Judging NHL overreactions after one week: Matthews for the Hart? Bruins winning the Cup?

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper called his team’s recent game against the Buffalo Sabres a “critical” one.

“I told our players they can’t let frustration set in. Let’s turn that energy into a little bit of anger here,” he said.

It was their third game of the 2023-24 season.

Even one week into the season, there’s pressure to meet expectations. It’s a reminder that a lot of what eventually happens by the end of the season can be traced back to how it starts. The Boston Bruins came out of the gate with three straight wins last season. By Game 19, they were 17-2-0.

The opening of the NHL season is fertile ground for overreactions. Proclamations are made and then quickly regretted — or held onto as prophetic.

Just over a week into the 2023-24 NHL regular season, here are 12 first impressions that we judge to be absolutely delusional or harbingers of things to come.

New Jersey was a revelation last season. The Devils improved by 49 points year-over-year in the standings, finishing fifth in goals per game and ninth in goals against per game. They beat the Rangers in a first-round playoff series. They appeared poised to make the leap to Stanley Cup contender status … and then came out of the gate looking mid at best with a 1-1-1 record. While Jack Hughes picked up where he left off (six points), others like Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer and especially Timo Meier haven’t notched a point yet.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. The Devils have had to adjust to a couple of things early on this season. First and foremost: the losses of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves on the back end, the former traded to Columbus and the latter signing with Pittsburgh. That’s been an issue not necessarily in the defensive zone but in leaving the defensive zone: Both players helped break out the puck to start the Devils’ dominant transition game. For all the talk about the Devils leveling up this summer, their blue line might have taken a slight step back, even with the arrival of rookie Luke Hughes.

That established, they’re still going to be fine. This is a deeply talented team that will eventually find its footing again — perhaps the Devils are struggling to do so now because they were placed on a pedestal by so many after last season. Besides, if there’s one team that shouldn’t be judged by the first few games, it’s New Jersey, lest we forget that fans were calling for coach Lindy Ruff to be fired in mid-October last season before he was a Jack Adams finalist and earned a contract extension.

The Boston Bruins are still Stanley Cup contenders

The Bruins are still smarting from the one-two punch of last season’s demise: Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retiring after the best regular season in NHL history preceded a first-round playoff defeat. But they still have David Pastrnak, who has three goals in his first two games this season. They still have the best goaltending duo in the NHL, as Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman were sharp in their first two starts. They’re still the Bruins, jumping out to a 2-0-0 start.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. Last season’s overreactions column judged one of them quite correctly: “Reports of the Boston Bruins’ demise were exaggerated” was not an overreaction, despite the team having dealt with several early-season injuries. “When the reinforcements arrive, they should find the Bruins contending for a playoff spot — and the rest of the league on notice,” was the verdict.

We can’t quite get there with this group, however. There are still huge questions about how the loss of Bergeron will ultimately impact the team on and off the ice. Which is to say that the Bruins don’t exactly have championship-quality center depth. Is this a playoff team? Most likely, given the foundation of Ullmark and Swayman behind two great defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, which is rather sturdy. But it’s hard to imagine, as currently constituted, that the Bruins have the forward group to be on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper will be fired

The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t faced this kind of adversity since being swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019. Captain Steven Stamkos grumbled publicly about the lack of movement on a new contract, as he’s a free agent after this season. Star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will miss the first two months of the season after surgery to address a lumbar disc issue. Then there are the diminishing returns, as the Lightning failed to play to a 100-point pace last season for the first time since 2016-17.

According to Cap Friendly, Cooper is under contract for this season and next season. He’s the longest-serving current coach in the NHL, having been promoted by the Lightning on March 25, 2013. He helped the franchise win two Stanley Cups and have a dynastic run of success. But nothing lasts forever.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. It’s plausible that Cooper’s time in Tampa Bay could be winding down, given the duration of his tenure and the direction of the team. Were that the case … well, congrats to everyone watching hockey on television, because that man was born to be an analyst.

That said, when you read between the lines of general manager Julien BriseBois’ comments regarding Stamkos, it’s possible he sees the Lightning’s current plight as one of construction vs. coaching. He basically said he wanted to wait and see on the captain’s next deal until he gets a sense of what the roster needs after this season. Besides, are you really going to ding one of the best coaches in the NHL when he has to start the season with Matt Tomkins and Jonas Johansson as his goaltending battery?

Matthews wasn’t exactly in a giving mood to start the season, as he scored six goals in three games without an assist — including back-to-back hat tricks to start the season. His goal-scoring production dipped to 40 goals in 74 games last season after he potted 60 goals in 73 games back in 2021-22. You know, when he won the Hart Trophy for the first time.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. According to BET MGM, Matthews has the third-best odds of winning the Hart Trophy this season, behind Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, who has never won MVP honors before. Obviously, McDavid is the Hart Trophy favorite, and rather heavily — 60% of the money wagered on the MVP race has been placed on McDavid.

