One month into the 2023-24 NHL season, the optimism and enthusiasm of the preseason are wearing off. Nagging quibbles have turned into full-blown concerns.
It might be a role no one filled in the top six. A special-teams unit that isn’t quite working the way it was supposed to. Or, for some teams, that nothing is working the way it was supposed to.
The Athletic asked its NHL staff this week for each team’s biggest concern at this point, and the responses covered the full spectrum.
Trevor Zegras not looking like himself: It is both good and bad. The bad is that “Z” has only one goal and one assist in 10 games. There is plenty of time for him to get going offensively, but Leo Carlsson is giving off future-franchise-center energy, and his presence has pushed Zegras to the wing, where it doesn’t look like he’s truly comfortable. Now, he has also scored on exactly 3.6 percent of his shots on goal (never mind shots attempted), and that will no doubt change. The good is maybe being out of his comfort zone makes him better in the long run. Details such as faceoff work and commitment to being a conscientious defender are much better. It can make him a winning hockey player. Let’s just hope his natural creativity and verve haven’t diminished. — Eric Stephens
Stephens: With new contract, Trevor Zegras needs to start down a ‘runway to stardom’
The penalty killing still needs work: The Coyotes have had a decent start in virtually every category, except penalty killing, which was an issue last season — fifth-worst percentage in the league at 74.3 — and hasn’t been any better this season. Following Thursday’s win over Montreal, in which they gave up the third-period tying goal on the PP but managed to pull out a victory anyway, they were 27th out of 32 teams, succeeding only at a 72.2 percent clip. In short, there’s still room for improvement. — Eric Duhatschek
Top-six scoring at wing: The Bruins once believed center was their deficiency following the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. But with Matt Poitras and Johnny Beecher unexpectedly making the team and making an impact on their respective lines, the Bruins’ bigger holes are at wing — specifically, on Lines 1 and 2. James van Riemsdyk and Morgan Geekie have taken top-six shifts. They are better suited on the third line. — Fluto Shinzawa
The power play: The Sabres have started to improve defensively, their five-on-five offense is starting to come alive and they’re getting decent goaltending. They have even improved their penalty kill to the point where it ranked near the top of the league entering Friday’s game. But the Sabres’ power play was through Thursday the third worst in hockey in terms of conversion percentage and fourth worst in expected goals per 60 minutes. Since the second half of last season, the power play has been inconsistent. If it can recapture what it was doing early last season, the Sabres could take a big jump in offensive production. — Matthew Fairburn
The lack of dynamism and speed on offense: Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau have three goals and nine points combined across 10 games this season. They have a combined cap hit of $17,500,000 and are fixed to the foundation with no-move clauses. Elias Lindholm leads the team in scoring with eight points but only has two goals. The Flames as a whole are in the bottom-five in the league in goals. They lack the speed to keep up with other teams and aren’t creative enough to dazzle in the offensive zone. And if the losing continues, they will be forced to sell off assets. — Julian McKenzie
‘I would’ve booed too’: Flames fans have already grown impatient with this year’s team
Can they get consistent goaltending? The Hurricanes sputtered out of the gate with countless defensive breakdowns and an uncharacteristically bad penalty kill, leaving their goalies hanging out to dry too frequently. Carolina has cleaned up much of what ailed it in the past 10 days, but the team is still waiting on its goalies to be consistent. While Antti Raanta had a shutout against San Jose and Frederik Andersen put on a dazzling late-game performance against the Flyers, both have yet to exhibit the 60-minute consistency the Hurricanes need from their netminders. — Cory Lavalette
Lukas Reichel’s lack of production: After Connor Bedard, Reichel was the forward prospect the Blackhawks were most optimistic about heading into this season. Reichel had started producing late last season after coming up from the AHL and appeared ready for a breakout 2023-24 season. But nine games into this season, he has zero points. The Blackhawks are trying to figure out ways to get him going. — Scott Powers
