We’ve passed the one-month mark of the 2018-19 NHL season, with all the requisite twists and turns including two coaches fired, a handful of surprising teams and a slew of players breaking out. Seems like the perfect time to check in on all the big topics:
Which breakout player are you buying?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Elias Pettersson has nine goals in nine games, and about half of them have been of the highlight-reel variety. Barring some kind of calamitous injury, the Vancouver Canucks rookie is going to waltz to the Calder Trophy and continue his breakout season. He’s the realest of real deals and a future star.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Few players had a better October than 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen. His 21 points and 16 assists in October tie a franchise record with Joe Sakic. Rantanen now paces the league in points (24) and assists (19) and I’m all-in on him challenging yet another inevitable Connor McDavid Art Ross trophy … well, Rantanen will come close at least. The Colorado Avalanche‘s top line is filthy good, and shows no sign of regression. I believe in Rantanen because the young Finn has been on a steady ascent since the 2016-17 season. Rantanen’s entry-level contract expires after this season, and I’m curious to see what his new deal looks like; it helps that linemate Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best bargains in the league (the reigning runner-up for league MVP is making $5.57 million through 2020-21).
Ben Arledge, associate editor: Let’s give the Toronto Maple Leafs some love. Morgan Rielly seems to be finally putting it all together in his age-24 season. The defenseman is coming off back-to-back, six-goal, 76-game campaigns. In 14 games this season, he’s already hit that number — along with 12 assists — albeit at a shooting percentage of 14.0, well above his 4.6 career rate. He is in the green on plus/minus and has nine power-play points. Could he be the No. 1 defenseman the Leafs need him to be? Absolutely. He could probably even stand to see an ice-time increase, as his 22:27 is 45th in the NHL right now. I think Toronto still makes a move for another blueliner at the trade deadline, but Rielly seems to be taking the next step with an overall improved club.
Wyshynski: The Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup is a pick I feel very comfortable about at this point. Like ‘lounging in a recliner in your cozies with a cup of hot cocoa watching HGTV’ comfortable. They’re 10-3-1, a plus-12 in goal differential, and even though coach Jon Cooper keeps making line salad with his forwards, that salad always seems to eat like a meal. The San Jose Sharks winning the Western Conference is a pick I feel slightly less comfortable about. Like ‘wearing sweatpants a size too small on a rainy day and all you want is chicken noodle soup but all you have is Manhattan clam chowder’ comfortable. There have been stretches when they reached their potential, and stretches when they’ve been really underwhelming. The fact that there’s an international debate about Erik Karlsson‘s overall effectiveness is disconcerting, too. But I’m willing to go with the theory that, as a playoff team, the Sharks could be formidable.
Kaplan: Winnipeg Jets over the Tampa Bay Lightning? Still feel pretty good about that one. I do regret not picking the Lightning to win the Atlantic (I had the Toronto Maple Leafs there). Tampa Bay is looking like a wagon in the regular season once again. My biggest divisional regret is picking the Vegas Golden Knights to win the Pacific, though I’m hesitant to write them off just yet. Vegas may be seventh in the Pacific right now, but the division is wide open. I don’t doubt this team will get a late push, especially when they get key figures, like Max Pacioretty (imminent) Nate Schmidt (Nov 18) and Paul Stastny (probably December) back.
Arledge: Nope. I had the Lightning over the Jets, and there’s no reason to backtrack at this point. The Bolts’ 10-3-1 record is good for second in the entire league, as seven players already have double-digit points and Brayden Point is establishing himself as a real offensive threat. Oh, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is putting up Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers in goal. What’s not to love here? And yeah, the Jets aren’t hitting the afterburners just yet, but it’s early and there is just too much talent on this team for them to hide in the shadows too much longer. Blake Wheeler has just a 4.8 shooting percentage, and Connor Hellebuyck has started slow. Neither trend will last.
What team has been the biggest surprise?
Wyshynski: The Montreal Canadiens were a team many assumed would be tabulating lottery odds with an underwhelming roster and without defenseman Shea Weber for the early part of the season. Instead, they’re a wild card team (8-4-2) despite being middle-of-pack offensively (3.07 goals per game) and defensively (2.86). Max Domi has 15 points in 14 games at center. Carey Price has looked like Carey Price. And those of us who expected GM Marc Bergevin would be out of a job before the Canadiens circled back to contention are very, very confused.
Kaplan: The Vancouver Canucks are in second place in the Pacific Division. I repeat, the Vancouver Canucks — who had a dismal 2017-18, made questionable veteran free agent signings, and have, on paper, not much depth on forward or defense — are in second place in the Pacific Division. We’ll see if they can sustain it; an upcoming six-game road swing isn’t critical, but could be telling. Credit to coach Travis Green for getting his group to buy in. It helps that Elias Pettersson has emerged as a true must-watch player. The rookie can make up to $2.85 million in bonuses this season, and he’s worth every penny.
