NHL’s biggest surprises early in 2022-23: Emerging stars, disappointing starts, and what else didn’t we see coming?
As the first month of the NHL’s 2022-23 calendar nears its end, the Philadelphia Flyers are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning are tied for last in the Atlantic and Kyle Connor is eighth on the Winnipeg Jets in scoring.
Even the boldest of our predictions are being surpassed by the surprises of a season in action.
What has been each team’s biggest surprise so far, for good, bad or ugly? The Athletic posed that question to the writers who know the teams best.
Here’s what they said.
John Klingberg’s lack of offensive impact: The most notable of the free agents signed by general manager Pat Verbeek is playing a lot of minutes for Anaheim but having next to no positive impact in the early going. Klingberg was supposed to add extra oomph to a promising Ducks power play, and it has been lackluster and unproductive. He can still move the puck with the best of them, but he’s been surprisingly poor on his handle, and turnovers have resulted. The Ducks knew he would be no dynamo in his own end, but he is expected to be so when he crosses the red line. They weren’t counting on only two assists and a minus-6 rating in the first eight games. — Eric Stephens
— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) October 29, 2022
The vastly improved power play: Even without Nick Schmaltz, who played only 2:26 in the first game before getting injured, the Coyotes’ power play is humming along at a 27.6 percent success rate, a significant improvement over last season’s 30th-ranked PP, which managed only a 13.9 percent conversion rate. A big part of that has been the play of Shayne Gostisbehere, who leads the team in goals (four), points (eight) and PP points (five) while gobbling up around 23 minutes of ice time per night. Gostisbehere is on an expiring contract and is going to be intriguing trade-deadline bait for any contender needing a PP QB. — Eric Duhatschek
Nick Foligno’s resurgence: The Bruins placed Foligno on waivers prior to the start of the season for cap purposes. It has not affected him at all. The No. 4 left wing has three goals and four points in nine games while averaging 12:30 per appearance. He had just two goals in 64 games all of last season and looked like he might have hit the end of the road. In retrospect, limited offseason training, combined with oblique, knee and head injuries, kept Foligno from performing to expectations. — Fluto Shinzawa
‘Do we go now?’: Waivers, a wait to board, and a team-wide cheer for Nick Foligno. https://t.co/O97qIH7oY5
— Fluto Shinzawa (@FlutoShinzawa) October 22, 2022
JJ Peterka’s seamless NHL adjustment: Peterka came into the season with a lot of promise after an outstanding season in Rochester, but his preseason was a bit uneven and expectations were that he may need some time to adjust to the NHL game. Instead, he hit the ground running, with four points in Buffalo’s first six games. He has adjusted well to the pace of the game and has been one of the Sabres’ most consistent forwards. That’s he’s doing so this quickly is a pleasant surprise. — Matthew Fairburn
New @TheAthletic: The Sabres are off to a bit of a hot start through five games.
What are the keys to their strong start and how sustainable each one? https://t.co/FDwjHNn3et
— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) October 24, 2022
Nazem Kadri not missing a beat: There wasn’t much reason to doubt that Kadri would succeed in Calgary, at least in the early years of the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed this offseason. But not many predicted he’d start the season as one of the league’s hottest players. There’s the six-game points streak, the three-point night against the Penguins, the highlight-reel goal in the Battle of Alberta while playing in hostile territory — and he’s doing this while playing alongside Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube on a line that’s supposed to be second fiddle. It has been a perfect fit so far. — Julian McKenzie and Hailey Salvian
Jalen Chatfield’s dominance: Like I said earlier this week, I should have known better than to bet against Chatfield. Whether paired with Calvin de Haan or Dylan Coghlan, he has been dominant. Heading into Friday’s home game against the Islanders, the Hurricanes’ possession numbers with him on the ice were just shy of 70 percent. His average of 2.17 shots per game (13 in six games) was higher than Cale Makar (who’s played more than 183 minutes to Chatfield’s under 77 and gets tons of power play time), and at five-on-five, no defenseman in the league was getting more shots per 60 minutes than Chatfield’s 10.85. — Cory Lavalette
— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) October 26, 2022
Getting something for nothing in Jason Dickinson: Dickinson was, essentially, acquired as a cap hit by the Blackhawks, who coaxed a second-round pick out of the Canucks in order to take on his $2.65 million salary for this season and next. But he has been a revelation, stepping in and posting a three-point game in his Blackhawks debut, five points in his first four games and helping transform the penalty kill into an absolute wrecking crew, with four shorthanded goals already. Can he keep this up? Unlikely. But he’s gotten back to the all-around play he showed in Dallas and lost in Vancouver and has been a perfect fit for Luke Richardson’s aggressive forechecking style. — Mark Lazerus
Blackhawks fans rightfully have taken a wait-and-see approach with this year’s team and the UC crowd last night was an example of that. Can this unique team win back fans to the building? https://t.co/BlRXuYDfDo
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) October 26, 2022
Alexandar Georgiev’s fast adjustment: Each of Colorado’s past two starting goaltenders — Philipp Grubauer and Darcy Kuemper — had an adjustment period when first acquired. Georgiev, this past offseason’s trade acquisition, has looked comfortable from the start, especially in a 44-save effort against the Rangers, his former team, on Tuesday. He has saved more goals than expected, according to Evolving-Hockey, and has a .921 save percentage in five starts. It’s an encouraging sign for the Avalanche, who traded for Georgiev despite him not having experience as a full-time starter. — Peter Baugh
“He was on a mission tonight.”https://t.co/wn9VfxG6wW
— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) October 26, 2022
Cole Sillinger losing his momentum: It’s too early to deem this a sophomore slump, but Sillinger’s second NHL season so far has looked nothing like his rookie season, when he scored 16 goals. Sillinger finally earned his first point of the season (an assist) in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to Arizona, and he has just 15 shots on goal and six high-danger scoring chances in the Blue Jackets’ first nine games. With a better start, he could be playing on the top line between Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, but Boone Jenner (at season’s start) and Jack Roslovic (as of Friday) have taken the spot. — Aaron Portzline
The Athletic: Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering
1. Growing pains show there’s no substitute for experience
2. “Does anybody want to play D?” How Blankenburg’s career changed
3. Snacks: Laine / Korpisalo expected on Finland trip, Jenner nears milestone, morehttps://t.co/orNmoDmeYZ pic.twitter.com/6Uoa3M1hvw
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) October 23, 2022
Ty Dellandrea’s versatility and impact: The Stars have a handful of candidates for this among their young players, including Nils Lundkvist and Wyatt Johnston. However, by expectations-to-impact ratio, Dellandrea grades out the highest. The Stars expected him to be a decent depth forward, but instead he’s been a player who has helped drive production of whatever line he’s on, whether he was the right winger for the second line with Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin that got off to a hot start or now helping Johnston and Jamie Benn. As DeBoer said of Dellandrea, “If we had two of him, we’d be alright.” Dellandrea has made a noticeable mark at even strength and has been one of the top penalty-killing weapons in the NHL. — Saad Yousuf
Stars observations: Miro Heiskanen’s absence, Wyatt Johnston and Ty Dellandrea shine, penalties show up (again) and three non-scoring plays that stood out to me (Hintz, Oettinger, Glendening) https://t.co/XqcHduuPhl
— Saad Yousuf (@SaadYousuf126) October 26, 2022
Dominik Kubalik’s resurgence: Just months after the Blackhawks opted not to make him a qualifying offer, Kubalik has opened the 2022-23 season on a tear. He had 10 points in his first six games, has already worked his way onto the top line and top power-play unit, and looks much more like the player who scored 30 goals as a rookie than the one who struggled last season. He won’t stay this hot all year, but he looks like a legit contributor on a bargain contract. — Max Bultman
After 5 games, the Red Wings are 3-0-2.
