The Bruins Are Unbeatable, The Panthers Are Floundering, And Ageless Ovechkin Can’t Stop Scoring
Plus other storylines that have surprised us in the NHL's first half.
The holidays are over, and so is roughly half of the NHL’s 2022-23 regular-season schedule. That means it’s time to take stock of a season that has been decidedly less predictable than last year’s top-heavy campaign so far.1 Some things about the season aren’t shocking at all, of course — like the tankfest currently unfolding to earn the draft rights to mega-prospect Connor Bedard. But here are the six storylines that have surprised us the most in the early stages of the season:
The Bruins are (nearly) unbeatable
At the beginning of the season, we thought the Bruins would be pretty good — we gave them a 77 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a 5 percent chance of winning the whole thing — but we couldn’t have predicted the ridiculous start they’ve had. As things stand, the Bruins are far and away the best team in the NHL by just about every metric that matters. They (comfortably) have the best Elo rating in the league; they lead the league (by a wide margin) in points percentage; they’re scoring the second-most goals per game, but are giving up (by far) the fewest goals per game; they have a top-six power-play percentage and a league-leading penalty kill percentage; and their SRS2 is (comically, ridiculously, obscenely, ludicrously) nearly double that of the next best team. Simply put, the Bruins are the best team in the NHL at the moment.
The B’s set the record for the best home start in NHL history, winning their first 14 games at the TD Garden before finally dropping one — in OT, for what it’s worth — to the Vegas Golden Knights.3 Boston did most of that without star defenseman Charlie McAvoy4 and some of it without talismanic left winger Brad Marchand.5 And through their first 37 games the Bruins have lost on just eight occasions, and only four times in regulation. Boston isn’t unbeatable — but it’s as close to unbeatable as it gets.
So, why are the Bruins this good? For starters, they’ve got the current best goaltending tandem in the NHL. Starter Linus Ullmark and backup Jeremy Swayman have combined for a league best .926 save percentage — and the former is the current front-runner (at least according to Vegas) to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best netminder. It also helps to have David Pastrnak, one of the NHL’s deadliest shooters and among its 10 best players, period. The Czech winger is on pace to break career highs for both goals and points — career highs that currently stand at 48 and 95, respectively. Suffice it to say that Pasta is having an MVP-caliber season (that is, if Connor McDavid didn’t exist).
Of course, Pastrnak isn’t the only player scoring for the Bruins. Through 37 games, Boston has six other players with 27 points or more, including defenseman Hampus Lindholm, who’s chipped in with four goals and 23 assists from the blue line. The big question for the Bruins in the offseason was whether captain and all-time Boston great Patrice Bergeron was going to sign for another season or hang up the skates for good. But then Bergeron signed, and then longtime No. 2 centerman David Krejci came back from playing in his home league in the Czech Republic, and now the Bruins are running it back for what could be one final Stanley Cup charge with this iteration of the team.6 So far, so good.
Tage Thompson is a superstar
Just two seasons ago, Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson was a 23-year-old former late first-round draft pick on his second NHL team, with only 18 career goals to his name. Going into the second year of a three-year contract, his future with the Sabres was uncertain. Fast-forward to the present, however, and Thompson’s story has taken a stunning turn: After notching his fourth career hat trick Tuesday night, Thompson became the second player to score 30 goals this season (after McDavid), putting him on pace for an incredible 68 goals, which would tie for the 18th-most ever in a single season if he keeps it up for all 82 games.
Thompson’s breakout started in earnest last year, when he had 38 goals in 78 games while playing on a line with a rejuvenated Jeff Skinner and newcomer Alex Tuch.7 But even granting that, it’s still difficult to find historical parallels for what Thompson is doing this season. Adjusting for league schedule lengths and scoring environments, Thompson’s 66 adjusted goals in 2022-23 is easily the most in a season by any player with fewer than 75 career adjusted goals coming into that season; it’s also the second-most (trailing Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82) by any player with fewer than 100 previous adjusted goals in his career. Factor in Thompson’s age — 25, four years older than Gretzky during his big scoring breakout — and the Sabres’ star is looking like one of best late-bloomers in hockey history.
Buffalo is reaping the benefits of Thompson’s sudden metamorphosis into the new Mario Lemieux, too.8 After ranking 22nd in goals per game a year ago, the Sabres now lead the NHL in offensive output, and Thompson is (both literally and metaphorically) the biggest reason why.
The Devils and the Kraken are … good?
Before this season, the New Jersey Devils hadn’t been good — or even decent — for a while. After making a run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, New Jersey failed to make the playoffs in nine of the next 10 seasons — finishing in the basement, or second nearest the basement, of its division on eight occasions. Not great for a team that won three Cups between 1995 and 2003, and that was a perennial playoff menace for an even longer period of time. But all that appears to be changing this season.
The Devils currently have the fifth-best points percentage in the league, and our model gives them a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs — far better than the 13 percent chance it gave them entering the season. The Devils have a top-10 offense in terms of goals per game — Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are each following up very solid 2021-22 seasons with career years, and defenseman Dougie Hamilton continues to be one of the league’s most productive blueliners — but it’s their defense that has them looking like legitimate playoff contenders. For the first time in a decade, there’s something to smile about for hockey fans in Newark.
On the other coast, the Seattle Kraken are in the process of erasing the considerable growing pains that usually accompany inaugural seasons in any professional sports league.9 After a first season to forget, the Kraken are actually … competitive, if not downright good!
