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10 NHL Insights and Observations: Midseason coaching changes (mostly) paying off

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Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, 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 coaching change impacts on ice time, Noah Dobson, Lawson Crouse, the NHL trade deadline and more.

1. NHL trade deadline is upon us

Would be remiss if I did not start this week’s column by wishing everyone a happy trade deadline weekend! This is one of the most exciting times of the year for fans as trades are made and teams solidify their rosters to make a playoff run. We learn which teams view themselves as contenders or pretenders, and where certain players are going to be traded because they are pending UFAs or their current team has simply decided to sell.

The action has already begun, as the Florida Panthers shipped out Frank Vatrano and brought in Ben Chiarot. Colorado opened up some money by swapping Tyson Jost for Nico Sturm and paid up to acquire Josh Manson. Calgary has made it clear where they stand by buying Tyler Toffoli and Calle Jarnkrok. It should comes as no surprise that the Avalanche, Panthers and Flames are all-in on this season. They’ve all had strong seasons and should view themselves as contenders. The teams that will be most intriguing will be the bubble teams, particularly in the West. The buyers in the East will be obvious — we already know the top eight teams. In the West, how will teams like the Wild, Canucks, Oilers, Jets, Predators, Stars and Golden Knights approach the deadline? They all have varying reasons to go for it and make the playoffs. Almost any team can convince themselves they are simply a hot goalie away from making a run.

Nobody wants to go for it at the deadline just to simply not make the playoffs at all. That’s the question many of them will be grappling with and that’s what makes the deadline fun for fans and spectators.

2. Player-for-player swaps are rare in-season

We have talked about whether we will see more trades just simply due to all the teams already out. Since then, the Eastern Conference has solidified while the Western Conference has been blown wide open. An additional question worth asking is whether we will we get any player-for-player swaps. It’s a seemingly rare thing that happens at the trade deadline. Teams are much more willing to swap players for players during the offseason — we often hear, “that’s an offseason move,” and the question is why? Last season we did see a player swap (with draft picks involved), when the Red Wings and Capitals exchanged Anthony Mantha for Jakub Vrana. That’s a rare move for the league around deadline time as good teams simply want to add to their existing team, not replace certain players with upgrades. Mantha didn’t exactly reward the Capitals either, as he had eight points in 16 regular season games followed up by two assists in five playoff games.

One of the biggest trades I can recall around deadline time that genuinely involved players swapping teams was in 2011 when the St. Louis Blues traded Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-round pick in the 2011 draft (Duncan Siemens) to the Colorado Avalanche for Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk and a 2011 second-rounder (Ty Rattie). It’s a rare piece of business at this time that’s seldom talked about, but teams are selling themselves short by ruling it out as a possibility. Even to a lesser degree, the way the Panthers and Avalanche moved out Vatrano and Jost to clear money is not something we usually see contenders do (in terms of subtracting in any capacity from their team). With a cap that will stay relatively flat for potentially years, this might have to be a strategy more teams consider.

3. Teams are re-signing pending UFAs

One thing that does slow the trade market down is teams signing their guys. Already this year we have seen Rasmus Ristolainen, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl get extended. Pavelski and Hertl would have been massive needle-movers for any team. It makes sense that a team would try to retain a good player prior to trading him for assets. What makes it interesting is the way the league operates as a whole in this regard. Two of those three teams (the Flyers and Sharks) are almost certainly not making the playoffs. The other (Stars) is a longshot at this point — especially with the Miro Heiskanen absence — which is a shame for them and the league. Unlike the NBA or NFL, though, the NHL draft does not represent an opportunity to improve immediately.

A single player can transform your NBA franchise and an NFL team can build an entire unit through the draft (or if they hit on a quarterback). You are likely years away from seeing any real payoff from an NHL draft and even if you hit on a player that steps right into the league, a single player wouldn’t be enough to drastically move the needle.

