Ranking the Biggest Surprises at the Start of the 2017-18 NHL Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistOctober 17, 2017

Ranking the Biggest Surprises at the Start of the 2017-18 NHL Season

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The 2017-18 NHL season is approaching the two-week mark.

    After a long summer, it's great to have the players back on the ice—and easy to overinflate some of the early trends that catch our eyes.

    Take hat tricks, for instance. When Connor McDavid, Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Saad and Alex Ovechkin all kicked off their seasons with three-goal nights, it seemed like something amazing was happening. 

    Ovechkin one-upped himself with four goals two nights later, and Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets scored his first three goals of the season against the Edmonton Oilers on October 9. But that's it. Four hat tricks in the first two days, two in the next four and then none for a week.

    The lesson: Treat early-season surprises with caution. Some of the biggest storylines of the year so far will turn out to foreshadow long-term trends, but others will vanish as quickly as they arrived.

    Here's a look at six of the most surprising things we have seen in the early going this year, along with notes on whether these situations are likely to be sustainable.

6. Scoring Spikes Around the League

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Situation: At last! Scoring is up.

    For the first time since the players returned from the lockout to an offense-friendly crackdown on obstruction at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, NHL teams are averaging more than three goals per game. It's early, but it's promising.

               

    Why It's Surprising: The NHL has been looking for ways to boost scoring for years, but not even last year's new standards for goalie equipment made much of a difference.

    This year, Hockey Reference reported power plays have increased from 2.99 to 4.03 per game, leading to an average of 0.16 more power-play goals. 

    That helps, but it's not the only difference. Overall, scoring is up 0.31 goals per game, so general production has also improved.

                 

    Will It Continue? It wouldn't be surprising to see power-play opportunities start to decline as referees become less stringent. Players will also adjust to this year's new standards with less slashing and more care on faceoffs.

    So many players have started well offensively this year, though. It's not a stretch to think a bunch will be able to keep it going. Through the first 13 days of the season, 95 players averaged at least a point per game and 56 of them already had six points or more.

    That's a big spike compared to last year, when only 32 players had six points or more through the first 13 days. By the end of the season, only nine players who played more than one game had averaged at least a point per game. It looks like that number will jump this year, which should create a fascinating race for the Art Ross Trophy.

5. Alex Ovechkin Regains His Scoring Touch

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Situation: Rebounding from a 33-goal campaign last season that was the second-worst of his career, Alex Ovechkin has taken an early lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with nine goals in his first six games.

                    

    Why It's Surprising: The Washington Capitals were expected to decline this year after losing some players in the offseason, but Ovechkin's back-to-back hat tricks to kick off the year gave him the early lead in the goal-scoring race. He and teammates Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were also the first three players to hit double digits in points this year.

    Ovechkin often seems to heat up late in seasons when he's chasing Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophies or another 50-goal year, but October is historically his most productive month.

    According to Hockey Reference, the Washington captain has 83 career goals in 118 games in October for an average of 0.70 goals per game. With a total of 567 goals in 927 games, his career average is 0.61 goals per game.

               

    Will It Continue? Not at this level.

    Ovechkin's nine goals in six games this season give him a 1.5 goals-per-game average and put him on pace for 123 goals on the year.

    That's not going to happen, but he has teased a tremendous return to form and the prospect e could challenge his career high of 65 goals—a mark he set a decade ago as a 22-year-old.

4. Matt Duchene Trade Rumors Subside as Colorado Avalanche Start Well

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Situation: There are two parts to this surprise.

    First, Matt Duchene is still a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

    Second, he is tied for his team's scoring lead, with six points in six games—and the Avs are off to a solid 4-2-0 start.

                       

    Why It's Surprising: A Duchene trade has seemed inevitable for the better part of a year as we watched the Avs crater to historic lows last season.

    The 26-year-old has two years left before becoming an unrestricted free agent, but general manager Joe Sakic hung on to his asset rather than bring back a disappointing return as Duchene limped to a 41-point campaign in 2016-17, his second-worst season as a pro.

    Colorado's strong start is making Sakic look smart. A productive Duchene should have higher trade value—and a successful Avs team might not be so inclined to move one of its best players.

                    

    Will It Continue? It could, but it's far from guaranteed.

    The Avs' 2016-17 season started unravelling six weeks before training camp opened, when head coach Patrick Roy announced his resignation. That left the organization scrambling to fill the vacancy and put successor Jared Bednar in a near-impossible situation when he did take the reins.

    Early returns this year show that, with the opportunity to do some proper planning, Bednar might be able to get more out of his team, including Duchene. But small sample sizes do not always reflect longer trends—the Avs started 3-1-0 last year before going 19-55-4 the rest of the way.

3. New Jersey Devils Start Hot Thanks to a Pair of Low-Profile Rookies

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Situation: In 2012, the New Jersey Devils went on a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings. In the five subsequent seasons, they have taken up residence near the bottom of the NHL standings—missing the playoffs and struggling to score.

