10 NHL Insights and Observations: Johnny Gaudreau is feasting with Sutter at the helm

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 Johnny Gaudreau's resurgence under Darryl Sutter, parity, playoff races, underrated fourth lines, Dylan Larkin, and more.

1. So far this season, 43 players that have played at least 30 games are producing at a point-per-game rate or higher. To put that into some perspective, last season had only 22 players produce at a PPG pace or higher (that played at least 30 games). Season before that was also 22. In 2018-2019, it was 32, in 2017-2018 it was 24 and in 2016-2017 it was at eight (even the season before that one it was just nine)! The bigger question is why. Part of it is surely that we’re only just past the halfway point of the season. Games tighten up after the All-Star break so that number will likely naturally drop to some degree, but I think there are two things at play here worth discussing. The first is just simply that the amount of the talent in the league right now is as deep and robust as it has ever been. The league average for goals per game right now is 3.05, which would be the highest rate this millennium. Years ago, the bad teams would maybe have a good player or two of note and that was it. Now you can look at teams like Dallas, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, even Philadelphia and arguably New Jersey who have multiple big ticket, high salaried players, and none of them are in a playoff spot.

More than ever, team success is becoming an indictment on management groups' inability to surround their stars with talent, rather than their stars not stepping up. The second is all the top teams prioritizing scoring, rather than defending. The Panthers, Leafs and Lightning all play high octane games. Colorado will happily run and gun just about anyone. Vegas is getting by on good offense, not keeping the puck out, as they’ve battled injury all season. There aren’t old New Jersey Devil-like trap teams in the top half of the league. Teams are being built on offense and skill, and being pushed to play like so. Power-play opportunities are not spiking up but penalty killing rates are at their lowest since the 1988-1989 season — they can’t keep up with all the skill in the league.

2. On the note of all the productive players in the league, there is a whole collection of players that would be at the top of the league in scoring or just getting more attention for how they are producing, had they not been injured. Filip Forsberg is producing at a career high rate (though shooting 24 percent), Mitch Marner is producing just a shade off last season’s career-high rate, Devon Toews is clicking at nearly a point per game, Nathan MacKinnon is producing at a rate that’s about on par with the top scorers in the league this season, Drake Batherson is clicking at over a point per game on a bad Ottawa team, Bryan Rust has 34 points in 25 games so far this season! Even Sidney Crosby, Gabriel Landeskog and Mats Zuccarello are all producing at well over a point per game clip but all these guys have missed roughly 10 games or more, so we don’t see them at the top of the leader boards and they aren’t necessarily getting the attention they otherwise would for how productive they’ve been so far. What a crazy talented league this has become.

3. As the talent is exploding, the parity in the league couldn’t be more polarizing. As of this writing, the eight playoff teams in the East are essentially set. It would take some kind of crazy win streak by a team that’s currently out, as well as some team that’s currently in falling off the wagon, for anything to change. The Central is more or less set, unless Dallas decides not to sell off at the deadline. You can make a case for the Pacific being competitive — and it certainly has a number of teams on the outside looking in that one could see qualifying — but it is a war of attrition of mediocrity, not a cutthroat battle among good teams to qualify. The league has done everything in its power to create parity (salary cap, three-point games, rewarding tanking, etc.) but can’t remember a time the league has been so clearly defined between legitimate playoff teams and simply bad teams. There isn’t even room for pretenders because the line is so drastic. No team outside the playoffs as of this writing has a positive goal differential — and usually there is a team or two or three at this time that has a positive goal differential, is better than their record shows, and has simply been unlucky to date. There are virtually no interesting playoff races of note because of the locked in divisional format. The league will almost certainly consider this a misnomer, and maybe it is, but playoff spot jockeying among teams divided by conference, rather than division, battling for spots one through eight makes the rest of this regular season far more exciting than this current format.

4. All that said, the trade deadline should be fascinating. So many teams are completely out of it and should be having fire sales, but will they? A number of teams on the outside thought they’d be better than they’ve been (the Islanders, Flyers, Canucks, Oilers, Jets, Stars, even the Senators). Will they chalk it up to a bad season or some other reasoning, or face reality and begin remaking their teams for next season? One thing about parity I have generally bemoaned is it leads to less interesting trade deadlines because there are no sellers. This season really should have sellers galore. It should borderline be a buyers market for once because half the league is pretty well out of the playoffs! If this type of disparity in the league doesn’t create a flurry of deadline moves happening fast and furious, not sure what else possibly could at this point?

Back among the NHL's elite, Johnny Gaudreau has found his 200-foot game once again under Darryl Sutter. (Getty)
Back among the NHL's elite, Johnny Gaudreau has found his 200-foot game once again under Darryl Sutter. (Getty) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

5. Following a few down seasons — for his standards — Johnny Gaudreau is leading the league in 5v5 points. He’s playing to a career high 105 point pace in a contract year, and his shooting percentage is at his career average so he’s not exactly riding a sky high percentage there. He has found an extra gear of magic playing primarily with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, rather than Sean Monahan. When Darryl Sutter was hired there were questions about how the two would fit. It didn’t help quiet those concerns when Sutter responded to a question about Gaudreau’s upcoming 500th game in the league by saying, “hopefully he has more energy than his 499th game.” Sutter has always been honest and tries to hold every single player on the team accountable, no matter who they are. This season, he’s calling Gaudreau one of the best 200-foot players on the team.

