Kaiden Guhle a silver lining for Canadiens in rebuilding season

Kaiden Guhle has been a great story for the Canadiens so far this year. (NHL photo via USA Today)

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 looks at redemption stories for Nick Foligno, Valeri Nichushkin and Brandon Montour, the coaching career of John Tortorella, icing board passes and more.

Don't call it a comeback

It was a quick fall from grace for Nick Foligno, from Columbus captain to the big acquisition by his hometown team, to playing on the first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, to back injury, to signing with the Bruins, to depth player, to healthy scratch, to going on waivers and being unclaimed.

Foligno did stay up with the Bruins and is now working to carve out a role on the team. It’s hard to see him earning the $3.8 million salary cap hit he holds, but that doesn’t mean he can’t add value. So far, his modest production is matching that with three goals (shooting over 37 percent!) and four points in his first seven games.

Perhaps more importantly, he’s rediscovering the form that made him such an endearing player. This goal in a game against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 22 shows a number of things he does well when he’s on his game. It starts with him as a net-front presence on the second power-play unit. When the play continues, he runs a subtle pick on Calen Addison, giving his teammate an extra second and a little extra space, before slipping into a soft scoring area and ripping a goal home.

He’s playing a little over 12 minutes per game, getting second power-play time and chipping in a little over half a minute shorthanded per contest. A little bit of everything, to go along with playing high-leverage situations and chipping in the odd goal. A potential redemption season is underway.

Nichushkin rewarding Avs for faith in him

By now, many know the story of Valeri Nichushkin. Cast off by the Dallas Stars after scoring zero goals in a 57-game season, he was picked up by Colorado for cheap and found a role as a good bottom-six forward.

He has always been a fancy-stats darling as a strong play driver, good at holding the puck in the offensive zone and tilting the ice. The production never matched the possession though. Until last season, when he put up 52 points in 62 games then delivered 15 in 20 playoff games.

His previous career-high of .43 points per game was in his rookie season. He only hit over .4 points per game one other time. The explosion to .84 points per game last season could have been questioned. Was it an outlier? But when Colorado had a number of big-time decisions to make after winning the Cup, he was a priority over starting goalie Darcy Kuemper, and star center Nazem Kadri.

A winger over a center and a starting goalie is not a decision to be taken lightly. But the belief is he’s more than just a play-driving winger, and that the production was legit. So far, the Avalanche have been rewarded as he is tied for the league lead in points. His confidence with the puck is almost surreal to think about compared to that Dallas season. This is end-to-end against Vegas:

Look at how once he gets a step on the defenseman, he sticks his legs out wide to protect the puck. He's a big man who knows how to use his size. You can’t possibly stick-check him around that. Once he has a step on you, it’s over.

Guhle showing promise for Habs

In a rebuild season for the Montreal Canadiens, it’s all about finding promise and potential. New captain Nick Suzuki is producing and clicking with Cole Caufield. Arber Xhekaj is a fun story. Even Sean Monahan is flashing some game (which for the Habs will hopefully translate to a good trade deadline return).

There is promise.

Perhaps none more so than Kaiden Guhle, though. The 20-year-old is averaging just under 21 minutes per game, and they are not of the empty-calorie variety. His minutes are difficult, and while there are learning curves, he’ll be better for it in the future. He’s flashing defensively.

Auston Matthews didn’t score against the Habs (though he was on for a Michael Bunting goal). The Canadiens beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and Guhle picked up the first two points of his career in that game — easily his best as a pro. The two points aside, he put on a gap control clinic against the Penguins, constantly disrupting plays and transitioning pucks up ice. He is a player.

Bratt looks wise for betting on himself

When you think of the New Jersey Devils, it’s easy for your first thoughts to go to Jack Hughes or Dougie Hamilton. Maybe even another first-overall pick in Nico Hischier, the captain of the team. But it was Jesper Bratt that led the team in scoring last season. He then locked into a contract stalemate with the Devils before ultimately signing a one-year prove-it deal.