    This year, the Devils are off to an impressive 4-1-0 start and are tied for second overall offensively, scoring an average of 4.20 goals per game. 

                

    Why It's Surprising: That's a massive improvement from 2.23 goals per game last season—which was typical for the present-day Devils.

    It's out of character for New Jersey to be generating so much firepower, and it's even more surprising the primary forces are two unheralded rookies—19-year-old Swedish winger Jesper Bratt and 22-year-old NCAA free-agent defenseman Will Butcher.

    With eight assists in his first five games, Butcher is one point off the lead for scoring by defensemen, tied with big names Alex Pietrangelo and Shayne Gostisbehere. He and Bratt are also first and second respectively in the rookie scoring race.

              

    Will It Continue? It could.

    Butcher helped the University of Denver win an NCAA championship last spring, but at 5'10" and 190 pounds, he wasn't expected to be able to step straight into the NHL, let alone dominate the way he has.

    Bratt was a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016, so it's amazing he's even in the league.

    Chris Peters of ESPN.com reported it has been more than 20 years since a teenager drafted in the sixth round or below cracked an NHL opening-night lineup. Czech winger Roman Vopat, drafted in the seventh round, made the St. Louis Blues back in 1995-96, but he recorded five points in 25 games in his first year. Bratt got six in his first three games.

    Both Butcher and Bratt have slowed down after their scorching starts, but they have shown they can do more than get the puck to the net. The two rookies are also tied for the Devils' team lead in plus-minus, both at plus-five.

    Bratt and Butcher are the tip of the iceberg for a retooled Devils team that also now includes Marcus Johansson and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier.

    New Jersey could have the tools to be an out-of-nowhere force in the Metropolitan Division, following in the footsteps of last season's Columbus Blue Jackets.

2. Los Angeles Kings Dominate Thanks to Resurgent Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown

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    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    The Situation: Through the first 13 days of the new NHL season, the Los Angeles Kings are off to a franchise-record start at 4-0-1 with a .900 points percentage.

                     

    Why It's Surprising: The Kings were all but forgotten after they missed the playoffs last year. Despite cleaning house by firing general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter, promotions from within didn't exactly signal a fresh start.

    Los Angeles was expected to struggle with its veteran-heavy lineup loaded with big long-term salaries and heavy style of play that runs counter to the themes of youth and skill that dominate today's NHL.

    But those big contracts are attached to some good players. In addition to having a healthy Jonathan Quick back in net with a 1.74 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in his first four appearances, the Kings have gotten a boost from two resurgent vets. Captain Anze Kopitar and former captain Dustin Brown lead L.A. in scoring and in ice time among forwards.

                  

    Will It Continue? Don't bet against it.

    Even in their Stanley Cup years, the Kings were never a dominant regular-season team. They haven't won their division since 1990-91, back in the Wayne Gretzky era.

    In the early going, it looks like new head coach John Stevens has been able to tap into his players' sense of pride and remind them of what they were able to accomplish when they were at their best.

    That core group, led by Kopitar, Brown, Quick and Drew Doughty, looks poised to set L.A. on a course back to the playoffs this season.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers Diverge

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    Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

    The Situation: Last season, they were on parallel paths. The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs had risen from hockey's darkest depths to reassert themselves as playoff teams.

    With superstar centers in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the Oilers and Leafs embody today's young, exciting, new NHL—teams on the rise that should figure in the Stanley Cup conversation before too long.

    So far, the Leafs have lived up to their billing. Matthews has given every indication he's on his way to superstar status.

    McDavid set tongues wagging with a hat trick in the Oilers' season-opening win over the Calgary Flames, but since then, Edmonton has gone 0-3-0.

                    

    Why It's Surprising: All the good fortune has moved over to the Toronto side of the ledger.

    The Leafs lead the league offensively with 26 goals in five games, and Matthews leads the way with eight points, including five goals. His two-way game is also showing improvement—he's plus-seven and winning more than 58 percent of his faceoffs.

    Meanwhile, the Oilers have given up 14 goals in their past three games while scoring only six. Last year, McDavid had climbed to the top of the scoring race by the two-week mark. He stayed there for the rest of the year, earning the Art Ross Trophy.

    This year, he has struggled since opening night, adding only two assists in three games, and he is sitting at minus-one.

                     

    Will It Continue? Not to this extent.

    McDavid and the Oilers probably aren't this bad—and Matthews and the Leafs probably aren't this good.

    Virtually everything went right for both clubs last year, but the inevitable cycle of adversity has hit the Oilers first. Cam Talbot's not quite as all-world in goal, and injuries to Andrej Sekera and Leon Draisaitl are creating lineup holes.

    Meanwhile,  the Leafs' offensive punch has overshadowed some questionable play from Frederik Andersen. His 19 goals against are the highest in the league and have saddled him with an early-season 3.76 goals-against average and .880 save percentage through Toronto's first five games.

    Once their league-leading power play starts to cool off, expect to see Toronto come back to earth. Meanwhile, McDavid is too good for the Oilers not to find their way out of their funk.

                

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from NHL.com.