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Burnside: Looking back on a wild start to hockey season

Shockers? Disappointments? The first month provided no shortage of storylines around the league

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

Well, that was a pretty crazy month, no? And where did the time go?

In the blink of an eye, it's going to be Thanksgiving -- for many team officials, the unofficial line in the sand (as in, are we really this good/bad?). But let's pause for a moment to contemplate what has transpired in the first month of the season and what it might mean moving forward.

 

[LISTEN: Scott Burnside sits down with Stars center Tyler Seguin on the latest Burnside Chats podcast]

 

'Matt Duchene Watch' ends (at least for a minute or two)

And so, all's well that ends well, no? You'd think given the assessments of the three-way deal that finally saw Matt Duchene released from his personal hockey prison in Denver that this was a home run for all three teams -- Colorado, Ottawa and Nashville. 

Avs GM Joe Sakic redeemed himself mightily for months of dithering over this deal by collecting an attractive package of picks and prospects, and if a couple of those pieces yield NHL players, he's ahead of the game, especially with the Avs sitting unexpectedly in a playoff spot, as we speak. 

And Nashville GM David Poile, as is his way, quietly got exactly what he wanted in Kyle Turris to flush out what is now his deepest ever pool of centers he's ever had with Turris, who immediately signed a six-year extension with the Preds, settling in nicely behind Ryan Johansen and ahead of Nick Bonino. That's the kind of deal done early enough in the season to point to, come June, as being a difference-maker for last year's Western Conference champions. 

But for us, Duchene is the key -- and he's certainly the key in Ottawa, where the Senators have been meandering along collecting points, if not wins, with a 6-3-5 record. 

Duchene is under contract for another season, so he's more attractive than Turris, who wasn't going to fit in Ottawa contract-wise as a potential unrestricted free agent. 

But is Duchene a significant upgrade over Turris? 

He has to be given the other assets sent out. And while he was miserable in Denver, Duchene's never played in a Canadian market where the scrutiny will be exponentially higher. 

Maybe he thrives. But lots of players don't. 

Whether Duchene does respond will say a lot about whether the Sens are playing in the tournament come April and, ultimately, who came out ahead in this monster deal.

 

How hard is it to become an NHL head coach?

Let's ask Phil Housley, Rick Tocchet and Bob Boughner -- all of whom ascended to head-coaching gigs this offseason. 

Tocchet had a brief tenure as head coach with the Lightning under trying ownership circumstances almost a decade ago, so it feels almost like his first-time opportunity, while Boughner and Hall-of-Famer Housley are getting their first taste of being the big man behind the bench. 

Needless to say, not a bed of roses for any of these respected hockey minds. Buffalo, Arizona and Florida are collectively three of the worst teams in the NHL, combining for exactly 11 wins through the first month of the season. 

Part of becoming a new head coach, just like becoming a new GM, is that you don't often get those jobs on a Stanley Cup contender. There's a reason coaches are moved on, and it's generally not because teams are ready to roll to a Cup. 

But it also speaks to the challenges of getting a team to embrace and accept new systems in an NHL that doesn't allow for many do-overs or provide many freebies. In each case, these teams had hoped to make significant strides this season. So far, it hasn't happened, and frankly, already looks like getting to the postseason will be beyond the grasp of all three.

 

So, that's it?

One month into every NHL season, there are a handful of teams that seem not to have taken note of the start of the season, producing efforts that leave everyone scratching their collective heads. 

We're not talking Arizona or Buffalo -- teams whose expectations were muted to begin with. No, we're talking our pick for a berth in the Stanley Cup final: Edmonton. 

What gives with the darlings of the Western Conference? 

The simple answer is that outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, this is a team lacking foot speed and reliable productivity up front. The offense has dried up in dramatic fashion as the Oilers rank dead last in goals per game and their power play is 25th. 

The team has also reverted defensively to a sometimes-lackadaisical style of play that sees them 23rd in goals allowed per game. 

Far, far, too early to be closing the book on the Oilers this season, but there's little doubt that this is a team that either many of us had far overvalued, or is a team that has struggled coming to grips with the high expectations after their run to the second round of the playoffs a year ago created. 

How they respond -- if they respond at all -- will be a key storyline through the next month of this season.

 

Weird things that will likely correct themselves

No shortage of things that make you go, hmmmm

For instance, one month in and Columbus -- one of the most dynamic teams in the league a year ago, and a favorite of many prognosticators to make more noise this year in the Metropolitan Division -- ranks last in the league in power-play efficiency. 

