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10 NHL Insights and Observations: Avs look truly terrifying with Kuemper thriving

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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 systems vs. structure, empty-net bravado, Darcy Kuemper's bounce-back stretch, buyouts, a shootout for the ages, and more.

1. I have no official way of proving this, but players now are far more willing to shoot for an empty net on their side of centre, at the potential risk of icing. It is one of the smaller evolutions of the game. Twenty years ago, you find yourself on the bench for taking a crack at an empty net from your side of centre. Infamously in 2009, the Russian World Junior Team missed against Team Canada and Jordan Eberle proceeded to tie the game. It was coached out of most kids to even remotely think about trying until you have firmly skated over centre. But as players have evolved and developed, many simply seem to be saying to themselves, why can’t I shoot from my side of centre if I have some time and space? You would expect an NHLer can generally hit the net standing pretty well anywhere on the ice if they have time. Consider: Alex Ovechkin currently leads the league with seven empty net goals, while five other players already have four. In the 2005-06 season, Mike Comrie led the league with four empty net goals. Six other players had three. Everyone else? Two or less. From that campaign up until 2017-2018, nobody in the league had more than a five empty-net-goal season. In that 2017-2018 season, Michael Grabner potted seven. Part of it is likely due to teams pulling their goalie earlier and more often, but the sheer gall on some of these empty netters is something to behold. Look at Henri Jokiharju this week — could you imagine a defenseman (especially a non-superstar one at that) trying this 10 years ago? 15? 20? For good measure, Buffalo scored another empty netter in this same game right after, too!

2. Seems like forever ago that Rasmus Dahlin put up more points as an 18 year old rookie defenseman than Bobby Orr. In fact, he’s second all-time in 18-year-old rookie scoring among defensemen (Phil Housley is first with 66 — that will be a hard record to beat). Buffalo was bad that season and has been bad every season since. He’s had three coaches in three years. He’s had to sit by and watch the team’s superstar forward argue with management. He’s had almost no support from a personnel standpoint. Last season his offense even started to slip. So it is nice to see him rebounding a bit on a team that is once again trying to steer itself in the right direction. Dahlin is averaging his highest ever time on ice per game (just under 24 minutes), he’s producing his second best points-per-game clip so far in his career, his highest goals per game and his second highest shots per game rate. He’s playing primarily with Jokiharju and they are coming out even in shot share and have scored one more than they’ve given up — impressive on a team that’s 24th in shot share at 47.18 percent and has a minus-36 goal differential. He still has his brain farts, but he’s not lacking for confidence to try to create offense. The Sabres have a long way to go, but getting Dahlin back to being productive and saddling him with as much responsibility along the way is a step in the right direction.

3. Everyone loves a good stick-with-it story where a person shows an incredible amount of determination to overcome odds and make it to the big leagues. To that end, I offer Sam Carrick for your consideration. If you’re wondering who that is, you would hardly be alone. The 30 year old has played 84 NHL games in his life — but 37 are this season. Drafted way back in 2010 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round after playing for the Brampton Battalion (where he was the captain), his professional career started with being coached by Dallas Eakins – who now coaches him in the NHL some 12 years later. He had some cups of coffee in the NHL along the way and was a reasonable AHL producer, but it wasn’t until his seventh (!) season in the AHL that he really exploded, putting up 32 goals and 61 points in 61 games. That San Diego Gulls team had Troy Terry, Sam Steel and Max Jones, but Carrick led them in scoring as they went on a 16-game playoff run where he put up 14 points for good measure (Dallas Eakins coached this team, too). The following season he put up 23 goals and 43 points in 46 AHL games. Then he started getting called up more. Last season he even had a night where he scored and fought in the AHL on one day, then scored and fought in the NHL the very next day. He has nine goals in the NHL this season, and sure he’s shooting over 16 percent so it’s nowhere near sustainable for him, but he has come a long way to play in this league and, at the tender age of 30, he’s earning his longest look yet.

4. I mentioned last week how well-spoken Martin St. Louis is and had to follow it up after he dropped this gem in his introductory press conference. A lot of people working in the game have started to emphasize structure over system. As St. Louis notes here, systems tend to box players in. It makes them robotic and players can play like they are trying to remember the reading from last night’s homework. The concept of structure over system is simple. You’re providing some basic principles to follow but you have the freedom to think for yourself within the standard of the structure. The Habs have yet to win a game under St. Louis — including losses to Buffalo and Columbus — and I won’t trumpet moral victories, but the hockey world is very curious to see how he handles this opportunity.

