QSAO’s Insights around the NHL: A changing of the guard in the West?

By Constantine Maragos

We have now reached the quarter mark of the NHL season, and the new NHL landscape has begun to take shape. Much like Queen’s students begrudgingly preparing for final exams, teams and fans alike are assessing their teams’ performance so far, and where they can improve.  

Concerning the West, there is a lot to break down.

In particular, the Western Conference has a much different look than years prior (Vancouver, Arizona, and Edmonton all in divisional playoff spots? Yeesh). Teams like San Jose and Nashville, not far removed from Stanley Cup Finals appearances, find themselves not only on the outside looking in but minding the gap behind them. 

The Colorado Avalanche, and of course, the St. Louis Blues have built upon their momentum from last year and have put together solid campaigns so far. Both teams will contend for deep playoff runs come spring, and will give us an amazing Conference semi-final…? Sigh. 

Looking at the East, we have also seen a stark change. Fuelled with more playoff experience and veteran presence, the Toronto Maple Leafs were projected to be a powerhouse, and it certainly looked as so initially. Now, they find themselves amid a major slump, having just snapped a six-game losing skid which led to the demise of former head coach Mike Babcock. 

In the second edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL, we will take a deep dive into the current state of the Western Conference, along with a breakdown of the Leafs’ current form.

1.    Spotlight: Vancouver’s apparent turnaround – Can they survive November?

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In their 50th season, the Canucks have taken it upon themselves to provide somewhat of a new hope for fans early on. With a record of 11-8-4, the Canucks sit 3rd in the Pacific with 26 points. While not necessarily a convincing record, the Canucks look ready to in the very least battle for a playoff position for the duration of the season.

The Canucks are currently halfway through their well-documented dreadful November and have just embarked on their biggest road trip of the season, stretching two weeks and six games. For the Canucks, November signifies not only an onslaught of injuries but also a significant dip in form. In comparison to last year, the Canucks held a 10-12-2 record, and were in the midst of a 2-6-2 November campaign (as of November 22nd), which had already seen heart wrenching losses to the Buffalo Sabres (fumbled a 2-goal lead with less than 2:30 left in the game on their way to a shootout loss), and the New York Islanders, to name a few. 

This year, November rings to a different tune. While we are seeing the same pattern, currently holding a November record of 3-5-3, there is not an overwhelming sense that the wheels are falling off again (at least let’s hope). As of right now, the Canucks’ bottom-six has been decimated, losing Brandon Sutter (groin), Jay Beagle (lower-body, who has since returned), Tyler Motte (foot), and Michael Ferland (concussion protocol). Such losses, especially Sutter, Beagle, and Motte (only because Ferland has seen placement across the lineup), have hurt what looked to be a reborn bottom unit for the Canucks. 

A big difference in the Canucks’ play this month looks to be their difference in shot quality, and ability to control quality shots. Looking at their recent 6-1 loss vs. Dallas, the Canucks did not generate enough offence, and gave up way too many quality chances on defence.

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As per Harman Dayal of The Athletic, “a lot of [the Canuck’s losing skid] comes down to the significant deterioration of their defensive coverage. Opponents are able to attack with speed and are having their way with prime passing lanes, especially in transition.” Comparing October and November, the drop-off in play is clear. Looking to their most recent game, a 6-3 win over Nashville (thanks to their 88.9% powerplay over two-games vs. the Preds this season), the Canucks were absolutely demolished at even-strength. Overall, the Canucks were outshot 48-23, and 30-14 at 5v5. 

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Of course, based on shot-quality this is an improvement upon their game vs. Dallas, but 48 shots? You cannot ignore the defensive leakages that the Canucks have allowed as of late.

