Around the NHL: Surprising Starts, the 1st Firing, and Pekka’s Great Birthday

By Ryan Black, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

October’s oddities are behind us now, and the NHL season is about to get a bit more real. While teams usually come out of the gates fumbling or racing, the second month is typically the time when squads start to establish their true identities.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ scoring bonanza is over, thanks in part to a shoulder injury that will sideline Auston Matthews for a month or more. The team has remained strong in the young star’s absence, and is a perfect 6-0 so far on the road. The Colorado Avalanche, however, are the offensive juggernaut du jour, with Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon sitting first and second in league scoring. Their linemate Gabriel Landeskog is tied for eighth.

Some early surprises, like the Carolina Hurricanes, have returned to Earth. After jumping to a 5-1-1 start — marked by an increasingly inventive series of post-game victory celebrations — the Canes have dropped five straight and are now 6-6-2. What seemed like a comeback season for the Chicago Blackhawks has taken a turn back to the grim, as that team has also lost five in a row. Other surprises seem to be sticking around, however, and that’s where we start this week’s Around the NHL.

A Bright Island and a Flipped Pacific: A dozen games into the new campaign, only one of the teams that made the playoffs last season out of the Pacific Division is currently sitting in its top half. The three teams from Western Canada are all three or more games over .500. After uneven starts, both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have put together strong stretches, each going 4-1-1 over their last six games — though the Flames’ lone regulation loss was a crushing 9-1 defeat by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Atop that division are the Vancouver Canucks, led by rookie sensation Elias Pettersson. The young Swede missed six games with a concussion, but has nine goals in nine games with six assists on the side. Meanwhile, the Pacific’s best from last year the Vegas Golden Knights, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings, have started the year in frustrating mediocrity.

And oh, in the Flyers’ own Metropolitan Division? Yes, you’re seeing it right. The New York Islanders currently sit in first. After losing franchise player John Tavares to free agency, the Islanders were expected to be the laughing stock of the division. Mathew Barzal has been his fantastic self, however, and the team has gotten good goaltending from a resurgent Robin Lehner while Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz has gotten the most out of the team’s assortment of veterans contributors, castaways, and promising youngsters. It turns out coaching and goaltending are pretty important.

Stevens Fired: Speaking of coaching, we wrote two weeks ago that the writing seemed to be on the wall for Kings head coach and former Flyers bench-boss John Stevens. On Sunday, the team dropped the axe.

"This is a critical time in our season and our results to date have fallen well below our expectations. With that in mind, this was a difficult decision but one we feel was necessary," GM Rob Blake said in a statement.  "We have a great deal of respect and appreciation for John's time with our organization." Assistant coach Don Nachbaur was also relieved of his duties.

Stevens was only a month into his second season behind the bench for the Kings, and was actually coming off a win, but it seems a 4-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday wasn’t going to make up for the rest of the team's nightmarish start. The team is just 4-8-1, tied with the Florida Panthers for last in the NHL. Former Canucks coach Willie Desjardins will take over as interim head coach.

More Years for Pekka: Goaltender Pekka Rinne announced a two-year contract extension with the Nashville Predators on his birthday, and celebrated by shutting out the Boston Bruins that night. Pretty good Saturday if you can get it.

The now-36-year-old netminder will earn $6 million next season and $4 million the year after that, for a cap hit of $5 million. Rinne won his first Vezina Trophy last season.

The move comes at an interesting time for the team, which currently sits in first place in the league. The Preds likely have the league’s best backup at the moment, 23-year-old Juuse Saros. Saros has taken the reins for a few stretches in recent years with Rinne hurt, including earlier this season, and has posted extremely impressive statistics — a career .922 save percentage and five shutouts in just 56 games played.

The young netminder also re-signed with the Predators earlier this year, and will remain a restricted free agent even when his contract expires. Even if Rinne’s play declines before he finishes his new two-year deal, the team has a reliable alternative, and one of the best goaltending tandems in the league locked up for a combined cap hit of only $6.5 million through 2021.