Sam Hitchcock is a HP author and runs intelligenthockey.com
Each week “Between the Blue Lines” canvasses the NHL and shares five insights.
Don’t let the losing streak fool you, Washington has definitely improved.
The Washington Capitals are on a four-game losing streak and had an ugly, slipshod loss Sunday night against the Arizona Coyotes. However, since Barry Trotz has taken over behind the bench, this team has exhibited a much more coherent style of play than during prior coaching tenures. In the past, the Capitals have struggled with the details, but with Trotz at the helm, they are executing better than their record indicates.
After being mired in a state of groundless pond hockey for the last several seasons, the Capitals are currently playing rationally. They are using a more systematic approach when leaving their zone. They are supporting the puck well on offense and tracking on defense. Their possession metrics are excellent this season – tied for fourth in Fenwick Close and fifth in Fenwick percentage at five on five – because they are positioning themselves well on their breakouts. The forward down low is assisting the Caps’ defensemen with the grunt work and then the Capitals’ skater who gains possession is identifying the correct outlet.
The Capitals have some talented attacking skaters, and other who are powerful and play a north-south style. This makes them more multifaceted than the garden-variety Eastern Conference team. With more structure and diligence in their own zone, they are exiting their defensive zone better and putting those different players in an opportunity to succeed once they reach the neutral zone. Overall, the team is making much better decisions with the puck, and the addition of rookie Andre Burakovsky has been tremendous.
But Washington is not an elite defensive team. Alexander Ovechkin still puck-watches and loses his assignments. Also, the team’s defense can be reckless with the puck and concede a giveaway, and both forwards and defensemen could keep tighter gaps. But the Capitals are second in the NHL in shots against right now. They have been stingy, especially by their standards. They are allowing fewer shots than St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Boston, and especially Los Angeles.
This is not a fluke. Washington’s fluid transitions allow the forwards and defensemen to attack with speed, and a quick puck retrieval places less pressure on the defensive framework. The offseason acquisition of Matt Niskanen has been worth every penny and more. He is a blueliner with poise and hockey sense, and he makes a strong first pass. His presence has greatly alleviated some of the stress on the incumbents in the Caps’ defensive group. John Carlson is now playing second pair with Brooks Orpik; Mike Green is third pair.
The Capitals have the same record as the pedestrian Flyers, but that belies how much better they have played. So what has been sinking them? The Capitals’ save percentage at five on five is 28th in the NHL. If they can get serviceable goaltending, and continue to stay healthy while maintaining their three-zone play at even strength, they can make the playoffs this season.
Nashville’s defense is one of the NHL’s best, which makes them a force.
The Predators are another team that has maintained good health, and their defensive group has proved fantastic. How good? Shea Weber has the second-to-worst Corsi in the defensive group. Of course, using Corsi like that ignores context, like what zone starts Weber has been employed in and what competition he has faced.
But it is significant that Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all recording strong possession metrics. The quartet has demonstrated puck-moving ability and the recognition of where the release valve is in the Preds’ zone. Their breakouts have been fluid, and there is always the chance that one of their defensemen (except Anton Volchenkov) will lead the zone exit by himself.
Weber is doing the heavy lifting on the defensive end, facing the toughest opponents and assuming the difficult zone starts, but the versatility of Nashville’s young blue line (Josi, Jones, Ellis, and Ekholm are all under 25) augurs well for the future of this franchise.
When teams can move the puck out of their zone quickly, their forwards have many more opportunities to attack. Nashville does not have the most formidable forward group (although Filip Forsberg could change that), but if given a surplus of chances, they have enough depth and offensive skill to score goals– especially since Nashville’s defense presents a scoring threat from the back end as well.
The Breakout Part II: Mark Scheifele’s big day is coming.
In last week’s “Between the Blue lines,” Blues’ winger Vladimir Tarasenko was predicted to surge due to his high accumulation of scoring chances and the awful puck luck he had encountered. Currently, he is white hot, scoring six goals and two assists in his last four games. The game of Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele is not quite as refined as Tarasenko’s, but he is playing very well, despite only garnering one goal and one assist in 12 games.
Scheifele only needs to keep shooting, as he boasts a strong 53.3 Corsi for and has a pitiful 4.2 shooting percentage that is bound to correct. The former No. 7 overall pick from 2011 has size, speed, power, and soft hands. And he has shown the creativity to create off the rush and on the forecheck.
Jets Coach Paul Maurice has put the 21-year-old with forwards who are both productive and effective, and Winnipeg has manufactured prime scoring chances, but failed to convert on enough of them. Scheifele has the skill that can make him a burden to contain for a defense, and he should start heating up any time now.
It’s time to discuss Columbus.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have less points than games played. They have lost five straight. As of this writing, their point total is still in single digits – with Buffalo, Carolina, Edmonton, and Arizona. Columbus has failed to pick up any loser points in their eleven games. The Blue Jackets are in danger of missing the playoffs if they cannot stay healthy, a nightmare scenario for a franchise that clearly does not want to be back in the lottery. Even worse, there are multiple contracts on the Blue Jackets’ cap sheet that are in danger of becoming albatrosses.
But things are not all grim for CBJ. The Blue Jackets’ concern over Ryan Johansen producing prolific numbers in a small sample size should be quashed. Without training camp and a preseason, Johansen has come in and played like a dominating No. 1 center. This has been especially extraordinary because of how many players are injured; the Blue Jackets are literally fielding a team of waiver-wire pickups and AHL players to support a few regulars.
Johansen is averaging over a point per game despite a lack of a supporting cast. Moreover, Ryan Murray is back and looks good; if he can develop into that No. 1 defenseman that he was drafted to be – and can stay healthy – the Johansen-Murray duo will give the team the franchise cornerstones to keep them on the rise. It is much easier to develop a supporting cast than find top-flight talent. Barring health, the hard part is over for the Blue Jackets.
Give it up for Nash
Former Blue Jackets forward and current New York Rangers winger Rick Nash can be an infuriating player, but he is delivering terrific offense right now. He is leading the NHL in goals per 60 minutes and points per 60 minutes, and while that is partially buoyed by unsustainable hot shooting – his shooting percentage is 25 percent – he is exploding through the offensive zone.
Few players in the NHL with Nash’s frame can reach that extra gear in the open ice or use their strength and reach to generate a scoring chance when embedded in defensive coverage. But Nash can still get there, even at 30. If he can continue to position himself on spots on the ice where he can accelerate into a scoring chance or unleash a big shot upon receiving the puck, he can continue his blazing start.