Who Should the Toronto Maple Leafs Target in Free Agency?

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The NHL’s free agent signing period begins Wednesday at noon, and the Leafs figure to be one of the busiest teams, with several prominent holes needing to be filled ahead of next season.

I have my own ideas of how the Leafs would be best served constructing their roster which includes trading Morgan Rielly for a top-six forward, but for the purposes of this article, I will be working around the parameters that general manager Kyle Dubas established in his most recent press conference.

Among other things, Dubas indicated that the team will be scouring the market for several top-nine wingers to complement their entrenched forward core, a bottom-pairing defence man who possesses penalty-killing capabilities, and a goaltender to challenge Jack Campbell in a competitive time share.

Despite proclaiming their intention to find value through free agency, Dubas made it clear that such signings would not preclude them from re-entering the trade market to supplement their roster if they felt underwhelmed by their free agent pursuits.

With that being said, I’ve tabbed five candidates who meet Dubas’ criteria, and who won’t break the bank for a team dead set on building around their expensive quartet of star forwards. Versatility and cost-effectiveness were key determinants in developing this list and while these won’t be the sexiest names as a result, the Leafs have done the hard part of locking down their offensive superstars and will need to be extremely savvy in filling out the margins with approximately $9 million in cap space.

Each entry is also accompanied by a contract projection generated by the invaluable Evolving Hockey team, and should give you a better idea of what each player will likely command come July 28th. Some of the annual salary predictions fluctuate as the total contract years changes, but they generally remain within the same range.

Now, here are five free agent targets that the Leafs should consider pursuing to fill out their roster.

Top-Nine Forward #1: Pius Suter – Chicago Blackhawks

2020-21 Season: 55 GP, 14 G, 13 A, 27 PTS

Predicted Contract: 4 years x $4.49 million

After a strong debut season for Suter in North America, an extension with the Blackhawks seemed inevitable as the organization continues to rebuild around a new crop of players in the wake of its dynastic run in the early 2010s.

However, the NHL’s restricted free agent qualifying period passed without the 25-year-old utility-man being tendered an offer, making Suter an unrestricted free agent allowed to join any team once the signing period opens on July 28th.

Now, if you take a look at Suter’s HockeyDB page and browse the 2015-16 Zurich Lions roster, you might notice a familiar name headlining the team’s scoring leaders.

Marc-Andre Bergeron was so good in the EA NHL games!

I have no idea if Matthews and Suter have maintained any sort of relationship since that season, but it can’t hurt to remind Suter that the left-wing spot on Matthews’ line was just left vacant by Hyman’s exit.

Suter is no stranger to playing with stars as he rode shotgun with Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat in Chicago during his rookie season and scored 20 points at five-on-five, tied for 129th among NHL forwards. As Toronto possesses similar offensive weapons in Matthews and Marner, his production shouldn’t change all that drastically if he joined the Leafs.

Suter also ranked third among Blackhawks’ forwards in the number of scoring chances he was able to generate off of rebounds, displaying his ability to penetrate dangerous scoring areas. Suter understands his role on the top line, and can act as a target for the Leafs’ stars who love to carry the puck. If required, Suter can enter the zone effectively (54% completion – above league average) but his workload in Chicago was tiny on a line with two of the league’s most creative zone entry wizards.

What is most impressive about Suter’s rookie season is how was the defensive conscience on the Blackhawks’ first line, and managed to post average shot- and chance-share numbers (47% at five-on-five for both metrics) despite playing on the same line as one of the league’s worst defensive forwards in Kane.

The pair played almost half of their combined ice-time together, how is such a discrepancy even possible?

Since 2018-19, Kane has been the worst forward at preventing scoring chances against, even after adjusting for his extremely high usage. On a Chicago team that has seen its supporting cast rapidly deplete in talent since their last Cup win, Kane has had to take on even more of the offensive workload which likely leads him to expend less energy on his defensive responsibilities. While somewhat understandable, it doesn’t fully excuse his absolutely atrocious results.

In over 400 minutes played alongside Kane, Suter recorded an abysmal 44% share of expected goals at five-on-five. When the pair was separated, Suter’s shot- and chance-share shot up to over 50% while Kane’s plummeted even further to below 40%. In fact, nearly all of Suter’s Blackhawks teammates posted better possession and chance-quality numbers when playing together, and worse when they did not.

Suter’s clear impact on his line’s defensive metrics should let Keefe and Dubas rest easy knowing that Suter wouldn’t be a liability on their two primary scoring lines, and could somewhat mitigate the loss of Hyman as a result.

If you’re looking at Suter’s contract projection and thinking that it might be a bit rich for a rookie forward, remember that he is already 25 years old, and a veteran of the European game. If he signs for fewer than 4 years, his annual cap hit will dip into the mid 3s, and is well worth locking up Suter through his prime years.

Considering his solid production and defensive impacts in Chicago’s top-six forward group, every franchise should be salivating at the prospect of reigning in a young, two-way forward without giving up any significant assets outside of cap space.

But, as with any free agent signing, avoiding the compulsiveness brought on by a competitive bidding process and ensuring you’re getting commensurate value for the price is the key to navigating the market and emerging relatively unscathed.

That’s much easier said than done, though.

Top-Nine Forward #2: Tomas Nosek – Vegas Golden Knights

2020-21 Season: 38 GP, 8 G, 10 A, 18 PTS

Predicted Contract: 4 years x $2.65 million

Since being selected by the Golden Knights during their expansion process, Nosek has grown into a dependable winger at the bottom of Vegas’ lineup, and enjoyed his most productive offensive campaign this past season with 18 points in 38 games, a 38-point pace over 82 games. To temper expectations, Nosek’s career year came on the heels of an individual shooting percentage that was five percentage points higher than his career average.

That type of finishing should not be expected to continue, but Nosek is among the league leaders at generating his own chances through astute positional awareness and a persistent motor. Since the 2018-19 season, the native of Czech Republic posted the 34th highest individual expected goals rate at even strength among all forwards, just ahead of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. If your offensive stars stagnate at key times, as Toronto’s did in their playoff series with Montreal, it pays to be able to rely on your depth to manufacture offence.

Nosek is also strong driver of shot quality at five-on-five, with Vegas posting an expected goals share above 54 percent in all but one of his NHL seasons. It’s encouraging that he was able to maintain his positive results even with a slight uptick in ice-time, although Vegas’ possessional dominance should be acknowledged when discussing any of their rostered skaters.