After boasting the 10th best xGA in the league during October (20.75), the Canucks have dropped to 24th, with an xGA of 20.24. Despite the raw improvement, the Canucks have struggled mightily in comparison to the rest of the league, with the xGA ceiling at 11.57 (Tampa Bay) in November, as opposed to 15.62 (New Jersey). Additionally, the Canucks have been far less efficient in capitalizing on high-danger scoring chances and limiting high-danger scoring chances against. In October, the Canucks were shooting at an HDSH% of 26.87% (18 GF) at 5v5, placing them 3rd in the league. Additionally, the Canucks held an 84.51 HDSV% (11 GA), good for 12th in the league. Fast forward to November, and you see a much different story. Not only are the Canucks now last in HDSH% (8.54%), they are also 28th in HDSV% (74.32). What is reassuring is that the Canucks are still generating chances at 5v5 this month, having taken more high-danger shots (82) in November than October (67). Also, note that Vancouver leads the league in xGF in November, so the chances should come. 

With that being said, fans should not throw this season out the window just yet. There are many bright spots on this Canucks team that can propel them back to the playoffs. To start, the Canucks powerplay has been a significant improvement this season, after scoring five PPG against the Predators this past Thursday, the Canucks are scoring at 27.1% on the powerplay, paired with the most PPG in the league with 26. The 1st unit of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and JT Miller have accounted for 20 of those goals. 

However, one player who has made a tremendous impact all over the ice is the Canucks\’ marquee acquisition of the summer, JT Miller. I would go as far to say that Miller has been the best skater for the Canucks by a decent margin this year. His versatility across the lineup has electrified the Canucks\’ top-six in a way that I honestly have not seen since 2011. Circling back to the powerplay, Miller\’s net-front presence has made a huge difference. His ability to command the front of the net and generate dangerous chances through tips and screens is a much-needed addition to the man-advantage. At even-strength, his play alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser (aka The Lotto Line) elevated the trio to one of the most dangerous in the league during October. In fact, of players with 20+ games played, Miller leads the league in Corsi For (61.6%). Miller’s physical two-way play has also given Pettersson and Boeser a lot more room to assert their offensive dominance. For example, when playing alongside each other, Miller has taken the majority of faceoff duties in place of Pettersson. Given his diverse skillset, Miller has (unfortunately) been taken off the top line in efforts to jumpstart Bo Horvat and stabilize the top-six as a whole. 

Looking ahead, to stop themselves from falling to the same fate as last season, the Canucks need to first and foremost tighten their defensive play and know that their chances will come. With their gelling young core and improved depth, the Canucks should be able to take advantage of a wide-open Pacific Division. 

2. The Arizona Coyotes: Darkhorse in the Pacific

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The Arizona Coyotes have always just been that team.

Plagued by ownership uncertainties and questions as to “why is there hockey in the desert?”, it has been hard to focus on the hockey in Arizona. However, recently speaking, the Yotes have always had the talent. Despite some misguided hockey moves in the past (we’re looking at you Dylan Strome), John Chayka has come in and built a competitive roster. Ever since taking over the GM role in 2016, Chayka has brought in important pieces to build around. Drafting Clayton Keller and Jacob Chychrun in 2016 was a key first step in building their current roster. Additionally, bringing in Aanti Raanta and Derek Stepan has paid dividends. However, last season, Raanta, among many (many, many) other players on the Coyotes went down with a long-term injury, rendering him out for the season. 

In his absence, Darcy Kuemper held down the fort for the rest of the year. However, he came in and nearly saved the Coyotes’ season. Kuemper finished the year in 6th in both GAA and SV%, at 2.33 and 0.925% through 55 games, respectively. Moving into this year, the duo has formed one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. Darcy Kuemper has arguably been the best goalie in the league this year. Kuemper currently leads the league in Goals Saved Above Average with +7.77 (as per Evolving Hockey), and currently leads the league in GAA and SV%, with 1.93 and 0.935% respectively. 

His salary? $1.85 million through this season, with a two-year $4.5 million extension kicking in for the following two seasons. Talk about good value. 

