The NHL’s biggest surprises and disappointments heading into the holiday break
By Noah Wilson, Contributor
The 2023-24 NHL season has been an excellent experience for hockey fans to watch so far, with the league being as talented as ever. This, in turn, has brought a fair share of drama, massive surprises, big disappointments, and a plethora of emerging stars.
Let’s get into a few of them.
No gas to Oilers start
At the beginning of this season, the Edmonton Oilers labeled this season as ‘Stanley Cup or bust.’ Meaning, the Oilers shocking 2-9 start to this season was something nobody in the hockey world saw coming. With mediocre production from Connor McDavid and abysmal goaltending, the Oilers struggled to find their footing, which eventually led to the firing of fan-favourite coach Jay Woodcroft. To make matters even worse, starting goaltender Jack Campbell was sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) after posting an .873 save percentage (SV%) and one win in five starts. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong for the Edmonton Oilers.
As the Oilers begin December with new coach Kris Knoblauch at the helm, they will need to go on a considerable run if they want to dig themselves out of the massive rut they find themselves in. It also helps that Connor McDavid is back to doing Connor McDavid things, recording 13 points in just four-games in December.
It will be interesting to see if the Oilers are in a playoff spot come April, as they are better than their record suggests.
Quinn Hughes and the Vancouver Canucks stand atop the Pacific Division
An overload of success has been a long time coming for Vancouver Canucks fans, and after an incredibly disappointing 2022-23 season, it looks like the team’s good fortune is finally here. The Canucks surge to the top has been all thanks to the tremendous production of Quinn Hughes, Elias Petterson and J.T Miller—with each player ranking in the top 10 in points among NHL players.
On top of these players taking over the League, the Canucks have been getting solid team support all around. Players like Brock Boeser, who leads the NHL in goals, Filip Hronek, who has been fantastic on the team’s top pair, and goaltender Thatcher Demko, who has genuinely turned into a star this season.
But, the player that has gained the most attention, however, has been defenceman Quinn Hughes.
The Canucks captain has been outstanding this year. Hughes’ 33 points in 24 games had proved that the blueliner is not only in the conversation for the Norris Trophy but also the NHL’s MVP.
Though, the Canucks aren’t in the clear just yet. Consistency has always been a struggle for this core, so it will be intriguing if they can change that narrative this season.
Kings take their throne
The Los Angeles Kings have quietly established themselves as one of the cup favourites as we enter the last month of the year. They currently have a dominant 13-4-3 record while ranked number one in goals against. The Kings’ sturdy defensive play is a direct result of the stellar netminding from Cam Talbot, who has a 10-4-1 record with a .928 SV%.
What makes the Kings scary is their endless depth scoring and emerging talent throughout the organization. Over half the team already has 10 points, and we are only at the 25-game mark. That is seriously impressive.
Centre Quinton Byfield is in the process of having his breakout year with four goals and 12 assists in just 20 games. This comes as great news to the Kings organization, as many fans questioned whether Byfield was the proper selection by the team during the 2020 NHL Draft.
However, Byfield is turning heads this season and is showcasing his talent on both ends of the ice.
Forward Trevor Moore is also having a breakout year of his own. The Kings acquired Moore in 2020, and he is someone fans quickly gravitated towards. The California native has an impressive 11 goals and eight assists for 19 points in 20 games.
The Kings’ talented mesh of young and old players is playing a critical role in their success, as they seem as dangerous as the Kings teams that were crowned Stanley Cup champions in 2012 and 2014. Only time will tell if we see yet another cup win for 2024.
‘Willy Styles’ has been sublime
Wiliam Nylander, dubbed ‘Willy Styles,’ has been exceptional for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Beginning his 2023-24 campaign with an 18-game point streak, Nylander finds himself with 28 points — 12 goals, 16 assists — in 21 games this season. So far, the Leafs’ success this season has been all because of the sheer dominance of William Nylander. He is the heartbeat of the team right now, even eclipsing teammates such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Yes, he’s been that good.
Good to level that there could be a legitimate argument for him to be in the MVP discussion.
For Nylander, this is a contract year. Meaning, there is a big question mark whether or not he will resign with the Leafs and the success of this season will correlate to how much money he may be offered in a new contract.
As of right now, he is proving to Toronto and the rest of the league that he is worth every penny.
Wild? More like, watered-down
The Minnesota Wild have always been a perennial playoff team that has found themselves in the middle of the pack. This season has been a different story. The Wild currently sit 27th in league standings and are a bottom-three team in goals against. The struggle of keeping the puck out of the net is the primary reason for the team’s seven-game losing streak in November, which ultimately cost former head coach, Dean Evason his job.
Veteran player Patrick Maroon expressed his opinion on the firing.
“I enjoyed playing for Dean. It’s not on him, it’s on the players here. We let him down,” admitted Maroon.
The Wild’s struggles have also been partly due to franchise player Kirill Kaprizov, who has not looked like his usual self. In the season prior, Kaprizov solidified himself as a top-10 player in the NHL. Many have pointed out that his struggles are because of his lingering recovery from a lower-body injury last season. Even if this is the case, Kaprizov not being the 100-point player his team is used to having has affected the Wild’s ability to compete this season.
Rising-star Matthew Boldy has also struggled, registering only two goals in 14 appearances after having an outstanding 2022-23 campaign. A season where he registered a career-high, 31 goals.
Veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has yet to help either, as he currently holds a SV% of .875.
It’s safe to say that Minnesota’s newest bench boss, John Hynes, has lots of work to do if the Wild want to find any success this season.