Zack Shea, San Francisco, Calif.
Zack Shea, San Francisco, Calif.
It’s not the trade most would have expected, but the Kings acquired Ben Bishop on Sunday evening. Now they’ve protected themselves from any potential disaster in goal.
Jonathan Quick made his return to the Los Angeles Kings’ crease on Saturday in grand fashion. Facing off against the rival Anaheim Ducks, Quick turned in a sound performance, stopping 32 shots in his first full game of the campaign and slamming the door shut for the final 40 minutes as the Kings’ offense came to life to lift Los Angeles to a 4-1 victory. It was Quick’s first action since the Oct. 12 groin injury that has cost him almost his entire season, and his return couldn’t have come at a better time with Los Angeles fighting to earn a playoff berth.
No matter how well Quick may have played, though, the Kings aren’t about to let their playoff hopes rest solely on the veteran netminder’s shoulders. Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi made that abundantly clear Sunday evening when he went out and pulled the trigger on a deal few saw coming, acquiring goaltender Ben Bishop, one of the hottest free agents to be, from the Tampa Bay Lightning. The deal also saw the Kings receive a fifth-round pick, while the Lightning landed Peter Budaj, prospect Erik Cernak and a seventh-round pick in return.
At first blush, the deal itself is somewhat puzzling. Goaltending hasn’t exactly been the missing piece in Los Angeles this season, and one would assume that finding some offensive punch would have been the first thing on Lombardi’s to-do list with the deadline approaching. And it’s bizarre that Bishop landed in Los Angeles, of all places, when there are a number of clubs that could have used a goaltender of his calibre now and in the future. But despite how odd the trade may seem, it’s clear that there’s a method to the madness here.
Groin injuries for goaltenders can be a tricky thing, and the Kings learned that first hand this season with Quick. But it’s also something the club was familiar with when a similar injury sidelined Quick during the 2013-14 campaign. That he has suffered two groin injuries in the past four seasons, both of which put him on the shelf for a significant period of time, has to be concerning for Los Angeles down the stretch, especially with the fight the Kings are in to sneak into one of the Western Conference wild-card spots or earn a divisional playoff berth.
At this juncture, the last thing the Kings can afford is losing Quick again, because for as well as Budaj had played, there was no telling when he might come crashing back down to earth. And a pedestrian Budaj and injured Quick would almost assure the Kings weren’t heading to the playoffs. After missing the post-season in 2014-15 and exiting in the first round in 2015-16, the Kings clearly weren’t about to let goaltending fail them when they need it most. This is to say that the acquisition of Bishop is, in effect, an insurance policy, and a 6-foot-7, 216-pound insurance policy at that.
As far as getting goaltending help goes, the Kings could have done much worse than netting themselves Bishop, too. This season hasn’t been nearly as kind to him as the past few and Bishop’s 2.55 goals-against average and .911 save percentage are some of the worst numbers he’s put up since landing in Tampa Bay, but he has proven time and time again that he can get the job done in the post-season. During the 2014-15 playoffs, he was one of the backbones of the Lightning on their run to the Stanley Cup final, and his 1.85 GAA and .939 SP had the Bolts within a win of the Stanley Cup final in 2015-16.
There’s no doubt then that if disaster strikes and Quick goes down, Bishop is more than qualified to take over. And having both goaltenders allows Los Angeles to ride the hot hand, a situation they haven’t really had in any season prior. Quick’s return to the crease was excellent, to be sure, but one game won’t tell the story. There are still 21 contests left on the Kings’ schedule, and if Quick shows any signs of rust, Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter doesn’t even have to hesitate when thinking about a change between the pipes. It’s not a knock against the likes of Budaj, Martin Jones or any of the backups who’ve played behind Quick in recent years, but Bishop’s resume, with an Eastern Conference title and two finishes in the top three of Vezina Trophy voting, speaks for itself.
Sitting three points out of the wild-card and 10 points back of the third spot in the Pacific Division, Los Angeles is doing everything they can to ensure they’re not just in the post-season, but competing with the West’s best. Getting Bishop gives the Kings a safety net down the stretch and the ability to ride a proven playoff performer if Quick happens to stumble at any point. So while it’s not the first major deal we thought we’d see coming from the Kings at the deadline, there’s plenty of reason the trade makes sense. Whether or not it works out, though, is still to be seen.
Filip Forsberg back-to-back hat tricks have him on pace for another 30-goal season, and his career scoring rate has him looking like he could go down as one of the all-time greats in Predators history.
