QSAO\’s Insights around the NHL: It\’s too late to say \”it\’s too early\”

By Constantine Maragos

As we approach the Christmas season, the division between playoff & lottery contenders becomes more apparent. Heck, a month ago I saw a headline telling me to “watch out for the Senators.” Yeah, right. While both conferences still have relatively tight wildcard races, it is interesting to see how teams maneuver their respective situations in the new year.

 While teams like the Anaheim Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking less and less like playoff possibilities, as expected, slumping teams like the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames find their playoff hopes in deep trouble.

 In the latest edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL, we will dissect the core of Montreal’s issues, break down the New York Islanders’ quiet rise to the top of the NHL standings, look at just how bad the New Jersey Devils are, and give you our takes on the latest NHL rumours.

1.    The Montreal Canadiens – Finding the core issue

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The Montreal Canadiens have been bad recently. 

Before beating the New York Islanders 4-2 on December 3rd, the Canadiens were riding an 8-game losing streak, their worst since the World War II era (I don’t really find these facts relevant at all but it puts great emphasis on the stats for all intents and purposes). Now having lost nine of their last eleven games, the Habs are snowballing down the Eastern Conference standings. While they are currently in playoff position, they do not seem to have an answer for their problems yet.

 As an aside, apart from the Bruins, the Atlantic Division has been nothing special, so the Habs are lucky they are not in any other division – literally. If it were not for such a weak division, they would be at minimum 3 points out of a wildcard spot in the East.

 When looking at the Canadiens’ offensive production as of late, they have actually performed quite well. Over the past 11 games, the Habs have scored 23 goals, tied for 7th in the league. Additionally, the Canadiens have taken the majority of scoring chances in the past 11 games at a 58.28% rate, ranking 1st in the NHL, along with the 2nd best xGF (23.13) in that time. Looking at their xGoal differential throughout the season, the Habs have even seen a sharp rise since their slump.

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Graphic retrieved from MoneyPuck

When looking at their defensive play overall, the Canadiens have been great at limiting quality shots as well.

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Graphic retrieved from HockeyViz

With that being said, it seems that goaltending has been an issue for the Canadiens. Carey Price has not been the goalie that the Canadiens have needed this season. Throughout the season, Price has had his struggles. In the past 11 games, Price has posted a .866 SV% and a 3.97 GAA, combined with the above-average shot defense. Looking at the drop in play throughout their slump, Price has not been able to take on the majority of the workload in Montreal. With that being said, Price has not had much help otherwise. Price has started 24 of the Canadiens’ 30 games, and with Keith Kinkaid’s abysmal play, the Canadiens are hoping that rookie goaltender Cayden Primeau can give Price some sort of break between the sticks. 

Another area of the Canadiens’ play that has been sorely lacking is their penalty-kill. Placing 26th in the league, the Habs have posted a 75.6% PK success rate on 90 opportunities. Just look at the chances they are allowing with a man down.

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Graphic retrieved from HockeyViz

They have been great in limiting shots right in front, but in doing so, have exposed other prime areas on the ice. In closing, if the Canadiens want to get out of this major slump, the Canadiens need to tighten up their PK, and work on limiting their dangerous chances, and most importantly, find someone to give Carey Price a break. However, with such a weak division, I would not rule out the playoffs just yet Habs fans, as after just two wins this week they are back in a divisional spot.

2. Looking into the NY Islanders’ silent NHL domination

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One team you just never hear any buzz about is the New York Islanders.

Lou Lamoriello and company have formed a competitive team in Brooklyn (? Still weird) and proven that last year\’s success was not a mistake. With a record of 19-6-2 in 27 games, the Islanders’ 40 points place them 4th in the NHL standings. Along with their impressive record, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have played fewer games so far this year (the Islanders are amongst 5 teams with 27 games played), and have as many as four games in-hand on the rest of the NHL’s top five teams.

A major catalyst in New York’s success has been its outstanding goaltending. The Isles’ goalie duo of Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov have dominated goaltender categories this season. Amongst goalies with minimum 10 starts, the duo rank 5th and 12th respectively in Save % (0.931% and 0.923%). Not only this, but Greiss and Varlamov also rank 6th and 11th respectively in Goals Saved Above Average. With that in mind, it is not surprising that the Islanders lead the league in goals-against (65). Greiss and Varlamov are looking like strong contenders for the Jennings trophy. I would put my money on that now. 

