Real or fake? Breaking down NHL's early-season trends

Can Auston Matthews lead the NHL in scoring this season? Claus Andersen/Getty Images

As the 2018-19 NHL season rolls on, we're starting to see some trends get established. Some are familiar, like the Philadelphia Flyers getting atrocious goaltending. Some of them are new, like the Carolina Hurricanes leading their division and being the living embodiment of joy in the NHL.

Here's a look at some of the early-season trends in the NHL and whether they're real or fake.

Goal scoring will continue at a historic clip

Through 98 games, the average goals per game for teams is 3.11. Were the NHL season to continue on that course, it would be the highest-scoring season since 1995-96 (3.14), the last gasp of firewagon hockey before the neutral zone trap suffocated it with a pillow. We're in a four-year trend with an increase in goal scoring, and that trend will continue, so this gets a REAL. It just won't be at 3.11 goals per game. Scoring will remain high, but both coaches and goalies will adjust. And we're not just saying that because Matt Murray shut out the Maple Leafs on Thursday night, despite it being perhaps the greatest moment for my fantasy team in this nascent season.

Goalies will continue to complain about gear

The NHL's restrictions on chest protectors, which measure the same but have alterations around the arms, have been the talk of the goalie community early this season because they're leaving netminders bruised and battered. Sergei Bobrovsky said he's afraid of the puck because of them. Ben Bishop recently told me he's going to wear different gear in practice because "it hurts" to get hit with the puck with the new protectors on. But we're giving this one a FAKE, because if there's an eternal truth about goaltenders when their gear is altered, it's that gripes in October are rarely heard by March -- and that they can sometimes sneakily compensate for them.

Auston Matthews will lead the NHL in scoring

This depends on your definition of scoring. If we're talking goals, yeah, Matthews could very well win the Richard Trophy this season despite a push from David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Ovechkin and [double checks notes] Kyle Palmieri. In fact, there's a chance he could rise as high as 60 goals if he stays consistent after this start. But this gets a FAKE because he's not winning the Art Ross. No, sir. That belongs to Connor McDavid, as it will every season, barring injury. That's why Sidney Crosby said McDavid is the best player in hockey this week, although Mike Babcock says it's still Crosby. And McDavid said "there are so many good players out there, it could be anybody." The power to drag the Oilers to the playoffs is inside all of us, you guys!

Last year's surprises, New Jersey and Colorado, are playoff teams

The Devils and Avalanche shocked the NHL by reversing their fortunes and making the Stanley Cup Playoff last season as bubble teams. This season, the Devils are off to a 4-1-0 start, and the Avs, who defeated Jersey on Thursday night, are 4-1-2. They're both using the same formula again: dominating top lines and goaltending good enough to win. We'll give this one a REAL. These are two teams that really gained confidence and an identity last season, and it's clearly carried over. Barring some level of catastrophic injury to their key players, there's a chance both Cinderellas get back to the ball.

The Detroit Red Wings are the worst team in hockey

Oh, this gets a REAL. The Red Wings are 0-5-2 out of the gate, with a dismal minus-18 goal differential. The other candidates for worst team in the league have looked anything but, as the New York Rangers have been respectable (thanks in part to a resurgent Henrik Lundqvist), and the Vancouver Canucks are currently the No. 3 seed in the Pacific. Detroit, meanwhile, looks like it's going to cost Jeff Blashill his job by Thanksgiving. A bad hockey team with little reason to be good, lest they decrease their odds to draft Jack Hughes first overall next season.

Is John Gibson going to win the Vezina?

One of the hallmarks of "best goalie in the NHL" consideration is the play of that goalie within the context of the quality of his team. Dominik Hasek, for example, was an otherworldly talent, but the way he'd prop up average-at-best Buffalo teams not only won him the Vezina but also the Hart Trophy. We could be seeing the same sort of thing with Gibson, as the Anaheim Ducks are leading the Pacific thanks to his .964 even-strength save percentage. Even if they miss the cut, their success is so squarely on his shoulders. This gets a REAL, as it could be Gibson's turn to take the big prize.

The Vegas Golden Knights aren't a playoff team

On the one hand, Vegas is still a team that wins with an overpowering top line and game-saving goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury. On the other hand, Vegas is a team that isn't currently getting much secondary scoring, is missing their best defenseman due to a PED suspension and is missing their prized free-agent center for two months due to injury. But I'm giving this a FAKE. This feels like a team that can shift into a high gear when the band gets back together, as long as Fleury has the goods.

