How Islanders have jumped to top of Metropolitan Division

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After they lost John Tavares in free agency, the New York Islanders kind of became an afterthought ahead of the 2018-19 season. No one expected them to be competitive this season. No one. The season is still young, but the fact that they’re in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division is remarkable, but how have they been able to pull this off?

First, the impact their goaltenders have had on the team can’t be ignored. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have exceeded expectations in every way. The goalies are a big reason why the Islanders have been able to rattle off five wins in a row over division rivals like the Penguins (twice), the Flyers, the ‘Canes and Devils. Greiss has accumulated three of the five victories, while Lehner has been between the pipes for two of them. Neither one of them has allowed more than two goals in any of the last five games. That’s terrific.

Can both guys keep this up? Can the Islanders keep this going? Last week, PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down whether or not you should buy the Islanders’ fast start.

The other reason they’ve had so much success is because of the amount of balanced scoring they’ve received. Over the last five contests, Brock Nelson (four goals) Anders Lee (three), Jordan Eberle (three), Josh Bailey, Ryan Pulock, Andrew Ladd, Anthony Beauvillier, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin all found the back of the net. That’s 12 different scorers over five games. That’s really impressive.

“I have the same mindset as the team right now,” Bailey said, per NHL.com. “I just turn the page after each game and get ready for the next one. When you get on these streaks as a team, and individually, you want to ride them for as long as you can but it’s about staying [on an] even keel, not thinking too much about it and preparing the same way you do every game.”

They’ve done all of this with a struggling Mathew Barzal. Not only has Barzal not picked up a goal in 11 consecutive games, he’s also been held point-less in three of the five games during this current winning streak.

Whether or not this group of players is good enough to keep this up remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their upcoming schedule, as they’ll play tough games against the Canadiens and Lightning this week, before closing out their quick two-game Florida trip with a game against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“When you get the results you’re looking for it adds to that confidence, and I think our staff does a great job preparing us,” added Bailey. “I think there’s a belief within our group that we can win every night, and we take the same approach every game. We’ll turn the page after this one and get ready for the next one.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Should you buy the fast starts by Islanders, Canucks?

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Two of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season have to be the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. When the season began, nobody had any realistic expectations for these two except for them to lose and probably lose a lot.

So far, the opposite has been happening.

The Canucks, 7-6 overtime winners against Colorado on Friday in a completely insane game, are now 9-6-0 through their first 15 games and are being powered by their two young standout forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

It is a surprising start because over the previous three seasons no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded, having only played in one of those seasons) had won fewer games, they lost two of their top-scorers from a year ago to retirement, and outside of the promise of Pettersson, Boeser, and Bo Horvat didn’t really have much going for them.

The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their best player — John Tavares — in free agency, entered the year with several more top players in contract years, and spent the offseason stacking a roster that was already full of depth players on long-term contracts with even more depth players on long-term contracts. It made no sense, and honestly, still probably doesn’t.

After completing a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins this past week, they enter Saturday’s game against New Jersey tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and riding a four-game winning streak.

The early results are great, and early results matter. A lot. If they are good, they can give you a big cushion for later in the season when you might hit a slump and fall back to the back a little bit. If they are bad, like the early slow starts by the Kings and Panthers (which we wrote about here), they can end your playoff chances remarkably early because the points are almost impossible to make up.

But for as important as the results are, the process behind the results is often times just as important — if not more important — when it comes to sustaining them over the duration of the season.

That is where we start to see some red flags with the Canucks and Islanders because there is a lot of evidence that these two teams may not be playing as well as their early results might indicate, and that unless something changes there they could each be a house of cards just waiting to fall over.

Heck, the Canucks have actually been outscored this season by four goals and are 22nd in the league when it comes to goals against per game. The fact they are 9-6-0 right now with those two numbers is nothing short of insane. And it’s not like the Canucks haven’t had decent starts in recent years. In 2015-16 they were 6-2-4 (a 110-point pace) after 12 games. They won four games in a row to start the 2016-17 season. A year ago they were 8-5-2 after 15 games (only one point off their current start). All of those starts resulted in finishes that had them near the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are currently being carried by incredible starts by their two goalies (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). If those two see any sort of a regression things could turn ugly for the Islanders very, very quickly.

