NHL surprises at the halfway mark of 2016/17 season

The NHL is entering the second half of the 2016/17 season as most teams have reached the 41-game mark. There have been a few individual and team surprises over the first half and we’ll take a quick look at them, both good and bad. As far as teams go, the biggest news has been the fine play of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on a 16-game winning streak and ended up just one short of the league record set by Pittsburgh back in 1993. In addition, the Minnesota Wild reeled off 12 straight wins until running into Columbus, and Washington was on a nine-game winning streak as of January 16th.

To put things into perspective, Columbus had just 76 points last season and had earned 62 already after 42 contests this year. However, they were still a point behind Washington for top spot in the league, and the Wild were third in the overall standings with 61 points. Washington, Columbus and Minnesota all led the NHL in the first half of the season with the fewest defeats at just nine. The best goaltenders during that stretch belong to these three clubs as they were Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota, Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus and Braden Holtby of Washington.

Dubnyk had a 21-7-3 record at the halfway point with a league-leading 1.78 goals-against average and 94.0 save percentage. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky (26-6-3) won 14 games in a row and had a fourth-best goals-against average of 2.00 with a third-ranked 93.1 save percentage. Holtby (21-8-6) had a 1.85 goals-against and a 93.3 save percentage, which were both second-best in the league. Boston netminder Tuukka Rask (22-9-5) has also been excellent with a third-best goals against of 1.98 and fourth-best save percentage of 92.5.

The most disappointing teams in the league have been the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Florida was third-best in the Eastern Conference last season with 103 points, but were tied for ninth at the halfway mark with 48. The Islanders were fifth-best in the East with 100 points last campaign and were in last place in the conference and 28th in the NHL with just 40 points. Meanwhile, Tampa finished last season sixth in the East with 97 points and were fourth-worst this time around with 44 points.

There’s been a lot of ink concerning this year’s excellent crop of rookies and the competition for the Calder Trophy. At the halfway mark, the race couldn’t be much closer as both the first and second-overall picks last summer, Auston Matthews of Toronto and Patrick Laine of Winnipeg, each had 21 goals and 16 assists. Fellow forward Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs was just a pair of points behind them with 10 goals and 25 assists. We can’t overlook Zach Werenski of Columbus either, as he was the top-scoring rookie defenceman with 26 points, was a plus-8, and a big reason for the Blue Jackets’ resurgence this season.

When it comes to offseason free-agent acquisitions, the best pickups have been forwards Michael Grabner of the New York Rangers, Eric Staal of Minnesota and Sam Gagner of Columbus. Gagner was signed from Philadelphia for just $650,000 and had scored 30 points in half a season after registering just 16 in 53 games last year. Staal had 39 points at the halfway mark this season after scoring 39 points in 83 games with Carolina and the Rangers last campaign. As for the speedy Grabner, he had 19 goals and 27 points at the midway mark compared to nine goals and 18 points with Toronto in 80 games last year.

The most valuable player over the first half was contested by physical defenceman Brent Burns of San Jose and forwards Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Connor McDavid of Edmonton. Crosby led the league with 26 goals in 36 games at the halfway mark as well as in points-per game at 1.28. McDavid led the league in overall scoring with 50 points and Burns has been the top-scoring defenceman with 17 goals and 44 points. McDavid was scoring a pace of 1.11 points a game and Burns was at 1.02 points per outing.

We shouldn’t forget the coaches either as John Tortorella of Columbus, Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota and Mike Babcock of Toronto have all done wonders. Columbus was by far the surprise of the league and also owned the third-best goals for and goals-against records at the midway point. They were 27th in goals for last season and 30th in goals against. Boudreau had his team in top spot in the Western Conference with 61 points in his first year with Minnesota. They missed the playoffs last year with 87 points. As for Babcock, the Leafs were the worst team in the NHL last season with 69 points. They were tied for ninth in the East at the halfway mark with 48 points at 20-13-8 with eight rookies in the lineup.

