Between the bluelines: Hawks, Pens, Strome and the battle for the bottom

Each week “Between the Blue Lines” canvasses the NHL and shares five insights.

Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are white-hot.

The Chicago Blackhawks are absolutely razing teams right now. They have won nine of the last 11 games and, over the course of the last week, throttled Anaheim, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. All three contests were won by the score of 4-1. The entire Chicago team is playing great, but two players in particular have really stepped up: Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

On a recent broadcast, Blackhawks’ color analyst Eddie Olczyk offered that Patrick Kane was the Blackhawks’ offensive catalyst, and when he is firing on all cylinders, the Blackhawks’ machine really hums. Olczyk he could not be more right. But first, some context.

Kane was struggling badly for the first 12 games of the season. He was having trouble with turnovers. He was not receiving the puck cleanly. His puck-handling was faulty. His passes were inaccurate and sometimes led to transition goals by the opponent. He was ineffective on the forecheck and a black hole as the primary puck-handler on zone entries (at even-strength and on the man advantage). But since then, Kane has 17 points in his last 13 games (nine goals and eight assists), and he has dramatically improved in all of those areas. In fact, he is downright dominating. Coach Joel Quenneville is gleefully double-shifting Kane because the forward is commanding every shift, which leads to prime scoring chances.

There is also the trickle down effect. When Kane is spinning gold with Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg, it relieves some of the pressure on Jonathan Toews’ line to be consistent offense every night. The complementary scoring becomes only added scoring, not necessary scoring. And Kane has been working his magic on the power play as well; when Kane is “feeling it,” the Duncan Keith option off the power play becomes even more potent.

The Duncan Keith option is when Toews wins the faceoff, Kane guides the puck to Keith or the puck goes directly to Keith, and Keith has an option: does he want to flex it out the weak side to the right-handed Brent Seabrook for a one-timer, or does he want to give it back to Kane around the half-wall above the circle. If Kane receives the pass, he can either pass it down low to Toews for the jam or backdoor play, or pass it back to the point. A power play is at its most effective when a team can whip it horizontally or strike from up high or down low. And the Blackhawks are generating offense along every axis.

After scoring two goals and dishing out an assist in Chicago’s first two games, Keith’s offensive production in the next eleven contests consisted of zero goals and four assists. In that span, Keith, like Kane early in the season, was having a difficult stretch.

Keith was coughing up the puck in valuable parts of the ice, getting beaten to the middle by opponents, missing on his first pass, and not finding the shooting lane with his Bobby Orr-style, short-backswing slap shot. But over the last twelve games, Keith has three goals and six assists. He has dramatically improved in all of the aforementioned facets. Both Kane and Keith are now controlling sequences each game, and the intensification in production has had a strong correlation to Chicago’s uptick in play. The Blackhawks have been an elite possession team all season, but two of their best players are playing outstanding hockey, and that changes the team dynamics, from the top of the roster to the bottom.

Trouble on the throne?

The Los Angeles Kings are a quirky team. The defending Cup champions are just inside the playoff bubble, and there are positives and negatives to be gleaned from their start this season. Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik have struggled to find offense – Tyler Toffoli has as many points as those two combined – but Los Angeles still sits in the upper half of the league in goals per game. They are a top-five team in goals per game and 5 on 5 scoring. Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty are still awesome, and Toffoli and Pearson have reprised their roles as the terrific young upstarts. And Kopitar and Gaborik are too talented not to get some better puck luck and find their game.

But some ominous signals are flashing from the Kings. Their shots against are 23rd in the NHL. In possession statistics like Fenwick close, a metric in which they have been the preeminent franchise since they acquired Jeff Carter, Los Angeles is 23rd. Even in Corsi percentage at five on five, an area where they fare much better than Fenwick close, they sit 13th, outside the top ten. They led the NHL in Corsi percentage at five on five in 2012-13 and 2013-14, and were second in 2011-12.

Declaring that Willie Mitchell’s departure ushered in a new era would be an overstatement, but his absence has unquestionably been felt. Mitchell was a stabilizing force on the back end, and his defensive partner was often Slava Voynov, who has been suspended indefinitely. When Mitchell was paired with Voynov, they had a 55.7 Corsi-for percentage. They were a defensive pair that exited the Kings’ own zone and reset in the neutral zone efficiently, and they kept the Kings’ nose relatively clean on the defensive side of the puck. Now, both are gone, and it is unclear when Voynov will be back. (Mitchell is with the Florida Panthers.)

The defensemen stepping in have been adequate, but the Kings also played seven games without Alec Martinez, who had a finger injury that required surgery. The Kings have played most of this season with their prolific forward group intact, but a defensive group that is giving big minutes to stay-at-home blueliners like Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene is bound to struggle.

The Kings’ situation is not as bad as the Colorado Avalanche’s, but having defensemen who can put the puck on the stick of the forwards consistently, or attack when the forwards are being pressed, matters. Colorado has a defensive group so incapable that it places an extraordinary burden on the Colorado forwards to bring the puck over three zones and generate a scoring chance.

The Kings’ defensive group during their peak possession seasons had a blue line that complemented the forward group. They moved the puck off the goal line on breakouts and found the outlet, and they had some defensemen who could place pressure on the adversary with their skating and offensive skills. After Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, the two most capable defensemen Los Angeles has who are mobile, aggressive threats are Martinez and Brayden McNabb. That is a problem, especially if the Kings want to make a run at defending the Cup

Ryan Strome!

