One month into the NHL season and there are a lot of things in the standings that are upside down.
Teams like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Vancouver that were expected to be in the basement are all near the top, while Stanley Cup contenders like Tampa Bay, Toronto, and San Jose have stumbled.
It is a long season and the early surprises still have to prove they have staying power, while the the disappointments have time to turn things around. We have seen the latter happen over the past few years with the 2019 St. Louis Blues and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming brutal starts to win the Stanley Cup. Not every team is that lucky, and both of those examples needed to go undergo significant in-season changes to their roster and coaching staff to reach the top.
Is there a preseason contender off to a slow start this year capable of such a turnaround?
Let’s look at three of the big ones.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Confidence in a turnaround: Fairly high
The pressure is on for this team to do something significant this season and so far they are not really doing much to inspire confidence that this team will turn out any different than the past three. They can score a lot of goals, they give up a lot of goals, and as of Thursday have won just six of their first 14 games of the season. It is one of the worst 14-game stretches they have had over the past three years, being topped only by their 14-game stretch to end the 2018-19 season (when they won only four games down the stretch).
If you’re looking for a positive in Toronto it’s that for all of the struggles they have had so far there are signs that they can easily get this turned around.
For one, they are going to be getting John Tavares back soon. That’s a big add to the lineup.
And for as much as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, a lot of that is related to the play of their goalies. They still have their share of flaws defensively, but they are the second-best shot attempt differential team in the league and while they still give up a lot of shot attempts, they have cut that number down from where it was a year ago. The biggest issue is in goal where Frederik Andersen has not yet played up to his expected level and backup Michael Hutchinson has given them literally zero chance in the four games he has started.
There is reason to believe Andersen will be better based on his track record, and a backup goalie can be fixed with a trade. Better goaltending can fix a lot of these early problems.
Whether that is enough to get by the Boston Bruins or to actually do something in the playoffs remains to be seen. But they will be there and have the chance.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Confidence in a turnaround: High, but with some caution
Always bet on talent, and the Lightning are still the most talented team in the league on paper. That is the good news.
Here is my concern: Do you remember about a decade ago when the Washington Capitals were the best regular season team in the league every year, won the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 wins, and then got bounced in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Montreal team that would have had no chance in beating them if not for a super-human goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak? And then the Capitals responded by trying to fix themselves by changing what they did and the way they played only to self-sabotage themselves and take about two steps backwards?
I fear the Lightning have hit that phase.
It is not just the fact that they are not winning as regularly as they have that is concerning. It is the way they are playing. They are getting out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-everything during 5-on-5 play. They have one of the worst shot attempt differentials in the league through 12 games and are simply not generating as much as they did a year ago. They are still scoring goals, but they are relying heavily on the power play to do it and not carrying play at even-strength. No one seems to be afraid of the team that put the fear of god into every opponent for 82 games just one year ago.
Is it a matter of simply working through some new ideas? A slow start with some needed adversity? Or a concerning trend that is maybe an overreaction to (an admittedly horrible) postseason defeat?
San Jose Sharks
Confidence in a turnaround: Not without a major change or two.
The goaltending is still a major issue, but we already knew that. They also do not seem to have any interest in trying to fix it, something else that should have been obvious after the way last year unfolded.
But that is not the only thing broken here. The whole system seems broken. This has been, quite simply, the worst 5-on-5 team in the league this season by pretty much any objective measure you want to look at it. You want to look at underlying numbers like shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, or expected goals? All among the worst in the league and down near the potential lottery teams.
You want to look at something more basic like simply goals for and against? Worst in the NHL at 5-on-5, getting outscored by a 37-19 margin. That is goals-for percentage of just 33 percent. The next worst team in the league in that category is Detroit at 40 percent (20 for, 29 against). There is no way to sugarcoat that, it is just bad with a capital B-A-D.
There was a point last year where the Blues were playing the right way, doing everything well defensively, and still losing because they couldn’t get a goalie to make a save. All they needed was somebody to solidify that position to turn things around. The Sharks still need that, too. But what’s even worse is that they also need the rest of the team to get its act straightened out as well.