Columbus Blue Jackets fall one game shy of NHL history

It was a case of “close but no cigar” for the Columbus Blue Jackets recently as their 16-game winning streak was snapped at the hands of the Washington Capitals. The Capitals handed them a 5-0 beating  at home at the Verizon Center in on January 5th while the Blue Jackets were attempting to tie the Pittsburgh Penguins for the NHL record of 17 consecutive victories which they set in 1992/93. Blue Jackets’ netminder Sergei Bobrovsky also saw his 14-game winning streak end in the same game as he was pulled during the third period after surrendering five goals on 23 shots. Columbus won two of their 16 games in overtime and one in a shootout, but ultimately fell one game short of joining the Penguins in the history book. 

It’s certainly a turnaround for the Blue Jackets as they were the second-worst club in the Eastern Conference and worst in the Metropolitan Division last campaign with a record 34-40-8 of for 76 points . They struggled right from the get-go in 2015/16 as they kicked off the year with an eight-game losing string. However, it looks like controversial head coach John Tortorella has pulled all of the right strings so far this season as they were leading the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference with 60 points at 28-7-4 on January 9th. Tortorella has been managing to get the most out of his lineup considering the squad isn’t laden with all stars.

The Blue Jackets have been getting excellent goaltending from former Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky while rookie defenceman Zach Werenski has been better than anybody expected. Forward Brandon Saad, who is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, has also been a key player along with captain Nick Foligno. Columbus is one of the league’s youngest teams when it comes to the average age of the players as well as their years of NHL experience. The franchise entered the league in 2000/01 and has made the playoffs just twice and has yet to win a series. As a matter of fact, the team has just two postseason victories in its history.

Columbus would have to basically collapse to miss the playoffs this season though due to their recent winning streak which lasted from November. 29th to January 5th. Their previous defeat was a shootout loss to Florida on November 26th. At that time, the Blue Jackets were sitting in fourth spot in the Metropolitan Division at 11-5-4. Their streak started on November 29th with a convincing 5-1 home win over Tampa Bay. Their fourth win of the streak came on December 5th with a 4-1 decision over Arizona and it was also the 500th victory in their franchise history. The ninth game was a 4-3 overtime triumph in Vancouver and was the 500th win in Tortorella’s career. 

By the time the 16-game streak had ended, the team had climbed to the top of the NHL’s overall standings with the league’s best record and they gave up three or more goals just three times during the run. Between 1992/93 and the current season, the closest an NHL team came to equaling Pittsburgh’s 17-game record was the Penguins themselves when they ran off 15 straight victories in the 2012/13 season which was shortened to 48 games due to a labour lockout. Columbus lost for a second straight time after the streak ended when they dropped a 5-4 decision to the New York Rangers, but then rebounded with 2-1 win over Philadelphia the next night, January 8th.  

Jaromir Jagr now second to only one

Other than a short three-day break it was business as usual for the NHL over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. There were some newsworthy events such as the Columbus Blue Jackets extending their winning streak to 15 games, the Minnesota Wild having theirs snapped at 12 contests, and a couple of outdoor games. However, the most significant accomplishment over the past couple of weeks was 44-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic climbing into second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. He achieved the feat with an assist in a home game against the Boston Bruins on December 22nd.

There’s now just one player between the Florida Panther veteran and the number one position and that’s a fellow by the name of Wayne Gretzky. With 2,857 points to his name in 1,487 games played, Gretzky was still 966 points ahead of Jagr’s 1,891 points. As of January 1st, Jagr had 756 goals and 1,135 assists. Jagr stood number three on the all-time goals list behind Gretzky’s 894 and Gordie Howe’s total of 801. As for assists, Jagr was fifth o the list behind Gretzky (1,963), Ron Francis (1,249), Mark Messier (1,193) and Ray Bourque (1,169).

Nobody has scored more important goals in NHL history though as Jagr has 133 game-winners under his belt with Phil Esposito being second on the list with 118. Jagr was also ranked in the top-five when it came to games played as he was fourth on the list with 1,667. The only players to appear in more NHL regular-season contests have been Howe (1,767), Messier (1,756) and Francis (1,731). There’s an excellent chance that Jagr will eventually play the most games in NHL history since he doesn’t have any plans of retiring son.

