Between the bluelines: Datsyuk, Jets, revisiting the Del Zotto trade and more

Each week, Sam Hitchcock takes a look around the NHL. Follow him @intellighockey

Pavel Datsyuk’s points per 60 minutes numbers are insane.

Datsyuk is a wonder. He is leading all NHL players (who have played 11 or more games)in even-strength points per 60 minutes at 4.07, and it is truly incredible that he is still this good. Drawing maximum attention from the opposing defense, Datsyuk makes enemy skaters look helpless. Opponents flail at his one-step ahead puck-handling as Datsyuk knives through their ordered coverage and creates chaos. His passes find seams that seem to appear only when he dishes the puck, and his strength on the puck and shot remain elite. The biggest question with Datsyuk is health. If he and his partner in crime, Henrik Zetterberg, can stay healthy, than the Red Wings and their very talented supporting cast will be entrenched in the Eastern Conference Cup candidacy conversation.

Change-the-math wrinkle

The Brent Burns’ experience at forward was ephemeral in length but still packed with lots of good memories. One of the best wrenches the unpredictable Burns threw at team’s defensive structures was to retreat all the way up to the point, typically situated in the middle of both San Jose defensemen. There is much more space at the point than in the congested ice section below, and suddenly the Sharks would have three skaters on a swath of ice that was relatively uninhabited. Even if both opposing forwards were playing close to the defensemen at the points, San Jose would still enjoy a 3-versus-2 skater advantage.

Other forwards sporadically recede all the way up to the point, but they try it more when things become too cluttered down low. Oftentimes, there is a distinct territorial advantage and some room to step into a slap shot, or the opportunity to shot-pass, if the defense packs like sardines for the shot block. The F3 in a triangle forecheck often hangs out around the slot, but methodical flipping of the offensive zone where the upper half becomes the strong side/portion of the ice is a nice answer in an overcrowded and jam-packed offensive zone.

Winnipeg is frisky.

The Winnipeg Jets seem to be perennially stuck in neutral, and some of the Jets’ early-season success has been overshadowed by Calgary and Nashville. But don’t sleep on Winnipeg. This club has been good for its first 29 games, and could conceivably qualify for the Western Conference playoffs. Some statistical indicators worth highlighting are their top-ten Fenwick Close and shots against, and top four (!) goals against.

Heading into the season, the Jets’ glaring flaw was their poor goaltending. But so far, so good. The Jets goaltenders’ save percentage at even strength is sixth in the NHL. And while that is bound to regress (they were 23rd last season), their PDO is actually slightly below 100 because their shooting percentage is ranked 27th. So when that robust save percentage comes back to earth, their shooting percentage should improve. It is conceivable that the Jets could challenge for a Western Conference Wild Card spot because their puck luck hovered at the baseline.

Credit should be given to coach Paul Maurice because a lot of the Jets’ success stems from their playing more systematic hockey. They are playing more structured hockey in the defensive zone – their forwards are actually providing support on breakouts! – while trying to play a more physical, power game in the neutral and offensive zones. In fact, when the Jets played the Boston Bruins on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Winnipeg style of play looked strikingly similar to the B’s. The bruising, surgical forecheck, the weak side defenseman jumping into the rush, both defensemen heavily involved in the high-low cycle game, and the defense-first mentality that can equate to overloading the strong side in an effort to get the puck out.

The Bruins’ success starts in their defensive zone. Their forays into the offensive zone are a result of well-positioned direct and indirect passing, lots of skating off the puck and headmanning to the open skater, as well as defensemen who are capable of challenging the opponents with their mobility and offensive ability. The Bruins want play to stay in their opponents’ defensive zone and to register lots of shot attempts. They have the versatility to generate scoring chances off the rush and cycle.

The Jets are trying to adopt these philosophies. Like Boston, Winnipeg wants their rearguards identifying spaces and attacking it, with and without the puck, but the forward needs to cover that aggression by supporting the pinching defenseman at a higher spot on the ice.

The Jets’ execution is not as polished as that of the Bruins’ well-oiled machine, but Winnipeg no longer appears to be a rudderless collection of skaters with varied skill sets. The Jets have cohesion, and with some more internal development and the emergence of some prospects, they might disrupt the fault lines in their conference landscape.

Depressing Carolina Statistics

The Hurricanes’ Corsi percentage in close games at 5 on 5 is 50.3, which places them 16th in the NHL, and ninth among Eastern Conference teams. But at 5 on 5 in all situations, the Hurricanes’ Corsi percentage jumps to 52.5, slotting them 7th in the NHL. This wide gap can be found in Fenwick percentage, too. Carolina is very strong at five on five in all situations in Fenwick percentage, but below average in close- game situations. Since the Hurricanes are tied for the worst record in the NHL, they aren’t racking up shots at even strength with a cushy lead. Instead, these stats seems to suggest that the Hurricanes play their best hockey when trailing in multi-goal games. That’s not a great trait to have.

A Look Back at the Kevin Klein for Michael Del Zotto Trade

On January 22nd, 2014, the New York Rangers traded defenseman Michael Del Zotto for the Nashville Predators’ defenseman Kevin Klein. Aesthetically, coach Alain Vigneault likes to push the pace as far as his team’s style of play, and Del Zotto has an up-tempo game. Klein was a more conservative, keep-it-simple rearguard. On paper, it appeared that the Rangers were trading away a personality that didn’t fit with the team and were welcoming in an older defenseman who was steady and possessed a coveted right-handed shot, but overall had less upside.

But this trade has been a big win for the Rangers and their vastly underrated front office. Not only did they acquire the better defenseman of the two players, but Klein has flourished with New York. MDZ’s tenure with Nashville was short-lived, as the Predators decided he was “not a fit” with the team and parted ways with him in the offseason. In a league starved for defensive depth, the market for Del Zotto was cool, but the Flyers signed the 24-year-old free agent when it became apparent Kimmo Timonen’s health issues would prevent him from playing this season. (Timonen is out indefinitely.) Philadelphia has been one of the worst teams in the NHL this season, and Del Zotto has shown some good and some bad. His future remains uncertain.

The Klein-Rangers’ relationship has been an unequivocal success. Klein showed the ability to play top-four minutes when the Rangers’ defensive group was plagued by injuries early on, and his confidence in his offensive game has blossomed under Vigneault. Klein was one of the worst possession players for the Blueshirts last season but this year, he has been one of the best. Klein does not have dynamic puck skills or an explosive skating stride, but he makes the right reads in all three zones, has good hockey instincts which make him surprisingly effective with the puck, and is not afraid to fire it on net when given the opportunity. In fact, Klein finds his name among the top ten for defensemen in goals, mixed in with the Who’s Who of All-Star defensemen the NHL has to offer.


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