NHL storylines: Blackhawks investigation, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel
For the first time in two years, the NHL has returned for a full 82-game slate. No protective bubbles. No insulated intra-divisional play. And the league hasn’t taken time to slow down since the puck dropped on opening night.
Jack Eichel has a new home in Vegas. Connor McDavid has, surprise, reminded everyone that he is really, really good at this game. The Avalanche, a Stanley Cup favorite, have sputtered early while the Ducks and Kings have rattled off unexpected winning streaks of five-plus games.
Here are some takeaways from the first month of the season.
THE PANTHERS ARE A BUZZSAW
Since the 2018–19 season, only three teams have scored more goals than the Panthers. What happens when world-class goaltending is added on top of that? Dominance. Florida has outscored its opponents 52–35 and scored three or more goals in all but one game. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, playing to his massive contract, leads all starters with an eye-popping .948 save percentage and 1.16 goals saved above expectation per 60 minutes.
The Panthers’ hot streak ran cold as they dropped two straight games to the Rangers and Devils. However, Florida’s play can’t all be dismissed by puck luck. Florida has played the third-toughest strength of schedule to this point, which included a 5–2 win over the then-undefeated Hurricanes without Alex Barkov. The team isn’t top-heavy, either, as seven players have at least double-digit point totals and rookie backup Spencer Knight has been better-than-serviceable behind Bobrovsky. The Panthers have a little more substance behind its flash compared to prior seasons.
THE NHL HAS AN ACCOUNTABILITY PROBLEM
Hockey is for everyone, but the NHL is for itself. The league made that clear when, according to TSN’s Rick Westhead, it informed the family of John Doe 2, a former high school hockey player who was sexually assaulted by Brad Aldrich, that it would not cover the cost of therapy. Kyle Beach, who also said he was assaulted by the former Blackhawks video coach, had apologized that he didn’t do more to hold Aldrich accountable. The NHL sent a message that it wouldn’t do more.
When first given the chance to say whether the league would provide assistance to the victim’s family, Bettman fumbled. He answered like a lawyer, saying, “Having said that, making resources available, it’s something that I will probably, not even knowing all the facts, want to do.” He added. “But I think I need to know more before I can make the type of blanket commitment.”
In the end, he deferred responsibility back to the Blackhawks. The bare minimum—finding space in the league’s coffers to support a victim of sexual abuse—was too much.
At the organizational level, the independent Jenner & Block investigation made clear that senior Blackhawks leadership failed to take action when it was informed Aldrich allegedly sexually harassed a player. (According to the report, Aldrich denied assaulting Beach.) And, even after the report came out, Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews defended Stan Bowman, saying the ex-GM wasn’t “directly complicit.” (Toews later apologized that his comments took attention away from Beach’s story.)
Westhead reports that the Blackhawks will provide therapy to John Doe 2, but want to review his “medical records, school transcripts, and income records” to understand how the assault has impacted his life. The team is also refusing to settle with Beach because the two sides have “very different views” on what would constitute a fair resolution of this lawsuit,” according to Westhead.
The NHL’s rain check on responsibility continues. It’s not an isolated incident, either. See the NHL’s $70.6 million legal battle that paid players $18.49 million in a concussion settlement, as Bettman stated there was no direct link between concussions and CTE. Or, look toward a Department of Player Safety that doesn’t always live up to its name.
After the Jenner & Block investigation became public, the NHL sent a league-wide memo urging all player and team personnel to immediately report inappropriate conduct. That’s a start. But right now, the NHL needs leadership. Not a lawyer.
WHAT (EXPANSION MAGIC) HAPPENS IN VEGAS, STAYS IN VEGAS
Comparison is the thief of joy, right? Vegas, by its Stanley Cup run alone, remains the gold standard of all expansion teams. In turn, the Golden Knights are also a reminder that most teams aren’t that good coming out of the incubator. That’s been the case in Seattle. Still, the Kraken have had moderate success, judging the team on its own analytics-focused approach. Heading into Thursday night’s games, Seattle ranked:
- First in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes (25.54).
