets went 0-for-4.

Watch this sequence as Mark Scheifele makes a ridiculous move, Smith beats him, and Connor Hellebuyck stops Connor McDavid:

Smith is now at 3-1-1, and brought a .917 save percentage into Sunday, so he’s combined with Koskinen to help Edmonton be very stingy.

We’ve already seen Oilers scorers cool down ever so slightly from unsustainable paces, as McDavid sits at 17 points despite going pointless the past two games. Edmonton has to be delighted to manage three of four standings points during these rare pointless McDavid games, but it’s a reminder that they’re going to need more from other players.

Chances are, they won’t get this sort of elite goaltending over and over again, either. That said, if Tippett can figure out a way to get enough stops, the occasional grind-it-out win (or even “charity point”), and then ride some token “McDavid being five strides ahead of the world” games, Edmonton might just be able to make the most of this 7-1-1 start.

Canucks could also rise

After beginning the season 0-2-0, the Canucks have won five of their last six games, pushing their 2019-20 record to 5-3-0. That included a Sunday matinee win where they beat the Rangers 3-2 thanks to 38 saves by Jacob Markstrom.

Vancouver shares a promising development in common with Edmonton in net. Not only are both teams getting strong goaltending; they’re also getting great early play from two different goaltenders. In the Canucks’ case, it’s holdover starter Markstrom (2-2-0, but with a strong .926 save percentage) and potential goalie of the future Thatcher Demko (2-1-0 with a fabulous .943 save percentage).

While Markstrom’s .912 save percentage from 2018-19 won’t wow many, he managed those numbers on a team that really struggled in its own end, and you can see that he was a pretty good difference-maker from various metrics, including Sean Tierney’s goals saved above expectation chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

***

The Canucks and Oilers are riding some hot streaks right now, with Edmonton in particular profiting in the standings. We’re almost certain to see those goalies cool off, and even McDavid may not be able to score almost two points per game.

But can Travis Green and Dave Tippett manufacture above-average goaltending from their rotations for enough of 2019-20 to bring one or both of their teams to the playoffs? Stranger things have happened, and few positions in sports are as strange — and important — as goaltending tends to be in the NHL.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Panthers sign Brian Boyle to one-year deal

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The Florida Panthers added to their center depth on Sunday afternoon by announcing a one-year deal with 34-year-old Brian Boyle.

Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports it will pay Boyle $940,000 this season.

“With over 700 games played in the NHL and over 100 more in the playoffs, Brian brings a wealth of experience to our club,” general manager Dale Tallon said in a statement released by the team. “He adds versatility and character to our lineup.”

Boyle spent the 2018-19 season split between the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators, scoring 18 goals in 78 games. That performance came just one year after he won the Masterton Trophy after coming back from chronic myelogenous leukemia, a type of blood and bone cancer. In October of 2018 he announced that his leukemia was in full remission.

Boyle’s addition to the lineup comes one day after Aleksander Barkov, the team’s No. 1 center and best all-around player, had to exit Saturday’s shootout win over the Nashville Predators with an apparent injury.

The Panthers were one of the busiest teams of the offseason adding Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and now Boyle to their lineup, along with the addition of Joel Quenneville as the team’s new coach. They are trying to snap a three-year playoff drought. Through eight games they have a 3-2-3 record this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What will Mathew Barzal’s next contract look like for Islanders?

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After the way the RFA situation unfolded this past summer, with almost every top player remaining unsigned until well into training camp, teams seem to be a little more proactive for this year’s upcoming group with several already signing new deals.

Alex DeBrincat (Chicago), Clayton Keller (Arizona), and Nico Hischier (New Jersey) have all recently signed new deals to avoid restricted free agency this summer, and according to Chris Johnston on Saturday’s headlines segment on Sportsnet. the New York Islanders would like to get Mathew Barzal, their top player, signed before the summer as well.

Barzal was asked about his contract situation before Saturday’s game in Columbus by Newsday‘s Andrew Gross and insisted it is not something on his mind at the moment.

From Newsday:

“At this point, it’s really just between my agent and Lou [Lamoriello] right now,” Barzal told Newsday on Saturday before the Islanders concluded a two-game road trip against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “I don’t talk to Lou about contract stuff. If it happens in the next two months or if it happens in June, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just focused on the season right now.

“It’s something that eventually is going to happen,” Barzal added. “I’m pretty good at just kind of pushing that stuff aside and just worrying about what’s going on right now.”

Barzal and Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois are two of the bigger name players still unsigned beyond this season that are set to hit restricted free agency this summer.

If the Islanders are able to accomplish that goal they could be looking at a significant contract for Barzal.

First, let’s take a quick a look at the three recent contracts signed by potential RFAs Keller, DeBrincat, and Hischier simply because they are at the same experience levels and signed their new deals with still one year remaining on their entry-level contracts.

  • Keller’s deal in Arizona was an eight-year, $57.2 million deal with a $7.1 million cap hit.
  • DeBrincat signed a shorter, bridge deal that is worth $19.2 million over three years with a salary cap hit of $6.4 million.
  • The Devils signed Hischier to a seven-year, $50.7 million contract with a salary cap hit of $7.2 million per season.

You can bet that Barzal’s salary cap hit will be higher than all three.

He has already proven to be more impactful — especially offensively — than everyone in that group, and if you compare what he has done through his first two full years in the league he is probably going to be closer to the Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner pay scale than the Hischier, Keller, DeBrincat group.

Through two years he has outproduced what Marner, Rantanen, and even Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point did through their first two years in the league — and significantly so at even-strength, and with less talent around him — and has arguably been more impactful as a two-way player. Remember, it wasn’t until year three that Marner, Rantanen, and Point really had their breakout seasons offensively to become superstars.

Barzal pretty much had his breakout moment in year one, and while his offense regressed just a bit in year two he was still very good and seemed to take even more strides forward defensively.

This doesn’t seem like a potential bridge contract situation (like Point in Tampa Bay, or DeBrincat in Chicago, or even Patrik Laine in Winnipeg) and seems far more likely to end in a long-term deal. Barzal is clearly the team’s best player, and while they are not swimming in extra salary cap space, it is not exactly facing a salary cap crunch, either. Given what he has already proven, his importance to the Islanders, and his long-term potential there is no reason to think that a seven-or eight-year deal at around $8 or $9 million is out of the question. And he would probably be worth every penny of it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.