News Home » Sports » Quick fixes for struggling NHL contenders

Quick fixes for struggling NHL contenders

UniqueThis 2 Nov 5
9:30 AM ET

Just when you start to think that you have a good grasp on the NHL, it knocks you on your butt by throwing a curveball at you. We're now through the first month of the regular season, and the standings still look predictably unpredictable.

Whether it's the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres, there are a number of teams that have risen from the basement to the penthouse in the early going, bumping those that we had penciled into those top spots further down the pecking order.

Let's try to run some quick diagnostics on the presumptive contenders that have come out of the gate sputtering, see if there are any quick fixes that can help them reverse course and start playing the type of hockey we've come to expect, as well as whether they'll actually get back on track.

San Jose Sharks

The problem: Pretty much everything that could've conceivably gone wrong in San Jose already has. Only the Red Wings have more losses than their 10 defeats, and only the Red Wings have a worse goal differential than their hideous minus-29. The defense is once again bad, but what's different this season is that the offense hasn't been there to bail it out. The Sharks have the 29th-ranked offense at 5-on-5, and if not for a power play that's still got some bite to it, they'd be near the bottom overall. The offseason talent exodus -- and subsequent hit to their depth -- has played a role in that dip, but their remaining star players aren't without blame because they haven't played up to their usual standards, either.

Given their remaining talent, the goals will start to come, but their inability to keep the puck out of their own net looks like it'll ultimately be their demise yet again. After being 21st in goals against last season, they're now down to 28th, and it's silly to expect different results when they keep doing the same thing over and over again without making any real changes.

The fix: In this case, identifying the problem is the easy part, but finding a realistic solution isn't quite so simple. Considering that the combination of goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are 30th in 5-on-5 save percentage and 29th in all-situations save percentage, the natural reaction would be to suggest finding a new goalie. The issue runs deeper than that, however. On the one hand, the Sharks are heavily committed to Jones financially for five more seasons beyond this one, and it's not really possible for them to take on any more money at the position without getting out from under his cumbersome contract first. That's not happening, because no one is taking a 30-year-old goalie with an .895 save percentage since the start of last season who is still owed $21 million.

The other complicating factor is that it's not even a given that a different goalie would fare much better in this environment as currently constructed. Only the Rangers and Blackhawks give up more high-danger opportunities, and if you tack the Jets onto that group, those three are the only teams that are currently sporting worse expected-goals-against rates than the Sharks. Whether it's the personnel or the system, the reality is that San Jose bleeds odd-man rushes and scoring chances of such high quality and quantity that it's unreasonable to expect any netminder to thrive in that crease.

So how do the Sharks address that, then? Without the benefit of financial flexibility or even a 2020 first-round pick to go out and add a player via trade, the only path for improvement left for them is through internal adjustments to the personnel they already have.

The first step is to free up Brent Burns so that he can run wild and create offense like he has in the past. They've really done him a disservice thus far by attaching him to Marc-Edouard Vlasic as Justin Braun's successor this season, both because Vlasic is a shell of his former self but also because Burns' unique skill set is wasted playing the types of defensively slanted minutes that have been reserved for Vlasic's shutdown pairing in the past. With Burns and Vlasic on the ice together at 5-on-5, the Sharks have mightily struggled, controlling just 46.9% of the shot attempts, 30.8% of the goals scored and 40.6% of the expected goals.

Considering how vital it's been for the Sharks to run their offense through Burns over the years, it's no surprise that they've been as anemic at even strength as they have while he's been anchored. They need to help him shake free, and let him loose on the opposition doing what he does best. Bumping Vlasic down the lineup, and pairing Burns with essentially anyone else while feeding him softer minutes in the attacking zone would be a good first step toward accomplishing just that.

The outlook: The Sharks need to do something and do it quickly, because throwing away a season at this point isn't a palatable option. With the way they've built their roster and pushed all of their chips into the center of the table with this group, the window for San Jose to contend has a well-defined shelf life to it. Between Erik Karlsson, Burns, Vlasic, Logan Couture and Jones, they have north of $40 million committed to a group of players who are either already in their 30s or about to enter them, and all of those deals run for another handful of seasons. With those players soaking up that much cap space while progressively depreciating, it's tough to envision a scenario in which the Sharks are better positioned to make some noise than they are at the moment.

That's a scary thought given how bad they've looked early on, but the silver lining is that all is not lost quite yet. They still play in the Pacific Division, and despite the hot starts for the Canucks and Oilers, it's a division that once you get past Vegas still looks wide open moving forward. A lot of the complementary spare parts have been stripped, but the engine of a group that was the league's best possession team, finished second in goals and with 100-plus points, and made it all the way to the conference finals just one year ago is still there. It just needs to find a way to kickstart it before it's too late.

