One Timers

Don’t write off early success during NHL seasons


Perusing Twitter is an interesting way to get a pulse for how fans and pundits from around the NHL are thinking. Love it or hate it, the social media platform is unique because it gives just about anyone the ability to say just about anything. It causes some issues to be sure, but when Twitter is at its best, it generates thoughtful conversation between members of different communities.

Over the last few days, there has been a curious thread of thought getting bounced around the platform’s echo chamber. The idea that “October hockey is weird,” spurred on by teams like the Vancouver Canucks–who are surprisingly 4-0 to start the season–and players such as Brent Burns, who leads the NHL in scoring through just over a week of play.

The phrase has been tossed around in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, as if what happens during the first few weeks of the regular season are less important than what occurs during the closing few weeks. There’s no doubt that a lot of things can (and do) happen as the marathon NHL season marches on, but that shouldn’t mean that we discount what happens in October.

Consider the following. Through October in 2015-16, the league’s top-10 teams (regardless of division or conference) looked like this:

  • Montreal Canadiens: 10-2-0
  • Dallas Stars: 9-2-0
  • Washington Capitals: 8-2-0
  • Nashville Predators: 7-1-2
  • St. Louis Blues: 8-2-1
  • New York Rangers: 7-2-2
  • Minnesota Wild: 7-2-2
  • L.A. Kings: 7-3-0
  • New York Islanders: 6-2-3
  • Winnipeg Jets: 7-3-1

Of those 10 teams that looked quite good in October, eight of them eventually made the playoffs. Two of the four division winners were in the top 10 after the first month of action, and the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins sat just one overtime loss away (versus a regular loss) from sitting inside the top 10 as well.

October hockey might be “weird,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Starting off strong is crucial. If the Habs hadn’t lost at a historic rate after losing Carey Price to injury, they too would have made the playoffs.  Hypothetically (and it isn’t a stretch in the slightest) the top nine teams following the first month of the regular season would have made the postseason, with only the 10th-slotted squad in the Jets missing the dance.

On the flipside of the coin, we have the teams who struggled to secure wins in October. The five worst teams in the NHL after the first month of the season in 2015-16 looked loke this:

  • Edmonton Oilers: 4-8-0
  • Calgary Flames: 3-8-1
  • Anaheim Ducks: 1-7-2
  • Toronto Maple Leafs: 1-7-2
  • Columbus Blue Jackets: 2-10-0

Four of these five teams missed the playoffs, while three of them held top-five picks in the 2016 NHL draft. Only the Ducks managed to make the postseason, but this is a clear case of “one of these things is not like the others.” Moreover, Anaheim had to play out of its mind later on to dig out of the hole it had created in October.

Going 12-2-1 in any given month (like the Ducks did in February) is outstanding, but it’s impossible to count on that kind of run. They  managed to actually win the Pacific Division because of how strong they came on after struggling early, but they could have been there all season long and not needed a miraculous winning streak to put them into playoff position.

So is it early in the 2016-17 NHL season? You bet. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in the Canucks’ 4-0 start or the six-point cushion they’ve already put between themselves and the Kings. Early success doesn’t guarantee a playoff run, but it certainly doesn’t hurt things either. This season started a bit later due to the World Cup of Hockey, so breaking things down after October might make a little less sense.

Despite that, writing off a winning streak or losing streak because of when it happens during the calendar year seems silly and short-sighted. Chat all you want about small sample sizes, but points are points and wins are wins. The race is a long one, but leading the pack entering the first turn is preferable to needing to catch up farther down the line.

We aren’t saying that the Kings and Ducks are doomed after starting sluggishly, or that we should go ahead and crown the Canucks Stanley Cup champions now. But what happens in October matters very much in the grand scheme of things, whether the standings look visibly funny or not.

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