Thatcher Demko

Roundtable: Hot starts, biggest disappointments

Choosing from the teams off to strong starts in October, which one won’t last?

SEAN: The Canucks may very well wind up in the playoffs come April, but it feels like a matter or time before they slowly slide back into the wild card race and out of contention for the Pacific Division crown. The Lotto Line of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller has been unstoppable; Quinn Hughes is playing himself into the Calder Trophy conversation after one month; and the goaltending duo of Thatcher Demko and Jacob Markstrom has been solid with a combined .932 even strength save percentage. They’re banking important points this early in the season, but their 103 PDO will certainly slide back a touch.

Vancouver’s November schedule could pose some difficulty in keeping up this pace with games against the Avalanche (2), Penguins, Oilers, Blues, Predators (2), and Capitals. If they can reach December and find themselves still in one of the top three spots in the Pacific then that could go a long way toward proving doubters they’re for real.

JAMES: The Sabres [1.036] and Canucks [1.031] are marinating in that glorious, glorious PDO right now, and chances are, both will see their hot shooting and goaltending cool down. The question is: how much?

Considering the Canucks’ weak division, and quite a few promising underlying numbers for Vancouver, I think they might be able to squeak into a playoff spot. The Sabres, however, must run through what still figures to be a buzzsaw in the Atlantic — at least if the Lightning and Maple Leafs get their acts together.

So, Buffalo, in particular, falls under “Fool me once …” That said, I can’t totally blame someone who’s being lured in by the gravitational pull of that strong start.

ADAM: The skepticism around Buffalo is legitimate because of the way last year unfolded, but I still think they have a better shot to stick around this year because they are a little deeper and do not seem to be doing it with as much smoke and mirrors as they did early last season. What that means, I don’t know. That is still a brutally tough division and you have to imagine Tampa Bay and Toronto get their acts together. They may not finish high in the standings, but I don’t see a collapse here. The team that I think is still likely to fall off has to be the Oilers, and I hate saying that because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are so amazing. I want to see them on a big stage. But they are literally carrying the offense again, and we have seen this movie before. They are great enough to do it in short bursts to help the team go on some hot streaks, but no two players are great enough to carry a team through an 82-game season unless one of those players is a goalie. There are still just too many flaws on this roster.

JOEY: I’m still skeptical about the Oilers. Yes, they have the high-end talent that most teams can only dream of, but I’m just not sold on the supporting cast. Is James Neal going to keep rolling? Are the other forwards going to do enough scoring to sustain Edmonton’s place in the standings? Can a duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen keep Edmonton in games? I have so many questions for this team it’s not even funny. Look, the Oilers probably won’t finish first in the division, but if they sneak into the playoffs that fan base should be happy with that. I just have a hard time seeing it right now.

SCOTT: The Ducks are 8-6-0 and I am not sure if that qualifies as a ‘hot start’, but I expect them to drop quite a bit the standings. The Flames and Sharks are too talented to remain near the bottom of the division and if they move up, someone has to slide down. Another team to keep an eye on is the Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for an extended period of time, will they be able to generate enough offense to remain competitive in a ferocious Central Division.

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Who is your biggest disappointment — player or team — so far?

SEAN: This could have been noted goon Aleksander Barkov, who has four penalty minutes already after not picking up his second minor last season until March 7… but my choice is the Lightning. Tampa is facing the adversity they noted after-the-fact last season hurt them in Round 1 against the Blue Jackets. A sluggish October that saw them win consecutive games only once, allow two or fewer goals only three times, and allow 3.5 goals (2.7 GPG last season) and three more shots on average per night has led them to a 6-4-2 start.

The challenge is clear for the Lightning: It’s Stanley Cup or bust. We’re going to see who the real Lightning are this season. They cruised for 82 games in 2018-19, and now the teams around them have improved. There wasn’t a lot to remember in October and how they respond will be an indicator of what to expect later in the season.

JAMES: The Sharks are a disaster by just about every measure to begin 2019-20. They’re sinking when it comes to most, if not all, possession stats. About the only thing that’s encouraging is that, unlike the bumbling Bolts, San Jose’s been mostly unlucky. While I fear that their goaltending will only rebound in marginal ways, I don’t expect their offense to remain so toothless.

ADAM: It has to be San Jose. Their commitment to the goalie situation just totally stuns me, but what is even more shocking is the fact the rest of the team seems to have forgotten how to play hockey this season. They are getting completely dominated at even-strength and this team is just far too talented to play like this. No team with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the blue line, and with the talent they still have at forward (even after losing Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi over the summer) should be playing this poorly. It is stunning.

JOEY: I realized that the Sharks were getting old in a hurry, but I didn’t expect them to have four wins in their first 13 games. The loss of Joe Pavelski has hit both sides pretty hard. Do you think the player and team would like a do-over there? Logan Couture is a fine captain, but he’s already had to call his teammates out a couple of times. Adding Patrick Marleau is a nice touch, but it just isn’t adding up to victories right now. The Sharks should be worried because it looks like their championship window has been slammed shut.

