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 the teams allowing the fewest goals against per game, the most lopsided trade running in the league, and a deal that hasn’t worked out for anyone.
Leafs, Bruins, Devils thriving without a true No. 1 goalie
Take a quick look at the three teams allowing the fewest goals per game and you’ll see the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils. What do all those teams have in common? None of them exactly have a stud, No. 1 goalie. If you asked someone to write down the top 10 goalies in the league, I’m not sure a single goalie from any of those three teams would make the list.
Goaltending is an interesting consideration in this day and age. The league has largely moved away from having a stud getting most of your starts — no goalie has started more than 70 games since Cam Talbot in 2016-17. The 82-game season is a grind now and what have all of those teams done as a result? They have goaltending tandems and largely gambled in the crease. The Leafs did it twice with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. The Devils took a swing on Vitek Vanecek. The Bruins swung last season on Linus Ullmark.
Two of those goalies made up the Washington Capitals' tandem just last season, and they elected to sign a full-fledged starter in Darcy Kuemper instead. Instead of paying up in net, each team is paying up to bolster the playing roster and create environments where goalies can have success. They're relying less on a goalie to bail them out and more on the team around them to limit chances — all three are top 10 in shots against per game and top 10 in expected goals against per game.
We’ll see if it holds come playoff time, though, when teams largely do need stud goaltending and it’s really difficult to overcome a large gap between goalies in tighter, heavier checking games.
Avalanche need Newhook to take a step forward
The Colorado Avalanche had a lot of difficult decisions to make immediately after winning the Stanley Cup. They couldn’t afford to run their championship team back under the salary cap so they went about prioritizing certain players and backfilling where possible. Part of that backfilling is also relying on players in the system emerging with more responsibilities.
One of those players the Avs have been banking on is Alex Newhook. He was drafted 16th overall in 2019 and last season was his first in the NHL, playing 71 games and putting up 33 points.
This season his ice time is up almost a minute and a half per game. The production has not been there though — he’s actually producing less this season than last. Newhook is even playing with more offensively inclined teammates, lining up regularly with Evan Rodrigues and Valeri Nichushkin (when he’s been in the lineup) compared to Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Logan O’Connor last season. His speed is undeniable, now he needs the rest of his game to catch up, namely strength to hold onto the puck longer and make more plays. He has shown some finish if he can get a little time and space.
Newhook is only 21, it’s his second season in the league. But he’s on the reigning Cup champs who want to continue winning right now. Newhook breaking out would make them all the more formidable.
Stephenson trade an absolute steal for Golden Knights
One player who did go from depth player on a Cup winner to breakout star is Chandler Stephenson. It’s almost unbelievable to look back on now. Stephenson won the Cup with the Washington Capitals in his rookie season, putting up 18 points in 64 regular-season games before dressing in all 24 playoff games and chipping in seven points along the way. The following season he plateaued with 11 points in 64 games and halfway through the season after that, Washington had seen enough and traded him to Vegas for a fifth-round pick.
It might be the most lopsided trade running in the league right now. He went to Vegas and put up 22 points in 41 games upon arrival and again played in all possible playoff games as his team went to the Stanley Cup Final, meaning he made two Cup Final appearances in his first three full seasons.
Fast forward a few seasons and he’s leading Vegas in scoring (in part because Jack Eichel got hurt, to be sure). He isn’t a big-time goal scorer — he looks to be settling in as a 20ish goal scorer — but his speed is a bonafide weapon that causes all sorts of issues. Playing with Mark Stone on the penalty kill is not even fair. They just take up so much space and know how to anticipate plays.
This is almost too easy. The second Stephenson deflects the puck it’s over. Nobody is catching him. The fact that he can bounce between centre and wing is a luxury, especially as the Golden Knights manage Eichel. Stephenson can centre their top line respectably when Eichel is out and slide over to the wing and keep it humming while he's playing. And he’s doing that for one of the best teams in the league, all for a fifth-round draft pick. It’s larceny.
Martinez needs an ice pack for Christmas
Blocked shots have generally become frowned upon and for a pretty simple and straightforward reason: if you are blocking shots, it’s because not only do you not have the puck, but the puck is actively in your own zone.
We don’t seem to talk about blocked shots anymore or the players that do it, but perhaps if we did there would be a lot more buzz about how Alec Martinez is the leader with 126… and the next highest is Jacob Trouba with 84. That is a massive gap from first to second. And Martinez is not a bad player; his absence was a big part of Vegas’s struggles last season. He’s playing with Alex Pietrangelo in a tough defensive role and they are an interesting study in shot quantity vs. quality. Their possession metrics are below water but they are above water in expected goals and actual goal difference at 5v5.
Martinez is a fearless player and to still be laying out and putting his body on the line the way he does at the age of 35 is beyond commendable.
Hurricanes quietly thriving once again
Top teams are almost always superstar-driven and grab headlines, which has not been the case for the Carolina Hurricanes. Once again, they are just humming along, minding their own business and sitting at the top of their division. They are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games, including beating the Devils to pass them in points percentage to climb back to the top of the Metropolitan Division. In fact, since the start of the 2020-21 season until today, nobody in the NHL has more points than the Hurricanes.
