It's a bad year to be an NHL goaltender
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 some breakout seasons, Mitch Marner’s point streak, bad goaltending, the playoff picture and much more.
Artturi Lehkonen making best of opportunity
If you look at the top forwards in time on ice per game, you will see a lot of familiar faces, such as Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, Aleksander Barkov and Nikita Kucherov.
One that isn’t expected, though, is Artturi Lehkonen.
The man who scored the goal that sent his team to the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive years is playing 21:35 per night in Colorado. Before this season, he has never averaged more than 16:29 per game in a single season, and that was his sophomore campaign back in 2017-18.
Part of that is due to Gabriel Landeskog not playing so far this season, as he has been given the opportunity to ride shotgun with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. That means plenty of ice time and opportunities for points. They aren’t exactly lighting the league on fire as a unit, coming out slightly ahead in terms of shot share and expected goals and outscoring opponents by two. It’s not nearly enough to legitimately challenge Landeskog’s spot on that line but they are still solid enough to consider it as an option should they want to spread out the talent, especially with Nazem Kadri no longer the No. 2 center.
For his part, Lehkonen has long been underappreciated and it’s nice to see him producing and getting some recognition. His 17 points in 20 games puts him on pace to crush his career high of 31 points. This is coming off a great playoff where he scored eight goals and had 14 points in 20 games. He is 27 years old and has a lot of good hockey left in him. It cost Colorado prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick to acquire him after the Habs decided it was better to take the futures instead of paying Lehkonen and hoping he could fit their rebuild timeline.
Mikhail Sergachev taking the next step
When the Tampa Bay Lightning traded away Ryan McDonagh, it was not so much a move they wanted to make, but one they had to make it.
Mikhail Sergachev stood out as the player to benefit most from McDonagh's departure, but he was already playing 22:28 per game last season — how much more could he realistically do? Turns out, a decent amount.
He’s playing over 24 minutes per game and has started this season with 22 points in 22 games. Running the power play in Tampa Bay has belonged to Victor Hedman over the years — and rightfully so — but not anymore. Sergachev is actually averaging five more seconds than him on the power play so far. His 11 power-play points are five off his career high and he has 60 games to go here. He has a bomb, and he needs to use it more. He has been credited with three shots on net on the power play, and he has two power-play goals. How is that even possible? This is too easy for him:
It’s hard to justify shooting regularly when you can simply feed Kucherov or Steven Stamkos instead. But he can shoot, too.
A moment of appreciation for Tyler Toffoli
It was nice to see Tyler Toffoli pass the 200 career goal mark. A Stanley Cup champion who also went to the final with the Montreal Canadiens, Toffoli has 44 career playoff points in 88 career playoff games. He has more than 400 career regular season points and is closing in on 700 career regular season games, and at 30 he has some time to really increase those totals.
After losing Johnny Gaudreau and effectively swapping Matthew Tkachuk for Jonathan Huberdeau at forward, they needed other players to step up, even with the Nazem Kadri signing. So far, Toffoli has answered the bell and is tied for the team lead in points and goals.
He has one 30-goal season in his career, and would have surpassed that by a lot in the bubble year when he had 28 goals in 52 games. He’s playing to the third highest goals-per-game rate of his career to start the season. Playing with two playmakers like Elias Lindholm and Huberdeau, his most common linemates, helps. This is just a no-doubter goal.
Side note: those jerseys are gorgeous.
Sidney Crosby continues to amaze
Alex Ovechkin is rightly getting a lot of attention for chasing the goal record (it's still hard to wrap your head around that even being remotely possible). The only current player in the league with more points than him is, of course, Sidney Crosby.
He has seven more points than Ovechkin in 167 less games. More relevant here is that he’s 28 points away from being in the top 15 all-time in points. He is exactly 150 points away from being in the top 10 all-time. And he’s still as good as ever.
Leading the league in 5v5 points, he has 31 points in 23 games. He was dominating last year in the playoffs until he got hurt, and that essentially swung the series (even with Pittsburgh’s goaltending carousel). He has two years left on his contract after this season, and it’s hard to imagine him not getting into the top 10 when that deal is up as long as he stays healthy.
Nearly 20 years ago, the hype on Crosby was about as crazy as we’ve ever seen in the league. The pressure and scrutiny was massive. Three Stanley Cups, two Olympic golds and a likely top-10 finish in all-time points later, he’s been everything and more anyone could have asked for. Enjoy these final golden years from Sid, no longer the kid.
Filip Hronek quietly having a great season
One of the quieter, more impressive developments of the season so far has been the play of Filip Hronek.
A second-round pick in 2016, nobody has ever questioned his offensive abilities. He had a career-high 38 points last season and has always been able to run a power play. But he has struggled to play defense over the course of his career and that has always been the main knock on him.
Last season he was minus-29 and while plus-minus isn’t always a telling stat, minus-29 is minus-29. The possession numbers matched it. The expected goals numbers were more positive at just under 48 percent with his main partner on the season, Nick Leddy. Some of it was simply bad goaltending.
But this season, the improvement has been wild. His numbers are up across the board. He has never been a positive possession player in his career, but is over 51 percent of shot attempts so far this season. His expected goals rate is over 60 and it has never been above 45.39. His giveaway rates are down. And all while he’s producing, as he has 20 points in 22 games to start the season. His partner this season is Olli Maata and they have tilted the ice the other way. He’s also launching a career high 2.36 shots on net per game, and with good reason — he has a great shot.
