Out of the Blue(line): Dispatches on an NHL Season—The Pacific Division

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Travis Hall returns with another look-in on the NHL, here considering the effect of some key players in the Pacific Division.

Anaheim Ducks: Jakob Silfverberg
One of the most underrated secondary scorers in the National Hockey League.

The Ducks are once again among the top teams in the Western Conference and, barring a massive collapse, have locked up one of the top three spots in the Pacific. For years the club has relied on Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but with that duo facing their lowest goals total since the ’05-’06 season, the Ducks have turned to players like Silfverberg to pick up the slack.

Silfverberg’s play has steadily improved every year since the beginning of his career, and this campaign has proved no different. He ranks top five on the roster in goals, assists, points (17-20-37), and game-winning goals, but just as important, he’s developed chemistry on the team’s shutdown line alongside Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano. The three, on average, take 61% of faceoffs in their own zone (more than any other line), yet they have combined for 50 of the Ducks’ 162 goals. Their knack for controlling the puck below the goal line has been a nuisance on opposing defenses, and their suffocating pressure without the puck has led to the trio being first, second, and fourth in +/- rating—Silfverberg leading as a +12. The Swede has been a reliable member of the Ducks’ most dependable line all year long.

Silfverberg’s impact on the Ducks season has been felt most at even strength, something that will be magnified in the postseason. In addition to leading the Ducks in even strength points with 31, he has proven his defensive reliability by holding the highest goal differential per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. Simply put, the Ducks have the highest ratio of goals scored versus goals surrendered when he is on the ice. Combined with his four game-winning goals and 31 takeaways, it’s no wonder he’s become one of their most trusted skaters in just his fourth full season.

Looking at the entire Pacific division, I didn’t see a more valuable unsung hero than Silfverberg. Not only is he a dynamic 200-foot player, but his teammates perform at a higher level when he is on the ice—and that is the true measure of an impact player. If the Ducks are going to put together a deep playoff run, they are going to have to rely on Silfverberg and his continued success with Kesler and Cogliano.


Arizona Coyotes: Anthony Duclair
A costly loss for an organization desperately seeking offense.

Dead last in the Pacific division by nine points, the Coyotes are turning toward the youth in their system. Last season, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair gave Phoenix fans a promising preview, but while Domi has continued his success, Duclair has suffered a dismal sophomore season that even he considers "awful."

Following an impressive 20 goals in 81 games last season, Duclair’s production plummeted to three goals in 41 contests before he was sent down to Arizona’s AHL affiliate in January. The move, however, hasn’t served as the slump buster the Coyotes hoped for—Duclair has only one score in his 11 games with the Tucson Roadrunners. His assist production received a boost in the minors, but that’s not enough to return him to Domi’s side.

Duclair’s offensive struggles would be easier to swallow if it weren’t for conjoining stumbles in his own zone. Coming out of juniors, Duclair was known as an explosive point producer that lacked the all-around game to make him an NHL regular. But last year showed that he was capable of adapting—he led the Coyotes in +/- with a +12 and limited his giveaways to only 18. Yet his time with the big club this year saw him accumulate an unsavory -8 rating and the same number of giveaways in half as many games. The only way Duclair could’ve maintained a spot in Arizona was through manufacturing offense, but with a dreadful 5.2% shooting percentage (compared to his previous team-leading 19.0%), there was no chance of that happening.

There’s no telling if this slump is temporary, but Duclair still has value; with the trade deadline nearing, he could be a target for teams who are looking to buy potential for less than full price. Regardless, if Duclair can recover his offensive prowess and improved defensive commitment, he has the skillset to be a 30-goal scorer and could help the Coyotes become one of the more exciting young teams in the NHL in seasons to come.
 

Calgary Flames: Chad Johnson vs. Brian Elliott
Pick your horse wisely on this carousel.

Just one year removed from a playoff series win and goaltending issues seemingly addressed with the acquisition of Brian Elliott, Calgary’s postseason expectations were spreading like wildfire to begin the year. But Elliott’s hellacious initiation opened a window for Chad Johnson to prove himself more than a backup.

In his first 18 games, Johnson went on a 13-4-1 run and was holding career highs in save percentage and goals against average. He amassed a career-high three shutouts before the end of November and was headed toward career highs in wins and SV% at even strength. During that run, Johnson backstopped the Flames to the 20th (now 19th) best goals against total in the league—a category in which the Flames finished dead last the season before. He was the best-performing goaltender Calgary had seen since the ’03-’06 era when Miikka Kiprusoff was a three time all-star and thrice nominated for the Vezina, winning it and the Jennings in 2005. However, the holiday season wasn’t kind to Johnson. Since the 14th of December he’s posted an ugly 5-9 record, accompanied by an equally bad .886 SV%. He’s gotten help from the improving Elliott—9-4-2 in the same span—but neither has been consistent enough to seize the starting job.

