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NHL panic meter: Which team is in the most trouble?

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With more than a month's worth of NHL action to analyze and dissect, there's enough out there to begin judging teams based on their starts to the 2021-22 campaign.

For some, the year has been full of surprisingly positive results. An unlikely string of wins for squads like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings have their fan bases feeling hopeful that their teams are ready to compete.

For the seven teams listed below, the first month-plus of action hasn't provided as rosy of an outlook.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Vancouver Canucks have largely underwhelmed to start the year, which begs the question: Which fan bases should be panicked?

The Penguins will be hoping Sidney Crosby's return sparks improvement on the ice. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
The Penguins will be hoping Sidney Crosby's return sparks improvement on the ice. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Freak Out Mode

Freak Out Mode is reserved for the teams that appear to be in the most turmoil at this point. These squads are not only playing poorly but have also been dealing with immense criticism and scrutiny from their fans. Even though most have only played a dozen or so contests, the season already seems like a write-off.

Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 4-9-2 (7th in Central Division)

Panic meter rating: 10/10

If you polled 100 Blackhawks fans before the season and asked them for their "worst-case scenario" start, none of them would've answered with something worse than what's played out in the Windy City.

Truthfully, the on-ice struggles have been the least of the franchise's concerns to open 2021-22. Off the ice, the team has been embroiled in a horrific sexual assault cover-up that resulted in the resignation of general manager Stan Bowman and senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac, as both were deemed privy to the disgraceful secret and failed to act appropriately on the issue. To make matters even worse, both of the franchise's top stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, were very dismissive of Bowman and MacIssac's actions.

Chicago also fired head coach Jeremy Colliton after the squad's rough start, as the team started the year 1-9-2. 

While the move seems to have sparked some positive results as the Blackhawks have won three straight games since, it's likely not permanent. One of those wins was by one goal against the Arizona Coyotes, so it doesn't really count, and the other two were in extra time against the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins. Chicago's 29.98 scoring chances against per 60 minutes sits eighth-worst in the league, according to Natural Stat Trick, and its 2.13 goals per game ranks third worst. While the offense might pick up, the defense remains utterly lacklustre outside of Seth Jones and will likely hold the team back from qualifying for the postseason.

Vancouver Canucks

Record: 5-9-2 (7th in Pacific Division)

Panic meter rating: 8/10

No other team in the NHL has been Blackhawks-level bad to begin the 2021-22 campaign, but the Canucks' season is quickly cratering.

Vancouver has been awful at both ends of the ice. The team's 2.50 goals per game ranks seventh-worst in the league, while its 3.38 goals against per game are sixth-worst. For a team that had postseason aspirations entering the year and an abundance of young offensive talent, the team's lack of goal scoring has to be the most concerning development.

The fan base's angst has been directed toward the front office — specifically general manager Jim Benning. Benning is now in his eighth season with the organization, and it has failed to make the postseason in five of his years at the helm. Fully responsible for the talent on the ice, Benning has locked himself into some bad contracts, most notably Oliver Ekman Larsson's, who Vancouver must pay $7,260,000 per year for the next six seasons and Tyler Myers, who's owed $18,000,000 over the next three years.

It's a mess, and with so many players playing below expectations, there's reason to panic.

Montreal Canadiens

Record: 4-12-2 (7th in Atlantic)

Panic meter rating: 7/10

The Canadiens have actually gotten off to the worst start of any team on this list, but it appears the fan base has made peace with the fact that this squad isn't going anywhere.

Well, if only general manager Marc Bergevin had the self-awareness to realize that before this season, the team would actually be set up very favourably to tank. Instead, Bergevin dealt a first-round pick that was gifted to him by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Jesperi Kotkaniemi troll offer sheet AND a second-round pick in 2024 to the Arizona Coyotes for Christian Dvorak, who's literally a faceoff specialist-plus.

Instead of having two first-round picks in what's been touted as a strong 2022 draft class, Montreal will have just one (very likely its own).  

It wasn't difficult to realize that this year would be a rough one for Montreal, either. Neither of its two most important skaters in its playoff run last year, Phillip Danault or Shea Weber, were returning, which made the margin of error for this team ever so slight. So when goaltender Carey Price bravely entered the NHL's player assistance program, the chance this team had to qualify for a playoff spot in the highly-competitive Atlantic Division dipped significantly. Most importantly, however, Price has since rejoined the team and is working towards getting back on the ice. 

Cole Caufield's struggles are worth mentioning, too, but they're the least of Montreal's concerns. The 2019 first-round pick recorded zero goals and one assist in 10 games and was subsequently sent down to the AHL. He'll be fine in the long run, but how much was expected from a 20-year-old further illustrates just how fragile the Canadiens' chances of competing were in 2021-22.

All in all, though, off the heels of a Stanley Cup appearance, it's been a pretty disappointing campaign from the Habs. Bergevin's rough offseason, which also includes questionable contracts awarded to David Savard and Mike Hoffman, should be under scrutiny.