So far, so good for Bratt. He is tied for the league lead in scoring. He leads the Devils in scoring and nobody else is even close (he’s nearly double up on the next highest scorer, Hischier). One of the best playmakers in the league already, he’s a threat anytime he has the puck in transition.

This play off the rush is awesome. He corrals the pass and chips it to his teammate, then stays onside before driving the middle gap, distracting the defenseman just enough to create space, before finally getting the puck and making a beautiful 360 pass.

He is even shooting more this season — up to three shots per game right now. Last season he averaged 2.59 shots. The season before, 2.20. He had a career-high 26 goals last season. At this rate, he’s going to better that. Then he’s going to need a new contract, again.

Healthy Lee rolling for Islanders

A lot of things went wrong for the Islanders last season, which started with a 13-game road trip. One piece of that was Anders Lee returning from tearing his ACL and taking time to find his game. He ended the season with a strong 28 goals, but just 46 points in 76 games. His points-per-game totals were just a shade below what we expect from him, thanks in large part to a strong second half to the season. But the Islanders were out of the playoff picture by then.

This season, they are starting fresh with a new coach and all. Lee said he feels better after a normal offseason and the results so far show it, with seven points in seven games. His first of the season was a classic Anders Lee goal, battling to get to the front of the net and get positioning, winning, and tipping a puck in the net. His hand-eye coordination in front of the net is elite. He is one of the better, more underrated goal-scoring wingers in the league. It’s nice to see him fully healthy and rolling.

Montour stepping up on Panthers' blue line

After flaming out in the second round last season, the Florida Panthers made a massive splash in the summer by trading for Matthew Tkachuk. It hurt their defense — losing MacKenzie Weegar — and brought salary cap ramifications.

Who would man the Panthers' blue line now? Is the group good enough? Their top defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, got hurt at the beginning of the season.

One defenseman who has been tasked with stepping up so far is Brandon Montour and he is doing an admirable job. He’s averaging nearly 25 minutes per game — which would be a career-high — producing at nearly a point per game and has above-water underlying numbers playing alongside Gustav Forsling and Marc Staal.

Montour is a product of the once-great Anaheim defenseman factory. He was squeezed out of that lineup and the Buffalo Sabres pounced, hoping to acquire a young, top-four defenseman that could be part of their core. It never panned out there — Montour struggled playing up the lineup and the Sabres didn’t have the support system or infrastructure for him to blossom.

The Panthers eventually traded for him and played him down the lineup, focusing on what he does well: Offensive situations, power play, tasking him with less defensive responsibility. This season, though, they have little in the way of options. The Panthers have big plans for this season and believe they are a contender. Montour currently leads their team in time on ice per game. At the age of 28 he’s finally coming into his own and making good on the promise that many expected of him years ago.

Robertson making most of opportunity

Waivers, contract status and the salary cap are battles every team has to fight, often leaving casualties in their wake. Count Maple Leafs forward Nicholas Robertson among them to start the season. But LTIR and opportunity were presented early on, and he has capitalized.

In part because of the pandemic, it seems like ages ago that he made his NHL debut, coming right into the playoffs against Columbus and even scoring. The future was bright, but development is not always linear. He was hurt the following season and played more with the Marlies than the Leafs. The next season (which was last season), was more of the same. He played 10 games with the Leafs, largely down the lineup, and had just one assist in those games.

But the signs were there with the Marlies. He had 28 points in 28 games. His role expanded. He was not only contributing all over the ice, but dominating.

When you’ve heard a name for years and he hasn’t broken through, it is easy to start dismissing the player. But Robertson is just 21 — still an incredibly young player that is developing. He’ll have to prove he can stay healthy and contribute at 5-on-5 on a team that is Cup or bust but there is no doubt he can produce in the league. This is a goal scorer’s goal:

That is a no-doubter in a prime spot. The release is gorgeous. The puck is on and off his stick in seconds, in a spot that’s not a one-timer position for a lefty. He does just enough to hold the puck out wide and shoot blocker. He is ready to score goals in this league right now. If the rest of his game holds up, he’s going to stick in the NHL and show it this season.

