What We Know After Ten Games

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The season is less than a month old, but with ten games played, our knowledge is growing. Even if we can’t draw definitive conclusions, developments across the league deserve our attention. Today, we try to capture some of the important narratives.

The Oilers are in the mirror and they are closer than they appear.
The Oilers are 28th in Corsi for percentage, per Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. They are under .500. They have a -6 goal differential. But by golly, goodness is percolating. Connor McDavid has already had the transformative effect of being able to command his own line and make Nail Yakupov a useful player. At 18, McDavid is averaging over a point a game and is top five in scoring in the league. Deep breaths, Oilers fans. Try not to hyperventilate, but you probably will have the best player in the NHL in due time.

Staying on the topic of No. 1 picks, Taylor Hall has been relentless so far, tracking the puck a step ahead of the competition and showing deft distributing ability. His effort and work ethic in the defensive and neutral zone have been impressive, too, which is reflected in his team-leading Corsi.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been very good as well. He understands his role as a 200- foot center, and has been a willing battler in the dirty areas. His puck-handling and off-the-puck slashing have made him extremely difficult to defend.

Yakupov might be the most interesting of the bunch because he has played 200 games; at age 22, we can probably identify where he will plateau. Yes, he is most certainly a top-six player, but no, he is not the multi-dimensional difference-maker he was drafted to be. Still, Yakupov has good neutral- and offensive-zone acceleration, and when he receives a pass in his sweet spot, he can let loose a blistering shot. Even his heavily mocked decision-making is improving! As long as Yakupov has an elite passer on his line, he can be a deadly scorer.

The Oilers finally have two strong lines that can hold their own with the NHL’s elite. The bottom-six forwards are dreadful, but the Oilers inserted former No. 3 overall pick Leon Draisaitl into the lineup last night. He proceeded to register two goals in his first contest of the season. Draisaitl couldn’t stick in the NHL last season as a rookie, but his puck skills forecast a rosy future.

Also important to keep in mind is that Jordan Eberle is injured, and when he comes back, he will provide high-end scoring and playmaking off the wing. This team has accumulated a ton of firepower at forward.

Defensively, the Oilers’ blue line lacks a No. 1 defenseman (although Darnell Nurse could be that player one day), but the addition of Andrej Sekera and continued maturation of Oscar Klefbom make the Oilers better on breakouts and less porous defensively. Mark Fayne has also had a better season so far. Even though goaltender Cam Talbot has an ugly .904 save percentage at the moment, he is much better than who Edmonton had in goal last season. (To wit, neither of the Oilers’ 2014-2015 goaltenders is in the league at the moment.)

It is not likely that the Oilers will make the postseason this year, but this team has the upper-level talent to compete very soon. Teams can find capable defensemen in free agency or via trade. Role players are relatively easy to obtain or develop (although Edmonton has struggled in this area in the past). But top-level talent is a rare commodity and Edmonton is in a great position to succeed after stockpiling draft picks over the last several seasons.

Patrick Kane makes for a lethal off-the-puck player.
On those occasions when Patrick Kane played with Jonathan Toews in seasons past, the dynamic was different than when he shepherds his own line. Kane is a puck-dominant force of nature, but when he flanks Toews, he cedes some of that facilitating and possession time to the captain. Sometimes they were great, but there were many other times when Kane was less engaged and thus not as much of a threat as he should be whenever he is on the ice.

But this season, with Artemi Panarin assuming some of the puck-handling duties, Kane has been a dramatically different off-the-puck threat. Coming into the zone without the puck means he can receive it and pounce on the defensive coverage from a different angle, and Kane has adjusted so that he does not lose pace. He also has more space, which he has exploited with glee. He can dart to the off-slot for a shot opportunity or keep a close distance to the puck-carrier to provide support. And when Kane operates outside the middle, he crushes rubber at the net, enough so that he leads the team in shots by a margin of three.

The process of gaining the zone and weaving through traffic takes effort. As Kane gets older, he will eventually struggle to dodge opponents and manipulate the defense. So by expanding his off-the-puck game, he can take more shots with less traffic. He can sneak into a space where he wants to direct the flow. The five-men rotation that he stimulates can still be accomplished.

Kane’s read on how to break down defenses is profound, and if he gets to Point B without the effort of journeying from Point A, that is a good thing. He has spots on the ice he likes to reside, and there are spots where he wants his teammates before he feeds it to them. Without the puck, he can move to those spots and receive it without the attention. This makes him both more effective over the course of the game and harder to cordon. Kane can curl off the half-wall and fire it; he can pass to a cutting forward as they charge the net. He can swing toward the backdoor or initiate the strong-side defenseman backdoor cut. The offensive zone rush and cycle become a laboratory for him to conduct trial and error experiments without having to take the preliminary step of gaining entry. Kane’s shooting and passing parameters have widened because the control settings are modified.

