Between the bluelines: Yakupov, Flames’ top pair, Maple Leafs and more

Sam Hitchcock is an HP author and operates the website intelligenthockey.com

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

Nail Yakupov

This has been the season of second chances for former top-ten picks. Tyler Seguin won a Stanley Cup with Boston, but the relationship soured and the Bruins traded the former No. 2 pick in a blockbuster deal to Dallas. At the moment, he is second in the NHL in points and first in goals. Jakub Voracek, a former No. 7 overall pick, was part of a package that Columbus gave up for Jeff Carter, and Voracek is now tied for the league lead in scoring.

Former No. 5 overall pick Nino Niederreiter has been tremendous for Minnesota after being traded by the Islanders. He is ranked second in points for the Wild. And former No. 6 overall pick Derick Brassard has been one of the Rangers’ best players after being included in the Rick Nash trade. He is third on New York in points.

Filip Forsberg was supposed to be a top-ten pick, but fell to 11th overall, and was selected by the Capitals. Washington panicked when their team was underachieving and made a short-term trade (that didn’t work) and parted with one of the NHL’s best young talents. This season, Forsberg has 22 points and is just outside the top ten in scoring.

Generally speaking, players who are pegged as high-end talents end up being stars or valuable contributors. It is up to the team and the coach to put them in a situation and environment where they can be nurtured and thrive.

This brings us to Nail Yakuov. The former No.1 overall pick from 2012 is in an untenable situation with the Oilers and the relationship has become toxic enough between the team and player that he seems likely to be traded. Yakupov was a dynamic, scoring talent his rookie season, so did he suddenly become bad? That seems very unlikely.

In 2014-15, Yakupov has terrible possession numbers, a long way to go with his defense, and his boxcar stats have been lackluster. But he has also been jerked around with his ice time, and Edmonton has been an unmitigated disaster this season. Yakupov is not the only player who has struggled with defense – the whole team has ranged from adequate to horrendous depending on the night.

Yakupov seems destined to be a player who finds his game in a new environment. He has shown flashes of his formidable puck skills, explosive first few steps, and a powerful shot that made him the No. 1 overall pick. The team that is wise enough to trade for him will be making a shrewd buy-low move for a scoring winger who has yet to hit his prime. Yakupov just needs to find the right team and infrastructure that can complement and assist him with his strengths and weaknesses.

Why the sky isn’t falling in Toronto

The Toronto saga continues to be the juiciest running storyline in hockey, partly because of how ludicrous the knee-jerk reactions are. The Maple Leafs probably need a new coach, and at this point that is the best scenario for both parties.

But this team does not stink and they should not gut their roster. If the playoffs started today, Toronto would make it. The Maple Leafs have some valuable pieces, and while they are not going to contend for the Cup this season, they can win with a lot of the contributors on their present roster. They have two centers who can fit within a top nine (Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri), an elite sniper (Phil Kessel), a hulking winger with offensive touch (JVR), some defensemen with upside that is still being realized (Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner), and a defenseman who can log top-four minutes if he has the right defensive partner (Dion Phaneuf).

Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson are not worth the money they are being paid, but they are not useless albatrosses like the Devils’ Ryane Clowe or Red Wings’ Stephen Weiss. And the Maple Leafs have two capable goaltenders who a team can win a Cup with.

Newsflash: There are a finite amount of the types of players listed above — they are assets. If Toronto can get someone to bite on a trade for Lupul or Clarkson, they should consider it for the cap flexibility, but aside from those two, the rest of the players on the roster have value. It should be telling that Los Angeles, arguably the smartest team in the league, was kicking the tires on a trade for Lupul before settling on Marian Gaborik. Cup-winning teams know these players have worth – they just need to be surrounded with the right teammates.

There are times when Toronto cannot get out of its own way and every first pass on their breakouts seems to lead to an opposing goal. There are times when Kessel is a ghost. There are games where the Maple Leafs can’t score enough and get thrashed in the defensive zone. But they can also beat up on good teams because they do have impact, skill players.