SCOTT: In Taylor Hall’s final season before reaching unrestricted free agency, GM Ray Shero made a couple of maneuvers this summer to help bolster his roster. With the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes, the Devils hoped to take advantage of a wide-open Metropolitan Division. However, the Devils have failed to protect leads, especially at home and find themselves competing for the top draft pick once again. Coach John Hynes could be the first coach to join the unemployment line if the Devils can’t figure it out on the ice.

QUICK AWARD PICKS AFTER ONE MONTH

HART
SEAN: David Pastrnak
JAMES: David Pastrnak
ADAM: Leon Draisaitl
JOEY: Sidney Crosby
SCOTT: Leon Draisaitl

VEZINA
SEAN: Tuukka Rask
JAMES: Tuukka Rask
ADAM: Tuukka Rask
JOEY: Tuukka Rask
SCOTT: Tuukka Rask

CALDER
SEAN: Quinn Hughes
JAMES: Quinn Hughes
ADAM: Quinn Hughes
JOEY: Cale Makar
SCOTT: Quinn Hughes

NORRIS
SEAN: Roman Josi
JAMES: John Carlson
ADAM: John Carlson
JOEY: John Carlson
SCOTT: John Carlson

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Rask, Rinne, Fleury are NHL’s hottest goalies so far

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With every team except the New Jersey Devils at 10 games played or more – New Jersey’s played nine – this seems like a good time to check in on the most important (yet also most unpredictable) position in hockey: goalies.

These netminders are off to the hottest starts so far in the young 2019-20 season.

Tuukka Rask

If forced to name a top goalie so far, I’d lean toward the Boston Bruins veteran.

Rask is 6-0-1 so far, with a league-leading .951 save percentage.

The 32-year-old sparkles in deeper categories, too. Rask ranks third in even-strength save percentage at .961. According to Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average (GSAA) – a metric that attempts to account for the difficulty of shots a goalie faces – Rask leads all goaltenders by a healthy margin with 8.69 GSAA.

Every single one of his starts has been considered a “quality start.”

Pekka Rinne

Big-time Finns are off to great starts.

Rinne is tied with Penguins backup Tristan Jarry for the league’s best even-strength save percentage at .964, and Rinne’s off to a great start in the standings, going 7-0-1. Rask and Rinne are in a four-way tie for first place in shutouts with two alongside Carter Hutton and Petr Mrazek.

Rinne’s 6.53 GSAA ranks third. There was a time when people chalked up some of Rinne’s success to the team in front of him, and a brief period (especially 2015-16) when Rinne struggled by any measure. That’s looking more like a blip in an increasingly brilliant career.

Darcy Kuemper

I must admit, I wondered if the Coyotes were being hasty in extending Kuemper, as great as he was basically since the calendar hit 2019. Instead, GM John Chayka’s proactiveness might pay off big time, as Kuemper’s carried over that great finish from 2018-19 to 2019-20 so far.

If Arizona can give Kuemper more consistent goal support (5-3-0), he might get the sort of wins that Vezina-voting GMs gravitate to. Otherwise, he checks out with a .933 save percentage and 5.62 GSAA.

Marc-Andre Fleury

At some point, it feels like the Golden Knights are going to overwork their workhorse. The 34-year-old remains sturdy and often spectacular right now, though.

His eight wins (8-3-0) lead the NHL at the moment, and his 334 saves top all as well (though John Gibson‘s generally being asked to do even more in Anaheim, which is sadly not much of a surprise). Fleury’s .928 save percentage might not be outright spectacular compared to the best on this list, but his second-ranked 7.14 GSAA helps illustrate just how much Vegas depends upon “The Flower.”

Lightning round

  • Robin Lehner: The Blackhawks have fond memories of Corey Crawford (.888 save percentage), but might want to ride the hot hand in Lehner, who has a .936 save percentage through six games. There are signs that Lehner might be able to bail out a shaky Blackhawks defense, considering a high GSAA.
  • When you consider how well Pittsburgh’s played despite injuries that are finally healing up, give Sidney Crosby a lot of credit. Don’t sleep on Jarry and Matt Murray, though, as they have put together great stats early on.
  • The Canucks renaissance is based on a hot top line, but also Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, with Demko maybe arguing for a bigger slice of the starts with a .941 save percentage. Both have been lights out, though.
  • Connor Hellebuyck: For all the doom and gloom for Winnipeg, the Jets would be in bigger trouble without a so-far redemptive season for Hellebuyck, who has a .924 save percentage and has generally saved their bacon.
  • Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have both been fantastic for the Sabres, ranking alongside each other at seventh and eighth in GSAA, and each have the requisite strong vanilla save percentages.
  • By John Gibson standards, a .920 save percentage is pedestrian, but again, the Ducks are asking him to work miracles. He’s pulling off magic, at minimum.
  • Last season, Thomas Greiss was almost as great as Lehner. So far in 2019-20, Greiss is … almost as great as Lehner (.931 save percentage, 4.02 GSAA).
  • To round out this post, Philipp Grubauer and Mikko Koskinen have had the occasional off start, but have mostly been strong for the Avs and Oilers respectively.

When you consider how many of these goalies are on teams that are mysteriously red-hot, maybe those torrid runs aren’t such a mystery. The bigger mystery is: how many of them can keep at least most of this up?

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.

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:

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.