Lost: Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs Struggle Despite Promising Expectations
Blackhawks’ Active Offseason Hasn’t Translated to Early Success
The Blackhawks looked poised to return to contending form coming into this season. They had captain Jonathan Toews returning after missing a year due to chronic immune response syndrome. General manager Stan Bowman added goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forward Tyler Johnson via trade and defenseman Jake McCabe through free agency. Not to mention trading for defensemen Seth Jones and inking him to a massive extension.
It comes with an immense surprise that the team has started off the year 0-5-1 through six games. Over the past week, they’re 0-3, scoring just five goals. Even more egregious is a -15 goal differential. Half of their 12 goals have come on the power play, which creates concern regarding their five-on-five play. No one is saying they should’ve started the year undefeated, but winless through six games? The Hawks need help.
It’s a double-whammy; they can’t score, and they can’t stop getting scored on. It’s only been six games, so there’s plenty of time for them to turn it around, but not while playing like this. They’ll have to lean heavily on Toews and Patrick Kane, as well as Johnson and Fleury as the team’s elder statesmen, to right the ship.
They may not have been contenders heading into this year, but the bottom of the barrel was certainly unexpected. Given their experienced leadership, they should turn this around, but anyone who thought they were playoff contenders should turn that confidence into caution.
‘Trouble in Toronto’ Is an Understatement
The Maple Leafs look lost. Following a 7-1 beatdown from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Leafs dropped to 2-3-1 through six games, sixth in the Atlantic Division. Over the past week, they’re 0-2-1 and have a -9 goal differential. It’s hard to pin this on goaltending, at least starting goaltending.
Before the loss, Jack Campbell was 2-0-1 with a 1.18 goals-against average (GAA) and .953 save-percentage (SV%) in four games. Following that, he still has a respectable 2.22 GAA and .916 SV%. Goaltending wasn’t the problem; defense and lack of offensive production were.
The defensive pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were on for four of the Penguins’ seven goals. They’re both at a minus-6 this season and each average just below 21 minutes on ice per game. Given how much they play, they need to figure it out. Despite this, the Leafs’ biggest problem is the goals that they aren’t scoring.
The Leafs’ big guns are snake-bitten. John Tavares, one goal; Mitch Marner, one point; Auston Matthews, no points, albeit he has only played in three games. Their leading point-scorer is William Nylander, and while he’s expected to be a top producer, to lead the team is less than ideal considering the other names on the roster. Even more noteworthy, the second leading point-scorer yet leading goal-scorer is 38-year-old Jason Spezza.
While Spezza leading the team in goals off the hop is a great story, it’s not a path to success for the Leafs. Yes, it’s just six games into the season. However, someone has to figure something out because if this team takes a step back after another first-round exit, some serious changes could be on the horizon.
Found: San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers Exceeding Expectations, Off to Hot Starts
Sharks Laugh at Projections, Surprise With Strong Start
The Sharks are definitely a surprise to start the season. They sit second in the Pacific Division at 4-1 and have done so mainly on the road, going 3-1. The special teams are clicking with a 29.4 power-play percentage and a 92.3 penalty kill percentage, placing them eighth and third in the NHL, respectively.
With all the Evander Kane drama surrounding the team and culminating in his suspension, coupled with aging veterans and a prospect pool ranked 22nd by THW’s Peter Baracchini, the THW staff projected the Sharks to finish seventh in the Pacific.
It’s as if Sharks captain Logan Couture heard all the noise and said, “hold my beer.” The pivot is tied with forward Timo Meier for team-lead in goals and points, scoring three goals and eight points in five games. Adin Hill and James Reimer’s strong play in net will be key for this team to go places.
The Sharks may be a more exciting team than they’ve been given credit for. 2021 seventh-overall pick William Eklund already has three points in four games, and 23-year-old Jonathan Dahlen has three goals through five games.
This is a team that could make a splash in a relatively weak Pacific Division. Especially with the Vegas Golden Knights, who narrowly missed the cut for this edition, struggling out of the gate, they could find themselves playing very meaningful hockey for most of the season. Potentially, they could be rewarded for it.
New-look Rangers Hit the Ground Running
The Rangers made a plethora of changes this past offseason: a new team president and general manager, a new coach, and an emphasis on increasing team toughness. They traded Pavel Buchnevich for Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round draft pick, a 2022 third-round pick for Ryan Reaves, and a seventh for Barclay Goodrow.
The result? A 4-1-1 start, their best start through six games since going 4-2 to start the 2016-17 season. They’ve won three very close games over the past week, including rallying for three third-period goals to beat the Ottawa Senators.
Now, they aren’t lighting up the scoresheet, they only have a +1 goal differential, but their team defense and goaltending are keeping them alive. Specifically, Igor Shesterkin is 3-0-1 with a 1.47 GAA and .953 SV% in four games.
The Rangers have achieved that boost in physicality and are second in the NHL to rival New York Islanders, with 175 hits. Once star forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, who have combined for two goals in six games, return to their goal-scoring form, the Rangers could be a sneaky-dangerous team in a tough Metropolitan Division.
It’s hard to get a real read on the Rangers. They have three winnable games coming up against the Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Seattle Kraken. If they can continue their winning ways, they could make the naysayers sorry and be an interesting team to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Sean Raggio lives for hockey. He will be covering the Seattle Kraken, and is a co-host of “What’s Kraken” for THW. Sean gained experience in writing for television, print and radio while studying journalism at Quinnipiac University and being an active member in the student media organizations there. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out on Twitter! A link can be found at the bottom of his articles, such as this one.