The Biggest Storylines from the Opening Month of the NHL Season

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2017

The Biggest Storylines from the Opening Month of the NHL Season

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    Hannah Foslien/Associated Press

    One month into the 2017-18 NHL season, several intriguing storylines have emerged. From Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price's surprisingly poor start to the impressive debut of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to a blockbuster three-team trade, there's been no shortage of interesting early-season news.

    Price's lousy play through October could adversely affect the Canadiens' playoff hopes. The Golden Knights surprised many observers by setting a league record for season-opening wins by an expansion team. Meanwhile, the long Matt Duchene trade watch ended with a rare multiteam deal sending him from the Colorado Avalanche to the Ottawa Senators.

    Here's a look at the notable storylines from the opening month of this NHL season. You can express your views on this topic in the comments section below.

Coyote Ugly

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    Mired in mediocrity since 2012-13, an air of hope wafted over the Arizona Coyotes when this season began. Several offseason moves were expected to improve their fortunes. Instead, the Coyotes staggered from the gate with 11 straight defeats (0-10-1), tying an NHL record for the longest season-opening losing streak.

    New head coach Rick Tocchet continues to search for a solution to turn things around. Goaltender Antti Raanta, acquired in a trade along with Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers, was sidelined most of October. Backup Louis Domingue struggled in Raanta's stead and was replaced by Scott Wedgewood.

    Stepan couldn't offset the lack of skilled depth elsewhere at center. The additions of veteran defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers did little to bolster their blue line.

    The Coyotes' poor performance is overshadowing the play of forward Clayton Keller. A center converted to a winger, the 19-year-old rookie leads the Coyotes and all NHL rookies in scoring. He also ranks among the league leaders in goals, with 11. Keller is the only promising sign for this floundering franchise.

Red-Hot Devils

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    Under general manager Ray Shero, the New Jersey Devils have patiently rebuilt their roster with young players. Those efforts are starting to bear fruit. As of Wednesday, they sat second in the Metropolitan Division with a record of nine wins, four losses and one overtime loss.

    Rookies Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher have played significant roles in the Devils' strong start. Center Hischier and right winger Bratt sit among New Jersey's top five scorers. Defenseman Butcher also ranks among their scoring leaders, bringing a welcome offensive boost to their blue line.

    Veteran left wing Taylor Hall is bonding well with Hischier on the top line and leads the club in scoring. Starting goaltender Cory Schneider, attempting to rebound from last season's struggles, has a respectable .919 save percentage.

    The Devils' defensive game still needs improvement. They've given up 3.14 goals per game and the second-most shots per game (35.0), while their penalty-killing percentage (80.6) sits in the middle of the pack among the 31 NHL clubs. Still, their hot start suggests better days are finally on their way.

Kings on the Rebound

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    After winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014, the Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. Entering this campaign, it appeared their Cup-contending years were behind them. But with 11 wins, two defeats and two overtime losses, they sit atop the Pacific Division.

    New head coach John Stevens shifted the Kings away from their defense-first system toward a more offensive style. They have gone from 24th in goals per game in 2016-17 (2.43) to eighth (3.40) this season. Forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown benefited from the change. After struggling last season, they are now the Kings' leading scorers.

    Goaltender Jonathan Quick missed most of the last season with a groin injury, but he's shown no signs of lingering ill effects. While the Kings' shots against per game are up from a league-low 25.9 last season to 32.5, Quick has been stellar, with nine wins in 12 starts, a 2.06 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.

    Los Angeles is also getting solid contributions from its younger players. Forwards Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson (both 25) and rookie Adrian Kempe are among the team's scoring leaders, helping to offset the loss of Jeff Carter to injury. Defenseman Derek Forbort, 25, has become a key part of the blue line.

The Tavares Saga

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    New York Islanders captain John Tavares is off to one of the best starts of his NHL career. The 27-year-old is also eligible for unrestricted free agency at season's end. Whether he signs with the Isles or tests the market makes his status among this season's early notable storylines.

    With 12 goals and 18 points through 15 games, Tavares is tied with Josh Bailey for the Islanders' scoring lead. He's also third among this season's NHL goal-scoring leaders. He's a significant reason why the Isles are jockeying with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

    Tavares is unquestionably the best player eligible for UFA status in July. His impressive play this season only boosts his potential free-agent value. If he opts to test the market, there will be no shortage of clubs willing to pay him top dollar.

    The Islanders will be hoping to re-sign him, and Tavares hasn't indicated a desire to move on. Factors such as the club's performance this season and their bid for a new arena at Belmont Park could determine whether he stays. In the meantime, speculation over Tavares' future will likely continue.

Blues Overcome Early Adversity

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    Injuries walloped the St. Louis Blues before the season even began. Forwards Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford, along with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, were all sidelined.  Losing so many key players so early should have been a major setback, but the Blues have adjusted well. 

    Winners of 12 of their first 16 games, they are perched atop the Western Conference standings. A red-hot offense is one factor behind their success. The top line's components, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, hold the top three spots among the Blues' leading scorers.

    Off to the best start of his career, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is a force at both ends of the rink for St. Louis. Goaltender Jake Allen, meanwhile, ranks among the league leaders in wins (nine) and goals-against average (2.36).

    At some point, the absence of so many veterans could catch up with the Blues, especially if opponents can find a way to shut down their top-scoring line. For now, however, they have done a fine job of coping with adversity.

