Welcome to 5 insights and observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.
This week we look at the Red Wings’ unusual path to power-play success, the Dallas Stars’ excellent penalty kill, resting Leo Carlsson, the Carolina Hurricanes having five top-four defensemen and Logan O’Connor, the NHL leader in shorthanded goals so far this season.
Red Wings going against the grain
It always stands out when a team does something differently than the rest of the league and achieves success. For the Detroit Red Wings, who are off to a blazing hot start, their power play has been fantastic and clicking at 38.7% in the early going.
That’s going to naturally come down because it’s unsustainable, but how they are achieving this success is worth keeping an eye on. Namely, they have two defensemen on their top unit in Moritz Seider and Shayne Gostisbehere. They are good players, to be sure, but this isn’t exactly Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer lighting it up (though Seider is well on his way to becoming a true franchise No. 1 defenseman).
You would be hard pressed to find a team that runs two defensemen on their top unit. Even teams with multiple top-end offensive defensemen like Vegas with Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo tend to alternate between them more often than playing them together. The league moved away from that at least a decade ago and if anything, units have tinkered with the idea of running five forwards rather than introducing a second defenseman into the mix.
The general logic is sound: forwards score more and defensemen stylistically are good for quarterbacking. You can’t have two quarterbacks. For Detroit, they could have gone with that logic. Gostisbehere has been quarterbacking power plays his whole career, especially the last few seasons in Arizona, and so has Seider.
Naturally, something had to give, and so far it’s Gostisbehere who has made a home on the half-wall. Look at him set up here like a trigger man, draw attention and find Dylan Larkin wide open in the slot for an easy goal.
A lot of defensemen can’t do this. Previously, when two defensemen did play on the power play, one was a setup man and the other a trigger man. With the Wings, Seider and Gostisbehere are both setting up and teeing off. Because they can do both, it’s causing confusion and helping the Wings exploit teams and setup chances for Larkin and Alex DeBrincat.
Pros and cons to Anaheim’s approach with Leo Carlsson
When teams draft players with a top pick, they’re usually eager to show them off. For Anaheim, they are openly taking a different approach with Leo Carlsson.
“I played in this league as a 19-year-old. I kind of know at Game 40, 42, somewhere in there, I hit a wall,” said Ducks GM Pat Verbeek. “It took me a while to kind of get through that wall, and I don’t want him to go through that. I want him to be a horse in the second half of the season. So, we’re going to manage his games for the next couple of months.”
This is going to be a fascinating situation to track and ultimately look back on as to whether it was worth it. Verbeek is generally correct in noting that most first-year players experience a “rookie wall.” For a player like Carlsson in particular who’s coming from Sweden, he simply isn’t used to playing a gruelling 82-game campaign. Last season, he played 44 games, along with 13 playoff games. That’s a big gap in games played, to say nothing of crossing the ocean and coming to play in a much more difficult league.
This is an attempt to help ease that transition and keep Carlsson rested and healthy to optimize his performance. If nothing else, you can see the logic.
Consider the flip side, though.
The vast majority of superstars in the league today were not load managed like this while they were working through the league. They certainly didn’t have a coordinated plan to do so unless the player forced their hand with his play. It’s particularly interesting for a team of Anaheim’s quality to take this approach.
If, say, the Vegas Golden Knights decided they were going to coordinate rest for a promising rookie throughout the season to try to ensure he’s at his best down the stretch and come playoff time, that would be understandable. They are a contender trying to win a Cup.
For a team like Anaheim, that’s not exactly the case. They need all the help they can get just to make the playoffs. If Carlsson is playing great in the final quarter of the season and Anaheim is far out of the playoff picture, is it worth it? Are you better off just playing the player and, should he hit a wall, having him simply work his way through that adversity? Or should you help him avoid that adversity altogether? There’s no right or wrong here, but it will be something to keep an eye on to see whether it was ultimately worth it.
Stars killing it while shorthanded
When the Toronto Maple Leafs scored a power-play goal against the Dallas Stars on Thursday, it meant that every team in the league had officially given up a goal on the penalty kill. It was the Stars’ sixth game of the season, and in a broader context going five games without giving up a power-play goal isn’t exactly eye popping. But in this case, it’s really a continuation of where Dallas left off last season.
