The first month of NHL action has been packed to the brim north of the border. Between coaches on the hot seat, goaltending controversies wreaking havoc, and stars putting on a show, the former North Division has been nothing if not theatrical.
It’s still early, but patterns have already begun to emerge around all seven Canadian teams, with some appearing headed in more fruitful directions than others. Through 20 days of NHL games, here are grades on every NHL club, and what has gone right (and wrong) for each of them.
1. Edmonton Oilers - A
Looking to build off of their Western Conference final appearance last season, the Oilers have turned a pedestrian start into a strong month, winning their last four games and posting a 6-3-0 record in October. As always, it’s the Connor McDavid show in the city of champions, as the superstar continues to dazzle through the first nine games of his campaign.
Something exciting: McRocket Richard
The term "generational" has lost some of the oomph it once had, but superstars like McDavid are just on a different level. Just as Sidney Crosby did earlier in his career, it seems like McDavid has simply decided he will be winning the Rocket Richard Trophy this year. No. 97 has nine goals in nine games to start his season, and continues to hum along as the league’s top talent. It’s Connor’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
Something concerning: Soup's Gone Cold
After years of struggling to find the answer between the pipes, the Oilers shelled out $25 million for five seasons to sign Jack Campbell this past summer. Unfortunately for them, things have not gotten off on a great note for the Michigan native. In six games, Campbell’s .888 save percentage and 3.89 goals-against average have put him in jeopardy of losing his crease.
2. Calgary Flames - A
No NHL team underwent an overhaul as dramatic as the Flames this past offseason but the early returns certainly look promising. Currently sitting at 5-2-0, the Flames boast the best winning percentage of any Canadian club, albeit in the fewest number of games.
The club has gotten contributions up and down the lineup, and while Jacob Markstrom hasn’t quite returned to form as the Vezina contender he was last season, some timely saves and solid recent outings have him up to a .903 save percentage on the season with a very respectable 4-1-0 record.
Something exciting: Kadri looks great
Nazem Kadri’s breakout season last year had its detractors given it seemingly came out of nowhere. Having never produced more than 61 points in a full season, Kadri exploded to the tune of 87 points in 71 games.
Now, a month into his first season in Calgary, there’s no doubt Flames fans are thrilled Kadri is on their squad. The 32-year-old is tops among all skaters in goals and points and has been promoted to the team’s top line in the wake of Elias Lindholm's sleepy start.
Something concerning: Huberdeau is ‘fine’
The Flames' other major offseason move was acquiring Jonathan Huberdeau, and his start has been alright but certainly not to the degree of success he or the departed Johnny Gaudreau had last season. If there’s any consolation, however, there’s likely some positive regression in Huberdeau’s future. A career-low 4.2% on-ice shooting percentage is likely to swing back in his favour before long, and he’s also made strides with his defensive play, cleaning up one of his few weaknesses from his time in Florida.
3. Montreal Canadiens - B
Following a dismal season last year that earned the Canadiens the first-overall draft selection, Montreal came into 2022-23 with just about zero expectations. As such, things could not be better in La belle province through nine games, as the Habs sit over .500 after their first month with a 5-4-0 record.
It seems Martin St. Louis has found a way to get the most out of a talented-yet-flawed roster, as new additions like Sean Monahan and Kirby Dach are contributing on the scoresheet while also making a meaningful impact under the hood.
Something exciting: Caufield and Suzuki are good
It took a midseason coaching change last year to get them rolling, but it looks like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are officially legit. Both Canadiens youngsters have 10 points in nine games to begin their season, including seven goals for Caufield that have him tied for second in NHL scoring.
Even more impressive was this stat that floated around Twitter last month:
Goals scored since February 10
Cole Caufield 25
Connor McDavid 25
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) October 18, 2022
While McDavid has since widened the gap, to even be in the same discussion as the best player in the world is a pretty good sign if you’re a Canadiens fan.
Something concerning: Connor Bedard is at stake
Let’s not kid ourselves here, it would take something pretty monumental for Montreal to make the playoffs, much less make some noise if it got there. The club’s 45.6 expected goals for percentage per Evolving Hockey is second-worst amongst Canadian teams, and some of its aforementioned star players are among the biggest culprits for the team’s poor underlying metrics.
Additionally, this year’s draft has a potentially enormous prize awaiting the lottery winner. While Juraj Slafkovsky has been effective, there’s no question he isn’t the potential game-changer Connor Bedard is.
4. Winnipeg Jets - B-
The Central Division’s lone Canadian team has gotten off to a solid, if unspectacular, 5-3-1 start to its season. While the Jets continue to get caved in by the under-the-hood metrics, strong goaltending and contributions from the back end have kept them afloat through a tough October schedule that saw them play just three games at home.
Perhaps the club will find another gear in the months to come as new head coach Rick Bowness solidifies his locker room, but the team is going to need to right the ship quickly. If it doesn't, another tumble down the tough Western Conference standings could be in order, and another potential non-top 10 lottery pick in the cards.
Something exciting: Connor Hellebuyck is good again
After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2020 and receiving serious consideration in 2021, Hellebuyck’s 2021-22 season left a lot to be desired. The netminder’s .910 save percentage was his lowest mark since his sophomore campaign in 2016-17, while his 2.97 GAA was the highest of his career. Some of that can be attributed to poor defence in front of him, but simply put, Hellebuyck was not a Veinza candidate last year.
