The first month of the 2019-20 NHL season has been full of surprises. Teams that we looked at as preseason Stanley Cup contenders have not yet played to expectations. Teams that we considered to be preseason draft lottery contenders have not only exceeded expectations but also are looking like potential playoff teams.
Here we take a look at 10 of the biggest surprises so far this season.
1. Everything about the Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers have been a laughing stock across the NHL for more than a decade and have been especially frustrating for the way they have wasted Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The opening night roster looked like it was going to be more of the same during the 2019-20 season. But through the first month of the season, the Oilers find themselves in the thick of the Pacific Division race and as of Nov. 11 had a three-point division lead. The concern is that almost all of the offense has been driven by McDavid and Draisaitl, and that recipe has not exactly worked well in the past. How long they can maintain that remains to be seen, but helping matters so far has been a surprisingly strong performance from goalie Mike Smith and James Neal going through a massive bounce-back season that has already seen him score 12 goals in 19 games. He had just seven goals in 63 games for the Calgary Flames a year ago.
2. The San Jose Sharks might not be good
Everyone knew the Sharks had issues with their goaltending (well, everyone except for the Sharks themselves), and that problem is still as big as it was a year ago. Adding to that: The team in front of the goalies seems to have taken several steps backward. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have not been as dynamic on the blue line, a lot of offense lost from Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi has not really been replaced, and the Sharks are already facing a pretty steep mountain when it comes to making the playoffs. Not everyone has the talent to pull off what the St. Louis Blues did a year ago in going from worst to first, but the Sharks might be a team capable of that IF they can fix their goaltending and if everyone else on the team starts to play to expectations.
3. The Vancouver Canucks might be good
The general direction of the team has been bizarre because it hasn’t really committed to any sort of meaningful direction and has signed some really questionable long-term contracts. But the Canucks’ young stars (Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes) have quickly become impact players who look like they can carry the team; Hughes is already emerging as possibly another Calder Trophy contender. What is impressive, too, about the Canucks’ start is they are showing a lot of signs that they might be for real, especially with the way they control shot attempts, push the pace and outscore their opponents at even strength.
4. Something might be wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning
Did their latest postseason exit finally break them? The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the most dominant regular-season teams ever, tying a league record with 62 wins and possessing an All-Star roster full of individual award winners. It seemed like it was finally their year to win the Stanley Cup, until they could not even win a single playoff game, losing in four straight to the No. 8 seed, Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a perfect situation for a team to make drastic, knee-jerk changes that would probably do more to set them back than push them ahead. Is that what happened here? The Lightning have not only won just eight of their first 15 games, but they also have not been anything close to what they were in recent years in style.
5. Winnipeg is still in it
This is a pretty big shock simply because the Winnipeg Jets defense did not look to be NHL quality at the start of the season. Jacob Trouba was traded, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers exited in free agency, and their best player — Dustin Byfuglien — is taking a break from the game due to an ankle injury and is reportedly contemplating his future in a situation that will probably bring in a neutral arbitrator. Even with their forward talent it seemed like this was going to be a tough year for the Jets because the defense was just, quite simply, not good. But they are finding ways to compete and are not going away thanks to their forward depth up front and some great goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.
6. The Rangers and Devils have not shown much improvement
No teams had bigger offseasons than the Rangers and Devils. They had the top two picks in the draft (Jack Hughes to New Jersey; Kaapo Kakko to New York) and made several impact additions to their rosters (Devils added P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds; Rangers added Trouba, Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox). More than a month into the season, and neither team has really taken a big step forward, with the Devils being especially disappointing thanks to multiple blown leads of two or more goals. And they are facing some pressure to convince their best player — Taylor Hall — to re-sign after this season. Meanwhile, general manager Ray Shero has just one playoff appearance in five years with the team.
7. The New York Islanders somehow look even better
If you were expecting the Islanders to regress after their surprising turnaround a year ago, you are probably disappointed right now. Thanks to a 10-game winning streak that was broken just last week, they are once again near the top of the NHL standings and look like a team that is going to break the mold for what we think a playoff team should look like.
8. The Toronto Maple Leafs look ordinary
They have not necessarily been bad, but they are not really doing anything to make anyone believe they have the roster — or the coach — to break through the glass ceiling that has been Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the second offseason in a row, they made a significant addition to their roster, this time adding defenseman Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche. But is there anything about their play that makes anyone believe they have what it takes to beat the Boston Bruins? Or any of the top teams in the Eastern Conference? They have not shown it yet.
9. The Blackhawks’ window seems to be closed
After two straight non-playoff seasons, we probably should not be too surprised the Blackhawks are struggling again. What makes it stand out even more is they really tried to improve the roster with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, Andrew Shaw and Robin Lehner. It has not really helped. The defense remains a major problem that is going to be dependent on the goaltending duo of Lehner and Corey Crawford to steal games. Perhaps most concerning is that after a bounce-back performance in 2018-19, Jonathan Toews is once again showing signs of a significant decline offensively. With the money it have invested in him the team needs more.
10. Somebody might actually score more goals than Alex Ovechkin this season
Ovechkin finished as the NHL’s top goal scorer two years in a row and in six of the past seven seasons. He is the most dominant goal scorer ever, is not really slowing down even at 34 years old and is off to one of his best starts ever. He seems like a lock to score at least 50 goals again as long as he stays healthy. That still may not be enough to get him another goal-scoring crown simply because David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) and Draisaitl, who narrowly missed out on the goal-scoring crown a year ago, are scoring goals at such a ridiculous pace. Both players look like they are going to give Ovechkin his best challenge in years.
By: Adam Gretz