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10 NHL insights and observations: Prime Ryan Getzlaf was built in a lab

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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 some heated NHL award races, Ryan Getzlaf hanging them up, the Radko Gudas resurgence, Alex Killorn's career year and more.

1. Appreciating Ryan Getzlaf, a near-perfect hockey player

Wanted to start by discussing Ryan Getzlaf given that he just announced his retirement. He’s going to end his career with over 1,000 points, nearly 1,000 penalty minutes plus another 120 points in 125 playoff games. To me if you were to draw up a player in a lab, it would pretty much be prime Ryan Getzlaf. Skilled, mean, size, had a knack for big games, could matchup against other top centres and he made his teammates better. This start to Game 6 of the 2009 Western Conference Final is one of the better things I’ve ever seen to begin a playoff game:

in the 2017 playoffs the Ducks went to the Western Conference Finals and he was just incredible throughout the run. One of the most signature games of his career happened on that run — down 2-1 in the series against the Oilers, the Ducks went down 2-0 in Game 4 after some unlucky bounces. They eventually won 4-3 in overtime, with Getzlaf putting up four points. It’s hard to find players that check basically all the boxes. Getzlaf was one of them though.

I also feel obligated to note he’s one of the last remaining players in the league that doesn’t wear a visor.

2. Radko Gudas is impossible to ignore

Love him or hate him, you can’t help but notice Radko Gudas when he's on the ice. He made headlines for all the wrong reasons early in his career, getting suspended four times — including a 10-gamer for an ugly slash against Mathieu Perreault — but has cleaned it up a bit after bouncing around the league and having a number of coaches speak to him about his actions. He has yet to be suspended or fined this season and if he gets through this one without an indiscretion, that will make it his third straight season doing so.

That hasn’t softened his game, though. Gudas leads the league in hits with 323 – the next closest is Tanner Jeannot at 246. He also led the league in hits last season. Listed at 6-foot, he isn’t the biggest player but he is a fire hydrant. Combining a low centre gravity with his strength, his hits are of the bone-crunching variety. Last week, he threw a vintage hip check, something we almost never see anymore:

and he isn’t a dead end with the puck, either. Gudas has scored at least two goals in every single season he’s played in. He has a career shots-on-goal per game average of 1.69. Gudas can make some plays with the puck, which is why he’s four points away from hitting 150 in his career. For his career he’s averaging over 18 minutes per game, which is about right for him. Not a 20-minute, top-four stalwart, but more than a pure third pairing guy and capable of moving up accordingly for spot duty.

3. Alex Killorn's quiet career year

One of the more modest and quiet career years taking place belongs to Alex Killorn this season. He’s already established a new career-high with 52 points and counting at the age of 32. His 21 goals are the second highest of his career (he will have work to do to match or pass the 26 he put up in 2019-2020). It’s amazing that he has never had a 50-point season before. When Tampa Bay went to the Cup for the first time all the way back in 2014-15, he had 18 points in 26 playoff games. Last season when they won the Cup, he put up 17 points in 19 playoff games. He’s one of the league's more underrated players in front of the net and plays in that very spot for the Bolts on their top unit. His hand-eye coordination is excellent and you can make an entire highlight reel of deflections he has made in front for goals. He’s listed at 6’1 and about 200 pounds, but he plays like he’s 6’3, 230. He doesn’t always hit when but when he does it can make a statement:

He’ll penalty kill, he can play on any line in the top-nine comfortably, he adds some jam and scoring. The type of player you want to surround your stars with.

4. Troy Stecher solidifying Kings blue line

Thought one of the sneaky great moves of the trade deadline was Troy Stecher. The 28-year-old has now played over 350 games in the league, is right-handed, and more than capable of taking a shift in the league… and he only cost the Kings a seventh-round pick. Stecher has had an interesting career, going undrafted and playing three full years at North Dakota, where he won an NCAA Championship while being named to the All-Tournament Team. He signed with Vancouver after and almost made the team right out of training camp.

