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Top NHL storylines at one-quarter mark

Young stars, high-scoring Rangers, revitalized Oilers among early-season highlights

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

This week, as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the NHL season hits the quarter mark, making it an appropriate time to take stock into what we've seen so far, to start to identify the true contenders.

With that in mind, here are 12 storylines, in no particular order of significance, that have made headlines at various points this season. Some have directly led to the standings being what they are and trophy trackers looking as they do:

 
1. Young guns taking over

The Team North America effect is going strong a quarter of the way through the season and shows no signs of stopping with young players across the League having a significant impact this season.

Three of the top five scorers, five of the top 10 and seven of the top 30 entering Friday were 23 years old or younger, including Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (19) and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets (18).

McDavid led the NHL with 27 points, three more than 23-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov.

Among goal scorers, 23-and-under stars Laine (12), Jets center Mark Scheifele (11), Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak (11) and Kucherov (10) were in the top 10.

Video: LAK@WPG: Laine shows off moves for shootout goal

 

2. Laine on fire

Laine's confidence and shot drew comparisons to Alex Ovechkin's confidence and shot before he played a game in the NHL. He's already showing why.

Laine was tied for second in the League with 12 goals, including two hat tricks and a two-goal game. He has fit in well with Scheifele and 20-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers on the Jets' top line. He has looked comfortable and has been borderline cocky with how he has played.

Jets coach Paul Maurice has marveled at Laine's competitiveness, even in practice, when he consistently scores in shooting drills.

 

Read: Fantasy awards at the one-quarter mark

 

3. Matthews' debut

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews has since cooled off, but that was to be expected considering his historic NHL debut on Oct. 12.

Matthews scored four goals in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators, becoming the first player in the modern era of the NHL (starting in 1943-44) to score four times in first League game. The 19-year-old also became the third-youngest player in NHL history to score four goals behind Bobby Carpenter and Jack Hamilton, who each did it at 18.

Matthews' production has slowed since; he has eight goals and 16 points in 20 games. But Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he is starting to do the things away from the puck that will lead to more possession and chances. Babcock said the belief is Matthews will be a dominant center by Christmas.

Video: Auston Matthews makes history in NHL debut

 

4. Blue streak

The New York Rangers' infusion of skill and speed during the offseason has paid major dividends so far. They have been the highest-scoring team by a landslide through the first quarter of the season, entering play Friday averaging 3.90 goals per game.

New York abandoned the traditional lineup of two scoring lines, one checking line and a grinding fourth line for a more modernized four-line rotation that has speed and skill on all lines. The Rangers copied the type of lineup the Pittsburgh Penguins used to beat them and everyone else in their way in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

New York has gotten production throughout the lineup and from the back end.

The Rangers opened the season with a 5-3 win against the New York Islanders. They scored five or more goals in 10 games, including five in a row, all wins, from Oct. 30-Nov. 6.

However, they are dealing with injuries to center Mika Zibanejad (broken fibula) and right wing Pavel Buchnevich (back) that could slow them down.

 

5. Price is right

The return of goalie Carey Price has put the Montreal Canadiens back on top of the Atlantic Division through 21 games. Price, who missed all but 12 games last season because of a knee injury, has arguably been the MVP in the NHL through the first quarter of the season.

Price became the first goalie in NHL history to go 10-0-0 in his first 10 appearances to start a season. He did so with a 1.40 goals-against average and .957 save percentage.

Price fell one win shy of tying the Canadiens record for consecutive wins by a goalie, set by George Hainsworth in 1927.

He is 12-1-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage.

Video: CAR@MTL: Price turns away McClement's shot

 

6. Weber's impact

Price isn't alone in making an impact on the Canadiens. Defenseman Shea Weber, acquired on June 29 from the Nashville Predators in the highly scrutinized one-for-one trade for P.K. Subban, would secure a lot of first-place votes, if not all of them, if the Norris Trophy were awarded today.

Weber is getting his blistering slap shot through with regularity; he leads all defensemen with eight goals. He has been strong in other areas of the game as well and has brought accountability to the back end while playing 25:42 per game.

