HARD HITS: Hot starts by late signings prove one thing


For the whole summer, Mikko Rantanen couldn’t reach agreement with the Avalanche on a new contract. Like many pricey Group II free agents, the high scoring right wing remained unsigned.

It didn’t matter. He waited until September 28 to sign a brand new six-year contract worth $55.5 million that pays him an average cap hit of $9.25 million through 2023-24. Basically, he missed all of training camp including preseason like Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner, who hasn’t missed a beat. Over their first four games, both Rantanen and Marner each have six points. They’re gonna have big seasons due to their talent. Plus who they play with.

Rantanen with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog while Marner gets to work with John Tavares and Kasperi Kapanen. Each also can take advantage of even more world class players on the power play.

How many players who missed all of preseason have struggled? Brayden Point’s return saw him net two goals and a helper in the Bolts’ 7-3 statement win at Toronto. Patrik Laine is off to a great start with Winnipeg. His 10 points (3-7-10) are tied for third in scoring behind Oilers dynamic duo Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Matthew Tkachuk has six points for the Flames, who lost in ugly fashion to the Golden Knights on Saturday night. The point is these players keep themselves in great shape. So, once they sign, they’re ready from the get go. It kind of defeats the purpose of a long preseason where you have teams playing six to seven games. It’s pointless.

Speaking of which, can anyone from the league office explain the early schedule for the Rangers? They played two games in three nights last week and then had a whole week between the second and third game that was played yesterday in a ho hum atmosphere at MSG. A sleep inducing 4-1 defeat to the suddenly improved Oilers. At least Kaapo Kakko scored! <Inserts a million and one Gifs on Twitter with every NYR fan losing their minds!!!!!>

That guy would be proud. That’s how fans act these days. It was nice to see Kakko score, but as the mature 18-year old second pick said, it wasn’t enough.

So after completing Game 3 of 82, the Blueshirts get another four days off before facing the depressing Devils on Thursday night in Newark. Billed as the first showdown between Kakko and top pick Jack Hughes, it might wind up being something entirely different if the Devils lose another game on Monday to the Panthers. They are 0 for 5 so far and even get shutout 3-0 to the Bruins in a game they didn’t play badly in. However, the inconsistency, perplexing efforts and puzzling lineup decisions from John Hynes can’t be sitting well with management following a good offseason.

I sarcastically joked to Devils buddy Robert Kraze Davis that if they finally pull the plug on General Hynes, they should hire Scott Stevens. He’s doing studio work on NHL Network. Would the Hall of Fame defenseman, who captained the Devils to all three of their Stanley Cups consider it? He’s worked as an assistant teaching defense. There’s no way he’s enjoying breaking down some of these high scoring games where defense is optional. Imagine the respect coach Scott Stevens would command if he took over behind the Devil bench. That would be a culture shock.

I don’t understand the point of having the Flyers and Blackhawks play one game overseas. It takes too long for teams to fully recover. Though the Alain Vigneault Flyers took advantage of the dreadful Devils by blanking them for Carter Hart’s first NHL shutout. They lost in a shootout on Saturday. They’re 2-0-1 while the Blackhawks are 0-2-1 after blowing one to Winnipeg at home. At least they have a valid reason for playing just three times.

So, who’s ready for that 2020 Stanley Cup between the Oilers and Sabres? Sometimes, astute coaching hires can really change an organization’s mindset. The irony is Ralph Krueger once coached Edmonton. Now, he was lured out of soccer to return to an NHL bench in Buffalo. They’re 4-0-1 thus far.

It isn’t surprising that the Hurricanes won their first five games. Of course, they came back in three with a 4-3 overtime win over Tampa highlighting how dominant they can be. They outshot the Lightning 28-2 from the second period on. Carolina also came from two goals down to beat the Capitals in OT. Talk about Deja Vu. The only surprise is their first loss came at home to a bad Columbus yesterday by a score of 3-2. Both were in the second of back-to-backs.

Biggest surprise so far is the Stars off to a disappointing 1-4-1 start. They’re not scoring much and Ben Bishop hasn’t gotten untracked. They started slowly out of the gate last year too.

