7 NHL Teams That Defied Expectations in October

The Hockey Writers

October has come and gone, and there were some unexpected team performances over the first few weeks of the regular season. Which teams were a surprise and are trending up to begin November? And which are trending down after slow starts? Let’s take a look at seven teams that defied expectations. 

Is it a surprise the Golden Knights are good? Absolutely not, but it is surprising to see them get off to a 9-0-1 start coming off their Stanley Cup victory in June. 

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re on fire to start this season since Reilly Smith was their only notable subtraction this summer. But reigning Cup champions usually don’t get off to the start that the Golden Knights have. 

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There are some red flags with this Golden Knights team, though. They have an expected goals percentage of 48.48 percent at five-on-five through 10 games, ranked 21st in the NHL. Thankfully, their special teams units have picked up the slack. 

The Golden Knights’ penalty kill ranks fifth in the NHL at 89.7 percent, while their power play sits in 12th at 22.9 percent. They’ve also gotten excellent goaltending from Adin Hill (.923 save percentage) and Logan Thompson (.930 SV%). There will be some regression for the team at some point, but they sure look ready for a title defense heading into November. 

More was expected from the Pittsburgh Penguins after president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas’ active offseason. Not only did he redo the team’s bottom-six, but he also acquired Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks in a summer blockbuster trade.  

At least so far, it hasn’t translated to results for the Penguins, as they ended October 3-6-0 and in last place in the Metropolitan Division. Tristan Jarry, who signed a five-year extension this summer worth $5.375 million annually, struggled in October, totaling an .893 SV%. 

Erik Karlsson Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, there are some positives from the Penguins’ October. They finished the month with a 55.71 xG% at five-on-five, ranked fifth in the NHL. And despite their power play only converting on 14.8 percent of its chances, it ranked first in expected goals generated per 60 minutes (13.91). 

Their power play will start finding the back of the net if they keep generating that many quality chances, and their five-on-five play also suggests a turnaround. They just need one of Jarry or Alex Nedeljkovic to start making saves. The Penguins may be trending down to start November, but that could change quickly based on their numbers. 

General manager Steve Yzerman had one of the most active offseasons of any NHL GM. Among his additions were Daniel Sprong (free agency), J.T. Compher (free agency), Alex DeBrincat (trade), and Jeff Petry (trade). 

So far, many of those moves seem to have paid off. DeBrincat has nine goals and 13 points in 10 games, while Petry has helped add some defensive depth that the Red Wings needed heading into the season. The result was a 6-3-1 record to end October. 

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However, it’s fair to wonder how sustainable the Red Wings’ winning ways are. Their xG% of 47.5 percent ranks 24th in the NHL, while DeBrincat won’t keep shooting 28 percent forever. They’ve gotten excellent goaltending from James Reimer, who has a .939 SV% across three games played. 

The Atlantic Division looks better than predicted heading the season, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Red Wings can keep pace for a playoff spot as 2023-24 progresses. For now, they’re trending up heading into November, but that could change if their defense doesn’t tighten up and they start allowing more pucks to find their way past Reimer and Ville Husso. 

The Oilers were a Cup favorite heading into the season, but their slow start has many wavering on that pick after October. They ended the month on a high note with a 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames in the Heritage Classic. But they still concluded October with a 2-5-1 record. 

One reason for the team’s slow start may have been due to a transition from man-to-man to zone defense. It’s a new system for the Oilers, so they’re likely going through an adjustment period. That also probably affected Stuart Skinner, who finished October with an. 863 SV%. 

Stuart Skinner Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fortunately, there are signs the Oilers can turn it around quickly. Their 57.25 xG% at five-on-five ranks second in the league to the Dallas Stars. Connor McDavid just returned from a minor injury, and the team’s schedule has some favorable matchups over the next couple of weeks. 

It wouldn’t be a surprise if in a month from now, the Oilers were back in a top-three spot in the Pacific Division and looking like Stanley Cup contenders. They enter November on a down note, but there’s too much talent on this team for them not to right the ship at some point. 

Is it a surprise the Bruins are good? Maybe a little bit? With David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron having retired this offseason, most pundits expected the Bruins to take a step back. That didn’t necessarily mean missing the playoffs, but winning at the torrid pace they did in 2022-23 wasn’t the expectation. 

At least to start this season, the Bruins look like they might be a wagon once again. They ended October 8-0-1 and only had an overtime loss because of a frantic late-game comeback by the Anaheim Ducks. The Bruins’ underlying numbers, for the most part, look good, too. 

They have a 52.91 xG% at five-on-five, ranked 10th in the NHL. Their goaltending has been elite, as they have a team SV% of .951 at five-on-five. That will regress at some point, but when looking at what Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman did a season ago, it may not fall off all that much. 

If there’s one thing to note about the Bruins’ start, it’s that they’ve had a very soft schedule. Seven of their nine games have come against teams that missed the playoffs last season and are not expected to make the postseason in 2023-24. 

It’ll be interesting to see how the Bruins fare once their schedule toughens up and their goaltending comes down to Earth a bit. But even then, this team looks good despite losing Bergeron and Krejci and appears to be trending toward being an Atlantic Division contender once again. 

Listen, no one thought the Sharks were going to be good this season. But I’m not sure anyone expected them to be as bad as they’ve been to start 2023-24. They finished October 0-8-1, totaled just nine goals, and had a goal differential of minus-25. 

The Sharks’ underlying numbers don’t give much hope, either. Their 40.46 xG% is the worst in the league. They can’t generate offense, and they’re bleeding plenty of quality chances. Mackenzie Blackwood has been very good in net, but it’s only a matter of time before the sheer volume of quality chances gets to him and Kaapo Kahkonen. 

Mackenzie Blackwood San Jose Sharks
Mackenzie Blackwood of the San Jose Sharks waits for the puck against Valeri Nichushkin of the Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Sharks are trending toward being a historically terrible team, so it will not be an easy season for anyone in San Jose. But the hope is that it pays off in June when they have a chance to select Macklin Celebrini or maybe Cole Eiserman with a top-two pick in the draft. 

Most everyone expected the Rangers to be playoff contenders this season. It’s not surprising that they’re off to a terrific start, but how they’ve gotten there may be a bit more of a surprise. 

At least through nine games, the Rangers look like a much-improved defensive team, specifically at five-on-five. They’re giving up 2.45 expected goals per 60 minutes, the tenth-best rate in the NHL. That’s helped out Igor Shesterkin and, specifically, Jonathan Quick to start this season. 

The Rangers are scoring goals, too, but it’s mostly coming via the power play. The main concern is that the improved defense may have led to sacrificing some five-on-five offense. They’re averaging just 2.35 expected goals per 60 through nine games, ranked 26th in the NHL. 

That might bite them if or when their power play regresses. But at least for now, they’re trending up heading into November and are atop the Metropolitan Division standings after a perfect road trip. For how long that lasts with their low-event play at five-on-five remains to be seen. 

Don’t Get Too High or Low on Your Team Yet

It’s still too early in the NHL season to say whether a team is good or bad. American Thanksgiving is usually a key benchmark, so if your favorite team hasn’t gotten off to a great start, it’s still too early to be overly concerned about their performance.

Likewise, a hot start doesn’t necessarily mean a team is elite or will stay elite as the season progresses. Different factors go into it (hot goaltending, power play, etc.) that could inflate a team’s record early on. But even if those are the reasons for a team getting off to a hot start, it always helps to be trending up heading into November. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick

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