On the flip side, the Predators have struggled without Weber, when it was originally thought the Canadiens would struggle without Subban. The opposite has occurred in part because the Predators haven't gotten enough scoring and in part because they've been slow to fill the leadership void left by Weber.

 

7. Oilers a contender

A surprisingly hot start put the Edmonton Oilers in position to make a run at their first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006.

The Oilers, led by McDavid, opened the season with seven wins in their first eight games and raced to first place in the Pacific Division. They've since cooled, but they entered Friday still in first place in the division after 21 games.

The Oilers were last in the Western Conference last season with 70 points, 17 shy of a playoff berth. That was the closest they had come to a playoff berth in a full season since 2008-09, when they missed by six points.

Video: EDM@COL: McDavid scores from behind the goal for lead

 

8. Blackhawks don't blink despite changes

The more things change around the Chicago Blackhawks, the more they somehow manage to stay the same.

The Blackhawks are again a contender in the Western Conference. They're first in the Central Division after 21 games despite some significant turnover and a penalty kill that allowed 14 power-play goals against in the first seven games.

They have regularly dressed six or seven first-year NHL players per game, along with center Dennis Rasmussen, in his second season after playing 44 games in 2015-16. However, their core has not changed and goalie Corey Crawford could be a Vezina Trophy candidate at this point, a big reason why Chicago is still very much a contender.

Beyond what everybody already knew about the Blackhawks, Rasmussen, forwards Ryan Hartman, Richard Panik, Tyler Motte, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and defensemen Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny have filled in to give Chicago enviable depth once again.

Losing forwards Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Ladd has not fazed the Blackhawks at all.

 

9. Crosby back to form

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby put a scare into the hockey world when he had to miss the start of the season because of a concussion, a result of an unspecified play during his second practice after returning from dominating the World Cup of Hockey 2016 with Team Canada.

Crosby missed six games, but he hasn't missed a beat since returning, taking back his title as the best player in the world.

He entered Friday with a League-leading 14 goals, and 19 points, in 14 games. He opened with a bang, scoring four goals in his first three games and eight in his first six, erasing any doubts about his health or questions about whether he'd be scared off by another concussion.

Video: PIT@NYR: Crosby's redirection finds twine

 

10. Tuukka time in Boston again

Coming off a subpar 2015-16 season by his standards and off of back-to-back non-playoff seasons, Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is off to a strong start to this season and would be the Vezina Trophy favorite if not for that goalie in Montreal.

Rask has allowed one goal or fewer in five of his past eight starts and in nine of his 15 starts this season. He has three shutouts, a 1.67 GAA and .938 save percentage after finishing with four shutouts, a 2.56 GAA and .915 save percentage last season.

 

11. Tortorella finding success in Columbus

John Tortorella has brought back his "Safe is death" motto from his days as a Stanley Cup-winning coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it's working wonders for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are defying preseason expectations by playing their way into the playoff race.

The Blue Jackets have been paced by strong goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and a dominant power play. They've played fast, which is to their identity. They've started strong and played well with the lead. They've even gone 5-1-0 without defenseman Seth Jones in the lineup because of an injury.

Defenseman Zach Werenski has quietly been one of the best rookies this season, and Alexander Wennberg is developing into a No. 1 center. Center Sam Gagner has found a new lease on his career in Columbus. More impressively, the Blue Jackets are doing it without significant contributions from core players like forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner.

Video: CBJ@WSH: Wennberg finishes pretty passing play in 3rd

 

12. Red Wings streak in danger

This is a story that could continue to develop as the season approaches the halfway mark and beyond, but for now it certainly looks as if lthe Detroit Red Wings' streak of 25 consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is in jeopardy of coming to an end this season, which is also the swan song for Joe Louis Arena.

The Red Wings are not in a playoff position. They don't score enough and their penalty kill has been problematic. Their power play isn't much better. They're near the bottom of the League in shots on goal per game and near the top in most shots allowed.

They've gotten quality goaltending from Jimmy Howard, but Petr Mrazek has struggled, center Dylan Larkin hasn't been the same as he was last season as a rookie, and it has been a mostly below-average season for the Red Wings so far.

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