With the MLB playoffs winding down, and the NFL being completely unwatchable, I have been following the NHL more closely than usual. Here are my take-aways and observations from the first weeks of the season.
Star in the making:
The big story from opening night was the Maple Leaf’s Auston Matthews scoring 4 goals in his NHL debut. However in classic Maple Leaf fashion, they lost the game 5-4. The Maple Leafs have been the Chicago Cubs of the NHL, a hockey crazed city that has gone 50 years without a Stanley Cup. This team has been without a big star in recent years, so maybe this kid from the hockey hotbed of Scottsdale, Arizona is just what Toronto has been waiting for. I also look forward to Matthews dominating for team USA in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Popularity-wise, the NHL is clearly fourth among the four major sport. A big reason for this is NHL is lacking in identifiable star players that appeal to the casual sports fan. The other three major sports have stars that are easily recognizable. Even non-sports fans know LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Albert Pujols1. Crosby and Ovechkin have been great, but they just never got to that level. The NHL has been lacking this for years. Here we have Matthews, a 19 year old prodigy, born in the US, playing for an Original 6 NHL team while the camera catches his mom cry tears of joy in the stands. Maybe we have our identifiable star. True story: I watched the Blues game with my dad last weekend. And my mom, who has not watched a full hockey game in her life, said “Did you see that guy who scored 4 goals in his first game.” Come on Toronto. Don’t screw this up. We need this.
Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion shortly before the season, and has yet to play in a game. Crosby is public enemy number one among many hockey fans (I personally have always been a big fan of his. I think he did a great job of promoting the league when interest was low during the post lockout years). Regardless of your opinion of him, it’s terrible when the star players are on the sidelines. Crosby has a concussion history, as he missed 101 games in 2011 – 2012 with post-concussion symptoms. Hopefully this future hall of famer makes a full recovery and won’t have to end his career too soon.
Buffalo fans just can’t catch a break. Jack Eichel suffered an ankle injury in practice and is out 6-8 weeks. The 2nd overall draft pick from 2015 scored 24 goals in his rookie season.
Kings goalie (and former Blues playoff nemesis2) Jonathan Quick suffered a groin injury in the season opener and will be out 3 months. I can’t recall a time there were this many injuries this early on in the year.
Return to competency:
With all due respect to the recent incompetence shown by the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia 76ers, and St. Louis er Los Angeles Rams, the current most dysfunctional team may be the Edmonton Oilers. They have not made the playoffs since 2006 (and remember, this is a league in which over half the teams make the playoffs). In that time, they finished last in their division six times, and had the worst record in the NHL three times. They had the number one overall pick in the draft four times, and they recently traded 2 of those players3.
However, maybe Edmonton has finally turned a corner. They are 5-1, and Connor McDavid looks like the real deal with 4 goals and 4 assists. He is earning the captaincy the Oilers gave him in the offseason. Things are finally looking up in Edmonton.
On the flip side:
Nashville is struggling with just 4 points, a far cry from the team the came within a game of the Western Conference Finals last year. The Predators made the biggest trade of the offseason when they sent their captain Shea Weber to Montreal for PK Suban. It will probably turn out to be a good trade in long run, as Suban is just 27 and has already won a Norris Trophy, but the trade hasn’t resulted in wins yet this year. Given that Nashville plays in the Western division, arguably the toughest division top to bottom, things aren’t going to get any easier for the Predators.
Coolest pre-game moment:
The Florida Panthers paid tribute to the late Miami Marlin pitcher Jose Fernandez in their home opener, as all Panthers player came out for the warm-up skate wearing #16 jerseys.