Biggest surprise II are the Ducks winning four of their first five by outscoring opponents 11-6. So, Anaheim doesn’t score much. However, having John Gibson definitely helps. Ryan Miller is a solid backup too. Is such a stingy style sustainable?

There are three winless teams remaining. They are the Wild (0-4-0), the Devils (0-3-2), and the Blackhawks (0-2-1). Minnesota looks like they could be in for a long year.

Then you have the defenseless Sharks, who look like they forgot how to play defense. And you wonder why Martin Jones struggles to stop pucks. Try watching Erik Karlsson defend. Brent Burns isn’t known for his defense either, but he’s healthier than a beaten up Karlsson. At least Mr. Shark, Patrick Marleau returned in style by scoring twice to highlight their first win that came in Chicago. Pretty cool.

There have already been two four goal games. James Neal did it to the Islanders to match his ’18-19 total of seven with Calgary. Anthony Mantha also went for four in a Red Wings win. He has six so far in their first five games. Is this finally the year Mantha hits 30 and erupts for career highs across the board? He, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi have excellent chemistry since being put together last season.

With both Hughes and Kakko off to slow starts, perhaps they’ll get some competition for the Calder from Victor Olofsson, Cody Glass, Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.

Even though they’re not that good, Ilya Kovalchuk is back to scoring and setting up goals for the Kings. Maybe having an offensive minded coach in Todd McLellan has helped rejuvenate the Russian veteran. If only Jonathan Quick could still stop the puck. It’s hard to believe those Cups weren’t that long ago. They might have to seriously consider giving the net to Jack Campbell.

Matt Duchene has been a terrific fit in Nashville. He’s setting up lots of goals and making a huge difference for Peter Laviolette’s club. They shouldn’t be counted out in the West. Especially with that improved center depth to go with a good defense. It all depends on Pekka Rinne.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for John Tortorella, who’s seen some strange goals go in past Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. You can’t substitute for good goaltending. Not that Sergei Bobrovsky is doing well in Florida. One win with a 3.86 GAA and .882 save percentage under Joel Quenneville isn’t the start he had in mind. That defense will need to adjust to his system.

I still don’t know why Robin Lehner isn’t an Islander while Semyon Varlamov is. He’s also wearing the same number 40. Yikes.

I like what Barry Trotz is trying to do with rookie Noah Dobson. He’s not gonna play every night, but the veteran coach is giving the 2018 first round pick good ice time.

I don’t understand why Lias Andersson gets so little time under David Quinn. It was the 2017 first round pick, who outplayed Brett Howden and Filip Chytil during training camp. Why is he centering the fourth line while playing seven to eight minutes? To quote an old failed Rangers slogan, Hockey’s Different Here! 😬😨

If you give Nikita Gusev a contract that basically states that you believe he’s in your top six, what the heck is he doing on your fourth line? And why is Brett Seney playing over Jesper Boqvist? Travis Zajac cannot play a second line role at this stage. I understand why they have Hughes centering the third line. But the combos on lines 2-4 make no sense. No wonder Devils blogger Hasan is in midseason form.

PK Subban might want to do less commercials with Lindsey Vonn and focus more on the hockey part.

What Sam Reinhardt’s highlight goal doesn’t show is Subban caught dancing inside the Buffalo blueline when his team trailed 6-2. That kind of sloppy play isn’t what he was brought in for.

Evgeni Malkin out week to week already in injury riddled Pittsburgh due to an incidental trip from teammate Kris Letang on a line change. You cannot make it up.

Who’s a better story? Zack Kassian or Marleau.

Best Defense? Carolina, St. Louis or Dallas even though they’re not playing like it.

Kevin Shattenkirk has three goals and an assist so far in Tampa. He’s a good guy, who had bad luck here. That’s a much better situation. Plus he gets to skate with Victor Hedman, which is like hitting the jackpot.

It’s hard to believe they lost to Ottawa. Vladislav Namestnikov was why as he scored twice and had an assist. Good for him.

Keep an eye on rookie Ilya Samsonov. He got his second win for Washington.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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