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s permanence changes the Capitals’ outlook.
Watching Nicklas Backstrom is like taking in the oeuvre of a celebrated artist. His fluid movements, formidable ease of execution, and proclivity for identifying microscopic passing lanes leave the viewer in awe. The way Backstrom carries and moves the puck is spectacular.

Couple Backstrom’s expertise with the shooting of Alexander Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, and magic happened for many seasons. But from a macro outlook, the splitting up of Backstrom and Ovechkin has important reverberations for how the Washington Capitals can impact a game. That is due to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s strident arrival as a capable playmaking center.

Kuznetsov had his long-awaited breakout season last year, but this year he has been even better. His Corsi is drastically higher; he is tied for top five in the NHL in points; and his puck-handling and passing have made the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie line one of the best in hockey. Moreover, Kuznetsov’s attacking capacity has been more distinguished as well. He has a fine shot, and his playmaking ability enables him to freeze the defense with some subtle juke moves that open up lanes to the net. But it would be a disservice to only talk about his aptitude on the rush. Kuznetsov is a good forechecker, and he has valuable instincts for how to get behind the defense or retreat into a quiet space.

With everything peachy between Kuznetsov and Ovie, Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Justin Williams compose a menacing second line. Backstrom and Johansson can both dish the puck and cleanly gain the zone, and while those two like to create seams and split coverages, Williams always knows where to go and what to do to be the perfect off-the-puck complement. Williams is a heralded possession player, someone who will win the one-on-one-battles and do the little things to keep his team collecting shot attempts. His work to keep the puck on the creative blades of his linemates is important, and the Capitals’ forward group has a convincing case for the best in hockey.

The Avalanche are allowing shot attempts against at a mind-blowing rate.
On Tuesday, IH tweeted that the Colorado Avalanche had the worst CA60 in the Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com database. And the margin between them and the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, who had the second worst of all time CA60, was 3.6. Colorado has shrunk the gap since then, but still, their shot attempts allowed dwarfs their peers.

Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog have been paired together for most of the season, and their metrics are germane to assessing why this team stinks. While they have not been deployed against opponents’ top lines, they both have started less than 40 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, per behindthenet.ca. Outside of the scoring zone, they have struggled to control shot attempts, and each has a Corsi percentage below 38 percent, which is categorically awful. In recent games, coach Patrick Roy has tried to split up MacKinnon and Landeskog, but the problems with Colorado are more based on roster construction. Outside of their marquee players, the Avalanche don’t have the competency at forward or defense to compete right now. They are also an extremely poor passing team. This is not to take the blame off either MacKinnon or Landeskog. When Colorado allowed Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly to leave in consecutive seasons, it placed a heavier burden on the skilled forwards to affect the game more in three zones. That hasn’t happened. Ergo, the Avalanche are likely headed for another bottom-of-the-league finish and could have a chance to grab megatalent Auston Matthews.

David Pastrnak’s most dangerous weapon is the way he is able to change the angle on his shot.
The Boston Bruins, like any team in the NHL, want to possess the power to strike off the rush. The potential for that objective is a lot better when teenager David Pastrnak is on the ice. Pastrnak has a unique strength when carrying the puck before shooting that is worth discussing. He can buy an extra second with a slight pause, then a change of direction that sees him temporarily shift the forward momentum as he brings the puck laterally before shooting in stride. He is also adept at tucking his blade behind his skate and then propelling it forward a split second before contact with the defender. Success in the NHL is extremely difficult, but subtleties like this trait allow the youngest players to thrive.

There seems to be a proliferation of crossing plays.
The Sedin twins do this all the time, and it has become common practice among NHL forwards when they recognize a standstill on the rush. The puck-carrier glides down the perimeter and sees that a teammate cross-ice is surging toward the net. The puck-carrier flings the puck in the direction of the teammate charging toward the net, and the opposing skater and goaltender try to obstruct the player and the puck. The hope is that the puck will hit a skate and go in, or the linemate will tip the puck in.

But this scenario of trying to orchestrate chaos by flinging the puck in the direction of the net and having three different actors contesting for possession is an oblique acknowledgment by many forwards that luck is a huge part of scoring. So there may be a better chance of this working than with a 55-foot shot.

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