About a tenth of the way into the 2016-17 NHL season, it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions on just about everything.
Among those things very much in flux at this point are the standings. A number of teams are right where preseason prognostications pointed, but four of them are exceeding expectations: the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers currently lead the East and West respectively, while the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks find themselves among the league’s hottest starts.
Which of these teams has the best chance of continuing their early-season success? SI’s chief hockey watchers give their best arguments.
The Oilers have been downright scary in stretches during the first two weeks, averaging nearly four goals per game and getting reliable netminding from Cam Talbot. The reason they have a decent chance to stay dangerous lies in the depth they’ve assembled beyond the homegrown top-five picks that everyone always assumed would make up their core. Milan Lucic’s presence on Conor McDavid’s wing has had the desired effect, freeing up the 19-year-old superstar captain and NHL points leader to play without a governor on his speed or aggressiveness. And while Taylor Hall looks dead-set on making the Oilers look dumb for dealing him to New Jersey, Adam Larsson is no stiff. Larsson and free-agent acquisition Kris Russell were playing from behind in the eyes of discerning Oilers fans from the moment they arrived late in the off-season, but both have brought stable, consistent play to the defense so far.
For all the consternation set off by some of Edmonton’s riskier off-season moves, it may turn out that Peter Chiarelli had to burn off some excess jet fuel to reach his optimal lineup. The Oilers are equipped to play fast, relentless hockey if those grinders continue to contribute.
Save for the Canucks, I think three of these teams have the chops to keep pace the rest of the season. It's not unfathomable that McDavid might carry the Oilers on his shoulders, and who am I to bet against the Red Wings, who've done nothing but make the playoffs for over a quarter of a century and are more talented this year than people gave them credit for coming into the 2016-17 campaign. That said, my choice is the Canadiens, a squad that had everything go wrong for it last season but was certainly capable of better, even without Carey Price in net. Now that Price is healthy and, rightly or wrongly, the P.K. Subban situation has been settled, the Habs have been able to focus solely on winning hockey games. Shea Weber is no slouch, despite many in the analytics crowd declaring his career all but over, and for what the Canadiens need right now—additional defensive support for Price—I'd argue that Weber's game is a bit more rounded than Subban's is at this stage. That might not be the case in five years, but it is right now. They're not remarkably deep on offense or defense, but they do have some very nice options on both fronts. I think this team will make the playoffs, and though Price will have a lot to do with it, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that would render him mere icing on the cake.
I have to go with the Canadiens here. There's a balanced offense—13 players have already tallied goals, including newcomers Weber, Andrew Shaw, Alexander Radulov and rookie Artturi Lehkonen—that's currently tied for an NHL-high 29 goals through eight games. Weber’s point-filled start has been a cause for celebration, but the biggest reason for Montreal’s success has been in the crease, where Price and Al Montoya have been standouts. Combined, the netminders have allowed just 13 goals, tops in the league, while boasting a .951 save percentage. Sure, the advanced stats point to this team experiencing some regression, as it does for all the teams mentioned here, but the Habs’ goaltending is what will keep this team in contention longer than any of the others.
I'm tempted to say the Oilers, if only because of McDavid's Art Ross Trophy capabilities but history gets the better of me here and I'll go with the Red Wings. Their GAA is top-five in the league right now and their goaltending could be what separates them from the pack. And I know what you're saying: the Canadiens own the best GAA in the NHL and the Oilers and Canucks aren't that far behind. The threat of injuries and inexperience scares me away from the other three teams. Price is only now seeing his first set of consistent NHL games since a lengthy, injury-riddled 2015-16 season. We saw Montreal fly out of the gate last season for it all to go off the rails eventually. I'm still not convinced that lineup has what it takes to consistently put up points through 82 games.