This was a really impressive game from Hronek in general, who had a goal and assist after getting rocked by Jack McBain, followed by Michael Rasmussen defending him. One right handed defenseman in Detroit gets most of the attention, but there’s another who’s taking a massive step and he just turned 25 last month.
Mitch Marner makes everyone better
Eighteen games with at least a point for Mitch Marner, and counting. Toronto’s Mr. Do Everything really is doing everything. A staple on their top power play and penalty killing units. A top line forward at 5v5, whether he is on a line with Auston Matthews or not.
He is the player that other players play with to have career seasons. From James Van Riemsdyk putting up a career-high 36 goals, to Tyler Bozak putting up a career-high 55 points, to John Tavares putting up a career-high 47 goals, to Auston Matthews scoring 60. Those seasons all had one thing in common: Marner playing on their wing.
And it’s not just cheap stuff from Marner, or lapping up power-play points. This is a full value forecheck, beating out two Devils, diving for the puck and putting it on the tape for Tavares to tee up for a one-timer. This is absurdly good.
His passing gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so, but all these players are having career years alongside him because he just does everything across the board at an elite level. That’s a player who is making his linemates' lives easier and they are thriving alongside him as a result.
A bad year for goalies
Last season we had eight players put up more than 100 points. Goal scoring was up across the league and the talent infusion had never been more evident. Now, we are seeing the fall out of that: league average save percentage (.905) is on pace to be the lowest in 16 years.
A few years ago Cal Petersen took over the net from Jonathan Quick and was later rewarded with a three year, $15-million contract. He was on waivers Wednesday. Igor Shesterkin is calling himself out in the media coming off a Vezina Trophy. Jack Campbell might already be the backup in Edmonton. Goaltending is all over the place and the talent in the league is making them pay.
We’ve talked before about how teams no longer run defensive defensemen in heavy minutes. There are essentially none leading their teams in minutes played. If you are a defenseman and you play heavy minutes, you are driving offense. Almost all teams are working to control the puck and push offense as the best form of defense. Goaltenders are getting lit up as a result.
Dach trade looking better by the day for Habs
The Canadiens acquiring Kirby Dach for first- and third-round draft picks and promptly giving him a four-year, $13.45 million contract was interesting on all sorts of levels. He just turned 21 and was not far removed from being drafted third overall in 2019.
Dach flashed a bit in his rookie season, namely in the bubble playoffs where he put up six points in nine games. The following season was delayed due to COVID. In the meantime, he was named captain of Team Canada for the world juniors, which should have been a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet and hit the ground running for the shortened NHL season. Instead, Dach suffered a right wrist fracture at the tournament and underwent surgery on Dec. 28. He was originally placed on a four-to-five-month timetable, but returned three months later and made his season debut on March 27, playing 20 minutes that night. No rehab stint, no getting his feet wet, just thrown right into the fire.
He ended up playing only 18 games and doctors shut his season down four games early due to continued discomfort. Last season, he struggled. In what should have been his third season, but what was really his second, he put up 26 points in 70 games on a bad Blackhawks team.
It’s not exactly the type of production that gets you a four-year contract worth more than $3 million per season. But he had pedigree and was still young and offered a rare package of size and skill that teams always find tantalizing.
So far in Montreal, he has delivered. His 17 points in 22 games gives him a chance to pass his career high in points before the year is over. Six of those points are on the power play where he’s playing 2:58 per game. The only time he averaged more than that with Chicago was his injury-shortened season. It helps playing on a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield at 5v5, too. But they are a big part of the future of this team and so far Dach has been full marks on a big bet by the Habs.
Playoff races shaping up to be much more exciting this year
We are now officially in December. American Thanksgiving is over. As things stand today, there would be five new teams in the playoffs this season compared to last. There would be a few surprising teams not making it, too.
Last season, the final month or so of the season was an absolute snooze in terms of playoff races. They were non-existent. The Eastern Conference was set before the New Year even turned. The only thing of note in the West was whether an injury ravaged Vegas squad could make a run at a playoff spot. They sort of did, but it wasn’t that close. It was not an entertaining or particularly exciting end to the regular season.
Early indications so far are that things will play out differently this season. It’s hard to imagine some teams currently on the outside looking in not making a serious run to get in. Those teams include the New York Rangers, Calgary Flames (they are just out on points percentage), St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers. Can Washington get healthy and make a run out of things? This is what we need for the league: exciting playoff battles. Must watch games. Scoreboard watching. We got none of that last season. I don’t think that will be the case this season.
Islanders putting last season behind them
One of those teams that would be returning to the playoffs right now after not making it last season: the Islanders.
They were picked on a lot this summer, having not won the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes or being able to acquire JT Miller, two players they reportedly took runs at. They might not be too upset about how both have played so far (Nazem Kadri would have been nice there, though).
Even without making a move, some of the criticisms were a bit perplexing. They have an elite goalie tandem — I really wanted to take Ilya Sorokin as my Vezina pick going into the season, but didn’t think he’d play enough with Semyon Varlamov there. Their defense is five deep with very good players. It’s easy to remember that Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield both missed significant time last season, and Zdeno Chara played 72 games.
They started on a 13-game road trip that season and it pretty well tanked their season from the outset after back-to-back conference final appearances. They aren’t nearly as bad as putting the puck in the net as people think — they are 14th in goals per game, and fifth best in goals against per game. Not here to anoint them contenders or guarantee them a playoff spot, but this is a pesky team capable of doing some damage.
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