The biggest surprises to start this year’s NHL season
By Josh Werle, Staff Writer
Roughly one quarter of this year’s National Hockey League (NHL) season has been completed and it has been a very entertaining ride thus far. In every sports league there are always going to be moments that nobody saw coming and the many surprises in the NHL this season have fans buzzing. Teams and players who were previously at the top have taken a dive in the standings and some unexpected contenders have emerged in the first quarter of the 2021-22 campaign. Let’s take a look at some of the most surprising aspects of this year’s NHL season so far.
The Seattle Kraken’s disappointing goaltending
Heading into the 2021-22 NHL season, the Seattle Kraken had a goaltending duo that was worth bragging about. Phillip Grubauer and Chris Driedger were both coming off spectacular seasons with their previous squads. Grubauer had a goals-against average of 1.95 with the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche and held an overall record of 30-9-1. His efforts with the Avalanche earned him a third place finish in the inaugural Vezina award nominations (which is awarded to the best goaltender in the league for that given season) and a second round appearance in the NHL playoffs.
The Seattle Kraken have used Grubauer as their primary starter this season, but his previous numbers have yet to translate over to this year. Grubauer sits at an overall record of 6-9-1 this season, having already accumulated as many losses as he had at the end of last season. Before Grubauer was a free agent, the Kraken elected to take Driedger from the Florida Panthers with their pick in the expansion draft. It was expected that Driedger was ready to make a jump to a starting position, as he finished with a 14-6-3 record with the Panthers in 2020-21. With Grubauer struggling, the Kraken team has tried to rely on Driedger, but with a goals-against average of 3.6 at the time of writing, he isn’t able to help them either. These two goaltenders were supposed to have a large impact on the Kraken’s success this season, but are currently contributing to their position at the bottom of the Pacific division.
A reigning Vezina champ’s struggle
Speaking of goaltending troubles, the reigning Vezina champion has started off ice-cold this season. After going 26-10 and limiting his goals-against average to only 1.98, former Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury won the NHL’s Vezina trophy.
After rumors of his retirement came to light, the Golden Knights quickly traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks organization convinced him to stick around for this season and it’s safe to say Fleury could be regretting that decision right now. At the time of writing, he sits at a record of 5-9, with a goals-against average of 2.91, which is a far cry from the results that he was able to achieve last season. Of course, the Blackhawks are not the same team as the Golden Knights, but it’s surprising to see any reigning Vezina champion sitting near the bottom of their divisional leaderboard.
Calgary Flames are Stanley Cup Contenders
In a previous story, I have mentioned that the Calgary Flames were a playoff hopeful team and that Johnny Gaudreau and Jacob Markström were two of the names to look out for this season. It would be relatively safe to say that the Flames are no longer just a playoff hopeful team and that they could have a serious chance to make it out of the Western Conference in this year’s playoffs.
Gaudreau has been playing at a point-per-game pace to start the season and Markström currently leads the rest of the league’s goaltenders in shutouts with five. This Flames team has been playing like a legitimate cup contender since the season started and has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Montreal Canadiens are near the bottom of the standings
After a fairytale-esque run for the Canadiens during the NHL’s 2020-21 playoff season, they have plummeted to the bottom of the league standings. With a record of 6-16-2 at the time of writing, the Canadiens have looked like a shell of their former selves.
Without star players like Carey Price and Shea Weber, the Canadiens have been in a complete rut and have been unable to turn themselves around thus far. The team recently fired almost their entire back-office staff, including former General Manager Marc Bergevin. The coming months will show whether or not their back-office was the issue, or if their players needed a boost. The Canadiens biggest victory this year came when they let the Carolina Hurricanes have Jesperi Kotkaniemi and they didn’t match his offer sheet of a USD $6.1 million dollar contract. Overall, this Canadiens team has gotten off to a very surprising start this season.
The rise of the Florida Panthers
After their intense first round playoff series with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, most fans believed that the Lightning were destined to continue to be the best team in Florida. What’s surprising is that the Panthers have become not only the team to beat in Florida, but also in the entire NHL. Every aspect of this team has been near-perfect and over the course of a seven game series, I would have a hard time picking against them.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has seemingly returned to form with a 9-1-2 record at the time of writing. He has been virtually unstoppable to start the season, due in part to the efforts of the always-stellar defensive unit in front of him. MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad currently sit at a positive 14 and positive 16 rating respectively, highlighting how productive the team is when they are on the ice.
In terms of offensive production, the Panthers have an unbelievable amount of scoring depth. Florida currently has 12 players who have crossed the double-digit point threshold at this point in the season. The Panthers have depth from their first line to their fourth line. With Bobrovsky turning the clock back and returning to Vezina form, this team looks like a clear favorite to contend for this year’s Stanley Cup.
While these trends look convincing, it’s important to remember that it’s still early in the season and a lot can change before the playoffs in May.
It’s been a wild year in the NHL so far, so it’ll be interesting to see how the playoffs shake out.