[Related: Ten stunning numbers from first month of NHL season]

Both of these teams have the same flaws when it comes to the way they are playing. They are both among the bottom-five teams in the league in terms of controlling shots and scoring chances, both sitting south of the 45 percent barrier when it comes to shot attempt share and scoring chance share. In other words, both teams are getting badly outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.

There are a handful of teams in the league that are able to outperform their shot attempt numbers because they have difference-making high end talent or exceptional goaltending. Or both. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals the past two years come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens over the past few years had a season or two like that because Carey Price would be able to stand on his head and steal games. But most teams when they have that much of a territorial disadvantage tend to lose. A lot.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have been 18 teams that were below the 45 percent mark in terms of shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential on Nov. 3 (Saturday’s date). Of those 18 teams only five of them ended up making the playoffs that season. Only one of the six teams since the start of the 2011-12 season were able to do it.

Now, that is not entirely relevant to the situations the Islanders and Canucks are in because a lot of those teams managed to get off to terrible starts in the standings. The results were matching the way they playing. Things made sense.

But what about the teams that exceeded their early season shot and chance numbers and managed to actually win some games, collect points, and get off to decent starts?

Well, let’s take a look at them specifically.

There have been 10 teams since the start of 2007-08 that were under 45 percent in both shot attempts and scoring chance share through the first month of the season and managed to have a points percentage above .500 in those game.

Five of them went on to make the playoffs. Five of them collapsed, at times in spectacular fashion (looking at you, 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs).

Obviously a bit of a mixed bag in terms of season-long results and an ability to either maintain the early success, or improve upon the process.

It should go without saying that it is better to win these games early in the season even if you’re not playing all that well. The points matter, and they help and they can put your team in a good position. Think of it as a head start in a race. Especially if you are a team like the Canucks that is playing in a division as completely craptacular as the Pacific Division currently is because, honestly, who among that collection of mediocrity scares you?

But even with the early wins, and even with the brilliance of Elias Pettersson, the surprising play of Lehner and Greiss in New York, and the fact the Islanders have a sleeping giant of a superstar in Mathew Barzal that hasn’t really erupted yet this season, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of these teams being able to maintain what they have already done. And recent history of teams in their position and playing the way they have does not paint a completely promising picture.

(Shot attempt, scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Flames goalies: Blessed by Salt Bae?

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Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith recently delivered what Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson believes was the quote of the season so far, regarding some solid early play from fellow Flames netminder David Rittich:

“Whatever Salt Bae sprinkled on him in New York, I want a little bit of that too,” Smith said.

If you’re a registered old like me, you had two reactions: “Heh” and “Huh?”

Well, to start, here’s the photo Smith was referencing:

OK, that helps, but *ahem* some of us might not be too familiar with Salt Bae. You know, not your humble author, but … others. Is this person salty? For the bae part seems easy enough to follow.

Welp, Salt Bae is apparently this wonderfully smooth proprietor of steakhouse chain Nusr-et, who gained viral fame (thus eluding certain olds) with this video:

Why, that is quite impressive. As someone who’s had friends in the restaurant industry who’ve suffered ghastly wounds while preparing food (still not sure how your finger didn’t fall off, Michael), that display can be filed under “easier said than done.”

It brings up a question: which player best exemplifies the tenants of “Salt Bae?” My vote is Mathew Barzal: he cuts through defensemen as if he was wielding a steak knife, and he does so with undeniable grace and swagger. He also plays in Brooklyn, which helps the comparison since Salt Bae’s rooted in New York.

Maybe Barzal is the best NHL equivalent for Salt Bae, yet goalies seem most fascinated by him.

Rittich recently sprinkled some of that mystery spice after a recent win, for example:

(If Michel Therrien coached the Flames, Rittich wouldn’t get away with that fun celebration for long, right?)

Rittich can’t call first dibs on being NHL goalie-as-Bae, though, as Roberto Luongo perfectly executed this Halloween costume last year:

Bravo.

