By Owen Swanson & Charlie Goodwin
Fast Start: Vancouver
Fourteen games into the young 2018-19 NHL season, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division. Their young studs have carried most of the load so far, with center Elias Pettersson leading the way with 15 points in 9 games played. Forwards Bo Horvat (15 GP) and Brock Boeser Pettersson (13 GP) are tied for second in scoring with 11 points each. These young, dynamic players have flourished early in the season and look to be the foundation of the next contending Canucks team.
Don’t expect Vancouver to stay hot for long and a playoff berth still seems unlikely. While the stellar performances from the team’s young players so far this season are encouraging looking ahead, a reliance on breakout performances and youth carrying the load is not a recipe for sustained success. As opposing teams accrue more film on players like Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser, their offensive production will become more difficult to maintain and their defensive flaws will be exposed. A negative goal differential thus far and the less-than-stellar D-core also doesn’t bode well for the team’s future play in their own zone. In fact, the Canucks have been scored on at least three times in all of their losses this season. The situation in net is equally as underwhelming, as starter Jacob Markstrom (9 GS) has posted a .899 Save Percentage and -2.71 Goals Saved Above Average.
The Canucks embark on a six-game road trip starting Tuesday against the Red Wings and play five straight games in the Eastern Conference, three teams of which have started the season exceptionally hot (BOS, BUF, NYI). They then match up against the Minnesota Wild before heading home. Considering the Canucks are .500 on the road to start the season, they likely won’t be looking quite as impressive by the time they return home. Even then, Vancouver’s schedule doesn’t relent as they face five of their next seven games against presumptive playoff teams.
Slow Start: Los Angeles Kings
At the beginning of the season, the Kings looked positioned at worst for a wild-card berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and at best as dark-horse Stanley Cup contenders. The addition of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to an already talented roster that didn’t lose much this past offseason made the Kings an interesting team to watch, and certainly one that most didn’t expect to get worse. The return of Jeff Carter to full health, the signing of Drew Doughty to an extension, and head coach John Stevens coming off a playoff appearance following his first year behind the bench all added to what appeared to be a promising season for the Kings. Few would have seen a start this bad coming. In reality, the season couldn’t have started any worse. Los Angeles is tied for last in the NHL standings with the Florida Panthers, head coach John Stevens has been fired, and star goaltender Jonathan Quick is out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
Despite Ilya Kovalchuk playing well since arriving in SoCal, leading the team in points and goals with 11 and 4 respectively, even his contributions to the Kings’ offense haven’t remedied a unit that scored 3 total goals while being swept last postseason. Los Angeles currently ranks last in the NHL in offense with a pitiful 2.15 Goals for per Game.
There’s reason to believe the Kings won’t be this bad the whole season, however. The return of Dustin Brown should help their cause in the short term, as he has begun his season hot, contributing 4 points in 3 games played so far. And even though interim Head Coach Willie Desjardins is a less than encouraging hire, having finished second-to-last and last in his final two seasons coaching Vancouver, the coaching change may light a fire under the team. Regardless of the actual tactical impact the leadership change has, every player has been put on notice and, as so often happens with mid-season coaching changes, the team could play very well in the coming month. The Kings can also take solace in the fact that they rank in the top third of the NHL in Goals Against per Game, and their veteran core of defenseman could help them weather the storm.
Regardless, the Kings have a tough stretch of games ahead of them, and veteran defensemen and improved effort won’t be enough to keep them afloat if backup goaltender Jack Campbell can’t step up and reliably keep pucks out of the net. The second week of November is almost always too early to call it a lost season, but with the position LA finds itself in already, it will take a miraculous turnaround for the Kings to sniff the playoffs this year.
Fast Start: Montreal Canadiens
There were a lot of teams to choose from for the most surprising start to the season -- the Islanders, the Canucks, Buffalo. But, I eventually had to be biased and write about my dear Habs.
From a roster standpoint, the Habs should not be doing well. They’ve dumped almost all of their core players from their playoff runs a few years ago, it looks like Carey Price’s lower body injuries will never allow him to return to Vezina form, and they have a ton of no-name players (I’m still learning the roster). But somehow they’re getting it done. Fifteen games into the 2018-19 NHL season, they sit tied for 3rd in the tough Atlantic Division with a record of 8-5-2 (18 points).
The one thing the Canadiens have this year that they have lacked for the past five or so years is simple -- OFFENSE. In my years as a Habs fan, they have always given Carey Price an enormous load and his performance would solely decide if they won or not. If he gave up 2 goals in a game, there was a very small chance they would come out victorious. But things are different now. Price is playing far from his best, with a goals against average of almost 3, but the Habs are finding ways to win. They have tallied 48 goals this year -- the 11th most in NHL. In the previous five seasons (three of which they made the playoffs, and two of which they won the Atlantic Division), their highest finish in goals scored was fifteenth.
Offseason addition Tomas Tatar has added a strong veteran to the club, with eight assists and a point in almost every game and Max Domi has been firing on all cylinders, scoring a goal in the last five games and tying his season total from last year with nine goals. Third overall draft pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks to be the right selection and someone who can lead the team for years to come. If the Canadiens still have a solid record when they regain star defenseman Shea Weber to help their defensive woes, there’s no reason to think Montreal can’t snag a Wild Card spot.
Slow Start: Florida Panthers
In our season preview for the National Hockey League, I said that the Panthers would surely earn a playoff berth, and were my dark horse Stanley Cup contenders. I was...wrong, to say the least. Twelve games into the 2018-19 season, they sit at absolute last in the NHL with a record of 4-5-3 (11 points). But there is hope for Florida Panther fans.
The Panthers have a goal differential of -4 -- they have scored 38 goals, while 42 goals have been scored against them. Six of their eight losses have been by one goal. These stats mean that they have been unable to win close games. This should be no surprise. With an average age of 26.75, they are one of the younger teams of the NHL. People must also remember that their goaltender, Roberto Luongo, brings that average up a bit at 39 years of age. While Luongo’s career has been reborn the past couple of years, the Panthers can’t rely solely on him for their success at this age. The old timer can only do so much to help the young Panthers before he cracks. The responsibility falls more on young centerpieces Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, and Aleksander Barkov to improve their play.
The Panthers season is far from over. A late season surge last year left them one point shy of a playoff berth, after being mediocre most of the season. They are currently on a two game win streak, showing signs of improvement. Do I think they can still make the playoffs? Absolutely. It is still very early in this NHL season. Do I still think they can make a run at the Cup? With their inability to win close games and lackluster play from key players, no. But, once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. It’s just a question of if the Florida Panthers are up to the challenge.