— Max Bultman (@m_bultman) October 24, 2022
Stuart Skinner’s .957 save percentage: Skinner had just 14 NHL appearances to his name heading into the season. That’s not a lot, especially since the Oilers are counting on him to make at least 25 starts behind new No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell. Skinner has alleviated any concerns so far. He was perfect in relief of Campbell in 2 1/2 periods against the Flames and was the biggest reason the Oilers secured a road win over the Blues. Overall, he has posted a .957 save percentage in three appearances this season. Sure, that’s unsustainably high, but the team has enjoyed his early work. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman
5 takeaways from the Oilers’ first 5 games: ‘There’s room for improvement’ – The Athletic https://t.co/tTskS1rs0M
— Daniel Nugent-Bowman (@DNBsports) October 23, 2022
Colin White, offensive dynamo: The Panthers signed White to a one-year, $1.2 average-annual-value deal after Ottawa bought him out. Best-case scenario seemed to be that he’d rebound to add bottom-six defensive value after an absolutely brutal end to his time with the Sens. He’s been better than that so far, though, putting up seven points in eight games. More importantly, he’s meshing with Anton Lundell and showing enough under the hood (63.6 percent expected goals rate) to suggest that he could keep it up. — Sean Gentille
Gabriel Vilardi’s scoring: Even if he recently downplayed a question about the confidence he has now, the 23-year-old is playing with a ton of it after struggling to find enough consistency to stay with the Kings full-time previously. Vilardi leads L.A. with six goals and 10 points even as he has played between the second and third lines. Coach Todd McLellan rewarded him Thursday with a third-period move to the top line with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. It may not be permanent, but it’s a sign of how much Vilardi has grown in a short time. Freed of the heavy responsibility of playing center, the 6-foot-3 forward is using his size to hog the puck in the offensive end and his soft hands to make plays and be a finisher at the net. — Eric Stephens
With Gabriel Vilardi’s fourth multi-point game in the young season at the heart of it against a perennial Stanley Cup contender, the #LAKings took a notable step toward reclaiming what powered them last season.https://t.co/Mu1fMWBNf9
— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) October 26, 2022
The power play’s turnaround: Special-teams play was a big part of the Wild’s demise last season, particularly the power play when they needed a big goal in the first round against the Blues. Fixing that was a focal point this past offseason, and here we are, seven games in, and the Wild’s power play is clicking at 31 percent, good for third in the NHL. Mats Zuccarello leads the league with eight power-play points, and Kirill Kaprizov has chipped in six. — Michael Russo
The emergence of Arber Xhekaj: Xhekaj, 21, was not drafted and did not play in the OHL in 2020-21, but he managed to get invited to Canadiens training camp and signed an entry-level contract by the end of it in the fall of 2021. A year later, the rugged defenseman earned a spot on the Canadiens’ blue line before playing a single minute of pro hockey at any level. Xhekaj is confident and fearless (he shook Zack Kassian like a ragdoll during a fight) and has very good mobility and interesting offensive skills. There is a chance he is sent down to the AHL at some point, but he’s undoubtedly the talk of the town in Montreal. — Marc Antoine Godin
Cette semaine dans le calepin Godin et Basu:
🏒Qui est Johnathan Kovacevic
🏒Pourquoi la liste remise à lundi à la LNH pourrait différer de celle au premier match
🏒Xhekaj ne manque pas de ‘swagger’
🏒Un tour d’horizon du Rocket avec Jean-François Houlehttps://t.co/7kb3itMRyn
— Marc Antoine Godin (@MAGodin) October 10, 2022
A moribund power play: Granted, the Preds did get a much-needed goal with the man advantage in a much-needed win over St. Louis on Thursday, but that elevated their celebrated power play to 27th in the league (9.7 percent). This after the same group with the same approach finished sixth last season at a robust 24.4 percent. Sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in for a stretch, but the Preds’ first unit has been far too discombobulated. And that ties directly into a collective slow start for this team’s high-priced players. — Joe Rexrode
How dominant they’ve been at five-on-five: Signs pointed to New Jersey being a good team at even strength after they made progress in front of the net last season and made a few key additions over the summer … but not to this degree. After Friday’s 1-0 win over the defending champion Avalanche, the Devils lead the league with a nice 67.8 percent expected-goals rate at five-on-five, according to Evolving-Hockey, evidence of their efforts on both ends of the ice. Adds like John Marino have solidified the back end, while the foundational players are leading the way up front. The results should come as long as the saves are there, and the Devils could become a force if this keeps up. — Shayna Goldman
It’s still early, but @domluszczyszyn has his eye on some small sample madness.
◻️The Devils’ expected win percentage
◻️The Lightning’s goals-per-60
◻️The Senators’ expected goals rate
More numbers you should know 👇https://t.co/9zoJDiJsno
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) October 27, 2022
New York Islanders
Lack of scoring from their centers: We knew that the Islanders might have trouble scoring, but after Friday’s two-goal game from center Brock Nelson, they now have only that many on the season from centers. Nelson was the team’s leading goal-scorer last season, with 37, and it was especially concerning to see him not getting a ton of chances early. Mathew Barzal is more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, but it’s still surprising that he’s still on zero himself after signing a massive extension. On a more positive note, the Islanders have seven goals from defensemen in their first eight games. But they’re going to need more from the guys up front. Maybe Nelson’s two-goal night can get the momentum going. — Kevin Kurz
Lots in here, from opinions on the deal to Barzal and Parise talking about how the #Isles plan to play a little differently this season (again, hooray for open locker rooms).
