The NHL season is quickly taking shape, and fans around the league are finding out what their teams are made of. For some, like the surprising Detroit Red Wings, the Christmas season brings an air of excitement as playoff dreams become less and less far-fetched. For others, like the floundering Devils, something needs to change before disappointing trends become the theme of the year. Off the ice, transaction dominoes are falling fast, and soon the trade market will be in full swing. Wherever you look, there are storylines popping up. Here are five of the biggest.
The Detroit Red Wings are going for it, but are they the real deal?
The Detroit Red Wings’ fast start to the season reeked of unsustainability. That’s not a knock on Detroit; every team benefits from streaks and runs during different times of the season, and they happened to fall into one just as the year began. Dylan Larkin, Alex DeBrincat, and Shayne Gostisbehere were ostensibly possessed by Gretzky, Kurri, and Coffey as the Wings cashed in on 40% of power plays through their first handful of games, but it was never going to last. Detroit may have cooled off on offense, but, ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning in the Atlantic Division playoff race at the quarter mark, they are no early-season apparition. At 12-7-3, will they take a step forward or backslide into the murky middle?
Larkin (8G, 21P), DeBrincat (12G), and “Ghost” (10 power-play points) remain the team’s main sources of offense, and while young stars Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider are playing big roles, the veteran presence on this team has been an issue at even strength. The second line of David Perron, J.T. Compher, and David Perron, all of whom GM Steve Yzerman paid steeply to acquire over the last two summers, is getting absolutely caved in. Compher has 6 goals and 19 points in 23 games and has played excellently in Larkin’s stead on the first line as the captain takes a personal leave of absence. Compher is not the problem. Perron and Copp, on the other hand, are last or near-last on the roster in nearly every significant play-driving metric; they fail to control even 40% of expected goals at 5-on-5. Copp and Perron have scored steadily enough, but the idea of allocating them big minutes come playoff time must downright terrify coach Derek Lalonde.
Yzerman is not worried about it; in Patrick Kane, he has just signed the league’s signature offense-only veteran. Even with Alex Lyon emerging as a legitimate starting option in goal and Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry enjoying career resurgences on the blueline, it will be difficult for Lalonde to shelter Kane with so many minutes already afforded to a terribly shaky second line. Our Mike Gould broke down that move earlier in the week, but one has to admire Detroit’s ambition after so many seasons of mediocrity.
Can the L.A. Kings beat Vegas at their own game?
Size and physicality? Check. Major depth in the top-nine forwards and top-four defensemen? Check. Capable goaltending that excels against low volume? You get the point. GM Rob Blake has made his L.A. Kings into the ultimate copycat of their division rivals in Las Vegas, and through two months, there is no guarantee the champs can hold them off all season.
Just ask this week’s Daily Faceoff power rankings: the Kings are downright unplayable. L.A.’s expensive acquisition of Pierre-Luc Dubois was always going to cause matchup nightmares up and down a lineup already featuring lockdown centermen Anze Kopitar and Philip Dannault. As it turns out, the towering Dubois isn’t even the coach Todd McLellan’s top puck-possession forward through 20 games. Former second-overall pick Quinton Byfield is a beast in the corners at 6-foot-5 and has become a factor on offense this season (4G, 16P) alongside Kopitar and Swedish sniper Adrian Kempe.
Mix in 45 minutes of some combination of Mikey Anderson, Drew Doughty, Vladislov Gavrikov, and Matt Roy, and it’s no wonder 36-year-old Cam Talbot was Daily Faceoff managing editor Matt Larkin’s runner-up for the Vezina at the quarter-season mark. He is facing the second-fewest shots-per-game in the NHL, after all. Though Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo and the Knights still hold the lead in the Pacific Division, with four games in hand, the Kings could erase that deficit quickly. Can the student surpass the master?
Will the Devils’ leaky ‘D’ sink their lofty hopes?
No team entered 2023-2024 with higher expectations than the New Jersey Devils. With an average age just over 26 and two seasons removed from a 63-point finish, Jersey is not exactly in Cup-or-Bust territory, but the fans in Newark were expecting (multiple) series wins. After a 112-point finish last season, a full year of Timo Meier, further development from young stars like Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer, and the addition of veteran sniper Tyler Toffoli should have brought an already loaded roster to a boil.