Another player who continues to dominate is Mathew Barzal. With 11 goals and 24 points in 27 games, Barzal leads the Islanders in both categories. Barzal has shown tremendous growth as a player this year. In the same amount of games last year, Barzal has scored 8 more goals and 3 more points, along with 1:13 more ice-time this year. With the bump in minutes, Barzal has seen an increase in defensive responsibility, averaging just under 1.5 more defensive zone starts so far this season, compared to last year. 

I had the pleasure of watching Barzal live once during his rookie season, and I was amazed at how much he controlled the game, even then. Watching him now, I was baffled to see how he could build on his already outstanding offensive abilities. Combined with his slick skating and stick skills, Barzal is further solidifying himself as a star in the NHL, and a leader in the New York Islanders dressing room.

3.    Why are the New Jersey Devils so bad this year?

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The New Jersey Devils have by far been the most disappointing team in the NHL this season. Looking back to my 2019 NHL Draft RetrospectiveI picked the Devils as the biggest winners of the draft (which I don’t think I was wrong about) and competitors-to-be in the Metropolitan Division (I was definitely wrong there). Despite loading up on high-end acquisitions in Nikita Gusev and PK Subban, and not to mention drafting Jack Hughes, the Devils’ offense is as dry as it could be. This season, the Devils rank 29th in 5v5 xGoals For (46.21). In fact, they are currently outperforming that number, scoring 49 goals on the season, which is still only good for 28th in the NHL. Further, their special-teams have been atrocious, ranking 26th on the PK and 28th with the man advantage. 

On top of their offensive issues, their goaltending might be the worst of all. Of the three goaltenders the Devils played this season, they have all posted atrocious numbers. Cory Schneider and Louis Domingue are (or were for the former) amongst the worst goaltenders in the league this season, posting a -3.185% and -2.866% GSAA%, respectively. Mackenzie Blackwood, while much better than the others, holds a below average -0.625% GSAA. With that being said, on top of the Devils’ offensive inefficiencies, at some points this season, they have essentially started every game down a goal. 

One player, however, has been dynamite despite all of this; Taylor Hall. Just take a look at his isolated impact this season, as of November 30th.

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Graphic retrieved from Ineffective Math

I know it has been said over and over again, but Taylor Hall has to be one of the unluckiest players of this decade. After having to endure everything he did in Edmonton, and now New Jersey, it is a travesty that he has played in only 5 career playoff games.With that being said, as an upcoming UFA, Hall now controls his own fate, but New Jersey is looking to get something back for their best asset. As per Elliotte Friedman, “the Devils have made it clear they want first-rounders […] and/or high-level prospects who are ready to play.” Wherever Hall may end up (which we will get into shortly), he will, more likely than not, be able to demonstrate his hockey talent in the playoffs, and cash in during the summer.

4. Rookie Report – Quinn Hughes catching up to Makar?

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Since our last article, not much has changed on the rookie front, however since Ziggy (QSAO’s very own Adam Sigesmund) loves this segment so much, we’re going to keep it rolling once again. However, I’ll start things off differently this time.

Quick Facts: 

  • Of the 124 rookie skaters this year, 40 have scored their first-career goal this season. 

  • Of the 13 rookie goaltenders, 4 of them have recorded their first career win. 

  • Additionally, of the four goalies the Colorado Avalanche have played this year, two of them (Antione Bibeau and Antoine Werner) have been rookies.

Since we last checked in, Victor Olofsson rediscovered his scoring touch. In his past 7 games, Olofsson has 4 goals and 8 points, shooting him back up to the top of the rookie goalscoring race (11 goals), and four points (24) behind Cale Makar for the point-lead.

New York Rangers rookie d-man Adam Fox has found himself on a hot streak as of late, scoring 2 goals and 6 points in his past eight. Four of those points also came on the powerplay, putting Fox at 5th in rookie powerplay points (making three of the top five in that category defenseman, what?). 

Speaking of the man advantage, Quinn Hughes leads all rookies in powerplay points. Hughes has continued to be Vancouver’s best defenseman and dominating both sides of the ice. 

