Last season for this exercise I used scoring in the first 20 games of the season as a measuring stick. Specifically, I dug up the top-15 scorers in the first 20 games since the 2009-10 season. Well, since I did that a year ago, four players muscled themselves onto that top-15 list in the 2018-19 campaign. Mikko Rantanen's 32 points in the first 20 games ranks only behind Steven Stamkos (2017-18), Stamkos (2010-11) and Nikita Kucherov (2017-18) for fast starts in the past 10 years. But also making the top 15 from last season are Nathan MacKinnon (tied for 10th with 29 points), as well as Connor McDavid and Evgeni Malkin (tied for 14th with 28 points).
Those players having a blistering first 20 does nothing to change the hypothesis from last season. To have a truly elite start to a season, you have to be a superstar or superstar-adjacent.
There have been 254 players to score 20 points in the first 20 games of a season during the past 10 NHL campaigns. The vast majority are either a star themselves, or played next to one that particular season.
Who does this most consistently? The superstars, no question. During those 10 seasons, Steven Stamkos scored 20 or more points in the first 20 games on eight separate occasions. Patrick Kane did it seven times, Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin accomplished it six times, while John Tavares, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom did it five out of 10 times.
But the aberrations that accomplished it once are where we start to see the pattern of superstars by association on a line. Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov both had 20 points in the first 20 games of the Atlanta Thrashers 2009-10 season. How? By playing with Ilya Kovalchuk at his prime. Do you even remember Ryan Malone? He scored 21 points in the first 20 games of 2009-10 on a line with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos.
So if you want players who are coming out of the gate strong just look to the stars ... or for significantly less draft capital, who is orbiting them.
Stars by association
Nikita Gusev, W, New Jersey Devils: It will be hard for Gusev not to in a position to succeed this season as the Devils have enough offensive resources at the top to easily stack two scoring lines. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will handle center, while some combination of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Gusev, Jesper Bratt and Wayne Simmonds surround them. Gusev is coming off a campaign in the KHL in which he scored more assists than games played, totalling 17 goals and 65 helpers in 62 games. He'll be aligned with the stars for the Devils this season, one way or another.
Pavel Buchnevich, W, New York Rangers: This Russian winger has been hanging around on the fringes in the league for three seasons now, only occasionally flirting with fantasy relevance. But he's a scorer by trade who has suffered from the Rangers rebuilding around him. This season, the team has some renewed confidence after landing Artemi Panarin in free agency and Kaapo Kakko in the draft. Buchnevich is still only 24 years old and is an early favorite to be tabbed for top-line duty in the new deployment - however it shakes out. Playing with Mika Zibanejad and Panarin is a recipe for point-per-game production from anyone.
Anthony Cirelli, C, Tampa Bay Lightning: Some are speculating that Cirelli is a key target for fantasy if Brayden Point continues to hold out. I'm suggesting that Cirelli is a key target for fantasy either way. He's proven his chops as a two-way monster for the team and arguably offers more upside than Tyler Johnson down the middle. Combine that with the fact that Steven Stamkos is playing more wing than center these days, and you have a foreseeable lineup that includes Cirelli as the Bolts No. 2 pivot.
Roope Hintz, W, Dallas Stars: This 22-year-old moved well past any questions of his role on the NHL club last season by dominating the AHL, contributing when called upon for the Stars in the regular season, and then stepping into a prime scoring-line role in the playoffs. It looks like he'll have the chance to open the campaign with Tyler Seguin as his center, which is an ideal role for any winger to step up their game.
Micheal Ferland, W, Vancouver Canucks: Ferland had some explosive stretches last season whenever the Hurricanes called on him to play winger to the stars (Sebastien Aho and Teuvo Teravainen), so we know he has the ability to keep up with skilled linemates. Now in Vancouver, it looks as though Ferland could be the third man for the top line that features young stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Brendan Perlini, W, Chicago Blackhawks: The combination of Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome helped give the Blackhawks some hope in what was a disappointing season. DeBrincat had 41 goals, while Strome turned in 51 points in just 58 games after coming in via trade. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane finishing the campaign strong on a line together, it looks like DeBrincat and Strome will be back together on the second line. And who better to fill out the trio than Perlini? He has a scoring background at all levels, played with them a fair bit last season, and has been a teammate to Strome since they were drafted by the Coyotes in consecutive seasons and traded to the Hawks together.
Luke Kunin, C, Minnesota Wild: Kunin played in 49 games for the Wild last season, but very little of his time was in a scoring role. That should be different this season as the torch is formally passed to either himself or Joel Eriksson Ek to be the team's second-line center. Such a role would come with quality wingers (probably Zach Parise) and plenty of opportunity to earn fantasy relevance.
Hot starts that fizzle
To take a different approach to seeking hot or slow starters to the season, I decided to look at percentage of points through the first two months. Taking the top 100 players or so, I looked at how many games they played through the end of November and how many points they had, comparing those totals to their end-of-season stats.
What you get is some discrepancies at both ends of the spectrum, but there were fewer "slow starters" that picked things up later than there were "fast starters" who dropped in production.
Patrik Laine was the poster boy for the fast start and fade this past season. He scored 24 of his eventual 50 points in the first 24 games of the season. In other words, 48 percent of his points last year came in the first 29 percent of his games. Other players to have a 10 percent or more discrepancy in these two numbers include Thomas Chabot, Rantanen, Mikael Granlund, Alex Tuch, Backstrom, Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner, Yanni Gourde, Ryan Sutter, MacKinnon, Kyle Palmieri and Alexander Kerfoot.
I don't think appearing on this list dooms a player to a fast start, followed by a fade. Especially because, for many of the above players, there were circumstances that you can point to for the drop in production. For example, Palmieri faltered after Taylor Hall got hurt, while Tuch was replaced at the trade deadline by Mark Stone.
That said, if you're breaking a tie in your draft, why not take a Suter or a Backstrom with the idea that you ship them off after a couple of months. It would make sense for players over 30 to lose a step earlier in the season than those players still in their 20s.
As for the slow starts, I'm hesitant to draw any conclusion here. Steven Stamkos arguably had the slowest start among the players I pulled the stats for (top-100 scorers) with 22 percent of his points coming in the first 32 percent of his games. But he is the most proven hot starter during the past decade in the NHL (remember, eight of 10 seasons with more than 20 points in the first 20 games and he had the two best first-20 game seasons in that span).
Furthermore, lingering injuries went both ways. Patrice Bergeron and Sean Couturier came into last season while still rehabbing offseason injuries. While Couturier had a slow start with 24 percent of his points in the first 30 percent of his games, Bergeron was just fine (33 percent of his points in first 29 percent of games). That doesn't offer us much insight as to how a lingering ailment can slow a player down.