It’s the end of October, which means two things for NHL fans: Your Twitter feed is being overtaken by awkward photos of your favorite players in horrible Halloween costumes, and it’s time to take stock of the first month of regular-season action.
We’ve already covered most of the big trends — Canadiens good! Blue Jackets bad! Ducks maybe even worse! — so we won’t rehash those here. Instead, let’s drill down a bit to some of the league’s other moving parts. Here are some of the first month’s more interesting stories and the direction they’re headed.
Stock Rising: Max Pacioretty
It feels like it shouldn’t be possible for a player in the ravenous Montreal market to be underrated, and that’s especially true when that player is the captain. But I think there’s a good case to be made that Pacioretty has spent most of his career in that category. He probably won’t be there much longer.
Pacioretty sits tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring with 11 points through Montreal’s first 10 games. He’s unlikely to keep up that pace; he’s never topped 70 points or been a point-per-game scorer in his career. But he has been one of the league’s most consistent wingers, good for 30-plus goals and 60-plus points year after year. Since his breakout year in 2011, Pacioretty has more goals than any pure winger other than Alex Ovechkin — more than Patrick Kane, or Corey Perry, or Phil Kessel.
And yet you rarely hear him mentioned with those sorts of guys, despite playing in arguably the most rabid media market in the league. If anything, he’s often been underappreciated. Maybe that’s because the low-key Pacioretty can’t compete with the star power of a Carey Price or P.K. Subban. Maybe it’s a style thing; Pacioretty is more likely to score based on opportunism and his quick release than on highlight-friendly end-to-end rushes. Or maybe a city that’s used to cheering on legends like Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur has trouble getting excited for a player who’s merely very good.
But in any case, Pacioretty deserves more credit than he gets. Of course, once he’s led the 81-1-0 Habs to a Stanley Cup, that should change.
Stock Falling: Goalies We Thought Were Good
Among goaltenders with at least five starts heading into last night’s action, just four had posted save percentages under .875. One of those is Jonas Hiller. The other three were expected to be good.
Nobody has had a strong start in Columbus, but no one there has been worse than Sergei Bobrovsky. He ranks last in save percentage and goals-against average and has already been quoted as having “zero confidence.” That’s not what you want to hear from a goaltender, especially one who’s just three years removed from a Vezina Trophy. His numbers have been trending in the wrong direction since then, but they were still solid enough last season that you’d assume this is just an early-season blip. The Blue Jackets better hope so; Bobrovsky is signed through 2019 on a deal that carries the second-biggest cap hit of any goaltender.
In Colorado, Semyon Varlamov has been nipping at Bobrovsky’s heels at the bottom of the stats page. Yet he’s just two years removed from finishing a close second in the 2014 Vezina race. And the guy who beat him out for that award, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, has been almost as bad. Rask posted a shutout Tuesday, and it still left him with the league’s third-worst goals-against average.
History tells us that all three guys will be fine — always rely more on the big sample size of a career’s worth of work than on a few shaky weeks, especially with goalies. But the position is a funny one, and a rough enough start really can torpedo a season if it burrows far enough into a guy’s head. Goaltending is voodoo, and right now the Blue Jackets, Avalanche, and Bruins are hoping it won’t end up being the evil kind.
Stock Rising: Jamie Benn
Benn was one of the league’s best stories last season, winning the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer with a four-point game on the season’s final night, including the clinching point with just 10 seconds left.
It was a cool moment, one that capped off a breakout season for the 26-year-old winger. But it wasn’t one that anyone expected him to have much chance of repeating. After all, his 87 points last season was the lowest total to lead the league in over 50 years, helped by some second-half injuries to Sidney Crosby. Benn had earned the title, but his reign was assumed to be a Jarome Iginla–style one-and-out, a case of a player having the good timing to enjoy a career year in a season when everyone else went cold.
But as the season’s first month draws to a close, there’s a familiar name right back on top of the league scoring race. After Tuesday’s three-point performance, Benn has 15 points through nine games, good for the league lead. He remains a key part of the high-flying Stars offense, one that’s made Dallas the most entertaining team in the league.
If he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t challenge for yet another Art Ross. And this time, nobody will be able to call it a fluke.
Stock Falling: The Islanders’ New Home
The Islanders finally moved out of Nassau Coliseum, generally considered the worst arena in the NHL, at the end of last season. Their new home is the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s fair to say reviews have been mixed.
The Barclays Center isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic hockey arena; in fact, it’s barely a hockey arena at all, depending on where you get stuck sitting. It also seats just 15,700 for hockey, the second-lowest capacity in the league. And so far, the Islanders are having trouble filling even that many seats, as many of their fans don’t seem to like the new building. Plus there’s that weird SUV parked in the corner that makes you think you accidentally tuned into a Spengler Cup game.
The good news is this doesn’t seem to be affecting the Islanders, who are icing one of the best teams in the league. And it’s not like the franchise had a ton of options. The Islanders desperately needed to get out of the Coliseum before it completely fell apart, and when they couldn’t make a deal to stay in Uniondale, they took what was available. The Barclays Center may be far from ideal, but it was almost certainly the best option.
As with most NHL problems, winning will fix some of this. If the Islanders keep playing like they have been, attendance should get a boost, and maybe some of those fans will realize they don’t mind the new rink so much after all. The flip side is that the seats stay empty and an Islanders team that could be a Cup contender finds itself heading down the stretch without any discernible home-ice advantage. We’ll see how it works out, but the early returns aren’t encouraging.