However, Nosek would likely operate within Toronto’s cadre of bottom-six forwards and the Leafs are no slouches when it comes to generating scoring chances, meaning Nosek could deliver in similar deployment while offering Toronto another dependable forward option with positional flexibility at center. Nosek can be trusted in the faceoff dot, as a 52.6% for his career can give Keefe peace of mind in high-leverage situations.

In a pinch, Nosek could be moved up into the top-six to provide a jolt of energy and pressure opposing defenceman with his forechecking, as his 5.4 recovered dump-ins per 60 minutes are on par with the departing Zach Hyman (6.4), whose willingness to muck it up in the corners was much appreciated by his more skilled linemates.

With the onus of scoring firmly planted on the shoulders of Auston Matthews and co., the Leafs require their depth forwards to pick up the slack on special teams. Since 2018-19, Nosek has played the 105th most minutes on the penalty kill of all forwards, with Vegas’ penalty kill ranking 1st in the league last season. For a Maple Leafs’ short-handed unit that was treading water in the bottom-third of the NHL, even a slight improvement in that department would make a tangible difference in their results.

Although awarding a 4-year deal to a role player would be unwise, Evolving Hockey’s projection for a 2-year contract for Nosek comes in at around $1.7 million, much more palatable in regards to term and cap hit.

Nosek’s history of positive impacts on even-strength play and positional versatility make him an intriguing depth option for the Leafs. On a short-term deal carrying a manageable cap hit, he could be worth a flier.

Top-Nine Forward #3: Michael Bunting – Arizona Coyotes

2020-21 Season: 21 GP, 10 G, 3 A, 13 PTS

Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.07 million

Bunting? Michael Bunting? A few of you must be wondering whether I’ve managed to sneak a video game-generated player onto this list, one of those players with no actual profile picture once you get several years deep into an NHL franchise mode save. But trust me, Bunting embodies the type of low-risk, high-reward gamble that the Leafs should be making this offseason.

The 25-year-old Bunting stepped into the Coyotes’ lineup in the back-half of last season and immediately made an impact with his finishing. Bunting potted 10 goals in only 21 games, which would put him on pace for nearly 40 goals over a full season. Obviously such a torrid pace would be unsustainable over 82 games especially when you consider he scored on over a quarter of his shots during his brief NHL stint, but his play in the minors warrants an extended look in a complimentary scoring role.

In 126 AHL games since 2018, Bunting scored 38 goals and assisted 71 others, suggesting that his NHL production may be more than a product of skating alongside Arizona’s stars in Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland. The Leafs can offer even more attacking support in Marner, Matthews, Tavares and Nylander, meaning Bunting won’t be spoiled for choice in the top-six. His on-ice shot- and expected goals-share are both above 50% which indicates he isn’t caught sacrificing his defensive responsibilities for offence.

While it is a luxury for the Leafs to employ one of the NHL’s top snipers in Auston Matthews, his dangerousness can be somewhat curtailed when it is evident that his linemates might not possess the shot or offensive awareness to get into dangerous scoring areas. Bunting can provide that secondary threat while not necessarily cannibalizing the shooting volume that helps make Matthews such a prolific scorer.

During Bunting’s brief NHL audition, he demonstrated patience in waiting to get into a dangerous area before trying to score, rather than settling for a low-percentage shot from distance or a tight angle. According to micro-stat data collected by Corey Sznajder, of all the shots that Bunting took in 2020-21, 52% of them were considered to be scoring chances, a rate which led the Coyotes by a sizeable margin (Kessel was 2nd with 44%) and was good enough for 23rd in the NHL. While his astronomical shooting percentage is likely an aberration, Bunting clearly possesses the wherewithal to pick his spots wisely.

His per 60 minute rates for goals scored (22nd) and individual expected goals generated (98th) place him firmly within the top 100 of all NHL forwards last season, and suggest he has a future as a top-nine forward in this league. Even if Bunting isn’t particularly adept at creating his own shot, being in the right place at the right time is a skill that is difficult to teach and could be an inspired pick to relieve the Leafs’ offensive core of some of their scoring burden.

What may work in the Leafs’ favour for recruitment purposes is that Bunting hails from Scarborough, and played under a Soo Greyhounds regime headed by Dubas and Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe in the OHL. With current and former Leafs in Jake Muzzin, Joe Thornton, Kyle Clifford, Jack Campbell, and Rasmus Sandin having featured for the Greyhounds at one time or another, it would be anything but a surprise for Dubas to return to a familiar well of talent.

There is certainly an element of risk in elevating a player within your lineup that can only claim 26 career games on his NHL resume, but its about time that the Leafs’ enjoy the spoils of a breakout performer of their own, one who can offer surplus value on a bargain at a time when Toronto is scrounging for every dollar.

A meager commitment of around $1 million won’t break the bank and could pay handsome dividends if Bunting continues to exemplify the scoring touch that has brought him success as a late-bloomer.

Bottom-Pairing Defenceman: Mark Pysyk – Dallas Stars

2020-21 Season: 36 GP, 3 G, 1 A, 4 PTS

Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.12 million

For veterans of the hockey analytics scene, Pysyk could be a prodigal son of sorts for Leafs’ fans exhausted from watching Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev aimlessly rim the puck around the boards for countless icings every night. For those long suffering patrons of Leafs fandom, signing a defenceman who isn’t a sieve would be akin to winning the lottery.

When scouring the market for bottom-pairing defenceman, teams should target individuals who can hold their own against the run of play, and keep the team from bleeding chances while they are on the ice. Anything else should be considered a bonus. Luckily, Pysyk has not only excelled when played in sheltered minutes down the lineup, but he likely won’t command much more than $1 million on a short-term deal, an ideal agreement for a team in Toronto’s capped-out position.

While playing a sheltered role on the third pair in Dallas last season, Pysyk was able to emphatically control the flow of play to the tune of a 55% shot share, and a remarkable 63% share of expected goals. A large part of his defensive success is his ability to consistently deny opposing forwards the chance to enter the zone with controlled possession.

Although Pysyk is one of the least frequently targeted rearguards on zone entries, he very rarely concedes a clean entry that results in a scoring chance against. His sound timing and stick-checking prowess work to disrupt opposing teams in their offensive setups and is a large part of his defensive impact.

