Which is the best team no one is talking about?
Greg Wyshynski: Before we begin, I must take this medication that combats my allergy to giving John Tortorella credit for anything. *Gulps* Ahhhh. OK, with that out of the way, let's give some love to the underappreciated Columbus Blue Jackets.
With their 4-3 shootout win at the Boston Bruins on Monday, the Jackets are now 8-4-0, tied with the New Jersey Devils for top of the Metro with 16 points, although they've played two more games. While we wait to see if the Devils are a burgeoning offensive juggernaut or an aberration, let's give credit to Columbus, which at the very least has more proof of concept with a 103-point 2016-17 season.
As usual, it starts with Bob. The Blue Jackets have a 2.50 goals-against average as a team, and Sergei Bobrovsky is 7-2 with .934 save percentage. He's the best goalie in the league until someone else wins the Vezina, and it's possible he might even improve upon on third-place finish for the Hart as MVP last season.
But here's where the Jackets are underappreciated: Remember last season, when they won 16 straight games and everyone pointed to their unsustainable power-play success as evidence that it was a fluke? Well, now they have 16 points in 12 games with an absolutely pathetic power play that's clicking at 8.6 percent, by far the worst in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Jackets are sixth in 5-on-5 goals with 28, after finishing sixth last season (168). They lead the NHL in expected goals scored at 5-on-5 (26.75) and are fourth in Corsi percentage (54.27). So when the power play trends up, watch out, as their underlying even strength numbers are solid.
So the Jackets are winning without every gear turning in the same direction. Tortorella is already Tortsing all over this team, demoting goals leader Sonny Milano to the fourth line during a drought and stripping Brandon Dubinsky of his alternate captaincy in an effort to get him going. Yes, this is a bit like giving a thoroughbred the whip after the first quarter turn, but this is what Tortorella does.
Perhaps no one's talking about them yet because they haven't actualized as a solid contender, thanks to that horrible power play, some middling starts for key players and the Lightning sucking all the air out of the Eastern Conference. But they're banking points now and will only get better, despite their coach. Oh no, the pills are wearing off!
Emily Kaplan: Maybe they've gotten lost in these fluky early weeks, maybe it's fatigue because this team is always a pest in the West, but man, the St. Louis Blues are sneaky-good. As if a 10-2-1 record and four-game winning streak aren't enough, the Blues' most recent win was a 4-2 thriller over the next-best team in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings, on Monday. St. Louis is the only undefeated team at home, and have the league's best winning percentage since their coaching change last season. Most impressive about this iteration of the Blues: They're the same team that has made the playoffs every season since 2011-12, but with an extra element of surprise. Yes, Vladimir Tarasenko is usually the biggest threat on the ice -- but now he has an equally dangerous sidekick in Jaden Schwartz. The 25-year-old Schwartz has actually been more productive, with 17 points in the first seven games (Tarasenko is doing just fine with 14 points). And yes, this is still a team anchored by stingy defense -- their 2.33 goals per game is third in the league -- but with newish coach Mike Yeo, they've also incorporated an up-tempo pace. Also: led by Alex Pietrangelo's 13 points, Blues' defensemen have been major contributors on offense. Remember, the Blues have suffered incredibly poor injury luck. Robby Fabbri is lost for the season with knee surgery, Alex Steen missed the first six games while Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester and Zach Sanford are still sidelined. And even still, everything has been falling the Blues' way. Even their emergency veteran signing, Scottie Upshall, has panned out, reigniting chemistry with four points in his last two games. As long as they're playing this well, it will be impossible not to overlook the Blues. They're not just sneaky-good, they're good.
Chris Peters: I think the feel-good Vegas Golden Knights and resurgent Kings have commanded a lot of the attention, and I wouldn't necessarily say that no one is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning. They're just not talking about the Lighting in a way that expresses the proper disbelief in how insane they've been to start the season. Maybe it's because most people expected them to bounce back from such a disappointing 2016-17 season, but the Lightning are way back.
Aside from a 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, they've been in every game they've played. In their other two losses, they still scored four goals. They're basically daring teams to outscore them and it's not happening very often. With an 8-5 win over the Florida Panthers Monday night, the Bolts extended their league leads in goals (53) and goal differential (plus-17).
Steven Stamkos has gone from one of the league's elite goal scorers to essentially a setup man this season, as he paces the league with 18 assists and 24 points. Nikita Kucherov is averaging a goal per game with 13 in 13. Throw in Brayden Point and Vladislav Namestnikov, and Tampa has four of the top 30 scorers in the NHL. Rookie Mikhail Sergachev is fifth in points among defensemen. It's cartoonish. I know, I know. It's also not sustainable. At least not at this rate, where they're scoring on more than 12 percent of their shots. But they have too much firepower on this roster to not continue scoring at a high rate, even if it's not quite at the level they're scoring now. It has been and will continue to be darn fun to watch. Tell your friends.