NHL’s biggest surprises early in 2023-24: Emerging stars, disappointing starts and more

As the first calendar month of the NHL’s 2023-24 season nears its end, preseason favorites like the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers are struggling, the hyped Pittsburgh Penguins power play has had an outage, and a big-name goalie in New York is thriving — but definitely not the one you’d have guessed a few weeks ago.

Even the boldest of our preseason predictions are being surpassed by the surprises of a season in action.

What has been each team’s biggest surprise so far, for good, bad or ugly? The Athletic posed that question this week to its NHL staff. Here’s what they said.

“Frank the Tank” is back: Last season, Frank Vatrano had three goals in the first five games before scoring only one in the next 25. He wound up with 22 but needed a second-half surge to get there. Vatrano is bringing back the “Frank the Tank” vibes with five goals so far, including an overtime winner Tuesday to beat Columbus. Scorers often run hot and cold, and the 29-year-old has always been a volume shooter, but he already has a hat trick and has been finishing out of the gate. On the other side of things, Trevor Zegras has just one assist so far, and first-year coach Greg Cronin benched him for the third period and overtime Tuesday. — Eric Stephens


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Sean Durzi turning into a No. 1: Back in June, when the Coyotes acquired Durzi from the Kings for a 2024 second-round draft choice, the hope was that he would play a top-four role on a defense corps that needed to be rebuilt after the departures of Jakob Chychrun, Shayne Gostisbehere and others. He has been that and more. Through the first six games, Durzi had become the Coyotes’ de facto No. 1 defenseman, averaging 23:21 — more than two minutes more than the next highest player (Matt Dumba at 21:15). He was also a plus-three on a team filled with minus players, and was third in shots on goal and had contributed four points, including two power-play goals. For what the Coyotes gave up to get him, so far it’s been outright theft. — Eric Duhatschek

Matt Poitras staying with the team: Poitras, 19, was told he would play in one or two preseason games before returning to junior. He played in five. Since then, he’s moved up to No. 2 center and scored three goals. He’s allowed coach Jim Montgomery to use Charlie Coyle on the third line, where he’s best suited. Poitras, in all likelihood, will be sticking with the team for good. — Fluto Shinzawa



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Jordan Greenway is a top-six forward … and thriving: Greenway came to the Sabres at the trade deadline but didn’t make a huge impact down the stretch while playing through a shoulder injury. Now fully healthy, he has been one of Buffalo’s best penalty-killers and is also contributing as a top-six forward. Through Thursday, the Sabres had an expected goal share of 54 percent when Greenway was on the ice at five-on-five, third-best on the team. — Matthew Fairburn



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The defense’s rough start: Even during a dissatisfying season for the Flames in 2022-23, the defense was a strong point. This season, not so much. Through Thursday, the Flames were tied for the seventh-most goals against per game (3.50) in the league. They continue to adjust moving from a man-to-man setup to zone coverage, resulting in open looks in the slot and near the net. The offense always required patience, but the defense being a sore spot wasn’t expected. Especially when the man in charge of last year’s defense has since become the head coach. — Julian McKenzie



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Carolina Hurricanes

The penalty kill’s fall from grace: Since Rod Brind’Amour took over as the Hurricanes’ coach, no team has had a better penalty kill. Carolina killed 84.7 percent of penalties over the past five seasons — a full percentage point better than second-place Boston — but the Hurricanes were 29th in the league at 69.7 percent. Opponents scored a power-play goal in five of the Hurricanes’ first seven games, and four times Carolina allowed multiple PP goals. — Cory Lavalette



Hurricanes identify problem areas in ‘weird’ start to season

Lukas Reichel’s lack of scoring: Connor Bedard has understandably garnered all the attention, but Reichel — the Blackhawks’ first-round pick in 2020 — also is a huge piece of the team’s future, expected to be a fixture in the top six for years to come. But after posting seven goals and 15 points in 23 games last season, Reichel had been held without a point through the Blackhawks’ first seven games of 2023-24 entering Friday action. Luke Richardson and Kyle Davidson moved him to center to see if he could carry his own line, but with a rotating cast of middling linemates, he’s been unable to produce so far, and the Blackhawks were being outscored 5-0 with him on the ice at even strength through Thursday. It seems like only a matter of time before the goals and points start coming, but it’s been a mildly alarming start for one of the team’s most important players. — Mark Lazerus

