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Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.
This week we look at players and teams rebounding, Quinn Hughes being a ray of light for Vancouver and the Nashville defenseman factory and much more.
Tage Thompson is the NHL’s newest star
Tage Thompson broke out with 38 goals last season, then signed a massive seven-year, $50-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Most people are well aware of who he is at this point. Before going pointless in the second game of a back-to-back, Thompson was on a run of 12 games where he put up 12 goals and 23 points. He had 72 shots in those 12 games. These are video game numbers. He’s had a number of highlight reel goals and assists over that stretch, combining his soft hands with his big frame to simply make plays that defenders can’t defend. He’s 6-foot-6; if he holds the puck out wide and he’s half a foot taller than you, what are you going to do? The answer is, very little. But one of the goals that oddly stuck out to me was one that was not really a highlight, on his side of things anyways, at all.
First off, the famed Jeff Skinner mohawk is full value. But that goal from Thompson was… so easy. Just a simple catch and shoot. It took him almost no effort, like super-prospect Connor Bedard playing in the WHL this season. Before his breakout last year, he had 18 career goals in 145 NHL games. Now he is getting the puck and borderline flicking it past goalies cleanly. You can tell when the game slows down for certain players. And by slow down we mean they can see everything happening, there is no rush to their play, and because of that, the decision making improves. We often hear it takes bigger players extra time to grow into their bodies before they can figure out the league. Thompson at 25 years-old appears to have done that now.
The Predators keep churning out defensive prospects
Nashville has been known as a defenseman factory over the years. From Ryan Suter to Shea Weber, from Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, followed by Roman Josi going turning into a top-three blueliner in the league. Alexandre Carrier won’t be nearly as good as any of those stars, but they’ve developed a nice little player in the 26-year-old. He is fourth among Nashville defensemen in time on ice per game despite being pointless through 18 games. He’s on a defensive pairing with Mattias Ekholm and they are controlling over 56 percent of shot attempts, and are at almost 70 percent in expected goals! A large part of that is Ekholm, to be sure, as he’s still a force out there. But Carrier plays his part. You won’t find his game making the highlight reels. He’s just 5-foot-11 and hasn’t produced following a career-high 30-point season last year. It looked like a breakout season of sorts, producing at a good clip while playing well defensively. He and Ekholm outscored opponents by 15 goals last season at 5v5. The production hasn’t followed but he’s taken care of business on the ice when it comes to driving play. For a fourth round pick in 2015 to emerge as a fringe top-four defenseman is a tidy piece of development from the Predators organization. Not every pick is a home run, but Nashville made solid contact on this one.
The Jets are back on track
One of the early surprises of the season? The Winnipeg Jets. They are sitting third in their division with a positive goal differential. They are strong at home, as usual. As with any Rick Bowness team, they just lock it down defensively. They are fifth in goals against per game and have the fifth-best penalty kill in the NHL. They are 25th in goals for per game. Last season, they were 16th in goals per game and 20th in goals against per game, with Connor Hellebuyck in net playing 66 games. I liked Bowness’ answer after a 6-1 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday:
“We don’t flush it. Not a chance. Not letting that go. I think one of the concerns is the lack of discipline. That really bothered me tonight. Penalties at the wrong time. Turnovers at the wrong time. Yapping at the refs. Those things lead into other issues.”
This has been a team that has gone off the rails off the ice a few times. You can’t allow issues to linger or bad habits to form. There are some underlying issues that will need to be ironed out for them to sustain this start. They are below water in a number of underlying stats (expected goals, scoring chances, just a hair over in Corsi For). No Nikolaj Ehlers is crushing – one of their best players. If they can survive his absence though, they could end up being a fun story in a bounce-back season.
Can’t get a feel for St. Louis
The strangest season so far has to belong to the St. Louis Blues. They started the season with a three game winning streak, then followed that up with an eight game losing streak. You could already start to see the vultures circling above. Ryan O’Reilly is a pending unrestricted free agent. Vladimir Tarasenko, too. To say nothing of productive depth players like Ivan Barbashev and Noel Acciari. Rival fans salivated at the thought of adding a Stanley Cup winner to their team to push them over the edge. But not so fast.
