Pretender or Contender: Which Surprise NHL Teams Are For Real?
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Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images
It’s been a revealing six weeks.
And while the usual stick-wielding suspects from Boston, Vegas, Carolina and Tampa Bay are among the NHL’s top 10 teams heading into the weekend before Thanksgiving, there are several others surprisingly still lingering with the elite.
Two teams that failed to reach the playoffs in 2021-22 and weren’t forecast to fare much better this time around—the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets—were within two and nine points of the league-leading Bruins through Thursday’s games, while the Seattle Kraken, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers are each in early contention as well.
Their initial successes prompted B/R’s hockey writing types to convene to determine which members of the quintet are most likely to stay in the fight for the long term and earn themselves coveted “contender” status and which are probably on the verge of falling back toward a more expected “pretender” status over the next several weeks.
The surprise squads are listed alphabetically by city/state name, and the aforementioned contender/pretender determination is included at the bottom of each summary.
Scroll through to see what we came up with, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Detroit Red Wings
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It’s been a long run of irrelevance in Detroit.
The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons from 1996-97 to 2007-08 and followed the last title with another eight straight playoff appearances through 2015-16, but it’s now been six years without a postseason berth and nine since they last won a series.
General manager Steve Yzerman has gone all-in on retooling the franchise for which he starred during the Cup years, and there have been signs of recent success, most notably a strong start in 2021-22 that had the team in contention through the first half and individual success stories that included a Calder Trophy for defenseman Moritz Seider.
It’s been the same story so far in 2022-23, with Detroit going 8-5-4 while racking up 20 points that are good for 12th overall and fourth in the Atlantic Division, just a point off the pace of the three-time Eastern Conference champion Lightning.
A prize from a busy offseason, free-agent pickup Dominik Kubalik is playing at more than a point-per-game rate alongside holdover team captain Dylan Larkin, while another acquisition, veteran David Perron, is close behind with six goals and 14 points. Ville Husso, yet another of the GM’s adds, is 6-2-3 with a 2.69 goals-against average in 11 starts as the No. 1 goalie.
Still, while there’s plenty of reason for optimism, the road is full of obstacles.
A solid .588 points percentage has been good for just a narrow lead in an admittedly early Eastern wild-card playoff race. And considering the more proven commodities from Florida—and Pittsburgh and Washington lurking within three points—it seems a stretch at best to think the Red Wings will be able to hold the high ground for 65 more games.
So while the No. 1 draft pick is probably not in play, a true contending label isn’t either.
New Jersey Devils
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Rich Graessle/Getty Images
At this point, there’s little to say beyond, “Wow!”
The New Jersey Devils have run as much off the contention pace as the Red Wings in recent years, missing the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons and not winning a postseason round since an ultimately unsuccessful run for a championship in 2011-12.
They’ve been no better than seventh in their division since 2017-18 and are 30th of 31 teams overall (minus the expansion Seattle Kraken) across the last four seasons with 248 points, ironically finishing ahead of only Detroit’s 235.
But it’s all changing in 2022-23. Big time.
The Devils are the undisputed talk of the early NHL season thanks to an 11-game winning streak that’s taken them from a 3-3 start to a glittering 14-3 record that’s good for first in the Metropolitan Division and second in the East and overall behind the Boston Bruins.
It’s been a perfect storm of long-term building and recent tinkering for GM Tom Fitzgerald, who’s constructed a team led by Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier—each drafted from 2016 to 2019 and averaging more than a point per game—and augmented by outside acquisitions like defenseman Dougie Hamilton and goaltender Vitek Vanecek.
New Jersey is third in the league with 3.71 goals per game and fourth with a 2.41 GAA. The team also ranks second in shots on goal (36.9 per game) and first in shots allowed (24.6). By contrast, the fellow fast-starters from Detroit are mired in the middle of the 32-team pack in all four metrics, placing no better than 16th in any.
Those sorts of metrics over nearly a quarter season are no illusion, and it’s far more likely the Devils will be competing for home ice come April than scrambling to get in the tournament.
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So much for flying under the radar.
The Philadelphia Flyers had the luxury of residing in a city housing a World Series baseball team in the Phillies, a standings-topping football team in the Eagles and a basketball team in the 76ers, with reason to believe a championship is foreseeable among one of those squads.
And given that they’d finished 29th overall last season while suffering through multiple prolonged losing streaks, it wasn’t looking like Flyers hockey would have much of a place in the sports pages of the Inquirer or Daily News.
