What we learned in the NHL in October: Dicey playoff hopes, Auston Matthews’ shots

A team can’t lose a playoff seed in October. Most are only approaching the 10-game mark this week, and there’s still 88 percent of the season to go.

But a bad start can set a team back. Instead of just vying for the playoffs, a team can dig themselves into a hole they have to first find their way out of before getting anywhere near the mix. That’s the case for a few teams looking to push back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture after missing out last year.

The vibes are starting to get dicey for some Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls

Ahead of Monday night’s matchups, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. It’s not a place they’re expected to stay — The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn still gives Pittsburgh a 42 percent shot of the playoffs, while MoneyPuck has them even higher at 58.7 percent. But this start is far from ideal, considering some of the big investments made to better this team’s dwindling window.

The Penguins’ depth issues are showing, as this top-heavy roster isn’t getting enough of a team effort. At five-on-five, the Penguins have 16 goals with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the ice. But they’ve netted just four goals with both centers on the bench and the bottom six deployed. The fact that the power play can’t cash in either is hurting a team that needs to take advantage of situations with their best on the ice, too.

The fix isn’t simple in Pittsburgh. Maybe there have to be some tactical adjustments for what this team is now versus what they were at their height in this era of Penguins hockey. Whatever it is, the clock is ticking — and this start hasn’t done them any favors.

The Ottawa Senators are two points ahead of Pittsburgh after handing it a 5-2 loss on Saturday. But the hype and momentum the Senators seemed to gain after ownership changed has seemingly evaporated. This team was already short-handed up front without Shane Pinto signed and now they’re going to be without him for at least half the season. Making matters worse is injuries piling up on the back end between Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom and Artem Zub. So the deck keeps stacking against the Senators.

As it stands, this is a pretty high-event team. The offense is there, but they still give up a lot back, and that’s probably going to get exposed even more with those defensive injuries. The goaltending is falling below average and may get strained even further. So the path to the playoffs looks a lot more daunting for a team that seemed poised for a return.

It helps Pittsburgh and Ottawa that other teams trying to return to the playoff picture, like the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets, have had their own struggles to open the year. It doesn’t hurt that the Detroit Red Wings seem to be slowing down after a hot start, too. There’s plenty of hockey to play and each team still has a chance to reach the postseason. But none will get there without some adjustments to change their current trajectories.

The vibes are cooling off on the Red Wings power play

Detroit got off to a hot start this season, and its power play is a key reason why. Ahead of Monday night’s matchups, the Red Wings ranked third in the league, operating at 34.4 percent on the advantage. The only teams to score at a higher pace than their 13.7 goals per 60 were the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils.

That power play is what really gave the Red Wings a chance to win against the Seattle Kraken last Tuesday — when they converted three times in the third to tie the game 4-4 and force overtime. But scoring was slow against the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins as the team failed to score on a combined six opportunities in the two games. Now the question is whether this is a trend to come or just a blip in their progress.

The problem is that Detroit’s only expected to score about 8.9 goals per 60 based on the quality of its chances. That stood at 17th in the league before Monday’s matchups. The finishing talent on that top unit can account for a difference between expectations and reality to an extent, but the more that gap grows, the less sustainable the Red Wings’ production seems.

What could be contributing to that is their current deployment of three forwards and two defenders, which they’ve leaned on a league-leading 67.3 percent of the time (thanks to Prashanth Iyer for crunching the numbers here). The only other team to roll with three forwards more than 50 percent of the time has been the San Jose Sharks. Three-quarters of the league, to compare, rely on a four-forward unit upward of 80 percent of the time. That adds to league trends that have emerged over the years. Back in 2007-08, just 34 percent of teams used a four-forward, one defenseman unit. That’s steadily climbed to that 80 percent range in recent seasons.

Viz by Prashanth Iyer

If this cold streak continues in Detroit, it’s going to spark a need for some tactical tweaks considering how important the power play has been for its early-season success. The tricky part for the Red Wings will be identifying exactly what needs to change, since much of their success hasn’t come against teams in formation but instead oftentimes off the rush or quickly off the draw. Maybe the answer is straying from 1-3-1 and trying out the umbrella more to promote more zone time and set up clear passing lanes for Alex DeBrincat and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Or it could be as simple as swapping a defender for a forward, even if it means keeping Gostisbehere on that top unit over Moritz Seider. There’s a reason teams have shifted toward a four-forward unit — it tends to lead to more scoring chances and goal generation. As the Red Wings are experiencing, the former is pretty key to sustaining the latter.

The vibes should be goal-worthy for Auston Matthews

Seven goals in eight games is a fine start for Matthews. When accounting for ice time, his pace is top 20 in the league. But he has goals in just three games so far this season.

Matthews raced out with back-to-back hat tricks to open the season. He’s only mustered one goal since, last Tuesday against the Washington Capitals.

It’s not for a lack of trying. Matthews’ shot volume has been relatively consistent compared to years past, and he’s improved the quality of his shots. According to MoneyPuck, Matthews’ average shot distance in all situations this year is 20.4 feet. It’s a lot closer than last year’s 27.2 feet, or 2021-22’s 27.9. Right now, it measures up as the closest average shooting distance of his career, ahead of 2020-21’s 22.4 feet. Considering the quality of his shot locations to start the season, it’s no surprise that MoneyPuck’s model has him off to a career-best individual expected goal rate of 2.32 per 60.

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But one noteworthy trend in the wrong direction: Matthews’ shots are actually going on net slightly less than usual — 67.9 percent of the time — when his attempts tend to go on goal upward of 70 percent of the time.