The Blues responded with a seven game winning streak and are right back in it. The winning streak was just snapped by the Buffalo Sabres. What will happen next? Another losing streak? Some form of reality. This is a good, veteran team. It made no sense for them to fall off of a cliff. Last postseason, they gave the eventual champs arguably their toughest playoff series. Their forward group is deep. They have a good defense and a solid goalie. It’s not a perfect team by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s more complete than many. There are some concerning things they will need to sort out – they are at the bottom of the league in shot attempts and scoring chance percentage at 5v5. They are closer to the middle of the pack in expected goals. Their penalty kill is the third-worst in the league so far – not even killing 70 percent of opponents’ power plays. Their power play is 10th in the league. The roster says they should be better pretty much across the board. The results have been a mixed bag. What’s next for St. Louis?
Another strange start this season belongs to Timo Meier. He didn’t score a goal until his 10th game. In those goal-less nine games, he launched 43 shots on net. It’s not like he wasn’t getting chances; they simply weren’t going in. But the law of averages is real and if you look at Meier’s totals now, you’d never have guessed he started the season that snakebitten. He has scored 12 goals in 13 games since, giving him 12 in 22 total. He’s now, funny enough, on pace for a career high in goals. That would be great timing as his contract is set to expire at the end of the season (he will be a restricted free agent). Last season, Meier put up a career-high 35 goals and 76 points. He has found a spark playing with Tomas Hertl, and if San Jose wasn’t in the middle of a rebuild, a lot more people would be talking about how good those two are together. Since the start of last season, the Sharks have a -63 goal differential. In that same time, Hertl and Meier have played just under 900 minutes together at 5v5 and have outscored opponents by 20. That is absurd when you really think about it.
Kraken’s offense finally buzzing
One of the quieter trades in the offseason was the Seattle Kraken snagging Oliver Bjorkstrand from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a cap dump. He is a quality player that not only produces, but drives play as well. He’s doing exactly that on a Kraken team that’s off to a solid start. He has primarily played on a line with Alex Wennberg and Alex Burakovsky, they are on the plus side of controlling shot attempts and scoring chances at 5v5 (though slightly below average in expected goals), outscoring opponents by two goals in about 120 minutes together. Last season, Bjorkstrand had a career-high 28 goals, nine of which came on the power play. He has a sneaky good shot (one of the more underrated snappers in the league, by my estimation). The 28 goals came with Columbus where he was a staple on the top power play unit – this season he is on the second unit with the Kraken, a difference of almost 30 seconds per game. It doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up. The Kraken power play is 11th right now, so it’s not exactly struggling out there. He won’t match that production unless he gets a steady run on the top unit. But he’s playing a top-nine role on a team sitting in a playoff spot. Jaden Schwartz and Yanni Gourde are playing this season after limited action last season. Andre Burakovsky is showing he can score in a primary role. Matty Beniers is having a strong rookie season, as expected. Justin Schultz has been a productive add. Suddenly, the Kraken have built some depth and can roll out lines with the best of them.
One step forward, two steps back in Anaheim
The early part of the season is always filled with silly stats. Among the silliest so far, though, is the Anaheim Ducks winning their first game in regulation in the 20th game of the season. After beating the Kraken in overtime in their season opener, the Ducks promptly went on a seven game losing streak. They have had multiple three game losing streaks already, too. Their record overall is 6-13-1. Their -31 goal differential is the worst in the league (Columbus is second at -25). The team is giving up 4.15 goals against per game, which is the second-worst mark in the league. They are, somewhat surprisingly, also scoring only 2.55 goals per game, which is fourth-worst.