The Nashville Predators’ history isn’t exactly the most storied in all of NHL lore. The franchise hasn’t yet celebrated its 20th anniversary, there are no divisional titles, conference championships or Stanley Cups to speak of and there’s no player in team history to win one of the major individual awards. But that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t had its share of stars over the years.
Going through the list of some of the all-time leading scorers in Predators’ franchise history, you come across the likes of Shea Weber, who was, up until this season, the franchise’s cornerstone player, a three-time Norris Trophy finalist and one of the more revered blueliners of his era. Then there are players such as Ryan Suter and David Legwand, both of whom were fixtures of the team during its slow build to consistent success. There are also those temporary greats, notable players in league history who spent some time in Nashville, such as Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, whose stint was all too brief.
But amidst all of the players who have come and gone in Nashville’s history, the franchise has always seemed to be missing the one true offensive star that could help separate them from the rest of the pack. During Kariya’s time in Nashville, he was exceptional, to be sure, but his stay lasted only two seasons. Forsberg’s played all of 22 games in Nashville. And it’s Legwand, who’s known more for his tenacity, that is the franchise’s all-time points leader, and Martin Erat who ranks second all-time. Oddly enough, though, Erat may have been unintentionally responsible for the Predators finally acquiring the first consistently great scorer in franchise history.
There’s no use going over the trade once again, but the deal that sent Erat to the Capitals, a trade that went bust for Washington, landed the Predators Filip Forsberg. At the time, he was an 18-year-old first-round pick who had yet to play a game in the big league, and he wouldn’t really find his way to the NHL full-time until the start of the 2014-15 season. Since then, though, he’s been a revelation for the Predators.
In his rookie campaign, Forsberg finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting thanks to a 26-goal, 63-point season, and he didn’t shrink in his first trip to the post-season. In six games, he managed four goals and six points. The following year, as Forsberg hoped not to be a flash in the pan or hit a sophomore slump, he came out firing and topped his previous career highs by scoring 33 goals and 64 points. And this season, his third full campaign in the league, Forsberg is again on pace to reach the 30-goal plateau and add another 57 points to his career totals. Not to mention he is coming off of back-to-back hat tricks. At that rate, Forsberg would end this season with 90 goals and 190 points in 242 games in his time as a Predator.
On the all-time scoring register, that doesn’t make Forsberg’s scoring ability look like all that much. In fact, he’ll rank behind current Predators such as Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and defenseman Roman Josi. However, Forsberg, 22, has five years remaining on his current deal before he can himself look at heading elsewhere as a free agent, and by that time he may have etched himself into Predators history as one of the top scorers the franchise has ever seen.
Already, Forsberg is among the greatest point producers per game the Predators have seen. Among players to play at least 150 games in Nashville, Forsberg has the third-best goals per game rate at .34, his .38 assists per game are 11th most in franchise history and his .72 points per game is the highest of any active Predator. Only two current Predators outrank Forsberg in either of the statistical categories, and that’s James Neal, who has scored .36 goals per game, and Josi, who has .42 assists per game over his tenure in Nashville. And while Josi is in for the long haul, Neal’s deal is up in two seasons, and it’s not unimaginable that he could be playing the final years of his career elsewhere. Even if that’s not the case, though, it’s hard to imagine his scoring pace isn’t matched or surpassed by Forsberg in the near future.
And when it comes to scoring, conservatively extrapolating Forsberg’s current rates seems to indicate he’ll be one of the Predators’ all-time greats, too.
Let’s say Forsberg plays 70 games a season over the next five years, and continues his current scoring pace. If he has 90 goals and 190 points when this season ends, scoring another .34 goals per game over an additional 350 games would give him another 119 goals for a total of 209 in 634 games. The current leader is Legwand, who scored 210 times during his 956-game Predators tenure. As for points, Forsberg’s .72 points per game rate over the course of the next 350 games would give him 442 for his career, putting him one point back of Shea Weber for third in team history.
The thing is, though, there’s nothing to suggest Forsberg is going to miss 60 games over the next five years. Through the first two campaigns of his career, he didn’t miss a single game and he’s again on pace to play a full 82 games for the Predators. If he were to be an ironman over the final five years of his deal, he’d have 229 goals and 485 points at his current rate. That’d make Forsberg the best goal scorer in franchise history and only Legwand, with 566 points, would be a higher overall scorer. That said, Forsberg would have reached his statistical heights in more than 200 fewer games. In a career that spans as long as Legwand’s did in Nashville, Forsberg would have roughly 324 goals and 691 points.