Stecher bounced between the NHL and AHL for a literal month, logging four games in the AHL before getting recalled and never looking back, playing 19:59 per game over 71 games (and putting up 24 points, which is still a career high for him). By the time he left Vancouver he was firmly playing third pairing minutes before going to a rebuilding Detroit team and playing on their third pairing, playing primarily with Marc Staal — a hard place to make a name for yourself. On a King playoff team his ice time has gone up nearly three minutes per game, primarily playing with Alex Edler. He makes unheralded plays all over the ice, like this goal against the Kings where he keeps a good gap against Johnny Gaudreau off the rush, and when the puck turns over, he busts all the way up ice to be an option, attracting just enough attention to help keep Adrian Kempe hidden. A typical unheralded play by an unheralded player, acquired for a mere seventh.

5. Fascinating race for major NHL awards

This is one of the best races for awards in recent memory. Across the board there are fantastic seasons happening, which speaks to the quality of the league and the individuals in it. Voters are going to have a tough time picking winners because for virtually every award there is a good case to be made for any number of players. Sometimes we downplay these awards, especially while they are happening, and it’s truly unfortunate. This is a primary way a player should make a case for the Hall of Fame. It’s a big responsibility for voters. We started this column talking about Ryan Getzlaf — he never won an individual award of note (which I would argue is correct, he shouldn’t have). Since his retirement announcement there has been a lot of talk about him being a Hall of Famer. By definition, the Hall of Fame merely considers a player eligible based on the attributes of “playing ability, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her team or teams and to the game of hockey in general.” To me, the Hall of Fame should be reserved for the elite of the elite. That means that you were one of the top three at your position for at least a single season, if not multiple seasons. The Hall of Fame does reward that, but it also rewards longevity and very good careers, and to me that’s not what a Hall of Fame should be.

6. Who's the MVP?

So, let’s talk awards. First up, the Hart Trophy. The headline players are obvious. Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid are having ridiculous seasons and will likely finish 1-2 here. We’ll get to them in a second, but first some other players of note. Johnny Gaudreau is having a lights-out season on a high-end Calgary team. He is the straw that stirs the drink for one of the best overall lines in the league. The next highest scorer on the team is 11 points back of him. In any normal season where you don’t have a guy pushing for 60 goals and another that’s prime McDavid, he’s right there in the discussion.

If Roman Josi hits 100 points, outpaces any other player on his team by roughly 20 and a fairly average Nashville team makes the playoffs, he deserves some sort of recognition here. Some will say Cale Makar should be here too but he’s surrounded by superstars and plays with Devon Toews while Josi plays with Dante Fabbro. These are not even remotely equal scenarios and for an award that goes to the player most valuable to his team in the regular season, that does matter.

The other player I think deserves at least a little attention here is Kirill Kaprizov. He is having an amazing year on a good Minnesota team that I really wasn’t sure what to expect from going into the season. His 87 points are 16 more than the next highest scorer on his team, and 26 more than the one after. His centre is Ryan Hartman (who is a good player, but certainly not a 1C). in terms of a player being most valuable to his team, he’s right there.

It’ll come down to Matthews and McDavid though, the two most valuable players in the league. If the award is for the most valuable player in the league, I’d give it to Matthews who is scoring at an incredible rate and is a horse all over the ice. If it’s most valuable to the team, McDavid gets rewarded for playing on a worse team but having them up in the standings. It’s a tough one. I think all five of these players have a serious case.

This is one of the tightest Hart Trophy races we've seen in years. (Getty)
This is one of the tightest Hart Trophy races we've seen in years. (Getty)

7. Battle for the Norris

If the Hart is difficult, the Norris might be worse. In a regular year, all of Makar, Josi, Victor Hedman and Adam Fox likely win. Ultimately, I think it’s a two-horse race as well between Makar and Josi. Fox is having a great season but he’s also below water in shot share on a team that largely gets out shot. If you’re the best defenseman in the league, you should be winning your shifts with regularity, not falling below breaking point over the course of the season. Ultimately, the best defenseman in the league does a bit of everything.

