Panthers, Sabres, Wild, Oilers off to 3-0 starts: Who is for real?



We are now one week into the 2021-22 NHL season and a couple of teams are already off to impressive 3-0 starts, including the Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, and, quite shockingly, the Buffalo Sabres.

Let’s take a quick look at each start and see which one is a sign of things to come (Florida) and which one might be a mirage (sorry Buffalo).

The Panthers are legit contenders

This is probably the first time the Panthers have ever entered a season with the realistic goal of a Stanley Cup. They were one of the best teams in the league a year ago and added Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton to that roster in the offseason. They are not only 3-0 to open the season thanks to Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have been mostly dominant and controlled play against three excellent teams.

They opened their season with an impressive come-from-behind win against Pittsburgh.

Dominated the New York Islanders.

Then shut down the back-to-back champion Lightning.

They have controlled play at 5-on-5, have a wildly aggressive forecheck, are fast, have a couple of stars at the top of the lineup including a bonafide MVP candidate in Aleksander Barkov, and they also have a young star goalie waiting in the wings. They should be here to stay.

Are they for real: Very much so. They have the talent, the right playing style, and a lot of players in their prime years.

The Wild are living on the edge

The Wild were one of the the most exciting — and surprising — teams in the league a year ago and set a pretty high bar for themselves this season.

While their long-term outlook is complicated given the salary cap situation, this is still a pretty good hockey team. They have lived on the edge a bit so far this season, winning three one-goal games against Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Winnipeg.

They beat the Ducks in the season opener when Marcus Foligno scored the game-winning goal with eight seconds to play, held off the Kings in game two, and then completed a, *ahem*, wild third period comeback on Tuesday night against Winnipeg that saw them score two goals in the final five minutes of regulation.

Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have both been great, the goaltending has been solid, Joel Eriksson Ek kicked off the first season of his new long-term contract with a hat trick on Tuesday night.

Are they for real: Are they a contender on the same level as a Colorado, Vegas, or Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But they should be a playoff team.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Early season reactions (and overreactions)]

The Connor McDavidLeon Draisaitl Death Star is heating up

There were a lot of reasons to doubt the Oilers entering this season. The defense is not great on paper. The goaltending is a huge question mark. We are still not sure what their forward depth is going to look like and if it is good enough.

But they also play in a lousy division and have two of the four best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And wow are they dominating so far.

They each have eight points through the first three games of the season, while they have been on the ice together 10 of the Oilers’ 15 goals as of Wednesday.

In other words: It is the same story as it has always been.

[Related: Puljujärvi showing he belongs after rocky start to NHL career]

Just to get a sense of how dependent the Oilers have been on McDavid and Draisaitl the past five years, here is a quick look at their goals for percentage and shot attempt differential when neither player is on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

2015-16: GF%: 42.5 percent; CF%: 48.0 percent
2016-17: GF%: 50.3 percent; CF%: 48.5 percent
2017-18: GF%: 41.2 percent: CF%: 49.3 percent
2018-19: GF%: 41.2 percent: CF%: 47.5 percent
2019-20: GF%: 37.6 percent: CF%: 47.2 percent
2020-21: GF%: 35.8 percent: CF%: 44.1 percent
2021-22: GF%: 40.0 percent: CF%: 46.6 percent (only three games)

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

If you look at the percentages from 2016-17 onward, the supporting cast has progressively gotten worse across the board. That can not continue, and that will ultimately determine whether or not this team is for real.

Are they for real: Given the overall state of the roster they will go as far as McDavid and Draisaitl can drag them. They might be able to drag them pretty far because they are that good. But it takes more than two megastars to win a championship. They are a playoff team in this division, but probably not a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Not again Buffalo!

The Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs 10 years in a row and are almost certainly staring at an 11th consecutive season outside of the playoffs. The roster without Jack Eichel is probably the worst in the league on paper, and not much better even with Eichel.

So of course they start the season with three consecutive wins and outscore their opponents by a 12-4 margin.

Very encouraging!

Until you realize the Sabres have done this before over the past decade, storming out of the gate with a fast start (remember the 2018-19 season when they were 17-6-2 after 25 games in early November?) before having reality set in.

There is also the fact their first three opponents have been Arizona, Montreal, and Vancouver — two likely lottery teams and a total wild card team that is badly flawed.

Are they for real: Fun start to the season. Enjoyable for Sabres fans looking for some excitement from a consistently bad team. But they are not going to play Arizona, Montreal, and Vancouver every night.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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