Panthers, Sabres, Wild, Oilers off to 3-0 starts: Who is for real?

Edmonton Oilers
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We are now one week into the 2021-22 NHL season and a couple of teams are already off to impressive 3-0 starts, including the Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, and, quite shockingly, the Buffalo Sabres.

Let’s take a quick look at each start and see which one is a sign of things to come (Florida) and which one might be a mirage (sorry Buffalo).

The Panthers are legit contenders

This is probably the first time the Panthers have ever entered a season with the realistic goal of a Stanley Cup. They were one of the best teams in the league a year ago and added Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton to that roster in the offseason. They are not only 3-0 to open the season thanks to Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have been mostly dominant and controlled play against three excellent teams.

They opened their season with an impressive come-from-behind win against Pittsburgh.

Dominated the New York Islanders.

Then shut down the back-to-back champion Lightning.

They have controlled play at 5-on-5, have a wildly aggressive forecheck, are fast, have a couple of stars at the top of the lineup including a bonafide MVP candidate in Aleksander Barkov, and they also have a young star goalie waiting in the wings. They should be here to stay.

Are they for real: Very much so. They have the talent, the right playing style, and a lot of players in their prime years.

The Wild are living on the edge

The Wild were one of the the most exciting — and surprising — teams in the league a year ago and set a pretty high bar for themselves this season.

While their long-term outlook is complicated given the salary cap situation, this is still a pretty good hockey team. They have lived on the edge a bit so far this season, winning three one-goal games against Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Winnipeg.

They beat the Ducks in the season opener when Marcus Foligno scored the game-winning goal with eight seconds to play, held off the Kings in game two, and then completed a, *ahem*, wild third period comeback on Tuesday night against Winnipeg that saw them score two goals in the final five minutes of regulation.

Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have both been great, the goaltending has been solid, Joel Eriksson Ek kicked off the first season of his new long-term contract with a hat trick on Tuesday night.

Are they for real: Are they a contender on the same level as a Colorado, Vegas, or Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But they should be a playoff team.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Early season reactions (and overreactions)]

The Connor McDavidLeon Draisaitl Death Star is heating up

There were a lot of reasons to doubt the Oilers entering this season. The defense is not great on paper. The goaltending is a huge question mark. We are still not sure what their forward depth is going to look like and if it is good enough.

But they also play in a lousy division and have two of the four best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And wow are they dominating so far.

They each have eight points through the first three games of the season, while they have been on the ice together 10 of the Oilers’ 15 goals as of Wednesday.

In other words: It is the same story as it has always been.

[Related: Puljujärvi showing he belongs after rocky start to NHL career]

Just to get a sense of how dependent the Oilers have been on McDavid and Draisaitl the past five years, here is a quick look at their goals for percentage and shot attempt differential when neither player is on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

2015-16: GF%: 42.5 percent; CF%: 48.0 percent
2016-17: GF%: 50.3 percent; CF%: 48.5 percent
2017-18: GF%: 41.2 percent: CF%: 49.3 percent
2018-19: GF%: 41.2 percent: CF%: 47.5 percent
2019-20: GF%: 37.6 percent: CF%: 47.2 percent
2020-21: GF%: 35.8 percent: CF%: 44.1 percent
2021-22: GF%: 40.0 percent: CF%: 46.6 percent (only three games)

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

If you look at the percentages from 2016-17 onward, the supporting cast has progressively gotten worse across the board. That can not continue, and that will ultimately determine whether or not this team is for real.

Are they for real: Given the overall state of the roster they will go as far as McDavid and Draisaitl can drag them. They might be able to drag them pretty far because they are that good. But it takes more than two megastars to win a championship. They are a playoff team in this division, but probably not a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Not again Buffalo!

The Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs 10 years in a row and are almost certainly staring at an 11th consecutive season outside of the playoffs. The roster without Jack Eichel is probably the worst in the league on paper, and not much better even with Eichel.

So of course they start the season with three consecutive wins and outscore their opponents by a 12-4 margin.

Very encouraging!

Until you realize the Sabres have done this before over the past decade, storming out of the gate with a fast start (remember the 2018-19 season when they were 17-6-2 after 25 games in early November?) before having reality set in.

There is also the fact their first three opponents have been Arizona, Montreal, and Vancouver — two likely lottery teams and a total wild card team that is badly flawed.

Are they for real: Fun start to the season. Enjoyable for Sabres fans looking for some excitement from a consistently bad team. But they are not going to play Arizona, Montreal, and Vancouver every night.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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

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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

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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

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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.