Trends

The NHL season is one-eighth over.

If that seems like an arbitrary designation, it kind of is. But hockey coaches like to break seasons down into smaller segments. Like, say, ten games. Which means there are–give or take–eight ten-game segments over the course of an 82-game season.

I’ll take the temperature of the league eight different times throughout the year. The stats guys insist that ten games is not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. And I won’t try to draw any meaningful conclusions.

(Note that ten games is a rough average; teams vary from eight games played to twelve)

This first edition of the NHL Season in Review will focus on the trends emerging in the early-going. As noted, it’s too soon to tell if these will continue. But–like Auston Matthews’ career–the season is off to a memorable start. I might as well start with the player I just mentioned.

The kids are alright.

The Calder race is shaping up to be even more exciting than last year’s. The Maple Leafs’ offense is led by Matthews and fellow rookie William Nylander. Number two overall pick Patrik Laine has six goals in his first ten games. He’s been matched by the summer’s hottest college free agent–Jimmy Vesey. Minnesota’s Joel Eriksson Ek has five points in just six games after being delayed by visa issues. Defenseman Zach Werenski has eight points in eight games for Columbus.

Plus, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Miller, Victor Rask, and Alex Galchenyuk have all scored at least ten points without reaching their 24th birthday. McDavid is in the discussion for the league’s best player, and he’s still a teenager.

Hockey is a young man’s game. Players in their 30s are over the hill. Teams are beginning to understand this. The transition will be painful for older players who suddenly can’t find jobs. But change is good.

All this scoring leads nicely into the next trend.

Scoring is up.

If it holds, the 2.78 goals per game teams are averaging so far would be the highest mark since 2010-11. Maybe the NHL is finally shifting toward the speed and skill game I keep hearing about. Maybe goalies were saddened because their brand new equipment wasn’t ready in time, and those emotions are interfering with their ability to stop the puck. Maybe the World Cup kept coaches from implementing their defensive structure in training camp–in which case I agree with Elliotte Friedman that there should be a World Cup every year.

Whatever the case may be, games have been a little more fun to watch this season. I trust the league to suck the life out of the game by mid-season, then propose some rule change for next year that won’t do anything to increase scoring, but will mildly frustrate fans, players, coaches, or all of the above.

Parity reigns.

As of November 2, eight points separated 2nd place–shared by Edmonton and Pittsburgh–from 29th–Carolina and Nashville. Put another way, 28 of the 30 teams were within eight points of each other.

Friedman used to note that teams more than four points out of a playoff spot by the end of October had a hard time making up that ground. This year, that list includes zero teams.

It’s not just the inexplicable point teams get for overtime losses that’s responsible. The salary cap has taken away the spending power of big market teams, while dismantling dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Even the puck possession numbers are closer. No team is running away with 60% of the shot attempts, or getting buried with less than 40%. LA still sits at the top, because there is nothing Darryl Sutter loves more than confounding the analytics experts–so I assume. But the gap in Score-adjusted Corsi is smaller than in past years.

Goaltending is voodoo.

Okay, this isn’t new. But the hockey community is still seriously lacking an understanding of what drives goaltending performance.

The best goalie in the first part of the season has been… Jimmy Howard? That can’t be right.

Sure enough, there he is, leading the league in save percentage. Dive into some of the advanced goalie metrics and the usual suspects show up at the top; guys like Carey Price and Tuukka Rask.

At the other end of the leaderboard lies the duo that powered the Flyers to the playoffs a year ago. Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have been awful.

Toronto could sure use a reliable goalie. Prized offseason acquisition Frederik Andersen has been a mess. Someone like the Ducks’ Jonathan Bernier, or the Panthers’ James Reimer would help. It’s probably too much to ask for the Leafs to ever have a guy like Rask.

Enough cheap shots at my friend’s favorite team. I’m insecure because…

I’m terrible at fantasy hockey.

I figured being out of the country for three months and not planning to play fantasy hockey would be a good way to prepare for the upcoming season. My draft strategy was based around how much fun it would be to ride bikes around Mendoza and drink wine with the guys I picked–P.K. Subban and Roberto Luongo, come on down!

No one likes listening to other people talk about their fantasy teams. So I’ll just say I’m in last place by a significant margin and leave it at that.

And if I can’t manage a decent fantasy hockey team, what makes me qualified to comment on the NHL and hockey in general? Nothing, I suppose. But it’s my favorite sport, and I like doing it.

So there will be seven more of these. With varying degrees of informational quality and nutritional value. Now that the Cubs have gotten the World Series out of the way, and with the election about to wrap up–hopefully, please let it be over next week–there will only be that pesky NBA and plucky, upstart NFL to compete with for attention.

Ten games can’t decide anything, but they sure are fun to watch.

(Stats courtesy of NHL.comHockey-ReferencePuckalytics, and Puck On Net)

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