Shane O’Donnell writes for Hockey Prospectus and regularly appears on HP Radio. He writes about the Atlantic Division and contributed to Hockey Prospectus’ annual book.
The Montreal Canadiens opened their season with a historic hot streak, winning their first nine games and dominating opponents while doing so. That winning streak gave them a bit of a head start over the rest of their Division in terms of points, and midway through November, they were eight points ahead of the second place team.
That head start is now gone, however, with the Canadiens going 2-7-1 in their past ten games, and dropping three in a row in regulation. The Boston Bruins are now one point back of the division lead, but have two games in hand over Montreal.
The Habs are still playing solid possession hockey, with a 53.7% Corsi For percentage, and an expected goals for percentage of 52.6%. Most of their struggles have come from poor goaltending, as backup Mike Condon has struggled in a starting role, posting a .903% save percentage in all situations. Getting Carey Price back from injury will be huge for the Canadiens, who are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
Boston’s elite power play, and Tuukka Rask’s return
The Boston Bruins have had the league’s best power play this season, converting on an obscene 28.9% of their chances so far in the season. Special teams play can sometimes be difficult to predict, as shooting percentages fluctuate wildly, and shot rates sometimes aren’t the best predictors of success.
Still, the Bruins are second in the league in Fenwick For per 60 minutes, so they’re getting tons of unblocked shot attempts off when they have the man advantage. They also move the puck around incredibly well, and create tons of opportunities directly in front of the net. The main beneficiary of the work down low is Loui Eriksson, who has converted on plenty of chances directly in front of the net. Here’s a string of Tweets that show how open Eriksson is for many of his chances.
Is the power play going to keep shooting at an 18% clip for the rest of the season? Probably not. Is there reason to believe the Bruins may truly have one of the league’s best power plays? Yes.
As for Tuukka Rask, the Finnish net minder is playing at an elite level again. He had a rough start to the season, and struggled to get going this year, leading some to question his abilities. Here’s his 5-game rolling average of adjusted save percentage.
Looks pretty good.
Is Detroit for real?
The Detroit Red Wings are third place in the Atlantic Division right now, and have one game in hand over four of the teams currently behind them, so one could argue that they’re in a good spot.
On the other hand, they only have a +2 goal differential, which is the sixth lowest total in the Atlantic, and have scraped out points by getting the game past regulation (the Wings have played in 14 games that were decided in the shootout/overtime).
At the same time, since the return of Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings have posted a 54.2% CF%, which is the fifth highest percentage in the entire league.
Overall, the team is lucky to be in third place right now based on how they’ve played, but whatever poor luck they may have in one goal/overtime games will probably be covered for by their improvement in puck possession. We’ll have to wait and see if they can maintain their position in the Atlantic.
Florida’s surprise successful fourth line player
Here’s something that I never would have thought was possible. In 18 games played, Shawn Thornton has a 47.5% CF% and a 0.1% relative CF%.
That’s right. Shawn Thornton is a positive possession player.
Sure, he’s getting some favorable zone starts (9.8% rel ZSO), and has only played in 150 minutes, but it’s still impressive for a player who had been on the decline for years and had been a major drag on the team’s possession just last season.
If we take a bigger picture view of the whole situation, Thornton’s improvement probably doesn’t mean much, but it’s still fun to point out. It’s not very often that an enforcer is a positive possession player, especially one who is 38-years-old.
If you’re going to read one thing today (besides this column) make it this piece on Erik Karlsson.
In the article, Dimitri Filipovic examines how good Karlsson is, what makes Karlsson so good, and why Karlsson is essentially redefining the way we think about defenseman. It’s well worth the time.
Concern for Tampa?
The Tampa Bay Lightning may currently be out of a playoff spot, but it’s not exactly time to start freaking out. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the defending Eastern Conference champs will be able to fight their way into the postseason this year, starting with the fact that they actually have a better goal differential than two of the teams currently ahead of them in the Atlantic Division (Tampa is +6, while Ottawa and Detroit are only +2).
The Bolts are also 8th in the league with a 52.4% CF%. They’re still a high-end 5 on 5 team, and if they keep playing well, it’s hard to believe that they won’t at least slide into a Wild Card spot. As of right now, there are two teams with better possession numbers than the Lightning, and one of them is the Carolina Hurricanes. It would take an impressive amount of bad luck for Tampa to miss the playoffs, especially since they only need to make a Wild Card spot in order to get in.
It’s not what the team was hoping for coming into the year, but making the postseason is still better than missing out, especially if this is the last year the team will have Steven Stamkos on the roster.
Buffalo’s elite center
The Buffalo Sabres gave up three prospects (Nikita Zadorov, J.T Compher, and Mikhail Grigorenko) as well as a second round pick in the 2015 Draft in order to acquire Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche. Though Zadorov is a defensive prospect with lots of potential, Grigorenko has been a bit of a bust since turning pro, and Compher will be a good NHL player, but likely won’t end up being elite.
And elite is what Ryan O’Reilly has been since joining the Sabres. He’s 23rd in the league with 29 points, and has stellar possession numbers (50.3% CF%, 4.3% rel CF%). This is nothing new for the 24-year-old center, who has been a top line player for most of his career.
When Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are closer to their prime, the Sabres are going to have one of the best center groups in the entire NHL. It’s going to be extremely difficult to match up against those three.
Toronto’s favorite European
Leo Komarov has been making noise in Toronto for his stellar play lately, as the Estonian born Finn has racked up 21 points in 31 games for the Maple Leafs, and is on pace to set a new personal best for points in a season.
The 28-year-old may be on the older side of the development curve, but has proven he’s a solid player who can move the needle from a possession standpoint, and put the puck in the net by going to the dirty areas of the ice.
He could probably fit in the middle six of a playoff team, and one has to wonder if there’s a team out there that would be willing to pay a hefty price to acquire Komarov for a shot at the Stanley Cup. His value probably isn’t going to get any higher, and selling high on the gritty winger now might be the best course of action for the rebuilding Maple Leafs.