Biggest NHL early season surprises: Devils' hot start is no mirage

Jack Hughes #86, Dougie Hamilton #7, Jesper Bratt #63 of the New Jersey Devils celebrate after scoring on the Vancouver Canucks.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The late DMX shook up the music world with his debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Almost 25 years later, the New Jersey Devils are sending a similar message to the rest of the NHL.

New Jersey sits atop the Metropolitan Division with an 8-3-0 record, riding a five-game winning streak after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. With just one playoff appearance in their past 10 seasons, not everyone is ready to believe in the Devils.

Take the plunge with Satan, my friends. New Jersey’s hot start to the year isn’t a mirage. The Devils lead the NHL in expected goals percentage (65.12), chances for and unblocked shot attempts, with a .981 PDO suggesting the team is actually due for positive regression soon enough.

OK, thanks nerd. Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and John Marino have also emerged as three of the best stories and best players through the opening month and change.

The Hockey PDOCast’s Dimitri Filipovic put together a compilation of Hughes’s offensive wizardry to start the year, and we can’t imagine too many players submitting a better highlight tape. Hughes is an electrifying skater and his decision-making in the offensive zone has improved. The 21-year-old is a lot more decisive with the puck, and it’s creating tons of open lanes for his teammates, particularly Bratt. Hughes has notched four goals and 10 points in 11 games, continuing where he left off prior to his season-ending injury last season, where he had registered 42 points in 34 games since the 2022 calendar year began.

Marino has been downright incredible to start the year and though he’s been celebrated for his proficiency in his own end, he’s making a ton of fun, explosive splash plays for the Devils as well. New Jersey acquired Marino in a trade with Pittsburgh, sending back Ty Smith and a 2023 third-round pick. It may end up being the best move of the summer.

One of the best qualities a modern defenseman can have is the ability to turn defense into offense, and few plays summarize it better than his goal on Oct. 30 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Marino picks off an errant pass, surveys the ice, looks off Nico Hischier and wires a wrister that trickles into the net.

Marino also doesn’t necessarily need to enter the rush to operate as a playmaker, as seen on this play. From the faceoff circle, Marino sends Bratt onto a breakaway with a beautiful stretch pass that cuts open Edmonton’s defense. It’s truly remarkable stuff and while we’re not going to suggest Marino is a Norris candidate quite yet, he should be on the radar.

Bratt is benefiting from his teammates creating chances, but he’s also showing he can be an explosive scorer in his own right. Here, Hughes’s speed puts the defense in panic mode and he delivers a cross-ice feed to Bratt. This finish isn’t easy — a moving one-timer is among the more difficult shots in hockey, but he makes it look like child’s play. Bratt leads the league with 12 points at 5-on-5 and he’s going to get a massive bag when his contract expires this summer.

All the stats along with the eye test show that the Devils, led by Bratt, Hughes and Marino are going to be a real contender this season. Let’s take a look at some other surprising developments across the league.

Jordan Binnington isn’t recreating the magic of 2019

Jordan Binnington caught fire for the St. Louis Blues during their worst-to-first run to the Stanley Cup in 2019. That may as well have been a lifetime ago. Binnington has been particularly brutal for the Blues, with -3.8 goals saved above expected, the eighth-worst total in the NHL, per MoneyPuck. Binnington currently sports a .879 save percentage, and a 3.40 GAA. His stats have been declining for three consecutive seasons, but we didn’t anticipate it getting this bad so quickly.

It appears to be weighing on Binnington too, although he’s always been prone to petty dust-ups like this throughout his career.

Binnington is letting in goals from some terrible angles. There’s no way Kings winger Carl Grundstrom should’ve put this one into the top corner.

Binnington has lost four consecutive games and he’s not playing like an NHL goalie at the moment. We have to assume he will correct his form, or he may be glued to the bench for the remainder of the year.

Carter Hart is disguising the Flyers’ talent level

Carter Hart has been the best goalie in the NHL by some distance this season. Hart is papering over the profound flaws the Flyers have, and the team should come crashing down to earth if its goalie isn’t playing at a Vezina-calibre level.

Hart leads the NHL with 12.6 goals saved above expected, so translated into English, he’s preventing nearly two goals a game for a Flyers team that is still getting consistently outchanced and outshot. He’s unbeaten in regulation with five wins and two overtime losses, carrying a .943 save percentage and a 2.10 GAA.

Philadelphia is perhaps the worst offensive team in the league, with a woeful 37.35 percent share of expected goals at 5-on-5, and a league-worst 38.22 Corsi percentage to boot. Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes are the Flyers' only scorers in the league’s top 100 at the moment. This isn’t a good team, but Carter Hart is playing like Carter Hart Trophy, and we expect the Flyers to regress as soon as he does.

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