The penalty kill’s turnaround: Colorado started the season with 19 successful penalty kills and through Thursday was fourth in the league with a 93.1 percent kill rate. Logan O’Connor has more short-handed goals (three) than the team has power-play goals allowed (two). In 2022-23, the Avalanche finished with the 17th-best penalty kill in the league (79 percent) after the unit started the season terribly. This season’s hot start has been a welcome change, especially considering the number of newcomers fitting into the unit, including Fredrik Olofsson, Miles Wood and Ross Colton. — Peter Baugh

Columbus Blue Jackets

Jack Roslovic’s move from the doghouse to the top six: Roslovic was the subject of trade rumors all summer, and when the season started it was clear that he’d lost his standing within the organization. He was moved from center to wing during training camp, opened the season on the fourth line and was a healthy scratch for the second game of the season. But since then, Roslovic has been the Blue Jackets’ best player, a difference-maker offensively and a reliable winger in his own end. Roslovic has a four-game point streak, including a three-point game against Montreal on Thursday. With Patrik Laine out of the lineup with a suspected concussion, Roslovic has seized the opportunity to return to the top six. He played a season-high 20:23 against the Canadiens — Aaron Portzline



Blue Jackets, already with a slim margin of error, let another lead slip away vs. Canadiens

The power play losing its way: The Stars had the fifth-best power play in the NHL last season and returned every individual from the top unit, with Miro Heiskanen, Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz in their prime and Joe Pavelski and Jamie Benn both, individually, looking good. As a group, they look completely out of sync. The Stars can hardly enter the zone cleanly and maintain possession, let alone score, as indicated by their 11.1 percent power play, which was 27th in the NHL through Thursday. To pour salt in the wound, the Stars have also allowed three short-handed goals, tied for most in the league through Thursday. — Saad Yousuf



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Shayne Gostisbehere has had a huge role in the Red Wings’ early success this season. (Scott W. Grau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Shayne Gostisbehere’s huge impact: It’s tempting to go with the Red Wings’ power play, which sits at a staggering 38.7 percent through eight games, but let’s zoom in a bit more to shine some light on Gostisbehere, who’s been a huge part of that success. Through Thursday, he was tied with Cale Makar and Victor Hedman for the most points among NHL defensemen, much of that driven by his work from the right flank on the man advantage. The Red Wings brought him in to help that unit, but even they couldn’t have expected a start this hot, with Gostisbehere making an impact both with his booming shot and as a smart distributor. He’s been huge in their early-season success. — Max Bultman



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Edmonton Oilers

Evan Bouchard’s poor defending: Bouchard’s offensive game remains elite. Buoyed by his power-play work, Bouchard has eight points in seven contests and ranks among the top blueliners in scoring. The other end of the ice has been an issue. The Oilers have been outscored 9-4 at five-on-five with him on the ice as he’s often seemed indecisive in coverage and with the puck in his own zone. The coaching staff even tried moving him down to the third pair for a bit in Thursday’s loss to the Rangers. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman

The new blue line is fine: With Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad both out for the first chunk of the season and new additions on each pair, it would’ve been fair to expect an adjustment period from the Panthers. Things have been fine, though. Through Thursday, they had got the sixth-lowest expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-on-five in the league. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has looked particularly solid in top-pair minutes. — Sean Gentille



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Los Angeles Kings

Trevor Moore is healthy and producing: In 2021-22, Moore had a breakout season with 17 goals and 48 points. It helped earn him a five-year extension with L.A. worth $21 million — negotiated right before he incurred an unspecified upper-body injury that knocked him out of the lineup for a few weeks. Moore wasn’t his fearless, puck-hunting self again until the playoffs. The 28-year-old is feeling right again and off to a blazing start with a team-leading five goals through Thursday, which says something considering how deep the Kings are. The left wing’s career has gone to another level since he was paired with center Phillip Danault. — Eric Stephens



Kings sign Trevor Moore to 5-year extension

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Filip Gustavsson’s season hasn’t started the way anyone expected. (Bailey Hillesheim / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Filip Gustavsson taking a step back: Gustavsson is coming off a breakout season in which he put himself in the Vezina Trophy conversation and earned a three-year deal. But this season hasn’t started the way anyone expected. After Gustavsson opened the season with a 41-save shutout, he allowed 22 goals in the next four starts (1-2-1), giving up five goals three times (he only had three such games all of last season). To be fair, the Wild have played poorly in front of him, their defense taking a big hit with the injury to Jared Spurgeon. But Minnesota won’t be going anywhere without Gustavsson playing at a high level. — Joe Smith

Montreal Canadiens

Tanner Pearson’s still got game: After missing a year with a hand/wrist injury that was mishandled by the Canucks, Pearson arrived in Montreal with zero expectations. Through his first seven games, he had three goals and five points playing on the third line and second power play, a player who wins board battles and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. It’s great news for Pearson’s career, and if he can keep it up, he might find himself on a playoff contender by the trade deadline. — Arpon Basu

