Between the bluelines: MacKinnon, the Wild and a funky Devils stat

Each week, Sam Hitchcock takes a look around the NHL. Follow him @intellighockey on Twitter and at his site

Brent Seabrook

Paired on defense with Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, it is natural to overlook Brent Seabrook’s contribution and assume he only rides shotgun to Keith’s greatness. But for those who do not watch the duo on a daily basis, this is a mutually beneficial relationship, and lately, Keith has been reaping the benefits of Seabrook’s play.

Seabrook has been dominant in all three zones: picking corners with his shot and creating offense with his mobility on and off the puck; stepping up in the neutral zone and breaking up the clean zone entry, or buying time on the reset before zipping a pass to a Blackhawks’ forward to attempt another offensive zone entry; and showing exquisite footwork when breaking up one-on-ones in the defensive zone, and using his body and stick to envelop any shot or pass attempts.

Keith’s edge work, self-assurance with the stretch pass, and dynamic playmaking ability often grab the spotlight, and his surplus of points help too, but Seabrook is accumulating points for his shift-to-shift play. While Seabrook will never have Keith’s flair or grace, he is playing exceptionally well, and Chicago is benefiting tremendously from it.

Nathan MacKinnon

A quick glance at Nathan MacKinnon’s boxcar stats and one might assume he has fallen off dramatically from his play last season when he won the Calder Trophy. He is projected to finish with 14 goals and 36 assists, a step back after last season’s 24 goals and 63 points. Before scoring against Chicago the other night, MacKinnon had gone 16 games without scoring a goal. So teams have figured him out a bit, right? Perhaps it’s a bit of the sophomore slump mixed in with gaining too much muscle during the offseason? Or that players aren’t caught off guard by his overwhelming speed and are more prepared now?

Not even close. MacKinnon is fine. His speed is still very much present — just ask Chicago’s Johnny Oduya. A tremendous defenseman, Oduya was victimized last Saturday on MacKinnon’s spectacular solo effort. MacKinnon is poised for a monster second half.

And his early season struggles have been understandable. Like many predicted, Colorado has declined because of last season’s unsustainable puck luck — which translated to a monster PDO — along with the loss of two-way center Paul Stastny. Colorado made offseason additions, but they have not moved the needle and, aside from Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, the defense is miserable. The Avs have a thin forward and defensive group, which means this season the top-flight forwards and defensemen are relied on even more to carry the workload.

Incredibly, MacKinnon has fared pretty well and is getting better. His Corsi ranks second on the team, and without Stastny there to do the dirty work, he is managing against the top competition from opponents. Moreover, his puck luck should improve. MacKinnon has a tiny shooting percentage of 5.5. While his career sample size is small, he can definitely blast the puck with a slap shot or unleash a precisely placed wrist shot. Last season, his shooting percentage was 10.0.

If MacKinnon were failing to create scoring chances, a correction might be less likely. But he is consistently generating offense when he gets the puck. He can beat guys to the outside with that locomotive speed and power. He can bully his way to the middle and get a shot on goal and follow up on the rebound. It is a good bet that his shooting percentage will reach at least ten percent, and that will mean a jump in his goal totals as he continues to adjust to life with an incapable supporting cast.

What separates the great teams from the good ones

In today’s possession-focused era, teams are more reluctant than ever to exit their own zone and traverse the neutral zone without direct passes. If teams get their way, they can carry the puck out of their own end, through the neutral zone, and into the offensive zone without experiencing a hiccup. But opponents know that their adversaries want to do this, and they try to counter by forcing teams to advance the puck without maintaining possession. This sometimes requires stepping up in the neutral zone and using defensive structures to take way space and time, forcing the opposing team to get the puck deep and temporarily relinquish possession.

That’s where it becomes important to differentiate between a rudderless dump-in and a smartly placed area pass. The best teams will put the puck softly enough into a corner, or shoot the puck into the boards at the appropriate angle, so that the F1 and F2 will get there to clamp down on the defensemen and wrestle possession back. Almost every team at this point would rather carry the puck in over the blue line on a zone entry, and every single team, even those who prioritize it less, are aware of the league-wide preference.

