Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win; sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. These are their stories. Dun dun.
The first week of the NHL season is an odd one. Hockey fans, desperate for meaningful games after a long off-season, invest every shot, pass, and hit with universal import. Each slapshot from the point that gets blocked is a sign that your star defenceman isn’t going to score any goals this season because he can’t get his shot through traffic. Each man advantage that fails to result in a goal is a sign that your team is destined to have the league’s worst powerplay. Each puck shot from behind the net that banks in off your goaltender is a sign that he’s washed up and should be traded immediately.
Relax. While the points that are gained in October are just as valuable as those gained in March, the season is 82 games long and the events that we have seen in the NHL in this first week of action can’t even properly be considered trends yet.
Sure, the Penguins and Capitals will likely be at the top of the Eastern Conference all season long, but they’re going to lose a few games in regulation. And so will the Maple Leafs, who have won both of their games so far. Yes, the Red Wings will battle for top spot in the Central division, but does anyone expect the Avalanche and Stars to be at the top of the Northwest and Pacific divisions at the end of the season? Of course not. The quick start definitely doesn’t hurt, but their results so far just don’t seem sustainable.
But enough of the teams at the top of the league. That’s not what this feature is about. Let’s take a look at the teams in the cellar. Each conference has one team clearly in last place, a team that isn’t the least bit surprising. Each conference also has a handful of teams tied for second last, including a few that are the least bit surprising. Only the least bit, not the most bit. That would be Patrice Bergeron.
The Winnipeg Jets are the only team in the NHL with zero points after first week of action, but to be fair, they’ve only played two games. The issue is that they’ve been outscored 9-4 in those two games, receiving a standing ovation for a 5-1 loss in their season opener at home and coming just short in a 4-3 loss in Chicago. In that last game, however, they did have an Evander Kane goal waved off on a controversial “intent to blow” call.
There are still a few things to be concerned about in Winnipeg: the powerplay has gone 0-for-9 through their first two games and their leading scorer is fourth liner Jim Slater, who tallied two goals on tip-ins in the first period against Chicago. Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little have no points thus far. Overall, the team has looked disorganized, with Jets’ bloggers lamenting that Yakety Sax is the first thing that pops into their minds while watching their defensive efforts.
While the Jets certainly have plenty of time to get things together, it’s an inauspicious start.
Just ahead of the Jets, there are five different teams in the East with 2 points: the Panthers, Rangers, Canadiens, Bruins, and Senators. Of those, two of the teams have played 4 games, making their lack of points a bit more of a worry: the Bruins and the Senators.
It’s no surprise to see the Senators start the season at 1-3-0 – it seems like everyone pretty much expects them to finish last in the NHL this season – but it’s a bit more surprising to see the Bruins with the same record. It’s pretty easy, however, to chalk this up to the usual Stanley Cup hangover and move on. The Bruins have scored as many goals as they’ve allowed and each of their 3 losses have been by one-goal. There’s definitely a feeling that they’ll turn things around quickly.
The same can’t be said for the Senators: while they’ve scored 13 goals, the second most in the league, they’ve allowed a shocking 21 goals against. Part of that is due to their execrable penalty kill, currently sitting at 68%, which is simply unsustainable. The worst penalty kill in the league last season was Colorado’s, at 76.1%. But through their first 4 games, they’re also the league’s worst team at 5-on-5.
The only bright spot for the Senators has been their powerplay, which is clicking at a league-leading 31.6%…which is also unsustainable. So I know it’s nice, Senators fans, to see Erik Karlsson leading the league in scoring from a defenceman, but 5 of his 6 points came on the powerplay, and that just isn’t likely to continue.
Is at all surprising that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in last place in the Western Conference? Only a little bit. While the Blue Jackets were pretty awful last season, they made some legitimate improvements to their lineup in the off-season, adding a top-end centre in Jeff Carter and a legitimate powerplay quarterback in James Wisniewski. Of course, Wisniewski has yet to play a game for the team after his pre-season suspension, so perhaps it’s not surprising at all.
Despite the team’s struggles over the years, they’ve never lost the first three games of the season in their history. Until now. The team has gotten off to the worst start in franchise history, going 0-3-1 in their first 4 games, while managing to somehow go 0-for-20 on the powerplay. Wisniewski’s return will likely help on that front.
All is not completely lost offensively: the Blue Jackets are getting solid production from their first line. Rick Nash has jumped out to a great start on the season, scoring 5 points in 4 games, while Vinny Prospal has tallied 4 points and Jeff Carter has added 3 assists. The team’s offense drops off a cliff after the first line, however. Cam Charron has suggested splitting up Nash and Carter, who are both shoot-first snipers, to separate lines to spread some of the offensive love around. While I think there’s value in having two legitimate goalscorers on the same line, as it can send a defensive system into conniptions trying to isolate the shooter, it doesn’t work when there’s no offensive depth behind them.
If the team can’t get their offensive woes sorted out and Steve Mason continues to look like the lovechild of Andrew Raycroft and Jim Carey, they might end up being Bottoms Up regulars.
Just ahead of the Blue Jackets are three teams with just 2 points through the first week of the season: the Sharks, Blues, and Flames. The Sharks, however, have only played 2 games and have a 1-1-0 record, while the Blues and Flames have played 3. There isn’t too much concern for either team, except for the Blues’ penalty killing: they’re the only team worse than the Jets.
The goaltending of Jaroslav Halak also hasn’t been too hot for the Blues: he currently has an .857 save percentage, one of the worst in the league. On the plus side, it’s better than Roberto Luongo’s.