QSAO\’s Insights around the NHL: Powerplay proficiency shines through opening week

By Constantine Maragos

The NHL season is well underway and with that another year of quality QSAO content for students to enjoy. We’ve seen many surprises already to start the season, and like every year, there will be loads of stories to follow throughout the season.

In this all-new monthly QSAO column, I will provide our loyal readers with insight throughout the season and offer my analysis that otherwise wouldn’t leave my living room and the unwilling ears of my housemates. And so, without further ado, here is the first edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL

Since it is the beginning of the season, we have all thought about planning Cup Parades after one game at some point. As an “objective analyst” (as Miles loves to say) it is unwise to do so, however, laced throughout the article you will find some way-too-early definitive statements that will be fun to look back on later in the year.

What I have noticed so far is that powerplays are becoming increasingly more effective, and the players who are making a difference are making a big difference. Additionally, many teams are off to hot starts, including the Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, the Carolina Hurricanes (which we’ll discuss later), and the Edmonton Oilers…? 

1. James Neal & the Edmonton Oilers – The Real Deal?

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Certainly, the biggest surprise to start the year – the Edmonton Oilers are 5-1, and James Neal leads the league in goals. If you want to see how I definitely saw this coming, look no further than my 2019 Canadian Team Season in Review:

“[James Neal’s] production of 7 goals in 63 games is a major drop from his 25-goal season with Vegas …With a less-than-stellar defensive game, Neal will need to somehow find his game to recuperate some of his contract’s value.”

“Looking forward, the Oilers have many needs to address, whether it be finding depth on the wing or stability on defense … If the Oilers want to compete soon, they will need a number of smart acquisitions astute player development to improve their fortunes next year.”

As far as this season goes, it looks like both parties are on the right track to meeting both targets I mentioned above. However, placing Neal on the powerplay beside game-breakers like Connor McDavid & Leon Draisaitl certainly helps to inflate one’s numbers. Six of Neal’s eight goals have come off of the powerplay, where McDavid has assisted on five, with the primary assist on four, and Draisaitl tallying an assist on the other two. Additionally, the majority of his goals have been around the front of the net, or close to it, but what he has been doing is working well so far. Neal has shown that he can provide good value away from the puck while the Oilers’ stars work their magic. While to the surprise of nobody, Neal’s scoring clip will regress, but look for him to bounce back from last year’s abysmal performance.

As of right now, the Oilers look as if they can hold onto their momentum, as long as their role players can keep up with the top of the roster. Of their forwards, only their top line of Zack Kassian, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisatil have a positive On Ice xGoal Differential.

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As a word of caution, their powerplay looks to be a significant crutch to their overall play, so be prepared to see a significant regression in goalscoring once their powerplay (currently sitting at 40%), returns to the norm. Looking forward, look for a slight dip in Edmonton’s current form, but it is long overdue for Connor McDavid to return to the postseason and bless the league with his dominance past the month of March.

2. Carolina’s Hot Start

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The Carolina Hurricanes have continued their dominance from last season. With some astute roster moves over the summer, the Hurricanes look to be a serious threat all year. So far, the Hurricanes have seen production throughout their lineup, with 12 different goal scorers already this season. Additionally, their entire lineup has dominated in possession. Apart from Warren Foegele, Erik Haula, and Lucas Wallmark, the entire roster is playing at an above 50% Corsi For. Additionally, almost the entire roster holds a positive On Ice xGoal Differential, as shown in these graphics from Moneypuck:

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Newly acquired forward Erik Haula has been impressive, leading the team with 5 goals through six games. Haula has been a solid net-front presence on even-strength and the man-advantage, scoring all five of his goals directly in front of the crease. On defense, Dougie Hamilton has commanded the blueline with his wicked shot. Of his four goals this year, three have been one-timers, and all but one has been scored from the point. With a solid roster and potent powerplay around him, expect Dougie to at least match his 18-goal total from last year. 

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Despite the team\’s hot start, Sebastian Aho has stumbled out of the gate production-wise, with only 2 goals to start the year. However, Hurricanes fans and fantasy owners alike, do not worry. Aho is currently shooting -2.73% below expected and at a hair over 19 shot attempts/60 at 5v5. Looking forward, expect for Aho to catch up to (and surpass) the play of his teammates. The Hurricanes will be a force this season, and it is time for the league to take notice.

3. Rookie Report

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With a new season comes a fresh crop of rookies looking to make a name for themselves, but leading the pack right now is an unexpected name. Victor Olofsson currently leads the rookie goal-scoring race with five goals and has broken the rookie record by scoring his first 7 career goals (stretching to last year) on the powerplay. The Buffalo Sabres are currently firing on all cylinders right now, and in no small part due to Olofsson’s work on the powerplay. 

