Deceptive starts to the NHL season at the quarter mark

We are nearly two months into the NHL season, but there still some players and teams putting up results that aren't reflective of what they have to offer.

The NHL season is about to enter its third month, which means that the 'it's early' explanation no longer works for struggling players and teams — while those that are excelling should feel confident they are doing something right.

While we have a good sense of the competitive landscape at this point, there are still smoke-and-mirrors outcomes that have been warped by the oddities a relatively small sample size invites.

Below is an account of some of the most deceptive results we've seen from teams and players so far in 2023-24.


The Pittsburgh Penguins are better than their record suggests. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are better than their record suggests. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins were one of the NHL's most active teams in the offseason, and the early bottom-line results are not encouraging. When incoming president and GM Kyle Dubas added Erik Karlsson and remade his club's supporting cast around its aging franchise legends, a 10-10-1 record isn't what he had in mind.

That said, there's plenty of reason to believe Pittsburgh is better than its record. That starts with the team's solid goal differential (+10), which ranks fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins' 26th-ranked power play (12.1%) is also an obvious candidate for positive regression considering the top-of-the-roster talent in Pittsburgh.

When it comes to 5v5 play, the Penguins rank in the top-10 league-wide in shots for percentage, scoring chance percentage, high-danger chance percentage, and expected goal rate. With that kind of play driving, solid finishers, and a trustworthy starting goalie in Tristan Jarry — who's posted a save percentage of .909 or higher in every season since 2019-20 — the Penguins are well-positioned to improve their record.

Detroit Red Wings

While the Red Wings are a great story, they probably aren't as good a team as their 11-7-3 record. No NHL squad has posted a higher 5v5 shooting percentage (10.99%), and even with Alex DeBrincat on board the team doesn't have the type of finishing talent likely to make them an outlier all year.

Detroit has also received a .907 save percentage from its goaltenders, which seems a bit inflated considering the seasons its top two options are coming off.

Most possession metrics will tell you that this team doesn't drive play at even strength, and it's not a safe bet to get more offense than its opponents on a per-shot basis. Adding Patrick Kane to the lineup makes Detroit more interesting, but it's unclear how much he moves the needle at this point.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have a respectable 13-8-0 record, but this team deserves better. No team in the NHL earns a larger share of shot attempts at 5v5 than Carolina (59.95%) and only the Los Angeles Kings have a better expected goal rate than the Hurricanes (56.53%). This group is outshooting its opponents by an average margin of 33.7 to 25.3 on a nightly basis.

Despite all of that, Carolina has a goal differential of just +3, which is primarily explainable by their goaltending woes.

Even though the Hurricanes play a brand of hockey that severely limits opportunities against, they've been let down by the trio of Antti Raanta, Frederik Andersen, and Pyotr Kochetkov — all three of whom have produced below-average results this season.

Carolina's brand of hockey has normally been conducive to goaltending success, and that is likely to be the case at some point again this season. Once things click between the pipes, Carolina should look like the powerhouse it's traditionally been in recent seasons.


Alex Ovechkin

There's evidence to suggest that Ovechkin is slowing down, but not to this extent. The Russian superstar's shooting percentage of 6.9% is wildly deflated — particularly in high-danger areas where he's scored on 7.1% of his attempts, while the league average sits at 18.0%.

Not only should Ovie be expected to finish better when he goes to the nets in the next few months, he should also have more power-play success going forward. The 38-year-old has just one power-play goal so far despite the fact he ranks third in the NHL in shot attempts with the man advantage (41).

Ovechkin's one-timer may not be quite the weapon it once was — and the talent around him on Washington's power-play isn't top tier — but the NHL career leader in PP markers is a good bet to score on more than 2.4% of his attempts in that game state. Last season he lit the lamp on 10.1% of his power-play looks.

While it would be unfair to expect Ovechkin to produce a prime season at his age, it's reasonable to assume he'll finish the season with significantly more goals than the 22 he's currently on pace for.

J.T. Miller

Miller is off to an excellent start for the surprising Vancouver Canucks, but his numbers do look a touch inflated. That starts with his shooting percentage, which sits at a beefy 24.5%. To Miller's credit, he's doing an excellent job of getting quality looks, but he's also scored from further out in a way at an unsustainable clip.

According to NHL Edge, Miller has scored on 20% of his shots from medium-range and long-range when the average NHL shooter scores on 9.1% of his medium-range attempts with a 1.7% rate on long-range opportunities.

While Miller's goal total is tied for the sixth-highest in the NHL, his 8.09 expected goals rank 13th. Not only does the veteran seem to be benefitting from some shooting luck of his own, his on-ice shooting percentage in all situations (17.62%) ranks second in the NHL — inflating his assist total.

Seth Jarvis

At first glance, it might appear that Jarvis is finding a new level in his age-21 season while taking on a career-high workload (19:19), but upon closer inspection that doesn't appear to be the case.

His shooting percentage (20%) is a little too good to be true, especially for a guy who posted a 10.4% mark in the first two years of his career. His assist totals are also deceptive as his seven secondary assists rank 21st in the NHL tied with guys like Nikita Kucherov and Leon Draisaitl while there are 296 skaters with more primary assists than the two Jarvis has managed.

The winger has solid possession numbers, but within the context of the Carolina Hurricanes — who are among the NHL's best at controlling the play — they don't stand out.

Jarvis isn't having a poor season by any means, but what he's doing looks like more of the same so far rather than evidence that the talented youngster is finding a new gear.