The 7 Biggest Surprises from the First Month of the NHL's 2021-22 Season
It's been almost a month since the puck dropped on Oct. 12 to start the NHL's 2021-22 season. The opening weeks always have their share of surprises, and this season is no different.
Some involve teams projected to be bottom feeders in the standings, such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, exceeding expectations. Meanwhile, clubs projected to be Stanley Cup contenders, like the Vegas Golden Knights, have stumbled from the gate.
Several players have also garnered attention for their early performances. Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry is enjoying what could be a breakout campaign. Meanwhile, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Frederik Andersen is off to what appears to be a strong bounce-back effort with his new club.
Here's our look at the seven biggest surprises through the opening month of this NHL season. If you agree or disagree with our take, feel free to voice your views in the comment section below.
Struggling Young Rangers Forwards
The New York Rangers famously informed their fans they were charting a new course on Feb. 8, 2018. With the team in decline, the decision was made to rebuild with the focus on "adding young, competitive players that combined speed, skill and character."
Since then, the Rangers acquired an eventual James Norris Memorial Trophy winner in Adam Fox and brought in a good young starting goaltender in Igor Shesterkin. They also added three highly-touted prospect forwards in Alexis Lafreniere (first overall, 2020 draft), Kaapo Kakko (second overall, 2019) and Vitali Kravtsov (ninth overall, 2018).
That promising trio was expected to fill bigger roles this season, but their breakthrough performances have yet to materialize. Lafreniere (4 points in 12 games) and Kakko (no points in eight games) have been up and down in the Rangers lineup thus far. Kravtsov, meanwhile, was among the final training camp cuts and is in Russia awaiting a trade after refusing to report to their AHL affiliate.
Lafreniere and Kakko are both 20 and have plenty of time to reach their full potential with the Rangers. The same goes for the 21-year-old Kravtsov, though he's likely to get that opportunity with another NHL club.
Nevertheless, the disappointing performances of Lafreniere and Kakko combined with Kravtsov's potential departure raises concerns over the Rangers' development of their promising young players. It could become a growing issue if the situation doesn't improve over the course of the season.
Troy Terry Among the Scoring Leaders
The NHL goal-scoring race features familiar names such as Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin and Edmonton Oilers stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid among the early leaders. Look closer, however, and Troy Terry's name is also among the top 10 with eight goals. In addition, the 24-year-old Anaheim Ducks right wing is sitting among the top-15 points leaders with 14.
Terry isn't a household name among most NHL fans. Anaheim Ducks followers, however, could be hoping that this is the young winger's breakout season.
Selected by the Ducks in the fifth round (148th overall) of the 2015 NHL draft, Terry came up through the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and played his collegiate hockey with the University of Denver. He signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Ducks in 2017-18.
Terry showed his offensive potential during his college days and with the Ducks' AHL affiliate in San Diego. He reached a career-best 20 points in 48 games with the Ducks during last season's COVID-shortened schedule.
Skating on the top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique, Terry is thriving with the additional ice time alongside two skillful veterans. At his current rate of production, he would finish with between 85-90 points in 82 games.
It would be expecting too much from Terry to maintain that torrid pace. The young winger's output could drop off over the long grind of the schedule, but his splendid start could signal the emergence of a new scoring star in Anaheim.
Frederik Andersen's Hot Start
Since 2018-19, the Carolina Hurricanes have steadily risen from playoff also-ran into a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Their ongoing improvement was on full display in the opening month as they rolled to a 9-0-0 record. They were the only unbeaten club as the calendar flipped to November before suffering their first defeat in a 5-2 loss on Nov. 6 to the Florida Panthers.
The surprising part of the Hurricanes' winning streak was eight of those victories came with Frederik Andersen between the pipes. Coming off a disappointing, injury-hampered performance last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 32-year-old signed a two-year deal worth $4.5 million per season with the Hurricanes, down from the five-year, $25 million of his previous deal with the Leafs.
Andersen played a significant role in the Leafs' rise from bottom feeder to playoff club in recent years, sitting fourth all-time in franchise wins with 149 and career save percentage (.914) and 10th in goals-against average (2.79). However, he often received the lion's share of criticism from Leafs fans for the club's lack of playoff success. That may have contributed to his inability to land a lucrative long-term deal this summer.
There could be some additional motivation behind Andersen's strong start. He's playing like a goaltender with something to prove following his dismal final season with the Leafs.
Avalanche and Golden Knights Stumble From the Gate
The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights were considered among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup before the season began. Winners of the Presidents' Trophy last season, the Avalanche possess a potent offensive attack. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, were runners-up to the Avs last season and reached the semi-final before falling to the Montreal Canadiens.
As of Nov. 8, however, both clubs sat below the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. The Golden Knights had 12 points in as many games while the Avalanche had just nine in 10 games.
Injuries decimated both rosters in the early going. The Avs have at times been without such notables as Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Devon Toews and Andre Burakovsky. Meanwhile, Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and William Karlsson have been sidelined for weeks for the Golden Knights. The latter acquired center Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres, but he'll spend the next three months recovering from neck surgery.
The Avalanche are still adjusting to the offseason departures of key players such as goaltender Philipp Grubauer, defenseman Ryan Graves and forwards Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi. Meanwhile, losing teams leaders and scoring stars like Pacioretty and Stone have left the Golden Knights scrambling to offset their absences.