This does bring up some burning questions. Why hasn’t Henrik Lundqvist gotten involved? Is he merely trying to avoid a clash between Salt Bae and Swede Bae?

Regardless, make sure to make as many bad cooking jokes as you can, whether Calgary’s goalies are performing at high levels or churning out the netminding equivalent to turning meat into what looks like hockey pucks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Galchenyuk could really tie Coyotes’ offense together

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Seth Jones is not the only returning player worth watching as the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night.

While the Blue Jackets will see their Norris-caliber defenseman make his season debut, Alex Galchenyuk will finally play his first regular-season game for the Coyotes.

Late in the preseason, Galchenyuk suffered a lower-body injury that sidelined him on a week-to-week basis, forcing the slick scorer to miss Arizona’s first seven games. The concern was that, once again, the Coyotes would begin the season on a down note. With a 2-5-0 record and, somehow, just 11 goals scored through seven games, such concerns ended up being justified.

Injecting Galchenyuk’s scoring ability into that lineup could mean a big boost.

No, he’s not the sort of tide-changing star who would lift Arizona into the scoring stratosphere, but Galchenyuk is a one-time 30-goal scorer, has another 20-goal season on his resume, and has reached 50+ points twice in his career. Not bad for a 24-year-old who will surely enter this season with a chip on his shoulder (and likely a refreshed feeling after exiting a toxic situation in Montreal).

Let’s go over why Galchenyuk’s addition could be big for the Coyotes:

Some help for Keller

Clayton Keller probably feels some empathy for Islanders wunderkind Mathew Barzal, as both have been asked to carry a huge burden of scoring for their teams entering sophomore seasons.

Players of any age can use someone who thinks the game at a higher level like them, and opens up space with smarts, skill, and finishing ability. Such a synthesis is plausible for Keller – Galchenyuk, whether that requires a few shifts or a few games to come to fruition.

With a big body like Lawson Crouse to – ideally – do some of the dirty work, and maybe shovel in some goals in front of the net, this could be a nice little scoring line.

Finishing touch on the power play, and in general

Circling back, the Coyotes created their fair share of chances, even during the early parts of their historically bad start. So far this season, the Coyotes suffer from easily the worst even-strength shooting percentage, connecting on just 2.96-percent of their shots on goal, according to Natural Stat Trick. No other team is under Anaheim’s 4.58-percent mark.

Oh yeah, they haven’t been much luckier on the power play, either, with their 10.5-percent success rate ranking second-worst in the NHL.

Again, Galchenyuk isn’t just going to sprinkle pixie dust all over these problems and make them go away by himself.

Still, his skill adds what could be some crucial finishing touch to a group that needs it at all levels. Galchenyuk has hit nine power-play goals twice in his career, and 30 of his 108 career tallies have come via the man advantage.

Left Wing Lock’s listings have Arizona’s top power-play unit as Galchenyuk, Keller, Derek Stepan, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Such a group won’t send the Capitals, Maple Leafs, and other high-end 5-on-4 groups tumbling down the stats leaders, but it could very well make special teams a coin-flip, rather than a disadvantage for the Coyotes.

Demoted to your level of competence

When you get a player back from injury, pieces can fall into more natural places. Even if Galchenyuk isn’t quite a top-line center (a genuine possibility), he might be able to help the Coyotes open up advantages at different levels.

For one thing, Derek Stepan probably makes more sense as a second-line or 1b center.

Stepan probably deserves more respect than he sometimes receives; five of his last six seasons were 50+ points, and he generated nearly a point-per-game the year he missed (ah, the streak-killing menace that was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season …).

With zero goals and one assist so far this season, Stepan was really fighting it. Maybe he was straining to play above his means? It’s plausible that he’ll return to that 20-ish goal, 50+ point pace with a little less weight on his shoulders.

***

Viewing Galchenyuk as a savior is wrong.

If the Coyotes climb in a big way, it will be as much about finally getting the bounces they haven’t been receiving all that often this season.

Still, consider Galchenyuk as an extra paddle on that pinball machine, possibly moving that random luck in the right direction. At worst, it should be fun to see him create offense alongside a brilliant young forward in Clayton Keller.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.