Looking deeper, Arizona’s goaltending has still been stellar. Off of 121 high-danger chances this season, the Arizona tandem’s High-Danger SV% sits 9th in the league at 85.12%. Arizona’s goaltending has been the backbone of an otherwise average Coyotes team this season (reminiscent of a certain 2012 team?). 

I would say though, that the Arizona Coyotes have been one of, if not the unluckiest teams in the NHL in the past year. They totalled 388 man-games lost as per NHL InjuryViz, with big names such as Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, and Aanti Raanta on the shelf for a significant time. This year, however, with excellent goaltending, a veteran defensive core (despite losing Niklas Hjalmarsson for three months), and exciting young players up front, watch for Arizona Coyotes to surprise the league this year.

3.    Are the Colorado Avalanche contenders this season?

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The Colorado Avalanche have arrived – or so we thought when the season began.

 After finishing last season with 38 wins and 90 points (finishing in the WC2 spot), the Avalanche followed that up with a second-round playoff performance that went down to the wire against the San Jose Sharks.

This season, with the continued dominance of Nathan MacKinnon, as well as the arrival of Cale Makar (whom we will get to later), the Avs have carried their momentum into this season. Currently sitting 2nd in the Central, the Avs look to remain as big players in a tight Central Division. 

However, the Avalanche have been quite unlucky. Gabriel Landeskog is looking to miss ‘significant time’ with a lower-body injury, while Mikko Rantanen has only just returned to practice after suffering a lower-body injury on October 21st. Additionally, towering defenseman Nikita Zadorov also missed four games due to injury. Overall, the Avalanche sit around 5th on man-games lost this season (at 20 games played). With that being said, the Avalanche have been fortunate to catch some puck luck in the meantime. The Avalanche are first in league PDO (luck measurement in the NHL) at 1.037 with two-thirds of their top line out. For these reasons, it is hard to assess how good this team is.

Nate MacKinnon has faced huge responsibilities already this year, and has continued to meet expectations. MacKinnon’s 13 goals and 32 points are good for 6th place in the league currently, and with Mikko Rantanen set to return soon, look for those numbers to jump shortly after.

Again, to visualize how luck has stabilized this Avalanche team, look at how their Total xGoal differential changed since losing Gabriel Landeskog.

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Graphic presented by MoneyPuck

Not good, to say the least. With that being said, their defensive shot quality has been decent, sitting at around 3% above average currently.

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As mentioned previously, while the advanced metrics show that Colorado is currently overperforming, look for the stats to right themselves once their stars return. 

4.    Rookie Report: Makar Leading the Race, Hughes Bros. Battling it out Behind

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With the season reaching the quarter mark, the rookie landscape is set for the year. 

Cale Makar has officially solidified himself as a young star in the NHL. Makar has taken off, scoring 7 goals since our last article, and scoring at a 1.14 point-per-game clip. He has been a huge factor in stabilizing an otherwise hurt Avalanche team. Makar has taken on a slightly bigger responsibility with the Avs, playing 19:43 per game, third only behind Quinn Hughes and Ethan Bear. As a whole, Makar is being deployed as the Avs’ fourth defenseman at even-strength. With the added pressure to produce in the absence of Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche are still being smart to shelter Makar’s minutes, and allow the team’s more experienced defensemen take on the defensive burden. As a whole, Makar’s shot-share has been about average and sits 3rd on the Avs roster with 0.63 xGoals/game. Look for continued improvement from the odds-on Calder favourite as we progress throughout the season.

The Hughes brothers continue to take the hockey world by storm. 

Quinn Hughes has been a (not so unexpected) revelation for the Canucks this year. Hughes is behind only Cale Makar in the rookie scoring race with 17 points and leads all rookies in powerplay points (12). Hughes has been solid quarterbacking a potent Canucks power play. His ability to facilitate offense on the man-advantage with pinpoint passes and his wicked shot is unlike anything the Canucks have ever had. A bold statement, I know. 