Dallas Stars

The problem: Last season, the Stars were able to get by just fine with the 28th-ranked offense because they weren't really giving anything up on the other end of the ice. Jim Montgomery's system was suffocating, and goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin cleaned up the rest. Of all 31 teams, only the Islanders yielded fewer goals against and had a better team save percentage. When you're that stingy in goal suppression, the bar you need to clear offensively yourself to come out as a net positive is exceedingly low.

The issue is that performance from one season to the next at the goaltending position is not reliable, and unless you're being coached by Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn, banking on that to carry you in perpetuity without a fail-safe option is awfully risky. Dallas is learning that the hard way this season, because the main difference this season compared to last is that the goalies have been just good at stopping the puck (91.5% of the time) as opposed to great (92.9% of the time). The rate at which they're conceding shots and chances against are actually even better thus far, as is the expected goals against total. Even acknowledging that, it's hardly a given that their goalies will be able to match their sparkling numbers from a season ago.

The fix: Now that they can't afford to get away with the absolute bare minimum offensively, they'll need to push the envelope to create more goals. Part of that onus is certainly on the players themselves. While it's great for Roope Hintz individually that he's already scored nine times and lived up to all the preseason buzz, it's unacceptable for the rest of the team that he's scored more times than Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and John Klingberg combined.

Seguin is the name that most notably jumps off the list, because he's off to a start that's similar to the one that notoriously drew public criticism from the team's CEO last season. On the one hand, the 6.5% of his shots he's turning into goals won't continue for the 11% career shooter, just like it didn't last season when he was at just 7.5% before being called out. The difference this time is that the volume of looks he's generating has substantially dipped, with his attempts, shots on goal and chances all being at a career low on a per-minute basis. That needs to improve if he's going to turn things around and get back to scoring at his usual level, and the Stars need that to happen because he's their best pure scorer.

The coach himself isn't without blame, either. The Stars are playing at a snail's pace this season, currently the sixth-slowest team at 5-on-5 when using shot attempts generated for and against as a proxy. It's a recipe that worked for them last season when they could win 2-1 every game, but now that they need to jump-start their offense, opening things up would go a long way toward accomplishing it. With players like Miro Heiskanen, Klingberg, Hintz, Denis Gurianov, Alexander Radulov and Seguin, there's no reason the Stars should be as methodical and plodding as they've been.

The outlook: There's a reason the Stars were a trendy preseason pick to carry over their success from the end of last season and make some noise in the Central Division. As bleak as it has looked for stretches, all of those reasons are still there. With the injuries to Blues dynamo Vladimir Tarasenko along with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog in Colorado, there's an opening right now for Dallas to dig out of its early hole. It'll never be able to match what division rivals like the Avalanche and Predators can do with the puck, but it doesn't need to. All the Stars need to do is strike a better balance so that they're not so one-dimensional and reliant on their goaltending.

Winnipeg Jets

The problem: The Jets find themselves in quite the predicament. Their defense has been decimated, with Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov currently representing the only holdovers from the team's blueline depth chart last season. The domino effect of losing that many key pieces without adequately replacing them is that you wind up forcing the remaining players you do have to play roles for which their skill sets aren't really suited.

Morrissey has been absolutely caved in this season, but it's hard to completely blame him considering that he's gone from shouldering a reasonable workload alongside Jacob Trouba to playing heavy minutes next to inferior partners. They were so paper-thin at the position to start the season that they rushed 18-year-old Ville Heinola into the lineup to cover the gaping hole before sending him down to the AHL for further seasoning before they would have to burn a year off his entry-level deal. They're now left giving regular minutes to players like Anthony Bitetto and Luca Sbisa, who arguably shouldn't be everyday players in the league at this point of their careers.

The fix: Getting some sort of resolution to the ongoing Dustin Byfuglien saga would go a long way. Using the remaining $6 million they have in cap space to go out and trade for a defenseman would help, but they can't really afford to do so while his return is still in limbo. Even when they do know how to proceed, neither option is ideal, however. If Byfuglien does come back, it seems unrealistic to expect a 35-year-old who has missed as much time as he has to immediately step into the lineup and be the peak version of himself. If he doesn't come back, the options available via the trade market in the middle of the season aren't particularly inspiring.

Most likely, the Jets would just be adding another body to eat up minutes, which wouldn't move the needle nearly enough given their current needs. The only way they'd likely be able to get their hands on a long-term difference-maker would be if they parted with one of their young highly coveted forwards, but as we've learned from trades like the infamous Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson swap in the past, dealing from a position of desperation just to fill an immediate need can have disastrous consequences down the road.

