It isn’t really about the holiday. It’s the number of games played that is significant, and the proliferation of streaks early in this NHL season.
Hockey insiders look at American Thanksgiving as the first major benchmark because it falls right around the 20-game mark. Trends are developing and (appropriate for the holidays) shopping is ramping up across the league. General managers have met face-to-face and sized up the market, gaining a better understanding of what they have and what they need.
If there has been a theme so far, it’s the streak — for better or worse.
There have already been several impressive win streaks among the league leaders, but also an inordinate number of long slumps by others. The reasons are hard to pinpoint, but there are a number of possibilities.
Eleven NHL clubs have dropped at least five straight games — including Buffalo, Philadelphia and St. Louis with winless runs of eight — which seems hard to do this early. If misery loves company, they have plenty.
On the positive side, three teams have separated themselves from the pack by stringing a lot of wins together.
- The speedy Devils ripped off an impressive 13 straight Ws, led by young star centres Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes and backed by a rebuilt, stingy defence. They’re answering the “Are they for real?” question on a nightly basis.
- A veteran Bruins team that many had dismissed coming into the year has already had two seven-game win streaks and is unbeaten at home.
- And a healthy Vegas squad stormed out to a 13-2-0 start that featured nine straight wins.
The next tier has been quietly efficient — and, notably, streak free. It includes Dallas, Toronto and the New York Islanders as well as recent champions Tampa Bay and Colorado. Also Carolina, a pre-season favourite for many.
As for the 11 that have tallied far too many in a row in the loss column, three were widely perceived as upper tier and have battled back to respectability:
- Pittsburgh recovered from a seven-game skid and had won five straight heading into Saturday night’s home date against the Maple Leafs.
- Calgary is back in the playoff conversation despite having dropped seven in succession early on.
- The most mystifying streakers, the St. Louis Blues, opened with three impressive wins, dropped an unsightly eight, then roared back with seven victories. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde. Head coach Craig Berube has seen it all in just a quarter of a season.
The Sabres have improved recently, but the Flyers continue to flounder. The Canucks put themselves behind the 8-ball before they’d played that number of games, winless after their first seven. Ottawa’s run of seven losses took the shine off a series of encouraging off-season moves, while San Jose has had two runs of five games without a win, and neighbouring Anaheim went seven straight without celebrating.
Why so many long slumps? Suspect goaltending and a high volume of injuries to key personnel have no doubt contributed. But there must be more to it.
Has the impact of the pandemic over three seasons taken a toll on players and routines to the point where some teams can’t right the ship the way they used to?
Are teams reliant on too few players who absorb too much of the salary cap, leaving them more vulnerable to injuries and career downturns?
I’m sure team psychologists are hard at work trying to decipher what exactly is happening. Early losing streaks are hard to battle back from.
The good news is there’s still time, and there have been a few pleasant reminders that teams can still defy the odds.
- After ridiculously high expectations went unmet in their first year, the Seattle Kraken are among the Western Conference leaders and 8-1-1 over their past 10.
- The Detroit Red Wings have quietly built on a good start — just five regulation losses in their first 20 games — after general manager Steve Yzerman added veterans David Perron, Andrew Copp and Ville Husso to buttress their young talent.
- And in Montreal, where expectations weren’t high from the outside, a talented group of youngsters apparently wasn’t listening. With captain Nick Suzuki, high-scoring running mate Cole Caufield and often four rookie defencemen in the lineup, the Canadiens are playing loose and free under coach Martin St. Louis.
As the second quarter begins, adjustments will be made and markets corrected. For many teams, avoiding ominous streaks will be high on their Christmas list.
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