The path toward contending is through patience. They need to hope that the young core continues to improve and that some of their blue-chip prospects hit, while trying to develop a team that jibes with the organization’s vision. In the meantime, they should extract the most out of the current personnel, and try to improve the team’s two-way game. None of the nucleus is at an age where Toronto needs to be in win-now mode. This team is a few years away from contending.

And most importantly, Toronto has smart people making the decisions now. There were some well-known gaffes with doling out contracts before the front office was injected with new blood, but the tenure of the revamped management has just started. And the Toronto brass has made some good, low-value wagers on players like Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, and Richard Panik. Those players won’t move the needle on a macro-scale, but they represent the kind of nouveau thinking that was desperately needed for this franchise. When the right people are trying to improve the roster, winning comes faster.

Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie

This section is long overdue. Those fans who do not watch a lot of Calgary might be shocked by the Norris Trophy discussion regarding Giordano and the gaudy possession metrics for the Flames top defensive pair, but these two blueliners have been outstanding this season.

Giordano and Brodie have been pristine at identifying which lanes are open to exit the zone, when to attack – on and off the puck – and when to step up and halt the opponents who are trying to enter the defensive zone. The best all-around defensemen nullify the opposing forays and facilitate their team’s offensive assaults, and these two have been exceptional at that.

There is also a good give-and-take with the Flames’ forwards. When either Giordano and Brodie activate, or if both of them do, the Calgary forwards support up high or position themselves for a follow-up scoring chance or pass from one of the defensemen. And when the Calgary forward gains the zone and establishes territorial time, he knows to look for Giordano and Brodie at the point or on the backdoor cut. Spreading a team out and establishing that high-low threat is essential for a healthy offense, and Calgary does this well.

Marian Hossa… still chugging along

The Chicago Blackhawks’ Cup window will close eventually. Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa’s career will end, eventually. Neither occurrence is imminent. The 16-year veteran scored his 1,000th point this season and, while burnishing his Hall of Fame resume, he has been the best driver of possession for Chicago. In fact, his Corsi is the best in the NHL, per behindthenet.ca.

Selke Trophy candidates always turn out to be centers because of the enormous responsibility bestowed on them, but Hossa has been the best defensive player at the wing position for quite some time.

What he does on a nightly basis is incredible. His ability to track is sensational — his timing and angle when stealing a puck and snatching possession are impeccable – and his positioning and hockey sense for where to move the puck, or how to stop the opponent charging with the puck, is awesome. And all the while, Hossa still has the offensive skills that make him a very dangerous scorer. He is extraordinary at receiving passes, regardless of how far they are from his catching radius. And he can still shoot, pass, and skate at a high level while remaining a shutdown defensive player.

Rubbing salt in wounds

The Colorado Avalanche past offseason is looking more woeful by the day. Jarome Iginla has mediocre possession numbers and only three goals on the season (albeit he does have eleven assists). Trade target Danny Briere has been a healthy scratch this season and has a whopping five points, along with lackluster possession numbers. P.A. Parenteau, the player who was dealt for Briere, is filling a top-six forward role for Montreal, has very strong possession numbers, and has ten points. Defenseman Brad Stuart has the worst Corsi of any Avs’ defensemen, and has posted zero points in 14 games.  As far as bang-for-buck, a strong case could be made that Colorado’s best offseason move was acquiring Zach Redmond. That is a brutal reality check.

Predictably, the Avs have missed now-departed Paul Stastny to an incredible extent. Remember that high-octane transition game from last season? Stastny was the one facilitating in the defensive zone and neutral zone to enable that with his first passes off the wall, beneath the goal line, and in high-traffic areas.

And even Matt Hunwick has gone on to New York and proved to be a very capable depth defenseman, an area where Colorado needs a lot of help. The Avs won’t finish last in the Western Conference, but they are poised to get a top-ten pick this season.

 

 

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