Each week “Between the Blue Lines” canvasses the NHL and shares five insights.
Cory Schneider’s starting streak is insane.
Entering this season, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider had started 135 games in his career (regular and postseason). Last season, he started 43 games, a career high by 13. This season, he is on pace to start all 82 games in what is becoming the most insane subplot of the NHL season. That’s right, the Devils have played 19 games and Schneider has started all 19.
There is a lot of debate over whether to start the same goaltender on back-to-back nights, so the idea that goaltenders need an occasional game’s rest is widely acknowledged. Reviewing the last five seasons, the most-utilized goaltenders start around 90 percent of the time – at most — which means they do receive an occasional night off. But the Devils apparently reject the notion that goaltenders become fatigued.
They are unique in this stance. Teams like Los Angeles and Dallas lean on their starters heavily; Jonathan Quick and Kari Lehtonen have received the start 84 percent of the time, which accounts for 16 of the 19 games played. Montreal’s Carey Price, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec, and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop have received the starting nod 80 percent of the time, which translates to 16 of the 20 games their teams have played. Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers has seen 81 percent of the team starts (13 of 16). But no team cracks 85 percent because an occasional day of rest for a starting goaltender is extremely important!
With sports franchises becoming more and more nuanced in how they operate, and conducting themselves more and more like multimillion dollar businesses, teams want maximum productivity from their employees. Resting players is now viewed by smart sports teams as a way to increase or sustain maximum output, as well as help avoid injury, over a marathon season (and possibly in the playoffs).
In fact, this season the Vancouver Canucks met with the San Antonio Spurs, the pioneer of systematic resting of players, to try to gain insight on how to incorporate some of the Spurs’ methods for managing minutes and rest-time, which have made them so incredibly successful. And the Canucks are not alone. This is a gigantic topic of interest in not only hockey, but all sports, and there is a lot of important research being published. The conclusion of that research can be reduced to this: Rest is very, very important.
The Devils cannot plead ignorance, and when Schneider starts 77 games this season – providing he stays healthy with this ludicrous workload — and delivers a .907 save percentage, a lack of time to recover will be a principal reason.
Carl Soderberg is a UFA next season.
Having a top-flight No. 1 center is integral to being a viable Stanley Cup contender.
But the centers behind the indispensable franchise guy are enormously important, too. That is why the Los Angeles Kings have won two Stanley Cups in three seasons; a four-center rotation of Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Jarrett Stoll is an embarrassment of riches. The New York Rangers leapt into the Cup finals behind a Derek Stepan-Brad Richards-Derick Brassard triumvirate. When Richards was bought out, Brassard was given an extension and bumped to the No. 2 center slot. The Rangers are struggling this season, but the reason is not Brassard.
This brings us to Boston, who will see their version of Brassard — Carl Soderberg — become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Brassard was an RFA last summer, not an impending UFA like Soderberg, but the analogy is that, as No. 3 centers, both are a luxury who make their teams deeper than their adversaries. At a cap hit of approximately $1 million, Soderberg is currently one of the NHL’s best bargains. But a team would be wise to overpay him a little in order to collect a valuable building block. And with Boston locked for the long term with centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and new contracts looming for Reilly Smith and Torey Krug – as well as some depth players – the Bruins probably would not be able to match a high bid for Soderberg.
Brought over from the Swedish Elite League, Soderberg has performed tremendously since coming to Boston. In his first full NHL season, he posted 16 goals and 32 assists. He helped Boston win the Presidents’ Trophy last season by centering the NHL’s best third line.
This season, he has gotten off to another very strong start, potting five goals and dishing out eight assists, and posting a 55.2 Corsi for (which bests even No. 2 center Krejci). Soderberg is a very skilled passer, has superb hockey sense, and funnels pucks at the net with regularity. He consistently shows an understanding of the angles, which allows him to make some perfect indirect passes to his linemates and know what path is the most advantageous when crashing the net. Soderberg has great chemistry with Loui Eriksson, and the two combine for an imposing forecheck and cycle game. All of these skills have made him an asset on the power play when he has received time, and while Eriksson has the upper hand on him via WOWY metrics, Soderberg is still good enough outright that his success is not completely tethered to his play with Eriksson.
Even though Soderberg has basically operated as the third option at center, a team like the Edmonton Oilers or Dallas Stars would be wise to sign him to support their top-heavy talent. (The contract should be within reason, though.) Like Brassard, Soderberg has an all-around game and the distribution acumen that would make him a suitable No. 2 center. He would be fine in a top-six role, and a team with the right supporting cast should outbid a cap-restricted Boston for him.
The Higgins-Bonino-Burrows line
The Canucks’ second line ranks among the top ten most productive lines in hockey this season, which may come as a surprise to some. What makes the Bonino line successful is that the three forwards work well in concert, making a series of small plays – on and off the puck — that advance them up the ice and into the offensive zone. When you consistently get into the offensive zone, logically it allows for more scoring opportunities. To be fair, it also helps that Vancouver has a high-end defensive group that finds the outlets in the Canucks’ own zone and can skate very well, opening up space for the forwards.
Vancouver uses the same formula for all four forward lines and three defensive pairs: the tape-to-tape pass over the area pass on breakouts; the carry-in over the dump-in; the weakside defenseman always joins the transition; lots of give-and-gos; allowing forwards and defensemen to aggressively support the puck along the boards in the sake of maintaining territorial advantage; and moving the puck horizontally when going vertical is not an option. Some lines can execute this formula more effectively than others, and when the Sedins and Radim Vrbata are clicking, they are nearly unstoppable. But the second line can accomplish the franchise vision as well, although there is less dazzling individual brilliance and more subtlety to their efficacy.
Tampa Bay Counterattack
Watch out for the Bolts on the counterattack. They are super fast, identify and dart into gaps quickly, and move the puck extremely efficiently. Scarily, this does not describe one specific line, but their top three forward lines. Teams that try to aggressively attack in transition – with three or four skaters around or below the circles — are going to get burned by Tampa Bay all season. There are just too many skilled players adept at head-manning the puck, receiving passes on the rush, and executing an offensive zone play that leads to a high-grade scoring chance.
Ryan Suter is in the early Norris Trophy conversation.
Ryan Suter has gotten off to an awesome start this season. The only previous campaign in which he faired nearly this well in relative Corsi was 2010-11 and 2008-09, but this is his career high in Corsi for, per Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. His 59.0 Corsi for is third on the team and second among defensemen, and one of the reasons is because he is commanding the ice in all three zones. And, incredibly, he is playing nearly half the game! His time on ice through 17 games is an unfathomable 29:13.
In the defensive zone, Suter has been very impressive with his vision and first pass on breakouts – he has always had an excellent stretch pass and distributing skills, but he has been downright ridiculous in some games this season — and the Wild have been the best possession team this season partly because their zone exits have been so fluid. Suter’s ability to find the passing lanes, or lead the rush, puts an uncomfortable strain on the opposing defense.
Suter is also assuming puck-handling duties at even strength, and is aggressively pinching as another attacker on the rush or on the cycle off the weakside. He has a powerful shot, and has been diligent about finding the shooting lanes with a slap shot, or using a wrist shot when the opposing forward challenges him for the shotblock at the point.
Suter only has one goal and eight assists, so his lack of tangible offensive production may not put him in the Norris conversation. But if he keeps playing like he has, he should be.