Roundtable: NHL early season surprises and disappointments

2 Comments

Through four weeks of the season, what has been your biggest surprise and biggest disappointment so far?

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest surprise has been the play of Kevin Lankinen. Lankinen started off the season as the Blackhawks third goaltender and when Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban couldn’t get the job done, Lankinen received his opportunity and has the crease to himself. He is 4-1-3 on an injury-riddled Chicago team with a 2.32 goals-against-average and a .928 save percentage. His save percentage is fifth best and GAA 10th best for goalies who have played at least three games. That is quite the start to an NHL career for Lankinen.

The biggest disappointment is the Rangers with the Islanders a close second. The Rangers have stumbled out of the gate and the recent saga involving Tony DeAngelo may have brought the team closer together (and hopefully not further apart), but I thought that they would be a playoff team and currently they are in the East Division basement with the Islanders.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Chris Driedger is currently the best goalie on the Panthers. They have played only seven games, but the 26-year-old, who has only 18 career NHL appearances, has been nothing but great in two seasons in Florida. In 15 games played, he has a .945 even strength save percentage and helped the Cats to nine wins.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

As for disappointment, the expectations were low, but did we think the Senators would be this bad? With their young players getting ice time and the veteran additions of Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, and Braydon Coburn, you’d think there would be baby steps forward this season.

Nope!

The Senators are 2-8-1 through Thursday, own the NHL’s worst goal differential (-23), have allowed the most 5-on-5 goals (33), and are sporting an .872 ESSV%, which is 31st overall. That last one is also a reminder that Matt Murray is signed through 2023-24 with a $6.25M cap hit.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: The awe-inspiring fury of the Canadiens’ offense has been a thing to behold. While their shooting luck won’t last (12.8% as a team, far above league average (9.9%) and last season’s rate (8.6%), this is a team that can play with pace. Facing generally weak Canadian/North Division opponents could keep them flying high, too.

Through his first 10 NHL games, Alexis Lafreniere doesn’t exactly seem like the ready-made NHL product many expected. While his one and only point was a thriller (scoring it as an overtime-winner), even that came in a 3-on-3 situation, where spacing probably feels more like he’s used to. After Kaapo Kakko didn’t look ready-for-primetime as the No. 2 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, the top pick of the 2020 draft is also off to a slow start for the Rangers. It’s way too early to give up on either player, honestly, but it’s also disappointing. If I’m the Rangers, I’d at least ponder some soul-searching about how they’re developing top prospects. (It’s already too late to debate trying to salvage the first year of Lafreniere’s entry-level contract.)

To be clear, it’s not all Lafreniere’s fault; the Rangers are kind of a structural disaster. It’s possible that David Quinn’s methods are the most not-ready-for-the-NHL element of all of this.

So, no, don’t panic, Rangers fans. But I’ll still stew here, considering the slow start from my Calder Trophy prediction (d’oh!).

[MORE: NHL making changes to in-arena COVID-19 protocols]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think my biggest surprise so far has been how dynamic the Stars offense has been so far, especially without Tyler Seguin. You had to expect them to be a pretty good team given how far they have gone in the playoffs the past two seasons, but this was a team that could not buy a goal in the regular season a year ago. Or the year before. Granted, a lot of their success this season has been power play driven but even that is a bit of a surprise at how dominant it has been.

As far as disappointments, I would go with pretty much anything regarding the Penguins power play, which has simply been a Picasso of incompetence this season and the fact it really does look like the Predators may have reached their ceiling with this team. It is early, but I expected a bounce back season from them and they have simply not looked good. At all.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: I’m going to be really honest and say the Bruins just in general. I thought the transition for the young defensemen would be bumpier, I didn’t think Nick Ritchie could score at this pace — or like, at all — or they’d get through a few weeks without David Pastrnak as well as they did.

Ottawa: Yeah, I know, it’s Ottawa. Still, a seven-game losing streak and sitting at a -23 is really bad. I thought with some of their young players a condensed season would give them at least a little bit of room to have a temporary burst.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: My biggest surprise is the play of Capitals rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek. We knew there would be a changing of the guard following the departure of Braden Holtby, but the expectation was that last year’s backup – and 2015 first rounder – Ilya Samsonov would seize the No. 1 role. But Samsonov has been sidelined on the COVID list, so the 25-year-old Vanecek, a 2014 second rounder who’d never played an NHL game before this season, has started 9 of 11 games to jumpstart the Caps’ hot start.

In terms of disappointments, Ottawa’s start has been exceptionally poor. Before last night’s win, the Sens had lost nine straight games, getting outscored 45-19 in that span. Given the personnel improvements that were made in the offseason, I’m not sure anyone saw this coming.

[MORE: Our Line Starts podcast: Jim Rutherford’s resignation; Can Capitals win the East?]

nhl
Getty Images

Going back to our preseason predictions, which one do you wish you could go back and change?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I had the Flyers fourth in the East thinking they would be in a battle for the final playoff spot with the Islanders and Rangers. They have 16 points in 11 games and are only behind the Bruins for the division lead due to points percentage. Philly is scoring well at even strength (26 goals) but failing to drive possession (44.2%). If that can level out they can make a run at the crown and lead the East heading into the playoffs.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: To some extent, being wrong is almost the point when it comes to predictions. It’s part of why you want to sprinkle in some “hot takes” with the no-duh stuff like Connor McDavid winning the Hart Trophy. That said, while I contemplated Kirill Kaprizov as Calder winner, I didn’t pull the trigger. Kaprizov rules.

[NHL Power Rankings: Vanecek helps drive Capitals’ impressive start]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I wanted to pick Montreal higher in the North. I thought they were better than their record indicated a year ago, and with a couple of minor fixes knew they could be a really good team this season. Then they had their offseason, and playing in a division that did not really have any great teams I thought the door was open for them. But I chickened out. I still picked them in the top-four, but my initial instinct was first or second. I wish I had done that now that they were just crushing everybody in that division.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: I didn’t have a solid feel for the West and still do not but I don’t vibe with the Kings and thinking they might make some sort of playoff push was wrong. Same for the Sharks and the Wild look a lot more fun and cool than I anticipated.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I would like a mulligan on my North Division predictions. Specifically on where I slotted Vancouver (No. 2) and Montreal (No. 6). Maybe I put too much stock in the Canucks’ postseason run, and maybe I put too little stock in the Tyler Toffoli revenge factor (8 of his league-leading 9 goals this season have come against Vancouver), but either way, the Habs look like a surefire playoff team. I definitely missed the mark there.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The one pre-season prediction I would like to take back is Rasmus Dahlin winning the Norris Trophy. I still think that he is the best overall young defenseman in the NHL but his poor start looks to have knocked him out of any consideration unless he has a tremendous finish to his season.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

blackhawks
Harry How/Getty Images
13 Comments

CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.