The bars represent how far from the league mean a player’s results are in a given category when compared to their positional peers. For a more in-depth explanation, click here.

His robust zone entry defense and propensity to make decisive outlet passes keeps the puck away from his own net, giving his stronger teammates a chance to take a breath and recover. Pysyk’s two-way game leads to an impressive ability to reliably surpress opposing scoring chances. Among NHL defencemen with at least 100 minutes at five-on-five this past season, Pysyk ranked 4th in scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes. For coaches who don’t want defenceman to take any unnecessary risks and move play in the right direction, Pysyk is your man.

Pysyk is not a special teams specialist by any means, but the veteran blueliner has held his own throughout his career when entrusted with penalty kill duties, and new assistant coach Dean Chynoweth should feel comfortable while utilizing Pysyk in short-handed situations. Since 2018-19, Pysyk ranks in the top 50 of all blueliners in terms of expected goals conceded per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, and could rotate in with Toronto’s other defencemen.

His low counting stats (4 points in 36 games last season) will likely depress his asking price and for a million bucks, Toronto could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’ll stop him from turning into prime Ovechkin every time he suits up against the Leafs.

Backup Goaltender: Petr Mrazek – Carolina Hurricanes

2020-21 Season: 12 GP, 6W-2L-3OTL, 2.06 GAA, .923 SV%

Last Contract: 2 years x $3.125 million

Carolina’s penny-pinching ownership group has already cast out rookie sensation Alex Nedeljkovic in anticipation of a sizeable raise on the $700,000 he was owed last season, and Mrazek will look to re-sign for something near his 2020-21 cap hit of $3.125 million, which might be too much for the Hurricanes to stomach if recent decisions are any indication.

Relatedly, there have been reports that the Hurricanes have given thought to acquiring Arizona’s Antii Raanta who would likely pair up with Bernier (acquired in the Nedeljkovic trade) and form a brand-new partnership in the Carolina crease next season.

Mrazek’s overall body of work suggests that he could provide valuable insurance behind Campbell in the Leafs’ net. Since 2018, Mrazek’s save percentage and goals saved above average (which gauges how many goals a goalie has prevented compared to the average goalie facing the same quality of chances) at five-on-five evaluates him as a top-25 goalie over that time frame, suggesting that he could handle a starter’s workload if required, and should flourish in a rotation.

Where Mrazek truly shines is his ability to save shots in high-danger areas (generally in the slot). Across the same three-season timeframe, Mrazek has posted the 11th highest high-danger save percentage at five-on-five, bailing out his teammates when they concede chances from threatening areas. Although his high-danger save percentage on the penalty kill takes him out of the top-30, it is still higher than that of both Jack Campbell’s and Frederik Andersen. For a poor penalty kill, the Leafs may benefit from a slight improvement in that area.

The most concerning aspect of a Mrazek signing would be his recent health concerns. A thumb injury early into the 2020-21 campaign would require surgery, and Mrazek only featured in 12 games at season’s end. His .914 save percentage following his return in April would still be considered above league average, but it represented a regression from his stellar start to the year.

For the Leafs, a tandem of Campbell and Mrazek should cost them around $5 million, a slight haircut to the tune of $1.5 million from what they were paying Campbell and Frederik Andersen last season, not an insignificant amount for a team seeking to supplement their depth in areas of greater concern. Mrazek has also played in more than half of his team’s games three times since 2015-16, so an injury to Campbell wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the Leafs either.

Any potential goaltending gamble will be considered a win if Toronto can get an improvement on Andersen’s results last season at a reduced cost, and Mrazek should be a good bet better Andersen’s .895 save percentage in all-situations. Will it be enough to stave off the improved competition from the reconvening Atlantic division? It should, but nothing is a given in the NHL.

This offseason’s goaltending carousel will offer the greatest number of feasible candidates for Toronto as many capable netminders, which I explored in an article that I wrote back in March. Although the market is short on true elite talent, the Leafs will be looking for a goalie capable of working within a tandem and only playing 30-40 games next season, which considerably expands their options.

My opinion on most of the goaltenders discussed in that piece have not changed so re-visit that article for commentary (that is slightly out of date) on the rest of the market.

So, what should we expect?

The Maple Leafs’ financial reality dictates that their “core-four” be continuously supplemented by cheap, recyclable filler which allows them to ice a versatile lineup capable of attacking opponents in a myriad of ways.

Luckily, free agency is a dependable source of such players, and bargains will undoubtedly surface for those willing to wait and avoid the dizzying recklessness often demonstrated by general managers on the opening day of free agency.

In any case, Dubas has repeatedly re-affirmed his belief in the main pieces of his roster, warts and all, which would appear to rule out any seismic alterations to the lineup this summer in spite of impassioned pleas from fans and local media alike.

While there is certainly some logic in banking on efficient contributions from undervalued skaters to buoy the Leafs’ superstars, another early playoff exit could certainly be the death knell for the Shanahan-Dubas era in Toronto, leaving little to no margin for error in their roster construction.

No pressure, eh?

All data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving-Hockey, Hockey Reference, and Natural Stat Trick. All contract information taken from CapFriendly.

Analyzing the Five Biggest Trades From NHL Draft Weekend

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For those underwhelmed by the lack of transactions surrounding the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft last week, the 2021 Entry Draft represented another opportunity for general managers around the league to give their roster a facelift, and did they ever deliver.

Due to the NHL’s stagnating salary cap, which will presumably remain frozen at around $81 million for the next several seasons as the league and its franchises slowly recover from the financial losses brought upon by the pandemic, several teams were forced into clearing their books as they found themselves uncomfortably pressed up against the cap ceiling.

With the context of immeasurable financial constraint established, let’s take a look at several of the most significant trades that were completed this past weekend.

Philadelphia Flyers acquire Rasmus Ristolainen in exchange for defenseman Robert Hagg, 2021 first-round draft pick (14th overall) and 2023 second-round draft pick.

This was the first domino to fall on Saturday, as the Sabres parted ways with their longest-tenured defensemen and signalled that they are fully committing to another long rebuild in the hopes that this time, the harvest will be fruitful.

Since he entered the league, Ristolainen’s underlying metrics grade him out as one of the league’s worst defensemen in terms of driving play and the rate at which his team surrenders high-quality chances when he is on the ice, which can be partly attributed to the weight of responsibility thrust upon him as a result of the bone-thin blueline that Buffalo often iced during his rocky tenure.