In fact, Jagr already would be the record holder for games played if he hadn’t left the NHL in 2008 to play in the KHL for three seasons before returning to North America. Jagr was taken with the fifth-overall pick in the 1990 NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. It didn’t take long for the youngster to prove that he belonged in the world’s best hockey league as he banged in 27 goals and 30 assists in 1990/91 as a rookie. Jagr has scored more than 100 points in a season on five occasions with his best campaign being 62 goals along with 87 assists for 149 points in 1995/96 with Pittsburgh.

Jagr has spent time with numerous NHL clubs as he’s also played with the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. He’s also played in 208 career postseason games with 78 goals and 123 assists for 201 points. Jagr’s trophy cabinet includes five Art Ross awards for leading the league in point scoring, three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, three Lester B. Pearson Awards for being the NHL’s best player and a trio of Ted Lindsay Awards for being the top goal scorer in a season. He’s scored the most overtime goals in regular-season play in history and is the oldest player to record three goals in a game.

As far as team achievements go, the future Hall of Famer won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, two Olympic medals, four IIHF World Championship medals and a IIHF World Junior Championship medal. There’s no doubt Jagr will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest hockey players due to his longevity and production. As of New Year’s Day he had 23 points in 38 games and claims he plans on playing until the age of 50. If he does, Jagr should creep a couple of hundred points closer to Gretzky, but it’s highly doubtful he’ll ever catch him. It certainly would have been interesting though if he didn’t trade three seasons of NHL hockey for the KHL.     

Columbus rookie Zach Werenski proving he’s an elite blueliner

While forwards Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of Toronto may be getting all the attention when it comes to talk of the Calder Trophy, the best rookie in the NHL right now may very well be defenceman Zach Werenski of Columbus. The 19-year-old was chosen with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft and has quietly become one of the league’s best blueliners in his first season at the age of 19. Learning how to become an elite defenceman in the world’s toughest hockey league typically takes several seasons to master, but the native of Grosse Point, Michigan has made it look easy.

Paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones, Werenski averages close to 22 minutes of ice time per game and excels on the power play and penalty kill as well as five-on-five. November’s NHL rookie of the month had racked up six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 29 games by December 18th and was a plus-seven. At his current pace, the 6-foot-2-inch, 212 lb. youngster is projected to finish the season with 18 goals and 42 assists for 60 points and post a plus-21 mark.

Werenski grew up studying the play of Detroit Red Wing hall of famer Nicklas Lidstrom and lists Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings as another huge inspiration. However, Werenski is making a name for himself in the league with his stellar play and should easily set a couple of rookie records for the Blue Jackets franchise this season. He’s already tied the mark for points by a first-year defenceman with 21 which was set by Ryan Murray in 2013/14, and should be able to top Rick Nash’s record of 39 points by a Columbus rookie which was set in 2002/03.

As a teenager, the left-shooting defenceman played with the U.S. National team program and then finished high school at 17 so he could play for the University of Michigan. When he arrived in the NCAA he was the youngest player in the league. He spent two years at the school as its best defenceman and scored 20 goals and 41 assists in 71 games. When the 2015/16 college season ended, Werenski signed an amateur tryout with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League for just $5,000 and helped the club win the Calder Cup championship with 14 points in 17 playoff games.

He believes the time spent riding the buses in the AHL prepared him for the jump to the NHL and it looks like he made the right move. He now leads his NHL team’s defencemen in possession statistics and has the seventh-lowest turnover rate in the league for all blueliners. Columbus first noticed Werenski when he played for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in 2013/14. But while he definitely interested them, he wasn’t their first choice when the 2015 NHL Entry Draft got underway.

