This NHL season may only be a couple of weeks old, but already several clubs are experiencing some difficulties.
In the Eastern Conference, this weekend found the Philadelphia Flyers (1-5), Washington Capitals (1-4), New York Rangers (1-4), Buffalo Sabres (0-5-1), New Jersey Devils (0-2-3) off to a stumbling start, while the Nashville Predators (2-3), Winnipeg Jets (2-3) and Edmonton Oilers (1-4) were among those bringing up the rear in the Western Conference.
It’s not surprising to see the Sabres winless after six games. Since last season they’ve been engaged in a rebuilding process and expectations are low this season. As of this weekend, they’re dead last in goals-for and shots-on-goal this season, while giving up the most shots-against.
The Oilers enter this season no longer able to use the excuse of “young rebuilding team” to deflect criticism of their performance. Loaded with talented young forwards, they’ve struggled in goal and on the blueline.
Like the Oilers, the Jets are once again struggling with their defensive play. As of this weekend, the Jets gave up the seventh-most goals-against per game and the eighth most shots-against.
Lack of offense has thus far hurt the Predators, Flyers and Rangers, putting them with the Sabres among the lowest-scoring teams.
While that might be expected of the Predators (whose anemic offense took a hit with Viktor Stalberg’s shoulder injury), the Flyers and Rangers weren’t expected to have difficulty in the goal-scoring department this season.
Entering this weekend, the Flyers and Rangers each had six goals, an unusually low number to be expected from two teams with established scoring depth. Flyers center Claude Giroux and Rangers winger Rick Nash (injured after three games) had yet to score their first goals.
Scoring is also a problem for a Devils roster filled with ageing scorers (Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe), ranked 25th overall in goals-for and last in shots-on-goals.
The Rangers are also struggling defensively and in goal, ranking dead last in goals-against average, giving up the fourth-most shots-against.
Considering goaltending and defense was once the Rangers’ strengths, their struggles in these categories highlight their difficulty in adjusting to new coach Alain Vigneault.
The Capitals have also struggled on the blueline and between the pipes. Of this season’s starting goalies, only Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk and NY Rangers Henrik Lundqvist have worse GAA than Washington’s Braden Holtby entering this weekend.
So, are these clubs’ early struggles merely short-term or are they indicative of bigger problems?
On paper, the Capitals, Rangers and Flyers have the depth in talent to reverse their fortunes. The Predators and Devils lack offensive punch, but their usually strong goaltending and defensive depth should help them overcome their respective slow starts.
The Oilers goaltending and defensive deficiencies are well-documented, and if new coach Dallas Eakins’ system fails to bring about suitable improvements, management will have little choice but to make a bold move or two to shake things up.
Poor defensive play has hurt the Jets in recent years, and it appears the problem has once again carried over into this season. Failure to suitably address this will ensure they’ll again miss the playoffs.
That leaves the Sabres as the least-likely of this group to overcome their early struggles as the season progresses. Given management’s apparent commitment to rebuilding, there’s little expectation the Sabres will significantly improve over what we’ve seen so far.
Still, it’s only two weeks into an 82-game regular season and a long way to go until season’s end in April. All these clubs have plenty of time to overcome their early-season struggles and play their way into playoff contention. It’ll be interesting to see which ones can pull it off.