The Biggest Reason for Optimism for Every NHL Team in 2015-16

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2015

The Biggest Reason for Optimism for Every NHL Team in 2015-16

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Rarely are NHL fans as optimistic about their teams as they are in the early part of a new season. No deficit in the standings seems too large to overcome. No lead seems too small. 

    Even the worst of the worst through the first two weeks can claim there is plenty of time to turn things around.

    Regardless of their spot in the standings, every team has reason for optimism, whether it's a surprisingly strong start by a player or group of players, a fresh start or just an impressive roster.

    Here's a look at the biggest reason for optimism for every NHL club this season. Add your own to the comments section.

Anaheim Ducks: The Goaltending Has Been Decent

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    If you asked someone what the Anaheim Ducks' weakest link might be ahead of the season, the answer would likely have been the goaltending situation. Frederik Andersen was good enough to help the Ducks get to the Western Conference Final last spring but not consistent enough to push them past the Chicago Blackhawks.

    They shored up the backup position with the addition of Anton Khudobin in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes in the offseason and sent future starter John Gibson to the minors for seasoning before his inevitable takeover.

    But while the top line has struggled and the Ducks are off to a slower than expected start through the first two weeks—Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry combined for two total points through their first five games—Andersen is among the league's best netminders with a .947 save percentage and 1.57 goals-against average.

Arizona Coyotes: The Rookies Rock

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Arizona Coyotes were the second-worst team in the league last season. Two weeks into this campaign, they're holding down a playoff spot. It's early, sure, but the fact the team isn't at the bottom of the standings is pretty impressive given their total rebuild.

    The performance of rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair is a big reason why that's happening.

    Domi, the 12th overall pick in 2013, has three goals and eight points through seven games. Duclair, a third-rounder in that same draft, has five goals and seven points. They started the season on different lines but have recently been teamed with Martin Hanzal on the so-called second unit and are leading the charge for the Coyotes, as well as the race for the Calder Trophy.

Boston Bruins: David Krejci Is Having the Start of His Life

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    David Krejci's career high is 73 points—a mark he set in 2009. He hasn't hit the 70-point plateau since.

    Yet there is his name at the top of the NHL points race.

    Despite the struggles of so many of his teammates, Krejci has four goals and 11 points in six games. If not for his hot start, the Boston Bruins would be struggling even more than their already disappointing 2-3-1 record.

    At a time when there are plenty of questions after a big roster shakeup, the Bruins should be thankful to have the answer to whether the 29-year-old could get back into a groove after an injury-plagued 2014-15 season.

Buffalo Sabres: They Found a Cornerstone Defenseman

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    The Buffalo Sabres are a rebuilding team, but they've tried to do it on the fly by making key trades to add some veterans who could help make the organization competitive more quickly.

    As part of the trade that brought Evander Kane to Buffalo, defenseman Zach Bogosian offered early returns to the Sabres—who dealt a former rookie of the year in Tyler Myers as part of the package. Myers had a nice finish in Winnipeg and so did Bogosian, who was set to anchor the Sabres blue line this season.

    But with Bogosian out the first two weeks of the year with an injury, the Sabres have had to rely on one of their own draft picks: Rasmus Ristolainen. The 20-year-old, who was selected eighth overall in 2013, has made a great start, averaging more than 24 minutes per game (a team high) and netting a goal and three points through the first six games.

    The blue line will be even better once Bogosian returns, but the team can feel confident they know what they have in Ristolainen too.

Calgary Flames: Things Can't Get Much Worse

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    Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

    There's nowhere to go but up for the Calgary Flames, who have won just one game this season. They are dead last in the Western Conference. If not for the winless Columbus Blue Jackets, the Flames would be in the league basement.

    They've already demoted one of their two starting goaltenders, sending Karri Ramo to the minor leagues after he cleared waivers, via NHL.com. Sportsnet columnist Mark Spector also suggested GM Brad Treliving is working the phones and trying to pry free agent-to-be Steven Stamkos away from the Tampa Bay Lightning to shake up his roster even further.

    Youngsters Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan have had decent starts statistically, and the team can cling to the fact it performed well above expectations last season and knows it can climb the standings quickly with a concerted effort.

Carolina Hurricanes: Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg Have Chemistry

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal had the worst season since his rookie year in 2014-15. He cracked the 20-goal mark for the ninth straight time in a non-lockout year, but his 54 points in 77 games was a far cry from the 70 he's typically provided.

    He looked lost and appeared to lack chemistry with his linemates.

    It appears that problem has been solved with the addition of the gritty Kris Versteeg, who came over in a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in September. Versteeg has joined Staal on the top line, and both players have four points through their first six games together. The addition of Brock McGinn, who took just 55 seconds to score on his NHL debut, has given the Hurricanes more balance and depth among the forwards than they have had in a couple of years.