I could’ve written an inspiring piece on Brian Elliott and the possibility of his resurgence, but I chose to focus on Johnson for two reasons. First, the Calgary Flames are currently in no position to make a serious run at the Cup; they’re going to need Halak-esque thievery circa 2010 in order to advance at all, and Johnson is the only one that has proven he can perform at that level.

This brings me to my next point: when at their respective peaks this season, Elliott’s numbers are far inferior compared to Johnson’s. During his recent upswing, Elliott has appeared in 17 games but has only managed a modest .904 SV% along with a 2.35 GAA, while Johnson opened the season with an astonishing .932 SV% and 2.00 GAA over those 18 games, despite seeing 114 more shots in that stretch.

The Flames have a long road ahead if they want to be a real contender in a couple months. Elliott has playoff experience as a starter but has looked uncomfortable in the net for most of the season. Johnson has never appeared in an NHL playoff game, but he’s the best bet to steal a series if he can play with the patience and alertness that made him one of the league’s top goaltenders three months ago.
 

Edmonton Oilers: Mark Letestu
The 31-year-old veteran center looks to have found his niche with the youthful Oilers.

It would be easy to write a list of accolades for Connor McDavid—whom we can credit for the re-emergence of the Oilers—but I want to shine a light on the greasier side of the lineup: Mark Letestu may just be the most valuable bottom-six center in the entire NHL.

One of many misused players in the Oilers system last year, Letestu was pushed into a third-line center role for which he was ill-suited. He set career lows in goals and points (in seasons with a minimum 55 games played), while more than doubling his worst plus/minus and giveaways total. As a low-caliber player who presented the worst campaign of his career and was entering his 30’s, there were questions as to whether he could last another season in Edmonton.

However, just months after setting career lows, Letestu is now on pace to set new career highs. He matched his goal total from last year in 36 fewer games and, with 23 points through 48 contests, is two points away from matching his previous total. He’s already tied highs in powerplay and shorthanded goals and holds new personal bests in game-winning goals and shooting percentage. Even more striking though is how he compares to the elite collection of forwards around him on the roster. Letestu currently sits second on the team in powerplay goals, tied for first with McDavid in game-winning goals, and leads the team in shorthanded goals, shorthanded points, and shootout goals.

This video is a microcosm of what Letestu has been contributing over the past four months: using an active stick to kill the penalty, summoning the acceleration necessary to pull away from Dustin Byfuglien, and having the patience to outwait Hellebuyck and score a critical shorthanded goal. Accomplishing all of this beneath the likes of McDavid, Draisaitl, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins is a testament to the resurgence of number 55; he leads all Oilers forwards in special teams time on ice and has earned the right to do so.

What makes Letestu’s season so impressive is that he has established himself as this weapon while playing limited minutes; he’s getting less ice time but is making a noticeable impact every night. He’s been a steady mix of dependable while becoming an unexpected source of offense for a team that relies on its ability to outscore their opponent. Connor McDavid deserves all the credit he is receiving, but without Letestu, the Oilers wouldn’t be battling for the Pacific division title.


Los Angeles Kings: Jeff Carter (feat. Peter Budaj)
The two water wings for a team that has been sinking since losing its all-star goaltender.

The only reason the Kings are even fighting for the last Wild Card spot in the West is due to the stellar play of Jeff Carter. I made an effort to stay away from the obvious choices for these impact players, but Carter has been that good.

Leading a team in the goal category is impressive, but when you lead the team in eleven separate offensive statistics, it’s a sign of a special season. Carter leads the Kings in goals—including at even-strength, on the powerplay, and shorthanded—points, game-winning goals, shots, and shooting percentage. At the moment he sits with 30 goals and 53 points, which puts him on pace for over 40 goals and 70 points. The only other time Carter produced at this rate was the ’08-’09 season when he was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, and anyone who tunes into a Kings game will notice the resemblance between his play now versus then.

This goal against the Sharks displays the vintage Jeff Carter we are seeing in spades: finding open space on the ice and unleashing his lethal release.

To appreciate what Carter is generating, let’s put his numbers in perspective. In the midst of taking the league by storm, Connor McDavid is producing 3.4 goals for per 60 minutes of ice time—Carter has been so hot, he is alongside McDavid at 3.3 goals for. Additionally, having shot the puck 182 times, McDavid sits with an 11.0% shooting percentage while Carter, after 189 shots, is shooting at an efficiency of 15.3%. Jeff Carter is not Connor McDavid by any stretch, but when it comes to shooting the puck, the former has been more productive this year. Perhaps the most intriguing statistic is that Carter has the potential to be the first 40-goal scorer the Kings have had since Luc Robitaille hit the marker all the way back in the ’93-’94 season. Carter’s impact goes beyond just his offensive prowess, though. Number 77 also holds onto a 52.3 faceoff win percentage--the highest on the roster. He is most effective when he possesses the puck, and he’s been able to win possession more than any other Kings center.

