Parity is the name of the game in the NHL these days, something we’ve already been reminded of just a week into season. The league’s two remaining unbeaten teams, the Vegas Golden Knights and New Jersey Devils, were widely expected to be terrible. Instead, they lead their divisions right now.
With the St. Louis Blues’ 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday, the Golden Knights and Devils became the final two teams without losses. It’s a remarkable development considering most preseason predictions had both teams finishing among the league’s worst.
New Jersey has the league’s second-best goal differential at plus-10. Vegas is fifth at plus-five. They’ve not only exceeded expectations with a surprising degree of competitiveness, but they’ve shown how weird this NHL season could be. After all, the Avalanche, last year’s most disastrous team, are tied for third with a plus-six goal differential so far.
With that in mind, here’s a look at why there’s reason for optimism with the NHL’s final unbeatens, and why there’s reason to expect them to fall back to earth sooner than later.
Why the Devils are better than we thought: Their offense has been much better than expected. New Jersey is fifth in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes, fifth in power play efficiency, and second in goals per game. The team has scored six goals in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Toronto.
Rookies Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, and Nico Hischier have been stellar so far, combining for three goals and nine assists. Cory Schneider also looks to be in for a rebound season between the pipes, as he’s put up a .948 save percentage. That combination of unexpectedly good offense and Schneider back in form makes the Devils a lot better than a year ago.
Why the Devils will fall back soon: The goals will probably fizzle out. The Devils are only No. 20 in 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 and their power play was just No. 22 a year ago under the same coaching staff. It’s hard to see that group continuing to be a top-five offense, particularly given they’ve shot a league-high 15.8 percent this season.
Last season’s Devils shot 7.9 percent, so you can rightly expect that number to plummet over time. They certainly won’t get to face defenses as thin as Colorado, Buffalo, and Toronto in every game. Once that happens, the team will be leaning more than ever on Schneider to carry the team to victory.
The Golden Knights
Why the Golden Knights are better than we thought: Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal have been incredible. More than anything, Fleury’s .963 save percentage is the big reason that Vegas is unbeaten. The team was outshot, 46-30, by Dallas in the season opener, yet hung on for a 2-1 win thanks to Fleury’s heroics. He’s allowed just four goals in three games.
Neal has also been huge with five of the team’s nine goals. He’s shooting over 45 percent, which is more than three times his career average, but it’s clear Vegas will lean heavily on the winger to score this season.
Why the Golden Knights will fall back soon: Their defense is terrible. Even if Fleury and Neal keep playing well, there’s only so much they’ll be able to do to help a blue line that’s giving up the third-most 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick.
It’s not hard to see the issue given their personnel. Nate Schmidt, Luca Sbisa, Jason Garrison, and Deryk Engelland has to be the worst top-four in hockey. Schmidt is clearly the best player in the group and a solid piece to build around, but he’s not a No. 1 defenseman on a good team. The other veterans would be better suited as third-pairing guys than key cogs.
There’s not a whole lot Vegas can do about that. The team already has a logjam of defensemen with all those underwhelming options. Top prospect Shea Theodore should arrive from the AHL soon, but he’s unproven.
Which team will finish with more wins?
This is a tough question to answer given how these teams have surpassed expectations so far. The Golden Knights have the benefit of playing in the Pacific Division, which means a lot of games against Vancouver and Arizona. They also have Theodore, Vadim Shipachyov, and Alex Tuch in the AHL, and those could be some of the team’s best players once they’re called up.
The Devils, meanwhile, have had all that success without even getting a goal from Hischier, Taylor Hall, or Kyle Palmieri yet. They could end up being a surprisingly solid offensive team under John Hynes, and the return of Travis Zajac later this season will give them an added boost.
But in the end, it may come down to goaltending. Each team has a big-name veteran netminder, and how those guys perform all season will be the biggest variable. Whichever team has the better goalie will probably end up having the better season. That may make Schneider and the Devils a better bet given how good he was before 2016-17, but there’s still hope for Vegas to be surprisingly tough to beat.