Thursday, October 30, 2014

Eight early season surprises

As the season’s opening month comes to an end, we’re getting our first opportunity to try to make some sense of the standings. There’s still plenty of parity in the NHL, and the middle of the league is so bunched up that even a light slate of games can send everyone shuffling up or down. But things are starting to settle into place, and by now we can take a crack at figuring out who we were right or wrong about.

For the most part, things look a lot like the conventional wisdom expected them to. We knew that teams like the Kings and Blackhawks would be good, and we knew that teams like the Sabres and Hurricanes would be awful, and so far they’ve all held up their end of the bargain. Plenty of other teams are about where we’d expected them to be, too, give or take a few points.

And then there are the outliers, that handful of teams stubbornly refusing to play the way they were supposed to. There are always a few troublemakers every year, especially early on, and they tend to settle back into place as the season wears on. But occasionally, those surprise teams end up proving us wrong all year long.

Here’s a look at eight of the league’s most surprising teams, both the good and the bad, and whether they have any chance of keeping it up.

1. Good surprise: Montreal Canadiens (8-2-0, 16 points, first in the Atlantic)

You’d expect a conference finalist from the previous season to be good, even if that deep playoff run was somewhat unexpected. If the team was relatively young and backed by an elite goaltender, you might even expect them to be very good.

But I don’t recall seeing anyone picking the Montreal Canadiens to be the league’s best team, which is what the standings say they’ve been so far. At 8-2-0, the Canadiens are tied with the Ducks for first place overall. They’re a perfect 4-0-0 at home and have already won playoff rematches with the Rangers and Bruins.

Will it last? The current pace obviously won’t continue; nobody’s expecting the Habs to finish with 130 points. The question here is how much they’ll drop. And at least one stat suggests they could drop quite a bit; their goals differential, a paltry plus-1, suggests they’re a lot closer to a .500 team than to legitimate contender status. (That differential is heavily influenced by an early-season 7-1 drubbing by the Lightning, which it’s tempting to write off as just one bad game. But when we’re dealing with a tiny 10-game sample, we can’t really get picky.) They’re also a perfect 3-0 in shootouts, which are basically coin flips.

But other numbers suggest that what the Canadiens are doing could continue. The typical stats that would indicate a fluke — high team shooting percentage, uncharacteristic even-strength save percentage, a PDO well north of 1,000 — don’t flag anything Montreal’s doing as obviously unsustainable. And so far the Habs are winning without especially dominating performances from their best players, like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and even Carey Price (who hadn’t looked all that sharp until a recent three-game stretch).

The Canadiens are a good team; they might be the best in the conference. All standard disclaimers about it being early and a long season still apply, but right now, they look like the real deal.

2. Bad surprise: Boston Bruins (5-6-0, 10 points, fifth in the Atlantic)

In 2011, they won the Cup. In 2013, they came within two games of winning it again. Last year, they led the league with 117 points. There wasn’t a team in the East that had been as consistently good as the Bruins for so long, and heading into this year there was every reason to assume it would continue.1

Instead, they’ve spent the first month scraping by as a sub-.500 team, and of their four regulation wins, three have come against bottom-feeders like the Flyers, Leafs, and Sabres. A team that had established a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive units has often looked lost over the first few weeks, perhaps hampered by injuries and contract disputes, and no team has inspired more “they just don’t look like themselves” comments. Vezina winner Tuukka Rask doesn’t appear invincible any more, and now Zdeno Chara is out for four to six weeks.

It’s only one month, but with both the Habs and the Lightning looking every bit as good as advertised, it feels like the top seed in the Atlantic may already be slipping away.

Will it last? Chara’s injury leaves a massive hole in the lineup, and the Bruins don’t have the cap space to go out and do much about it. So it’s quite possible the team continues to lose ground until its captain returns sometime around early December. By that point, any hope of a top seed in the east may be on life support.

But let’s take a step back. Chara will return eventually, and Rask’s career numbers indicate he’ll bounce back. And even now, the tide seems to be turning: The Bruins had won three of four before Tuesday’s third-period meltdown against the Wild, and starting tonight they’ve got six straight games against teams that missed the playoffs last year.

So they’re still good, even if for the time being they’re no longer scary good. But if they’re going to stay in the hunt for the division title, they’ll need to do more than tread water until Chara is back.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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