Week 6 of the Nerdy 30: Falling Stars and Thunder Cats

Matt Strasen/AP

Matt Strasen/AP

As we inch closer into Thanksgiving, this is usually the time when you hear about head coaches being on the hot seat and possibly get fired. As a Caps fan, it has become tradition to see the head coach get fired and envisioning him getting the phone call as he is cooking the turkey feast, so why wouldn’t it stop? Amazingly, it doesn’t seem like there are any clear cut favorites as to whom will be fired first, but my money is now on Ted Nolan. Yes, Buffalo is tanking and rightfully should keep Nolan for as long as they want until they show signs of being good. But if you’re losing at such a historically bad rate, why wouldn’t you at least promote someone like Bryan Trottier solely for damage limitation? Remember, it’s not like Trottier was a good head coach when he was with the New York Rangers and he doesn’t fit the profile of a perfect head coaching hire, so Buffalo should still be in full fledged tanking mode. Just a thought. In the meantime, here is week six of the nerdy 30.

  • 30. Buffalo (82-game standings points pace: 43 points, Last Week: 30)
  • 29. Carolina (Pace: 63 pts, LW: 29)
  • 28. Columbus (Pace: 53 pts, LW: 28)
  • 27. Colorado (Pace: 73 pts, LW: 24)
  • 26. Edmonton (Pace: 64 pts, LW: 25)
  • 25. Arizona (Pace: 77 pts, LW: 26)
  • 24. Florida (Pace: 93 pts, LW: 27)

For a team being so consistently good at puck possession, you would think the Panthers would be much higher on this list. Instead, on-ice shooting percentage has consistently prevented this team from winning all the time. But now that players like Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ekblad are tearing it up on the score sheet, they should be positively recognized, right? Well, not so fast. First, head coach Gerard Gallant is currently using Aleksander Barkov like he’s a shut-down forward by starting him on the offensive zone only 36% of the time. It has really killed off his offensive output (1 goal, 2 assists and a team-worst 45.96 on-ice shot attempts for per 60 minutes (or corsi for per 60 minutes) in 13 games) and having him with fellow offensive black holes Scottie Upshall and Thomas Kopecky in the top line is not helping. If anything, the second and third lines seem enticing and have clear and defined roles. The Brad Boyes-Nick Bjugstad-Jonathan Huberdeau line seems to be the team’s checking line so far and all three have limited their opponents to less than 50 shot attempts per 60 when they are on the ice. Meanwhile, the Jussi Jokinen-Vincent Trochek-Jimmy Hayes line seems to generate all the shot attempts for the team and it is showing for all three members on their box car stats (one goal, 10 assists in 15 games for Jokinen, three goals, three assists in nine games for Hayes and one goal, four assists in seven games for Trochek). The key will be to correctly utilize Barkov and figure out what the former second overall pick in the draft should be and see where another shut-down forward in Sean Bergenheim should be implemented once he returns from a lower-body injury.

In defense, for the exception of Dmitry Kulikov’s sprained left knee, the pairings have been very stable with Ekblad being paired with Brian Campbell, Kulikov with Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson with Dylan Olsen. Even if the Gudbranson-Olsen are getting smashed in the shot attempts against department, they are given the toughest assignments and when in doubt, one of the best goaltenders in the league in Roberto Luongo will come to the rescue. This is what we expected out of Florida this season in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but now is the time for Gallant to find a way to sort out the forward lines or trades will have to be made.

  • 23. Toronto (Pace: 91 pts, LW: 21)
  • 22. Philadelphia (Pace: 82 pts, LW: 18)
  • 21. Vancouver (Pace: 109 pts, LW:  14)
  • 20. Calgary (Pace: 104 pts, LW: 17)
  • 19. Ottawa (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 16)
  • 18. Dallas (Pace: 73 pts, LW: 15)
  • 17. New Jersey (Pace: 82 pts, LW: 20)
  • 16. Winnipeg (Pace: 91 pts, LW: 19)

As much as I fell in love with the Stars coming into this season, the one that would kill this team was their porous defense. Surely enough, that is what is happening right now and trading away Sergei Gonchar is not going to make that better. Every single player on this team is giving up league-average or worse shot attempts while they are on the ice. In a Western Conference that is watching Minnesota trying to crash the St. Louis-Chicago-Los Angeles party while San Jose and Anaheim are waiting for security to let them through, Dallas has to get more shutdown forwards and defenseman if they ever want to wish to be in that proverbial nightclub. The awesome third line of Cody Eakin, Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel are simply not generating the same offense like they did last year and now head coach Lindy Ruff had to break them up with Roussel playing fourth line minutes. To no surprise, Erik Cole and Shawn Horcoff are waiting to be put to pasture because those two simply can’t do anything productive in the NHL anymore and Dallas is not a playoff team if those don’t become healthy scratches after the trade deadline.