But consider, if you will, MVP fatigue. McDavid has won the Hart three times, but never in consecutive seasons. Voters sometimes get a little frisky when there’s a de facto favorite to win an award. If Matthews ends up with some Herculean goal total in a season that sees the Leafs win the Atlantic and/or the East, he could capture his second MVP award.

The St. Louis Blues goaltender started the season by stopping 63 of 65 shots for a .969 save percentage and a 0.92 goals-against average. He hasn’t just played well, he has played spectacularly at times: Witness this glove save on Joe Pavelski.

Binnington’s been hungry to get back out on the ice for this season after posting mediocre numbers in 2022-23 (.894, 3.31) while the Blues missed the playoffs. His save percentage has dropped every season since his historic rookie campaign in which he led St. Louis to the Stanley Cup. Is this the season Binner reverses course?

The verdict: OVERREACTION. This would be a “Superman flies around the Earth to make it spin backward” reversal of course. Binnington posted a minus-9.2 goals save above expected last season and cost the Blues 1.5 wins. It was the second straight season in which he played to a below-replacement level. There are always stretches when Binnington looks good, which leads eye-test aficionados to overlook the analytics and declare him “actually good.” Perhaps we’re in one now.

One caveat: The Blues revamped their defensive system over the offseason in an effort to reduce the number of high-danger chances their goaltenders were seeing. Already, the number of high-danger shots Binnington is seeing at 5-on-5 on average has dropped year over year. Sample size, of course, but something to keep an eye on.

The Sabres earned their first two points of the season on Tuesday with an overtime win over the Lightning, a game that saw them blow a third-period lead. They were a preseason darling to finally break through with a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — for the first time since 2011 — but have stumbled at the start.

Star center Tage Thompson doesn’t have a point in three games, which is something he did only once last season. As a result, the Sabres’ offense has sputtered. Rookie goalie Devon Levi, often cited as a catalyst for a Buffalo playoff push, is learning on the job (.893 save percentage) behind a team that was 26th in expected goals against last season.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Sabres’ playoff chances were always a bit overstated by the punditry this season. Evolving Hockey projected them to finish with 92 points with a less than 50% chance of qualifying for the postseason. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model projected them to finish with 87 points with a 21% chance to making the playoffs.

The Sabres could still be a year away, giving them time to refine their team defense and the talented Levi one season to get his skates under him. The good news is that they’re pointed in the right direction and have some important players — Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power — signed for the long term.

Scoring will drop this season

Through the first week of the season, there have been 3.05 goals per team per game on average, which is down from 3.18 goals per team per game last season. 2022-23 marked the sixth straight full season in which average scoring increased in the NHL. Is the league’s scoring boom about to subside?

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. At the start of the season, penalty kills and goaltenders are ahead of the power plays and goal-scorers. Last season’s incredible scoring averages — the highest per team per game figure since 3.24 goals in 1993-94 — was fueled in part of a power-play conversion rate of 21.3%, which was the highest since the 1985-86 season (!). While it might not hit those heights again, power plays should run better than their current 19% conversion rates.

The real surprise early on is goaltending, as the league average save percentage is .910, after dropping all the way to .904 last season. That’s actually a normalization: Average save percentage was at .910 as late as 2019-20, when the average goals per team per game was 3.01.

The scoring numbers had climbed so high that there was bound to be a slight correction at some point, especially now that one-sixth of the league’s teams weren’t structuring their rosters to maximize lottery odds like last season. Let’s just hope 3.18 goals per team per game wasn’t the top of the roller-coaster hill for scoring in the NHL and that it’s all downhill from there.

Along with the Devils, the Kraken were the other breakout team in 2022-23, improving by 40 points over their inaugural season to make the playoffs and bounce the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. They went from 28th in scoring (2.60 goals per game) all the way to fourth (3.52), thanks in part to Jared McCann‘s 40-goal season and Matty Beniers‘ Calder Trophy-winning rookie campaign. Their goaltending wasn’t great, but they got just enough of it in the regular season to excel.

To that end, the Kraken have been unrecognizable early on this season. They have three goals in four games, having earned one point in the standings and having yet to win a game in regulation. Beniers doesn’t have a point. Meanwhile, they’ve given up 12 goals on the season, with Philipp Grubauer looking like his regular-season self again.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Seattle was always going to be a regression candidate offensively. The Kraken shot 11.6% last season, second to the Edmonton Oilers in team shooting percentage. That’s after shooting 8.9% in their inaugural season, with much of the same personnel. Their expected goals per 60 minutes last season (2.58) was significantly eclipsed by their actual goals (3.13). They were outkicking their coverage.

