While my beat is the Pittsburgh Penguins, I am first and foremost a fan and keep an eye on a number of teams, players, and as much of the goings on around hockey as possible. With that in mind and as an ode to the greats like Peter Gammons, Nick Cafardo, and Eric Duhatschek, here are some early season thoughts on several key Toronto Maple Leafs, Penguins, Connor Bedard, and the early season scoring race, among others.
The Maple Leafs are Sorting a Mixed Hat – er, Bag
It’s amazing how often players in their contract year have a career year. In Toronto, William Nylander is continuing to perpetuate that self-proclaimed stereotype. It’s not just the points and I’m not going to quote analytics this early. Simply watch Nylander play, and you cannot help but notice his dominance. While his defensive play still is something to be desired, his time at center in the preseason seems to have leveled up his defensive zone coverage. With the puck on his stick, Nylander is both dominant and downright dangerous. The 3Ds, if you will.
Still in Toronto, the NHL’s highest-paid player as of next season is looking every bit like a potential MVP candidate once again. To start, Auston Matthews has his shot back. In the madness that has been the Connor Bedard coverage since the end of 2022, it is well-documented that Bedard studied tape of Matthews’ release style in his shot and based his own on Matthews. That shot had disappeared for the entirety of last season, however now it is back and while Matthews hasn’t scored since breaking off six goals in two games to start the season, he has remained ever-dangerous.
Matthews continues to play dominant 200-foot hockey where he wreaks havoc along the end boards behind his own net in one moment and then the next is dancing around multiple players to create a scoring opportunity that only a few others in the league could even dream of trying. What makes all this even scarier is that Matthews is faster than he has ever been. This may simply be a case of early-season hockey that looks more like playoff hockey than it does middle-of-the-season hockey, however, Matthews does look faster than ever and is using that speed to create scoring chances. If this continues to be the case, there is no reason he can’t put up 70 goals and over 120 points. Toronto fans are lucky to have him.
Looking at the Maple Leafs’ free agent signings and how they’re fitting in early on, there are more positive notes now than there were at the very start of the season. Small sample size alert, but John Klingberg looked like a solid top-four NHL defenseman against the Tampa Bay Lightning; I would go so far as to say a number three D-man. While Klingberg only had the fifth most ice time of any Leafs defensemen in the Lightning game, the fact remains that if Klingberg can average close to a point per game as he has done thus far this season and play at that level, even if it is in around 18 minutes a night, he will be worth every bit of his $4.15 million contract.
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After spending the first four games being shuffled between the second and third lines and really searching for his place, Max Domi found it on Saturday night. In the third period against Tampa Bay, Domi picked up his pace and decided to play a simple straight-line game up and down the boards as wingers are supposed to, which is always effective at least to a point, and it led to two beautiful passes to Matthew Knies. These two passes resulted in the first two goals of Knies’ NHL career. The fact that these goals came a mere two minutes and 22 seconds apart and brought the Leafs back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game at three was a huge boost for the Leafs toward their win on Saturday night.
One more Toronto note: Joseph Woll has continued his fantastic career upswing early on this season. If you saw his American Hockey League or NHL play last season, it should not come as much of a surprise that Woll was dominant against the Lightning on Saturday night.
A perfect blend of strong athleticism, calm play in the crease, and tremendous vision of what was happening live allowed Woll to stop all 29 shots that he faced in relief of Ilya Samsonov. Obviously, teams want both their goalies to be running at least warm if not hot, however the fact that Woll looks increasingly ready for more consistent playing time in his rookie season will allow Samsonov to figure his game out and the Maple Leafs to remain competitive night in and night out.
The Penguins Have the Wrong Chess Pieces on the Board
Early season Evgeni Malkin has been a revelation. Malkin is skating and playing much like he did a decade ago when he was an MVP and perennial MVP candidate. His defensive game is much improved, and his chemistry with Reilly Smith has been both immediate and impactful. So impactful that Rickard Rakell has disappeared to start the season. Rakell has been a victim of Pittsburgh’s top two offensive trades in that Smith has taken Malkin’s attention at five-on-five, and Rakell is not as prominently featured on the power play, having been bumped to the second unit. This has led to a very slow start with Rakell only posting one assist in five games early this season.
On the top line, Bryan Rust is playing like a man possessed. His motor is consistent, he’s always driving the net, and the result has been multiple ridiculously obscure low-percentage goals to start the season. Rust looks like a player unencumbered by everything who knows that he can dominate at the top of this lineup and with four goals in five games thus far, is doing exactly that.
With Rust, along with Sidney Crosby’s three goals thus far doing the scoring, someone has to do the playmaking, and that someone is noted sniper Jake Guentzel. Guentzel was expected to miss the first five games of the regular season, yet he’s played every game and of late his skating has looked excellent, much improved from both opening night and frankly any game tape I saw of him from last season. Guentzel’s boxcar stats are 1-5-6 in five games this season, as he has been more of a driver early on and seems quite happy to set up the plays as opposed to finishing them. This will certainly evolve over a long season and Guentzel will get his goals; however, this is a nice addition to his toolbox especially compared to the previous season.
On the back end, Eric Karlsson is certainly figuring things out and is not a concern. The person who is is big free agent signing Ryan Graves. Big in contract term (six years), big in salary ($4.5 million per season), and of course big in size at a towering 6-foot-5, he does not seem like a clean fit for Kris Letang, at least not yet as there does not seem to be comfort in how they move the puck around and in how to cover for a player defensively who sees and plays the game as Letang does. With the Penguins struggling to get wins at 2-3 and having lost their last two, this is one of the areas where I would move around players and try Marcus Pettersson with Letang and Graves with Karlsson. It is inevitable that this will happen at some point this season, they may as well do it early on when they’re not winning and see what they have.