The Blue Jackets, with Seth Jones, Rookie of the Year finalist Zach Werenski, Artemi Panarin, Nick Foligno, etc. etc. prove that you can't just throw talented people on the ice and expect them to produce with the man advantage. 

It doesn't mean you can't win games, but generally speaking, being at the bottom of one special teams list, or the other, isn't a ticket to glory. 

Others in the bottom 10 in power play efficiency include Calgary, Anaheim, St. Louis and Chicago -- all teams we might have penciled into the playoff picture at the start of the season. 

On the flip side, teams getting killed on the penalty kill that we'd have considered a lock to make the playoffs include Edmonton -- dead last on the PK -- Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg and Washington. 

Those teams better get if figured out, and not somewhere down the road.

 

How about that other trade?

Must admit was surprised to see that when Panarin scored the other night, it marked just his second goal of the season and that he'd gone 10 games without a goal prior to that. Neither of his goals has been on the power play, and so it's clear at least as far as scoring (he has 10 assists and is second on the team with 12 points in 16 games so there is that), the transition away from Patrick Kane and Chicago has been more difficult than expected following the big offseason trade that saw Brandon Saad return to Chicago. 

Still, Columbus is 9-6-1 and third in the Metro. Chicago? Weird start for the Blackhawks in spite of the fact that Saad, repatriated in the hopes of jumpstarting Jonathan Toews' offensive production, has six goals, four of them game-winners. 

But Saad has gone nine games without a goal as of Wednesday, and the Blackhawks are a middling 7-6-2 (like pretty much every team in the NHL, but we digress). As for Kane, he leads the team with 14 points in 15 games. 

In short, too early to declare a winner or a loser in this one.

 

Double down

We just threw that random gambling reference out there apropos of nothing. But is there a better story than the Vegas Golden Knights through one month of the season? 

Never mind the cavalcade of goaltenders (they've used four so far), what has been interesting is how well the team has played offensively. You knew that Gerard Gallant would have this team prepared defensively, but the team is tied for sixth in the league in goals per game and a respectable 11th on the power play. 

(As an aside, wonder if ownership in Florida does a face smack every time they look at the standings having unnecessarily dispatched Gallant last season? Just asking.) 

That suggests that GM George McPhee has done an exemplary job of identifying players that were ready to either play more in terms of minutes or accept more responsibility like center William Karlsson or veteran David Perron, who has 12 points in 15 games, and defenseman Colin Miller, who has seven power play points. 

Is it sustainable? Probably not. Not unless Marc-Andre Fleury gets healthy soon and helps shore up the goaltending. 

Regardless, it's been a fun start. Ten the hard way.

 

The real deal?

Los Angeles, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. And we'll put Nashville -- winners of three straight as we pen this, in that group as well. 

Book a ticket to the playoffs for all six of these teams. 

For us, the Lightning represent the gold standard one month in. They've got it all going on, starting with a healthy and prolific Steven Stamkos, who might be the early favorite for the Hart Trophy, if it weren't for his equally dynamic linemate Nikita Kucherov, who leads the league in goals.

 

Fool's Gold?

As we noted, at some point, it's going to hit midnight for the Golden Knights. Even in a town with no clocks, their pumpkin time is coming. 

The team we still can't get our heads around is New Jersey. John Hynes has been a force behind the bench and the young Devils are tied for fourth in goals per game and fourth in power-play efficiency. 

So un-Devils like, so much fun. But they are so reliant on rookies and other youngsters, like Will Butcher, first-overall pick Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt etc. that it seems improbable they can keep this up long-term. 

Improbable, not impossible, but still. 

Finally, the Vancouver Canucks might be the most surprising team not from Las Vegas in the west, and currently hold down third place in the Pacific Division. 

Like New Jersey, a lot of work being done by youngsters like Brock Boeser and Jacob Markstrom has been surprisingly reliable with a .917 save percentage. Not sure the offense holds up, and expect Edmonton and Calgary both to get markedly better, which will be problematic for the Canucks. 

In short, enjoy it while you can.

 

Why you play the whole season

Remember when it looked like Alain Vigneault was on the ledge as head coach of the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist was headed for the remainder bin? 

The Rangers have righted the ship and, while not invincible, have won four in a row and don't expect them to be far from the playoff discussion from here on in. 

Montreal, even without Carey Price, who is recovering from a minor injury after a mostly horrid start to the season, has started to get goals and is creeping back to the pack in the Atlantic Division -- just when it seemed the season would be lost. 

Look for similar turnarounds from Minnesota, Chicago, Washington and Dallas.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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