6 NHL Teams Still Living off Hot Starts

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJanuary 17, 2014

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 7: Members of the Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars face-off for the beginning of the third period during an NHL game at Joe Louis Arena on November 7, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Dallas defeated Detroit 4-3 in OT (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

An NHL season is an incredibly long affair, an 82-game marathon during which virtually every team will see high points and low points.

“Consistency” is a watchword for many, but it’s an illusion for virtually every team, since virtually every team will enjoy both slumps and streaks. The trick is to get enough points during the hot stretches to insulate against the cold ones; it’s easy for commentators to ignore a run of mediocrity if a team is safely ensconced in a playoff spot.

We’ve seen that this season.

A number of teams have been basically .500 (or worse) for long stretches of the year but have gotten away with it thanks to having put points in the bank early in the campaign. Some of those clubs are still safe in a playoff position while others are scrabbling for their postseason lives; the common point throughout is that an early sprint has allowed them to stay in the race even as their pace has fallen off.

Jan 6, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy on his bench in the first period against the Calgary Flames at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports


Colorado Avalanche

  • Start:12-1-0, 151-point pace
  • Since: 18-11-5, 99-point pace

The Colorado Avalanche announced to the world that their rebuilding process was over, not with words but by establishing themselves early as one of the dominant teams in the extremely competitive Western Conference.

The team has slowed considerably since then and was falling toward the playoff bubble before a hot January run (6-1-1) pushed it back into the top six.

Even so, since the team’s hot, percentage fueled start to the season, the Avs have looked more like a playoff bubble team in the West than anything else, which makes sense given how far back they were last season. The club’s strides this season remain extremely impressive.

Jan 16, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers right wing Ryan Callahan (24) knocks the puck away from Detroit Red Wings left wing Justin Abdelkader (8) during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports


Detroit Red Wings

  • Start: 9-4-2, 109-point pace
  • Since: 11-13-8, 77-point pace   

The Detroit Red Wings posted two winning streaks longer than two games in the season’s first 15 contests. The team has managed the feat only once in the 30-plus games since.

More troubling than the team’s inability to get on a roll is its nasty habit of putting up long losing runs, something which hasn’t been helped by a terrible run (1-7) in the shootout. Thirteen of the team’s 21 losses since its strong start have come in two losing streaks, one a six-game and one a seven-game stretch of consecutive defeats.

Jan 16, 2014; Saint Paul, MN, USA;  Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Arcobello (26) takes a shot in the second period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.  The Wild defeated the Oilers 4-1.  Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports


Minnesota Wild

  • Start: 15-5-4, 116-point pace
  • Since: 11-14-1, 73-point pace   

It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Minnesota Wild.

In the first half of the season, the Wild were a contending team, one of the best possession clubs in the league and boasted a dominant record for their troubles. In the second half they’ve looked more like a franchise contending for a first overall pick than one striving for the Stanley Cup.

As of today, the Wild hold down the final wild-card spot in the West, four points up on Phoenix but with three more games played. The team’s playoff aspirations are in grave danger; it needs to find a way to turn the page.

Dec 23, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett watches play from the bench during the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports


Phoenix Coyotes

  • Start: 13-4-2, 121-point pace
  • Since: 9-12-7, 73-point pace   

Speaking of the Devils, err, Coyotes, they find themselves in a situation curiously similar to that of the Wild.

Early on, Dave Tippett’s blue-collar crew managed to put together an exceptional run of play, one that had the team competitive for home ice even in the insanely tough Pacific Division. But of late the team hasn’t been at all competitive, winning less than one-third of its games.

As with Minnesota, Phoenix’s exceptional fall has papered over an ugly winter, and what will ultimately decide success or failure is how the team looks the rest of the way. It no longer has enough breathing room to squander the games remaining.

Jan 16, 2014; Sunrise, FL, USA;  San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (8) celebrates his against the Florida Panthers with San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (19), defenseman Brad Stuart (7), defenseman Justin Braun (61) and right wing Brent Burns (back)
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports


San Jose Sharks

  • Start: 19-3-5, 131-point pace
  • Since: 11-9-1, 90-point pace   

San Jose established itself as a Presidents’ Trophy threat with a torrid pace in the initial stages of 2013-14 but has fallen well back of Anaheim for first in the Pacific Division and is in a pitched battle with Los Angeles for home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

It is not that the Sharks have been bad over the last 20-odd games, but a quarter-season run of swapping wins and losses has to be disappointing for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup ambitions.

Jan 9, 2014; Raleigh, NC, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle reacts against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-1. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports


Toronto Maple Leafs

  • Start: 6-1-0, 141-point pace
  • Since: 18-19-5, 80-point pace   

In a lot of the cases above, the “hot start” refers to an extended stretch of superior play. Not so with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who miraculously still hold down a playoff spot today by virtue of the ineptitude of their Eastern Conference competition and that lovely 6-1-0 stretch at the dawn of the season.

We looked at Toronto in some depth back in mid-November, warning that the team had fallen off dangerously since the beginning of the season. Our commenters were skeptical at the time, but the trend has not abated; the Leafs continue to drop. Eventually, even in the East, that will catch up with them.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of NHL.com and are current through January 17. For other pieces by Jonathan Willis, follow him on Twitter.


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