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 a number of players bouncing back, slap shots off the rush, passing it back to the goalie, international hockey and Emile Francis.
1. Tyler Seguin returning to form
On the surface Tyler Seguin is having a rough season on a Dallas team that has battled inconsistency throughout the season, though is technically in a playoff spot on points percentage. He is trending towards his lowest points per game since his rookie season. His shots per game output is also at its lowest through his rookie season. Even his average ice time has been progressively trending down – if his 17:44 holds it will be his lowest since he was 21.
The demise might be a little overblown, though. Let’s rewind a little bit here.
A few years ago, the Stars went to the Stanley Cup Final in the bubble and by the time they got there, Seguin was clearly hobbled and playing through pain. Seguin had surgery after the playoffs on Nov. 2, 2020, to repair a hip injury he was dealing with. He made his debut last season on May 3 and played only three games. Heading into this season he openly admitted, “There are certain things like sprinting that have been a little bothersome but, on the ice, I feel pretty much back to normal.” Compounding matters, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few weeks before training camp started. When you think about what he had to go through just to get back, and even returning to start the season still feeling discomfort while running, a slow start makes sense.
Since returning to action after the holiday (the Stars had two and a half weeks off due to COVID-related delays), he’s producing at a rate much more consistent with expectations with 17 points in 21 games, averaging back up over 18 minutes per night and crushing the faceoff circle at 60 percent (it should be noted he’s shooting nearly 16 percent). Look at him ripping down the ice here to win a race and get to the net before scoring. Is the goal nice? Not really. But that speed is a big part of his game and watching him skate like that and produce the way he has been of late – including a big overtime winner against Winnipeg – must have Dallas feeling a bit of relief for a player under contract for five more seasons.
2. Expansion draft paying off for Predators
Looking back at Nashville’s strategy at the expansion draft is all sorts of interesting. Exposing big names like Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen grabbed headlines, but it wasn’t much of a surprise as both players were declining and on big contracts. They traded away fan favorite Viktor Arvidsson for draft picks. Long-time goalie Pekka Rinne retired. And yet here they are, in a wild-card playoff spot.
This season, both Duchene and Johansen have responded so far and shown the league they still have plenty to give. If Duchene can stay healthy, he has a chance to set career highs in goals and points – at age 31, following a season in which he had 13 points in 34 games. Johansen is having a productive season for the first time in three years, though he is shooting at a career-high rate. But what potentially grabbed bigger headlines was the names the Predators elected to protect over those two notable names: Tanner Jeannot and Luke Kunin.
At the time, Jeannot in particular stood out as a question mark as he only had 15 games in the league to his name. But Nashville knew they had a player. He has 17 goals this season already and is second in the league in fights. He’s increasingly looking like the unicorn type of player most teams fantasize about as he can play the game, score big goals, hit and fight. That’s a rare commodity in today’s game and he’s only 24 with another year on his contract at $800K before becoming an RFA. After the Vegas expansion draft it didn’t take long to look back at what teams did and wonder what on earth they were thinking. This time around, there’s a lot more of, “did they ever play that right.”
3. Elias Pettersson and Bruce Boudreau
Interesting to look at the splits for Elias Pettersson since Bruce Boudreau took over. In 25 games with Travis Green coaching him, Pettersson put up 12 points (four goals), had 61 shots on net and was playing 18:41 per night. In 27 games under Boudreau, Pettersson has 22 points (10 goals), on 44 shots, playing 17:31. Boudreau did move him to the wing at times to lessen his defensive responsibilities and help him focus on offense. He took him off the top power-play unit, tried making him a net front presence and has been on him to shoot more. They put tracking monitors on the players and Boudreau made a point of noting that his work rate has gone up in practice relative to his teammates.
Boudreau has tried to push accountability on Pettersson as much as possible. There are some percentages and general regression at play – usually there are new coach bumps in a number of categories for teams and individual players. But Pettersson has looked more engaged and confident. If nothing else happens for Vancouver the rest of this season, having Pettersson trend back to being a consistent, game-breaking offensive force is of the utmost importance.
4. Crosby’s clapper
Loved seeing Sidney Crosby fly down the wing and wind up a good old fashioned slap shot for a goal off the rush. It’s a rare play in today’s game and while quick releases have their time and play, and players backcheck harder than ever, it can still be quite difficult for a goalie to pick up where a puck is going off a slap shot and there’s greater potential to surprise them with the power coming off of your blade. The league does track by shot type, but they group slap shots and one-timers together, which is unfortunate. You can’t quantify how few slap shots are really taken now but when you watch a game, how often do you really see them at this point? Almost never off the rush. It’s a bit of a throwback play at this point but an extremely satisfying play to watch. I’m not convinced there’s no place in hockey for slap shots off the rush, players simply just don’t do it much anymore.
5. Phillip Danault signing paying off for Kings
When the Los Angeles Kings signed Phillip Danault, the logic was made very clear: He will serve as the shutdown center which will free up Anze Kopitar to focus more on producing offense. That was big for a team that had asked Kopitar to do basically everything for years, and also has generally struggled to score for seemingly ever.
There are questions when you sign a defense-first center to a big contract because there is a certain level of production that is expected when you are getting paid, and so far Danault has delivered that and more. He already has a career high in goals (14) and has career-high possession numbers. He has solidified a formidable line with Alex Iafallo and Arvidsson that’s controlling over 61 percent of the shot share and is all sorts of fun to watch with the way they win battles and support each other. They also have a 75 percent goals for percentage and across the board are generally holding serve on 60-plus percent of scoring chances when they are on the ice together.
