10 NHL Insights and Observations: Will lack of parity lead to more trades?

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 Colorado’s excellence, shooting for a rebound, player tracking stats, Alexis Lafreniere, Trevor Zegras, and more.

1. Will lack of parity lead to more trades?

I have previously mentioned the lack of parity in the league this season. Dallas has caught Nashville in the standings in terms of points percentage in the Central and while Edmonton is holding onto a playoff spot in the Pacific, nobody tell Anaheim or Vancouver that they are out of it (or Winnipeg in the Central).

With that said, that leaves 12 teams that can more or less consider themselves out of the playoff mix unless something drastic happens. As the trade deadline approaches, I have had this theory for years that the reason it does not live up to the hype is because there aren’t enough sellers due to the parity-driven league.

Phil Kessel and Jakob Chychrun could be on the move before the end of the month. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

There are not many seasons like this where the standings are this polarizing. Even teams on the edge – and some have coaches and general managers that need to make it to save their jobs – making the playoffs just to be first-round fodder is not particularly driving their organization forward. Of course, quantity does not always equal quality and without quality, the excitement is not nearly the same

It’s hard to remember now but the NHL set the record for most trades on the trade deadline in February of 2020, a few weeks before the world shut down due to COVID-19. But there were no real blockbusters on that day so it wasn’t exactly a standout event.

And all those teams we just mentioned that remain reasonably in the playoff race? They generally have the biggest names that would make the largest impact if made available (which makes sense since good players tend to help you win more games, which is why those teams are still in it!). I don’t know if exciting trade deadlines lead to more fans for the league, but it sure makes for a fun day for the league’s existing supporters.

2. Alexis Lafreniere’s sophomore ice time

Lafreniere was considered an NHL-ready first-overall pick when the New York Rangers won the lottery to select him. Since then, though, he hasn’t really received the opportunities of other first-overall picks. Let’s look at the time on ice of the last 10 first overall picks in each of their first two seasons compared with Lafreniere’s.

Even Yakupov played more throughout his first two seasons in the league! This isn’t completely without merit though. Lafreniere has 108 NHL games played and has only launched 135 shots on goal. He only has 38 points (25 goals, though), and the Rangers are in a firm playoff spot this season, so perhaps they are not as forgiving of young players as they would be were they in a rebuild.

In 12 games in February, he did average nearly 15 minutes, a slight uptick, and put up six points in those games (five goals), but even still only generated 19 shots on net. The belief is part of the reasoning for trading Pavel Buchnevich is that with money tight, they could spend it elsewhere and rely on Lafreniere to step up. In February he has moved up to play with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, and he has been scoring in that role.

The ice time is slowly creeping up. He’s still only 20. The Rangers will need him if they hope to ascend into the playoff threat they are hoping to be.

3. Challenging goals leading to penalties

One of the low-key more interesting changes the league has made has been giving a team a penalty when it unsuccessfully challenges a goal. Goals are hard to come by as it is, but giving one up then instantly going to the penalty box because you unsuccessfully challenged is quite the swing.

And it is playing with teams' minds. Case in point, Pittsburgh vs. Columbus, the Penguins score with 2:14 left to take the lead and there’s some contact between Sidney Crosby (the goal scorer) and the goalie outside of the crease before the goal. By the rule, it’s not something they are going to overturn but you go down late and try to throw a Hail Mary to save yourself. The Blue Jackets challenge and lose, sending them to the penalty box for basically the rest of regulation. They did not even sniff a scoring chance and spent most of the rest of the game watching the Penguins zip the puck around on a man advantage.

In the bonkers Leafs vs. Red Wings matchup, Ilya Mikheyev scores a goal driving the net where the goalie makes the initial save, he makes some contact inside the crease, and then the puck goes in. It wasn’t much, but by the rule, it’s contact in the crease. Jeff Blashill didn’t challenge, presumably because he feared taking a penalty (and the Red Wings were on a power play already), after the Leafs just scored an insurance marker. That made the game 8-6 and the Wings did score a seventh a little after. They didn’t complete the comeback, though.

It’s an interesting wrinkle added by the league and is having the intended consequence. I like the rule. Teams need to learn how to grapple with it and weigh it proportionately.

4. Colorado takes second fewest games to reach 40 wins

Colorado becomes the first team this season to hit 40 wins, and it required the second-fewest games to reach the mark in NHL history with 54. The record holder is the 2015-16 Washington Capitals, who took one less game to hit the milestone. That Caps team lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game series. Five of those games were one-goal contests and three went to overtime.

The other two teams to hit 40 wins in just 54 games were the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup that year, and the 1995-96 Red Wings, who not only hit 40 in 54, but set the record for most wins in a regular season with 62 and had the second most points all-time in a season with 131. They lost in the conference finals.

I wouldn’t be making any predictions no matter what the results were for the other teams and nobody needs to remind the Avalanche that they've lost in the second round three straight years.

5. Shooting for rebound

Hockey players will know this game all too well — it is called rebound. One player will stand somewhere between the hashmark to the top of the circle. Teammates will stand on either side of the net, forming a rectangle, with the goalie on one end, the shooter on the other, and teammates lined up on either side. The shooter shoots the puck and one of four things can happen – they score, the goalie saves it and covers it up, the goalie saves and puts the rebound out of reach of anyone forming the rectangle, or the goalie spits out a big rebound to the players making the rectangle, and they can shoot the rebound into the net.