Weaponizing the boards

Years and years ago, the Detroit Red Wings used to use their boards as verified weapons, constantly incorporating bounce passes off of them, including on the odd icing play. In Detroit, who could forget this Sedin connection beauty?

It’s a play we’ve seen more and more of over the years. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner replicated it years later with the Leafs. It’s a play we’ve seen the Bruins in particular make with semi-regularity.

The play makes sense. Icings are loathed, they slow down the game and teams can’t control their matchups because the team that iced the puck isn’t allowed to make a change. And opponents not only want to force icings, but they are playing tight in the neutral zone to close gaps and not provide any space or opportunities to generate speed off the rush in the first place. So by having a player without the puck streak right down the ice, if you time it properly, you’ll always have a step on a defender that has to turn to catch you in the first place. A long bank pass off the boards, and it’s basically a pass.

It was a lot less pretty to start the season, but the same idea started the sequence that led to Kent Johnson scoring his first NHL goal. The play started with a neutral zone far side dump-in that was meant to be a pass off the boards to a streaking forechecker. It worked, Columbus gained possession in the zone and never gave it back, resulting in a goal. One of my favourite plays in today’s game.

Torts working his magic

The Philadelphia Flyers are off to a solid start and while it remains to be seen how real they are, it’s an impressive start for new head coach John Tortorella. Entering the season he had all sorts of questions and had to deal with losing arguably the team's best player in Sean Couturier.

But he promised the Flyers would work hard and so far that has been the case. He generated headlines for the training camp bag skates. He was firm in his direction. As a tactician and X’s and O’s guy, there are questions you can ask over the course of his career, but his ability to motivate is something a number of players have touted.

A market like Philly on a team not expected to do anything is his element. It’s not easy to look past the bluster but his coaching career has largely gone pretty well. Since his first full season as a coach began, Tortorella has made the playoffs in 12 of the 18 seasons he’s coached in. He won the Cup with Tampa Bay and also helped lead the Rangers to the conference finals.

Among his most impressive feats was not only beating, but sweeping, a record-setting Tampa Bay team in the 2018-19 playoffs. A year later he also oversaw a semi-upset of the Leafs. He has the 14th most wins of all-time and has a chance to crack the top 10 this season. He’s a brash, headline-grabbing bench boss, but he is a good coach.

Time for offside reviews to go

If we could go back in time, we would simply hope the Matt Duchene goal that was miles offside would have simply been caught, and we wouldn’t have offside reviews. It has become a ticky-tack process, inspecting a free-flowing game down to the final millimeter.

This is not football. This is not inches moving towards yards, resulting in first downs. Frankly, even if a goal is an inch offside, it does not particularly bother me. In such a fast game, an inch one way or the other did not impact the actual defending of the play. Not everything will always be perfect and in the flow of a game like hockey, that’s okay.

The NHL might argue with a push to betting it needs to be right on calls all the time. The NFL instituted challenging pass interference flags after a really bad missed call in a playoff game. The challenges made games longer and were frustrating to watch. Ultimately, challenging flags lasted a year. It wasn’t worth it and officials were generally right.

Meanwhile, hockey has largely become a game where teams enter the zone and I find myself asking, would a goal here even count? In Phil Kessel’s 989th straight game to tie the ironman record, he scored his 400th career goal. The Leafs challenged and after a six-plus minute review, it was overturned.

The goal came well after the zone entry. It was miniscule. There was no impact on the play. Is this the spirit of the rule? Is this how we should be watching and enjoying the game?

The Kessel example is particularly dramatic, but truly, the number of examples are endless. It’s painful. Put the offsides back in the ref's hands.

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