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To trust or not to trust? We are almost a third into the 2022-23 NHL season. We’re starting to get a real sense of what the league is all about right now: suitors, suitors, breakouts, busts.
As the calendar shifts to December: What trends in the league look set to last? Who not to trust even so deep in the year?
It’s time to play the Fact or Fiction game.
1. The New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins are WAGONS.
Maybe someone had a hunch that the Devils would exceed expectations with even a slight improvement in their goalie or that the Bruins could overcome their early-season injury problems with the emotional motivation of a story of “Last Dancing”.
But no living human, not even the parents of all the players on both teams, would have guessed that they would combine for a 38-7-1 record until December 1 action. The Devils have been a behemoth in controlling the game with wave after wave of speed, generating an incredible 63.42% 5-on-5 scoring chances in their games so far. Jack Hughes continues to rise to stardom, Nico Hischier looks like one of the best two-way forwards in the game right now, John Marino looks reborn in defense and, most importantly, anyone between the pipes, from Vitek Vanecek to Akira Schmid , was a revelation for New Jersey.
The Bruins, meanwhile, weathered the storm and awaited the surgical recoveries of top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy, boosted by the return of David Krejci as No. 2 center and inspired Hampus Lindholm’s work on defense, and they could win the Jack Adams Award to new coach Jim Montgomery if they keep it up.
Both clubs look legit, but we know who the Bruins are at this point given their roster is so similar to last year, so the Devils have the most intriguing cap for the rest of the season.
2. Jason Robertson became a demigod.
After Thursday’s hat trick, Robertson has 22 goals in 24 games this season. He leads the NHL with a score of 5 against 5 on 60. He is second behind Connor McDavid in the scoring race, although McDavid plays 5:13 more than Robertson per game! Unbelievable.
Robertson has 56 goals and 100 points in his last 82 games since last season. He ranks in the top three in points per 60 since his NHL debut in 2020-21. It’s no exaggeration to call him one of the top five players on the planet right now. He won’t maintain his current 75-goal streak, but he has a real shot at breaking Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars single-season records. Dino Ciccarelli and Brian Bellows share the goals record at 55, Neal Broten holds the assists record at 76 and Bobby Smith holds the points record at 114. Robertson’s current pace: 75-58-133. Not bad for a guy who missed training camp and preseason.
3. Battle of Alberta? We might not see any team make the playoffs.
It was so exciting to watch the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames face off in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, wasn’t it? This series had so much talent, physicality and drama, not to mention real stakes, as it felt like both teams were evolving into long-term Stanley Cup threats.
Right now, early December? The Oilers cling to a wildcard spot, while the Flames sit outside the playoff bracket. For every franchise, the goalie has been a problem. With Jack Campbell and Jacob Markstrom struggling, the Oilers and Flames sit in the bottom third of the NHL in team save percentage. Have these teams regressed to the point where the playoffs are no longer a guarantee?
Not necessarily. Campbell disappointed, but it’s not like the Oilers got great goaltenders last season in Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. They can always get out of trouble, and that should continue to be the case with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s show. The Flames are more tied to a defensive identity, so it’s more alarming to see them struggling to keep pucks on the outside. But they remain an above average playing team. They have one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league, perhaps a symptom of an inability to gel with new additions Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and MacKenzie Weegar replacing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. But the chemistry should come in time, this team stays deep, and while Markstrom continues to falter, the Flames have good organizational goaltending depth if they get to a point of desperation. I think they understand that.
4. Start carving a third Norris Trophy for Erik Karlsson.
What. A season. Among NHL defensemen so far in 2022-23, Karlsson ranks first in goals, assists, points, 5-on-5 goals per 60 and 5-on-5 assists per 60 and second in points 5 against 5 by 60. He has been the most dominant offensive weapon in his position this season, period, and although he has always inspired debates about his defensive play in his prime years, I will use the same defense that I I have then: by having the puck and by pushing the play towards the net of the other team so well, it is the defense by attack. Its overall impact is undeniably excellent.
If we were to hand out the Norris Trophy now? He would get my vote for first place. But so much has to happen between now and the rest of the season for Karlsson to capture a third Norris. First things first: He needs to stay healthy, which is a big challenge for him since he underwent major ankle surgery in the 2017 offseason. He hasn’t missed a game in 2022- 23 but had missed 27% of San Jose’s games in its previous four seasons due to various injuries. It’s hard to bet he’ll reach 82 or even 75 games.
Second: Winning the Norris may require a mid-season trade with a contender, which won’t be easy to execute given he has an $11.5 million cap to lug around for another four seasons after this one . At full price, it’s a non-runner to acquire him, and with the salary withheld, it’s hardly acceptable for the Sharks. So if Karlsson doesn’t end up moving and spends the whole season with the Sharks, that means he’s a virtual lock to miss the playoffs.
Only one defenseman in NHL history has won the Norris on a team that missed the playoffs. However, this happened only two years ago. It was Adam Fox from the New York Rangers. So the modern voter base is not completely against the idea. But Karlsson will have to be head and shoulders above every other D-man to warrant consideration in the vote in April.
5. The Seattle Kraken arrived as a competitor.
The 2021-22 Kraken couldn’t match the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights in year one. It was an impossible request. But the Year 2 Kraken seem completely reborn, with so many off-season additions from paid general manager Ron Francis, top scorer Andre Burakovsky to goalkeeper Martin Jones to defender Justin Schultz, and that’s without until Oliver Bjorkstrand really catches fire.
So are the Kraken, led by Calder Trophy No. 1 center favorite Matty Beniers, able to sustain their formidable start? It is complicated. It is undoubtedly a deeper team than last year. The Kraken are in the top three in goals per game and have the sixth-largest power play in the league. They actually rank among the best teams in the NHL for suppressing shots and high-risk scoring chances at 5-on-5. On the other hand, they have a putrid 68.9% penalty, and it’s tough to trust Jones and Philipp Grubauer as a crease tandem given how bad they were last season. The Kraken lacks a must star at any position to boot.
Perhaps it would be intellectually dishonest to place the Kraken in the dustbin of fact or fiction. Their reality is probably somewhere in between. Even if Seattle lacks a star, his depth can win games. While it’s hard to trust the goalkeepers, the team ahead of Jones and Grubauer keep the level of difficulty manageable. So maybe it ends up being a 90-point team battling on the outskirts of the playoffs and threatening to squeal like a low seed.
Verdict: SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
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