Sutter is not fooled easily and he knows if the best players aren’t great, the team goes nowhere. He regularly called out their center play after being hired by Calgary. In a recent blowout win against Vegas, he remarked it was maybe a statement game for Jacob Markstrom because it was more like a 6-5 game based on play. Goals and points do not fool him. But top players have thrived under him before and some of the perceptions of Sutter are misleading. Jeremy Roenick had a 107-point season under Sutter. Jarome Iginla won a Rocket Richard under him. Marian Gaborik had an electric 14 goal playoff in 26 games during LA’s second Cup run under Sutter. He does like to slow games down and focus on grinding and defense, but that does not completely stifle offense altogether. If players buy in with Sutter, even skilled players, they can be productive. Gaudreau is another example.

6. Though the undrafted Ryan Lomberg only had one point in the playoffs last year (it was a beautiful goal where he burned Victor Hedman), he made his presence known throughout that series, credited with 25 hits and 30 penalty minutes as he was an overall pest. Now, he’s part of one of the more underrated fourth lines in the league alongside Eetu Luostarinen and Patric Hornqvist. They are controlling nearly 60 percent of the shot share with an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 31.5 percent. They have scored nine goals and given up just six. Individually, he’s playing to a modest 26-point pace but he’s among league leaders in possession numbers due to his speed which sets the table for his forechecking. He plays fearless and toes the line. He’s made headlines for a collision with Antti Raanta and a massive hit on Jacob MacDonald. Three seasons ago he was a 5’9, undrafted player, toiling on the Flames' AHL team, the Stockton Heat, and had never hit even 30 points in three seasons in the AHL. The following campaign he put up 20 points in 21 games, he turned heads, and ended up signing with Florida. He’s been in the NHL ever since and now the 27-year-old is a staple role player and energy guy playing just under 12 minutes per night on one of the best teams in the league. Heck of a story.

7. Dylan Larkin broke into the league and put up 23 goals in his rookie season, which was the last time the Red Wings made the playoffs. Their 25-season playoff streak ended the following year, and they haven’t been back since, and Larkin’s career has bounced up and down throughout that time. Prior to the 2021-22 campaign, he only exceeded that 23-goal total once in the following five seasons, and he just scored his 24th of this season to pass that rookie total for this campaign. It is important to note that he’s shooting over 18 percent, which is almost double his career rate which is a shade lower than 10 percent. He will come down to earth at some point, but that doesn’t completely diminish what he is doing, and who he is doing it with. When Larkin broke into the league, he played primarily with a still very good Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader who had the second most productive season of his career that year. As Detroit started to rebuild after that, Larkin’s most common linemates fell in line with the quality of the team. The following season he still played primarily with Abdelkader, and Riley Sheahan (he had 32 points that season in 80 games). After that was Tomas Tatar and Anthony Mantha, and he bounced back with a 63-point season. Next season was Mantha and Gustav Nyquist and he had career highs in goals (32) and points (73). He once again played with Mantha but Nyquist was replaced with Tyler Bertuzzi, who was good but Nyquist was playing to a 65-point pace alongside Larkin before being traded so at the time it was a downgrade (on offense, anyways). This takes us to last season where Larkin still played with Mantha before he was traded and… Filip Zadina. His numbers dipped. Now he’s alongside the excellent rookie Lucas Raymond and Tyler Bertuzzi who is having a massive season, and his numbers are skyrocketing. He’s only 25 years old and his career looks up and down at a glance, but bottom line is when Dylan Larkin plays with good players, he’s generally produced at a top-line rate.

8. Over 10 years ago some interesting interviews were conducted with star players. Martin St. Louis was one of them and since listening to them — admittedly they are short — it always struck me how much of a student of the game he is, and how no-nonsense he can be. He’s going into a situation in Montreal with nothing to lose. That team can’t possibly be any worse, so any uptick in play will basically be considered a win. Current Canadiens Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, Jeff Gorton, was of course with the Rangers when they acquired Martin St. Louis so there is a built-in connection. It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, St. Louis has learned from coaching minor hockey. As a player he already understands the pro side of things, so there’s an opportunity to marry the two. There are several former pros that have gone onto coach minor hockey (Darcy Tucker, Wendel Clark and Anthony Stewart, to name a few).

9. On the other side of Canada, and also having a disappointing season for different reasons, the Oilers fired Dave Tippett and associate coach Jim Playfair, and have promoted Bakersfield Condors Head Coach Jay Woodcroft. I won’t pretend I know Woodcroft well but have actually met him at a coaches conference before and appreciated how willing he was to engage with people such as myself that he really didn’t need to. What was interesting about him is that he didn’t take opportunities until he felt he was ready. When the Oilers originally offered him the AHL head coach position, he had questions for them and accepted after he heard what he needed to. His standard as an assistant coach in the NHL was to be the assistant coach that he would want to have. This is from a few years ago but if you are interested to learn more about Jay Woodcroft, I recommend giving this podcast a listen. Edmonton is 12th in the league in goals per game which is by no means an issue, but scoring and their forwards was always supposed to be their strength, so it should be interesting to see if they squeeze more out of that group beyond the top two players. I don’t think the Oilers were exactly planning on Evan Bouchard leading their defensemen in scoring overall at this point of the season.

10. Last week we tried to give some kudos to the NHL All-Star game and then they actually have a reasonably exciting — for NHL standards — breakaway challenge, with one of the coolest goals we’ve ever seen, and the winner is a phony attempt on a fake score to the hometown captain. It’s a particular shame when you invite a young player who is not an all-star to take part, he willingly attends just to put on a good show, and while on his entry level contract he watches the player that was objectively worse, who has earned well over $60 million in his career already, collect a $30,000 prize while he is in his first full season collecting an NHL paycheck. Will he be okay financially? Almost certainly. But it's the principle of the matter here. The festivities, including the judging, can absolutely be fun. But it really cheapens it when you accept a fake score like that to anoint a winner that everyone knows should not have won.

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