The outlook: It's quite startling just how dramatically the trajectory of this franchise has changed in such a short period of time. Just two seasons ago, the Jets were carrying much of the play in the Western Conference finals. Even after ultimately losing to the Golden Knights in that series, they were (justifiably) considered to be on the short list of teams positioned to sustainably compete for Stanley Cups for years to come.

They're now left scratching and clawing just to keep their heads above water while they wait for a life raft to materialize. What's left now is a sad reminder of how quickly things can change in a salary-cap world and how you need to take advantage of your opportunity to compete while you can because you can't take future success for granted.

New Jersey Devils

The problem: The Devils have had the opening month from hell. All of the goodwill and hype they built this summer by using the draft, trade market and free agency to acquire a bunch of shiny new toys seems like a distant memory. They have won just three of their first 11 games, failing to take advantage of a friendly schedule front-loaded with home games. What's even worse than the actual results is the path they took to those losses, blowing a number of multigoal third-period leads.

The biggest issue has been goaltending, which isn't necessarily a surprise given the number of question marks we had about both Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood heading into the season. Only the Red Wings and Kings are conceding more goals per game than the Devils, and that's largely due to the league-worst .863 save percentage from their netminders.

While there are typically many factors that go into keeping the puck out of your net, in this case it feels justified to put the majority of the blame on the goalies, considering that the shots they are facing don't actually appear to be all that bad, in either quality or quantity. In fact, only the Wild give up fewer high-danger chances on average, and only the Flyers surrender more total shots overall.

To put all of that into proper context, here are the teams with the biggest disparity between the number of goals they're actually giving up per hour of play and the number of goals we'd expect them to give up based on the quantity and quality of shots they're surrendering defensively (via Natural Stat Trick):

  • Devils: 3.83 GAA vs. 2.24 expected goals against = -1.59 goal difference

  • Kings: 4.04 GAA vs. 2.66 expected goals against = -1.38 goal difference

  • Blue Jackets: 3.53 GAA vs. 2.38 expected goals against = -1.15 goal difference

  • Wild: 3.49 GAA vs. 2.36 expected goals against = -1.13 goal difference

  • Red Wings: 3.93 GAA vs. 3.00 expected goals against = -0.93 goal difference

  • Panthers: 3.34 GAA vs. 2.37 expected goals against = -0.90 goal difference

  • Flyers: 3.25 GAA vs. 2.37 expected goals against = -0.88 goal difference

  • Sharks: 3.72 GAA vs. 2.91 expected goals against = -0.81 goal difference

The fix: While Schneider's post-All-Star-break performance last season was encouraging, it's not too long ago that he'd gone over a full calendar year without a regular-season victory. Considering that his lower body is held together by duct tape after all of the injuries he's had, it's fair to wonder whether this is the end of the road for him. He's still owed $6 million in each of the next two seasons, but if the Devils were to buy out his contract this summer, his remaining cap hit would be a much more manageable $2 million spread over the four following years.

As for Blackwood, it's still far too early to say whether he's any good, but after an encouraging 20-game cameo last season, he has been equally dreadful in 2019-20. He's still only 22 years old, but until he proves otherwise, he shouldn't be getting the lion's share of the starts at the NHL level. The issue for the Devils is that they don't really have a better option at the moment. They just acquired Louis Domingue, but aside from winning a bunch of games last season behind a historically great Lightning team, he hasn't exactly proved he's anything more than a replacement-level goalie.

The list of available proven goalies isn't particularly promising. Ryan Miller would be an interesting fit, but his contract allows him to choose where he plays, and it's possible he wouldn't want to leave California. Jimmy Howard would've been a logical choice, but he has looked dreadful in the early going, and would presumably prefer to go to a more viable contender given the playoff bonus in his contract.

The outlook: The Devils need to figure out who they are this season and what they want to accomplish before they can proceed. They're not going to get very far with this level of goaltending, but it's also tough to justify aggressively spending on another goalie because it's not like they've shown themselves to be a juggernaut from the crease out. If they're not going to legitimately compete for a playoff spot, they're going to need to look themselves in the mirror and ask the tough question of what they should do with Taylor Hall, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's still a magnificent talent, and players who provide his kind of on-ice impact are hard to come by, but he's also about to turn 28.

