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Three early season observations from the NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Calder Trophy

With Joseph Woll between the pipes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to look like the real deal, writes Luke James.

Joseph Woll Scaled E1698430843907, British Ice Hockey

The NHL’s 2023-24 season is only three weeks old and we already have a much clearer forecast of how the winds and tides may shift in the months ahead.

There have been standout performances from players and teams across the league, with superstar prospect Connor Bedard debuting for the Chicago Blackhawks, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights bursting out the traps, and William ‘contract year’ Nylander turning heads for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The first few weeks of the season are our first look at how each squad’s offseason additions and subtractions have shifted the needle across the NHL’s two conferences and four divisions.

Even so, we’re still very much in the season of overreactions. With American Thanksgiving yet to arrive, we’re still basing our assumptions and analysis on relatively small sample sizes and extrapolating from there. Ultimately, there is a reason why the Stanley Cup is handed out after an 82-game regular season and four rounds of gruelling playoff hockey.

Three early season NHL observations:

Luke James examines three early season trends in his latest for British Ice Hockey.

Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to look like bona fide Stanley Cup contenders

The Toronto Maple Leafs started the season with a run of performances and results that sparked serious debate about Ryan Reaves, the contract he was handed in the offseason, and his place on Sheldon Keefe’s roster.

Leafs Nation was in a state of revolt after a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on 20 October, but three wins in a row in the days since have inspired a rapid atmosphere lift.

Crucial to Toronto’s rebound has been rookie netminder Joseph Woll.

The Canadian appeared in relief of Ilya Samsonov versus the Panthers and has been brick-like ever since, saving 95 of the 97 shots he faced against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Dallas Stars.

“He kept us in it in that first. They really came out flying and kind of took control of the game pretty early on, and he was just solid for us,” Auston Matthews said of the goalie’s performance versus the Caps. “He gave us a chance to hang in there.”

Keefe added: “There’s some (chances) that require a great deal of athleticism, sort a desperation-type savant tracks the puck and he finds it and he has the athleticism strength and flexibility to get there, it was impressive.”

Matthews, William Nylander, and John Tavares have also been excellent, producing virtuoso performances and plays to elevate their side to early season wins.

ice hockey best on best - Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)

With Toronto, the question always remains the same – can they win when it matters the most?

While we are nowhere close to knowing if the Maple Leafs have what it takes to come out on top in the playoffs, this iteration of the team from Toronto looks uniquely suited to the challenges posed by postseason hockey.

Edmonton Oilers are starting to not look like bona fide Stanley Cup contenders

The Edmonton Oilers have stunk badly in the early weeks of the season, with their record flopping to 1-5-1 after a shutout loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday [26 October].

Goaltending has once again proven to be an area of concern for Edmonton, with Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner both sinking below the .900 save percentage plateau to open the campaign.

2023 Calder Trophy --Stuart Skinner, Edmonton Oilers (Image: NHL)

Stuart Skinner, Edmonton Oilers (Image: NHL)

Connor McDavid’s injury is also front of mind for supporters of the Albertan franchise. The Canadian has already missed two games with an upper-body injury and is a doubt for the upcoming Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium.

However, the Oilers have been poor with or without McDavid this season – and deservedly sit 31st in the leaguewide standings as a result.

Edmonton should still make the playoffs, but the fact that even needs to be said at this point in the season should trouble everyone associated with the Oilers. They are miles away from Stanley Cup contention in a season that was billed as ‘make or break’ a matter of weeks ago.

Connor Bedard isn’t a dead cert to be crowned as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year

The Calder Trophy is awarded to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year – which pretty much everyone assumed would be Connor Bedard this time around.

Selected first overall in the latest edition of the draft, Bedard is hockey’s most hyped prospect since McDavid and for very valid reasons. He is absurd.

Connor Bedard Chicago Blackhawks 1, British Ice Hockey

But the Vancouver-born forward isn’t the only stud rookie on the block and a handful of genuine competitors for the Calder Trophy have emerged.

Logan Cooley (Arizona Coyotes), Matthew Poitras (Boston Bruins), and Ridley Greig (Ottawa Senators) have outscored Bedard in the early running, with the likes of Matthew Knies, Leo Carlsson, and Adam Fantilli also in the conversation.

Unless Bedard explodes offensively in the months to come, his Calder Trophy candidacy isn’t an open-and-shut case.

What are your early season observations from the NHL? Join the conversation in the comments.

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