5. In the summer the Minnesota Wild pulled arguably the shocker of the league in buying out both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. In a hard cap league they decided they’d rather free up the roster spots and eat the money rather than continuing to pay two aging stars. The cap damage is almost incomprehensible – nobody in the league has ever done anything like this before. This season they have just over $4.7 million in dead money. Next season? Over $12.7 million. The two after that? Over $14.7 million — each! After that it finally drops to $1.6 million for the final two years. How does it look so far, though? The Zach Parise buyout was always going to be understandable. He was in offensive decline last season and I’m not sure he ever recovered from the healthy scratch incident with Dean Evason. He has four goals and 15 points in 43 games with the Islanders playing a depth role. The Wild have been able to clear room for new younger additions like Frederick Gaudreau, recently added rookie Matthew Boldy, and Nico Sturm’s ice time has gone up this season. They aren’t all like-for-like swaps for Parise but removing a veteran taking up a spot allows you to move things around more across the board. Where it gets more interesting is Ryan Suter. The Wild are almost certainly happy with how it has played out so far — they signed Alex Goligoski to fill the void, and he's performed really well there. When Jared Spurgeon is in the lineup they generally play together and they’ve crushed it, controlling over 57 of the shot share and have been on the ice for 23 goals for and only 10 against. Goligoski leads all Wild defensemen in scoring. Only eleven defensemen have more points at even strength than Goligoski! Last season, Suter and Spurgeon were a pairing and controlled roughly 47 percent of the shot share, while on the ice for 34 goals for and 30 against. Suter, with 19 points in 47 games, is having a decent season this year playing primarily with Miro Heiskanen. The pair is controlling around 53 percent of the shot share together and have been outscored by one. The Wild might look back with regret in a year or two when the dead cap hit is sky high, but for now they are presumably quite pleased with how this is turning out.

6. There are bigger, flashier rookie names making the rounds (Trevor Zegras, Lucas Raymond, even Tanner Jeannot and Anton Lundell), but one that will quietly go under the radar this season is Jonathan Dahlen. Playing primarily on the top line for San Jose alongside Logan Couture and Timo Meier — pretty great company to keep if you’re anyone, let alone a second-round rookie — he’s put up a modest 11 goals and 20 points in 42 games. He’s averaging slightly over two shots per game and a lot of work is done by driving the net, hunting down tips and finding open space in front to get open for teammates. He has no problem going to this area of the ice despite being listed at 5’11 and 180 pounds.

He’s already 24 years old so there are legitimate questions as to what his ceiling can really be at this point but the Ottawa Senators draft pick from 2016 that was traded for Alex Burrows before the Sens' Eastern Conference Final run, then flipped again for Linus Klassen by the Canucks, looks like he can put the puck in the net in this league. He’s even crafted himself a role on the half-wall on the second power play unit. His last two seasons in Sweden, he led his team in scoring in each season. He put up 36 goals and 77 points in 51 games one season, and 25 goals, 71 points in 45 games the next. He’s carried that over — modestly — to the NHL this season and looks like a tidy little piece of business for a Sharks team trying to rebuild.

7. As if teams needed another reason to worry about the Colorado Avalanche, Darcy Kuemper is playing lights out. Since returning from injury on December 8, he has 15 wins in 19 games (leads the league in that time), is tied with Jacob Markstrom and Connor Hellebuyck for the lead in shutouts with three, and only Igor Shesterkin and Ville Husso (!) have a better save percentage in that time (Kuemper is at .934). As of this writing, he’s currently riding a two-game shutout streak. Kuemper was the Avalanche’s solution to Philip Grubauer surprisingly leaving to go play for Seattle (where he has notably struggled), and the Avs paid a ton for the now 31-year-old pending free agent (a first, a third and a good prospect in Conor Timmins). He has rewarded that so far, in part because he’s actually managed to stay relatively healthy. Kuemper is a career .917 goalie in this league and through no fault of his own, has generally played on bad teams. But he’s 31 and he’s yet to play 300 NHL games. He has the opportunity to shine on a real Cup contender and so far he’s showing that, when he plays, he just makes the Avalanche all the more dangerous.

Darcy Kuemper is finding his game, and the Avalanche have become arguably the scariest team in the NHL. (Getty)
Darcy Kuemper is finding his game, and the Avalanche have become arguably the scariest team in the NHL. (Getty)

8. One of my biggest pet peeves is a broadcast noting how many points a line combined for in a previous game. Usually, it’s presented as something along the lines of, “this line had 8 points last game.” This offers no value for listeners because we don’t know how many goals they actually scored (or gave up in the process). This line combined for four goals last game and gave up none is a far more impressive and detailed recounting of how a line did than “they combined for eight points.” We need to normalize this saying because when we get a point total, we’re not actually sure what they are trying to tell us as listeners, nor do we know what the actual bottom line was.

9. Congrats to the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team for winning gold. What a dominant tournament they had, winning every single game with scores of 12-1, 11-1, 6-1, 4-2, 11-0, 10-3 and finally 3-2 in the gold medal game (in which they were up 3-0 at one point and USA scored with 12 seconds left to cut it to one). Captain Marie-Philip Poulin became the first hockey player — female or male — to score in four Olympic gold medal games. Goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens was lights out whenever they needed her to be (51- and 38-save performances against the USA in this tournament). This team will surely go down as one of the most dominant in women’s hockey history.

10. We end this week with a shoutout to… shootouts? I don’t know if this is a broadway thing or what but the Rangers seemingly always manage to be in the best shootouts. Everyone remembers Marek Malik. They had an absolute thriller against the New Jersey Devils earlier this season and yet another one against the Bruins this past week. There must be something about the bright lights of broadway because nobody else seems to do shootouts quite like New York.

The complaints about the shootout are understandable – and ideally you’d like to see more overtime before it gets to one. But sometimes they just hit right. And usually when they do, the Rangers are involved.

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