Were we all wrong about the Edmonton Oilers? The supposed Stanley Cup favourites opened the season with an 8-1 loss against the Vancouver Canucks. A fluke? No. Two nights later, another loss – again, to the Canucks. The Oilers went 2-7-1 through their first 10 games and now sit in seventh place in the Pacific division. On Monday night, the Oilers lost again, 6-2 – to the Canucks. How did this happen?
Special teams: The team’s once-mighty power play, which was an impressive 32.4% last season, is converting only a quarter of the time nowadays.
Goaltending: Through the first month of the season, Oilers goalies Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell have each allowed 3.99 and 4.50 goals against on average. They sit 59th and 66th overall on that key metric (for perspective, 71 different goalies have played so far in 2023-24).
And Connor McDavid? McDavid has gone without a goal in six games, and has only two so far on the year, along with eight assists. McDavid was sidelined in October with an upper body injury that the team initially said would keep him out for as much as two weeks. He was back on the ice just eight days later to play the Heritage Classic against Calgary – one of Edmonton’s only wins so far. But is he fully healthy? After Edmonton’s 5-2 loss to Nashville on Saturday afternoon, McDavid described his team’s play accurately as: “death by a thousand cuts … one mistake and it costs us and another little mistake and it just snowballs. It is tough to chase games.”
Without McDavid doing his usual thing, Edmonton might expect to count on Leon Draisaitl to make up at least some of the difference (Draisaitl finished last year with 128 points). But McDavid’s best linemate is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also struggling; Draisaitl has scored only five times. Granted, it’s early days, but they’ve been ugly ones for Edmonton, with little evidence that’s about to turn around. For what it’s worth: Though the Oilers started strong last season, they slumped enough that by Christmas, some worried they’d lost their mojo. Yet a few months later, they looked like Cup contenders.
At least the Oilers aren’t alone in their misery. Down the road in Calgary, the Flames are in a similar stituation. Calgary were widely expected to have a rebound season this year, driven (it was thought) by the team being freed of former head coach Darryl Sutter, who did “not put players in a position to succeed,” as Flames winger Jonathan Huberdeau put it, diplomatically. Yet the Flames went a dismal 2-6-1 in October, with only 19 goals in their favour (and 33 against). The Flames power play has operated at about 15% efficiency (though the penalty kill is a bright point).
Huberdeau was a key player expected to come alive under new management, but he’s so far scored only twice. Theories abound as to why Huberdeau, who just two seasons ago notched 115 points, can’t score, including that he may simply not fit within Calgary’s structure as he did into Florida’s. But what Huberdeau’s slump speaks to more broadly is a disorganized team – or at least one that, for whatever reason, is not yet designed to maximize the playmaker it has. For all the talk of casting off the yoke of bad coaching, the Flames may end this season worse off than last. Huberdeau, for instance, notched 55 points in 2022-23. He’s currently on pace for around 40 in 2023-24. And Sutter’s not around to blame this time.
It took the NHL about 72 hours to reverse its decision to ban players from using Pride tape after Arizona Coyotes’ forward Travis Dermott slung a bit of it around the top of his stick and stepped onto the ice against the Ducks in mid-October. The NHL’s ban on the tape aligned with its earlier misguided nixing of themed warm-up jerseys, after six players refused to wear Pride-themed kits last season. While the jersey ban landed relatively quietly mid-summer, the tape ban was imposed just as the season began and prompted significant backlash. Dermott was the first to defy the ban, saying afterward: “I feel like we need supporters of a movement like this; to have everyone feel included and really to beat home the idea that hockey is for everyone.” For close NHL watchers it wasn’t surprising that Dermott stepped up. As a longtime advocate for LGBTQ issues, he’s been using Pride tape for more than a year. “I have some family that is involved in the LGBTQ community,” he said last October about using the tape. “I’d like to step forward and in the future take part in supporting them more vigorously.” Done!
As we saw in the spring, a near-perfect regular season record doesn’t guarantee a Cup – or even a trip to the Final. But Vegas opening the 2023-24 campaign with an 11-1-1 start through the first week of November suggests that a repeat visit to the Final could be in the cards for the Golden Knights. Once again, goaltender Adin Hill is part of the story, having posted a .938 save percentage through seven games. He earned a shutout against Colorado Saturday night in a commanding 7-0 win over the (quite good – and recent Cup winners!) Colorado Avalanche. In the East, the Bruins are still (or are back) in the conversation, having gone 10-1-1 to start the year. The Linus Ullmark–Jeremy Swayman goaltending combo is as it was last year, helping the Bruins to allow just 1.92 goals against per game on average – the best in the league.
But while the Bruins and Golden Knights are accustomed to sitting atop their respective divisions and the league, some of their pursuers are surprising. In the West, Dallas and Colorado look sharp, but the team closest on Vegas’s heels is, uh, Vancouver? The Canucks are actually outscoring the Golden Knights and, thanks in large part to Thatcher Demko between the pipes, are allowing just as few goals. Meanwhile, a similarly unexpected entrant into the Cup race is making a play in the East. As the Rangers, Hurricanes, Devils, and Islanders battle in the Metro division, the closest contender to Boston in the Atlantic is the Detroit Red Wings, led by a re-energized Alex Debrincat, whose desire to play closer to home seems to be paying off. Debrincat is tied for second overall in scoring, with nine – two back of the league leader, Auston Matthews.
In the basement
San Jose are 0-10-1. On Thursday, the Sharks lost 10-1 to the Canucks. On Saturday, the Sharks lost 10-2 to the Penguins. The Sharks’ goal differential is -43. Nobody is worse than the Sharks. Few have ever been worse than the Sharks are right now. It’s truly something to see. And they know it.
Clip of the month
Paul Cotter’s dangle on 25 October pretty much summed up how the season in Vegas is going. Dominating.
Elsewhere in the league
– Ottawa: The NHL drew ire in Ottawa in October when it penalized the Senators – stripping them of a first-round draft pick – for the team’s role in the July 2021 Evgenii Dadonov trade, which the league had to invalidate. TL;DR: When he first came to Ottawa, Dadonov gave the Sens a 10-team no-trade list, which included Anaheim. Ottawa eventually traded Dadonov to the Vegas Golden Knights, who in 2022 traded him to Anaheim, apparently not knowing he had a no-trade stipulation for that team because Ottawa hadn’t provided it in the initial deal. “We were downright negligent,” Sens owner Michael Andlauer said, but accused the NHL of dragging its feet on issuing the penalty, given the trade was more than 18 months ago. “There is no reason for this to last this long,” he said at a press conference where he announced that the team’s GM, Pierre Dorion, who oversaw the trade, had been let go.
Earlier in October, Senators forward Shane Pinto was suspended for 41 games (half the season) for running afoul of the NHL’s gambling policies. What Pinto was doing, exactly, is still unknown but, Andlauer said, the Senators weren’t aware Pinto was under investigation until the suspension until after it had begun. Andlauer, remember, is only a few weeks into his job. “I am looking forward to less calls from the NHL offices,” Andlauer said on the rest of his first season.
– League-wide: After Adam Johnson’s tragic on-ice death in the UK from a throat laceration, some NHL players have decided to wear a neck guard during games, including Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin, Washington’s TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson, and Detroit’s Jake Walman. Meanwhile, members of both the Penguins and Jets have donned them at practice. Wayne Gretzky also weighed in – advocating not just for neck guards, but suggesting that bodychecking should also be banned in most leagues.