Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL.
This week we look at Patrick Kane's value to contenders, scoring leaders not making the playoffs, 3-on-3 overtime strategy, the World Juniors, Alexis Lafreniere and much more.
Top scorers in danger of missing playoffs
As of this writing, three of the top four scorers in the league would not make the playoffs (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Tage Thompson). That has never happened in the post-lockout era. It’s not completely unheard of for something like this to happen, though. In the 2009-10 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had the fifth, sixth and seventh leading scorers in the league and they still missed the playoffs. Jamie Benn led the league in scoring in 2014-15 and missed the playoffs, as did Jakub Voracek who was fifth in scoring that season. The closest, though, might be the 2018-19 season, where Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and Leon Draisaitl finished 2-3-4 in league scoring and all missed the playoffs. Last season, the only player to finish top-10 in scoring and miss the playoffs was J.T Miller. (he was ninth).
McDavid still no closer to a Stanley Cup
There is still plenty of time left in the regular season — over half the season — so I’m not about to count out the Oilers by any means. Should they miss the playoffs, though, it would be the fourth time McDavid misses the postseason. The first was his rookie season (in which he only played 45 games), while the other two he finished first and second in league scoring. Barring injury, he’s easily in position to lead the league in scoring yet again — he’s already 10 points up on the second leading scorer, teammate Leon Draisaitl.
If there’s some modern day hope to be found here, perhaps it’s in Steven Stamkos. After his rookie season, he finished fifth in scoring and missed the playoffs, then made it and went to the Conference Finals, then finished second in scoring and missed the playoffs (he scored 60 goals that season!). The following season, he finished second in scoring again, but missed the playoffs yet again (teammate Martin St. Louis, led the league in scoring that season). Tampa Bay made it the following season, even though they traded St. Louis at the deadline (he went to the Stanley Cup Final that season with the Rangers), and were promptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
It’s obviously not a perfect comparison — Stamkos made it to the Cup final in his seventh season, while McDavid is fresh off his seventh campaign, in which he made it as far as the conference finals. But they are two superstars who lit the league up early in their careers while their overall team struggled to find success in the playoffs.
Coaches prefer caution over chaos in overtime
When 3-on-3 overtime was first rolled out, it was chaotic. And that chaos made it insanely fun. Back and forth action, teams going full ice trading 2-on-1s and breakaways until someone finally scored. Less games going to shootouts and ending in a more “game-like” situation. Last season, there were 102 games that ended in a shootout in the NHL, which accounts for less than eight percent of the total. Before the introduction of 3-on-3, almost 14 percent of games ended in a shootout. So it has definitely worked.
But coaches have made a considerable impact on the level of excitement we see in overtime. That is to say, they have made it less exciting, as was to be expected. It’s no longer pond hockey. Teams control possession, they lap the zone and hang around the perimeter, they will actively leave the offensive zone with the puck, skating outside the blue line, just to retain possession instead of risking a turnover that results in an odd-man rush going the other way. The 3-on-3 hockey is wide open, position-less hockey catered to offensive players — yet 10 of the top 15 leaders in overtime ice time are defensemen (even if they are generally skilled, offensive defensemen).
Lots of teams are now starting opening faceoffs with a checker or two, in case they lose the faceoff. The Leafs are using David Kampf now to start overtime periods — defending first instead of blitzing an attack. They lost an overtime game earlier where Tampa Bay started Alex Killorn over a number of offensive stars you could pick from (Killorn scored the winner, too). The Red Wings just started an overtime with Michael Rasmussen taking the opening draw. Last week the Flames started Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin in an overtime game against the Kings. The Bruins and Islanders had an overtime this month where the starting units were Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zach Parise and Noah Dobson against Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk and Hampus Lindholm. We are still seeing few games actually go to a shootout, but the style for 3-on-3 is definitely evolving as coaches look to clamp it down from the start.
Josi, Predators crashing back down to Earth
It was always going to be hard for Roman Josi to duplicate his 2021-22 96-point season. When you are that productive, and start the following season with a more modest 26 points in 33 games, it’s met with some disappointment. Interestingly though, he’s shooting more than he ever has. In his huge career season, he averaged 3.51 shots on net per game and led all defensemen with 281 shots on net. This season, he is averaging a whopping 4.3 shots on net per game! And go figure, he’s shooting a career low percentage (perhaps throwing just a bit too much junk at the net in the process), but to put things in perspective, he’s pacing for his third highest scoring season of his career.