The Stars had the third best penalty kill in the league last season at 83.5%. While the core of the penalty kill largely remains the same, it’s noteworthy that the Stars’ top penalty killing forward from last season, Luke Glendening, is no longer on the team. Neither is Joel Kiviranta, their fourth highest-played forward on penalty kill last season. That has meant a big bump for Radek Faksa, who is playing nearly a minute more on the kill, while players like Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz, as well as new addition Sam Steel when dressed, are playing more short-handed minutes.
Having Jake Oettinger in net helps as well, to be sure. But this isn’t just personnel. It’s systemic. The Stars pressure all over the ice and don’t allow teams to get comfortable and snap the puck around. In particular, they are aggressive in the neutral zone and try to prevent teams from setting it up altogether. Look at this pressure against Pittsburgh’s power play, as they have two players apply pressure in the Penguins zone in waves.
That is not a normal pressure setup in the league. In fact, most teams will have one player at best apply passive pressure in the other team’s zone and line up three players across either center ice or their own blue line. That allows teams to come in with speed and back off defenders to create space for an entry. The Stars will challenge up and down the ice and pressure the blue line looking to create turnovers.
Here against Anaheim, the forward applies pressure in the neutral zone, the defenseman steps up at the line and they create a turnover to go the other way. The name of the game is pressure and aggression.
What’s behind Carolina’s defensive struggles?
When the Carolina Hurricanes signed Dmitry Orlov and brought back Anthony DeAngelo, it was largely assumed they would have one of the best defenses in the league. They were already returning their top four from last season in Brent Burns, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce, as well as pleasant surprise Jalen Chatfield, who would comfortably be a top-six defender on most teams in the league but is the de facto seventh defenseman in Carolina.
The Canes had the second best goals against per game last season even though they were only 15th in 5v5 save percentage. So far this season, though, there have been growing pains. They have the second worst goals against per game mark in the league — having a bottom five penalty kill so far hasn’t helped — and while they have the sixth worst 5v5 save percentage, this isn’t just on goaltending.
Adding a top-four defenseman to a team that already has four top-four defensemen has led to some strange ice time allocations. Look at the time on ice per game so far this season, versus these players’ career averages:
Every defenseman except Skjei is down compared to their career average. Prior to Pesce getting hurt, Slavin in particular was averaging just 19:38. That is a tough adjustment for the players and coaches, trying to make sure everyone is involved and gets their minutes and that it benefits the overall team in doing so. The minutes don’t look right for a number of players and it has led to some head scratching breakdowns for a team that is otherwise the best 5v5 Corsi team in the NHL so far.
Everything should stabilize as there are far too many indicators that suggest they will — such as controlling play and scoring chances — and the minutes will sort themselves out, but to this point it has just been a bit of a feeling out process.
Avalanche’s depth is scary good
The Colorado Avalanche lacked depth last season and made a series of moves in the offseason to address that by acquiring Ryan Johansen, Ross Colton, Jonathan Drouin, Miles Wood and Tomas Tatar. They have had one of the best starts in the league and increased depth is a big reason why. But one of their best depth players to this point has been one of their rare holdover bottom-six players from last season, Logan O’Connor.
Undrafted and largely unheralded, O’Connor, who is 27, has already played over 200 NHL games and suited up in 17 games during the Avs’ Cup run, which is no small feat. In the past two seasons he has been a bottom-of-the-lineup contributor, putting up 24- and 26-point seasons, including a career-high nine goals last season. So far this season, he has three goals through seven games, with all three coming shorthanded. Making it even more impressive, all three were absolutely gorgeous.
That is what breakaway speed looks like, and he displayed an array of different looks and finishes. His overall ice time is actually down three minutes per game from last season and he’s shooting over 37%, so we’re keeping our expectations in check. But it’s the kind of flash that makes you pause and think that perhaps there’s a bit more here than meets the eye.
At the very least, he look like more than just a mid-20-point player. He is puling away from defenders with ease and finishing confidently. The Avs added a lot of players in the offseason to help address depth issues, but developing from within has also eased the burden.