The NHL is a month into the new season, which usually means three things: The playoff races remain more or less wide open, the first coaching firing is just around the corner and the giddy gyrations of the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to puzzle and confuse. Here are more takeaways, surprises, disappointments and a question: Whatever happened to the ref cam?
Surprise: Projected to finish last in the Western Conference, where they would be a front-runner in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, the Calgary Flames are instead off to a fabulous 8-4-2 start, on the heels of excellent goaltending from free-agent cast-off Jonas Hiller and a quartet of underrated defencemen – Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman – who are leading the offensive charge. The Flames are 6-2 on the road, despite losing their goal-scoring leader Mason Raymond to injury; and trying hard not to wake up and discover it's all just a figment of Brian Burke's wild imagination.
Disappointment: Hoping to finally turn the corner after eight consecutive years outside the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers are off to another discouraging, nothing-doing start. The goaltending has been up-and-down, their scoring is sporadic and the news that their best player, Taylor Hall, will miss two-to-four weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament can only make an already fragile confidence level sink even lower.
Surprise: Winnipeg gets defence. Huh. Who would have thought? The Jets went into the season with goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in the crosshairs after proving to be statistically the worst starter (50 games or more) in the league last year. Instead, Pavelec has rebounded in the early going, providing solid play and helping to overcome an offence weakened by an early-season injury to Evander Kane. Dustin Byfuglien was a high-risk, high-reward player as a defenceman, so shifting him up front contributed to more stability and structure in the Jets' collective play. The most recent proof: a pair of 1-0 shutout victories this past weekend.
Disappointment: Colorado unexpectedly won the NHL's toughest division, the Central, last season, in large part because of a 15-4-4 overtime record and possession stats that the analytics crowd mocked. The predictions that they would backslide have come true, mostly because all those extra-time games that went their way a year ago have been lost this time around (a league-worst 0-5). Nathan MacKinnon overcame a slow start, with a scoring spurt these past 10 days, but the rest of the offence is languishing far behind last year's top-five production.
Surprise: Coming off a disappointing finish as the St. Louis Blues' playoff goaltending "saviour," Ryan Miller signed with the Vancouver Canucks and is off to a roaring 9-1 start, tops in the league for goalie wins. Miller's presence, along with an organizational culture change which brought Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins into three key management roles, has the Canucks contending for top spot in the Pacific. Two healthy and productive Sedins doesn't hurt either.
Disappointment: Columbus Blue Jacket injuries. Everybody loses players at some point in the year, but the body count for the Blue Jackets was extraordinary. For a time, they muddled along without nine projected regulars, including starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who is still out. Predictions that Ryan Johansen would struggle in the early going because he missed all of training camp in a contract dispute provided unfounded. Johansen has been great. But six losses in a row that featured just 10 goals have dropped the Blue Jackets back into a tie with the Carolina Hurricanes at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.
Surprise: Jakub Voracek, acquired by Philadelphia from Columbus in the Jeff Carter swap, is giving Sidney Crosby a run for his money atop the NHL scoring charts. Voracek has been held off the scoresheet just once in 12 games this season; if it weren't for his scoring prowess, the 5-5-2 Flyers might be sunk.
Disappointment: L.A.'s offence beyond That 70s Line. Carter, along with Tyler Toffoli and early-season Calder hopeful Tanner Pearson, have accounted for virtually all of the defending champion Kings' scoring this season – and when their production tailed off at the end of their most recent road trip, L.A. fell into a funk. Four offensive mainstays in last year's Stanley Cup run (Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik) have a collective nine points in 41 combined regular-season games played.
Surprise: Pittsburgh's power play, under new coach Mike Johnston, is humming along at a record and likely unsustainable 41.3-per-cent pace, a full 12 percentage points ahead of the next best team, the Washington Capitals. Pittsburgh has more goals on the power play (19) than either Buffalo or Florida has in total.
Disappointment: The Sabres' scoring. Sure, Buffalo was supposed to be bad, but this bad? C'mon. Half the time, it doesn't look like an NHL team. The Sabres are averaging a garishly ugly 1.08 goals-per-game. At this rate, they are on pace to score fewer than 90 goals for the entire season. Last year, Buffalo ranked dead-last in goals scored at 150, which was 38 fewer than the next-worst team . There's ugly and then there's Buffalo's play in the first month – nothing short of embarrassing.
Surprise: If the playoffs started Wednesday morning, five of the seven Canadian teams (Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg) would be in – barely, in the case of the Jets, who are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks, or the Senators, who would get the second wild card in the East. But it is a vast improvement over the preseason projections, in which only the Canadiens were thought to be legitimate postseason contenders. For now anyway, put those "Woe Canada" headlines on hold.
Disappointment: Toronto Maple Leafs. Or maybe the Leafs are exactly where you expected them to be. Not good enough to be in a playoff position, but not bad enough to challenge the Sabres for the coveted 30th place in this year's standings. At least in Buffalo, the merchandising department can get an early jump on McDavid and/or Jack Eichel jersey sales.