The Blue Jackets tried to move up to fourth position in the draft, which was held by Carolina, as they wanted to select fellow defenceman Noah Hanifin. However, they considered the Hurricanes’ asking price to be too high and believed Werenski would still be available when it was their turn to choose at number eight. Therefore, they perhaps landed the potential 2016/17 rookie of the year by an odd twist of fate. There’s no guarantee Werenski’s play won’t tail off as the season goes along, but he’s already proven he’s got what it takes to become a premier NHL defenceman for years to come.  

Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring records may fall this season

With at least half a dozen rookies in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup this season, it’s highly likely that one of the more skillful ones will break the franchise’s long standing scoring record for a first-year player. The storied franchise hasn’t done much in the last half century, but at one time it was home to numerous elite players and hall of famers. When it comes to rookies though, just eight Leafs have managed to win the Calder Trophy over the club’s 100-year history. The last was Brit Selby way back in the 1965/66 campaign.

There are definitely some talented rookies in Toronto this season, including this year’s number-one overall draft pick Auston Matthews along with fellow forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander. This isn’t to say that one of them will take home the rookie of the year honours for their play this season, especially with close to 100 first-year players in the league at the moment, but it’s almost certain one of them will set a new franchise record for rookie scoring. The current Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring record belongs to former centre Peter Ihnacak, who registered 28 goals and 38 assists for 66 points in 1982/83.

However, Ihnacak was 25 years old at the time and basically a seasoned pro as he had been playing for the national team in the former nation of Czechoslovakia as well as one of the country’s top club teams. Ihnacak, who was drafted 25th overall in the second round in  1982 went on to enjoy a solid if unspectacular NHL career with the Leafs with 267 points in 417 games. However, the record for goals by a rookie is 36 which was set by Wendel Clark in 1985/86 and the assists record is held by Gus Bodnar at 40 from 1943/44. 

Now if all of the Leafs’ top-scoring rookies can stay healthy, one or more of them may be able to break Ihnacak’s, Clark’s of Bodnar’s  record by the time the 82nd game of the season rolls around. Matthews appears to have the best chance since he had racked up 20 points in 26 games as of December 12th. However, Marner was just one point behind him with 19 points and the pair was followed closely by Nylander and his 17 points. In addition to staying healthy, the rookies will also have to continue producing points at their current pace over the grueling 82-game schedule.

At their current pace, Matthews would end the season with 38 goals and 25 assists for 63 points, which means he’d break Clark’s record for goals and that’s it. Marner is on pace to score 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points, meaning he’d fall short of all three current Leafs’ rookie marks ad Nylander would also be shy of the records with 19 goals and 36 assists for 55 points. So even though this is arguably the best crop of rookies that have ever suited up with the Leafs, it’s still going to be a tough task to break the existing franchise records. It’s sure going to be fun for fans to watch them try though.

Florida Panthers’ Jonathan Marchessault looks like the bargain of the season

There are dozens of NHL players making between one and four million dollars this season who will finish the campaign with 40 points or less. Therefore, 25-year-old Jonathan Marchessault of the Florida Panthers could very well be the bargain of the season at just $750,000. With 10 goals and nine assists under his belt after 24 games, the 5-foot-8 forward is on pace for 34 goals and 31 assists this season for an impressive 65 points. That’s not bad for a player who went undrafted and was deemed too small for just about every league he’s played in. He’s not just a part-time player either, as the centre/winger is averaging over 18 minutes of ice time per game.

The undersized Marchessault has been skating between a pair of big wingers in Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr for most of the year and has fit in perfectly. He realizes he was given a chance by the Panthers to prove just how good he is because Jonathan Huberdeau has been sidelined with an injury and Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad have also missed time due to injuries. He’s making the most of his opportunity and it appears Marchessault will remain one of the club’s top six forwards for the remainder of the season. He impressed the Panthers’ brass over the past couple of seasons while playing with Tampa Bay and they decided to offer him a two-year deal worth a total of $1.5 million.

Marchessault said he understands why he didn’t crack the Tampa Bay lineup as a regular and that’s because the team has been playing extremely well and winning with the same core roster for the past few years. Ironically, a spot for an offensively talented forward opened up earlier this season when Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was ruled out for several months due to a knee injury. The native of Cap-Rouge, Quebec managed to appear in 45 games with Tampa last season though and scored seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points while averaging 12 minutes and five seconds of ice time a night.