In defense, Trevor Daley has been a disaster, and that is even after being paired with the analytically preferred Jordie Benn. Jamie Oleksiak is playing like a rookie instead of the supposed replacement to Gonchar and it’s absolutely pathetic when you see your 2009 fifth round pick in John Klingberg come in and become the teams best defender overnight. Ruff can do his team drills all he wants, and he can pray that having Valeri Nichushkin back will help the team offensively but the simple truth is that this team needs to get better defensively now or they will never improve from last year.

  • 15. New York Rangers (Pace: 87 pts, LW: 22)
  • 14. Boston (Pace: 95 pts, LW: 9)
  • 13. Montreal (Pace: 125 pts, LW: 23)
  • 12. San Jose (Pace: 90 pts, LW: 13)
  • 11. Los Angeles (Pace: 100 pts, LW: 11)
  • 10. Anaheim (Pace: 112 pts, LW: 10)
  • 9. New York Islanders (Pace: 106 pts, LW: 12)
  • 8. Washington (Pace: 82 pts, LW: 9)

Unlike previous years, Anaheim’s success seems to be pretty genuine considering how elite they have been at generating shot attempts and (gradually) how well they have been at suppressing them. How they are doing it, though, might be surprising. The most obvious is the fact that the blue-line needed to improve defensively as youngsters Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm are entering their prime years. That part has been accomplished, but it is up front that has created some pleasing improvements. When Saku Koivu retired, the narrative was that Ryan Kesler would be a like-for-like improvement in terms of what their role was perceived to be on their team. Instead, that role has been given to Matt Beleskey and he has flourished in it and smart hockey fans should realize that Kesler has not been a two-way forward since 2012. This is shocking for Beleskey because he used to be a fourth line forward that was below average on both ends of the ice. After hitting above league average in on-ice shot attempts at even strength for the first time in his career last season (56.32 shot attempts for per 60 minutes), head coach Bruce Boudreau decided to use him as a top six forward with Kesler this season and he is now the only Duck that is seeing less than 50 on-ice shot attempts against him per 60 minutes. You add him, plus the emergence of Emerson Etem, William Karlsson and Rickard Rackell and you now have a disposal of two-way forwards in the top nine, even if there is a gap in quality of competition amongst the top and bottom-six forwards.

  • 7. Detroit (Pace: 101 pts, LW: 8)
  • 6. Nashville (Pace: 116 pts, LW: 6)
  • 5. Minnesota (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 3)
  • 4. Tampa Bay (Pace: 118 pts, LW: 4)
  • 3. St. Louis (Pace: 121 pts, LW: 5)
  • 2. Chicago (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 2)
  • 1. Pittsburgh (Pace: 128 pts, LW: 1)

Despite being off to a rough start, including losing five out of seven games from October 25th to November 2nd, the Blackhawks are slowly turning things around. This was to be expected because their on-ice even strength shooting percentage is the second worst in the league at 5.94%. That’s not going to last considering the fire power they will always have, but the one thing to watch this year is that they are no longer suppressing shot totals like they have in years past. It’s still among the best in the league, but instead of being a top-two side during their Championship years, the Blackhawks struggle to stay in the top-ten. If it wasn’t for Corey Crawford’s excellent play, this team would be more exposed defensively than they usually have been.

Two players that we need to keep an eye on in the shot suppression category are Marian Hossa and Brad Richards. For Hossa, he has been the quintessential two-way forward that, before analytics came to the forefront, was more known for his offense. Now that he is respected for his shot suppressing skill set, one has to wonder if age will slowly start creeping in. Yes, he is leading all Blackhawk forwards in on-ice shot attempts against per 60, but he is certainly not doing it under personal best numbers. For Richards, he came to Chicago for one reason only: to bring center line depth like the Blackhawks haven’t seen in the Toews-Kane era and to score goals. Richards might be seeing career best numbers in shot suppression, but let’s not kid ourselves because he is getting sheltered like he never has in his NHL career also. Remember, this team is about as cap-strapped as it could get and losing players like Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg over the years might be coming to haunt them. It just took them two years to see their fate.

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