Ristolainen leaves the organization as the 37th highest point scorer in franchise history, and 6th among all defensemen. He can also claim four 40+ point seasons, most of which were attained as the lone offensive option on teams bereft of any tangible attacking talent.

For Philadelphia, the hope is that the 6’4” Ristolainen can better utilize his physical gifts and approach his once sky-high potential while playing a significantly sheltered role behind Ivan Provorov and their other high-profile offseason acquisition, Ryan Ellis. If the Flyers can pair him with a defensively conscious partner while more effectively managing his ice-time, the most destructive of Ristolainen’s impulses may be deterred, but I wouldn’t wager on that happening.

His 36.58 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season was the 20th worst rate amongst all defensemen, and is emblematic of his entire Sabres career to this point. The man bleeds chances like nobody’s business.

However, Ristolainen still posseses a heavy shot that can be a threat on the power play, and doesn’t hesitate to throw his body around, but his questionable decision making and lack of defensive awareness neutralize any benefits he may offer, and makes him a liability anytime he steps onto the ice.

In the event that Ristolainen’s play continues to crater, his contract expires following this season and the Flyers could simply let him test free agency, but that would represent an unconscionably poor use of the assets they relinquished to acquire him in the first place.

The Sabres did well to unshackle themselves of Ristolainen’s almost $5 million cap hit without retention while simultaneously recouping valuable assets in a first- (used to select Isak Rosen) and second-round pick to go along with Hagg, a young but unspectacular blueliner who has posted average results on the bottom pair thus far in his career.

With the highly touted 2022 and 2023 drafts on the horizon, the Sabres are rightly stripping their roster of NHL-calibre skaters with an eye on asset accumulation, and this deal accomplishes their goals on both fronts.

The Verdict: The Sabres rid themselves of one of the most burdensome boat anchors in the league while accumulating future assets. Buffalo wins this one handily.

St. Louis Blues acquire forward Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Sammy Blais and a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

Tom Wilson really broke the Rangers, eh?

The brawl-filled, late-season matchups between the Rangers and Wilson’s Capitals coupled with New York falling short of the playoffs told owner Jim Dolan all he needed to know about the direction that his franchise was headed, for better or for worse.

The notoriously hot-headed figurehead abruptly axed both of the Rangers’ front office leaders in team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, after it was reported that they disagreed on the release of a team statement regarding Tom Wilson’s behaviour in their previous games.

As such, the Rangers’ offseason moves have thus far valued truculence and pugnacity, and to not be pushed around by the likes of Wilson, which formed the impetus of their trade with the Blues.

Their first significant move of the offseason came in the form of the acquisition and subsequent signing of Barclay Goodrow, fresh off of back-to-back Cup wins with Tampa Bay, to a questionable six-year, $21.8 million extension (~$3.6 million per year) for a bottom-six forward. It’s not Buchnevich, but bear with me.

Goodrow was a strong supporting piece for the defending champions but much of his success was driven by the fact that his line was afforded the opportunity to feast on other teams’ lesser skaters, and while he was signed for a contract valued under $1 million.

If you’re going to commit a lot of money to a player, you better be doing so with skaters who are going to be meet or exceed the value expected of a large contract, something Goodrow is very unlikely to accomplish. The countless examples of franchise’s whiffing on big contracts given to role players should be warning for every general manager, but some simply never learn.

In comparison, Buchnevich is due a new contract and after agreeing to a two-year bridge deal, he would likely try to cash in on his nearly point-per-game performance last season, a deal which may have been too rich for the Rangers who are also trying to maintain flexibility for a potential blockbuster deal for Buffalo’s Jack Eichel. Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool has Buchnevich likely signing a four- or five-year deal worth around $6 million a year, which is fair for the benefit of locking Buchnevich up for the remainder of his prime years.

While the Rangers see such a projection as unfeasible given they still have to re-sign reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin to new deals, they should have used their cap space more wisely considering Buchnevich’s considerable talent.

The 2020-21 season was Buchnevich’s most productive of his career, as the Russian winger finished 23rd in the NHL in even strength scoring, and tied for 31st in primary assists at 5-on-5, playing a large part in facilitating the Rangers’ offence.

For the Blues, obtaining a strong play-driving winger who is responsible defensively while also scoring at an impressive clip for a second-round pick that might one day be as good as Buchnevich currently, is an absolute steal. Blais is a serviceable bottom-six winger who can be plugged in for his solid defensive results, but is only a makeweight in this deal.

The Verdict: The Blues get a young top-six winger for relatively little while the Rangers continue to value the wrong traits in their roster construction. Blues come out on top with this one.

Vancouver Canucks acquire defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for forwards Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel and a first-round pick (9th overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft, a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and a seventh-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

At first glance, this trade looks like a big win for Jim Benning and the Canucks. Sanitizing their books of the exorbitant deals paid out to role players immediately clears space out for Vancouver to pen their young stars in Elias Petersson and Quinn Hughes to hefty long-term extensions, while also coralling a talented young winger in Conor Garland, who is under team control for the purposes of his next contract.

However, look slightly further and you’ll discover that this transaction is another example in a long line of mismanagement by Jim Benning, who has continually misjudged his franchise’s trajectory and place in the NHL’s hierarchy and hampered their ability to assemble a competitive roster around their franchise cornerstones as they approach their peak years.

Instead of waiting another year for the contracts of Eriksson, Beagle, and Roussel to simultaneously expire and free up around $12 million in cap room, Benning willingly took on the gargantuan commitment necessitated by Ekman-Larsson, who hasn’t played at the level expected of someone on his contract for several seasons, to be able to lock up his young stars. Not to mention, Benning signed those players to the exorbitant contracts to begin with, and has resorted to cannabilizing his own supply of assets in response.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson used to be one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen, posting five seasons of at least 40 points, and one with 39. Unfortunately, those days have long passed, and the Swedish defenceman is still owed $8.25 million per year for the next 6 (six!) years, making him the 8th highest paid blueliner in the NHL. Yikes. His offensive production is still respectable, but his ability to defend has fallen off of a cliff and playing so many minutes in Arizona certainly hasn’t helped.