The Gritty phenomenon will grow forever larger

From appearances on late-night talk shows to promoting NBA basketball to becoming the de facto mascot for Antifa (an actual thing that's happened), the ubiquitous Philadelphia Flyers mascot continues to plot world domination. This is REAL. The realist real. Please note that we still have Gritty at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (one assumes) and Gritty at the NHL All-Star Game and Gritty at the Stadium Series game between the Flyers and Penguins. We imagine the party ends sometime in the postseason, when a malfunctioning T-shirt cannon accidentally takes out Claude Giroux during a breakaway in a Game 7. But until then, it's Gritty's world.

Jersey Fouls

From Woj. No, not that Woj.

Two reactions here. The first is that it's a total, complete Foul to put the name of a player on a jersey that he never wore (although there can be caveats for retired numbers). Pavel Buchnevich was 12 years old when the Rangers stopped wearing these alternate sweaters. The second reaction is ... by the Hockey Gods, were these ever beautiful and we won't rest until Adidas revives them. Meanwhile, in Vegas:

For those who aren't aware, the third sequel to "National Lampoon's Vacation" was 1997's "Vegas Vacation," which is a rather terrible film with at least a half dozen absolutely genius comedic moments, like when they go to the budget casino and play "What number am I thinking of?" One of those moments is when young Rusty Griswold gets a fake ID and enters the casino as "Nick Papagiorgio from Yuma." So we'll assume this is the world's biggest Marc-Andre Fleury and inferior sequels to comedy classics fan in Vegas. (Although, in fairness, we'll take "Vegas Vacation" over the Ed Helms-as-adult-Rusty sequel "Vacation.")

NHL vs. Fortnite, Vol. 3,121

As we've chronicled in this space previously, there's a strange thing in the NHL, where a team-building, stress-reducing video game is seen as the devil's tool or, even worse, a reason for rookies not to empty bottles of wine with veterans on the road.

But what's becoming hilarious about this pearl-clutching over Fortnite is how many elite players seem to function fine despite playing it. Patrik Laine would be the most prominent example of this, as a daily (sometimes hourly) gamer who is among the NHL's top goal-scorers. But add another name to the list: Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

"Me and [Matt] Nieto play a lot. He's fun to play with," MacKinnon told ESPN this week.

So where do you and the squad drop?

"We'll drop anywhere hot. We're not trying to chop wood for 30 minutes and then come in second. We're trying to get some kills early," he said. "I get greasy sometimes, for sure."

I asked him about the demonization of Fortnite by some veteran players, and MacKinnon scoffed at it.

"It's fun. People make of it, or whatever, but it's fun to play with your teammates, and it's fun watching them when you die, making fun of them. It's great. A great way to spend time with your friends," said the 2018 Hart Trophy runner-up.

"People just fish for things that don't matter. It's not going to help or hurt you if you play Fortnite. It's ridiculous people think it does."

Listen to ESPN ON ICE

Pretty amazing interview with Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who discusses his difficult relationship with his father and the future of the team (as well as a little CBA negotiation talk). Sara Civian of The Athletic, meanwhile, talks about the challenges of hopping on the Carolina Hurricanes beat during camp and that team's early-season fireworks. Plus, suspension debates, Puck Headlines and more! Stream it here and grab it on iTunes here.

One last note on nastiness

I've already spent too much time on various platforms discussing the Mike Matheson hit that concussed Elias Pettersson and the Charlie McAvoy hit that sent Johnny Gaudreau off the ice via the concussion spotters. But three more things about this week's nastiness:

  1. I sympathize with those who are concerned about the future of physical play in the NHL. I want checking in my game. A thunderous hit can light up a crowd as much as a brilliant goal. It's why I watch. But using either of these plays -- Matheson's petulant tossing of Pettersson to the ice or McAvoy hitting Gaudreau well after the puck was gone -- as an invocation against the NHL's supposed crackdown on physical play is asinine. These plays are illegal. In Matheson's case, based on degree of violence, illegal to the point of a potential game misconduct. We're not quite at the point of the NFL penalizing anyone who looks at a quarterback the wrong way. These are penalties in 2018 as they were in 2008. (But not in 1998, because they would have probably just been categorized as "great positional defense.")

  2. Why is it suddenly a surprise that the NHL treats concussions differently when it comes to supplemental discipline? Rule 48, banning checks to the head from a lateral or blind-side position, was enacted eight years ago. At the time, NHL senior VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell said: "We can't forget the big picture, and the big picture is to save careers and reduce this type of concussion. Fifty percent of our concussions came from the blind side." It was literally a rule they invented to punish players because their actions could cause concussions. And now we're stunned that Matheson might have gotten extra scrutiny for giving Pettersson a concussion?

  3. Finally, if you're a fan who wished death on Mike Matheson or his dog because of what he did in a hockey game, you're (a) giving this person you so despise an instant way to turn sympathy in his favor, and you're (b) the scum of the earth not befit to share the same fandom as the rest of us.

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