Marchessault also played two games for Tampa the season before and chipped in with a goal and assist. He contributed an assist in five playoff outings with the Lightning last season and went pointless in two postseason contests the year before. However, his NHL debut didn’t come in Florida; it took place in the 2012/13 season when he went pointless in a pair of games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Marchessault’s path to the NHL started via the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) when he was drafted in the 12th round as a 16-year-old. The speedster racked up 239 points in 254 games and added 54 points in 52 playoff encounters.

Marchessault then proved he could handle the North American professional game as one of the AHL’s smallest players by playing a season in Connecticut, two in Springfield and parts of three campaigns with Syracuse. He appeared in a combined 306 regular-season games in the American League and produced 98 goals and 165 assists for 263 points. He’s said he didn’t think he was going to be drafted in the summer of 2009, but is thankful that he was given the chance to prove his worth at the AHL level. He played in three AHL All Star Games and was named a First-Team all star in 2012/13.

It’s still way too early to rank Marchessault with the top undrafted players the NHL has ever seen, such as Martin St. Louis, Steve Thomas, Dino Ciccarelli, Tim Kerr, Adam Oates, Peter Stastny, Joey Mullen and Borje Salming. But if he can stay healthy and can continue to score at his current pace, Marchessault may someday be mentioned in the same breath as those former stars.   

Vegas Golden Knights officially join the NHL

Although Las Vegas was awarded an expansion franchise by the NHL several months ago, the Vegas Golden Knights more or less officially joined the league on November 22nd when the team’s name and logo was first introduced. Majority owner Bill Foley announced the franchise’s moniker during  public ceremony at the city’s Toshiba Plaza. The Golden Knights become the 31st club in the league and will begin play at the city’s new T-Mobile Arena in October of 2017. Foley told the media that he wants his club to exhibit strength, courage, honour, teamwork, dedication and a never-say-die attitude both on and off the ice.

He added that knights are known as elite warriors and are known to protect people who can’t defend themselves. The team colours will be a combination of red, black, gold and steel grey with each colour representing the local community. Strength and durability is represented by steel grey while gold represents the desert terrain and the fact that Nevada is America’s biggest gold producer. Meanwhile, red represents the nearby Red Rock canyons and the city’s skyline while black stands for intensity and power. The team’s logo includes a knight’s helmet with the letter V emblazoned on it with the secondary logo featuring swords.

The franchise didn’t waste any time marketing the club’s name and logos as team gear and apparel, other than jerseys, was already being sold just hours after the announcement was made. The club’s official website can be found at nhl.com/goldenknights and there’s also an official app. In addition, the Golden Knights can be followed by fans via the team’s official Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat sites. The franchise is owned by Black Knight Sports and Entertainment, LLC. with the Foley and Maloof families being the principle owners. The Maloof family formerly owned the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise and has a 15 per cent stake in the Golden Knights.

Foley originally wanted to name the team the Las Vegas Black Knights in honour of the United States Military Academy, however, he ran into legal technicalities regarding trademarks and domain names. The Golden Knights name was chosen from three finalists, which were the Desert Knights, Silver Knights, and Golden Knights. The team’s general manager is George McPhee and his job will be to assemble a roster from an expansion draft and the NHL Entry Draft and the squad will compete in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division. The expansion draft will take place on June 21st.

The Golden Knights will be allowed to select one unprotected player from the other 30 NHL teams during the draft. Vegas will also select no lower than sixth position in the NHL Entry Draft, shortly afterwards. The new franchise has a lot of work to do between now and then as a coaching staff will need to be hired and numerous other details will need to be taken care of. However, there’s no need for fans to sit around and wait for the roster and staff to be announced as tickets for the Golden Knights games are on sale now.

Is the NHL’s 5-day bye week counterproductive?