Ryan Strome is no longer a rookie and eligible for the Calder Trophy, but he played only 37 games last season, and that meager total consisted of his entire NHL career leading into this season. In 25 games in 2014-15, he has already matched last season’s point total (18) and Strome’s per minute numbers are sensational. He is second (!) in the NHL in primary assists per 60 minutes, and in the top 10 in points per 60 minutes, ahead of even Sidney Crosby. Of course, his ice time is much less than Crosby’s, but the 21-year-old has poise, vision, and a two-way game.

On a micro scale, Strome’s effectiveness is evident. Among Islanders’ forwards, Strome is tied for second in Corsi-for percentage, and he is delivering robust possession numbers despite starting 43.5 percent of the time in the offensive zone. That is less frequent than Patrice Bergeron or Kopitar! The former fifth overall pick from 2011 keeps it simple, has a well-rounded game that continues to improve, and looks to be a stud for the Islanders.

Penguins look like Penguins of old… in a bad way.

The Penguins continue to sink like a stone in the possession statistics, and as they get closer and closer to last season’s averageness in controlling the puck, it begs the question: How is this team markedly different from last season and prior years?

Offensively, the Penguins still lead the league with the man advantage, they have the best one-two center combo in the NHL, and they have some good-to-very-good players at wing surrounding their superstar centers. But the first two lines have never been the problem; the bottom six forwards have.

Brandon Sutter, Marcel Goc, and Steve Downie are three very important players to Pittsburgh’s secondary scoring, and their level of competition has ranged from soft to moderately difficult, and their boxcar stats are pretty mediocre. Actually, in Goc’s case, awful. He has one goal and zero assists in 22 games. And the trio’s possession numbers are terrible.

Pascal Dupuis’ absence results in Pittsburgh having four surefire top-six forwards (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, and Chris Kunitz) and a bunch of spare parts. Nick Spaling and Blake Comeau look great when they are centered by Crosby and Malkin, but they are clear-cut bottom-six players. Should anyone have confidence that Sutter, Goc, Downie, Beau Bennett, Craig Adams, Jayson Megna, Zach Sill, Comeau, and Spaling will actually contribute when it counts?

An argument can be made that the defensive group is better and there is some logic to that. Kris Letang was understandably rusty when he came back for the playoffs last season. Olli Maatta should continue to improve. Simon Despres is a nice, mobile upgrade over Brooks Orpik. But is the defensive group improved enough to affect the bottom line? The Penguins are averaging .9 more shots per game than last season, and they are allowing 1.2 more shots per game this season.

The best case for this iteration of the Penguins being better rests on their 5 on 5 scoring, where the team has jumped from 1.05 Goals For/Against (12th) to 1.50 (2nd). For now, the Penguins appear to be slightly better at five on five, and the slightly improved defense has played a part. If the Penguins’ defensive group can stay healthy, and that is a big if, it would certainly improve their chances of making some noise.

Still, this team seems awfully similar to last season. (Is 2014-15 Christian Ehrhoff that much of an upgrade over 2013-14 Matt Niskanen?) How much improvement Pittsburgh made will be one of the most important storylines of the playoffs. The Bruins are a little weaker, and so are the Rangers, but there are some formidable teams on the rise, and the postseason will certainly provide the proving ground for how far the Penguins can go.

The battle for the bottom!

If the season ended today, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers would have the highest odds at the number one pick because they would have the fewest points of any non-playoff team. The Blue Jackets have the worst record in the NHL as of this writing, so even if they do not win the lottery for the first overall selection, they are guaranteed, at worst, Jack Eichel. And obviously if they do win the lottery, they would claim Connor McDavid.

By Columbus acquiring either player, the Eastern Conference hegemony would dramatically change going forward. Columbus would have a one-two center duo of Ryan Johansen and Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel, and that would put the franchise in an incredible situation, much like when the Penguins netted Malkin (2004) and Crosby (2005) in consecutive drafts. When a team has two franchise centers, constructing the rest of the roster is much, much easier.

If Edmonton finishes last in points, they would be guaranteed a franchise center (McDavid or Eichel), which would allow Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to potentially move to the No. 2 pivot role, or Leon Draisaitl, if he surpasses Nugent-Hopkins over the next season. Having depth down the middle is a necessity in the Western Conference. McDavid/Eichel teamed with centers Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl, and superstar left winger Taylor Hall, would actually be the seminal moment when Edmonton stopped finishing in the NHL’s cellar and started competing for a playoff spot (or more).

If the Blue Jackets or Oilers finish last in the NHL this season, they could potentially recreate the Penguins/Blackhawks method of rebuilding. The implications for the last-place team this season are especially salient not only because that team could draft a generational player who could change their franchise trajectory, but also because the NHL is changing the Draft Lottery system so that in 2016, the top three drafting slots will be determined through the lottery system. Currently, the Draft Lottery only determines the first overall pick.

There is no time like the present for these two teams to try out some of their young, inexperienced guys! Growing pains are welcome! The odds of Columbus and Edmonton making the playoffs and overtaking the teams in front of them are astronomical. Therefore, the reward of using young and inexperienced players could be a decade worth of success and a chance at a Stanley Cup.

 

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