NHL first month awards: Best, worst starts and biggest surprises

In the first month of the NHL’s 2021-22 season, the biggest news was clearly off the ice.

The investigation into how the Chicago Blackhawks handled claims by Kyle Beach that video coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted him in 2010 led to resignations by Chicago GM Stan Bowman and by former coach Joel Quenneville, who had coached the Florida Panthers to a 7-0-0 start this season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman urged others to come forward with any claims of toxic or abusive situations among the teams; last week, that resulted in Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray resigning and entering an alcohol abuse program.

Meanwhile, the NHL continues to play through the COVID-19 pandemic, with players such as Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby missing time to symptomatic positive tests and teams like the San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators missing several players due to the NHL/NHLPA COVID protocols.

But on the ice, the NHL has had its share of compelling storylines in the first month, too. Here are our awards and superlatives in the early going:

While Connor McDavid grabs more headlines and a larger portion of the highlight reel, it’s Draisaitl who led the NHL with 28 points in 13 games, including a league-best 14 goals. He averaged a ridiculous 2.15 points per game, just ahead of McDavid (1.92). He leads the NHL in goals scored above average (7.5) and wins above replacement (1.4). The two of them helped propel the Oilers to the top of the Pacific Division. — Wyshynski

Under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes are the best defensive team in the league through 13 games (1.92 goals against per game) and are fifth offensively (3.46 goals per game).

Andrei Svechnikov has rebounded from a down year offensively to lead the team in scoring, one of three Hurricanes who have played to a point-per-game pace, along with Sebastian Aho and free-agent addition Tony DeAngelo. It hasn’t been a campaign without some flaws — do they still have the receipt for that Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet? — but it’s one that has made the Hurricanes an early Stanley Cup favorite. — Wyshynski

Listen, I expected Alex Ovechkin to have a good season. But I did not see this type of start unfolding for him. The man is 36 years old, and is still going toe-to-toe with the NHL’s elite young stars. Ovechkin has scored the second most goals in the NHL (12), without even relying on his patented one-timer to bury them, sits third in points (24) and is averaging nearly two points per game while consistently playing almost 22 minutes per contest.

He already has passed Brett Hull to take fourth place on the all-time goals list. Assuming Ovechkin stays healthy, it kind of blows your mind to think of all that he might accomplish this season — and beyond. — Shilton

Last season was when the hockey world took notice of Jakob Chychrun, who had 41 points in 56 games and played himself into the Norris Trophy conversation. I’m sure he’d rather you not take notice of him this season. The Coyotes are epically terrible, and Chychrun’s game has fallen apart. Through 15 games, he had a goal and an assist, skating to a minus-22. He has a team-worst minus-4.6 goals scored above average. By this point last season, Chychrun had 11 points.

That Canadian Olympic team roster spot looks dubious. — Wyshynski

Nine years removed from their last playoff series win and five years removed from their last playoff appearance, the once mighty Red Wings are deep into a rebuild that’s suddenly paying dividends. The arrival of top prospects — winger Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider — was like a jolt of adrenaline for the franchise. Raymond, 19, meshed immediately on a line with leading scorer Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin, who has waited a long time to experience competitive relevance again. — Wyshynski

What’s the opposite of a glow-up? Because Montreal is going through it. The Canadiens fought their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance six months ago. But they’re a long way from contenders now.

Montreal started the season with five losses, won only three of its first 13 games and had a pileup of train-wreck losses. Letting Phillip Danault walk in free agency hurt. So did Carolina’s signing Kotkaniemi to a one-year offer sheet. The loss of Shea Weber to injury doesn’t help. Assigning Cole Caufield to the minors? Another setback. And now Jake Allen is potentially dealing with a concussion? The hits just keep coming. And Carey Price won’t be rushed back to returning, either. — Shilton

The Kraken opened their inaugural season going 4-10-1 and offering little indication as to what “Kraken Hockey” is supposed to look like. They’re 20th offensively in the NHL, thanks in part to a power-less power play that was 31st in the league. Their goaltending looked to be the best thing about the team heading into the season. After 15 games, the Kraken had the worst team save percentage in the NHL (.859) — behind even the Coyotes, a team constructed to be historically awful. Philipp Grubauer has a quality starts percentage of .250 in 12 appearances.

