NHL’s biggest surprise teams: Bruins thriving after playoff collapse, Oilers falling well below expectations
Written by CBS SPORTS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED on December 2, 2023
The NHL has officially played through the first quarter of the 2023-24 season. With that in mind, we’ve got a fairly large sample size when it comes to what teams around the league look like this season.
Several teams have had performances that could be considered surprising. After all, it’s likely most didn’t foresee the Edmonton Oilers sitting in seventh place in the Pacific Division.
With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at some of the league’s surprise teams from both a positive and negative perspective.
Some may not consider the success of the Boston Bruins to be much of a surprise this season. However, it was hard to expect the sheer dominance in which the Bruins have been winning games throughout the first quarter of the 2023-24 season.
The Bruins tallied an NHL record 135 points during the 2022-23 regular season and won the Presidents’ Trophy as a result. All of that success didn’t translate to the postseason as the Bruins were eliminated by the Florida Panthers in the opening round.
Once the dust settled from the offseason, captain Patrice Bergeron retired, winger Tyler Bertuzzi signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and defenseman Dmitry Orlov left town to join the Carolina Hurricanes. On top of that, the Bruins didn’t really do a ton to alter their roster — aside from signing veteran forward James van Riemsdyk in free agency — after their disappointing end to the previous season.
Boston trusted the roster it had in place, and it’s now tied for the second-most points (31) in the NHL. As should come as no surprise, star winger David Pastrnak is having another sensational campaign to the tune of 31 points (13 goals and 18 assists). Losing Bergeron was tough, but Pavel Zacha has also really excelled as the team’s top-line center. It also doesn’t hurt when a team has a stellar goaltending tandem like Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman to lean on.
The Canucks came out of the gates with their hair on fire, and they have already banked 15 wins and 31 points through 23 games. Vancouver is now the second-place team in the Pacific Division, and the team’s star players are the ones driving this success.
Quinn Hughes has been in the top tier of NHL defensemen since his rookie season in 2019-20, but he has hit a new level under coach Rick Tocchet. Hughes has been more active and aggressive in the offensive zone than ever before, and he has already tied his career high in goals with eight. His 33 points are good for third in the league, behind only Nikita Kucherov and Canucks J.T. Miller.
The other two stars driving the bus in Vancouver are Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko. Pettersson is back to being an elite No. 1 center with nine goals and 30 points, putting him on pace for a new career high. Demko has been the best goaltender in the NHL so far, and he’s the frontrunner for the Vezina. Demko’s 11.27 goals saved above average is second to only Adin Hill, and his .885 high-danger save percentage is first among regular starters, according to Natural Stat Trick.
We haven’t even mentioned J.T. Miller, who is on pace for — stop me if you’ve heard this before — a new career high in points with 124. We’ve also ignored Brock Boeser, who is leading the entire NHL in goals with 17.
Everything has gone right for the Canucks so far, and as a team that came in just hoping to reach the postseason, their expectations have risen dramatically since opening night.
The Detroit Red Wings were the gold standard in the NHL once upon a time. However, this is a franchise that has fallen on hard times and has missed the postseason in seven consecutive years.
It’s possible the team’s struggles could be a thing of the past. The Red Wings have gotten off a 11-6-3 start to the season, and they really seem to have the offensive firepower to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Detroit went out and acquired star winger Alex DeBrincat in an offseason trade with the Ottawa Senators. DeBrincat has really paid dividends as he’s tallied 20 points (12 goals and eight assists), while Dylan Larkin has established himself as one of the team’s top playmakers.
DeBrincat’s arrival obviously was going to a huge positive for the Red Wings, but getting off to this hot of a start may not have been in the cards just yet. Detroit has thrived out of the gate and is getting even more of a boost in the coming weeks with the signing of veteran forward Patrick Kane. Kane could have chemistry with his new team off the bat considering he skated on a line with DeBrincat when the two were with the Chicago Blackhawks.
If Kane’s hip surgery truly helps him return to form, this suddenly becomes a team that could be postseason bound in 2023-24.
The Jets’ 2022-23 season ended poorly, with the team stumbling to the finish line before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the playoffs. The team made some notable changes in the offseason, and now Winnipeg looks like an actual threat in the Western Conference.
Coming into this year, it was tough to know exactly what to expect from the Jets. Over the summer, franchise legend Blake Wheeler signed with the New York Rangers and Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Thus far, Winnipeg has taken those losses in stride and played extremely well.
As usual, Kyle Connor is scoring from everywhere on the ice. He already has 14 goals on the season, and you can expect him to keep finding the back of the net. But Connor has been far from the only bright spot up front. Former first-round pick Cole Perfetti looks like a budding superstar, Nino Niederreiter looks more comfortable in his second season with the team, and Alex Iafallo has brought some energy after being acquired from the Kings in the Dubois trade.
Defensively, the Jets look much better than they did last season. They are giving up just 2.39 xGA/60, which ranks eighth in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. That should be more than enough help for Connor Hellebuyck, who is rounding into his elite form after a sluggish start to the season.