Both clubs have sufficient depth in talent to return to their dominant form as the season progresses and their lineups get healthier. Still, their sputtering start could become a cause for concern should those issues persist.
Rebuilding Clubs Exceeding Expectations
Not much was expected from the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings entering this season. Having finished among the worst teams in the league last campaign, these rebuilding teams weren't expected to rise very high in this season's standings.
The Sabres got off to a promising start (5-1-1) but appear to be returning to earth after dropping four straight entering Monday's contest with the Washington Capitals. However, the Ducks, Blue Jackets and Red Wings began this week still well in the thick of the standings.
The Ducks have jumped from a league-worst 2.21 goals-per-game average last year to 3.23 this season, the Red Wings from 2.23 to 3.00 and the Blue Jackets from 2.39 to 3.10, and. Two of those clubs also reduced their goal-against per game compared to last season, with the Ducks dropping from 3.16 to 2.77 and the Jackets from 3.29 to 2.80.
Part of the credit for this early improvement lies with their younger players. The Ducks scorers are led by 24-year-old winger Troy Terry's 14 points in 12 games. They're also getting promising performances from 20-year-old center Trevor Zegras and 19-year-old defenseman Jamie Drysdale.
The Blue Jackets are getting production from a resurgent Patrik Laine and offseason acquisition Jakub Voracek but rookie forwards Cole Sillinger, 18, and 20-year-old Yegor Chinakhov are also showing offensive potential. As for the Red Wings, 19-year-old winger Lucas Raymond (14 points) and 20-year-old defenseman Moritz Seider (10) sit second and third among their scoring leaders.
It's still too early to determine with certainty that these three clubs can maintain or improve their current positions in the standings. They could fade over the course of the season and be overtaken by other teams. Nevertheless, their promising starts at least provide a measure of optimism for their fans that they probably weren't expecting when the season began.
Montreal Canadiens' Post-Stanley Cup Final Hangover
Stanley Cup finalists tend to get off to a slow start to the following season. They have a shorter offseason than other clubs and thus less time to recuperate from the rigors of the previous campaign. Some, however, have greater difficulty shaking off the dreaded "Stanley Cup hangover" than others.
Such is the case for the 2021 Cup finalist Montreal Canadiens. While the Tampa Bay Lightning have regained their footing after going 2-3-1 in their first five contests, the Canadiens are off to their worst start since 1941-42 according to the Montreal Gazette's Stu Cowan. With a record of 3-10-0 in 13 games, they're at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
It's not just the amount of losses but how they've been losing. In seven of those defeats, they were outscored by a total of 35-9, giving up at least four goals in each. They're among the league's worst in power-play percentage (13.6), penalty-killing percentage (66.0) and faceoff win percentage (45.6).
The absence of veteran leaders like goaltender Carey Price and defenseman Shea Weber is a significant factor behind the Canadiens' woes. Price recently returned following a month in the NHL's player assistance program but could be weeks away from returning to action. Weber, meanwhile, is sidelined for the season by several potentially career-ending injuries.
The departure of center Phillip Danault via free agency to the Los Angeles Kings was another blow. Losing one of the league's best two-way centers weakened the Canadiens' depth at that position.
Young forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield were expected to take on greater roles following their strong performances in the 2021 playoffs. Suzuki has improved of late following a shaky start but Caufield was demoted to the minors after managing just one point in 10 games.
Canadiens fans might have expected a bit of a letdown from their underdog club to start the season. None of them likely envisioned a total collapse.
Chicago Blackhawks' Horror Show
It may be only a month into this season, but it is already perhaps the worst in the long history of the Chicago Blackhawks. They've been rocked by an investigation into the organization's handling of sexual assault allegations off the ice, and on the ice they've put on their worst early-season performance in years.
An independent investigation into allegations of sexual assault brought against former video coach Bradley Aldrich in 2010 by former player Kyle Beach revealed senior teams executives failed to act to protect Beach. The club was fined $2 million by the league, Stan Bowman stepped down as team president and general manager and former head coach Joel Quenneville resigned as coach of the Florida Panthers.
Beach's heartwrenching interview with TSN's Rick Westhead the day after the report was released sent shock waves around the league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA director Donald Fehr apologized to Beach while players, pundits and fans called upon both to ensure this never happens again.
What happened to Beach took place during the 2010 NHL playoffs. As a result, the Blackhawks championship team from that season is now forever tarnished. Aldrich's name was recently removed from the Stanley Cup at the club's request.
Few NHL followers were prepared for the shocking revelations of the investigation into Beach's story. Meanwhile, the dreadful on-ice performance of their current roster has also been a nasty surprise for their reeling fans.
Offseason additions Marc-Andre Fleury, Seth Jones and Tyler Johnson have failed to improve the roster. Not even the return of team captain Jonathan Toews after missing last season to illness has moved the dial. Head coach Jeremy Colliton was recently replaced by Derek King on an interim basis. They're mired near the bottom of the NHL standings with just two victories in their first 13 games.
It could take years for the Blackhawks to rebuild their reputation and trust among their fans. Their struggles on the ice suggest a long period of rebuilding could be coming sooner than expected.
Stats (as of Nov. 8, 2021) via Hockey-Reference.com.