It’s hard to call the Kraken a disappointment, because their expectations were based on a bunch of random names on a roster and what the Golden Knights did four years ago in their inaugural season. But they are confounding. — Wyshynski

Best comeback: Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

The Panthers’ top defenseman was having a terrific 2020-21 season — until a leg fracture in March sidelined him the rest of the campaign. Watching his teammates lose without him in the first round of last season’s playoffs lit a fire under Ekblad, and he has been on a mission. Ekblad has been playing nearly 26 minutes per game this season, he’s plus-10 with four goals and 11 points in 15 games. Welcome back, indeed. — Shilton

Most unexpected star: Troy Terry, Anaheim Ducks

I did not have “Troy Terry Szn” on my NHL bingo card, but here we are. This season looks like a coming-out party for Terry, and he’s making a strong case for consideration for the U.S. Olympic team.

Let’s start with the 14-game point streak, the longest such run in the NHL this season. It catapulted Terry toward a career high in goals (11), and his 20 points in 15 games matches his previous season best of 20 points (through 48 games last season). With an emerging star like Terry in their midst, the Ducks are quickly becoming one of the NHL’s best stories of the season. — Shilton

Scoring the goal of the year after Connor McDavid painted his masterpiece against most of the New York Rangers is the definition of rotten luck. It’s like running the race of your life just to get a better glimpse of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line ahead of you.

So let’s give this Matthew Tkachuk goal its deserved spotlight. From controlling the puck to puck control, it’s just an awesome tally. Thanks again to the Rangers’ defense for being the Washington Generals to these Harlem Globetrotters this season. — Wyshynski

Most likely to improve (team): Boston Bruins

It’s odd to see Boston midway down the Atlantic Division standings. Not terrible. Not great. And I’m not convinced it will last.

The Bruins are a perennial contender that’s navigated key early-season injuries and the inevitable regression of aging stars. Tuukka Rask has been out with a hip issue. Newcomer Nick Foligno is just getting back from injury and finding his legs. Patrice Bergeron took some time to get going. David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall combined for only six goals in the Bruins’ first nine games. But there’s a good foundation in Boston, and a good coach in Bruce Cassidy to help this group figure it out. — Shilton

Meanwhile in Toronto, Matthews hasn’t shown his Rocket Richard-winning form from a season ago. Offseason wrist surgery and limited training camp and preseason participation will do that. Matthews scored just one goal in his first six games, and tallied only two at 5-on-5 through 10 outings.

The Leafs have struggled as a team too, and Matthews’ previously dominant two-way game hasn’t been on full display. But as Toronto’s core of stars has picked up the pace, Matthews’ overall production is sure to improve as well. That incredible overtime winner against Calgary last week is proof enough — Shilton

The Predators are rocking a .633 points percentage through 15 games. They’re the ninth-best defensive team in the league (2.60 goals-against average), and have gotten a resurgent performance from Matt Duchene (16 points) and an energizing rookie performance from Tanner Jeannot. But that 8.44 shooting percentage isn’t likely sustainable, and the teams trailing them in the standings — the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars — haven’t found the gear yet, but will. — Wyshynski

Stephenson has been consistent even with regular linemates Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty out of the lineup, with 15 points in 15 games. He should keep it going for a while as they return to the lineup, but one assumes he’s only keeping the seat warm for Jack Eichel for the next three months before moving down the lineup. — Wyshynski

Most likely to save the day: Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes

Never let it be said that Frederik Andersen can’t perform in October. The Hurricanes netminder has had a masterful start to the season, posting a 9-2-0 record, a .939 save percentage (third best among NHL starters) and a league-best 1.83 goals-against average.

Is it the change of scenery from Toronto? Is there less pressure on Andersen in a new market? Is it Carolina’s superior defensive performance in front of him (the Hurricanes are fourth in shots against this season)? Who knows? And when Andersen is playing that well, who cares? — Shilton

A true one-for-one swap that has been benefiting both teams equally. Atkinson came out like gangbusters in Philadelphia with six goals in his first five games. Even though he has cooled off since, he has the talent to get hot again in a hurry.

Meanwhile, Voracek has been an excellent playmaker for the Blue Jackets, with one goal and 11 assists in 12 games. It’s nice when things work out for both teams. — Shilton

Shaer This Post