There are a lot of issues and we can’t possibly sort them all out in one paragraph here. It’s all the more disappointing considering there was some mild excitement building in Anaheim following an offseason where they actually did throw some money around in to fast-track their rebuild. Ryan Strome was given a five-year, $25-million contract. Frank Vatrano got a three-year, $10.95-million contract. John Klingberg was signed to a one-year deal. Last season, they bottomed out in the second half, but they were right in the playoff mix for the first half led by Troy Terry going off. Trevor Zegras is a highlight reel.
But who have they added to handle tough matchups? To go against the other team’s best players and either go head-to-head and simply do well, or at least to be a shutdown line and set the table for their top players to just focus on scoring? Right now it’s being tasked to Dmitry Kulikov and Klingberg on defense, who have primarily paired up with a forward line of Vatrano – Strome – Terry. An awkward fit at best. It’s one thing to have a developing star have growing pains in tough matchups, but it’s another to shoehorn in three UFA signings, a cap dump, and one of your star wingers to do it.
Quinn Hughes is a passing magician
Another entertaining stat that leapt off the page to me was Quinn Hughes starting his season with 18 points in 16 games… and having zero goals along the way. Morgan Rielly is off to a similar start with 16 points – all assists – in 20 games. It’s not like Hughes isn’t shooting, either. He’s launching 1.94 shots on net per game so far, which is slightly above his career average of 1.86. Some level of goalscoring will come. He’s never been a goalscorer though; his career high in goals is eight, which he’s done twice. It doesn’t matter though, as his speed is his biggest weapon and he consistently produces. A lot of things have gone wrong for the Canucks so far this season, but one bright spot at the team level is their fifth-ranked power play. Nobody plays more on it than Hughes, who is averaging 4:18 on the power play per game. That puts him at 20th in the league. His skating is such a weapon, it can suck in and mesmerize defenders. You have to respect it. And there’s just so much subtlety to his game. You watch this goal the first time and wonder how J.T. Miller can be so wide open.
He doesn’t even shoulder check to see where Miller is, he just knows. There are three other players near him, yet he still knows where the other guy is. He gets the puck and is looking at Elias Pettersson the whole time until he’s ready to make the pass. And then suddenly he changes it up and just rips a pass at Miller that’s hard enough that he can touch it into his path to get a breakaway. If it’s a soft pass, he doesn’t have enough time to break away. It’s a great finish by Miller, but it’s just impressive how Hughes can direct traffic and make things happen in a number of ways.
Time to get rid of the points system?
Every season we see countless examples of why the current point system is problematic. The NHL is the only league among the “big four” in North America (which soccer would have something to say about) that even has a point system. In the NFL, MLB and NBA, you are what your record says you are. In the NHL, points can be had all over the place. There is a reward just for being tied after 60 minutes of play. In all three other sports, if you lose, you get nothing. That’s just how it goes. When teams from opposite conferences play each other and they are tied with five minutes left, you might as well just call it and start overtime. Neither team is pressing. And you can’t fault the teams playing, either. Regulation wins end up having almost no impact on standings. Teams are rarely tied in points and needing that tiebreaker in the first place, let alone that tiebreaker significantly impacting their playoff prospects. So how can you blame the teams in the league for gaming the system? Who among us wouldn’t? The worst part, now, is that teams in the same conference can’t even be bothered to press to win. They are both more or less in agreement to get the point. From an entertainment perspective, this is a terrible product.
The only way it changes is if the league changes, but they have shown almost no inclination to do that.
Scheduling done right
One thing the league has gotten right – scheduling around American Thanksgiving. There were 15 games on the Wednesday before the extra long weekend. Zero games on the Thursday – don’t even try to compete with the NFL on that day. And then on Friday, games start at 1 p.m. EST. This makes complete sense across the board and is not exactly new to the league (they do something similar every year). It’s good to see. I just wish they did more of this throughout the season.
A bigger celebration for games played overseas. A bigger season opener. But you have to start somewhere. And for all those that celebrate now – Happy Thanksgiving!
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