In considering all of this, it’s worth mentioning again that Forsberg is 22. He still isn’t in the prime of his career and he’s a 30-goal scorer. As the Predators add more offensive weapons around him, it stands to reason that he could start to near 40-plus goal plateau or reach heights even beyond that. And that he’s got another five years to operate makes it hard to fathom he won’t end up as the best goal scorer the franchise has seen and one of the top point-getters in Predators’ history.
When Nashville GM David Poile made the deal to acquire Forsberg, he called the youngster “one of the top rated young forwards in the world.” Not even he could have known, however, that Forsberg would grow into the best offensive weapon the Predators have ever possessed.
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Evgeny Kuznetsov’s production over the first two months of the season had some concerned, but he’s been a near point per game player since the start of December, which just so happens to coincide with the Capitals’ run up the standings.
The Washington Capitals are riding high right now. With 22 games left in the campaign, they’re seven points clear of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Metropolitan Division, the Caps hold a five-point edge in the Presidents’ Trophy race and there aren’t many, if any, teams that have fared much better over the past month.
For the Capitals, their run to the top of the league’s powerhouse division really kicked off in December. A few days into the month, Washington was fourth in the Metropolitan, trailing the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Penguins, neck-and-neck with the Philadelphia Flyers and only a single point up on the New Jersey Devils. But as the month progressed, the tide turned in Washington and the Capitals have gone on to post a 28-6-5 record since the start of December.
The reasons for Washington’s run to the top of the division have been plenty. Nicklas Backstrom has taken his game to another level this season, and he’s been as good as we’ve seen him in several years, contributing at more than a point per game clip. Then there’s Braden Holtby, the Capitals’ all-world goaltender, who has been every bit the brick wall the Capitals hoped he would be when they shelled out big money to keep the netminder. And, of course, Alex Ovechkin has been Alex Ovechkin, teeing up pucks and blasting them home one shot at a time. But one underrated aspect of the current run, especially with the way Backstrom has risen into contention for the Art Ross, has been the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The 24-year-old entered the season coming off of a career year, scoring 20 goals and 77 points during the 2015-16 campaign. Believed to be finally hitting his stride, there were high hopes for Kuznetsov to start the year, but he had failed to live up to those early on. Through the first month of the season, a span of 14 games, Kuznetsov had only two goals and seven points, and by the time November was over, the painfully slow start had reached its worst point. At the 21-game mark of the season, Kuznetsov had registered only three goals and nine points. He was on pace to go from a 77-point player to hitting the mid-30s after his breakout year.
As the Capitals have started to pick up steam, though, so has Kuznetsov. In fact, since the start of December, the only Capital with more points than Kuznetsov is Backstrom and only six other players league-wide have been as prolific. In his past 39 games, Kuznetsov has scored 11 goals and 38 points, putting him into a tie with the league’s scoring leader, Connor McDavid, and ahead of the likes of Ovechkin, Mark Scheifele and John Tavares over that same span. His 11 goals aren’t exactly tops in the league since the start of December but Kuznetsov, who’d probably fancy himself more of a set-up specialist than triggerman, has 27 assists since December kicked off. The only players better? Backstrom and McDavid, with 31 and 29 assists, respectively.
Kuznetsov turning his season around should’ve been seen coming, though, because the rate at which he produced consistently across the past season appeared to be anything but a fluke. At 5-on-5 in 2015-16, Kuznetsov registered 2.54 points per 60 minutes of action, and it’s no shock that he’s back in that range again this season thanks to his scoring surge, contributing 2.34 points per 60 minutes this season. It’s not just five-a-side where Kuznetsov is contributing, though, as he’s also put up nine power play points in the past 39 games. And his overall scoring rate since the start of December, which is a hair from a point per game, would have him setting a career-best for points had he been able to get the scoring started right from the get-go.
The only real concern surrounding Kuznetsov now is that he could see his shooting percentage plummet. He’s shooting at a nearly 12 percent clip right now — and a ridiculous 12.2 percent at 5-on-5, up from 7.75 percent in 2015-16 — which is almost a full 1.5 percent above his career average. If anywhere, that’s where Kuznetsov’s scoring could start to fall off. The good news? His assist totals per 60 minutes are also down, and if there’s less lamp lighting but more perfect passes in Kuznetsov’s future, the Capitals will surely take it.
From goaltending to coaching to scoring to depth, there are dozens of reasons why the Capitals stand to be one of the favorites heading into the post-season. But one of the biggest unsung heroes with the way everyone on the club has contributed this season is Kuznetsov — last season’s standout has, in a way, been this season’s underrated stud. He stands to be an X-factor heading into the playoffs, and if Kuznetsov can keep it going into April, the Capitals stand to benefit in a big, big way.
