The first couple weeks of the NHL season has seen a ton of action, from wild fights to stellar saves to goals you had to see to believe. There was a lot of hype going into this season, as non-playoff teams bolstered their lineups and contending teams only got better. The standings after the first two weeks feature a few surprising names at the top of the league, which leads to many questions. Is the good start for these teams just a fluke? How long can these teams stay hot? Are these teams perennial Stanley Cup contenders this season? Well, let’s analyze the top teams in each division so far.
1. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are a team that have looked half-decent on paper for a couple years now, but seem to always find a way to miss the playoffs. The team features perhaps a franchise player in Jack Eichel, rookie Victor Olafsson (who has had an amazing start to the season, early Calder Trophy favourite perhaps?), speedy forward Conor Sheary and two young defencemen who are developing extraordinarily well in Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt. The Sabres’ special teams play has been huge so far this season, with Olafsson tallying six power play goals already. The team also looks to be adjusting to first-year Head Coach Ralph Krueger’s system quite nicely. Off to a sizzling 8-1-1 start, can the Sabres stay hot long enough to be a contender in the Atlantic Division down the stretch? That is a question that many NHL fans are asking themselves, as the Sabres will have to compete with a Boston Bruins team that has also looked fantastic so far, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers who have all started off the season on the right track. I predict the Sabres finish the year with a winning record, but fall just shy of playoffs again, as the depth and experience in the Maple Leafs, Bruins, and Lightning lineups will prove to be too much for this young Sabres team. The Sabres will be right there in the wild card race, but will fall just short of two Metropolitan Division teams that will take up both wild card spots in the East.
Funnily enough, as I write this article having just got home from a conference in Calgary, the talk of the city of Calgary has been not about their own NHL team, but how surprisingly well the Oilers’ season has gone so far. I’ve also heard my fair share of complaints and curse words from Flames fans about how well James Neal is doing with his new team. The Oilers are off to a stellar 7-2-1 start to the new season, thanks largely in part to their captain Connor McDavid and his sidekick Leon Draisaitl, who have both put on a clinic so far. Both currently are near the top of the league in points with 17 and 16 respectively, which has led to many questions about what would happen to the Oilers if one of them were to become injured. James Neal has already surpassed his goal total from last season (7) with a solid 9 goals, 6 of which have come on the power play. The Oilers have also received solid goaltending from the tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. Can the Oilers keep riding the wave and make the playoffs this year? Absolutely, barring that McDavid and Draisaitl can remain healthy for the entire season. The Oilers are playing in a Pacific Division that hasn’t looked all that special so far, but the rise of the Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes could challenge the Oilers for a coveted berth to the playoffs down the stretch. The Oilers have looked flat the last two games however, scoring no goals through two games after recording 1-0 and 3-0 defeats. This is cause for concern in Oil Country, as the Oilers need to keep pace with the elite teams in the West.
Another year, another dominant performance so far from the Caps. Alex Ovechkin and company have looked nothing shy of great through the first few weeks, posting a 7-2-2 record in their first eleven games. This team is playing in a Metropolitan Division that, aside from Pittsburgh and Carolina, hasn’t looked special. It is worth mentioning the scorching hot start that defenceman John Carlson has had, posting a very impressive 5 goals and 15 assists for 20 points through 11 games, to lead the league in scoring. Carlson is starting to emerge as an elite defenceman in this league, and in my opinion is extremely underrated for what he has achieved so far. Granted, it’s extremely unlikely that Carlson can continue to lead the league in points and win the Art Ross Trophy, but if Carlson can keep his torrid pace up, he could become a Norris Trophy favourite at year’s end. Nonetheless, the Capitals are off to a great start and look poised to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight year. Now, it is still very early in the season and anything can happen, but aside from Pittsburgh and Carolina, I don’t see any other team in the Metropolitan finishing higher in the standings than the Capitals. Should Caps fans be excited about this season? If Carlson, Ovechkin, and company can keep rolling like they have been, absolutely they should be.
The Avalanche have performed this season like everyone predicted them to. Leading the Central Division with a record of 7-1-1, the Avs have raced out of the gate looking better than ever, with their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog being their usual selves putting up points. The Avalanche just got some bad news, as they announced Rantanen will be week-to-week with a lower body injury. It will be interesting to see who moves up on the top line in Rantanen’s absence, with Andre Burakovsky and Matt Nieto making good cases for themselves to be that replacement. Head coach Jared Bednar and GM Joe Sakic are proving to be a duo that can build a solid team that can contend for the Cup. The 2019-20 rendition of the Avalanche are proving that maybe they can be that team. But after a couple playoff appearances that didn’t live up to expectations, can this Avalanche team prove they are different? We’ll have to wait and see.
There has been plenty to talk about so far this NHL season. We have seen some surprises so far, with Buffalo and Edmonton leading their respective divisions, which probably no one saw coming. Can the Sabres and Oilers keep up with their winning ways, or will their fast starts dwindle down the stretch? It will definitely be interesting to see how this season plays out. Grab the popcorn, folks. You’re in for a wild ride.
Featured photo courtesy of LastWordOnHockey.com
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