The 2016/17 NHL schedule is approximately a week shorter than usual this season due to two factors. First, the season faced off several days later than usual due to the preseason World Cup of Hockey tournament. That means each team must play its 82-game schedule in the space of 180 days. But in fact, those 180 days will actually be reduced to 175 days since the NHL has implemented a mandatory five-day bye week for each club during the season. The result of the shortened season is more back-to-back games and scenarios such as three contests in four nights, four games in seven, and five in eight nights etc.

So while the five-day bye was introduced to give players a rest, they might not need the rest if they weren’t playing so many games in such a short period of time. To many observers, the bye week is an ironic situation which may actually be counterproductive. To make matters worse, some insiders believe the condensed schedule could be the cause of so many injuries to star players so far this season. The league has seen several top players miss games at one point or another already and the campaign hasn’t hit the quarter-way mark yet.

Some of the most notable players who have been injured early on in the campaign include Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Quick, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Marian Gaborik, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, Matt Duchene, Brad Richardson, Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, Anton Stralman, Taylor Hall, and Johnny Gaudreau. And let’s not forget Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, who may miss the rest of the season as he’s expected to be sidelined from four to six months due to a torn meniscus.

Injuries are part and parcel of all sports and hockey players are used to playing games in quick succession, but there are still those who believe the condensed schedule has something to do with the recent rash of injuries, including Jim Nill, the general manager of the Dallas Stars. Nill has seen six of his club’s forwards suffer some type of injury or another since training camp started. He attributes it to the competitiveness, parity, and speed of the league as well as the condensed schedule.

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and his Los Angeles Kings’ counterpart Dean Lombardi agree with Nill and added that most players work out all year long to stay in shape and their bodies may not be getting the rest they need. Yzerman also questioned the equipment today’s players wear and if it’s offering enough in the way of protection, especially when it comes to gloves and skates. He believes players are blocking more shots than ever these days, but skates and gloves are perhaps too lightweight.

Injuries are often unavoidable, but they can also be suffered when players are tired and aren’t 100 per cent healthy. With teams playing as many as five games in eight days and also traveling from city to city between them, the five-day bye week may not be worth it in the long run. It would make a lot more sense if the league extended the season by five days to accommodate it. The good news is the bye week has been negotiated for this season only and the league may say bye-bye to it next year.  

NHL scoring cools off after torrid start

The 2016/17 NHL season got off to a high-scoring start over its first couple of weeks, but has settled down considerably since then. Although it may not seem like much, teams were scoring an average of 3.05 goals per-game to start the campaign, which would have ranked as the 39th-highest total out of 100 seasons if they had kept it up. It also would have been the first time since 2005/06 that the clubs would have averaged at least three goals per-game over an entire season. The highest total recorded was 4.79 goals per-outing back in 1919/20 with the lowest being 1.46 per-contest less than a decade later in 1928/29.

Of course, the style of the game has changed over the years and is sometimes cyclical as we’ve seen high-scoring, fire-wagon hockey in some eras and tight-checking systems in others. In addition, the size of goaltending equipment has been altered several times over the decades and the composite hockey stick was recently introduced. There were several other theories to explain the high-scoring start of the current season though. Some experts believed the number of rookies in the league was a factor since there were 68 first-year players listed to open the season, which represented 10.3 per cent of the league’s players.

These skilled newcomers are seen as being young and fast with a habit of playing an offensive style of hockey. However, most of them aren’t as experienced when it comes to playing in their own end. This leads to mental lapses and physical mistakes which often results in more goals. By mid-November, goals per game for each team had leveled out to 2.77, which would rank just 61st in NHL history. Another reason for the quick start could have been the World Cup of Hockey tournament which was played in September just before the season faced off.

Players were for world-class hockey at an earlier date than usual and many of them entered 2016/17 already in mid-season form. While skaters were setting off the goal light on a regular basis, some of the league’s top goalies struggled. Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings suffered a long-term injury in his season opener while Montreal’s Carey Price was sidelined for several games with illness and Frederick Anderson of Toronto missed the much of the preseason and the World Cup with a shoulder problem. Other netminders such as Brian Elliott of Calgary, Ben Bishop of Tampa, Tuukka Rask of Boston and Martin Jones of San Jose all struggled to find their top form.

