After missing the playoffs in 2016-17, the Tampa Bay Lightning are off to a strong early start to this season. With a record of 14-2-2 for 30 points, they began the week six points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.
Several factors account for this improvement.
They're much healthier than a year ago, when injuries decimated their ranks. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy finally looks comfortable as their full-time starting goaltender. Off-season additions Dan Girardi and Nikita Sergachev provide a good mix of grit and puck-moving skill to their defence corps.
The biggest reason, however, is their offence, led by forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Stamkos is the league leader in assists (23) and points (31) while Kucherov sits second with 30 points and leads all scorers with 16 goals. They're giving the Lightning a lethal one-two punch.
At their current rate of production, both are on pace for career years. Stamkos could achieve 100 points for the first time while Kucherov could reach the vaunted 50-goal plateau.
Not singing the Blues
The St. Louis Blues began this season with defenceman Jay Bouwmeester and forwards Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford sidelined.
Only Steen has returned to action, though Bouwmeester's return is imminent. Berglund and Sandford remain out indefinitely while knee surgery ended Fabbri's season.
Despite these absences, the Blues surged from the gate and sit atop the Western Conference with 27 points. Like the Lightning, the Blues possess a potent first line along with solid defence and goaltending.
Forwards Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko rank among the league's top scorers. Fredericton, New Brunswick's Jake Allen sits among the goaltending leaders in wins with nine.
The biggest factor behind the Blues' early success is defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. Considered among the league's elite blue-liners, the 27-year-old Pietrangelo is a force at both ends of the rink this season. He's the early favourite to win the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league's top defenceman.
Jets lifting off into playoff form
Since moving from Atlanta in 2011, the Winnipeg Jets garnered a reputation as underachievers. Their only playoff appearance was in 2015, when they were swept from the opening round by the Anaheim Ducks.
This season, however, could finally see them emerge as a serious playoff contender. With nine victories and 21 points in 16 games, the Jets began this week holding second place in the Central Division.
Led by first-line forwards Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, the Jets are 10th in scoring (averaging 3.25 goals per game) and possess the sixth-best power-play percentage (24.1).
The Jets can also think Connor Hellebuyck's goaltending. While they're giving up a high number of shots-against per game (33.8), the 24-year-old Hellebuyck's eight victories and .926 save percentage ranks among the league leaders.
For years, poor goaltending was the Jets' downfall. If Hellebuyck can hold the fort for the remainder of the season and his teammates improve their defensive game, they could join the playoff dance in 2018.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with The Hockey News and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian throughout the NHL hockey season.