Extensions for Meier and Jesper Bratt did little to address the hole Damon Severson and Ryan Graves left in coach Lindy Ruff’s defensive setup, but GM Tom Fitzgerald figured that rookie Luke Hughes would slot in nicely to a group already featuring Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and John Marino. He wasn’t wrong. The 20-year-old has been a dynamo on the power play, with seven of his 14 points coming on the man advantage.
If the younger Hughes is already excellent and bottom-pair veteran Brendan Smith is the only Devils’ blueliner in the red on expected goals and high-danger chances, why are the Devils a bottom-10 defense through a quarter of the season? Their goaltending. Logic dictated that, after strong respective showings in 2022-23, the competition between incumbent starter Vitek Vanecek and Swiss newcomer Akira Schmid would yield a solid tandem in goal. Not so. Schmid has been average (3.02 GAA, .904 SV%) and Vanecek has been a shooting board (3.49 GAA, .879 SV%). Add in an offense that does more than 30% of its work on the power play and a grand total of three skaters with a positive rating, and there are some serious sustainability issues for the brothers Hughes and the 11-9-1 Devils. That parade might have to wait.
The Wild aren’t giving up yet. Should they?
Dean Evason spent the second half of his 251-game tenure in Minnesota squeezing lemonade out of a roster that was hamstrung by more than $14 million dollars in dead cap space. GM Bill Guerin turned the page on his predecessor Chuck Fletcher once and for all by buying Ryan Suter and Zach Parise out of their 13-year contracts in the summer of 2021, and after the Wild failed to cash in on a 53-win season the following season, any financial benefit from that move was gone. Guerin and Evason would need to assemble a winning team while paying Suter and Parise a combined superstar salary to ply their trade elsewhere.
Evason kept the Wild competitive by coaxing quality even-strength minutes from former journeymen like Freddy Gaudreau, Jake Middleton, and Ryan Hartman, but it all came to a head in 2023-24: the former Hartford Whaler Evason got the axe after managing just five wins in 19 tries to start the year. Minnesota, an aging team that will remain in cap purgatory through 2025, is stuck in seventh place in the Central, ahead of only the lowly Blackhawks. Now would be the time to cash in the likes of Middleton and future Hall-of-Famer Marc-Andre Fleury and look toward the future, except no one told Guerin that.
The ever-aggressive executive had Evason’s replacement ready without an interim tag before the body was even cold. Enter John Hynes, the former Nashville and New Jersey bench boss who has never advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why should he get more out of this roster than a player development ace like Evason? With franchise centerpieces Jared Spurgeon, Marcus Foligno, and Mats Zuccarello well on the wrong side of 30 and signed through the bitter end of their primes, Guerin is clearly unwilling to pull the plug on his sunk cost. That could cost Minnesota in the long term.
After the Zadorov trade, is a firesale on in Calgary?
What a whacky year for Nikita Zadorov. The defenseman was the first Russian NHLer with the courage to speak up about the war in Ukraine during the offseason, and he hasn’t stopped talking since. The former Flame publically blasted his teammates for starting slow in their first season under new coach Ryan Huska, and when his locker room leader shtick fell flat, he promptly lobbied for a trade to Toronto immediately after playing his best game of the season against the Maple Leafs. Though Zadorov, now a Vancouver Canuck, slowly became a distraction in Calgary, he fetched a respectable return. Could the Flames end up moving more veterans throughout the winter?
It is now obvious that it will take more than a fresh coat of paint to make the post-Gaudreau Flames competitive. That they are just a point adrift from a Wildcard spot speaks more about the dearth of quality in the Western Conference than any strides Calgary has made since firing Darryl Sutter last spring. The Flames’ league-worst shooting percentage in 2022-2023 was often forgiven as an anomaly that would correct itself. This year, they are cashing in just 9.2% of their attempts through 23 games, and with just 15 points from joint scoring leaders Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri, Calgary is as punchless as ever.
It may be time for GM Craig Conroy to cut his losses and cash in wherever possible on a roster that does not work without Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk leading the way. Pending-UFA blueliners Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev and backup goalie Dan Vladar could each fetch a decent return in a market starving for defense. If the Flames really want to blow it up, could starter Jakob Markstrom or pending-UFA center Elias Lindholm join them on the block? It sounds extreme for a team that won its division just two seasons ago, but with Kadri and Huberdeau combining to collect $17.5 million until the end of time for second-line scoring, drastic measures might be necessary to save the future for 10-10-3 Calgary.
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