More ⤵️ https://t.co/E2TAGjAuWj
— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNHL) October 6, 2022
New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin being human: Last season’s Vezina Trophy winner and Hart Trophy finalist is sporting a very ordinary .916 save percentage through five starts and made a puckhandling mistake that led to an Avalanche goal Tuesday. Now, .916 is still well above the league average so far, but the Rangers’ offense has been sputtering, so they need Shesterkin to wear the cape again. He hasn’t done it yet. — Arthur Staple
The one area of Igor Shesterkin’s game that surprisingly needs work
— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) September 30, 2022
Shane Pinto’s goal-scoring: If you asked Senators fans before the season to predict the team’s leading goal-scorer near the end of October, you would probably have seen a lot of votes for Alex DeBrincat, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson — but nobody was thinking Pinto would emerge into a dynamic goal-scorer this quickly. There was so much emphasis on Ottawa’s newly improved top six that a lot of people forgot about Pinto on the third line. But the rookie has made sure to stay in the spotlight, with a scorching start that has included a rookie franchise-record goal-scoring streak. Now, with Norris sidelined for an extended period of time, there is a good chance Pinto can take on an even bigger role. His surprising start has certainly lifted him into the early Calder Trophy conversation. — Ian Mendes
Brad Berry used to call Jake Sanderson ‘The Human Breakout.’ He watched Shane Pinto diligently work on his shot after practice.
So the North Dakota head coach isn’t the least bit surprised to see Ottawa’s dynamic rookie duo having success right away. https://t.co/seIvPXcrk2
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) October 28, 2022
Their 5-2-0 record: I don’t think anyone expected the Flyers to win five out of their first seven games, especially given that top players Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson have combined for zero games played. Is it sustainable? Probably not. The Flyers rank near the bottom of every five-on-five advanced metric and have been carried by Carter Hart’s sterling play (.947 save percentage, undefeated in five starts). But regardless of the process, it’s still a shock to look at the Metropolitan Division standings with October coming to a close and see the Flyers at the top. — Charlie O’Connor
The Flyers are 5-2-0 and leading the Metro. They’re also only generating about 40% of the shot attempts and expected goals at 5-on-5.
How are they winning anyway? Well, it’s mostly Carter Hart. Do the Flyers realize that? It seems like they do.https://t.co/oh6xBGsefC
— Charlie O’Connor (@charlieo_conn) October 28, 2022
Danton Heinen’s showcase: Danton Heinen scored 18 goals last season, so it’s not a surprise he’s potted three already in 2022-23. But how he’s gone about it is a pleasant development for the Penguins. Heinen has supplanted an injured Jake Guentzel on the top line and has not looked out of place. He’s won puck battles with his skill and has taken advantage of opportunities created by Sidney Crosby. The Penguins would be in trouble without him. — Rob Rossi
We talk Sid’s fantasy football team, western Canada fun, possible upcoming trades, those weird Patrick Kane rumors and more: https://t.co/RYRKFY7h0I
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) October 27, 2022
Nico Sturm and Evgeny Svechnikov earning bigger roles: Sturm was a relatively under-the-radar free-agent addition, and Svechnikov came aboard just before training camp started. They began the year together on the fourth line but have been promoted to third-unit duty in large part because they have been the most effective offensive duo on the club. Sturm is tied for the team lead with four goals, while Svechnikov has two goals and four points. The only forward on the team with more points is Logan Couture after his three-point night against Toronto. — Corey Masisak
Sharks’ recent wins won’t stop trade speculation from ramping up
— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) October 29, 2022
How well they are scoring by committee: Obviously the Kraken needed saves last season, but scoring support was missing as well. That’s what management sought to fix over the summer with additions like Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand, along with an infusion of youth in Matty Beniers full-time and Shane Wright seeing his first action. Still, even with those changes, the star-power factor was missing. But so far, Seattle’s offense has been greater than the sum of its parts. A few days back, @NHLtoSeattle measured that the Kraken lead the league in unique goalscorers, and that’s been key to their start. — Shayna Goldman
— NHLtoSeattle (@NHLtoSeattle) October 26, 2022
