Column: NHL observations six weeks in

Column: NHL observations six weeks in
Columnist Charlie Wolfson argues the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose home arena is shown here, rightfully generated buzz this offseason and is shaping up to be hockey's hottest contender.

We’re almost six weeks into the 2017-18 NHL season, and it’s time to take stock of what we’ve learned from the 18 or so games each team played thus far. The Devils are somehow red hot and in first place in the Metropolitan, last year’s toughest division. The Penguins are looking sluggish early on. Edmonton has not met its high expectations coming into the season, despite having the consensus second-best player in hockey and having reached the second round of  last year’s playoffs. There’s plenty to look at, so without further ado, here are three takeaways from the NHL season so far.

The Lightning really do mean business this year

Sometimes the team that gets the most buzz during the offseason flops. This is not the case here. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who suffered an off year in 2016-17 after going to Game 7 of the conference final in 2015-16, are easily the league’s hottest team to this point. They’re 14-2-2 and enjoy an early six point lead in the Eastern Conference. Their potent offense is led by the league’s top one-two punch (at this particular moment) of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Stamkos is a known commodity in the league, has a 60-goal season under his belt and is totally healthy for the first time in a while. Kucherov is just 24 years of age and had a breakout year last season, going 40-45-85. The pair have combined for 24-37-61 through just 18 games this year.

Their defense has been solid in the early going, featuring several of the massive, imposing stalwarts that almost thwarted Pittsburgh in the 2016 conference final. Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev and Slater Koekkoek all have a Corsi For Percentage (CF%) over 50 percent — Koekkoek’s is 55 percent. CF% is an advanced statistic that measures how often a player’s team controls the puck when he is on the ice. A CF% of more than 50 means they controlled the puck more often than not. Another feather in Sergachev’s cap: Lightning goalies have enjoyed a 95.8 save percentage when he’s been on the ice.

Speaking of goalies, the net belongs solely to Andrei Vasilevskiy, and that’s going pretty well for all involved. He’s got a .930 save percentage (good for sixth in the league) and a 13-1 record.

Edmonton can’t score and it’s their GM’s fault

The Oilers came into this season with such high hopes. They made it to the second round of the playoffs last year on the strength of the sensational Connor McDavid and his emerging sidekick Leon Draisaitl. After years of high draft picks and (somehow) sustained failure, it looked like the Oilers would finally put together something resembling progress.

But not so fast. McDavid has been brilliant this year, as expected, but the rest of the team simply cannot find the back of the net. The team has only scored 38 goals in 17 games. In the first year it’s ever been possible to be the 31st scoring team, they’re doing it. Only five players have double-digit points, and only one has more than 12. That’s McDavid, of course, who has amazed crowds with dashes down the ice that seem to defy physics, and must make Edmonton fans wonder what things would be like if their general manager hadn’t unwittingly gutted the forward corps of scoring ability.

Said general manager, Peter Chiarelli, did the exact same thing during his tenure with the Boston Bruins, so it’s a bit puzzling that the Edmonton brass didn’t see this coming. In Boston, he lucked into drafting Tyler Seguin in 2010 but traded him to Dallas in 2013 — where he reeled off three consecutive 30-plus goal seasons. He also gave up on Phil Kessel way back in 2009, who went on to lead Toronto in scoring for six straight years and then win back to back Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh. His last blunder as a Bruin was when he threw in the towel on 21-year-old Dougie Hamilton, who promptly had a 50-point season as a defenseman in Calgary.

This man was hired by Edmonton, and to the surprise of few, has shipped away several pieces of their scoring clout in exchange for not enough. Last June he sent Jordan Eberle to Brooklyn after a respectable 21-goal season in exchange for Ryan Strome, who had never scored more than 17 goals or 50 points in a season. In 2016 he traded Justin Schultz to Pittsburgh, who turned into a premier offensive defensemen and was a key to the Penguins’ back to back Cups.

The real kicker, though, was in June 2016 when he finally dealt star winger Taylor Hall. Hall rumors had surfaced every year for a while, and it was long speculated that a nice package could be returned for him. Chiarelli netted… Adam Larsson. That’s it. Larsson is a very solid defenseman and will do plenty to help the Oilers, but you can’t trade away an offensive anchor like Hall and not recover any scoring.

Edmonton is 6-9-2, next to last in the West. They’re in that spot because they can’t score, and their general manager has nobody to blame but himself.

The Penguins are going to be fine come April

The Penguins are off to an uninspiring 9-7-3 start, looking gassed in the second half of back-to-back game sets and appearing to phone it in a few times once games have gotten out of hand. The fatigue is to be expected, though, thanks to their having played 213 games over the past two seasons (not including preseason or the World Cup).

It’d be foolish to expect them to not be a top contender when the postseason rolls around, though. They’re not going to put their foot all the way down on the gas this early. That would be a lethal mistake. They aren’t gunning for a President’s Trophy; to do so would certainly drain them completely and leave them battered and exhausted at the start of the playoffs. They’ll probably chug their way to home ice in the first round like they did the last two years, which worked out quite well both times.

Sidney Crosby hasn’t hit the scoresheet like he usually has, but his play looks as sharp as ever. His play down below the goal line, particularly, has been perhaps more ferocious than ever. Evgeni Malkin has 20 points in 19 games, while Phil Kessel actually leads the team with 22. They have 10 skaters with a CF% above 50.

Their bottom two centers will need to be upgraded, and there’s no reason to think their general manager Jim Rutherford won’t take care of that before the deadline — he’s pushed all the right buttons since he joined the team.

The defense has been beat up a bit, but it looks to have contender-worthy potential. Schultz has looked strong when not concussed, Ian Cole has been a shot-blocking vacuum again and Kris Letang will likely find his top form after months on the shelf due to a neck injury.

Their powerplay clocks in at fifth in the league. They’re 5-0-1 at home and their starting goaltender Matt Murray is 41-6-4 at home in his career.

They have all these things going for them, and have clearly not found their stride yet. This is a team that has gotten it done through all sorts of adversity the last two years, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be ready to battle in the playoffs.

Statistics used in this column are courtesy of

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