There are two teams that have drafted first overall multiple times over the past decade: the Devils and Oilers. Both are still largely struggling (though the Oilers have a real shot at making the playoffs this year, at least). The three or four other teams, depending on how you count, are all, at minimum, good. That would be the Panthers, Avalanche, Leafs and Rangers. The Rangers' first overall pick has not played a prominent role but all of Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews have been stars. None of these teams have advanced beyond the second round with their first overall pick on the roster. It just takes such a long time to build in this league because not only do you need really good players, but you need a high amount of them for it to even matter. So we see teams bring back their own rather than looking at their middling place in the standings and bottoming out for picks, as we see in other leagues.

4. Lawson Crouse develops

On this timeline of how long it takes to accumulate good players and for them to develop, the case of Lawson Crouse is an interesting one. He was drafted 11th overall in 2015, in part due to being 6-foot-4 (he was reasonably productive in the OHL, it should be noted). In retrospect, he was rushed into the NHL as a 19-year-old and struggled in a full, 72-game season that year. The following campaign he played primarily in the AHL and rediscovered some offense. After that he came back to the NHL and has been a steady player since.

He's still just 24 and he’s on pace to set career-highs in goals per game, assists per game and points per game. He's shooting over 15 percent, which is a career high, and he is playing almost two minutes per game on the power play, which is more than he’d likely get on most other teams, but he’s rounding into a player in this league and is still young. Already at 19 goals, the confidence in his shot is night and day from when he entered the NHL. It shows with his shot output — he’s getting more than two shots on net per game right now (2.05). His previous career high in shots per game was 1.65. When he gets clean looks at goalies, on breakaways or otherwise, he is barely wasting time making moves. He just finds where he wants to shoot the puck and shoots it there. Playing primarily with Phil Kessel this season also helps. Everyone knows Arizona is tanking but as mentioned above, you need a number of good players, not just to tank and draft first overall once or even twice, to be good. Crouse is turning into a player that can be part of the solution for Arizona.

5. Noah Dobson emerges

Another struggling team with an emerging young player? The Islanders and Noah Dobson. The Islanders have largely underachieved this season so he isn’t getting much attention, but he’s tied for sixth among NHL defensemen with 10 goals. He’s averaging more than 21 minutes per game, after playing just 16:24 last season. Dobson has primarily played with Zdeno Chara. Some of the underlying numbers are cause for concern and suggest there’s some luck in being on for 19 goals for at 5v5 to just 12 against, but the Islanders as a whole have had a down season. He was drafted 12th overall in 2018 following a 69-point season in 67 games in the QMJHL. Dobson has a great shot and he knows it — he’s currently launching 2.64 shots per game on net. The Islanders have not had the season they expected, but the emergence of Dobson so far as an offensive defender has been a pleasant development.

6. NHL officiating

Enjoyed this thread on refereeing from Gord Miller. Look, I’m like everyone and I see the issues. I see the inconsistency. It is maddening. But this is a tough job. They don’t have the advantage of slow motion replay. They have people yelling at them every night they work. This happens at every level and age group for referees, which is partly why it’s so difficult to churn out good ones. They constantly quit from the abuse they take coming up in the system. Most people who are referees do it because they love the game and still want to be around it. How else could you justify climbing up the ranks and grinding the way they do? At times there does need to be more accountability, but in most cases it really comes at the level above them and they are just doing what they are told. Food for thought.

7. Habs under Martin St. Louis

When a new coach takes over for a team, the thing I’m always interested in is how the ice time and roles change. The Montreal Canadiens in particular wanted to switch the mood and environment with their coaching change and give their players a blank slate to prove what they can really do. Obviously, Cole Caufield has taken off with the opportunity as he has 10 goals and 19 points in 16 games. Nick Suzuki is at a point per game in part because of Caufield exploding (he was at 0.61 points-per-game before the coaching change). Even Jeff Petry has rebounded.