Again, expectations are massive when you have such a big year. It doesn’t help that the rest of the talent around him has also cooled off — Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg both had career seasons as well. Tanner Jeannot had a big 24-goal season — he has three goals through 33 games this season. As a team, they scored 3.2 goals per game last season — 13th in the league. This season? 2.48 goals per game, which ranks 30th. It was always going to be difficult to match your top three players having career seasons — Forsberg is the youngest of the three at 28 — but the offense has completely crashed. All the while, Josi is launching more pucks on net than ever.
Rangers' patience running thin with Lafreniere
In 2020, the Rangers lucked out and won the draft lottery, jumping from the 11th-best odds to the first overall pick. The consensus top player at the time was Alexis Lafreniere, fresh off a monster season in the QMJHL and an electrifying World Juniors where he looked like a complete franchise winger. He was already 6-foot-1, nearly 200 pounds and described as an NHL-ready product.
It has not exactly worked out that way, and it was announced Thursday that he was to be a healthy scratch for the Rangers' game against the Lightning. That’s sure to perk up the ears of opposing teams. His rookie season was the shortened, COVID bubble season. Difficult circumstances for anyone, let alone a first overall pick in New York City walking onto a team with a good veteran core that was ready to start winning. He played just 13:53 per night and played to a 31-point pace. Last season was more of the same, but along the way the “Kid Line” solidified itself and once the playoffs rolled around, he was very good. He still played just over 14 minutes per game, but he chipped in 9 points in 20 games and was hitting everything that moved — he was credited with 50 hits in those 20 games, way above his regular pace.
Lafreniere looked primed to breakout this season, particularly as the Rangers lost some key members of their playoff run without making moves to replace them. Internal promotions were expected. He is averaging a modest career-high in ice time (15:01). He has played over 164 minutes at 5-on-5 alongside Artemi Panarin already — he played under 45 minutes with him all of last season. The goal scoring is at a career-low pace but the assists and points are at a career-high. He’s still just 21 and has really only played one full season in the league. The tools are obvious as he does a lot of things coaches love to see. In this sequence, he's first on the forecheck and does enough to cause a turnover before going to the net and eventually deflecting a puck home.
In the playoffs, he showed flashes of scoring big-time goals and making high-end plays. I don’t think anyone is writing him off across the league, but it has been a tough start.
Is Kane slowing down ahead of expected trade out of Chicago?
The discourse around Patrick Kane and his availability on the trade market has been very interesting to follow. He only has five goals this season and 25 points in general in 33 games on a very bad Chicago Blackhawks team. He has always struggled defensively, but when he’s throwing up 92 points, as he did just last season, you deal with it. When he’s not producing at a high level, you can’t really stomach these types of efforts — weak along the boards in his own end, gives it away, then is nowhere being in the shooting lane.
There’s a place for a guy like Kane on any hockey team if he’s playing like the true game-breaker he can be. In fact, only Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have more total points than him among all current NHLers. Kane is rather quietly sitting 48th all-time in NHL scoring — 24 away from cracking the top 40. He has the playoff pedigree to boot. Is this a still good player on a bad team or a former superstar in steep decline? If you watch him, it still looks like he has it when the puck is on his stick. He gets a little space here against Columbus and makes no mistake.
Last season he played with Alex DeBrincat and produced big numbers. Going from him to Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou is a sharp drop off. That’s not forgotten in the equation here. He’s still producing at a reasonable rate and he’s not far removed from a high-end scoring season. His three-point night in MSG a few weeks ago felt like a bit of a message too: "I can do still do this."
Leafs thankful to not lose Holl in expansion draft
The expansion draft led to all sorts of interesting decisions. When Vegas entered the league, there were any number of teams that actively over-thought it and gifted the Golden Knights players that led them to make the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Seattle was not quite as fortunate.