Chicago Blackhawks: Artemi Panarin Is Panning out

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    The Chicago Blackhawks have had to drop critical parts of their championship teams to keep their dynamic but expensive core intact in the salary-cap era. This offseason, they parted ways with the young and talented Brandon Saad, veteran sniper Patrick Sharp, cerebral center Brad Richards, gritty winger Kris Versteeg and stable defenseman Johnny Oduya. 

    Patrick Kane's unit had to be remade. Artemi Panarin is a big reason the group has picked up right where last second line trio left off. The relatively small (5'11") but super-skilled Russian came over from the KHL as a free agent. He has clicked with Kane and is second to Kane in team scoring with two goals and six assists in seven games.

    Panarin is averaging more than 18 minutes a game and has adapted to the NHL very quickly, filling Saad's skates admirably if not more comfortably.

Colorado Avalanche: The Kids Are Clicking Again

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Nathan MacKinnon struggled as a sophomore last season. Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog had a similar swoon in his fourth NHL campaign.

    They're both back on track so far this season, and the Avs will be much more likely to compete for a playoff spot with those two youngsters clicking.

    MacKinnon and Landeskog form the top line with veteran Alex Tanguay, and both are playing at a point-per-game pace through the first half-dozen matchups of the season. MacKinnon, 20, has two goals and four helpers. Landeskog has four goals and a pair of assists.

Columbus Blue Jackets: They Can't Lose Them All

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    On pace for an 0-for-82 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets don't have much reason to be optimistic.

    The team has already fired coach Todd Richards and replaced him with infamous taskmaster John Tortorella. They were able to use an injury-plagued season as an excuse for missing the playoffs last year after making some noise in the first round the previous spring.

    So be thankful, Columbus, that it's extremely unlikely the franchise will finish without a single win. Maybe Tortorella can help turn things around sooner rather than later for a team that was a dark-horse Cup candidate.

Dallas Stars: The Goalie Platoon Is Working

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen was so bad for the Dallas Stars last season the team couldn't convert the league's second-best offense into a playoff position.

    Lehtonen posted the worst save percentage of his NHL career, a .903, and a 2.35 goals-against average. The Stars responded in the offseason by bringing in some competition. They traded for the rights to pending UFA Antti Niemi and promptly signed him to a multi-year deal.

    The results could have been catastrophic if they discouraged Lehtonen rather than challenged him to be better. It would have been even worse if Niemi proved to be well past his prime, as the San Jose Sharks supposed.

    On the contrary, though, both goalies have responded positively. Niemi has a 3-1 record with a .940 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average. Lehtonen has a .920 save percentage, a 2.35 GAA and a 3-0 record.

Detroit Red Wings: Kids Are Contributing Now

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    There was a time in the Motor City when Detroit Red Wings prospects matured on the farm for years before graduating to the NHL and making an impact.

    Those days are gone. Rookie Dylan Larkin is just 19 but cracked the Wings roster out of training camp. He's made the best of Pavel Datsyuk's injury absence as well, finding a fit on the top line alongside Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.

    Larkin has a pair of goals and six points through six games, as well as a plus-seven rating. He's joined a strong group of core players in their early 20s who have complemented the aging stars.

    Times have changed.

Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid Looks Like a Star

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    Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

    He started rather slowly, but the big (6'1") and speedy Connor McDavid is discovering his stride a couple of weeks into his rookie season.

    The first overall pick in last June's draft is still just 18 but is now making highlight-reel goals and leading his Edmonton Oilers team to victories after starting his career with no points in his first two games.

    Two games doesn't seem like much of a drought for a rookie, but McDavid comes with expectations at levels only previously reached for generational talents such as Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros. Those opening games already seem like a lifetime ago.

    McDavid has four goals and six points in his last five games, and the Oilers are playing with the kind of confidence you would have expected years ago from a team that has had so many first-round and first overall draft picks in the last half-decade.

    One of those, Nail Yakupov, has been reinvented thanks to his new linemate—a testament to McDavid's ability to make those around him better.

Florida Panthers: Jaromir Jagr Is Bringing the Mullet Back

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Jaromir Jagr's mullet is back by popular demand—thanks in large part to a campaign by Florida Panthers teammate Roberto Luongo.

    So is his scoring touch.

    Now, we're assuming the two are related since Jagr had a great deal of success finding the scoresheet as a mullet-sporting member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s. But even if they're not, his presence in Florida is helping the Panthers take a giant leap forward in their development.