Then John Tortorella showed up.
A Cup-winning coach from his days in Tampa Bay and a habitual winner, albeit a controversial one, in nearly all his other professional stops, the man known as Torts has delighted reporters and challenged players while changing a culture that had gone south for two seasons since Philadelphia was the top Eastern seed in the 2019-20 playoffs.
The Flyers went 6-3-2 through their first 11 games under their new boss, and goalie Carter Hart was unbeaten in regulation through his first eight starts through Nov. 5. But over the last two weeks, there are indicators that the early-fall bloom has begun to fade.
Philadelphia skidded through a 1-4-1 stretch in its last six outings, dropped to a fifth-place tie in a Metropolitan Division that already has three 10-win teams and prompted Tortorella to rail in an interview during Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss in Columbus: “We suck. We haven’t forechecked; we have not done anything as of right now.”
No disrespect to Tortorella, Hart or team-leading scorers Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes—who’ve combined for 11 goals while only one other teammate has more than three—but there’s not enough talent on the roster to expect this group to finish too far above the basement.
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Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images
Now this is more like it.
Though the typical expansion experience involves years of mediocrity before a new team fills out a roster and climbs the competitive ladder, fans of the Seattle Kraken were expecting big things last season because of what the Vegas Golden Knights had done.
So when the Emerald City’s first season in the league was instead beset by inept offense and surprisingly leaky goaltending, disappointment abounded. Nevertheless, GM Ron Francis continued to stock up on prospects while tinkering around the personnel edges, but the results of his forward-thinking labor are paying more tangible dividends in 2022-23.
The Kraken find themselves tied for 10th overall with Tampa Bay through Thursday’s games, and they’ve maintained their push through 17 games thanks to outstanding road play (5-1-1), balanced scoring (seven players with at least four goals) and stellar goaltending from under-the-radar free-agent signee Martin Jones.
He’s 8-4-2 in 14 games with a 2.34 GAA that’s ninth-best in the league, and he has benefited from a structure that surrenders the third-fewest shots per game (27.4). His early save percentage (.912) is better than any he’s posted over a full season since 2017-18 with the San Jose Sharks.
But, like the Red Wings, the Kraken are in a tough position going forward.
Though its 9-5-3 record is third-best in the Pacific, Seattle is just ahead of two teams—fourth-place Edmonton and fifth-place Calgary—that were among the NHL’s playoff final eight last spring and seem likely to be in the mix this time. Not to mention the two teams in front of them, Vegas and Los Angeles, also look capable of maintaining their spots for the long haul.
So while it’s conceivable for Seattle to hang in long enough to pick off a falling elite from Alberta, it’s more likely a dearth of offense (27th in shots and 15th in goals per game) will do the team in, with its opponents getting far more production from top to bottom.
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Speaking of 2021-22 expectations, the Winnipeg Jets had plenty.
They had made the playoffs for four straight seasons and were coming off a springtime run in which they swept the favored Edmonton Oilers before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup finalists from Montreal.
So it wasn’t ridiculous to assume a team that was deep and talented up front and had a Vezina-quality goalie on the back end could make a legitimate push for a title.
In a word, meh.
Rather than going their playoff success one better, the Jets crashed and burned thanks to tumult in the locker room and mediocrity on the ice. Veteran coach Paul Maurice abruptly stepped away during the season after suggesting the team needed a “new voice,” and goalie Connor Hellebuyck was merely good as Winnipeg miss the tournament by eight points.
Maurice is now with the Florida Panthers, and interim coach Dave Lowry was not asked back. He left the gig to veteran Rick Bowness, who’d been a Stanley Cup finalist himself with the Dallas Stars during the pandemic bubble of 2020.
As it turns out, the 67-year-old has been a revelation, instilling defensive stability to a team that had gone weak on the blue line. And a main beneficiary has been Hellebuyck, who’s on an 8-3-1 tear through 12 starts while sharing the league lead in shutouts (two). while placing second in both goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.935).
Center Mark Scheifele has 10 goals in 15 games and is on pace for a career-high 54, and five other teammates have already chipped in with at least 10 points. The team GAA of 2.33 is second only to Boston’s 2.12, which should leave Winnipeg with an excellent chance to keep pace for no less than a mid-range Western playoff spot, and the presence of Hellebuyck will make the Jets a dangerous out come tournament time.
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