NHL Early Season Stragglers

The NHL season is still in the “taking shape” part of its schedule, and TheSportsNotebook will continue to see it that way through the New Year. The January 1 Winter Classic—Chicago and Boston playing under Touchdown Jesus in South Bend—is a good benchmark to use for when the regular season needs to pick it up a notch. Consequently, my early-season NHL focus is  more on who is *not* playing well—who’s digging themselves a hole and making the marathon regular season more interesting than it needs to be?

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There are four teams outside the current playoff structure that stand out. The defending champion Washington Capitals. Their archival and winner of the two previous Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins. This rivalry, poised to become the hottest in professional sports, will fizzle quickly if this is more than just early season kinks.

In the Western Conference there is last year’s great Cinderella story, the Vegas Golden Knights, who made the Finals in their first year of existence. And I might be pushing my luck including the Chicago Blackhawks in this group—they did, after all, miss the playoffs last year. But so many key players with three Stanley Cup rings on their fingers had me watching them closely to see if that was an aberration.

Here’s a brief thought on all four teams and why they’re not playing well early…

Washington: The Caps rank 23rd in the league on defense and improved D was the signature of former head coach Barry Trotz. With Trotz immediately ditching the organization before the champagne was dry, this is a surface concern. But I emphasize “surface”, because the team defense overall is still limiting shots at about the league average. Of greater immediate concern is that Braden Holtby is not playing well in goal, after also struggling during last year’s regular season.

Pittsburgh: The Penguins have their own goaltending problems. 24-year-old Matt Murray was supposed to have stabilized the position for at least the next decade. But he’s followed up a subpar 2017-18 season of his own with some extremely poor play this year. Casey DeSmith has started getting time in the net. The offense is a little slow out of the gate, but with the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel intact, I can’t imagine it’s any more than a blip on the radar.

Vegas: This is really not surprising. The Golden Knights never did have signature offensive talent—you aren’t going to build an enduring power with Jon Marchessault and William Karlsson as your two best players. Marc-Andre Fleury, at age 34, has come back to earth at goalie. The clock strikes midnight for every Cinderella and I believe it has in Vegas—this is more than just early-season struggles.

Chicago: Joel Quenneville, who coached the Stanley Cup champs of 2010, 2013 and 2015, has been fired after starting 6-6-3. That was premature, but underscores the sense of urgency going on with this organization. The key players—Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are all still on hand. Kane is playing well, all of these players are on the wrong side of 30 and Keith is 35. So are goalies, Cam Ward and Corey Crawford. There’s no time to spare in the Windy City.