Equally impressive is the story of Peter Budaj. After nearly being pushed out of hockey completely in the Canadiens organization, the 34-year-old climbed his way out of the minors and into an NHL starting job following a long-term injury to Jonathan Quick. His many milestones through the season feature holding career bests in save percentage (.917), goals against average (2.12), and shutouts (7). His GAA stands third best in the league and his shutout total is tied for first with Braden Holtby. Jonathan Quick made his return this weekend, but Budaj has been more than the Kings ever could’ve expected from their fill-in goaltender.

It’s rare in today’s NHL that you think of one or two individuals as the sole reason for a team’s success; the game relies too heavily on depth for that to be the case anymore. The Kings wouldn’t be in the hunt without Carter and Budaj, who was just traded to Tampa in a deal that will bring Ben Bishop to Los Angeles as insurance against another mishap for Quick, but if the Kings are going to nudge their way into a wild card spot, Carter and Quick will have to be even better going forward.


San Jose Sharks: Marc-Edouard Vlasic/Justin Braun
Inconsistent play from the Sharks’ second pair could hinder the team’s Stanley Cup hopes.

Brent Burns is in the midst of the most productive campaign of his career and is a lock for the James Norris trophy, but his overarching success masks the slump of two cornerstones in the San Jose secondary. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun were crucial in the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has been a different story.

Last year Vlasic and Braun posted a combined +/- of +62, which not only represents a safe presence on the ice, but one that can be dangerous on the offensive as well. But through 57 games this season, the pair has collectively fallen to a below-average -4—with Vlasic even and Braun at an unusual -4. Plus/minus is an imperfect statistic, but a drop of 66 means something not-good. This would be Braun’s first season in the minus column since he was promoted in ‘12-‘13, and Vlasic’s lowest +/- since his sophomore season.

Upon seeing such a change, I was interested to look at how the duo’s more advanced puck possession statistics differed from last year to now. Focusing on the Sharks’ CF%rel (relative Corsi for % at even strength)—which loosely translates to how often a specific player’s team has possession of the puck when he is on the ice, compared to when he is off the ice—shows how dissimilar the two seasons are. Both players currently hold the worst CF%rel of their careers and rank dead last on the Sharks. Vlasic’s -5.2 is a far cry below his 2.4 from last season, and Braun’s appalling -7.2 comes after last year’s -1.2. All season long, Vlasic and Braun have been stuck playing the majority of time on the defensive—and getting scored on.

One explanation for the lack of puck possession is how careless both Vlasic and Braun have been with the puck this season: both defensemen have already eclipsed their career highs in giveaways with 21 games still remaining.

Vlasic has blown away last year’s total of 29 giveaways with an odious 49, while Braun’s 50 tops his 46 from the previous season. The duo’s sudden loss of poise with the puck is a major reason the Sharks haven’t run away with the Pacific Division.

Vlasic and Braun have been staples for the Sharks over the past half-decade as the team has inched closer to the Stanley Cup that has eluded them. Vlasic is heralded for his ability to retrieve pucks and quickly transition out of danger, and Braun is known for his physicality. However, an underachieving second defensive pairing will be exposed early in the playoffs if they can’t return to last year’s form. If the pair begins taking better care of the puck, it would take pressure away from Brent Burns and could propel the team toward that elusive Stanley Cup Championship.


Vancouver Canucks: Bo Horvat
The beam of light for a team whose window is closing.

Just two years removed from a second place finish in the Pacific and now watching playoff hopes dim, the Canucks are in limbo between rebuilding or merely restructuring. A myriad of questions surround the team as the trade deadline approaches; they have the look of a seller with the mentality of a buyer. But what isn’t in doubt is who will be the face of Canucks hockey for the foreseeable future.

With his play this year, 21-year-old Bo Horvat has made a statement that he is the prospect to usher the franchise out of the Sedin era, leading the team with 18 goals and 40 points. As expected, Henrik and Daniel sit two and three in scoring, but the last time a Sedin didn’t finish first was all the way back in ’05-’06 when Markus Naslund led the club. Furthermore, Horvat only trails Henrik by two assists for the team lead thanks to his velvety puckhandling.

As a young, skilled forward in the National Hockey League, it’s easy to lose track of responsibilities on the defensive side of the puck. But Horvat’s discipline in all three zones is another reason the organization is so excited about him. He’s one of seven current Canucks to possess an even or better +/-, and he is third on the team in faceoff win percentage with 51.6%. But the majority of those faceoffs come in his own zone, highlighting the trust the coaching staff has in his defensive abilities.

The Canucks are entering a phase where they need to sell the past and add prospects to grow around Horvat. It’s still unclear if the Canucks will be active sellers at the deadline on Wednesday or try to salvage what’s left of their season, but Bo Horvat’s play suggests that there may be a bright future in Vancouver.

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