So when there are five players in the neutral zone, or even when a defense is backing off and getting into a neutral zone set, a pass to a teammate that can deflect the puck into the offensive zone carries with it the calculated area pass that allows the forwards to race to the puck in the offensive zone rather than cough up a turnover with forced direct passing that allows for a quick counter. Separation is hard, and sometimes when players are receding into the neutral zone, a defenseman will intentionally ice the puck with a forward racing down the ice to get it because the “icing” is an effective area pass.

None of this is ideal. But as teams are more and more reluctant to dump the puck in, opponents are happy to clog up the neutral zone as their counter to that action. Nothing in hockey happens in a vacuum, and the difference between a soft chip versus aimless punting on possession places different pressures on the opposing defense and limits the amount of time and space they have on their retrievals. The teams that can squeeze an opposing defense uncomfortably with the F1 and F2 when the carry-in isn’t available are the ones that will succeed in the playoffs. The name of the game is puck possession; everybody knows that. But to maintain possession, teams need to be versatile in how they advance the puck and get it back.

Minnesota’s Ceiling?

If the Wild’s bandwagon seems a bit subdued after some justifiable hype to start the season, the main reason people will point to is that the team’s record does not meet its puck-possession metrics. Two reasons are clear: Their goaltending has stunk (29th in even-strength save percentage) and their puck luck has not been great.

The Wild currently are 26th in PDO. But another, smaller, more ominous reason for the team’s mediocre showing thus far may be that every team has a ceiling, and ultimately, if your best players are not as good as the Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kanes, Duncan Keiths, Anze Kopitars, Jeff Carters, and Drew Doughtys in the Western Conference than you are out of luck. And don’t forget about the Bruins. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Zdeno Chara are superb.

Minnesota has depth, and its GM brilliantly wagered on young players with upside to complement veteran stars who he acquired as high-priced free agents. On paper, the Wild’s youth is an embarrassment of riches: Jonas Brodin, Nino Niederreiter,  Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Matthew Dumba. Seemingly a plethora of young talent.

But now that young talent is starting to develop, the results are… pretty good. Brodin is a stud, Niederreiter is a good, possibly very good, power forward, but Coyle and Granlund have been disappointing. Zucker has outperformed expectations, but will he ultimately move the needle? Dumba is still developing.

Something to also remember is all of this comes on a timeline. Zach Parise and Jason Pominville are 30 and 32, respectively, and they are first and second on the Wild in points. Their role as the top scorers and primary contributors are coming to a close. The difference between the Wild and the St. Louis Blues is that the Blues needed Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz to emphatically grab the mantle from the veteran forwards. The incumbent Blues forwards had a reputation for playing a grit/lunchpail game that supplemented a talented, star-caliber defensive group. Now the focus has shifted.

The Blues have those difference-making, game-breaker forwards, a high-end blue line, and maintain a veteran presence. That’s what the Wild want, too. But for that to happen, they need a bigger leap from those young forwards. Otherwise the Wild will need to win on depth. The biggest leap of any of their young players has unequivocally come from Brodin. Besides him, progress has been incremental.

Depth can get you into the playoffs and maybe through a round or two, but winning a Cup is generally dictated by the superstars. The Wild have a No. 1 defenseman in Suter, Parise is still a top-notch winger, and then they have a lot of pretty good players wedded to unknowns. Anyone who thinks they will be getting elite scoring from Thomas Vanek is kidding themselves. It is early and the book is still being written, but anything other than star level from the young guys will mean one of the best laid plans will go wasted.

Funky New Jersey stat

The Devils operate on the perimeter of both sides of the Corsi For and Against, per 60 minutes spectrum. The Devils are in bad shape these days; that is no secret. They are also famous for playing within their system, which can broadly be defined as conservative hockey in today’s go-go, push-the-pace, rush-centric game. They have taken a nosedive in their possession metrics relative to prior seasons, and a fascinating metric that reveals the best and worst of their philosophy is the Corsi For per 60 minutes and Corsi Against per 60 minutes.

The Devils are third in the NHL in allowing the fewest shot attempts over the span of 60 minutes at even strength, but they are also 29th in recording shot attempts over that time frame. Everyone knows the Devils are playing for the 1-0 game where the opponent makes the costly mistake to lose, but to see it displayed in such dramatic fashion in the more micro stats is pretty compelling stuff.


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