Granted, we’re only a handful of games into the NHL’s regular season, but already, there are fan bases in the league who are white as ghosts worrying about their team’s start to the year.
In particular, there are three teams – the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, and Winnipeg Jets – who have combined on a 0-9-2 record in their first 11 games. Not exactly an encouraging beginning of the year, and as the old saying goes, “you can’t win a Stanley Cup in the first two weeks or months of the season, but you can bury yourself in the standings in the first couple months of the year”.
So, we’re faced with a big question – which of the three aforementioned teams are going to turn things around for the better, which of the three looks to have a shot at digging out of their current hole, and which of the three is in big trouble.
In Big Trouble: The Montreal Canadiens. Last year’s Stanley Cup Finalists have looked listless and unable to create offense for themselves. They’ve scored just three times and allowed 15 goals in four games, and their upcoming schedule is not exactly ideal for their chances to win: They kick things off Thursday night hosting Carolina, and two days later they battle Detroit before embarking on a four-game road trip that takes them through California and Seattle.
After that, the Habs host the Wings again, then host the New York Islanders, Vegas Golden Knights, the L.A. Kings, the Calgary Flames, the Wings for a third time, the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh Penguins. There are very few soft touches in that group of opponents, and Montreal could find itself in a hole even the return of injured star goalie Carey Price and injured forward Paul Byron can’t help them dig out from it.
Every loss the Canadiens incur will cause dedicated Habs fans to spiral out of control with worry, and they’ll be justified in doing so, because with an improved Ottawa Senators team this year, there’s a possibility the Sens finish higher in the standings than Montreal. And that would be a fireable offense for GM Marc Bergevin, despite the good he’s done in his nine-and-a-half years at the helm of the Habs. It’s a more real possibility now than it was before the season starts, and that should cause fret lines in the faces of Montreal’s supporters.
Possible Rebound: The Chicago Blackhawks. With the major additions Hawks GM Stan Bowman made to his team’s lineup this past summer, few people imagined Chicago would still be looking for its first win after their fourth win of the season. But that’s where they’re at, and Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton are scrambling for answers. One of the main issues is they’ve been outscored 17-7 in their first four games; new Hawk goalie Marc Andre Fleury hasn’t received the defensive support he had in Las Vegas with the Golden Knights, captain Jonathan Toews’ return to the lineup hasn’t sparked an offensive outburst, and new Hawks defenseman Seth Jones hasn’t immediately transformed the defense corps into an elite unit.
Like the Canadiens, the Blackhawks aren’t being done any favors by the NHL’s schedule-maker, as their next three games are at the United Center, where they host Vancouver, Detroit and Toronto. Next up for them are road games against Carolina and St. Louis, two home games against the Senators and Canes, a road game against the Jets, and home games against the Nashville Predators, Penguins, and Arizona Coyotes. They’ve definitely got a shot at winning some of those and slowly climb up the Central Division, but it won’t be easy – and it might trigger a coaching change, if Coliton doesn’t produce positive results.
Either way, the Hawks have their work cut out for them, but as it stands, they don’t look like they’ve got the right mix of veterans and developing projects to be a playoff team this season.
Definite Rebound: The Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have stumbled out of the gate, posting a 0-2-1 record in their first three games (against the Anaheim Ducks, Sharks, and Minnesota Wild). Head coach Paul Maurice is in the middle of a three-year contract extension, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is a sworn fan of his work, so it’s hard to imagine pulling the plug on Maurice’s tenure. And the Jets’ upcoming slate of games gives Maurice’s team a solid chance of stringing together a few wins and start feeling good about itself.
To wit: the Jets next play a home game against Anaheim, then play two nights later against Nashville, then travel to Califormia to play the Ducks, Kings and Sharks. The next group of opponents the Jets face will be part of a six-game homestand that includes the Dallas Stars, Blackhawks, Islanders, Blues, Sharks, Kings and Oilers. Certainly, they won’t win all those games, but some are winnable, and Winnipeg will be aiming on beating the teams they should beat, and giving hell to teams as good or better than them. That will be the challenge for Maurice, but he has one of the best goalies in the sport in Connor Hellebuyck, and a deep group of forwards to help him and the rest of the team survive.
The Jets flames out in the second round of last year’s post-season, but they have enough carryover talent to right their ship. Things will improve when captain Blake Wheeler returns from being in the league’s COVID-19 protocols, and Hellebuyck drastically improves his current goals-against average of 4.66 and his save percentage of .856. Jets fans are among the most passionate and dedicated group in the league, and they should have much more to smile about relatively soon.