The NHL recently passed the quarter mark of another season played under the pandemic’s long shadow.
With that milestone in mind, The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the highlights — and low lights — from the first two months of the schedule, and some of the things to watch for going forward.
Biggest surprise: team
The Calgary Flames weren’t expected to do much in 2021-22.
Coming off a disappointing season in the one-and-done North Division, there were big questions, including the future of forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and what Darryl Sutter could get out of the roster in the first full season of his second stint as head coach.
Well, the Flames have silenced the doubters in impressive fashion.
Heading into Friday’s slate of games, Calgary occupied top spot in the Pacific Division, was fourth in the overall standings, and sat tied for fifth in points percentage.
The recipe? The Flames have done it with defence and goaltending.
Jacob Markstrom leads the NHL with five shutouts — backup Dan Vladar has two of his own — on a team that had surrendered a league-low 45 goals against in 23 games heading into the weekend.
Biggest surprise: player
There are a number of candidates, including Anaheim Ducks winger Troy Terry and Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri for their eye-popping point totals, but Calgary forward Andrew Mangiapane gets the nod.
The 25-year-old registered a career-high 18 goals during last season’s 56-game campaign, and has already found the back of the net 16 times in 2021-22.
Mangiapane’s total was just four back of Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, with 10 of his goals coming at even strength.
While still a longshot for Canada’s Olympic team in Beijing — if the NHL does indeed send its players to China — the Toronto native has at least pushed his name into the conversation.
Biggest disappointment: team
While the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators are among the clubs that haven’t come close to meeting expectations for a variety of reasons, the Vancouver Canucks’ performance — or lack thereof — is on another level so far.
The team went about a roster renovation over the summer, including the acquisition of defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes, but a group that expected to be back in the playoffs has instead made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
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Prior to recent road victories over the Canadiens and Senators, the Canucks were on a disastrous 1-8-1 run that raised serious questions about the job security of both head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning.
Questionable roster construction, poor play from almost top to bottom, and rumours of locker-room strife have all added fuel to the fire on the West Coast.
Benning is in his eighth season in charge, and has made the playoffs twice.
Biggest disappointment: player
Canucks centre Elias Pettersson, who put up back-to-back 66-point seasons to begin his career with jaw-dropping skill that wowed fans, has been a shell of himself.
The 23-year-old Swede has four goals and 12 points through 24 games. Before picking up a point in consecutive contests against Montreal and Ottawa, he’d registered a solitary assist in his nine previous outings.
Having signed a three-year contract worth US$7.35 million annually after missing a chunk of training camp, Pettersson has averaged roughly 13 minutes of ice time in four of Vancouver’s last five games — five minutes less than his career average.
The 2019 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year hasn’t scored at even strength this season.
Biggest story to watch
The NHL’s decision on whether or not it will participate at the Winter Olympics in Bejing will be a major focus between now and the Jan. 10 deadline to withdraw without financial penalty.
Players have been adamant about their wish to compete on the world stage, but the league and NHLPA have an out clause if COVID-19 conditions render participation “impractical or unsafe.”
With a new variant of concern and an significant increase in the number of players entering the NHL’s virus protocol in recent weeks, the league tightened some of its rules ahead of the holiday season.
The NHL’s board of governors — historically lukewarm about the Olympics even under ideal conditions — are set to convene next week for their annual meeting in Florida. Whether or not the league goes to China will no doubt be a top of discussion.
Early contenders for awards
Oilers captain Connor McDavid already looks primed to win his second consecutive Hart Trophy, and third overall, as the NHL’s most valuable player.
Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar‘s hot start has him as the front-runner in the Norris Trophy race ahead of the New York Rangers’ Adam Fox, who took last season’s honours as the league’s best defenceman.
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is in the driver’s seat for the Vezina Trophy, but there are plenty of quality candidates, including Igor Shesterkin (Rangers), Jacob Markstrom (Flames) and Jack Campbell (Toronto Maple Leafs).
As for the Calder race, Red Wings forward Lucas Raymond has grabbed plenty of attention, while defenceman Moritz Seider — his teammate in Detroit — and Anaheim Ducks centre Trevor Zegras are also in the conversation.
© 2021 The Canadian Press