Jack Hughes has also begun to score, finally. After being left off the scoresheet in his first six games, Hughes has scored 10 points in the following 15 games. He has also been entrusted with big minutes on an unfortunately terrible New Jersey Devils team, ranking second in rookie ice-time amongst forwards (16:01). Jack’s slick skating and puckhandling have served him well centring the Devils’ top line between Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. 

The Hughes brothers are quite honestly some of the slickest skaters I have seen in recent memory, and they are only going to get more exciting to watch this year. 

Apart from Makar and the Hughes brothers, many other rookies have impressed in their debut seasons. 2019 3rd overall pick Kirby Dach has 5 goals and 10 points through 16 games this year and looks to have fit right into the Hawks’ lineup. The Edmonton Oilers look to have a solid player on their backend in Ethan Bear. The rookie defenseman leads all rookies in TOI (21:07) by over one minute and looks to be developing nicely on the Pacific Division-leading Edmonton Oilers. Montreal Canadiens’ rookie Nick Suzuki is tied for second in rookie goal-scoring with six and sits 8th in ice-time (14:12) amongst Canadiens forwards, and 9th amongst rookies. Since our last article, Victor Olofsson’s goalscoring production has dropped off a cliff. Olofsson has not scored a goal since October 16th. However in the following 15 games has tallied 7 assists, so he is still producing somewhat. Let’s hope he can start scoring again and recover some lost ground in the rookie race.

5.    Are the Leafs REALLY doing that bad?

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It’s a situation nobody (well, probably a lot of people) wanted to see this year: The Toronto Maple Leafs are slumping – hard. After losing 6 straight games, many of which were winnable, Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan decided to call it quits on Mike Babcock. The former Maple Leafs head coach led the team to three straight playoff appearances during his tenure but just could not get this team past the first round. You can thank the Bruins for that.

As of right now, the Leafs are 10-10-4 and 2 points out of a Wild Card position. With this in mind, we must bear the question: Why are the Maple Leafs playing so bad right now? Comparing to last year, the Leafs have seen a drop in production quite like no other.

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With that being said, what is causing this dip in production? To start, as shown in the graphic above, the Leafs have not been getting high-quality chances, sitting 22nd in High Danger Scoring Chances For % (48.9%). Additionally, losing John Tavares for seven games hurt them as well, having scored 7 points in the eight games before the injury. Now, with Mitch Marner on the shelf for four weeks, the Leafs will lose another big production player. However, by the looks of it, they are not doing as terrible as portrayed by the media. Of course, it is inexcusable for a team this talented to be losing so many games, however, the problem is not that the Leafs have been bad per se, but that they have been aggressively underperforming, which I guess is the same thing (but different).

In terms of possession, the Leafs have been controlling the puck most of the time. They are second in Corsi For % in the league with 53.82% and 10th in xGF (42.94). Additionally, luck has been a factor, as the Leafs are 23rd in PDO with a 0.989. With that being said, a big factor in the Leafs’ current slump is their lack of goaltending depth and defensive issues. Michael Hutchinson has been brutal, as he is playing at a -5.466 GSAA, good for 10th worst in the NHL. In terms of shot quality, the Leafs need to be better.

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As shown above, the Leafs have been okay in limiting shots to the outside, but are still leaking shots from the slot, as seen in their league-worst 37 High Danger Goals Against. Additionally, the penalty kill has been less-than-stellar. At a 74% success rate, the Leafs are 25th in the league.

It is a tale as old as time, but Frederik Andersen really needs help. 

But a coaching change can do a lot, and with one of this magnitude, the Leafs should be able to turn things around rather soon, however they are going to need to pick up their play away from the puck, or else Leafs fans are in for a long year.

Statistics retrieved from HockeyViz, MoneyPuck, Natural StatTrick, NHL.com, and The Athletic

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