I’m not going to pile on Chad Ruhwedel and will keep this simple. He is not an every-game NHL defenseman, and as he did last season, that has born out early this season. The fact that P-O Joseph was benched on Saturday instead of Ruhwedel speaks to equal parts youth versus veteran status and which player shoots which hand (Joseph and Saturday night’s replacement Ryan Shea both shoot left-handed).
While I did not catch the entire game, the goal that Shea was directly responsible for was a tough one to stomach. As the Blues forward bore down on him, Shea reached his stick out toward the puck, and not only did he leave his stick there, but he actually leaned forward and held the position as if it were a pose, putting all of his weight on the front of his skates while skating backward. It was a recipe for disaster and disaster struck, as Shea was burned, and the Blues scored. This is the NHL, and while it was Shea’s first NHL game, that kind of play simply cannot happen at this level, especially on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. He’ll need to calm the nerves if he wants to stay up in the NHL.
If you have followed my Penguins coverage this season, you know that I have been saying the following since mid-July: Radim Zohorna is an NHL player. Even though he did not make the team out of camp – he absolutely should have – Zohorna played his first game of the season on Saturday. He was dangerous all night long, and his strong forechecking pressure and presence around the net led to him scoring Pittsburgh’s second and final goal of the night. You may think this was a garbage goal; the reality is that Zohorna sent a message that he is an NHL-caliber player, he belongs at this level, and he is one of the right chess pieces the Penguins need as the season progresses.
As far as how the chess pieces have been laid out thus far, check back later in the week as I will break down the Penguins’ current roster/line setup and why the team has not been put in a position to succeed early on this season.
Oh Mr. Mantha Me Oh My
Oh, Mr. Monday
Me oh my,
You collect on the tears we cry.
Where’s the reason;
Where’s the rhyme?
Mr. Monday, can you spare a dime?
If the dimes are goals, Washington Capitals’ fans are crying because there are none. And no, I’m not talking about Alex Ovechkin as he’ll be fine.
What exactly has happened to Anthony Mantha? There were years of trade rumors as Mantha played on bad Detroit Red Wings teams and showed great potential as a sniper. The talk was that he was worth more than two first-round draft picks, which is why it took so long for a trade to happen. When a team was finally willing to pay that price, it was the ill-fated trade with Washington where Jakob Vrana and multiple pieces went to Detroit in return. Since that trade, Mantha’s career has quickly gone downhill to the point where on a Washington team that early on looks nothing like a playoff contender, Mantha is the 13th forward. He is literally playing his way out of the NHL, so the question is, what happened to him?
Confusion in Columbus
While this could sound like how Patrik Laine must have felt after Rasmus Andersson took his best shot at making Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey 2023-24 edition, I’m actually referring to Andrew Peeke. He was part of the top defensive pairing in Columbus last season with Vladislav Gavrikov, a pairing that constantly got caved in by opposing teams’ top lines because the Columbus Blue Jackets could not compete last season. Or at least, that was the thought as everyone believed that Gavrikov was the problem, and that Peeke was a quality defensive defenseman.
If you read some of the comments on Blue Jackets articles last season, you know the fans felt different than what the media was saying. How the fans felt seems to have been borne out this season as Peeke is a frequent healthy scratch early on in Columbus. Instead of simply moving down the lineup and looking like a stronger piece on a second or third pairing, he has not earned a chance to be a contributor in the eyes of new Blue Jackets’ head coach Pascal Vincent. They need more defense, so keep an eye on this as a potential change-of-scenery trade situation.
Fresh Faces Leading the NHL Scoring Race
As of this writing, Alex DeBrincat leads the NHL in scoring, with Dylan Larkin, Jack Hughes, and Elias Pettersson among those only one or two points behind. It cannot be a surprise to see both Hughes and Pettersson near the top of this list, and while no one should expect them to maintain the ridiculous scoring pace, this season looks like it will indeed be the coming out party for Hughes, who missed 100 points by one point, and Pettersson, whose 102 points was overshadowed by Connor McDavid’s majestic year and the fact that Pettersson being located on the West Coast means less media attention.
In this group, Larkin is the interesting one. Detroit Red Wings fans and pundits alike have always pumped Larkin’s tires as being an underrated, great player, however, he has never eclipsed the 79 points he scored last season or scored at a point-per-game pace. Starting this season with the newly acquired DeBrincat and the ever-improving Lucas Raymond, the Red Wings are flying on Larkin’s back, and we will find out if his potential has indeed been unlocked.
A Note on the Wonderkid
One of my favorite elements of watching an NHL broadcast is when they show how hard a player’s shot is. In the Chicago Blackhawks home opener on Saturday (Oct. 21), Connor Bedard ripped an 82-mile-per-hour (mph) wrist shot past Vegas Golden Knights’ goalie Adin Hill. We all know that Bedard has a great shot, so why is this worth noting?
I’m very much a numbers person, so the speeds of each shot on goal are of great interest. NHL players tend to take snapshots and wrist shots that range from the high 70 mph to the mid 80 mph range, though from what I see most are in the 82-to-84 mph range. The fact that at only 18 years and three months old – because that’s how young Bedard is today – he already has a snapshot that is true NHL quality both in terms of accuracy and power…imagine what that shot will look like in three years. Chicago’s got a live one.
I’ve always been a fan of Travis Dermott. What he did on Saturday (Oct. 21), taking a public stand, took courage. Good on you, lad.