The Kings as a team are third in 5-on-5 Corsi. Kopitar is hovering around a point per game as per usual and Drew Doughty is having a massive season. And along the way the Kings have sort of split the difference between Kopitar and Danault depending on the situation. They are sitting in a playoff spot in a bad division with a number of good young players coming through the ranks. It doesn’t all start with Danault by any means, but he has been worth the investment so far as they ascend in the standings.
6. Using your goalie as a passing outlet
Most organizations in the league will try to pull lessons from other sports leagues. One that is starting to sneak into play is passing the puck back to the goalie, primarily in overtime.
When 3-on-3 overtime first came to the league, it was chaos personified. A rush of action and adrenaline leading to teams exchanging glorious scoring chances until someone finally buried. As always, coaches were quick to adjust. Some coaches will even tell you it’s better to lose the opening faceoff and wait to pounce on a turnover for an odd man rush versus skating into the zone three versus three where it’s surprisingly difficult to create a good scoring chance, as teams are good at shifting between zone and man-on-man defenses to protect the middle of the ice.
The latest wrinkle is using the goalie as a passing outlet. Teams are passing it back to maintain possession while they change lines to get fresh legs out there. Look at the Hurricanes here just launch the puck down the ice to their goalie to get a line change going. It’s a smart strategy because you must account for the long change.
7. Olympic medallists celebrate
Congrats to the Finnish hockey team on winning gold at the Beijing Olympics. Sure, the tournament doesn’t have the same mass appeal without NHLers, but you can’t say that this tournament doesn’t matter to the players participating and that they don’t take great pride in winning. Slovakia won bronze – their highest finish ever in the Olympics – and watching the celebration served as a reminder of how much this matters to the players. This is really what it’s all about at the end of the day.
Slovakia-Sweden 4:0…historic 🇸🇰BRONZ Medal 🇸🇰celebration in the dressing room…enjoy! 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻 pic.twitter.com/OsGcpjHK8g
— Miroslav Šatan (@miro81s) February 19, 2022
8. World juniors are back
It will be a little strange having a world juniors tournament in August, but it’s nice to see the International Ice Hockey Federation not give up on completing this year’s event. The details are a bit fuzzy – including who will host it – but the age category will stay the same. That’s great because the reality is, for most players that participate in the tournament this will be the pinnacle of their hockey careers and they should be given the opportunity to see it through and enjoy it.
I’m particularly interested by this new tournament being labelled a “hockey festival” of sorts. That has potential to become a more engaging tournament for the host city with events and a fun summer atmosphere in a time where no other hockey of significance is being played. There are some similarities to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey that happened in September before the start of the NHL season, though that had to compete with baseball pennant races and the start of the NFL schedule. This tournament will be going against the dog days of baseball. I’m cautiously optimistic it will be quite exciting.
9. NHL scheduling needs to be optimized to grow the game
Anyone who has followed me on Twitter will have read this take before, but I believe it’s an important note and one that needs to be brought up continually until it is improved, and that is the NHL scheduling.
Wednesday night in the NHL had five games on the calendar, and four of them were scheduled at the exact same time. Unsurprisingly, there were a few good endings happening simultaneously (Tampa Bay versus Edmonton and Dallas versus Winnipeg), and viewers were forced to pick between the two unless you have a double screen situation happening. Now, you might suggest that it’s based on arena availability or optimal times in the specific markets each game was played in, but the goal has to be expanding beyond in-market viewership. That is the key to really growing the game.
Ask yourself, if you are a fan of a team that does not have a superstar like Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid or Crosby, how many times have you seen them play this season? Have you watched them play one full game when they have not played the team you cheer for? The NFL has one day of glory each week and they maximize it with NFL Red Zone, which cuts to games live when a team is in scoring position or replays any game when scores and turnovers occur. The NBA has weekly doubleheaders Tuesdays and Thursdays which are easily accessible to common viewers. The NHL does have Hockey Night in Canada and Wednesday Night Hockey, but the prominence of those platforms doesn’t have the same growing cache with the players as other league’s primetime games (including Sunday Night Baseball). The first part is just getting more games in front of people, particularly outside of market.
10. R.I.P., Emile Francis
Sad to hear of the passing of Emile Francis, a true pioneer of the game. He was basically a one-man show running the New York Rangers for the better part of 12 seasons between 1964-1976.
He was an innovator in the design of goalie equipment. He made one of the biggest trades in league history for Phil Esposito. What stood out for me though, was his investment in junior hockey.
Back in the day, Toronto had bird rights to any player within a 50-mile range of the city and each year the Rangers had to write the Maple Leafs a letter asking for permission to keep their minor-league affiliate in Guelph, home of the OHA's Biltmores from 1947-60 and the Royals from 1960-63. After being hired as New York's assistant GM in 1962, Francis said one of his first orders of business was moving that Guelph team to Kitchener because it was some 60 miles outside of Toronto and no longer in the Maple Leafs' jurisdiction. He also formed a four-team midget league right in Toronto and then he’d pluck the best players before they turned 16 to move them to Kitchener so they wouldn’t be Toronto property.
In New York, he started a six-team junior league. His pitch to the board at the time, courtesy Behind the Moves: “I’d like to start a junior league [because] along with building a team, we have got to build a fan base, and there are possibilities that we can get kids to play who will always be fans. There’s the possibility for some of the players to get scholarships and maybe [we might] even develop one to play in New York for the Rangers.” They asked how long it would take and he guessed 10 years. Nine years later, this junior league produced their first NHLer, Nicky Fotiu.
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