Interestingly enough though, St. Louis has elevated the ice time of several players. Alexander Romanov is playing almost three minutes more per game since he became head coach. Brett Kulak is playing almost two minutes more per game. Nick Suzuki is up over a minute and a half which might not seem like a big deal, but he’s averaging 21:37, which would rank him fourth in the league right now among all forwards. Some of it is circumstantial, as Christian Dvorak, Jonathan Drouin and David Savard have yet to play a game for St. Louis. Chiarot was just traded. Those are a lot of minutes that have to be dispersed but it’s no real surprise the Canadiens new management group is trying to make the best out of what’s left of this season by playing their young guys as much as possible to help them develop.

8. Flyers under Mike Yeo

How about the Philadelphia Flyers that went from Alain Vigneault to Mike Yeo? Their forwards have been top- or bottom-heavy in minutes from a much more even keeled Vigneault. Claude Giroux went from 18:13 to 20:02, Cam Atkinson went from 16:32 to 19:51, Joel Farabee went from 15:37 to 19:16, Scott Laughton from 15:34 to 17:11. While on the other side, Morgan Frost dropped from 14:15 to 12:40, which is notable as a young player going the wrong way with a new coach in terms of ice time. Also interesting is that Travis Konecny has generally stayed the same on the whole as others have seen their ice time shoot up (17:16 before the trade, 17:41 after the trade), and as a result has seen himself go from being the third highest played forward overall to the fifth highest.

On defense they have more or less remained the same. Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Ristolainen play a ton, Justin Braun rounds out the top four because they don’t really have any other options with Ryan Ellis injured. Keith Yandle plays limited minutes and gets power-play time while guys like Nick Seeler and Cam York round out the group.

9. Canucks under Bruce Boudreau

Finally, let’s look at Vancouver. I’m always interested in culture setters and players that coaches bring in or elevate who are their guys. Bruce Boudreau coached Brad Hunt years ago in Minnesota and he was someone who produced under him, notching an eight-goal, 19-point season in 57 games. He has 21 goals in his entire NHL career. Boudreau said of Hunt at the time, "He's way too nice… There's no doubt in my mind that he was definitely brought up the right way." Hunt played four games under Travis Green, averaging 13:01 per game. Under Boudreau he has played 26 games, averaging 15:30, and he plays 1:21 on the power play per night.

The Vancouver Canucks are 22-10-5 under Bruce Boudreau. (Getty)
The Vancouver Canucks are 22-10-5 under Bruce Boudreau. (Getty)

The other player who has seen his stock shoot up on defense under Boudreau is Luke Schenn, who has gone from 15:09 per night to 17:41. At forward, Boudreau has evened out the ice time more than anything. J.T. Miller was playing 21:29 before and is now at 20:25. Bo Horvat went from 20:42 to 19:06. Elias Pettersson went from 18:41 to 17:41. Conor Garland went from 16:41 to 15:41. Naturally, on the other side of things, guys like Tyler Motte, Jason Dickinson and Matthew Highmore have all seen their ice time increase marginally (roughly a minute or so per game). There is more to success than ice time, but philosophically, a bit more of an emphasis on rolling four lines, keeping everyone at a manageable number versus loading up your top players with ice time is at play here — at forward and defense.

10. Reverse Retros are back!

Part of the appeal of the outdoor games is the aesthetics of the whole event. The scenery of playing outdoors, especially if it’s at a stadium with some sort of skyline or view that acts as a backdrop, is impeccable. Part of the aesthetics are, of course, the jerseys. In the case of the most recent outdoor game, the Sabres and Maple Leafs both crushed it with their jerseys. The Sabres had a retro sweater look with their classic two sword logo. The Leafs sweaters looked super sharp on television with the dark blue against the minimalist white T. it was exciting to hear, then, that the league is bringing back their reverse retro jerseys. And to be clear, bringing it back means there will be new designs, it will not be the old ones recirculated.

It was legitimately fun to see all the designs released, even if there were some massive duds (yes Dallas and Detroit, we are looking at you). Following a sports league is supposed to be fun and enjoyable after all, and the freshness of new jerseys is always a nice wrinkle. Now, I’m not sure if anyone else is ready to have this conversation yet, but I for one would support a return to wearing white jerseys at home and dark jerseys on the road.

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