Two other rookies to watch: Joel Farabee has 5 points in his last seven, and that is on almost 1:30 less time on ice in that span as well. Nikolai Prokhorin has scored 3 goals in his last six games while taking on slightly more ice time, definitely an upward trend to watch for on an otherwise tanking LA Kings team. 

5. Assessing trade rumours around the league

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Now that there is a better picture of who the contenders are this year, names begin to pop up in trade rumours around the league. In this section, we will take a few of those rumours and give our own predictions on where those players may end up.

Taylor Hall, LW, New Jersey Devils

The uncertainty surrounding Taylor Hall’s impending UFA status has to be the biggest storyline in the NHL this year. While Hall is obviously one of the most talented wingers in the game right now, his free-agent status puts a question mark on what his price would be. The Colorado Avalanche have kicked tires on Hall, as per Elliotte Friedman. The asking price is sure to start with Bowen Byram, as New Jersey needs defense. Analysts have even gone as far as to say that Colorado is the “perfect” trade partner for the Devils.

With their success so far this season, the Arizona Coyotes may make a play for Hall, along with the Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues, who are looking to cash in on back-to-back playoff success. The Montreal Canadiens also apparently looked into Hall’s situation as well, but personally, I think the Habs are in no position to pay Hall’s price, given where their organization stands as of right now. If Montreal wants to give their fans something to cheer about, they just need to win games.

Looking forward, I can guarantee any transaction will include a slew of draft-pick contingencies (re-signing, playoff performance, the whole lot), and a blue-chip prospect at minimum. In my opinion, I would love to see the New York Islanders go all-in and commit to a deep run this year. They have the picks and prospects to make a deal and seeing Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall reunited, even just for one playoff run, would be awesome. Of course, there is very little chance of happening, considering the division rivalry, not to mention that Lou Lamoriello is the epitome of a conservative GM, but one can dream. 

However, I digress. To give a firm projection on where Hall may end up, I think Colorado and Arizona have the best match asset-wise, but nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what the final package will be once Taylor Hall is inevitably traded. 

Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Philadelphia Flyers

For some reason, Alain Vigneault just does not like Shayne Gostisbehere. With just 9 points in 26 games, Gostisbehere is not looking like the 65-point d-man from two seasons ago. Recently, there was a rumour circulating that the Canadiens were in on Ghost, and a trade was “close,” however Sportsnet’s Eric Engels shot that rumour down. While he has had his struggles, I do not think the Flyers should sell so low on an asset not far removed from a stellar season. Do not expect Chuck Fletcher to pull the trigger on a trade, unless it is a gross overpayment. Philadelphia will hold onto Gostisbehere for the season and reassess their options in the summer.

Tyler Toffoli, RW, LA Kings

As the days of the LA Kings’ NHL domination are long gone, the Kings front office is looking to ship out their veterans, many of whom were apart of that winning core. As per Elliotte Friedman, LA is looking to find new homes for most of their older players, apart from Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar. With that being said, teams who need top-six scoring can find that in Tyler Toffoli

As an upcoming UFA, Toffoli would be an excellent addition for teams looking to go deep in the post-season. Toffoli has the experience and the track record to perform in the playoffs. Who remembers That 70’s Line with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson? Speaking of Tanner Pearson; his current team, the Vancouver Canucks have struggled to find a linemate for captain Bo Horvat, whom Pearson has found himself playing alongside quite frequently this season. The Canucks have been scouting the Kings as of late, and you have to think that it is Toffoli they are looking at.

While the prospect of acquiring a top-six winger with playoff pedigree and proven chemistry with Horvat’s other linemate is tempting, this is not the right trade right now for the Canucks. However, this is the right trade for Jim Benning. Playing in their 50th season, and already playoff starved, Benning needs a postseason appearance this spring, or he may be put on the chopping block. The Canucks technically do have the assets to pull off a trade as well. Prospects such as Kole Lind and Will Lockwood, along with the picks they currently have are more than enough to get a deal done. Should they do it? Probably not but keep a close eye on this rumour as the season progresses.

Stats retrieved from NaturalStatTrick, MoneyPuck, HockeyViz, FOX Sports, NHL.com

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