The National Hockey League has had its fair share of surprises — some good, some bad, depending on who you cheer for — in the early going. Through nearly three weeks of NHL play, who would have thought that Jack Hughes would be leading the league in scoring, with an injured Connor McDavid not even in the top-30? What about Jonas Johansson recording back-to-back shutout wins for the Tampa Bay Lightning in true Andrei Vasilevskiy fashion?
While there have been some negative surprises, including the abysmal start that fans in Alberta are being treated to by the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are under .500 after making the blockbuster trade of the summer to bring superstar Swede Erik Karlsson to Pennsylvania.
For the sake of this exercise, we’re going to focus on the positive surprises that the NHL has provided fans over the first 18 days of the 2023-24 campaign. Here are the four biggest and best surprises in hockey so far.
The Philadelphia Flyers, led by an incredible start from goaltender Carter Hart, are 4-2-1 and third place in the Metropolitan Division. And they’re playing some great hockey under John Tortorella, looking structured and disciplined while finding ways to fill the net.
Neither Sean Couturier nor Cam Atkinson played a single game for this team last year, and both have been key to the resurgence in 2023-24. So has Travis Sanheim, who has stepped up in Ivan Provorov’s absence and exploded for eight points in seven games from the back end. That was highlighted by a three-point offensive outburst in a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Friday.
The Flyers will almost certainly come back down to earth, but it’s looking likely like this team will be nowhere near the bottom of the league — the place they were expected to be — by the end of the season.
Dylan Larkin and Alex DeBrincat are second and third place in NHL scoring, and the Detroit Red Wings are looking ready to break out in 2023-24. The Wings are 5-2-1, just two points back of the Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division. Both Larkin and DeBrincat have been phenomenal in the early going, helping this club score the second most goals in the league through eight games.
Detroit is also doing a pretty good job of keeping the puck out of their net, surrendering just 3 goals a game, good enough for 13th. Both Ville Husso and James Reimer have been solid, and neither has firmly earned the full-time starting job just yet. Besides 28 points combined for Larkin and DeBrincat, Shayne Gostisbehere is loving playing in Michigan, with three goals and nine points of his own. Moritz Seider is also scoring at a point-per-game clip.
It’s looking like the Red Wings have finally put it all together and will be competing for a playoff spot in a crowded Eastern Conference all season long.
Although many expected the Bruins would still be good despite the transformative roster turnover over the summer, not many thought they would remain undefeated through regulation over their first seven games. I heard many times that the 2023-24 Bruins, unlike the previous iteration that broke all kinds of NHL records, would be fighting just to get into the playoffs.
New captain Brad Marchand and this Boston team are quickly silencing the critics. For the second straight year, nobody can score on Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman, and the league’s best tandem has given up a league-best 1.57 goals per game. An absolutely minuscule number that we know is sustainable behind an elite defensive core, great coaching and a wealth of experience.
Oh, and the Bruins are also 6-0-1. They should be 7-0, but somehow blew a late two-goal lead to the Anaheim Ducks, shockingly losing in overtime on Thursday. Boston remains one of the top teams in the NHL even without Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, and look poised to compete for the Atlantic Division crown.
The Vancouver Canucks got off to a thrilling start to the campaign, shellacking the Edmonton Oilers 8-1 in their first game and following it up with another win over Connor McDavid’s team two nights later. And the Canucks beat other teams, those being the Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, en route to a 5-2 record and second place in the Pacific Division.
Elias Pettersson is playing as advertised, with 12 points in seven games. As is new captain Quinn Hughes, with eight in seven, and Thatcher Demko, who is coming off his first shutout of the season in a 5-0 win over the Blues on Friday night. The Canucks look like a team ready to break through in the Western Conference, and the way the Oilers, Flames and Kraken are playing, the door is wide open for Vancouver to secure a top-three finish in the Pacific Division.