The shooter keeps going until he takes a shot that does not result in a goal. Any goalie will tell you that a perfectly placed shot for rebound will handcuff them and there is nothing they can do. In order to save the puck they have to kick the rebound out to a spot that will leave them vulnerable.

Look at this work of art from Moritz Seider – he barely put anything on it, but it’s a little off the ice and in a spot where the goalie can only kick out to the slot if he’s going to save the original shot. He does and it’s a goal anyway.

Another beauty here from Tanner Pearson. Far pad, a few inches off the ice, right around the goalie’s ankle.

6. Trevor Zegras delivers in a big moment

Zegras has been all over the highlight reels since he entered the league (and frankly, even before he entered the league), but this week he scored arguably the biggest goal of his career to beat the Boston Bruins late in regulation.

Anaheim is in the playoff race and trying to figure out its status as a seller or not. The team is waffling under the circumstances, going 4-5-1 in its last 10. The highlights are nice, fun, and good for the game – they excite fans and generate new ones! But seeing Zegras score a big goal at a big time for his team was all kinds of exciting, and he didn’t do anything particularly special for the goal. He skated in and ripped a shot.

Like Lafreniere, he’s also only 20. He’s second on their team in scoring and growing as the season goes along. Their leading scorer is Troy Terry, who is 23. That's to say nothing of other young players such as Jamie Drysdale, Isac Lundestrom and the incoming Mason McTavish. They have to like the way this is coming together.

7. Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson close in on 300 wins each

I completely understand that goalie wins are more of a team stat than an individual stat but as Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson each close in on the 300-win mark (they are both at 298), I decided to look it up and see where exactly they rank. If and when they hit the mark, they would be only the 39th and 40th goalies to ever hit the milestone.

There are a few other active netminders that have already passed it: Sergei Bobrovsky is at 323, Jonathan Quick at 350, and of course Marc Andre Fleury is third all-time with 508 wins. There are two other goalies with a chance to accomplish the feat relatively soon in Mike Smith (288) and Jaroslav Halak (283).

That 300-win mark is rare company to keep and an impressive achievement worth celebrating. As we watch Holtby and Anderson chase the milestone, I couldn’t help but think of the record for most wins. There has been a lot of talk about Wayne Gretzky’s goal record, which is understandable considering Alex Ovechkin is making a real run at it, but one that seems safe is Martin Brodeur’s win record at 691. Patrick Roy is next at 551.

8. NHL goalies win record

One reason Brodeur’s win record is almost certainly safe? Goalies simply played more in his era. Brodeur played in over 70 games in 12 seasons! He topped out at 78 games in one campaign, and three other times played in 77 games.

The last goalie to play 70+ games was Cam Talbot in 2016-17. The two current leaders in games played – Connor Hellebuyck and Juuse Saros are tied at 45 each – have already sat out for nine games this season. They would basically have to play out the season at this point to reach 70 games played.

There simply aren’t many easy games in the league anymore. On any given night, anyone can beat anyone. While that has technically always been true, the gap between the bottom teams and the top teams is not as large as it once was, which takes a toll on goalies in particular.

9. Draisaitl, McDavid and game-winning goals

Nobody needs to tell Oilers fans about their depth issues but when I was poking through game-winning goals stats this week, I saw that Leon Draisaitl leads the league in them. I took it a step further and went all the way back to 2015-16 — his first full season in the NHL – to see where he ranks overall in that category, and he’s tied with Auston Matthews for third. Brad Marchand is second. Connor McDavid is first.

In that same time period, the Oilers are 22nd in points percentage in the league and have made the playoffs twice (and lost in the play-in round in the bubble). Draisaitl and McDavid are both over a point per game in the playoffs. They're two of the league’s best game-breakers and we’ve barely seen them play on the biggest and brightest stage. That is truly a shame.

10. NHL player tracking

The NHL announced it is releasing one of its first machine-learning stats in partnership with Amazon Web Services. "Face-off Probability" leverages data collected by NHL Edge, the league's puck and player tracking technology, to create a graphic that displays the chances that a player wins a faceoff or a team gains possession of the puck.

I get that it’s not people’s favourite use of in-game tracking and the logic is fair, but it is a bit of a microcosm to a bigger issue the league has faced when it comes to statistics: there are just very few static plays across the league to measure. Faceoffs are one of the only instances in a game with set formations, tactics, and a stoppage to setup and measure.

Baseball and football have very cut and dry gameplay. While basketball is technically free-flowing, the game involves constant timing of set plays and repeatable actions in a very deliberate manner. Soccer is arguably the closest, but the speed is not the same with so many more players on the field while playing on a larger surface.

That said, just because it’s more difficult does not mean there are no options whatsoever. Wouldn’t fans be interested in finding out, say, how many times an opponent dumps a puck into the corner on a specific defenseman, and how many times a defenseman can successfully lead a breakout when the puck is put into their corner? Or how successful a winger is at getting the puck out of his zone each time it comes up his wall?

These are specific events that are routine in the league, and provide context to the types of things fans generally pay attention to – shots on goals, scoring chances, possession, etc... We can do a lot more in this area of tracking that would really help fans understand what is happening compared to something like how fast a player was skating on the ice.

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