The last 18 months has been unusual to say the least. NHL hockey has been disrupted like everything else in our lives. We are in the midst of our first normal-feeling season since 2019 and that means we get to revive some traditions that normally happen about this time in the season. Us Americans still have Thanksgiving leftovers to work through and the Christmas shopping season has arrived with its usual retail bombast. Meanwhile the NHL standings and individual races are at a decisive, if not predictable checkpoint.
Yes, we could wait until the mid-season mark in a little over a month but here we are. There is this proverbial wisdom among NHL fans that the standings around American Thanksgiving give you a pretty good indicator of who will be in and out of the playoff picture when everything is said and done. Buffalo Sabres fans have a tortured relationship with this predictor. Who can forget the 2018-2019 season when a ten-game winning streak in November had the blue and gold atop the league as turkey day arrived? Who can forget that if the team had merely played at a .500 win-percentage quality from December onward it would have gotten them in? Who can forget the fall that followed?
The Sabres have been known for hot starts in recent years and for poor Post-Thanksgiving records for about a decade. That means that this turning point in the season is actually somewhat interesting for us. We all know the Stanley Cup isn’t normally won in November but if it was we’d have a whole different crop of names on it. Who would win the Thanksgiving Stanley Cup this year? I thought I’d start with the Sabres before looking at how the NHL is breaking down this season based on this weirdly predictive benchmark. It’s time for the not-too-early awards!
Let’s hand out the Thanksgiving Stanley Cup!
Starting with the Sabres
There are many unknowns for the Sabres up and down the roster this season after some major changes in the off season. This first award speaks to that volatile nature of things. The Thanksgiving Surprise Award will be renamed in this player’s honor going forward. He simply shocked everyone blowing up expectations for him going into this season and is now a force to be reckoned with down the center for the Sabres.
The Thanksgiving Surprise Award goes to: Tage Thompson! Moving Tage to center has unintentionally salvaged something positive from the Ryan O’Reilly trade. By salvage I mean find an absolute gem! Thompson is leading the team in goals and points at 10 and 15 through 21 games played. He’s an asset for whatever line he’s centering and with Casey Mittelstadt out that is often line number one! I guess we’ll have to see where this goes but its not-too-early and he looks fantastic!
This next award is specific to this Post-Thanksgiving award show: the Thomas Vanek Memorial Trade Bait award. This award goes to the player who is inflating their value to surely be traded. However, as the name might suggest, many Sabres fans wouldn’t mind the player not being traded and there’s a non-zero chance such a trade becomes a regret at some point. Nonetheless for a rebuilding team this is a crucial award as we look forward to the trade deadline in a few months.
The Thomas Vanek Memorial Trade Bait award goes to Victor Olofsson who just narrowly beats out Colin Miller, breathing down his neck. Olofsson is a fun winger who has scored five goals and thirteen points through thirteen games played. That’s a decent pace and that shot from the circle really looks good for scouts from other teams up in the press box Olofsson is no slouch, and he might fetch some decent assets if he keeps it up.
Finally we have the “Oh-No, our table: it’s broken!” Award. Previously known as the Cody Hodgson Memorial Award, I decided to rename this one for meme purposes. Unfortunately I think anyone whose been watching the Sabres this season has an inkling of who will be receiving this dubious honor. I want to provide a disclaimer first that many players receive this award and bounce back. In fact, the hope is that this player bounces back and is not in some kind of permanent funk.
The “Oh-No, our table: it’s broken!” Award goes to Rasmus Dahlin who has been confounding to say the least in his own end. There have been offensive flashes for our favorite Swede, and he does lead the team in assists, but when a supposedly generational defensive talent is struggling this much to defend it does not leave one feeling hunky dory. We’re only a third of the way through the season so there is plenty of time to figure it out, Rasmus!
Around the League
Zooming out now I thought I’d save the Thanksgiving Stanley Cup for last. If there is one team that is surprisingly bad to start the season it would be one of Montreal or the New York Islanders. The Isles are at the distant bottom of a division they could conceivably win, and the best excuse is that they are only now getting home games after their new stadium in Belmont was finished. Perhaps they’re also the team best prepared to rattle off a ten-plus game winning streak in the depths of winter and emerge in the Spring a true Cup contender. Who would be surprised? As much as Quebec fans might be shocked at the Habs situation, they may have been the weakest team to make the Cup Final since expansion and very few writers in the know expected them to be particularly good this season. Sorry not sorry, Marc Bergevin.
While the Isles take the Thanksgiving surprisingly disappointing team award I can already hear the comments positing the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes. On the latter I think we need to have a discussion about what the word “expectations” means. Have the Yotes had expectations going into a season… ever? Sorry, but just because they’re on pace to be historically bad doesn’t mean that’s necessarily a surprise. To the Canucks I have to say you will be recognized: in fact, you are going to receive the very next team award!
The BBA Award, Bad-By-Accident, goes to a team who occupies the worst space possible in the hierarchy of regular season team performances. This goes to a side that thought they would be good enough to at least compete for a playoff spot and is just not even close. This award goes to the Vancouver Canucks and personally, I don’t know if I have ever seen such a top-to-bottom mess of an organization outside of Buffalo in many years! You have a schism among player leadership AND ownership! You have a GM whose been a de-facto lame duck since Trudeau’s first term and a coach in Travis Green who has gone from up-and-comer to Captain of the Titanic in one year! All that’s missing is an ugly jersey controversy and this case of BBA would have it all!
Phew, I have to catch my breath after all that. How about we rattle off some individual awards. To begin with we have the “Can’t Stop-Won’t Stop” Award. This goes to an aged star who won’t stop putting up numbers and dunking on kids who were born while they were playing junior. This one has a clear winner this season and might be renamed in his honor: Alex Ovechkin.
With the Stanley Cup win now several years in the rear-view mirror it seems like the Washington Capitals’ reason for existence is to get Ovi to beat Wayne Gretzky’s total goals record. Frankly, I respect it. The last time we had that kind of organizational clarity from ownership here in Buffalo everything was terrible forever afterwards. The crazy thing is the Russian Machine can totally do it if he continues to score at this pace. Ovi will likely easily pass fifty goals this season in his 36th year of life. He’s got 3rd place for all-time goals, Jaromir Jagr in his sights this season, which sets up to get Gordie Howe’s mark the following season and then Gretzky by age 39. I think he does it.
Tied for Thanksgiving Comeback player we have two goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky and Tristan Jarry are both at a .936 save percentage after a horrific 2020-2021 season. In Bob’s case he hasn’t really been good since signing his current deal in Florida. This turn back toward quality goaltending is no small part of why the Panthers look like a real force so far this season. Alright, no more beating around the bush: let’s get to the title card.
Finally the Thanksgiving Stanley Cup needs to be awarded! First let’s just take stock of the teams currently occupying the top five spots in the league: Washington, Toronto, Carolina, Florida, and Edmonton. The Caps and Leafs both had somewhat rocky starts while all off Florida, Carolina and Edmonton have had some consistency from day one. Therefore I’m narrowing it down to these latter three. The Canes have been consistently good if not unbeatable for a few seasons now which just doesn’t give me Thanksgiving Stanley Cup vibes. This has to be something of an overzealous surprise team. Edmonton has the best player in the world and Leon Draisaitl, so they probably stick around in the upper echelon of the league.
That’s right: the Thanksgiving Stanley Cup goes to the Florida Panthers! You guys look like fire, but something just doesn’t compute with all this success, and it seems like regression might be coming for you. But if Lord Stanley was lifted in November you’d be winning your first! Congratulations and we all hope you don’t pull a Buffalo Sabres and begin a monumental collapse this Christmastime!