An offensive regression coupled with shaky regular-season goaltending, which has been as much a hallmark of the young franchise as postgame fish tosses, equals a potential step back from last season’s breakout.

Connor Bedard has rookie of the year locked up

In case you haven’t heard, Connor Bedard is the most Connor Bedard who ever Connor Bedard-ed. Connor Bedard has one goal and two assists in four games, making him the highest-scoring Connor Bedard on the Chicago Blackhawks. Whenever Connor Bedard is not on screen, all the other players should be asking, “Where’s Connor Bedard?”

So, in summary, watch Connor Bedard and follow along on the Connor Bedard tracker.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Bedard is actually tied in points with Logan Cooley of the Arizona Coyotes, who hasn’t gotten the ice time Bedard has and tallied all three assists on the power play. You probably weren’t aware of that. Chances are you’re not going to be aware of many rookie exploits that don’t involve Bedard, who has gotten the kind of cross-platform promotional push typically reserved for summer blockbusters and Taylor Swift album drops.

At this point, it’s safe to say that if Bedard stays healthy and continues to hit his offensive marks then he’s probably going to be the NHL’s rookie of the year. (And considering his shot generation, which currently outpaces Cooley 20-3, that’s likely to happen.) The only way someone can usurp him is by overshadowing him in ways that Bedard can’t match — like leading a team to a playoff berth, for example. Otherwise, the hype machine has already given Bedard a considerable lead in the rookie race.

Rick Tocchet will win the Jack Adams

The first three games of the season are a good encapsulation of the Vancouver Canucks. They earn two emphatic wins over the Oilers and then stumble to a loss at the Philadelphia Flyers, which led their coach Rick Tocchet to unleash some choice quotes: “We just got some guys … whew … they better pick it up. I don’t like to use the word ‘soft’ but I didn’t see guys competing, at all. And that’s alarming.”

Vancouver has the players to be a playoff contender, from a star forward in Elias Pettersson to an elite defenseman in Quinn Hughes to Thatcher Demko in goal. But if the Canucks make the playoffs, one can expect Tocchet will get his share of credit, after posting a .611 points percentage last season once he replaced Bruce Boudreau as head coach.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Jack Adams Award is usually given to two kinds of coaches: Those who make good teams great and those who make previously mediocre teams into playoff teams. The Calgary Flames go from 55 points to 111 points? Darryl Sutter wins it. The New York Islanders go from 80 points to 103 points after Barry Trotz is hired? Guess who won the Jack Adams?

It also doesn’t hurt to be well-liked as Trotz was as a head coach, which is one reason he won the award twice. The NHL broadcasters vote on the Jack Adams. Please recall that Tocchet was among their number before returning to the bench with Vancouver. If the Canucks make the cut, so could Tocchet.

Colorado, Vegas destined to meet in Western Conference finals

At this point, the Avalanche and Golden Knights are like two kaiju stomping through Western Conference cities on the way to their inevitable showdown. The Knights are 4-0-0 with a plus-10 goal differential. The Avalanche are 3-0-0 with a plus-7 goal differential. The past two Stanley Cup champions, on a collision course.

As Ken Watanabe said in “Godzilla,” Let them fight.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. If the Avalanche and Golden Knights do end up atop the Central and Pacific Divisions respectively, keep this in mind: Under the current playoff format, the division champions in the West have never both advanced to play each other in Western Conference finals.

But at last check, the Oilers and Dallas Stars do in fact exist in the Western Conference, which means there’s at least four teams invited to this throwdown. In theory …

Is this another wasted season of McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s primes?

The Edmonton Oilers got their first win on Tuesday night after two losses to start the season. Their 6-1 defeat of the Nashville Predators helped balance out their 8-1 loss to the Canucks to start the season. Leon Draisaitl has seven points (four goals, three assists). Connor McDavid has five points (two goals, three assists). Edmonton has scored half its goals on the power play (five).

So far, this should all seem familiar. The stars are shining. The special teams are a difference-maker. And the Oilers exhibit wild swings in effectiveness from game to game, while searching for that consistent defensive effort that could earn them a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. The Oilers remain a team poised to contend for a title this season … if things go as planned. The plan is to get the expected performances from their stars; to develop quality depth behind them; to play better defensively as a team; and to hope that one of their goaltenders steps up to secure the crease.

Against Nashville on Tuesday night, we saw the outlines of that plan. Draisaitl was on fire. Warren Foegele, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman formed a formidable supporting-cast line. They limited the Predators to one goal and got solid goaltending from Jack Campbell. Now all they have to do is figure out how to do that 16 times in the playoffs and they’re golden. As Connor McDavid said: It’s Cup or bust.

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