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Recent NHL powers setting the pace again early this season


Does the National Hockey League have its own version of the core four?

No, not the Toronto version. I’m talking about four divisional leaders — the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic, the New York Rangers in the Metro, the Colorado Avalanche in the Central, and the Vegas Golden Knights out West — who have emerged as pace setters in October.

I think it’s notable each team was able to create some daylight within their division in the opening weeks of October. The NHL is a league, for better or worse, with tremendous parity and, as a result, volatility. And yet these four teams haven’t just played extraordinarily well early, they’re also four teams priced inside of the top 10 as Stanley Cup favourites from the pre-season.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been other impressive teams around the league. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and Vancouver Canucks have also looked great early. But the current divisional leaders are not just winning game after game, they’re running up some gaudy goal differentials in the process.

So, why have these four teams burst to the forefront of their divisions? Let’s take a look at how they won October, and what that may mean going forward.

Boston Bruins (7-0-1, 15 Points)

The stat you need to know: Once again, Boston’s defensive structure is paying huge dividends, notably on the penalty kill. Boston has killed off a staggering 97 per cent of penalties this year, conceding just one goal in 60 minutes. Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark are one of the better goaltending platoons you can find, independent of Boston’s always strong structural play in front, but their shot profile faced on the penalty kill makes it seem like there’s a force field in the low slot (via HockeyViz):

The star player: It’s nearly impossible to transition away from a player like the freshly retired Patrice Bergeron, but David Pastrnak is making it painless. Pastrnak has molded himself into one of the world’s most dynamic attackers, and his 13 points in all situations trails just New Jersey’s Jack Hughes and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin.

The upside surprise: Rookie forward Matthew Poitras has certainly drawn some attention in the first month of his professional career. With three goals and five points in eight games, Poitras – a second-round pick just one year ago – has fit in nicely playing on a line with Morgan Geekie and Jake DeBrusk.

New York Rangers (6-2-0, 12 Points)

The stat you need to know: If New York’s star talent was going to carry this team into the postseason once more, you figured they’d have to shine on the power play, and that’s been the case early. The Blueshirts have 10 goals when up a man already this year, with Chris Kreider and Adam Fox combining for six alone.

The star player: There is a comically short list of players you would build a franchise around before you arrived at the name of Fox. But I maintain Kreider will carry a legacy of one of the most underrated players of the last decade. All Kreider has done over his career is generate meaningful offence – he’s again just under a point-per-game player, and more notably, is one of only 10 players to carry a significant real-goal and collinear expected-goal advantages on at least 100 minutes of ice time:

The upside surprise: It’s been nice to see Kaapo Kakko playing well in a role further up the lineup this year, and I think part of unlocking what made him such a high-profile pick in the 2019 draft is simply putting him with playmakers. Kakko is trying to build on a semi-breakout season in 2022-23, and though the scoring isn’t there yet, his line (with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad) has routinely outplayed their opponents — not something we saw early in his career. Rising tides lift all boats, but Kakko hasn’t looked out of place this season:

Colorado Avalanche (6-2-0, 12 Points)

The stat you need to know: Colorado stormed out of the gates before an ugly two-game road trip, dropping a pair of games against the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres by a combined eight goals. Setting aside those two defeats, Colorado has looked every bit the Goliath we anticipated. Like Boston, I think a lot of praise needs to be thrown towards the penalty kill. Colorado is, believe it or not, outscoring opponents while down a man this season.

The star player: Nathan MacKinnon understandably draws much of the focus from the opposition, but Mikko Rantanen is forcing teams to have multiple answers. After two simply staggering offensive seasons from 2021-23 in which Rantanen has averaged 103 points per 82 games, he’s off to another blistering start. Rantanen’s 12 points again have him inside of the top 10 in league scoring, and I don’t expect that to change over the course of the season.

The upside surprise: Let’s just say 31-year-old forward Ryan Johansen, in his first year in the up-tempo Avalanche lineup, has fit in seamlessly. Johansen’s lengthy stint with the Predators had bright spots and blemishes, but in Denver he looks more like the playmaker we saw in his earlier Columbus (2012-16) years. Jared Bednar has moved Johansen around the lineup a bit, seeing some time with defensive specialists like Artturi Lehkonen and more offensive-minded players in Valeri Nichushkin and the aforementioned Rantanen.

Vegas Golden Knights (8-0-1, 17 Points)

The stat you need to know: As reliable as the sun rising and setting, Vegas remains at their best at even strength, a team uniquely qualified to roll all lines and steamroll most competition in the process. Vegas is +11 in even-strength goals, second-best in the NHL this season. And, despite leading in just about every game for considerable stretches, they are still getting 52 per cent of the expected goals.

The star player: You could go a number of places here but I’m going to make sure defenceman Shea Theodore, one of the best blueliners in the world, gets his flowers. Playing primarily with Brayden McNabb, they have been the key cog driving big goal differentials at even strength.

The upside surprise: Five games is five games, but I’m sure there was a sigh of relief to see extended goaltender Adin Hill playing well (.915 stop rate; +2.3 goals saved versus expected). He’s playing in a platoon with the returned Logan Thompson, who is already +5.2 goals better than expected in just four games. Vegas has had a whale of a time finding stability in net; Hill looks like the same reliable guy who anchored their title run last year, and if Thompson is fully healthy from last year’s lower-body injuries, this team suddenly has a reliable platoon.

Data via Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Viz,, Evolving Hockey