    The 43-year-old is having a tremendous impact on young linemates Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, but it's the veteran in his second stint in the NHL—broken up by a KHL hiatus—who leads the team in scoring.

    Jagr is in the NHL's top 10 in scoring so far with five goals and eight points through seven games.

Los Angeles Kings: There's Time to Fix the Problems

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    There has been massive turnover on the Los Angeles Kings roster this year, with defenseman Robyn Regehr retiring, Andrej Sekera walking as a free agent, and Slava Voynov departing for Russia. Forwards Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll weren't brought back. Neither was Justin Williams.

    Those are some big holes to fill, and one way they tried to do that was one sizable man in body and name: Milan Lucic.

    The start was not what they'd hoped. The Kings dropped their first three games, all at home, before winning their next three.

    The team is very talented and, with time, should find the kind of chemistry up front that will boost scoring and lead to more victories. The line shuffling to find a permanent place for beefy power forward Lucic already appears to be paying off. He scored his first goal as a King on a line with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli on Thursday night.

Minnesota Wild: Their Money Men Are Earning Their Checks

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    When Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed to identical 13-year deals worth nearly $100 million apiece back in the summer of 2012, the vision was multiple Stanley Cup championships in the not-too-distant future while both were in the prime of their careers.

    Now in their early 30s, the big-money men aren't showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, they've both charged out of the gates over the first couple of weeks and are the team's top two scorers.

    Parise has six goals and eight points through six games. Suter has six assists in six games. And the Wild are 4-1-1 out of the gate.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price. Carey Price. Carey Price.

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Last year's Hart Trophy winner and Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price has picked up right where he left off, backstopping the Montreal Canadiens to a perfect 7-0 start. Well, technically, he started just six of those.

    Price leads the league with two shutouts, has the third-best save percentage (.966) and second-best goals-against average (1.00). The only thing he doesn't do is score goals.

    His heroics probably inspire more of that, though. He gives the Canadiens the luxury of being able to take chances offensively with no fear of an odd-man rush resulting in a goal against every time it happens. The team's plus-16 goal differential is by far the league's best.

Nashville Predators: James Neal Is Gaining Steam

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    James Neal's first year in yellow wasn't all flowers.

    The streaky sniper posted his worst offensive numbers since his rookie season in his debut with the Nashville Predators. He had 23 goals and 37 points in 67 games a year after putting up 27 goals and 61 points in 59 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Things didn't look a whole lot better early this year, as he started the season with no points in his first three games. But in his last four, he has at least a point in each and has totaled five goals and eight points.

    The Preds finished in the middle of the pack in scoring last season, and that was without Neal's usual production. A confident season by him would go a long way toward setting the team up for more success.

New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider Is the Real Deal

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    The New Jersey Devils finished with the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference a year ago, the sixth-worst overall. Goaltender Cory Schneider was one of the team's lone bright spots in his second season as an NHL starter.

    He finished with the fourth-best save percentage (.925) among all goalies who started at least 45 games and was supported by the third-worst offense in the league.

    This year, he's again showing he's one of the NHL's best goalies, putting up a .927 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average to go with a 3-1-1 record in his four starts for the Devils.

    He gives them a chance to win every night.

New York Islanders: Kyle Okposo Seems Unaffected

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    A detached retina derailed his all-star season a year ago.

    Being separated from New York Islanders captain John Tavares doesn't seem to be knocking Kyle Okposo off track to start the new year.

    Showing he doesn't depend on the superstar center for offense, Okposo has put up a pair of goals and six points in his first six games while suiting up with new linemates Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen.

    It bodes well for the depth of the forward group, which relied very heavily on Tavares' output last season.

New York Rangers: No Nash, No Problem

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    Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

    Rick Nash scored 42 goals last season and was the key to the New York Rangers' third-ranked offense. Although they are one of the best defensive teams in the league, they depend on Nash's scoring touch. He doubled the goal production of his closest competitors.

    This season, the team has been scoring by committee and still scoring plenty.

    Mats Zuccarello, rookie Oscar Lindberg, Derek Stepan, Keith Yandle and J.T. Miller are the team's top five scorers so far. Nash himself is 11th on the team with a goal and three points through eight games. He didn't score his first goal until Thursday night.

    The Rangers are doing just fine without his heroics, sitting atop the Metropolitan Division with a 5-2-1 record.

Ottawa Senators: The Top Line

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    Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

    The Ottawa Senators' top line of Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone is the highest-scoring trio in the NHL so far with 24 points among the group. That's a couple more than the more well-known trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp.

    Each of them has eight points to his credit and is tied for ninth in the NHL scoring race. Considering their ages, Turris is 26, Hoffman is 25 and Stone is 23, they have a lot of upside while already playing at an elite level as a group.

Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason's Rebound

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Steve Mason is key to the Philadelphia Flyers' success this season. A porous defense makes the netminder the most critical player on the team.

    He had a rough start, allowing three goals against in an opening-night loss to Tampa Bay and then letting four get past him in his second game of the season on just eight shots in less than seven minutes of play.

    It turns out a family matter had affected his play, reported by NHL.com, keeping him away from the team for a few days.

    Mason has been able to refocus since rejoining the squad, however, and he has allowed two goals against in his last two starts—including a big victory in relief of Michal Neuvirth against the Boston Bruins for his first victory of the year.

    The team needs a confident goalie to go anywhere. It looks like he's headed in the right direction.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby Snapped out of His Funk

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    For most of this early season, it appeared the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins offense was in hibernation. Sidney Crosby went five straight games without a point to start the year—a source of much consternation across the league.

    But Crosby proved capable of dominating a game when he exploded for a goal and two assists on nine shots against the Panthers on Tuesday. It was a positive sign for a team struggling to find its way through the first two weeks of the season.

    There are many more strides to be made for this team of superstars to turn things around, but having an in-form Crosby is a huge start.

San Jose Sharks: Martin Jones Is Solid

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    It's always a gamble when you bring in a somewhat unknown commodity—in this case, a backup goaltender from another team—and hand him the starter's role on your squad.

    That's what happened when the San Jose Sharks made a deal for former Los Angeles Kings backup backstop Martin Jones, who first went to the Boston Bruins as part of the Milan Lucic package.

    The gamble has paid off in a big way for the Sharks, who are in first place in the Pacific Division with a 4-3 record thanks to Jones' play in his first stint as a starter.

    Jones has a 4-2 record with a .940 save percentage and 1.64 goals-against average. He's got a pair of shutouts already as well.

St. Louis Blues: They're Dealing with Adversity Early

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    If there is going to be adversity in an NHL season, it's better to have it happen early than later when the playoff push is in full swing.

    By that logic, the St. Louis Blues should be happy they are dealing with some injury troubles now rather than March or April.

    Rookie Robby Fabbri scored a goal in his NHL debut but suffered a concussion early in his second game. Center Paul Stastny was enjoying a spectacular start to his second season in St. Louis, with five points in five games, before suffering a broken foot. Top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also has a lower-body injury.

    The experience and added responsibility given to others in the absence of the injured players will only make the Blues stronger later—as long as they survive the adversity in the meantime without falling off much in the standings.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Their Depth Is Incredible

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    Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

    The emergence of Jonathan Drouin as a serious scoring threat in his sophomore season alongside captain Steven Stamkos has made the Tampa Bay Lightning—last year's top offense—even more deadly and deep.

    The Triplets line, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, offers plenty of production behind the Stamkos trio. And the third line of Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula and the rotating duo of Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown is capable of scoring plenty as well in some mismatch situations.

    It's no different on defense, where Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov form one of the best groups of seven in the NHL.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mike Is Making a Difference

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    New Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock doesn't have much to work with in terms of talent. The team traded away its best scoring forward in Phil Kessel, has an unreliable defensive leader in captain Dion Phaneuf and a prospect with a possible attitude problem in Nazem Kadri.

    But the difference in the way the team plays is already noticeable. For example, they were outshot by opponents just once in their first five games. It was a regular occurrence last season.

    Veteran defenseman Roman Polak suggested they are showing signs of improvement already, according to Kevin McGran of the Star.

Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller Is Redeeming Himself

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Goaltender Ryan Miller's .931 save percentage is the best of his career and well above his .915 career average. He's been a bright spot on a Vancouver Canucks team that is having trouble scoring goals.

    He's giving the Sedin twins and the cast of secondary scorers the belief to get rolling and proving wrong doubters who criticized the trading of backup Eddie Lack because they believed he was the better goaltender last season.

Washington Capitals: The Dynamic Duo Can Play Apart

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin go together like peanut butter and jelly. But with Backstrom on the shelf with a hip injury to start the season, Ovechkin showed chemistry with Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the two were left together even when Backstrom returned.

    The result is two top lines powered by individual superstars. Backstrom had a goal and three points in his season debut and another pair of goals in his second game. Ovechkin has three goals and four points since his former center's return.

Winnipeg Jets: Ondrej Pavelec Hasn't Fallen Apart

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    Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

    Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec had a career year in helping the team to the playoffs last season. So the question that followed was whether it was an anomaly or if the 28-year-old had grown into a reliable starting goaltender.

    So far this season, it looks like the latter. Pavelec has a .926 save percentage, a 2.52 goals-against average and a 2-2 record.

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