The thought of investing the type of money and years it'll presumably take to sign him this summer should be concerning, factoring in all of the time he has missed with injury and how important skating is to his game. The Devils would surely receive quite the return for him in trade if he were made available, but it's admittedly easier to say that would be the prudent move from the outside. New Jersey has made the playoffs just once in the past seven years, and making that kind of a move is a difficult step backward both in terms of the on-ice product and in terms of marketing and sales off the ice. Hall's presence not only gives the organization a star player and recognizable face of the franchise, but it helps make life that much easier for young centers such as Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier as they grow into their pivotal roles. That said, if they keep losing the way they have, then suddenly making that kind of decision might just become a little bit easier.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The problem: It has certainly been an uneven start to the season in Toronto, and that, unsurprisingly, hasn't gone unnoticed. The Maple Leafs have lost as many games as they've won, and have essentially given up as many goals as they've scored. Given that there's never going to be any doubt about their offensive production, the question with the Leafs as currently constructed is always going to be how effectively they can keep the puck out of their own net.

  • Shots against: 33.1 last season (24th), 33.3 this season (26th)

  • Chances against: 11.06 last season (16th), 9.91 this season (14th)

  • Expected goals against: 2.76 last season (26th), 2.72 this season (20th)

  • Goals against: 3.04 last season (20th), 3.40 this season (22nd)

  • Save percentage: 90.84 last season (10th), 89.89 this season (22nd)

The good news is that their underlying numbers don't really look much different than they did last season, but the bad news is that the results have been worse because Frederik Andersen hasn't been nearly as good as he had been in the past. Considering that he's proved himself to be one of the most consistent goalies in the world year to year, his early struggles shouldn't be much of a concern moving forward. He has finished between .917 and .919 in save percentage in each of the past four seasons, and despite how random performance at the position can be, he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

The fix: A certain level of patience is required. The absence of John Tavares exposed some flaws up front, but nearly any team would similarly feel the loss of a player of his caliber. Now that he's back, the Leafs should once again be an offensive buzzsaw, and their ability to score goals in a flurry gives them a good chance to win every night.

The biggest beneficiary will be Mitch Marner, who has struggled to produce at 5-on-5 despite his 90-plus-point pace. After scoring 16 goals and adding 42 assists in his first season playing next to Tavares, he has managed just four assists total. While it's certainly not ideal that a player making nearly $11 million is that reliant on another player to produce, that's a problem for another day now that one of the league's most lethal passer-to-shooter combinations has been reunited.

Beyond simply getting healthy, there are two obvious upgrades the Leafs could -- and arguably need to -- make this season:

1. A reliable backup goalie to occasionally spell Andersen: Michael Hutchinson hasn't had an easy go of it having to face the Bruins, Capitals and Canadiens the four times they've gone to him this season, but he has also yet to stop 90% of the shots in any of those starts.

Given how important every point will be when it comes to jockeying for position in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs can't afford to be giving them away whenever they decide to give Andersen rest. But they also need to play the long game, and can't afford to needlessly burn out their starter again in the regular season. He's once again on pace for 60-plus appearances, which would be his fourth consecutive season hitting that mark since coming to Toronto. With more teams embracing the concept of load management and gravitating toward timeshares in net, it's imperative for the Leafs to eventually find a sustainable second option to go to on Andersen's nights off.

2. Getting Morgan Rielly a new, non-Cody Ceci partner: Ceci is an easy target, but this early experiment of force-feeding him top minutes alongside Rielly -- and hoping that a better environment around him will draw more out of him than he has shown in his career -- isn't really working. His underlying numbers have improved from the abomination they've been in the past, but that'll happen when you go from having Max Lajoie, Zack Smith and Chris Tierney as the three players you most frequently share the ice with to having Rielly, Auston Matthews and Marner filling that role.

I just don't see it. Not only does he not look more competent while playing with significantly superior players, but the bigger issue is that the stink of his game really seems to be dragging down Rielly. Visually, Rielly looks completely discombobulated after playing like a viable Norris Trophy candidate last season.

While Rielly is never going to be mistaken for a traditional stay-at-home defenseman, the instability of playing with a partner who similarly doesn't appear to know where to stand, what to do or whom to cover in the defensive zone only exacerbates all of those issues without the puck. The clips of the two of them looking around cluelessly while an opponent gets to the net and scores grows with each passing game. I don't know how much longer it can conceivably last before Mike Babcock self-combusts on the bench, but the sooner the Leafs pull the plug on the experiment and free up Rielly to play with someone more capable while decreasing Ceci's exposure, the better.

The outlook: Any thought of the Leafs entering the season with an added sense of urgency in trying to win the Atlantic Division and afford themselves an easier first-round matchup has nearly gone out of the window with this start. Only compounding matters is that the Bruins have come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and look well on their way toward a special season at both an individual and team level.

While a new opponent would be a sight for sore eyes in Toronto, after everything they've been through in recent postseasons facing the Bruins, the idea of potentially having to instead face a Tampa Bay Lightning team that's currently lying in the weeds -- but still appears to be as talented as ever on paper -- isn't a significantly more appealing option.