Wild West: Tortoises and Hares

by Kevin Wickersham on October 23, 2017

The West has seen a few surprisingly strong starts thus far, Vegas most notably, and the Kings who are on fire with an undefeated top seat just ahead of VGK in the Pacific. In contrast, St. Louis’ Central Division success, with Chicago right on their heels, was largely anticipated. Edmonton’s slow start was not part of the expected script. Northern Alberta hopes they can work their way back as they close out their current eastern swing. And Arizona, with their bright future seemingly in reach, has had a terrible beginning. Perennially near the top of the West, San Jose also started slow but seems waking up.


Here’s a closer look at the tortoises and hares among Western Conference teams three weeks into the season.




Los Angeles Kings (6-0-1 – 13 points)

We can’t complain about the Kopitar line this year. Not by a longshot. Dustin Brown has returned to being the perfect top-line compliment to their team captain, and new NCAA import Alex Iafallo does all the right things in positioning Los Angeles’ big two to rack up points. The trio has 22 even-strength points in this young campaign, by far the West most prolific line (Chicago’s Panik-Saad-Toews combo stands second with 14, with no others above 11). Not coincidentally Kopitar and Brown lead the league with plus-11 ratings, and Iafallo’s not far behind with a plus nine. Their staunch defense and continued health of Jonathan Quick have allowed the leagues fewest goals as well, only 14, while LA’s offense has landed the West’s third-most points at 27. That’s in two fewer games than Chicago and St. Louis, the only two ahead of them. It could be a challenge to replace Jeff Carter’s future production however after a recent nasty leg laceration and subsequent surgery.


St. Louis Blues (6-2-1 – 13 points)

The West’s best scorer Jaden Schwartz (six goals, seven assists) and early Norris candidate Alex Pietrangelo with 11 points and 36 shots (a league high among blueliners) in nine games, have joined Vladimir Tarasenko as offensive juggernauts out of the gate helping lead St. Louis to the top of the Central. Their October run includes victories against worthy opponents including the Pens, Stars and Blackhawks. The Blues’ 28 goals rank second in the West to the Blackhawks’ 32. Some less-expected sources have stepped up. Notable contributors include Vladimir Sobotka whose six even-strength assists on the top two lines have helped compensate for Alex Steen’s injury absence, and 20-year-old Vince Dunn’s plus-five and solid play in place of  blueliner Jay Bouwmeester as his fractured ankle heals.


Vegas Golden Knights (6-1-0 – 12 points)

Now on their third string goalie, Vegas is off to an unthinkable start. Led by James Neal (tied for first in goals in the West with six) and now NHL-new Oscar Dansk in net, their first-year kick-off is best in history. Can they be the most successful new expansion team ever? Despite taking the West’s second fewest shots per game (24.9) and allowing the conference’s sixth most (34.1) they keep finding ways to get it done.  Their dragging power play, with merely four points, hasn’t been a great deal of help but they just MacGyver together one inspiring win after another – including three overtime thrillers. Vegas is a fun team to watch thus far. If you have yet to do so, make it point before they cool down.  





Arizona Coyotes (0-7-1 – 1 point)

Can we have some good news out of Glendale for once? This seemed the offseason they’d assembled the right pieces to make a run at the playoffs, or at least a .500-ish record. It could still happen but ominous signs abound. Injured hopeful goalie savior Antti Raanta has left the crease to the porous Adin Hill/Louis Domingue duo and surrounding blue line. All totaled, Arizona netminders have registered an .882 save percentage and 3.90 goals-against. At 31 goals-allowed thus far the Coyotes lap most of their Western Conference companions. Even newly-arrived defensive leader Niklas Hjalmarsson is saddled with a minus-six and, worse yet, a -11.2 CF% rel. The Domi-Keller-Stepan line has some impressive numbers with 11 total points. Keller’s rookie year is off to good stat start with six goals and two assists. Domi (one goal, six assists) and Stepan (two goals, four assists) have served primarily as playmakers along with Ekman-Larsson’s four helpers to go with one goal. That’s pretty much it on the scoreboard though. Coach Tocchet has his work cut out for him.


Edmonton Oilers (2-5-0 – 4 points)

Just 14 goals on the year. Did you see that coming? The Oilers are stuck in a momentous offensive slump that has them last in the West in scoring despite averaging the league’s most shots at 38.9 per game. McDavid has been reliable with three goals and five assists, and linemate Pat Maroon’s two goals and three assists isn’t bad, but production drops off after that. Their defense hasn’t been much better. Other than Eric Gryba and Zack Kassian’s plus-ones, no other Oilers register pluses. With 22 goals allowed Edmonton is the third leakiest in the conference. Iron man Cam Talbot’s numbers are rather ugly (2-4-0, 2.95, .903)  and, while some were calling for more starts from number two Laurent Brossoit, after letting in five goals in just 21 shots against Carolina in his lone start last week his early .854 save percentage and 3.66 goals-against aren’t the most enticing. Andrej Sekera seems sorely missed.  


San Jose Sharks (3-4-0 – 6 points)

Narrowly earning the last tortoise spot over 2-2-2 Minnesota who touts the same amount of standings points in one fewer contest, San Jose seems slowing during this Marleau-less franchise transition.  With first-line production lagging, the Pavelski-Thornton-Labanc trio has just six even-strength points in seven games, other sources have stepped up a bit but the squad still lacks punch. The bottom-six Donskoi-Meier-Tierney trio has matched with six points, and the Shark power play ranks tied for second in the West with seven goals, third in success at 23.3%, but they still need to find their groove. Martin Jones’ year began poorly by giving up four goals in consecutive games, an opening night loss to Philly and their next contest versus the high-flying Kings. Jones didn’t make it through the second period against LA. With a shutout in this latest effort, things are looking up. While he’s maintained impressive shots (31) and hits (9) totals, Norris winner Brent Burns hasn’t hit full-scoring stride either with no goals and four assists thus far, in addition to a minus-eight. That should change. Whether San Jose makes the playoffs again, not to mention go deep if they do, is another matter.



Follow me on Twitter @KWcrosscheck