Philip Tomasino playing himself out of the lineup: It’s not that anyone could reasonably expect Tomasino to light up the world this season. But the fact that he spent most of last season in the AHL was blamed by Predators fans on former GM David Poile and former coach John Hynes mishandling a young talent. Well, now Barry Trotz and Andrew Brunette are in charge … and Tomasino lasted four games in the lineup. The 2019 first-round pick has talent, but maybe it has been overestimated, and certainly the Preds want him to be more of a presence when he isn’t getting scoring chances. — Joe Rexrode

Dawson Mercer’s lack of shots and quality chances: The Devils’ poor shooting luck at five-on-five is a surprise considering their talent at forward. But Mercer’s slow start is probably the biggest shock and red flag. It’s not just bad luck plaguing him; there are some concerning trends. Even setting aside his power-play time, since he’s on the second unit, at five-on-five through Thursday he’d attempted 7.51 fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes than last season. And his quality-chance generation has absolutely tanked as well. After struggling alongside the team’s top centers, he’s been demoted to the third line. Right now, he isn’t giving the team any reason to move him up. — Shayna Goldman

Their defensive breakdown: The first two games went according to the Isles’ well-worn script: Keep things tight and take advantage of your opportunities. The past four games have been anything but that formula: four power-play goals allowed to the Devils, five to the Avs (with two empty netters) and even Thursday’s win over Ottawa featured breakdowns and too many penalties to count. The Isles are competing hard and can score, but the past four games have not been Islanders hockey. — Arthur Staple

New York Rangers

Jonathan Quick’s throwback start: The data and your eyes told you that maybe the Rangers opting for Quick as Igor Shesterkin’s backup the minute free agency started wasn’t the wisest course of action. Two wins and one goal allowed into the season and we’re starting to eat some crow, even though it’s early. The 37-year-old Quick looks more than capable of making 25 starts and keeping the Rangers from folding without their No. 1 in net. — Arthur Staple

Ottawa Senators

The goaltending still isn’t fixed: I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that goaltending has been shaky for Ottawa, considering it’s been a volatile position for the past few seasons. But after signing Joonas Korpisalo this summer, the Sens were hoping for consistency in that position. Through seven games, though, that hasn’t been the case at all. Both goalies are sporting a sub-.900 save percentage and during the course of a three-game losing skid, goaltending has been a weak link at times. — Ian Mendes

They look competent defensively: Veteran defensemen Marc Staal and Rasmus Ristolainen are both out with injuries, but the Flyers’ young defense corps has held up pretty well. Yes, there have been some mistakes, particularly in the third period of a loss in Vegas on Tuesday. But guys like Travis Sanheim and Sean Walker are eating up minutes and playing responsible two-way games, helping the Flyers curtail their opponents’ scoring chances. — Kevin Kurz

Pittsburgh Penguins

The hyped power play has struggled: Erik Karlsson joining Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the power play — what could go wrong? Turns out, a lot. The Penguins haven’t been able to find a rhythm, or even set personnel, to work with Karlsson, Crosby and Malkin. And, frankly, those three seem to be operating as if each is expecting another to take command. That hasn’t happened. A power play that was supposed to be a band-aid to cover other weaknesses (the NHL’s oldest roster, a bottom six without much scoring potential, and a third defensive pair that lacks stability) — well, that hasn’t been the case in the opening month. Some of this might be due to the Penguins not having too many chances. They’ve had only 18 power plays through seven games. More reps wouldn’t hurt. — Rob Rossi

The offense being this wretched: Until Thursday night, I had put Mackenzie Blackwood in this space. Unfortunately, Blackwood was pulled after five goals on 21 shots as Tampa Bay delivered a 6-0 spanking. Like a coach might say, this isn’t on Blackwood. He’s been fine and turned in some sparkling performances in showing some of his form from the early New Jersey days. At 0-7-1 after Friday’s action, the Sharks had scored a league-low eight goals. Only once had they scored more than one. They’re already crushed by injuries. Anthony Duclair and Mike Hoffman had one goal between them. Tomas Hertl has no help. Neither does Blackwood or creasemate Kaapo Kahkonen, who must be perfect just to be victorious. — Eric Stephens



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Matty Beniers has had a tough start to the season. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