St. Louis Blues
Jordan Kyrou’s slow start: The Blues had enough confidence in Jordan Kyrou’s future that they signed him to an eight-year, $65 million contract in September. As they would be with any young player, the Blues are focused on the big picture with the 24-year-old and that looks bright based on his 27-goal, 75-point season in 2021-22. That said, Kyrou’s slow start this year has to be concerning. Through six games, he has just one point — a goal in Game 2. Through six games last season, he had two goals and eight points. — Jeremy Rutherford
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 27, 2022
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nick Perbix filling a need on defense: The Lightning blue line entered the season in flux after the trade of Ryan McDonagh, departure of Jan Rutta and injury to Zach Bogosian. It meant a pressing need for replacements. We didn’t think one of them would be Nick Perbix, a 2017 sixth-rounder who has looked strong in just his first handful of NHL games. There’s been a dropoff in Tampa Bay’s penalty kill and defense overall, but it’s encouraging Perbix is showing he’s an option on the right side. — Joe Smith
Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov’s solid start: The biggest surprise, generally, is the team-wide scuffling out of the gate. The most pleasant surprise, on the other hand, has to be Samsonov. He has won four of his first five starts and posted a .932 save percentage. His play has been all the more important with Matt Murray sidelined by injury. Can Samsonov keep it up? That’s the big question. — Jonas Siegel
NHL goalie confidence meter 2022-23: Our early-season ratings for all 32 teams
— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNHL) October 22, 2022
Blown third-period leads: Vancouver set an NHL record by opening the season with blown multiple-goal leads in four consecutive losses. At a micro level, the penalty kill has been a disaster. J.T. Miller’s five-on-five impact both defensively and offensively has been sorely lacking, and Thatcher Demko hasn’t looked like his usually sturdy self. — Harman Dayal
The relief of victory, the feistiness of Vancouver’s players, a trade that won’t move the needle and a level of performance that needs to be better to justify staying the course.#Canucks finally win, ‘a lot of relief’ —and a lot of trouble still lurking: https://t.co/C8ojEe5TFi
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) October 28, 2022
The solid goaltending without Robin Lehner: On the shoulders of Logan Thompson and Adin Hill, the Golden Knights have the NHL’s second-highest team save percentage at .940. There were major question marks in the crease for Vegas this season after Lehner underwent double hip surgery, but these two unproven netminders have risen to the occasion thus far, with Thompson’s 29-save shutout Friday the latest showcase. The Golden Knights’ team defense deserves a ton of credit, too, keeping teams to the outside and making the goalie’s lives easier, but Thompson and Hill have made key saves in big moments and have yet to allow a single soft goal. — Jesse Granger
4 years ago Logan Thompson was in college in Canada, playing video games & pondering a job at Uber Eats, but his rear-wheel Infiniti G35 couldn’t make it on the icy roads.
Now: Starting goalie for the Vegas Golden Knights.
His incredible underdog story- https://t.co/FRIjUKjT6y
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) October 18, 2022
Backup goalie Charlie Lindgren’s strong play: A full-time NHLer for the first time, Lindgren has shined in both of his starts with his new team: a 36-save defeat in Toronto and a 38-save victory in New Jersey. He boasts a .925 save percentage and, per Sportlogiq’s analytics, has saved 0.67 goals above expected. Lindgren has also endeared himself to the room and staff with his effervescent personality and tireless practice habits. Although he is not expected to challenge undisputed No. 1 Darcy Kuemper and two starts is a small sample size, the Caps have every reason to feel confident about their decision to ink the 28-year-old to a three-year, $3.3 million contract this summer. — Tarik El-Bashir
Kyle Connor being eighth in team scoring: Connor is coming off a 47-goal, 93-point season that set Winnipeg Jets 2.0 records, and he remains a top-line force who troubles goaltenders every time he shoots. This season, he leads the Jets in shots and expected goals and has been skating as well as ever. Yet he has just one goal and four points in the first eight games, landing him eighth in team scoring. It’s too early to sound the alarm, but it’s all kinds of strange to look at the Jets scoring leaders and see Connor behind seven players, including two defencemen and shutdown center Adam Lowry. — Murat Ates
(Top photo of Ilya Samsonov: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)