Surprises at top and bottom of NHL look real ... for better or worse
Welcome to the latest installment of While You Were Away. We’ll be tracking stories you may have missed and players who are trending up and down, as well as offering a few predictions and generally keeping you updated on all things hockey beyond your favorite team.
Today, we’re taking a look at the surprise teams in the league’s top and bottom 10 spots.
With every club now having played between 10 and 13 games, we’re getting to the point where we can get a much clearer sense of how the season could shake out. The early flukes have leveled off and, save for a few examples, the teams that struggled out of the gate have largely recovered.
To start the week we’re going to take a look at the notable exceptions:
The Bottom 10: Is anyone surprised to see the Oilers, Sabres, Maple Leafs, Coyotes and Hurricanes in this group? Hardly. These were the bottom five teams in the league last season. The Leafs, ‘Yotes and Canes were not expected to contend now but there is reason for promise in Buffalo and Edmonton, thanks to the arrival of franchise talents Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid respectively. Still, the struggles of the Sabres and Oilers are proof that turning a doormat around isn’t something that often happens overnight.
Two teams in the bottom 10 that may be considered a surprise to some people (and that I haven’t covered much in this feature) are the Flames and the Avalanche. The Flames were a surprise, in a good way, last season and are coming off a run to the second round of the playoffs. The Avalanche shocked observers by sinking into the basement of the Central after winning the division in 2013-14. Expected to have a rebound season, Colorado’s puck possession numbers are now among the worst in the league and the Avs are 1-5-1 in their past seven games. Six of their eight losses this season have been by one goal. It surely doesn’t help that one of their offensive stars, Matt Duchene, has only three points through 11 games. His team worst –8 is also revealing.
Meanwhile, Calgary gutted out a 5–4 win on Saturday against the lowly Oilers that boosted their record to 3-8-1, one point behind the horrendous 2-7-2 Ducks, who are perhaps the biggest shock in the league right now. The Flames are getting offensive contributions from the usual suspects (Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan), but they’re a team whose best players also have some of the worst plus/minus numbers in the league. Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and Dougie Hamilton, three members of what was expected to be one of the league’s strongest D-corps, have three of the team’s four worst, with Russell owning a horrendous –14. Mark Giordano, an early Norris Trophy candidate last season, is off to a slow start. All of this from a team that had the fourth-highest highest PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage) in the league last season.
It’s still relatively early but the Flames and Avs are showing signs of being overrated and in real trouble.
The Top 10: Are the Kings back? Some would argue that they’d never left the NHL’s elite but after last season’s playoff DNQ and the off-ice drama (Slava Voynov, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll that followed them during the summer, this is a team that could’ve gone either way.
Long one of the stronger puck possession teams in the league, the Kings have shown through 10 games that they’re a force again. Their gutsy 4–3 overtime win over a strong Predators team on Saturday was their seventh victory in a row and it put them atop the Pacific Division.
The points are coming from mainstays Jeff Carter (10), Milan Lucic (7) and Drew Doughty (7), but 23-year-old center Tyler Toffoli is turning heads throughout the league right now. He’s scoring at a remarkable clip, with nine goals through 10 games in this just his third full season in the league. He had two in the win over Nashville. Toffoli scored a respectable 23 goals in 76 games last season, finishing with an equally respectable shooting percentage of 11.5%. This season? He's at a whopping 34.6% which coincidentally has him tied with Jamie Benn of the Stars, last season’s scoring champion, not only in shooting percentage but for the league lead in goals.
That pace is hardly sustainable but Toffoli is making a name for himself as a bonafide sniper. Kings coach Darryl Sutter has rewarded him with steadily rising ice-time, including a season high 19:27 on Saturday. Toffoli wasn’t the type who many had pegged for a breakout season but he's an example of the kind of depth that’s proving, yet again, why it’s foolish to write off the Kings.