Yet, Benning should be given praise for managing to extract Garland in this deal, as the winger is one of the league’s most under-appreciated scorers. His 1.31 primary assists per 60 minutes at even strength places him at 15th in the NHL, just behind Toronto’s Mitch Marner, and Garland was also 41st in his shots per 60 rate, painting him as an offensive dual threat. His slight frame and elusive agility also help him evade oncoming forecheckers and draw penalties to the tune of just over 2 per 60 minutes, good enough for 3rd among all NHL skaters this past season according to Natural Stat Trick.

According to Evolving Hockey, Garland’s projected deal comes in at 4 years and just under $4.7 million per year, which would be right in line with his league-wide production and he could immediately form a frightening tandem with Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser in the Canucks top six.

Benning knows its playoffs or bust next season for Vancouver, with the failure to qualify for the postseason likely spelling the end of his lengthy tenure as general manager. The trade will likely improve the Canucks next season although Ekman-Larsson’s albatross of a contract and their relinquishing of the 9th overall pick mean the problem is only kicked further down the road.

The Verdict: While the trade gives Vancouver short-term flexibility and a talented young winger, they paid a heavy price to rid themselves of bad deals, only to take on an even worse, and much longer one in return. The Coyotes should be happiest with their haul here as they continue their rebuild.

Chicago Blackhawks acquire defenseman Seth Jones, a 2021 first-round pick (32nd overall) and a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick and a second-round selection at the 2021 NHL Draft.

While this was the most significant of the weekend’s transactions, it was the least surprising as the Blackhawks were reported to have been frontrunners for Jones from the outset of the offseason. The Blackhawks then signed Jones to a monstrous eight-year, $76 million extension that will take effect beginning in the 2022-23 season, which will give Jones the third highest cap hit among all NHL defencemen. 

Jones is the latest skater to be a polarizing figure in the clash between traditional (ie. the eye test) and analytical evaluators, with his tantalizing physical gifts and draft pedigree cited as factors clouding Jones’ underwhelming underlying metrics for a player of his supposed value around the league.

Jones has been highly regarded for playing well under extreme usage under Blue Jackets’ coaches (2nd highest 5-on-5 total ice time this season) and would generally post good counting stats, with the towering blueliner on pace for at least 40 points in his past 5 seasons.

Unfortunately, goals and points can’t paper over all of Jones’ flaws, mostly being that the Blue Jackets were often hemmed in their own zone and gave up a greater number of chances with him on the ice, with his shot- and expected goals share hovering under 50% at five-on-five. When you’re playing that much, that’s a lot of time to be underwater chance-wise, and definitely not becoming of the third highest paid defenceman.

It’s not impossible that Jones can generate above-average results next season and especially when he’s somewhere he wants to be, but the subsequent extension handed out by Chicago could be a poison pill in the not-so-distant future. Ask Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic how their deals have turned out.

Once Jones indicated he was unlikely to return to Ohio once his contract expired, the Blue Jackets could have been excused for settling for a depressed trade return, but they did well to procure two early round picks and a burgeoning offensive defenceman who looks poised to take on greater responsibility within the Blue Jackets’ system.

Boqvist’s most intriguing trait is his ability to complete controlled carries of the puck into his opponent’s defensive zone, allowing his team to set up their offense with possession. According to Corey Sznajder, Boqvist’s completion rate of 61% is just above the NHL’s best defenceman in this regard (Roman Josi with 60%), albeit in only about a quarter of Josi’s workload.

Boqvist was also given some top power play time with the Hawks last season and could transition into the same role with the Blue Jackets, although Zach Werenski can claim seniority in that department. His development will be fun to watch and Columbus has found themselves a real talented prospect in Jones’ stead.

For a team who has had trouble securing their stars to long-term commitments (Bobrovsky, Panarin, Dubois, Rick Nash), filling out their depth chart with young players under team control and high draft picks seems to be their most feasible avenue to success.

The Verdict: The Blue Jackets acquired some valuable pieces for their rebuild, including a promising defenceman who can immediately be inserted into the lineup. The Blackhawks gave up a lot for a name-brand blueliner who will play a ton of minutes, but whose on-ice results might not match the hype. It’s not a part of the trade, but the astronomical contract commitment makes this deal a loss for the Blackhawks.

Philadelphia Flyers acquire forward Cam Atkinson from Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Jakub Voracek.

Philadelphia continued their thorough roster reconstruction in a straight swap of highly-paid forwards, with Cam Atkinson and former Blue Jackets’ forward Jakub Voracek, each given a much-needed change of scenery.

From the Blue Jackets’ perspective, shedding the slightly older Atkinson rids them of a contract that had an additional year remaining compared to Voracek’s, and one that was restricted by a no-trade clause which likely hampered the potential return. With Columbus’ recently parting ways with captain Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, David Savard, and Seth Jones, the franchise has clearly chosen to begin another period of retooling, with only five players under contract beyond next season.

The Flyers’ split with Voracek seemed written on the wall, as recent reports of discontent combined with trades involving Gostisbehere, Ristolainen, and Ellis signalling a new era in Philadelphia. 

Even with Voracek the downslope of his career, his playmaking remains a strong suit. His 11 primary assists at 5-on-5 was tied for 31st among all NHL skaters, and he generated 1.35 high danger passes (those completed from behind the net or across the slot) per 60 minutes, third most among Flyers’ forwards.

Blue Jackets will hope that he forms an instant connection with Patrik Laine, who they acquired early last season and whose contract is up for renewal this summer. If he is to stay, he’ll need to be persuaded that GM Jarmo Kekalainen can surround him with other offensive weapons.

Atkinson is no slouch however, with the undersized winger potting 213 goals in 627 career games (a 28 goal pace over 82 games), and only being two years removed from a 41-goal season, although his production in recent seasons does stir up some concern, with only 27 goals in 100 games since 2019. His reduced cap hit and playing style offers increased flexibility on and off the ice for the  Flyers, and will hope that their new mix will reap playoff success next season.

The Verdict: The Flyers and Blue Jackets exchange troublesome contracts with both players having something left in the tank despite being on the wrong side of 30. I give the Flyers the edge for the increased flexibility and cap space that Atkinson’s contract gives them.

Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick. All contract information via CapFriendly.

Top photo of Seth and Caleb Jones from @NHLBlackhawks on Twitter.

2021 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Montreal Canadiens v.s. Tampa Bay Lightning

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After another gruelling postseason, we’ve got the final matchup that we all hoped for and expected; the league’s model franchise, an offensive juggernaut and the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning going up against the…(checks notes) Montreal Canadiens?