The depth forward acquisitions: Colorado revamped its forward group over the offseason, and some of the new additions are taking time to get settled. Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin have combined for zero goals and five assists in 16 games, and both were healthy scratches Wednesday against St. Louis. Ross Colton and Miles Wood have shown flashes, but neither has made a huge impact on the scoresheet. It makes sense that these players aren’t instantly comfortable on a new team. Concern shouldn’t be too high, especially since the team has a 7-2-0 record. Still, it will be worth monitoring the forward group’s progress in the coming weeks. — Peter Baugh
Assessing the Avalanche through 9 games, from goaltending to depth forward ups and downs
Struggling young players: The Blue Jackets won’t truly elevate until their promising corps of young players start to make an impact. Kent Johnson has really struggled, sitting as a healthy scratch in two games, getting benched in the third period of Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay and getting sent to AHL Cleveland on Friday. Alexandre Texier doesn’t have a point in 10 games. Cole Sillinger hasn’t scored a goal yet and Kirill Marchenko finally got on the board on Thursday after two healthy scratches. Yegor Chinakhov missed all of training camp with a back injury and was playing for AHL Cleveland before his recall on Friday. Coach Pascal Vincent has made it a priority to develop these young players the right way, which has meant tough practices, lots of meetings and a few surprise healthy scratches. But when the players start to thrive — it could take a couple seasons — a better level of play will follow. — Aaron Portzline
‘Everything is earned’: Blue Jackets suffer consequences of rough loss in Dallas
The power play: The Stars were riding an 0-for-12 drought with the man advantage before they finally scored one Thursday night in Edmonton. Overall, the No. 5 power play in the NHL last season ranked No. 27 this season through Thursday, at just 12 percent, despite the top unit remaining exactly the same and the second unit being upgraded, at least on paper. Despite that, the Stars have been stacking up wins, which helps cover up the stink, for now. — Saad Yousuf
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A step back defensively: In Derek Lalonde’s first season as coach, he focused on turning around some ugly defensive numbers — and succeeded, getting the Red Wings’ five-on-five expected goals against into the top half of the league last season. This year, the emphasis has been more on finding additional goals, and they’ve succeeded there too. The only problem: The offense has apparently come at a cost, as Detroit is off to a bottom-10 start in terms of five-on-five defense. The scoring has been a welcome development, of course, and on balance, those newfound goals have outweighed the hiccups defensively so far. But in order to make any kind of serious waves, they’ll have to find a way to tighten up the defense, too. — Max Bultman
Goaltending: There are a lot of issues with the Oilers. A lot. There are several possible answers here. But a few more saves from Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell would greatly help matters. The Oilers have an .868 team save percentage at all strengths, worse than everyone minus Carolina entering Friday’s games. Granted, most goals are going in on high-danger chances, but this type of proficiency just isn’t going to cut it. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman
What’s to blame for the Oilers’ disappointing start?
More injuries: Sam Bennett’s return to the ice lasted all of 27 minutes. The Panthers forward, after injuring his lower body on Oct. 5, appeared to sprain his ankle against Detroit on Monday. Coach Paul Maurice sounded optimistic that Bennett wouldn’t miss another month, but it was another unwelcome injury issue for a team that’s still without Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers are making it work, but a full lineup, at some point, would be nice. — Sean Gentille
The backup goaltending has been shaky: If there has been one persistent question about the Kings and their drive toward being a true Stanley Cup contender, it has been whether they’ve got enough goaltending to match up against the elite clubs. Cam Talbot has answered the bell in grabbing the No. 1 job with some steady netminding. He’s done his part, but Pheonix Copley hasn’t been nearly as effective in his small sample. Copley has played in only three games and has a 4.98 goals-against average and .788 save percentage. The lack of many back-to-back games in the schedule has allowed Todd McLellan to lean more on Talbot, but Copley’s scuffles could have the Kings riding the 36-year-old more than they should in the early going. Veteran David Rittich is playing well with AHL Ontario. A switch could be in order if Copley doesn’t get it going soon. — Eric Stephens
Will Cam Talbot, with ‘a lot left in the tank,’ be what the Kings need in goal?