The Jets have looked like the third best team in the Central Division, and they haven’t really had much competition. That surefire playoff spot is up for grabs this year, and Winnipeg has to be the favorite to earn it at this point.
The Ottawa Senators have built a young core that includes Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris and Jake Sanderson, just to name a few. The franchise has infused that core with veterans like Claude Giroux and Jakob Chychrun, and it was thought that the combination would lead to immense success.
However, that’s been far from the case during the first quarter of the 2023-24 campaign. The Senators find themselves in last place in the Atlantic Division standings with just a 8-9-0 record (18 points), and goaltending has had a lot to do with the bad start.
The biggest Achilles heel for the Senators has proved to be in the crease. Joonas Korpisalo, who the team signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, hasn’t exactly performed the way that the team intended. Korpisalo has registered just a 5-5-0 record in addition to a 3.34 goals-against-average and a .902 save percentage. Meanwhile, Anton Forsberg hasn’t put up much better numbers as he’s accumulated a 3-4-0 record, a 3.51 goals-against-average and a .850 save percentage.
From an offensive standpoint, the Senators are scoring 3.47 goals-per-game, which is good for seventh in the NHL. Meanwhile, they also have a 3.47 goals-against-average as a team, so it’s taken large scoring efforts to win games. This is a young group with much promise, but goaltending has held it back.
When the puck dropped on opening night, the Oilers were among the Stanley Cup favorites, and yours truly thought they would win the Pacific Division. If that’s going to happen, they have a lot of work to do.
Edmonton got off to an absolutely abysmal start, going 3-9-1 before firing former coach Jay Woodcroft. The Oilers replaced Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch, who went 2-3-0 in his first five games behind the bench. The team has been giving out odd-man rushes like they’re a mall Santa handing out candy canes, and the goaltending has not been there to erase any of those mistakes.
Jack Campbell didn’t handle his chaotic environment well at all, and he gave up 4.31 goals above average in five games before getting sent down to the AHL. To be fair to Cambell, Stuart Skinner hasn’t handled it well either. He ranks 71st in the NHL with -6.39 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick. That has to get better before Edmonton can turn things around.
Of course, this doesn’t all fall on the goaltenders. The Oilers’ neutral zone defense has been bad, and they’ve made mistakes in critical areas of the ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t played anywhere near the 37-goal and 104-point pace at which he played last season. Even Connor McDavid has looked kind of human at times, especially when he was battling injury.
The Oilers still have some time to turn things around, and they are riding a three-game winning streak, but their margin for error is far smaller than it was just a handful of weeks ago.
The New Jersey Devils were expected to take the next step after defeating the New York Rangers in the opening round of last season’s playoffs. However, it hasn’t exactly been the start to the 2023-24 season the team may have envisioned.
The Devils are 10-9-1 and sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with just 21 points through the first quarter of the season. It’s worth noting that injuries have played a a part in the team’s struggles. Star center Jack Hughes missed two weeks with a shoulder injury, while fellow forward Timo Meier has missed the last two weeks with an undisclosed injury. Even with the injuries, the Devils are averaging 3.60 goals-per-game, which is good for the fifth-best clip in the NHL.
Much like the Senators, the Devils’ biggest deficiency has been in between the pipes. New Jersey has posted 3.65 goals-against average as a team, which is 29th in the league. Vitek Vanecek has seen the majority of the starts this season, and he has posted a 8-5-0 record to go along with a 3.49 goals-against-average and a .879 save percentage. On the other hand, Akira Schmid has tallied a 2-4-1 record, a 3.02 goals-against-average and a .896 save percentage.
The Devils definitely were expected to be one of the top teams in the East, but it’s been a less than ideal start to the year. Still, if the Devils can get more production in net and get healthy, there’s plenty of time for New Jersey to return to the form many expected.
The Oilers may have been the first team to fire their coach this season, but the Wild weren’t far behind. Minnesota fired Dean Evason after a 5-10-4 start, and it is looking for answers while trailing six other teams in the Central Division.
The two biggest problems in Minnesota have been an utter lack of consistent offense and poor goaltending. The former isn’t exactly new, but the latter is a unique problem for the Wild. Offensively, Minnesota is 27th in goals scored and 27th xG/60 at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. The Wild can paper over that when Kirill Kaprizov is scoring at a 50-goal pace, but that has not been the case this season. Kaprizov has six goals in 20 games, and not many of his teammates have been able to pick up his slack. If there is reason for optimism in Minnesota, it’s that Kaprizov probably won’t keep shooting 8.6% for an entire season.
Goaltending might be the trickier problem to solve. More specifically, Filip Gustavsson is off to a terrible start after being a brick wall for the back half of the 2022-23 season. He has allowed 6.2 goals above expected, per Natural Stat Trick. Marc-Andre Fleury has been even worse with 7.03 goals allowed above expected. Both of them are among the worst in the NHL in that category.
The question now is whether the Wild can dig out of this hole under new coach John Hynes. A top-heavy Central Division should give Minnesota hope, but it is still six points behind the Arizona Coyotes and Nashville Predators.