We all joked about how poor the quality of competition was in the North Division but somebody had to emerge from that side of the bracket and Montreal not only outlasted their northern brethren, but comfortably dispatched the Vegas Golden Knights in six games. 

You know, that team that walked all over the Presidents Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche?

Whatever long odds the Canadiens faced to get here, they’re now only four wins away from capturing Lord Stanley’s chalice for the 25th time, and the first since 1993 which is coincidentally the last time a Canadian team lifted the Cup. 

What stands in their way are the reigning champions, a dynamo who boasts a more lethal arsenal of weapons than any of their previous opponents, and a goalie who has somehow outmatched the spectacular run of Carey Price.

The pandemic-induced compartmentalization of the regular season schedule means that these two teams have not faced off in 2021, but that won’t stop us from analyzing their results to glean how the contrast of their respective play styles and results of individual skater matchups might tip the scales one way or the other.

Regular Season Stats

All statistics are per 60 minute rates at 5v5 unless indicated otherwise, with league rank in parentheses where applicable.

Playoff Stats

All statistics are per 60 minute rates at 5v5 unless indicated otherwise, with league rank in parentheses where applicable.

Lineup Comparison

Kucherov’s WAR value is taken from the 2019-20 season as he did not feature in this year’s regular season.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a metric which combines a player’s impact in all facets of a hockey game (including but not limited to driving play, finishing scoring chances, shot suppression, and drawing or taking penalties) and presents it in a single all-in-one value.

In this case, the cumulative value is limited to a single season of play, making it more vulnerable to volatility in performance or spotty player health, and may not fairly evaluate players who have appeared in very few regular season games (ex. Cole Caufield played in 10 games after signing his entry-level deal).

The visual representation (inspired by Dom Luszczyszyn) is still useful to quickly evaluate a team’s strengths and weaknesses and presents potential areas of imbalance.

Offence

When it comes to a short playoff series against a single opponent, evaluating how the play styles of each combatant interact goes a longer way in predicting the final result than simply looking at regular season standings, especially in a season where each team was isolated to the same group of 6 or 7 divisional opponents for the entire year.

Despite their reputation as succeeding off of a high-flying, run-and-gun offence solely driven by skill and flair, the Lightning’s plan-of-attack revolves around the domination of their opponents down low and along the boards, as their forward group is bigger and heavier than given credit for.

In particular, Yanni Gourde, Ross Colton, and Anthony Cirelli are among the very best at recovering dump-ins and disrupting their opponent’s transition offence which in turn leads to puck recoveries in high-danger areas around the net which Tampa’s ruthless finishers can feast upon.

Their ability to retain possession of the puck and prolong offensive zone pressure often leads to a greater number of penalties drawn, with opposing defenders struggling to deal with their quickness and body positioning.

Blake Coleman and Nikita Kucherov are points of frustration in this respect, with both ranking in the top five of penalties drawn in this year’s playoffs, frequently putting Tampa in the position to capitalize on the man-advantage.

Brayden Point also offers a different vehicle of offence for the Lightning, with the star center virtually unstoppable when flying through the neutral zone and entering the offensive zone. Not only is he one of the best at entering the zone with possession (78% of completed entries; only Barzal, McDavid, Jack Hughes and Nik Ehlers were better), but he excels at ending his rushes with a scoring chance. He’s definitely one to watch in the Conn Smythe watch as Point is 5 goals away from tying Reggie Leach’s NHL record for playoff goals.

In comparison, the Canadiens employ a more diverse offensive strategy, ranking in the top third of the league in both chances generated off of the rush or a sustained forecheck or cycle. Their versatility makes it difficult to formulate a counter, as they can easily adapt to tactical changes.

Brendan Gallagher, Nick Suzuki and Joel Armia are Montreal’s leaders in chances per 60 off of the forecheck and their tendency to pressure defenders will be key in disturbing Tampa’s attempts at a coherent attack plan.

Gallagher in particular is a dual offensive threat, with his speed and predatory instinct key factors in doing extensive damage on the rush, which resulted in the league’s highest scoring chance generation per 60 minutes among forwards who played at least half of the regular season.

Tampa can count on a capable group of mobile defensemen in Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, who are able to consistently exit the zone with possession and create chances in transition while Montreal’s defence group is susceptible to forecheck pressure, particularly in the pair of Joel Edmundson and Ben Chiarot, and often use a last-ditch launch off the glass to move out of the zone rather than trying to maintain possession.

In fact, Tampa and Montreal were 1st and 30th in total giveaways during the regular season, which makes sense given their personnel. If Tampa can eliminate their time and space to leave the zone with a clean stretch pass, Montreal’s preferred offensive strategy could be neutralized.

Via Corey Sznajder

Tomas Tatar was one of Montreal’s best playmakers and transition players in the regular season and his injury left a big hole in the top-six. In response, Nick Suzuki has stepped up considerably and taken on much of the playmaking duties with his 8 assists ranking second on the team, while anchoring the second line with Toffoli and Caufield and driving play to the tune of 58.9% expected goals at 5v5, 12th among forward lines with 50 minutes at 5 on 5. He also led the team in shot contributions (shots+passes) in their upset of the Golden Knights and will need his offensive instincts to take it to the Lightning.

Both offences also mix in a heavy dose of point shots from their defensemen, with the hopes of creating chaos in front of the net via a tipped chance or crease-crowding by their physically imposing forwards. Tampa’s forechecking prowess helps them collect “offensive rebounds” and recycle possession back to the point or down low behind the net. With both goaltenders on the top of their game, obscuring their lines of sight may be the only viable route to success.

The difference being that despite both defence groups contributing 25 goals from the blue line in the regular season, Montreal’s rearguards accounted for a greater proportion of their team’s scoring with Petry leading with 12 tallies on the year.

In terms of 5-on-5 offence, Tampa and Montreal are not dissimilar, and it would not be surprising to see the Canadiens occasionally control the flow of play at even strength. Their collective size and speed keep opponents out of dangerous areas and these traits often lend themselves to initiating quick counterattacks back up the ice. Unfortunately, Montreal is another in a long line of clubs who struggle to convert on their territorial dominance.

However, Tampa possesses offensive weapons that are a step above what Montreal has at their disposal, and that collection of top-end talent should be enough to outshine the Canadiens’ balanced forward group when it comes to finishing chances.