(All advanced stats via stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
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Jonathan Toews. Image by: Getty Images
The Blackhawks captain may look like he’s merely shaken off a big slump. But the underlying numbers suggest he’s emerged as a different player – more offense, less defense.
The three-goal, five-point night wasn’t the match that ignited Jonathan Toews’ season. It was a squirt of gasoline on an already-raging fire. Toews got piping hot over the past two months, and Tuesday was the boiling point.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain started 2016-17 posting the worst offensive numbers of his career. Even as his regular right winger Marian Hossa enjoyed a resurgent offensive campaign, Toews just couldn’t find the net. He sat at four goals and 12 points after 22 games. Plenty of fans and pundits scoffed on social media at his All-Star Game invite over teammate Artemi Panarin.
Typically, we’ve accepted that Toews trades a bit of offense to be an elite two-way pivot. He’s shown the highlight-reel hands to be an 80-point player – just look at his immortalized shootout performance for Canada at the 2007 World Junior Championship – but he’s let Patrick Kane be the scoring star and sacrificed some scoring to play a shutdown role. Still, even by Toews’ Selke Trophy-winning standard, his offense was pitiful through mid-December. He sat at 0.60 points per game and had never finished a season below 0.73.
Even more concerning: Toews wasn’t performing as well as advertised from a defensive standpoint, either. Per corsica.hockey, Toews rates as one of the NHL’s very best possession players since stats like Corsi and Fenwick were born. Among NHL forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played since his rookie campaign of 2007-08, Toews ranks 16th in 5-on-5 Corsi at 55.8 percent. That includes a Corsi For of 61.48 and a Corsi against of 48.68, representing a player equally adept at driving shot attempts for his team and preventing shot attempts against his team.
Toews, though, slipped to a 5-on-5 Corsi of 51.38 percent in that lackluster 22-game sample to start 2016-17, with a Corsi For per 60 of 58.51 and a Corsi Against of 55.37. Teams were having a much easier time than normal getting attempts on Chicago’s net with Toews on the ice.
But the possession stats did show a player still creating a lot of offensive action for his team, and he was scoring on just 7.3 percent of his attempts, so a positive regression was coming. Since that juncture at Game 22, Toews has ignited for 30 points in his past 29 games, including a whopping 20 in his past 12, sprinkled with four- and five-point performances. He’s doing it primarily playing with Richard Panik and rookie Nick Schmaltz, so it’s not like another star scorer is carrying Toews. He’s scoring on 12.6 percent of his shots during his hot streak, still below his career average of 14.7, so we could see this goal-scoring run continue for a while.
The most interesting change for Toews comes in his possession numbers since the 29-game binge started. Defensively, he’s actually been worse, coughing up a Corsi Against per 60 of 57.2, but he’s sizzling with a Corsi For per 60 of 64.54. Per stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Toews faced the toughest quality of competition of any NHL forward with at least 500 minutes played last season, as Toews’ opponents averaged a 5-on-5 Corsi of 50.8. This season, his opponents average 50.2, ranking him 124th among forwards in quality of opponents. So he’s facing weaker competition yet still faring worse defensively.
What, then, are we witnessing? This isn’t The Old Jonathan Toews making a triumphant return. The possession numbers suggest he’s instead reversed his career trend and sacrificed some defense for a major spike in offense. He’s still not bad defensively, as his relative Corsi Against per 60 is still among the better figures on the Hawks, suggesting the team as a whole has regressed defensively this season, not just Toews. But he’s currently not the smothering defensive player he’s reputed to be. His offense, meanwhile, is right up there with Artemi Panarin for the team’s best on the year if we judge it by Corsi For per 60 relative to teammates.
Interestingly, with Toews filling the net, the Hawks have won 14 of their past 20 games and seven of their past eight. Unlocking Toews’ scoring seems to correlate directly with Chicago re-emerging as a dangerous Western Conference contender.
Meanwhile, the first-place Minnesota Wild have dropped their past two meetings with the Hawks, including Tuesday’s. The Wild still own a five-point lead in the Central Division with a game in hand, but would anyone put it past the Blackhawks to stay hot and steal the division crown and home ice advantage for the playoffs? If that happens, watch out. Toews has not returned as a powerhouse two-way forward yet, but he has emerged as a new beast altogether, albeit in a small sample size. It’s tough to say if the Hawks are a better or worse team with Toews no longer playing great shutdown hockey, but so far, so good.