Every single thing: This is one easy-to-play-against hockey team that has completely lost its grit-first identity and is married to its aging roster. The Wild are wet noodles defensively (31st in the NHL at 4.20 goals allowed per game), can’t hold a lead (led in five of seven losses), chase every game (lead NHL by trailing in nearly 310 minutes), can’t get a save (28th in the NHL with an .884 save percentage), can’t kill a penalty (league-worst 63.6 percent kill), have a superstar in Kirill Kaprizov who has the yips and have zero salary cap flexibility. Other than that, everything is fine. — Michael Russo
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Lack of scoring: Through 10 games, the Canadiens have scored 26 goals in regulation, with five of them coming on opening night. The goaltending has been more than good enough to overcome it, but that’s not likely to last. Martin St. Louis has only been able to find one forward line that really works and needs to start tinkering to generate a spark. — Arpon Basu
Manufacturing enough offense: Juuse Saros is off to a typically slow start and will be fine on his way to a typically terrific season. The Preds should get more sound around him. Andrew Brunette’s system is creating chances, and the power play is building some momentum. But this team averages just 2.70 goals per game, and there aren’t a ton of proven places to search for offense — especially with Filip Forsberg managing only a single goal in the first 10 games. This doesn’t improve much until he starts burying some chances, that’s for certain. — Joe Rexrode
The five-on-five mediocrity: Through Thursday, New Jersey was only just breaking even in expected goals at five-on-five. The Devils are creating a lot of shots and scoring chances, but they’re allowing quality looks against, too. The biggest problem, though, is that they aren’t finishing those chances consistently enough — or saving them. The team has conceded about 60 percent of the goal share at five-on-five. The power play is helping mask where they fall short at even strength, but this is an area that has to straighten itself out soon. — Shayna Goldman
Consistency and sustainability: A 5-2-2 record is good. How the Islanders got there is not as good. Despite scoring at opportune times this season, their offense data is pretty weak and the power play is still a struggle. They have also given up too many chances, having been bailed out by Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov early and often this season. The roster won’t change much, but how the Isles play game to game and period to period may have to. — Arthur Staple
Adam Fox’s injury: Things were going pretty well for the Rangers heading into Thursday’s game against Carolina, and the win gave the Rangers a gaudy 8-2-0 record. But Fox leaving after a leg-on-leg collision with Sebastian Aho and being placed on long-term injured reserve leaves this team in a funky situation: A top-five record in the league but major worries about the franchise defenseman who got them there. — Arthur Staple
Adam Fox on LTIR, Filip Chytil out indefinitely and what’s next
Injuries on the back end: The Senators have been decimated by injuries over the past couple of seasons and were hoping to turn a new page on that front. But right now the club is missing half of its top six on defense with Thomas Chabot, Artem Zub and Erik Brannstrom out of the lineup — with no clear indication of when they might return. The blue line was supposed to be an area of strength for Ottawa this season, but the Sens’ depth is being severely tested right now. Add in additional injuries to Ridly Greig and Mark Kastelic and this is rapidly becoming a major issue for Ottawa again this season. — Ian Mendes
The power play: After finishing dead last in the league last season, the Flyers were 28th in the NHL headed into Friday night. While they’ve been better than expected at five-on-five, allowing them to stay in games against top opponents like Vegas, Dallas and Carolina, their lack of execution with a man advantage has been the difference too many times so far. That they still lack elite finishers up front is probably best reflected in their power play ineffectiveness. On the other hand, it’s clear that young players like Owen Tippett, Bobby Brink and Tyson Foerster will continue to get power-play time with the aim of getting them valuable experience. — Kevin Kurz
Mailbag: Can Flyers challenge for a playoff spot? Bobby Brink’s Calder Trophy chances?
The power play: The Penguins have many concerns, namely Tristan Jarry’s sporadic play and the bottom six’s general ineptitude offensively. But without a functional power play, it doesn’t matter. The Penguins boast literal Hall of Fame talent on the power play. Crosby. Malkin. Karlsson. Other weapons include Jake Guentzel, Rickard Rakell, Bryan Rust and another Hall of Famer in Kris Letang. They’ve failed to score a goal on the power play in seven of their first nine games and it has looked generally dysfunctional. It’s a major problem. And an embarrassing one. — Josh Yohe
San Jose Sharks
Players starting to go through the motions: The season has already gone off the track for the Sharks, and the concern with so much losing so early is that a mindset gets set into a team for good. This might be the ultimate test of the process that they’re enduring for a full-fledged rebuild — or at least as much of one as general manager Mike Grier has been able to undertake given some of the pricey contracts still on the roster. It doesn’t help that Logan Couture isn’t making progress with a lower-body injury that has sidelined him since before training camp. Other veterans have also missed games. Coach David Quinn has little high-end talent to work with, but his biggest test may be to keep this group continually engaged and working when it faces an uphill battle in virtually every game. — Eric Stephens