Seattle currently has the 11th-best points percentage in the NHL, and is scoring the fifth-most goals per game. No single player is lighting it up, but balanced scoring has been the key on Puget Sound as eight players have registered 20 or more points. Seattle’s special teams leave something to be desired — its power play ranks 19th, and its penalty kill ranks second to last — and its goaltending has been, uh, not great.10 Elo rating places the Kraken in the bottom half of the league, but our model still gives them a 62 percent chance of making the playoffs — a considerable upgrade from their preseason chances. The Kraken probably won’t win the Stanley Cup, but they’re far more formidable than they were a season ago. After the 2021-22 campaign, things could be much worse in the Emerald City.
The Panthers and Flames’ big offseason plans have flopped
Before the season began, we highlighted a series of interconnected — and hugely consequential — offseason shake-ups by the Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames, two of the league’s top teams a year ago. In the centerpiece blockbuster, the Panthers shipped leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and solid D-man MacKenzie Weegar (among other assets) to Calgary for bruising winger Matthew Tkachuk, drastically reshaping both rosters in both the short- and long-term.
The wheeling and dealing was designed in part to help both teams overcome disappointing playoff results against bitter rivals. But now neither team is a sure thing to even make the playoffs again.
The Panthers are just 17-22 on the season — nine games behind where they were at the same point in 2021-22 — and our forecast model gives them just a 17 percent chance at a postseason return. While Tkachuk remains a bona fide star (he’s tracking for 96 adjusted points), Florida’s goal prevention has slid below average and last year’s record-chasing offense is nowhere to be found. The Flames are in slightly better shape, at 18-21 with 62 percent playoff odds,11 but they’re struggling to score while Huberdeau and Weegar have become completely invisible most nights. According to adjusted goals above replacement12 gained or lost since last season, only the injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche have taken more of a step backward in terms of net contributions from newcomers minus departures than the Panthers and Flames, turning their mega-trade into a lose-lose deal for now.
The Vegas Golden Knights are back
The Vegas Golden Knights missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2021-22. (Fine, it was only its fifth season in the NHL, but still.) This wouldn’t be abnormal for most recent expansion teams, but then again, the Knights aren’t like most recent expansion teams. They made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, and they qualified for the playoffs in each of their next three seasons, appearing in both the conference semifinals and finals. Since the puck first dropped at center ice of T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 10, 2017, the Knights have been a revelation. Except for last season.
It’s not that the Knights were particularly bad in 2021-22. They finished middle of the pack in terms of SRS and had a top-12 offense, but they struggled on the power play and penalty kill, and couldn’t figure out how to keep other teams from scoring. In the end, they finished with 94 points, just three off the final wild-card spot. Not an ignominious season; not a great season; but with a points total that is generally enough to earn a low playoff seed.13
Well, that’s all changed this season, and order has been restored to the recent NHL universe. The Knights have the fourth-best points percentage in the league, and they’re currently sitting in pole position in the Pacific Conference. At the beginning of the season, our model gave them a 68 percent chance of returning to the playoffs after a year outside looking in. Three months and nearly halfway through the season later, those chances have skyrocketed to 95 percent. Vegas might not be the same team that captured lightning in a bottle in its first three seasons, but it should comfortably qualify for the playoffs. And once the real season begins, anything can happen.
Ovi and Sid are defeating Father Time
OK, it might not be surprising, exactly, that Alexander Ovechkin remains an elite goal scorer in his late 30s — but what he’s doing in his relative twilight is borderline unprecedented.14 At the moment, Ovechkin is tied with Mike Bossy and Gretzky for total seasons (nine) with 50 or more goals. If he keeps up his current pace, he’ll become the first player in NHL history with 10 seasons of 50 or more goals.
Ovi has already reached one milestone this year — just before Christmas, the great Washington winger scored his 802nd career goal to pass Gordie Howe, a player considered by many to be among the greatest — if not the greatest — player in the history of the sport. He’s scored six more since then, and trails only Gretzky on the NHL’s all-time list. If Ovechkin stays healthy and continues potting goals at his current pace, he could score 29 more this season alone, which would put him at 837 — just 57 behind Gretzky’s record. For a player who’s still notching 50-goal seasons deep into his late 30s, it might just be a matter of when — not if — we have a new all-time leader on our hands.
And it wouldn’t be right if just Ovechkin was having a moment in the sun without also being joined by longtime frenemy Sidney Crosby. While Sid the Kid isn’t chasing huge historical milestones like Ovi is, Crosby’s continued excellence at age 35 is notable in its own way. His current pace of 41 adjusted goals and 91 adjusted points would rank 13th- and 18th-most for any player in a season at 35 or older, respectively. Relatedly, Crosby is tracking for a 12th career season with at least 30 adjusted goals and 50 adjusted assists — which would trail only Gretzky and Howe (at 13 apiece) all time.
Both stars’ teams have needed their leaders’ ageless performances, too. With Ovechkin almost single-handedly driving its offense, Washington has survived the most man-games lost to injury of any team in the league so far. Meanwhile, Crosby has helped carry Pittsburgh through down seasons from some of its mainstays — and the limited availability of stalwart defenseman Kris Letang, who suffered a stroke in late November. In a deep Metro division, the Penguins and Caps could be on a stretch-run collision course fighting for a playoff spot, setting up another classic clash between these two old rivals.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.