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Biggest early-season surprise debated by NHL.com

Hot starts by Oilers, Sabres, struggles of Devils, Stars among intriguing storylines

NHL.com @NHLdotcom

The NHL season began three weeks ago. It is a small sample size, but large enough to start forming some opinions about what is happening across the League. For this edition of the roundtable, we asked nine staff writers what has been most surprising -- good or bad -- thus far in the 2019-20 NHL season.

Here are their thoughts:

 

Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

Two words: Edmonton Oilers. Sure, it's a small sample size but the 7-2-1 start of the Oilers is pretty stunning. And more than that, it's how they're doing it, led in part by a resurgence from James Neal. After stealing Neal from the rival Calgary Flames (for Milan Lucic), he already has nine goals in 10 games after scoring seven in 63 games last season. He ranks second in the League in goals, one behind David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, which isn't a statement that anyone expected to be true at any point in this season, and that's in addition to the incredible starts from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are the bread-and-butter for the Oilers. It's hard to tell if this will last - that might be too much to hope for - but right now Edmonton is my surprise of the (early) season.

Video: NHL Tonight debates if the Oilers are for real

 

Tim Campbell, staff writer

Agree completely with Amalie that small sample sizes are not always wise and sometimes dangerous, but for me, the New Jersey Devils are the biggest surprise. General manager Ray Shero was an offseason darling for being so proactive after the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery win. The first three weeks of the new season are certainly not what Shero had in mind. The goaltending of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has raised a lot of questions with a 3.63 goals-against average. Defenseman P.K. Subban, with three points (one goal, two assists) in eight games, has not had the impact imagined since he was acquired in a trade with the Nashville Predators. Free-agent acquisition Wayne Simmonds has had a dull start with one assist in eight games. League-wide chatter, often hard to stop, has focused on forward Taylor Hall's lack of a contract extension so far, and trade rumors have already begun. The No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, center Jack Hughes, will likely turn out to be a good player but has underperformed after being overhyped. Shero's moves may yet yield dividends, but the results so far rank as a major disappointment and surprise.

 

Nick Cotsonika, columnist

I know the Buffalo Sabres were first in the NHL as late as Nov. 28 last season. I know coach Ralph Krueger melded players quickly when he led Team Europe to the final of the World Cup of Hockey 2016. Still, I'm surprised the Sabres are at the top of the League again at 8-1-1, one point ahead of the Washington Capitals, who have played one more game. They aren't going to keep up this pace, but can they make a run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Are they farther along than we thought? Rasmus Dahlin is having a sophomore surge instead of a slump. The 19-year-old has 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 10 games, including seven on the power play, which is the most among League defensemen. He's a big reason Buffalo is clicking at 30.8 percent on the power play, fourth in the League, and that's a big part of their success.

Video: BUF@PIT: Dahlin flips puck over Murray's glove

 

William Douglas, staff writer

Nick makes good points about Buffalo and the job that Krueger has done in getting the team to perform well this early in the season, which makes the Devils' poor start more glaring. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Subban was supposed to add some box office charisma and offensive firepower, Simmonds was supposed to be the goal-scoring immovable object in front of the net and Hall was supposed to return to his 93-point (39 goals, 54 assists) Hart Trophy-winning form from 2017-18. Instead, each is struggling to score, and a power play that looked formidable on paper is 29th in the League at 6.9 percent with two goals in 29 opportunities. There's plenty of time for Subban, Simmonds, Hall, and Hughes to turn it around, but this definitely isn't the start that New Jersey envisioned.

 

Rob Reese, fantasy editor

Similar to what Bill noted about the Devils' poor start, the Dallas Stars were a unanimous playoff favorite among NHL.com writers during the preseason but have fallen short of expectations in October. No. 1 defenseman John Klingberg has struggled, and the top forwards Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn have also been quiet. Forward Roope Hintz leads the team with six goals, which is a nice surprise. A large part of their offensive struggles can be linked to struggles on the power play, which at 9.4 percent ranks 28th in the League. The NHL.com Fantasy department still believes in the Stars, who have one of the most valuable goalies in Ben Bishop. Goal support will allow them to climb out of this early-season hole.

Video: DAL@PHI: Bishop turns away Lindblom at the doorstep

 

Tom Gulitti, staff writer

Like Rob, I'm surprised the Stars haven't been better, but they are showing signs of life with wins in their past two games to improve to 3-7-1. Many expected them to be Stanley Cup contenders heading into the season, and maybe they will be. Their slow start reminds of the St. Louis Blues, who similarly didn't initially live up to expectations last season but ended up winning the Cup after being in last place on Jan 3. Dallas' offense, which is last in the NHL at 2.09 goals per game, should improve with Joe Pavelski, who has two goals in his past four games after scoring none in his first seven, getting more comfortable and Corey Perry healthy after missing the first seven games with a broken foot. However, counting on being able to pull off a Blues-like turnaround in the second half would be unwise.

 

Tracey Myers, staff writer

There are some good choices that have already been mentioned, and I was one of the people who definitely thought the Stars would have a better start. But here's another team that is a surprise to me: the Anaheim Ducks. So far, the Ducks are reminding me of the Stars from last season. They're not scoring much (24 goals in 10 games), but have been stingy defensively for the most part, allowing 1.78 goals per game prior to a 6-2 loss at the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. Goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller have led the charge, but the Ducks will probably need more production for long-term success. Nevertheless, they are off to an excellent start.

Video: CGY@ANA: Gibson makes incredible save on Gaudreau

 

Dan Rosen, senior staff writer

Tracey stole my thunder by saying the Ducks. I think she heard me talking about them on this week's NHL @TheRink podcast and figured she would get to them first because she was ahead of me in the queue for this discussion. I'm going to pivot and take John Carlson's 20 points in October as the biggest surprise. It's not surprising that the Washington Capitals defenseman is putting up points -- he had 70 last season -- but I don't think you could find anybody who would say he'd be leading the League in scoring through three weeks. Carlson has been impressive in his decision making and passing. He's always looking to set up plays. Many are resulting in goals. He's well on his way to being the fourth defenseman since 2000 to average a point-per-game in a season, joining Brent Burns last season (83 points in 82 games), Erik Karlsson in 2015-16 (82 in 82) and Nicklas Lidstrom in 2005-06 (80 in 80).

 

Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

Buffalo is about a 90-minute drive from Toronto (friendly customs agents permitting) and I've made the trek there numerous times the past few seasons only to be disappointed by subpar hockey. But there's an entirely different vibe around the Sabres this year. Jack Eichel, enigmatic has he can be sometimes, has always been a special talent but often has looked frustrated with the supporting cast not stepping up. They are now. Let's face it; even the most optimistic of Buffalo fans could not have predicted the Sabres would be 8-1-1 through their first 10 games. Eichel had four points (two goals, two assists) to help the Sabres defeat the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in overtime Tuesday and has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) this season. He's tied for the team lead in goals with forwards Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson. As Nick astutely pointed out, there's no sophomore slump for Dahlin, who is second on the Sabres in scoring with 10 points. Also, goalie Carter Hutton went 134:22 without giving up a goal until the Sharks opened the scoring Tuesday. Obviously, this surprising team is buying what Krueger is selling. And so am I.

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