There were essentially no side deals and teams just simply submitted their expansion list and let them pick away. One team that had one of the more interesting sequences of events was the Toronto Maple Leafs in all of this. There were two players in particular that stood out for them. Justin Holl, who had just emerged as a solid top-four defenseman, was a candidate to be lost. As was Alex Kerfoot, a player they did not particularly want to lose for free as the only piece remaining from the Nazem Kadri trade — plus he’s a useful player with some versatility that they value. To protect themselves, they acquired Jared McCann from Pittsburgh — another team facing some interesting decisions — and elected to expose both McCann and Kerfoot, protecting Holl in the process.
McCann was selected and has been the scorer the Kraken were hoping for. He led Seattle in scoring with 27 goals as well as 50 points in their inaugural season, and has already scored 16 goals in just 30 games so far this season (a team-high, again). Selecting him over Kerfoot was the right decision. The question from the Leafs end was whether exposing him over Holl was the correct decision.
Holl has been a bit of a whipping boy in Toronto, but the truth is that he’s a legitimate top-four defenseman. Since Morgan Rielly got hurt on Nov. 21, he is playing over 22 minutes per game in a shutdown role, largely alongside Mark Giordano. They have come out ahead in scoring chances, expected goals and actual goals. He is playing top-pairing minutes and doing well — for just $2-million per season. You simply can’t find that anywhere on the market. Defensemen playing that much that handle tough competition and are good penalty killers are worth more than double that. For a cap strapped team, that’s beyond a luxury. Even with Jared McCann’s palatable $5-million per season extension, it would likely be too pricey for a Leafs team where he wouldn’t sniff the top power play unit when everyone is healthy (he is second on Seattle in power play time per game).
Some sweet, sweet holiday dishes
One of the prettiest passes in the league is the area pass. A player stopping up and saucer-passing a puck to space so that a teammate can skate into it. Look at this beautiful pass by Barclay Goodrow.
Stops up, identifies his teammate skating downhill, and just saucers the puck to space. Here’s another courtesy of Tony DeAngelo, just flipping the puck to space on a perfectly timed pass that hits his teammate in stride for a breakaway.
We see them for 2-on-1s, down low and on power plays, but this is just a pure area pass. It’s beautiful. And a throwback to one of the nicer ones ever, featuring Tomas Kaberle and a one-handed Alexei Ponikarovsky.
The World Juniors are a breath of fresh air
Wanted to end with a few notes on the World Juniors. First and foremost: nice to see the tournament back in full force, finally. It’s a great product and a reminder of how entertaining best-on-best international hockey is. Can’t say it enough: it’s criminal that we haven’t seen this with NHLers recently. If we never get to see a team that has all of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos and Nathan MacKinnon on it at the same time, that is a damn shame.
One thing we have missed by not seeing enough best-on-best competition recently is how much other countries have improved. Czechia beat Canada for the first time in regulation since 1993 — back when they were still Czechoslovkia. In 2017, Latvia was in the tournament, went 0-4 and was outscored 29-6 in those games. There is such a thing as moral victories, and so far they lost to the United States 5-2, took Switzerland to a shootout (they got scored on late in regulation to even get there as they were actually winning), and lost to Finland 3-0. They have competed. Unless they lose to Slovakia by 16, they are not repeating that -23 goal differential. Switzerland upset Finland. Slovakia beat the U.S. This is what the tournament should be all about and it’s great.
International shootouts > NHL shootouts
One thing I do like about international hockey: five-person shootouts. Some will say they don’t like shootouts at all and want them to end as quickly as possible, which, fair enough, I get it. Ending the game with a skills competition of sorts is not the true essence of hockey. At the same time, if there is a shootout in a regular season game, the whole rink is standing. People are excited because it generally is exciting!
A three-person shootout is too quick and there’s not enough strategy involved. You score first, they miss and it’s almost over. You have five shooters and have to figure out how to divide them up, who is shooting where, so on and so forth and it gets very interesting, very quickly. Pretty much every team has a few stars — you watch the Oilers and McDavid and Draisaitl are shooting. That’s two of three shooters accounted for. There isn’t much to think about. If they are just two of five, you have a bit more to think about in terms of when they shoot, who your other options are, and everything else that is happening. It makes it more interesting for viewers to work through strategically and it makes the shootout itself more fun to watch.
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