Another rookie making big contributions to their team’s hot start is defenseman Cale Makar. Makar is still searching for his first career regular-season goal but has logged 6 assists through five games. Much like Olofsson, Makar has been a staple on the powerplay for the Avs. Four of Makar’s six assists have come on the powerplay. However, he has only recorded two primary assists on the season. Additionally, Makar has been playing quite sheltered minutes, starting around 63% of his shifts in the offensive zone with 19:17 minutes/game. As the season goes on and Makar accustoms himself to the NHL grind, look for him to take on more responsibility with the Avs.

Possibly the two rookies with the most hype coming into the season, Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes have not necessarily taken the league by storm yet. While Kakko did score a nifty first career goal this Saturday, Jack Hughes has not been as fortunate. Hughes has gone pointless through New Jersey’s first six games, which reflects the team’s winless record. Hughes has been quite unlucky this season, shooting 0.79 Goals Below Expected/60, but the best way to articulate Hughes’ luck this year can be summed up in this clip.

Other rookies to look out for this year are Quinn Hughes who leads rookies in ice-time (and scored a wicked first career goal on the powerplay), surprise training camp graduate Ville Heinola, and the dynamite Toronto Maple Leafs duo of Ilya Mikheyev Trevor Moore, who have become a staple in Toronto’s dominant bottom six. 

It’s a great year for rookies, and it should be an exciting race to the Calder this year. My rookies to watch are Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and Kappo Kakko, they are all in for huge years.

4. San Jose’s Rough Start — What’s Wrong?

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A team that has certainly not met expectations this year are the San Jose Sharks. After a summer where they locked in Timo Meier for the considerable future, but also lost captain Joe Pavelski & solid depth in Joonas Donskoi, the Sharks were still considered to be a great team this season, especially in a considerably weak Pacific Division.

The Sharks currently have only two wins through six games. While currently riding a two-game winning streak, they were outscored 17-5 in their first four games. With that being said, the Sharks possession game has not exactly been terrible. Of players with a minimum of three games played, their team Corsi sits at ~51.18%.

While showing an impotent offense (contrary to prior years) at a -2.105 xGoals Differential through six games, their goaltending continues to be their kryptonite. What plagued the Sharks last year continues to hinder the team to the point where they are losing games directly due to goaltending. Both Aaron Dell and Martin Jones have a sub-0.890 save percentage, and their Goals-Saved Above Average sits at -1.37 and -1.95 respectively.

The Sharks should look to at least acquire a backup goaltender that can push Martin Jones to up his play. Otherwise, Sharks players, management, and fans alike will look back on this season wondering what they could have done to extend their Cup window that has refused to shut, until now.

5. Drew Doughty & the LA Kings — Does his play merit the trash?

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“A team like that should not be beating a team like ours 8-2 … there’s absolutely no way”

 “We both know who the better player is, so, if he wants to compliment me first I’ll give him one back”

Often outspoken in his comments around the league, Drew Doughty has been the media’s favourite soundbite this season. From reigniting his feud with Matthew Tkachuk to calling out his teammates (and subsequently the Canucks) for their 8-2 rout at the hands of a middling Canucks team, Doughty has caught his fair share of criticism. However, how has Doughty himself been playing throughout the first few games of the season? 

If we want to look through the scope of the two games in question, Doughty backed up his talk against Calgary, getting the last laugh on Tkachuk by scoring the OT winner, a laser at that. Against the Canucks, Doughty was not awful either. A lowly -3 may say otherwise, but as we all know that is not the best determinant for quality of play, especially for an all-star defenseman on a lacklustre team logging 23:48/game. While Doughty could have been better to close the gap on a quick Brandon Sutter snap from the circle, he was also the victim of an unlucky deflection off a faceoff and a goal-line review that he was less than inches from saving.

For the majority of games this season, Doughty has either been paired with newly signed defenseman Ben Hutton (46.95% at EV) or rookie defenseman Tobias Bjornfot (29.05% EV).

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Insights from Dobber Hockey

Going up against your opponent’s top competition while also carrying his defensive pair has not reflected well on Doughty’s advanced statistics. Doughty currently sits second last on the Kings roster with a -0.83 xGoals Differential/60, only ahead of rookie Bjornfot (-2.14), along with a 43.1 CF%, again ahead of only Bjornfot (37.7%) on defense. While Doughty has praised the rookie defenseman, the rookie has anchored Doughty’s play heavily. Doughty certainly cannot carry the burden of righting the Kings’ quickly sinking ship and will need some help on both ends from his teammates if anything is going to change. Look for the Kings to remain in the basement all season, they are definitely in for a rough year.

Statistics from MoneyPuck, Hockey-Reference, Dobber Prospects, and NHL.com

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