Matty Beniers can’t buy a bounce: The hockey card stat line on Beniers’ start to the season is tough: eight games, no goals, three assists, minus-10 rating. Given that Beniers won the Calder Trophy last season, and given that he’s a young player who approaches the game with real, assertive swagger, it’s a surprise to see him struggling in the early going. Save your “sophomore slump” commentary for now, though. Beniers has been brutally unlucky — he’s carrying a 3 percent on-ice shooting clip and an .886 on-ice save percentage at five-on-five — and his peripheral performance looks more or less steady when compared with what he accomplished in his scintillating first season. While Beniers’ slow start is a surprise, there’s no question that he’s going to get right and be more productive over the balance of his campaign. He’ll bring the Kraken along with him in time, and he’s a good buy-low candidate for hockey poolies. — Thomas Drance



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Colton Parayko’s renaissance: When Colton Parayko’s eight-year, $52 million contract kicked in last season, Blues fans were already wondering how the team could get out of it. There were trade rumors at the deadline, but nothing developed. Through the first month of the 2023-24 season, those same fans might be glad nothing did. Outside of goaltender Jordan Binnington, Parayko has been the Blues’ best player. His skating will always be his calling card, but now he’s back to extinguishing plays in the defensive zone and even bringing some physicality. It’s been an impressive renaissance. — Jeremy Rutherford



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Tampa Bay Lightning

Jonas Johansson is proving himself capable: There was rightfully a lot of concern when it was announced that Andrei Vasilevskiy was going to be sidelined, especially with who was set to replace him. Despite some defensive lapses on this weakened Lightning blue line in front of him, Johansson’s put up a quality start in four of his seven appearances so far to give his team a chance to win. The big question is whether that can hold up and if he’ll build on his 6.44 goals saved above expected, given that a starting role is not something he’s accustomed to. But the fact that he isn’t sinking this team is a big surprise. — Shayna Goldman

The play of the goalies: The sample sizes are obviously tiny this early into the season, but Joseph Woll has played a whole lot better than Ilya Samsonov so far. Samsonov is supposed to be the Leafs No. 1, and there’s every chance he nails down the role at some point this season. But with how he’s started — 14 goals against in four starts — the door has opened for Woll (.957 save percentage) to grab more of the crease. Woll shined in relief of Samsonov in Tampa last weekend and was the biggest reason the Leafs nabbed two points in Washington. If he keeps this up, and Samsonov can’t get on track, the roles may well reverse in Toronto. — Jonas Siegel



Monday Morning Leafs Report: Samsonov’s rough start, Matthews’ and Marner’s minutes

Vancouver Canucks

Phil Di Giuseppe excelling as a top-six forward: You could point to Brock Boeser’s hot start, the penalty kill’s marked improvement or the team’s overall strong first road trip as surprises, but the biggest one is probably Di Giuseppe’s top-six success on a shutdown line with J.T. Miller. Di Giuseppe has been an AHL/NHL tweener in his career and before camp, I don’t think anybody expected him to play this big of a role. Di Giuseppe has been great, though — offering excellent forechecking, two-way responsibility and even chipping in with some offense. — Harman Dayal

The depth has been even better than expected: We knew the Golden Knights’ depth was going to be a strength entering the season, but with a slew of early-season injuries it’s been really tested and the team hasn’t missed a beat. Young defensemen Brayden Pachal and Kaedan Korczak have stepped into the lineup and scored the first goals of their NHL careers. Overall Vegas has goals from 16 different players and points from 21. The depth may be even stronger than last year’s for the Golden Knights. — Jesse Granger

Powerless power play: Expecting the Caps’ five-on-four game to turn the clock back a decade would’ve been unreasonable — there were signs of decline last season, especially when John Carlson was out of the lineup — but it’s still bizarre to watch the unit struggle to find the net so dramatically. A 10.5-percent conversion rate puts them at 28th in the league. The bright side? They’re second in expected goals/60 so they’re actually getting plenty of chances. It’s time to start turning those quality looks into actual goals. — Sean Gentille

Alex Iafallo is quietly excellent: There are a lot of mild surprises to choose from, including Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele’s extensions, the Jets’ uncharacteristically low attendance and Hellebuyck’s brief mediocrity before returning to excellence. I want to focus on Alex Iafallo here because he got so little of the fanfare during this summer’s blockbuster trade. He’s up to three goals and one assist in seven games, while adding forechecking excellence, tenacity and several backchecks to negate scoring chances. You won’t find it in the fancy stats because Iafallo started strong on Adam Lowry’s line before moving to a different role with Scheifele and Kyle Connor, but he’s done everything in his power to give Winnipeg’s top-nine forward group an added two-way strength — Murat Ates

(Top photos of Matt Poitras and Tanner Pearson: China Wong / NHLI via Getty Images and Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images) 

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