- Seventh in even-strength, high-danger corsi-for percentage (55.40%), a measure of how many dangerous scoring opportunities a team generates vs. its opponent.
- Eighth in even-strength corsi-for percentage (53.00%), a measure of how many shot attempts a team is controlling vs. its opponent.
That’s not bad for a team that opened the season on a five-game road trip, crossing the country from Vegas to Newark in seven days. So far, the Kraken have been held back by Philipp Grubauer, who hasn’t replicated the play that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist last season. His 5-on-5 stats are all mediocre, ranking 44th in save percentage, 44th in goals-against average and 45th in goals saved above expectation per 60 minutes. Seattle’s offense, struggling at the faceoff circle and without a true star, hasn’t shined, despite promising possession metrics.
In other words, welcome to the NHL, Seattle.
THE SABRES ARE ADRIFT
Jack Eichel will get the surgery he wants. The Golden Knights acquired the star center they’ve been searching for. And Sabres GM Kevyn Adams didn’t have to compromise in trading his injured franchise cornerstone. Those seem like relative wins all around, but the trade highlights the dismal state of the Sabres franchise.
At its core, the Eichel saga boiled down who gets to have the final say on a player’s medical decision. (The CBA stipulates that the team physician has the final say if there’s no consensus after a second opinion.) Eichel wanted an artificial disk replacement surgery for his herniated disk, never performed on an NHL player, and the team wanted fusion surgery. A mess ensued, resulting in Buffalo’s stripping Eichel of the captaincy while a small segment of Sabres fans believed Eichel was tanking his trade value.
So when Adam says, “We need to build an organization of people and players that want to be here that are truly buying in and all in,” as he did after the Eichel trade, it’s hard to decide who that statement actually reflects on. The Sabres have sold hope before, but Buffalo has been caught in a state of perpetual rebuild. Since 2013, Buffalo has had nine consecutive top-10 draft picks. In that time span no team has lost more games than the Sabres (329), which now owns the league’s longest active playoff drought (10 years).
It’s a cruel fate for Sabres fans, who consistently make Buffalo one of the top media markets during the playoffs without a team to root for. A (very) small contingent protested outside KeyBank Center in 2020 to make their displeasure with owner Terry Pegula known. Their rancor will be directed somewhere if things don’t improve.
IT’S NEVER NOT TIME TO APPRECIATE THE LEAGUE’S BEST
In between a hat trick and a dazzling 1-on-4 goal, Connor McDavid has led the Oilers to a 9-0-1 record so far this season. That was the best start in franchise history—something even Wayne Gretzky hadn’t accomplished. The 24-year-old perennial MVP candidate is tied for the league lead in assists (15), trails only teammate Leon Draisaitl in points (24), and the Oilers have the best record out West. It’s almost like McDavid is the best player in the world, and arguably the best male athlete.
And if he should ever need to search for the fountain of youth, Alexander Ovechkin might be his best lead. The 36-year-old sniper has scored 11 goals in 12 games, best in the NHL. Physical, explosive athletes usually taper off faster than their technical counterparts. Not Ovi. He took down Brett Hull on the all-time goal scorers list (741); Jaromir Jagr (766) is up next and somehow surpassing Gretzky (894) seems plausible.
The NHL doesn’t just have generational athletes. The league has transcendent talents that belong in the pantheon of the best players that have ever played. It’s always a good time to remember that.
THE METRO DIVISION LOOKS LIKE THE LEAGUE’S TOUGHEST GROUP
When the Penguins have the worst record in the division and the post-Crosby-and-Malkin era hasn’t begun, a gauntlet is forming. No team in the Metropolitan Division is under .500. Five of the NHL’s top 11 teams in points percentage come from the Metro. Collectively, the Metropolitan Division has outscored its opponents by 36 goals. Through the first month of the season, it has lived up to its preseason superlative as the league’s toughest division.
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