Goaltenders’  save percentage over the first two weeks of the season stood at 90.3 per cent on average, which ranked 19th lowest out of the 33 years the NHL has been recording the statistic. By mid-November, that number had risen to 91.2, which would rank as sixth-best  in history. Goals per team could have also been up early on since power-play opportunities were 3.68 per-game per-team early in the campaign and that number has fallen to 3.34, which is the 43rd-lowest total out of the 53 years the stat has been kept.

Whatever the reasons were for the high-scoring opening to the 2016/17 season, things quickly cooled down. Rookie scoring suddenly tailed off with Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine being the only first-year player among the top-32 scorers as of November 12th. The league’s top goalies were back in fine form and everything else from power-play opportunities and goals to penalty-killing and goals-against averages were more or less back to average for the NHL, at least for the past decade. Therefore, even with the influx of so many creative, high-scoring rookies this year, fans shouldn’t really expect to see anything out of the ordinary.   

NHL witnessing dramatic and exciting youth movement

When it comes to the age of NHL players, the league actually goes to extremes since there are those as young as 18 and as old as 44. In fact, Czech winger Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers is believed to be the oldest athlete in any of the world’s major professional sports leagues at the moment. Jagr is perhaps just a freak of nature though and he’s definitely not the norm in the NHL these days. The league is witnessing a youth movement at the moment with many of its top stars and prospects still even a year or two away from drinking age, at least in the U.S.

The NHL has always been home to a handful of excellent young players each season, but the league faced off for the 2016/17 campaign with over five dozen rookies in the clubs’ lineups. While Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, John Gibson, Shayne Gostisbehere, Artemi Panarin, and Colton Parayko led the way last year and were named to the All-Rookie Team, there are newcomers who may overshadow them this season. These include Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Jimmy Vesey of the New York Rangers, Patrik Laine of Winnipeg, Zach Werenski of Columbus, Travis Konecny of Philadelphia and Matthew Tkachuk of Calgary.

As of November 5th, Nylander, Matthews, Laine and Werenski all had at least 10 points to their name from anywhere between nine and 12 games played and a dozen of the league’s rookies were scoring at over a 40-point per season pace. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of fine veteran players left in the league, but just three of the top-20 scorers were over the age of 30. These were Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh, Joe Pavelski of San Jose and Montreal’s Shea Weber. Many of the other top players are still under the age of 24, including Mc David, Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon of Colorado, Jonathan Drouin of Florida, Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary, Seth Jones of Columbus and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad.

It appears that many young players are simply better prepared for the rigors of NHL hockey these days and are more physically developed and mature when they reach the league. This means some of them are ready to help out their teams immediately and have a positive impact on the sport. They’re proving that men as young as 18 and 19 are already good enough to compete with seasoned veterans and established world stars. It should also be noted that most of the league’s youngest players are generally playing for weaker teams since they were taken with the highest draft picks from rebuilding clubs.

This is why Edmonton has been able to stock the cupboards with so many excellent young prospects over the years and Toronto has several in their lineup this season. There’s a lot of pressure on these youngsters to produce and help their team out immediately and most of them are passing the test with flying colours. There’s no doubt the NHL has been is getting younger and younger over the past decade with 25-year-old Matt Duchene of Colorado already skating in his eight season as a prime example.

Some veteran players are finding it harder to stick with their teams these days and older free agents often have a difficult time finding bidders. We are seeing more and more veterans attending training camps on professional tryout contracts while others such as Brooks Laich, PA Parenteau, Ondrej Pavelec, Milan Michalek, Rob Scuderi and Mason Raymond being sent to the minors, placed on waivers or simply released by their respective clubs. This year’s crop of youngsters are bringing some much-needed excitement and scoring into the game and the race for the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year should be one of the best in years. We might even see some of them challenge for the league scoring title.