Arledge: The Calgary Flames are atop the Pacific Division with nine wins and 19 points. That’s good for second in the West. Sure, the Pacific is weaker, but the Flames are sixth in the NHL in goals per game with that top Sean Monahan–Johnny Gaudreau–Elias Lindholm line really clicking, to the tune of 23 goals so far. Goalie Mike Smith‘s play is a concern, but I think this team is for real and should be a playoff team come April.
Artemi Panarin will be skating for the ______ at the end of this season. Sergei Bobrovsky will be minding nets for the ______.
Wyshynski: At the start of the season, I was convinced that Panarin would have been traded well before Bobrovsky. I’m not so convinced anymore. There have been various reports that both players aren’t keen on returning to the Jackets as unrestricted free agents. Let’s go with that premise. If the Jackets are a playoff contender, they have a better chance of actually advancing in the postseason with Panarin than without him. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen might catch hell for holding onto an expiring asset, but that’s undeniable. Bobrovsky? If he’s not coming back and you have playoff contenders willing to ante up large for a goalie to get them over the hump, I think you take your chances that Joonas Korpisalo can get them in (and that, just maybe, he can be better than Bobrovsky’s .891 career playoff save percentage). So, the official predictions: Pararin is a Blue Jacket; Bobrovsky goes “home” to the Flyers as a rental.
Kaplan: Scarred by missing the playoffs by just one point last season, the Florida Panthers will make a splash before the trade deadline to acquire Panarin. GM Dale Tallon is fully aware it might just be a rental, though if Panarin likes the way things go in Florida (and if the team makes a playoff run) the stint could be an excellent recruiting pitch for the inevitable free agency bonanza this summer. As for Bobrovsky? The Islanders are a natural fit, though Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have proved to be a more-than-capable platoon so far. Considering both Greiss and Lehner are on short-term deals, I wouldn’t rule out Bobrovsky signing there this summer. Instead, I see Bobrovsky landing with St. Louis this spring as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the season.
Arledge: It sounds a bit crazy, but I could see Panarin heading to the Big Apple to play for the New York Rangers. Yes, they are in a rebuild, and yes, they are a last place team in the Metropolitan Division. But they will have some money freed up after this season with the potential to extend him, and he could be the focal point for a reborn offense. Just 27, he has plenty of time left in his prime, and he’d jump-start the rebuild as a true superstar on that first line. As for the Blue Jackets’ goalie, I could see Bobrovsky fixing the aforementioned Calgary goaltending issue. Smith is off to a slow start, and if we get closer to the trade deadline and see little improvement, Bob could serve as a rental alternative for a team looking to make some noise out West (and Smith could theoretically head back the other way to Columbus). It would just be a matter of making the money work. I’d also keep an eye on the Flyers (allowing GM Ron Hextall to hold off on promoting Carter Hart too quickly) and Carolina Hurricanes, as both clubs could use an upgrade in net if they manage to hang in the playoff conversation. I’m not sure Kekalainen would send their Vezina Trophy winner somewhere within the division if he can help it, though.
Do you buy the first-place Islanders as a playoff team?
Wyshynski: Do I believe a team rocking a 105.29 PDO at five-on-five might come back down to earth at some point? Why yes … yes I do. The Islanders are doing things right now that are astonishing, from Josh Bailey and Anders Lee being all like “John who?” to having a team save percentage of .932 for second best in the NHL — the Barry Trotz/Mitch Korn effect, one assumes. I can’t imagine it’s going to continue like this, but the Metro is the type of division where a few good runs might merit a playoff spot. (See: Devils, New Jersey in 2017-18.) I don’t see the Islanders ultimately making the cut, even if a playoff battle against the Maple Leafs would be the greatest thing to happen to the NHL since the legalized forward pass.
Kaplan: I love the Islanders as a story. I hesitate to say they are a playoff team for a few reasons. The team’s shooting percentage is quite high (11.03 as of Tuesday). For context, no team has finished a season with a shooting percentage above 10.0 since 2012-13. And their Corsi for percentage is low (42.4 as of Tuesday, third lowest in the league). So, much like 34-year-old Valtteri Filppula‘s scorching start — four goals and two assists in his first six games, one point in the seven games since — a crash to Earth feels inevitable. That said, the one thing that looks sustainable is goaltending. In a platoon, Greiss and Lehner both rank top 10 in 5-on-5 save percentage among goalies who have played at least 300 minutes. This team has been waiting for dependable goaltending for some time, and they may have finally found a solution.
Arledge: Listen, we all naysayed the Golden Knights last October when they came screaming out of the gates. And then they … oh right, they went to the Stanley Cup Final. OK, bad example. The Islanders won’t be anywhere near that, but I love the way this team is setting itself up for the future. Mathew Barzal will adjust to the No. 1 center role, the Isles crushed June’s draft and they are finally getting good goaltending with some prospects on the way. They will live on and return to prominence without Tavares; it just won’t be this season. There are too many good teams in the East and there are too many unsustainable factors at play.