Oilers' Sputtering Start

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    Having qualified for the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade and coming within a game of reaching the 2017 Western Conference Final, the Edmonton Oilers faced heightened expectations in 2017-18. So far, however, they look nothing like a playoff contender.

    Led by scoring champion Connor McDavid, the Oilers last season finished second in the Pacific Division and fourth overall in the Conference with 103 points. But 14 games into this campaign, they have won only five times and sit with the league's third-worst record.

    A league-worst offense (2.29 goals per game) is one reason for their struggles, as the scoring depth drops noticeably beyond the McDavid line. They are also having difficulty keeping the puck out of their net, allowing a bloated 3.14 goals per game.

    The Oilers still have sufficient time to turn things around but must do it soon. They risk falling so far behind in the standings that they won't be able to climb back into playoff contention.

Golden Knights Make an Impressive Debut

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    Entering 2017-18, expectations were low for the Vegas Golden Knights. As an expansion team with a roster built during the offseason, it was presumed they would struggle to get their first victories. Instead, the Golden Knights exceeded all assumptions by winning nine of their first 15 games to sit second in the Pacific Division.

    With a roster built by general manager George McPhee and guided by head coach Gerard Gallant, the Golden Knights are a hardworking club with plenty of character players. Veterans such as forwards James Neal and David Perron have stepped up as leaders. As a result, they set an NHL record by becoming the first expansion team to win eight of their first nine games.

    What's even more impressive is the Golden Knights kept winning after goaltenders Marc Andre-Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk were sidelined by injuries. Fleury and Dansk each won three games and Subban two. Fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace struggled through five starts but backstopped them to a 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators.

    Despite their surprising start, the Golden Knights are expected to tail off as the season progresses. While midnight will likely strike this Cinderella club, they have served notice that they are no pushovers. That bodes well for their development.

Stamkos and Kucherov Lead NHL Scorers

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    Injuries ravaged the Tampa Bay Lightning roster in 2016-17, costing them a playoff berth. Six weeks into this season, they are sitting atop the league's overall standings. The play of center Steven Stamkos and right wing Nikita Kucherov is the biggest factor behind their improvement. Skating together on the top line, they have given the Lightning a lethal one-two offensive punch.

    Stamkos is showing no ill effects from the knee injury that sidelined him for all but 17 games last season. A two-time winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal scorer, he's become more of a playmaker this season. The Lightning captain leads the league in assists (21) and points (28). At that level of production, he could reach 100 points for the first time in his career.

    Kucherov came into his own as a sniper last season, leading the Lightning with 40 goals and 84 points. With 15 goals this season, he leads all NHL goal scorers. If he keeps this up over the remainder of the season, he should exceed the vaunted 50-goal plateau.

    Stamkos and Kucherov not only hold the top two positions among Lightning scorers; they are also the top two scorers in the league. They could become the first teammates to finish one-two in scoring since Stamkos and Martin St. Louis during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

The Duchene Blockbuster Trade

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    Following speculation stretching back to last season, the Colorado Avalanche finally traded Duchene. In a rare three-team move, the 26-year-old was shipped to the Ottawa Senators, who sent center Kyle Turris to the Nashville Predators. Both clubs sent draft picks and prospects to the Avalanche.

    The Senators got an offensive-minded center in Duchene, who's reached the 20-goal, 50-point plateau five times in his eight NHL seasons. He's signed through 2018-19 at an annual salary-cap hit of $6 million, giving the Sens some extra time to determine how they will re-sign him to a contract extension.

    Turris' unrestricted free-agent status next summer and his stalled contract talks with the Senators led to his move to the Predators. He immediately signed a six-year, $36 million deal with them. A solid two-way center, the 28-year-old should slot comfortably into their second line, moving Nick Bonino into his more accustomed third-line role.

    The Avalanche, meanwhile, picked up a promising young defenseman in Samuel Girard plus a couple of notable prospects in forwards Shane Bowers and Vladislav Kamenev. They also get a veteran backup goalie in Andrew Hammond, plus the Senators' first-round pick in 2018 and the Predators' second-round selection. How well this return pans out could make this trade the defining move for Avs general manager Joe Sakic.

Price Drop

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    Winner of the Vezina Trophy in 2015 and a finalist for the award last season, Price began this season considered among the NHL's top goaltenders. No matter how poorly the Montreal Canadiens might play, they could count on their 30-year-old superstar to bail them out. This season, however, he's looked decidedly ordinary.

    Through 11 starts, Price managed to win only three of those games. He gave up four or more goals in seven of those contests. His 3.77 goals-against average and .877 save percentage rank among the worst stats of NHL starters this season.

    Price seems unsure of himself this season. His positioning is poor, his lateral movement is slow and he's giving up fat rebounds. The Canadiens suffered because of Price's poor play, sinking at one point to the last spot in the Atlantic Division with a 3-7-1 record.

    After Oct. 28, the Canadiens showed improvement by winning five of six games. All but one of those victories came without Price, who is sidelined with a lower-body injury. While backups Al Montoya and Charlie Lindgren are filling the void, the Habs need a healthy Price to regain his usually stellar form to improve their chances of reaching the postseason.

               

    Player and team stats (as of Nov. 8) via NHL.com. Additional info via Hockey Reference and Cap Friendly.