by Rob Ficiur
A the NHL season reached the one quarter mark of the season. There are always surprises – but this year there are at least two unpredictable unheard of surprises. If we had placed a wager that these on these surprises fans of all kinds would have gladly bet against us – because surprises like these don’t happen often (if ever).
1. Vegas Golden Knights are first in their division.
Background: No expansion team in NHL history has ever had a winning record. This number includes the six new NHL teams that joined in 1967. Back then the league jumped from six to twelve teams in one season. That first season all six expansion teams had losing records. Five of the original six teams had winning records that year.
This week the Golden Knights are six games above .500 with a 13-6-1. That means they have won twice as many games as they have lost. After their hot start, all the experts assumed their record would fall like a rock to the bottom of the standings. Instead they are 5-4-1 in their last ten games.
Why are they so good? Vegas has a .500 record on the road. Any team that can play .500 on the road is almost guaranteed a great season. At home they have eight wins and one loss. Why are teams losing when they come to Las Vegas? The first thought might be that when teams visit Vegas maybe the players are enjoying too much nightlife. The reality is that there is nightlife in the other 30 NHL cities as well, if players want to be distracted. Vegas is a new stop, but that does not explain why this new team has the best home record in the NHL.
The best explanation for the success in Vegas is the NHL expansion draft. In every other expansion draft the new teams got fourth or fifth line players from the existing teams. This year Vegas picked up legitimate third line players – and a few others. Most third liners are in the NHL because of their work ethic – now the entire team has that in common.
Are the Vegas Golden Knights a sure bet to make the playoffs? With 62 games left in their season I still expect this expansion team to slide down the standings and miss the post season. However, I was sure after five games they would slump and I was sure after ten games they would hit a losing streak. It has not happened, and though I still think they will fall, it is not a sure bet.
2. Edmonton Oilers are bottom feeders (again)
After a dramatic playoff run – experts thought this Oilers team would contend for the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2018. With the Oilers sitting 29th out of 31 teams, they look to be contending for golf lessons during the NHL playoffs. How can a team go from so good to so dismal? Their goaltending and defensive play have slipped back to the levels of production (or non-production) we are used to seeing from the non playoff Oilers. Connor McDavid may be a generational superstar – but he cannot do it alone.
Background – The US Thanksgiving is an important milestone in the NHL season. If a team is in a playoff spot on US Thanksgiving, there is an 81% chance that these teams will make the playoffs in the spring. On average only three teams currently in a playoff spot will drop out by season’s end. This year the numbers might be different. San Jose holds the final Wild Card playoff spot with 23 points in 20 games. Five other teams also have 23 points. It won’t be hard for Colorado, Chicago, Minnesota, Anaheim and Dallas to gain one or two points in the next 60 games to pass San Jose.
The Oilers are only five points out of a playoff spot. However they have to leap frog over six other teams. It can be done. It has been done. The reality is – it usually does not happen.
3. Has Sid the Kid Fallen?
At age 30, it might be time stop calling Sidney Crosby a kid. However, his current scoring pace of 17 points in 23 games ranks him 69th in league scoring. After twelve seasons in the NHL, is Crosby moving from superstar to average star?
Stop! We have seen this (and worse before). Two years ago (December 22 2015) I wrote the following: “At this moment Sidney Crosby, the two time NHL scoring leader, is tied for 95th in league scoring. At 28 years of age Crosby should be entering the prime of his NHL career…. Why is Crosby slumping?”
What has Sidney Crosby done in the last two years since I wrote that? He won the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals scored) in 2015-2016 (the year I wrote about above). Crosby captained Canada to a World Cup of hockey championship. He also added two Conn Smythe Trophies (NHL playoff MVP) as he led the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
Crosby had not fallen two years ago. A slow start we have seen before…so we won’t write off this Super Star just yet.