After a down year in the goal column by Matthews’ standards, the center should bounce back this season, especially if he continues to put up such high-quality chances. But whether he can continue driving this close to the net or whether his sweet spot is actually a little further out is going to be a trend to watch moving forward,

The vibes are chaotic for the Oilers’ back end

If you can’t beat them, join them.

That seems to be the strategy in Edmonton after falling short to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2 last spring. The Oilers, after finishing the regular season with what appeared to be their most complete effort in the Connor McDavid era, have made some systematic adjustments.

The NHL’s a copycat league, so there’s nothing unusual about teams trying to adopt strategies and ideologies from the most successful. But this tactical change has obviously added some wrinkles to the Oilers’ start.

Edmonton made some strategic changes in all three zones back when Jay Woodcroft took over as head coach in 2022. The system he implemented initially emphasized quick puck movement out of the defensive zone, so the team could get to work offensively and play to their strengths. Now, there’s more emphasis on protecting the middle of the ice in front of the crease.

The transition definitely hasn’t been without flaws. The Oilers haven’t sunk to the bottom of the league in scoring chances against, but the lapses tend to be so glaring. They’re even more noticeable because the goaltending hasn’t responded well to their workloads. Stuart Skinner, last year’s 1A starter, has just one quality start in five appearances. Jack Campbell has one in four. That combination of defensive mistakes and goaltending is reflected in their record to start the year.

Whenever a team changes systems, there tends to be some sort of adjustment period. Defenders have to get comfortable with these schemes. When (or if) that happens, being able to play the game in different ways should give Edmonton some more versatility. Until then, though, the Oilers have to hope their 2-5-1 start doesn’t bite them later in the year when every point likely matters in a Pacific Division race with the reigning champs.

The vibes are unstable in the Wild’s net

The Minnesota Wild have built up a reputation for being a low-event team. While they aren’t the most offensive bunch, they generally have a strong defense to back that up. And coming into this season, it was thought they’d have high-end goaltending to match after Filip Gustavsson’s breakout season.

But this year, they’ve been a part of a number of high-scoring games — and they’ve come out on the wrong side of a number of them. The first was a 7-4 loss to the Maple Leafs, then a 7-3 loss to the L.A. Kings and a 5-4 loss to the Blue Jackets in overtime. After a high-event win against the Oilers, the Wild responded with three straight road losses with a combined 13 goals against.

The Wild’s defense hasn’t been perfect this month. Compared to last year at five-on-five, Minnesota has allowed more shots and scoring chances against. And the goaltending really hasn’t responded well to that, with 3.43 goals against per 60, compared to 2.12 in 2022-23. Small samples can amplify results and make a situation look more dire, which may be the case on the penalty year to year. But it’s clear their efforts through eight games fall short of last year, and it’s not only because the team’s without its No. 1 Jared Spurgeon, who is out with injury.

Even with a more challenging workload, the fact that the goaltending is struggling this much is an early-season red flag. The Wild may have slipped compared to the standards they’ve set for themselves, but they’re not suddenly a disastrous defensive team, either. Still, Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury have each allowed more than three goals above expected based on their workloads, and currently rank bottom 10 in the league.

For a team like the Wild, who generally aren’t offensive dynamos, having stability in net and reliable goaltending is pivotal. So the team’s work is cut out for them to turn this start around and shore up areas that should be strengths.

October stars

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Leon Draisaitl

Draisaitl, as expected, is right in the thick of the scoring race to start the season with 13 points in eight games. But what stands out is his play below the surface.

At five-on-five, Draisaitl’s helping drive play in Edmonton with 67.4 percent of the expected goals share and even better results to match. Much of that offense is coming right from the scoring areas in front of the net and, of course, from Draisaitl’s sharp-angle shooting location below the circle. But what’s also impressive is that relative to his teammates, the forward has some of the best impacts on the team’s offense (and goal scoring) as well as its scoring chance and goal suppression.

Alex DeBrincat

Detroit seems to agree with DeBrincat. With nine goals in nine games, the winger has already matched a third of his goal scoring from last year’s down year. Some of that is driven by power-play production, but DeBrincat’s been effective at five-on-five as well — he has one of the best influences on the team’s shot, scoring chance, and goal generation relative to his teammates in his first month of play. That’s contributed to the Red Wings outscoring opponents 11-3 in his minutes (and 21-6 in all situations).

DeBrincat’s presence has very clearly been a boost for a team that needs it, and it seems to be doing wonders for Dylan Larkin’s game as well — the center has needed a high-caliber winger at his side and the early returns have been excellent. After falling short last season in Ottawa, this early rebound is the start DeBrincat needed with his new team.

Jack Hughes

Ahead of Monday’s matchups, Hughes led the league in points with 18 in just eight games. That superstar status is clear with his direct impact on the Devils’ offense — 16 of his 18 points are primary, and he’s been on the ice for about 70 percent of the team’s scoring so far in all situations. Plus he’s been elite in transition and in creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates.

The one early concern is Hughes’ five-on-five play, but that’s more of a team-wide issue. The Devils are only just breaking even in expected goals in the center’s minutes, and have worse results to match (and goaltending has something to do with that). But that Hughes is still providing game-changing efforts even when he’s not on his A-game is telling.

Jack isn’t the only Hughes brother worthy of a nod. Quinn Hughes gets an honorable star for his play in Vancouver in October — the Canucks are outscoring opponents 9-1 at five-on-five in his minutes.


Data collected prior to Monday matchups via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones, NaturalStatTrick and MoneyPuck. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers. 

(Top photos of Auston Matthews, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby: Nick Turchiaro and Charles LeClaire / USA Today) 

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