In that time, Sebastian Aho leads them in scoring and is tied for 24th among all players. The crazy thing when you really look at it is how they’ve changed the cast quite drastically over this short period of time. In the bubble season they had Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer in net. None of them were on the team the following season. Vincent Trochek was second on their team in scoring that year and he’s no longer there. Dougie Hamilton was leading their defense and he’s gone. The following season they added Tony DeAngelo and he led their defense in scoring. He’s since departed. Nino Niederreiter left in the offseason, too.
These aren’t minor bit players, these are guys that played prominent roles on a top team, and they’ve just revolved through them, identified appropriate replacements and kept the train rolling. They haven’t been able to get through the second round, which has largely driven their player movement, but in the meantime they have quietly and consistently been a regular-season powerhouse. Without the superstar power or playoff success, they haven’t exactly received much recognition for it.
Bear-Foegele swap was a flop
Sometimes there are trades where you wonder if things would have worked out better for all parties had it simply not happened at all. On the surface, when the Edmonton Oilers and Hurricanes swapped Warren Foegele for Ethan Bear, it made sense.
The Oilers needed scoring depth and got a young winger that had some size, had shown the ability to retain possession and showed some secondary scoring ability with Carolina. The Hurricanes were looking for a right-handed defenseman to round out their core and give them a good 5-on-5 option to limit DeAngelo’s role and simply optimize him for power-play and offensive zone use.
It hasn’t exactly played out that way. Bear started with Jaccob Slavin, the 5-on-5 shutdown pairing envisioned for him, but he washed out of Carolina and the Hurricanes eventually traded him to Vancouver for a fifth-round draft pick. Foegele, meanwhile, saw his production and ice time drop after the trade, going from 14:09 per game, to 12:37 to now 12:09 per game this season. He’s on pace for his lowest level of production since his rookie season.
Neither team really got what it wanted out of the trade and as the old saying goes, sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.
Criticism of Thompson-O'Reilly deal is unwarranted
On the flip side, there surprisingly seems to be a lot of hand-wringing about the Tage Thompson-Ryan O’Reilly trade between Buffalo and St. Louis in 2018. Simply put, the Blues won a Stanley Cup. It is the only Stanley Cup they have won in the history of their franchise. O'Reilly led their team in scoring, was the bus driver down the middle, and rightfully won the Conn Smythe in 2019.
It’s incredibly difficult to win the Stanley Cup — only 12 franchises have even won one this millennium. The list of teams that would pretty well sell their souls to join that list is the rest of them.
We seem to be in this time of "What have you done for me lately?" but a Cup win lasts forever. If anything, it’s a trade that’s now finally working out well for both teams.
Seider not clicking with Chiarot?
Following an impressive rookie season, the Detroit Red Wings looked to get Moritz Seider some help with an improved defense partner. They signed Ben Chiarot to big money, but the improved partner part hasn’t exactly worked out as intended. Seider played primarily with Danny DeKeyser last season and while Chiarot is a bit of an analytics lightning-rod player, you’d like to think he’s better than DeKeyser at this point. Yet, their results are arguably worse.
Seider’s possession numbers and expected goals while paired with Chiarot are lower than when he was paired with DeKeyser as a rookie on a worse team. In about 777 minutes together at all strengths, DeKeyser and Seider were outscored 27-40. In 540 minutes together this season, Chiarot and Seider have been outscored 21-44. It’s almost mind-blowing to look at.
Seider is producing less, too. If anything it has been Filip Hronek stepping up as the guy on Detroit’s defense. It wouldn’t be fair to simply blame Chiarot. He plays a role in the struggles but it’s not all him.
The thing that surprises me is how long Lalonde has stuck with this. At 5v5, Seider-Chiarot have played 424 mins together and have a 5v5 GF% of 33%. In the last 5 years only 3 D pairings have played as much together as Seider-Chiarot and had a worse 5v5 GF%
— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) December 21, 2022
Give Nelson his due
The Islanders have locked in a number of players and they all sort of get grouped together and discussed as one, especially in the offseason when the club swung and missed numerous times. One contract that gets thrown in there but doesn’t deserve it is Brock Nelson. He’s making $6 million this season and the following two, and he is a player.
If anything, he’s underpaid by current market standards. He had 37 goals last season and is clicking at a point-per-game clip so far this year. Doing that at centre, especially when you’re 6-foot-4, gets you paid more than $6 million. He isn’t physical but he knows how to use his body to give himself time and space. Look how he freezes everyone with his wide stance, making Columbus players think he’s going to try to take the puck to the far post before pausing and flicking it short side:
He stands upright when he plays but his hands are extremely soft and he has a bomb of a shot. You see both here, where he fishes the puck out in his own zone with a little toe drag to lead a breakout counterattack before getting open and ripping a one-timer home:
Nelson is a productive player that has put his toolset of size/hands/shot together over the past few seasons and really taken off.
Thank you and Happy Holidays!
I wanted to take a second here to wish everyone a safe and merry holiday season. I hope you all get to spend time with friends and family and have some time to relax and recharge, too. You, the readers, are what make this column and I appreciate you taking some time out of your week to stop by.
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