Many hockey insiders believe American Thanksgiving to be the time of year where NHL General Managers sit down, take a hard look at their rosters, and evaluate where they are and where their season could be headed. Most teams have played roughly 20 games by this point, so by this time many GMs have developed a solid understanding of what is working for their club, and what needs attention. While the vast majority of GMs won’t exactly be hitting the panic button just yet, we have started to see a few moves being made by General managers whose clubs haven’t quite met expectations to date. While some teams have decided they are unhappy with their on-ice personnel (Pearson for Hagelin, Strome for Spooner), others have opted for a coaching change to shake up their locker room (Joel Quenneville in Chicago, John Stevens in Los Angeles, Mike Yeo in St. Louis, and most recently Todd McLellan in Edmonton).
It can be difficult to find something to be thankful for in the midst of all this doom and despair, and yet, here we are. While there are a handful of teams that are thrilled with their first quarter of the season, there are many more that may find it difficult to come up with something to share when going around the family table this year. With that in mind, let’s have a look at what each NHL team is (or at least should be) thankful for, as we pass the quarter pole of the season.
San Jose: While I must preface this one with a heart-felt apology to Sens fans everywhere, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how thankful the Sharks continue to be as the winners of the EK65 sweepstakes. Although the former Norris Trophy winner has had a slow start to the season offensively, the Sharks can rest easy knowing that they acquired a superstar defenseman for what many consider to be pennies on the dollar (or, you know… something that still exists in Canada). Karlsson’s sluggish start (22 GP - 1 G - 11 A) could be attributed to acclimating himself to a new team, system and city, but some have started to speculate if his injury history has begun to take its toll. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume it's the former, and that the Sharks will continue to count their blessings right on into the post-season.
Calgary: Through the first quarter of the season, the Flames are undoubtedly thankful for the man who was unanimously projected as their backup goaltender entering the season, David Rittich. After appearing in just 21 games last season, Rittich has already been between the pipes 10 times this season, splitting time with previously projected number one, Mike Smith. To quote the great philosopher Shaquille O’Neil, Smith has been ‘horawful’ to this point (3.48 GAA, .876 SV%), opening the door for Rittich to steal the crease. Through his first 10 games, Rittich has been a pleasant surprise, posting a 1.93 GAA and a .931 Save Percentage. Although things might not be unfolding exactly as planned thus far, the Flames are definitely thankful they have at least one goaltender rolling this Thanksgiving.
Vancouver: Although the Canucks are currently floating just below .500, there is still one reason for GM Jim Benning to be thankful this year, and his name is Elias Petterson. While many are still debating how to pronouce this kid’s name, what isn’t up for debate is his outrageous skillset. Taken 5th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, Petterson’s start to his NHL career has many wondering what the heck those other four teams were thinking (17 GP - 12 G - 7 A). Although it may take more than a few extra helpings of turkey to put some meat on this kid’s bones (currently generously listed at 176 lbs), his speed and ability to freeze opposition players with his elusive maneuvering make him exceptionally challenging to check. All Thanksgiving puns aside, the hit delivered by Matheson and subsequent injury exposed what appears to be Pettersson’s biggest flaw: his size. While he will naturally fill out as he matures in the league, for now, the Canucks may want to think about adding some more sandpaper to their lineup as a deterrent.
Edmonton: Sitting at just .500 through 21 games this season (10-10-1), the Oilers are once again struggling to meet expectations. Despite having elite level talent in players like McDavid and Draisaitl, Todd McLellan couldn’t seem to find sustained success while in Edmonton. In what many consider to be Peter Chiarelli’s finally bullet before getting the axe himself, the Oilers GM has decided to replace McLellan with the third winningest coach in NHL history, Ken Hitchcock (824). This move not only represents a significant reason for Oilers management to give thanks, but also the fanbase. While Chiarelli should be counting his blessings that McLellan took the fall this time around, Oilers fans can rest assured that if the Hitch experiment fails, Chiarelli will be next out the door.
Anaheim: Currently sitting at 8-9-5 through 22 games, there doesn’t appear to be much for the Ducks to share at the family table this year. If they were forced to give thanks for one aspect of their season, it would likely be the fact that despite their mediocre record, they are still only 3 points out of a Wild Card spot, 4 points back of the division lead, and only 1 point back (with a game in hand) of Vancouver for 3rd in the division. The fact that they remain within shouting distance of a playoff spot despite injuries to Gibson, Fowler, Lindholm and Perry (among others) is definitely a positive, but with their core players getting up there in age, it is unlikely these injury woes disappear anytime soon.
Arizona: When looking at the Yotes’ record to start the season, there is only one positive number that sticks out: the big, beautiful 19 sitting in the Games Played column. Despite only playing .500 hockey to this point (9-9-1), the fact that Arizona has only played 19 games this season means they currently have 2 games in hand on Dallas (final Wild Card spot), and a whopping 4 in hand on Vancouver. The Canucks currently hold a 3 point lead over Arizona, but even a .500 effort from the Coyotes in these games will erase the slim Van City lead. I suppose celebrating the fact that your team hasn’t played games isn’t the most positive thing for a fanbase, but at least they have those beautiful retro jerseys to keep them warm…. in the desert…
Vegas: Just 5 months removed from reaching the Stanley Cup final (and making history in the process), the Golden Knights might find it difficult to find something to be thankful for this season. Their historic inaugural campaign has been followed by a major Stanley Cup hangover, made all the more painful by the fact that the Knights didn’t even get to drink from the Cup (or kegstand for that matter…). While their sluggish start to the season has been tough to swallow, Vegas should still be giving thanks for the many MANY draft picks they have had through their first two NHL Drafts. In the span of two drafts, the Knights have selected 20 players, 6 of whom have been taken in the first 2 rounds. This stockpiling of prospects will benefit the Knights in the longer-term, a direction many fans are already looking toward as this season continues to slip away amidst a major sophomore slump.
Los Angeles: In the midst of what many consider to be a ‘re-tool’, the Kings have stumbled out of the gate, winning just 7 of their first 20 games. Injuries to both Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell have left the Kings playing 3rd and 4th string goaltenders, landing them in dead last overall. With an aging core and many players who do not fit the mold of the new, much faster NHL, the Kings are another team that has to dig deep to be thankful. One piece of recent news that the Kings can cling to, is the return of prospect Gabriel Vilardi. The Kings’ first round selection in 2017 (11th overall) appears set to return from a long, and grueling rehab following a back injury sustained in September of 2017. While no one truly knows how this injury will effect Vilardi, there is still reason for hope. The NHL Network had him ranked 14th amongst NHL prospects as recently as this August, which is excellent news for a team starving for younger, faster talent.