Pacing-the-floor mode

You're not ready to full-on panic just yet, but it's bubbling under the surface and you're wearing out the ground beneath your feet without even realizing it.

You're in pacing-the-floor mode. 

Things haven't been good, and you're a little nervous, but you have something to point at that gives you enough temporary comfort to relieve the reality of the first month of the 2021-22 season.

Fan bases of these teams are in flux between "everything will be fine" and "a few more bad games and I'm gonna snap." 

Dallas Stars

Record: 6-6-2 (5th in Central Division)

Panic meter rating: 6/10

The Stars figured to be a prime bounce-back candidate after a number of roadblocks interfered with the team's aspirations to qualify for the postseason in 2020-21.

The team's start to this year couldn't be further from that. It took 13 games for Dallas to earn its first regulation win, and the team has shown some signs of early-season desperation.

For starters, its players banded together to host a players-only meeting, according to Sportsnet. You never hear teams that are playing well holding these types of gatherings, so that was a bit of an eye-opener. Additionally, Dallas banished assistant coach John Stevens from the bench and told him to go coach upstairs, which feels like the NHL equivalent of being told by your parents to go to your room.

If there's one sliver of hope for Stars fans, however, it's that the team is actually very good. On paper, it's rich with offensive talent, strong defensively, but does have a glaring deficiency in net. None of the squad's three healthy netminders - Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, or Jake Oettinger - have risen to the task. Ben Bishop appears to be nearing a return, but he hasn't played hockey since the 2019-20 campaign.

Dallas will probably be fine, but the Central Division has proven to be full of quality teams. The Stars need to turn things around fairly quickly if they want to avoid missing the postseason for a second straight year.

New York Islanders

Record: 5-6-2 (8th in Metropolitan)

Panic meter rating: 5/10

The Islanders get a mini pass from me because they had to open the year on a 13-game road trip, but I'd definitely be a little nervous if I rooted for them.

The team has yet to play a home game as it awaits the opening of UBS Arena, but the season-opening road trip can't be considered a grand success by any stretch. The team sits at .500, and its underwhelming collection of offensive players haven't been producing. New York is averaging the fourth-fewest scoring chances for per 60 with a mark of 25.43, which has resulted in it scoring the fourth-fewest goals per game with 2.33. 

Additionally, while young netminder Ilya Sorokin has been excellent to open the year, Semyon Varlamov has looked shaky since returning from whatever mystery injury he's been dealing with. Through two starts, Varlamov owns an 0-2-0 record and a sub-par .892 save percentage. 

For a team that's billed as defensively stingy, the Isles haven't been that. They've allowed 11.72 high-danger chances per 60, the ninth-most of any team in the NHL. Combine that with their scoring woes and a Metropolitan Division that's littered with competitive squads, and you get some reasons for concern.

Still, they haven't played at home and I'm willing to give this team a little more time.

Should-be-fine mode

Ok, so your team isn't playing as well as you thought it would, but there are logical reasons as to why that's happened and clear resolutions.

You're not feeling completely at ease, but you're not that worried about how things have gone. That's what it means to be in "should be fine" mode.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 5-6-4 (7th in Metropolitan Division)

Panic meter rating: 3/10

Injuries and illnesses have been the main reasons for Pittsburgh's turbulent start to the 2021-22 campaign.

The team's top players, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Kris Letang have combined for 24 missed games, and that doesn't even include Evgeni Malkin, who hasn't suited up at all as he rehabilitates from offseason knee surgery. Despite all of these absences, Pittsburgh has managed a decent 5-5-4 record.

With Crosby back and providing vigilante justice for himself, he appears to be OK (or at least better than how Martin Fehervary felt after that). His return is a huge lift for the squad at both ends of the ice, and should help stabilize the Pens.

One really positive development for the squad is how well Tristan Jarry has played. The netminder, who was exposed during the 2021 playoffs, owns a respectable .918 save percentage and a 1.0 goals-saved-above-expected mark, according to MoneyPuck.

Now at near-full health, the Penguins should be fine.

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 6-5-1 (6th in Central Division)

Panic meter rating: 1/10

We're still at a point where opposing teams should be more concerned about the Avalanche than Colorado's own fanbase, even though the team has stumbled out of the gate.

Like Pittsburgh, Colorado has dealt with a number of missed games from its best players. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar have missed a combined 11 games, which has prevented the team from fielding a complete lineup on most nights. MacKinnon is expected to miss another two-plus weeks with a lower-body injury while his stand-in, J.T. Compher, will be out for roughly a month with an upper-body injury.

What gives me little reason to be concerned about the Avs is their recent results. The squad has won four of its last six games, and goaltender Darcy Kuemper has been much better. The ex-Coyote has won three of his last four outings, and has posted a save percentage of .927 or better in each contest.

Once Colorado is fully healthy, it'll be wreaking havoc in the Central Division, and everybody knows it.

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