One thing to look for at the bottom of the lineup is Tampa’s fourth line of Johnson-Maroon-Colton, who have toyed with other team’s bottom-six with the fifth best share of expected goals (61.6%) among forward lines with at least 50 minutes played. The speed and vision of Johnson is complemented well by the physicality of Maroon and Colton who have been able to muscle their way into dangerous scoring chances. This battle will be a difficult one for the bottom half of Montreal’s lineup to win, but a necessary one if they are to match Tampa’s firepower elsewhere.

Yet, the health of former MVP Nikita Kucherov will be a lingering concern over the course of the series as he exited game six of the Lightning’s series with the Islanders before being questionable for, but ultimately playing in, game seven. He’s had a dominant playoffs (27 points in 18 games) but skating at less than 100% will be a blow.

The Lightning can take solace in the fact that even without Kucherov, they can still ice 8 players who were on pace for at least 20 goals over the course of a full 82-game season (Stamkos and Point were above 30). In comparison, the Canadiens had 5, and one was Caufield who only played 10 games before the playoffs started.

Caufield will be an x-factor for the Habs and with 8 goals in 25 regular season plus playoff games since joining the squad, he resembles one of Montreal’s only true finishers (alongside Toffoli) and he will need to convert on his chances to even up the gap between the forward groups. It also wouldn’t hurt if Josh Anderson could rediscover his scoring touch. To give him some credit, he’s been flying up and down the ice wreaking havoc, but that’s not enough at this point of the postseason.

I hope Carey Price was able to get some rest over the past few days because he’ll be busy come game one.

Defence

It has been fun to watch the hockey world slowly come to grips with Montreal’s sound defensive structure as they have successfully neutralized opposing offences during the first three rounds. Their primary calling card has pulled them within arm’s reach of the Stanley Cup.

Both team’s overall defence is built around deploying a responsible forward group which is quick and tenacious, and denies opposing team’s the chance to exit the zone cleanly. They force panicked zone exits off the boards or off the glass where opponent’s are often relinquishing possession in favour of safety.

Much has been made of the size and strength of Montreal’s blue liners and their ability to clear the net front and prevent quality chances against. Their defensive rates in terms of shot quality and quantity against were both among the top third of the league in the regular season. Montreal plays within their limits and is better for it.

Despite their reputation as an offensive dynamo, Tampa did not shy away from their defensive responsibilities. Like the Habs, the Lightning were able to effectively insulate their goaltending and lessen Vasilevskiy’s workload. Their emphasis on possession dominance via cycling in the offensive zone and poised zone exits and entries with possession ensured that they kept game action away from their own goal. They don’t allow an overwhelming quantity of shots or high-quality chances and instead suffocate the opposition and wring the life out of the game.

You know what they say, the best defence is a good offence.

Both teams were able to further lockdown their own slot area in the playoffs, preventing opposing forwards from creating chances in high-danger areas.

While Montreal’s defence core was effective in keeping opposing forwards away from their net with their size and physicality, they were not particularly successful at preventing zone entries at their blue line, likely because of their limited foot speed and agility on the backend.

In contrast, Tampa’s more mobile group regularly shut down neutral zone transition attempts which forced dump and chase attempts and played into Tampa’s ability to exit the defensive zone with controlled possession. It seems as though most teams understand that they can’t beat Tampa this way with every regular defensemen being targeted on zone entries at a below-average rate compared to other defensemen around the league. The only defensmen who allowed more than average zone entries were McDonagh and Ruuta, and even then they were just above average and did not allow many chances off of entries.

With water bugs like Tyler Johnson and Point looking to skitter into the offensive zone with speed, Montreal’s lumbering blue line may look like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tampa’s cycle offence will put more pressure on the Canadiens so that initial successful zone entry attempt will become all the more important.

Somehow I’ve gotten this far without mentioning shutdown center Philip Danault, whose committed two-way play has resulted in Montreal dominating shot attempts and the quality of chances even when pitted against individual superstars (Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor and Nik Ehlers) and powerful team offences (Vegas). Among forward lines with 100 minutes played in the playoffs, Montreal’s top line of Danault-Lehkonen-Gallagher has posted the highest expected goals share, and is yet to be on the ice together for a goal against.

Coach Dom Ducharme obviously feels comfortable throwing that line on against any competition and their shot and chance share dominance will be key in keeping the Lightning at bay.

But, at the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, the Canadiens faced Leafs and Jets teams who were missing a star center (Tavares and Scheifele respectively) for most, if not all, of their series through injury and suspension.

I don’t say this to diminish Montreal’s accomplishments because they could only play who was in front of them, but simply to note that Tampa Bay holds a clean (relative to playoff standards) bill of health entering the final and their defence will be tested.

A new challenge awaits.

Goaltending

Team playoff results are often at the mercy of volatile swings of variance stemming from an extremely small sample of games when compared to the larger body of work in the regular season, where unsustainable streaks of luck and chance conversion generally even out over time.

More likely than not, the most successful playoff teams have to some degree benefitted from a hot streak of goaltending, and our two finalists are no exception.

As of the conclusion of the third round, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal’s Carey Price rank first and second in playoff save percentage respectively, and their impending duel will likely determine the final outcome of this series.

The case of Playoff Carey Price is particularly puzzling as for the past two seasons, Price has followed a pedestrian regular season with postseason performances more befitting of his enormous contract and the sterling reputation he carries among his peers.

Price has been astounding in all situations, but his save percentage while on the penalty kill has defied reality. Over 86 minutes of shorthanded time, has only allowed 3 goals on 63 shots, resulting in a playoff-leading .952 save percentage. Vasilevskiy, who is second, has only saved .898 of shots faced on the penalty kill.

To further highlight the abnormality of this run, off the 146 individual goalie playoff seasons since 2010-11 with at least 35 minutes of penalty kill time, only seven have finished with a higher save percentage than Price, and none played more games in their respective playoffs than Price’s 17 in 2021.

It would seem extremely unlikely that Price is able to sustain one of the best performances of the past decade, especially when facing one of the league’s best offences, but anything can happen over a 2-week period.

You might be thinking that the mind-boggling nature of Price’s play would have the Canadiens dreaming of a Stanley Cup parade in the near future, but the net-minder’s opposite number has been just as good, if not better in these playoffs.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has followed up a .927 save percentage in last year’s Cup run with an improved .936, which is even more impressive when you consider the unforgiving gauntlet of challengers that the Lightning have swept aside on their way to a second consecutive final in the Panthers, Hurricanes, and Islanders.

