American Thanksgiving has become a big date on the NHL calendar — particularly for playoff implications — and a terrific time to evaluate the lay of the land through approximately 25 games.
The NHL season is a marathon — and there are still two-thirds to go in the 82-game schedule — but this holiday weekend offers a chance to highlight the early surprises, disappointments and frontrunners for awards.
When it comes to disappointments, these are the five biggest to date.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs were a popular Stanley Cup pick prior to the season — including for yours truly — but they haven’t lived up to the hype and have already fired their coach.
Injuries have played a factor, with John Tavares and Mitch Marner sidelined while Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman missed the start of the campaign. That Tavares-Marner line wasn’t the same without Hyman either, with Marner leaving a lot to be desired after signing his mega-deal.
There has been some dysfunction and other underachievers, but the roster makeup has also come into question with a glaring lack of grit and the ongoing need for a backup goaltender.
There is no shortage of skill and that makes the sub-.500 record at American Thanksgiving all the more disappointing, with 12 wins and 14 losses (12-10-4) as of Thursday.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy last season and returned much the same roster, so most expected Tampa to be the team to beat again in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the regular season in general.
The standings are deceiving because the Lightning have fewer games played, but Tampa technically would have missed the playoffs if they started on American Thanksgiving despite possessing the second-best points percentage (.591) in the Atlantic behind Boston (.780).
The results and overall record (12-8-2) at American Thanksgiving — with 12 wins and 10 losses — were disappointing and not up to Tampa’s standards. As of now, the Lightning are no longer a safe bet on a nightly basis.
That said, the panic buttons aren’t being pushed there and Jon Cooper seems relatively safe as coach, with this early bit of adversity perhaps proving beneficial in the long run for Tampa.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils rank right up there — arguably ahead of the Leafs and Lightning — in terms of disappointing teams. New Jersey missed the playoffs last season — unlike Toronto and Tampa, who were both eliminated in the first round — but expectations were fairly high for Ray Shero’s overhauled roster.
The Devils won the draft lottery for Jack Hughes, acquired P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev for futures, signed Wayne Simmonds and welcomed Jesper Boqvist to North America — totalling five promising additions without any significant subtraction.
However, the goaltending has failed again with Cory Schneider now in the AHL. The lack of success in continuing to bring up the rear of the Metropolitan Division — occupying last place, just like last season — has a Taylor Hall trade sounding imminent and John Hynes looking like the next coach on the chopping block. Disappointing to say the least.
Johnny Gaudreau has been the poster boy for Calgary’s disappointing start and the Flames’ downfall from topping the Western Conference last season. That top line — comprised of Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm — hasn’t been nearly as dominant or as dangerous this season. The idea of trading Gaudreau has even been floated.
Dallas got their season back on track without a whole lot of help from captain Jamie Benn. At least not statistically, though he has been better lately and had a few game-winning goals in a row after going 15 games without a goal, including 10 without a point from Oct. 12 through Nov. 14. Benn isn’t washed up like Milan Lucic, but those hard miles from his younger years as a power forward do appear to be catching up and Father Time remains undefeated in the NHL. Well, Zdeno Chara and Joe Thornton are still putting up a decent fight on that front.
Some of the world’s best goaltenders have also endured their share of disappointing outings in the early stages. Carey Price, Pekka Rinne and Andrei Vasilevskiy have struggled at times, with Price having a rough go right now. He’s got a lot of contract left, so Montreal has to hope this is just a blip and not a sign of things to come.
It has been well documented how difficult the second season can be for young players and specifically teenagers in the NHL. Sometimes things come easier in the first season — fuelled by adrenaline as rookies — before experiencing the dreaded sophomore slump.
This season’s slumpers include 2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, whose stat-line (1-15-16 over 24 games) is a little misleading and masks his struggles to date for Buffalo. Dahlin has Norris-level upside, but he has been a turnover machine on the bad nights and seemingly lost his mojo for a stretch before sustaining a concussion that has him sidelined in the present. Dahlin did get off to a stellar start in becoming only the fifth teenage defenceman in NHL history to record at least 10 points in his first 10 games of a season before hitting the skids.
Confidence is crucial but can be fragile, and 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi has also been lacking in that department — looking a little lost for Montreal at both ends of the ice, but he had his best game of the season on American Thanksgiving with a two-point performance to bring his totals to three goals and five points over 19 games. There had been debate over demoting him to the AHL or sending him to the World Juniors amid that disappointing start, but Kotkaniemi should be able to build off that confidence-booster.
Andrei Svechnikov — the second overall pick from 2018, selected between Dahlin and Kotkaniemi — has had no such struggles and is enjoying a breakout campaign as a sophomore with 11 goals and 29 points through 27 games.
Other slumpers of note — those who have disappointed fantasy owners — include Philadelphia netminder Carter Hart at times (8-5-3 record over 17 appearances/912 minutes, 2.44, .906), Ottawa’s Colin White (2-3-5 over 20), Dahlin’s Buffalo teammate Casey Mittelstadt (4-4-8 over 27), Minnesota’s Ryan Donato (3-3-6 over 24, inflated by points in three straight this week), and Tampa’s Mathieu Joseph (4-3-7 over 23) and Erik Cernak (1-0-1 over 21), who ironically concussed Dahlin with an elbow that resulted in a two-game suspension.
Agree or disagree — who or what have been the biggest disappointments in the NHL at American Thanksgiving? Feel free to weigh in by leaving a comment below.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.