Josi doesn’t penalty kill much (under a minute per game), and it should be noted that neither Hedman or Makar are on their team’s top penalty killing units. Makar has a high-end partner, while Hedman plays with a fairly average player and elevates him. He also doesn’t take on all the tough matchups at 5v5, either. Ultimately I give the nod to Makar here, I think he’s the most valuable all around defenseman in the league who is doing a bit of everything, and producing at an elite level while playing just a hair more than the other guys.

8. Rookie of the year

The Calder race is also an interesting one this season as Michael Bunting leads all rookies in scoring at the ripe age of 26. I hear the arguments for “if he’s eligible then age doesn’t matter,” I just don’t buy them. He’s having a great season, he deserves some level of recognition, but all things being equal, the tie should go to the younger player because it’s harder when you’re younger and haven’t fully developed. This is Bunting’s seventh season playing professional hockey. Even that aside, he’s playing with two of the best players in the league and doesn’t even play 16 minutes per night. Does he help them? Yes, of course – he’s earned his spot on that line. But his numbers get a boost from playing with two superstars, a luxury most other competitors don’t get.

The next three rookie leading scorers are Lucas Raymond, Trevor Zegras and Moritz Seider. Raymond is going to be a really nice player — he already is! — but there are too many holes defensively for me to ignore and he doesn’t make up for them enough offensively to win the Calder. Zegras should easily be a top three finalist and is having a fantastic season, second on the Ducks in scoring. Like Raymond, I think his game has a lot of holes on one side of the ice and he doesn’t do enough to make up for it to win the Calder. The clear winner to me is Seider, who is a monster all over the ice, logs heavy minutes with minimal sheltering and is productive. One honorary mention that shouldn’t win but is having an incredible rookie season himself is Tanner Jeannot. He scores, he fights, he checks defensively. Just a really nice player that I wanted to recognize here.

9. Top tender

The Vezina once looked like a slam dunk for Igor Shesterkin, but his game has fallen off some and I can’t quite get by the fact that he’s going to play roughly 10-15 games fewer than the players he’s going against for this reward. The more a goalie plays, the harder it is for them. It matters. All of Frederik Andersen, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros, Jacob Markstrom and even Tristan Jarry are having incredible seasons. You can argue a case for any. Andersen is second in the league in goals save above expected, Markstrom leads the league in shutouts and Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins. At this point though, I’m leaning towards Saros. He has played more than the others and is on an objectively worse team than them, too. He’s at the top of the leaderboard when it comes to most major statistics. Some goalies have it easier than others when you consider the environment they play in. For Saros to be right there in the toughest one of all, that’s Vezina caliber to me.

10. Rulebook thoughts

In this space we’ve talked about the referees before and how hard the job can be. I certainly don’t want this to become a column where we spend a bunch of time complaining about officiating. No matter who you are, and no matter what the refs do, someone is always going to complain. One of the things that makes it so difficult is how many plays are open to interpretation. Some see a perfectly clean hit, some see boarding or charging or roughing. Some see a stick check, some see a hook. There are very few “automatic” penalties. If you shoot it over the glass – that’s a gimme. There are generally some very obvious trips, crosschecks, hooks and the like. If you slash a stick and break it in two pieces, that is another easy call.

One that should not be a call at all, though? Slashing a stick out of someone’s hands. It’s simply not a penalty. The NHL rulebook defines slashing as, “Any forceful chop with the stick on an opponent's body or opponent's stick, on or near the opponent's hands, shall be considered slashing.” These are NHL players. A forceful chop of a stick will break it in half. They all grip their sticks well and if they don’t, and a slash knocks the stick out of their hands, it simply can’t be an automatic penalty. Yes, there are occasions where it does happen and it should be called. But by and large? It just means you have to hold your stick tighter. In a league where it’s hard to find easy calls, it’s easy to call that a penalty too. But genuinely I don’t believe it’s one at all.

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