This season has been completely different for the 29-year-old. The Jets franchise goalie boasts a sparkling .931 save percentage in seven outings and has been a huge part of why Winnipeg is winning hockey games. Sitting third in the NHL in goals saved above expected according to Moneypuck, Hellebuyck looks like he’s back in a big way.
Something concerning: The underlying metrics
As was the case last year, the Jets are having problems on the defensive side of the puck, and are getting caved in possession-wise as a result. The Jets’ 43.8% expected goals percentage ranks 27th in the league, and is down considerably from their 17th-ranked spot in the category last year.
Most concerningly are the individuals struggling the most out of the gate for Winnipeg. Both Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are getting dominated while on the ice, while supposed No. 1 defenceman Neal Pionk possesses the worst expected goals-against rate of any regular skater.
5. Ottawa Senators - C
There are a few different ways you can look at the start the Senators are having. On the bright side, the youth has arrived in a big way, with names like Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson putting together wonderful starts to their campaigns, and quickly looking like potential building blocks for an organization that has lacked them for some time.
Conversely, the team is idling to begin its season and currently sits dead last in a stacked Atlantic Division. There’s reason to believe in what the Senators are doing right now, but unfortunately the results just haven’t quite been there yet in a sustained manner, which leaves them in the mushy middle when it comes to grading their start.
Something exciting: Brady Tkachuk has taken a leap
Just as his brother did last year, it looks like Tkachuk is ready to take the next step into NHL stardom. With 11 points in eight games, Tkachuk could finally crack the point-per-game plateau after notching a career-high 67 points last season.
His six goals are tied for first on the team, and as was the case last year, he’s been getting the puck on net from the dangerous areas of the ice. If the Senators are set to compete for a playoff spot, Tkachuk’s ascension will be a significant part of how far Ottawa eventually goes.
Something concerning: Josh Norris is done
Pegged as the team’s top-line pivot heading into the year, an unfortunate shoulder injury sustained a few days ago looks like it will end the 23-year-old’s season before it even gets rolling. Norris broke out in a big way last year with the Sens, leading the team with 35 goals and looking like the prized pickup he was projected to be when he headlined the Erik Karlsson return.
Instead, the Senators are now without one of their most important players, which will make it all the more difficult for the club to climb out of its early hole.
6. Vancouver Canucks - D
From panic-induced jersey throwing to ‘Bruce there it is’, no team has gone through the highs and lows of the early season quite like the Canucks and their fans. Despite a 2-5-2 start to their season, things are somehow looking up in Canuck-land following a pair of victories late last week.
Things are certainly still more dicey than they are peaceful, especially given Patrik Allvin’s less-than-enthusiastic support for his coach, but the mood in Vancouver is certainly headed in the right direction.
Something exciting: EP might be that guy
After beginning his career as a point-per-game player, Elias Pettersson took a step back during the 2021-22 campaign, scoring 68 points in 80 games in a pedestrian season by his standards. It was the end of Pettersson’s season last year, however, that had fans believing he could get back on track, as the young Swede had 19 points in his final 13 games, and looked more like himself than he had all year.
Now, it seems as though the momentum of last April was a sign of things to come, as Pettersson is back to scoring at a high-end rate with nine points in nine games. Playing alongside free agent signings Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko, the trio has been the Canucks’ most productive line this year and looks set to be the key to getting the season back on track.
Something concerning: Brock Boeser is not that guy
On the other end of the spectrum, Boeser, who looked like a future 40-goal scorer once upon a time, has gotten out to a sputtering start as he continues to battle injuries and find himself in the dog house.
Without a goal in six games, Boeser could be hard-pressed to find a spot in the Canucks' top-six when he returns, and may wind up as trade bait as rumours continue to swirl around the Minnesota native.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs - F
While the Maple Leafs aren’t the worst team by points or points percentage, it’s hard to call their start to the season anything other than an abject failure given the expectations the club had coming in. Sitting at 4-4-2, five of the team’s six losses have come against lottery teams last year, including the lowly Arizona Coyotes.
Now, it sounds like head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas could be on the hot seat, as the team struggles to score at 5-on-5 and is getting outplayed in the process. It is full-on panic mode in Leafs Nation.
Something exciting: Ilya Samsonov’s breakout
After Matt Murray went down with an abductor injury, the starter's crease became Samsonov’s to lose. Thankfully for Maple Leafs fans, the Russian netminder has stepped up to the plate to begin his season, playing some of the best hockey of his career.
With a .920 save percentage in six games, Samsonov has kept the Maple Leafs in it despite slow starts from the Maple Leafs' stars. Whether or not the 25-year-old will keep this up as the season progresses is another story, but it’s hard to have envisioned a better start to his Maple Leafs tenure than this.
Something concerning: Everything else
Auston Matthews has just three goals, Mitch Marner is throwing tantrums and butting heads with the coach, and the team is struggling to get anything going on the offensive side of the puck. Things are going very poorly in Toronto, and the way out of the woods isn’t entirely clear. Even Steve Dangle thinks the Leafs are cooked.
Things have gone haywire and are compounded by the unmatched pressure of the Toronto market. Now, the only question is if the Maple Leafs can find their way out of it.
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