Sharks suffer worst home defeat in franchise history
Matty Beniers’ ability to carry the team: The Kraken have played better than their record indicates, but given how the Canucks, Kings and Golden Knights are rolling — and the likelihood that the Oilers wake up at some point — it’s clear that Seattle is going to need to step it up (and quickly) to keep pace in the Pacific Division. Snake bit to start the season (mostly due to unsustainably cruel percentages), the question is: Can Beniers step up and help carry this team? It’s not fair to ask a second-year player to have that type of impact, but in a star-driven division, the Kraken need their highest-pedigree talent to play his best hockey. — Thomas Drance
St. Louis Blues
The best forwards not performing: The Blues were hoping they could outwork teams and that might cover up the talent difference during their retool, but that hasn’t happened. They won’t improve until their best players start performing. Heading into Friday’s game, Robert Thomas had two goals, Jordan Kyrou and Pavel Buchnevich one, and Brayden Schenn none. Thomas and Kyrou are in the first year of eight-year, $65 million contracts, while Schenn is in the fourth year of an eight-year, $52 million deal. It’s early, but with their play dictating so much of the franchise’s future, it’s a bit disconcerting. — Jeremy Rutherford
Tampa Bay Lightning
A lack of five-on-five offense: Surprisingly, goaltending isn’t the answer here. Jonas Johansson has been a bright spot, saving 7.43 goals more than expected in eight games to stand toward the top of the league. The defense that got off to a rough start is trending in the right direction, too. Where this team is lacking is offensively at five-on-five. Tampa Bay isn’t generating much up the middle of the ice, and the results are starting to slip as well. Goaltending and power-play scoring can get a team so far, but the Lightning are going to need more at even strength to contend. The fourth-worst expected goal generation isn’t going to cut it. — Shayna Goldman
The penalty kill: The Leafs lost a lot of important penalty killers in the offseason — from Justin Holl and Luke Schenn on defense to Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Alex Kerfoot up front. They’ve struggled to find replacements, relying on a number of inexperienced penalty killers like Auston Matthews, Matthew Knies and Noah Gregor while getting so-so results from experienced types like Calle Järnkrok and Mark Giordano. It’s not been good enough. The Leafs are going to have to hope that more experience does the trick for the newcomers in particular. Otherwise, management will have to find help externally. — Jonas Siegel
Right defense on the second pair: The Canucks have had a dream start to the season but that doesn’t mean they’re flawless. You’d like to see more offense from the bottom six (it was nice to see Pius Suter and Anthony Beauvillier finally score on Thursday night), and they’re riding a PDO wave right now, but the second-pair right defense spot is probably their biggest question mark. The coaching staff has been forced to trim Tyler Myers’ minutes and there’s no obvious upgrade among the club’s right-shot defenders. — Harman Dayal
Vegas Golden Knights
Health: I admit this is a bit of a cop-out answer, because you could say health is a concern for every NHL team, but it’s tough to find a weakness in what the Golden Knights have done this season. Vegas has controlled play in all phases this season, earning 21 of 22 possible points with its lone defeat coming in overtime. The top players have performed, as have the depth pieces. Even the power play, which has long been Vegas’ biggest weakness, has converted at 25.6 percent. The only real concern right now is whether a veteran roster coming off a long playoff run can stay healthy. Vegas leads the league in both cap hit and wins above replacement lost due to injuries through one month of hockey. — Jesse Granger
Who replaces Nicklas Backstrom? With all due respect to Rasmus Sandin (zero points, mediocre underlying numbers on the Caps’ second pair), Washington’s biggest concern should be its depth down the middle. Replacing what Backstrom gave them post-hip surgery won’t be difficult, especially at five-on-five, but his decision to step away still leaves a hole. Connor McMichael, a first-round pick in 2019, seems set to get an extending look at center, his natural position. If nothing else, it’s time for the Caps to figure out what they have in him. — Sean Gentille
Special teams: Winnipeg’s power play is humming along at 12.8 percent, good for 25th best in the league. Its penalty kill is 30th, succeeding just 69.4 percent of the time. This is not the way the Jets’ season was supposed to be in jeopardy — they made the big Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, their five-on-five metrics are excellent, and his numbers are bad, but they have Connor Hellebuyck in net. You just can’t win with any regularity when your penalty kill gives up 11 goals and your power play scores only five in your first 10 games. And that’s with the Jets getting an extra 1:20 on the power play per night than on the PK. What happens if the penalty-taking worm turns? It needs to be fixed. — Murat Ates
Jets mailbag: Top prospects ETA? Making changes on defence?
(Top photos of Kirill Kaprizov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri: David Berding / Getty Images and Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)