If you might be thinking that anybody could succeed behind the Lightning, Vasilevskiy has saved the most goals above expected this postseason. For everything that is said about the Lightning’s enviable collection of firepower (amazing what an additional $18 million can do for a team), Vasilevskiy still has to earn his keep on occasion.

However, he is playing at such a high level that there is room for some regression to creep in and when the margins are so thin in a final series, an ill-timed return to mere superstardom for Vasilevskiy could be potentially blindsiding for the Lightning.

Similarly, any interpretations of Price’s success hinges upon if you view him as someone capable of elevating his play in high-pressure situations or rather as a beneficiary of favourable puck luck after failing to post a save percentage over .910 in three of the past four regular seasons. In terms of his PK save percentage, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle and I would bet on at least a slight regression in the Final.

Whatever the case may be, we should enjoy two of this generation’s best goaltenders go toe-to-toe in such a high stakes matchup. However, Price and the Canadiens are crossing their fingers in the hopes of seeing this incredible run of form through to a championship.

They might just get it.

Special Teams

Both of Tampa and Montreal have seen their playoff runs buoyed by incredible success on special teams, and it’s not a stretch to believe that whoever experiences a dose of regression first will be on the losing end of the series.

In what may be another surprise, Tampa Bay are among the feistiest teams in the league and were called for the second most penalties this season behind only the Boston Bruins. This trend continued into the playoffs as Tampa finds itself atop the penalties taken leaderboard.

However, they also managed to draw the fifth most penalties in the NHL during the regular season, and the most in this year’s postseason.

It appears as though part of their game plan is to goad their opposition into taking penalties to set up their almost automatic power play by engaging in some rule breaking of their own, and relying on Vasilevskiy to bail them out on the penalty kill when the officials inevitably look to make “even-up calls”.

On the other hand, Montreal’s games have seen very few calls, with the Canadiens experiencing the least total penalties taken and drawn of the final four teams. How the games are managed by the officials will go a long way in setting the tone of the series.

The return of Nikita Kucherov after missing the entire regular season to recover from offseason surgery has bolstered the Lightning in all aspects of the game, not least the power play where they’ve seen their shot generation and conversion greatly increase in the playoffs, now ranking in the top third of the league in both respects.

His presence as a dual threat in terms of both finishing and passing helps facilitate Tampa’s strategy of cross-slot passes to one-time threats such as Steven Stamkos, consistently stretching opposing goaltenders and leaving them in vulnerable positions.

With their incendiary power play clicking at a lethal 37% conversion clip throughout these playoffs, the Lightning might have the right idea with this strategy.

In comparison, Montreal has improved slightly on their regular season power play, but not by much. The addition of Cole Caufield as a credible shooting threat has made their top power play unit more dynamic, as defences are now forced to respect his shot and open up passing options as a result. With two goals on the man advantage thus far, Caufield will need to continue firing attempts to augment Montreal’s strong 5v5 play.

A huge part of Montreal’s run has been their incredible reversal of fortune on their penalty kill, with the shorthanded units ranking in the bottom third of the league during the regular seasons and currently first in the playoffs. The last time the Canadiens allowed a power play goal was game 4 of their first round series with the Leafs, which coincidentally is when they began their comeback from 3-1 down.

As I pointed out in the goaltending section, Price’s superhuman performance while shorthanded has driven most of their success on that front. That’s not to say the skaters on the PK unit haven’t contributed to its success (6th out of 16 playoff teams in the quality of chances allowed), but the 14-year vet has pushed it to an almost incomprehensible level.

While their penalty kill unit has been effective at suppressing chances against in the playoffs, they have also managed to frequently turn the tide of in-game momentum by creating offensive opportunities of their own when down a man.

Joel Armia (3 shorthanded points this postseason) and Paul Byron (2 points) have been particularly prolific at capitalizing on their opponents’ sloppiness on the man advantage, and Tampa should be wary of Montreal’s deceptive “power-kill” unit which ranks second in these playoffs in terms of chances generated while on the penalty kill.

That’s not to say Tampa doesn’t possess similar weapons, as Coleman, Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow frequently leverage their size and positional awareness to pressure opposing skaters into costly miscues, ranking fifth in chance quality generated while shorthanded.

Not unlike Montreal’s dependence on Price, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage on the PK has masked some of the unit’s deficiencies, as it ranks 14th out of 16 playoff teams in terms of chance quality allowed but 4th in kill percentage.

In Caufield and Tyler Toffoli, Montreal has two snipers who could possibly exploit this potential chink in the Lightning’s armour and bring the defending champs to their knees. Difficult, but possible.

However the final penalty tally plays out, whichever of Tampa’s roaring power play or Montreal’s staunch penalty kill emerges victorious will go a long way in determining which team operates on the front foot for the majority of the series.

The Verdict

The Canadiens have fought valiantly to get to this point and deserve credit for beating three arguably more talented opponents in the process.

They strike in steady waves and their hulking group of blue-liners have succeeded at keeping opposing attacks to the perimeter and outside of key scoring areas, relieving pressure on Carey Price.

Price will need to continue his mind-boggling play for the Canadiens to stand a chance and after his performance in the first three rounds, it would be difficult to bet against him maintaining his excellence for another four to seven games.

However, Tampa is a uniquely dangerous beast and when fully healthy, can roll out a murderer’s row of forward lines that are safeguarded by one of the league’s best goaltenders to cover up any potential mishaps.

It may very well come down to a special teams battle, with Tampa’s potent power play clashing with Montreal’s suddenly impervious penalty kill, although this suggests that the officiating crew will be loathe to call a high number of infractions in the fear of being seen as deciding the games.

If Montreal can remain disciplined, they can reduce the number of opportunities that Tampa has to utilize their not-so-secret weapon and use their even strength prowess to strike when given the chance.

Regardless of your rooting interests, the series should be a demonstration of everything we love about playoff hockey – speed, physical attrition and a duel between two seemingly impenetrable goaltenders.

The Canadiens will keep the games close and gives the Lightning all they can handle, but ultimately, Tampa Bay should become the first back-to-back champ since the ’16 and ’17 Penguins.

Tampa in 5.

Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, Moneypuck, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.

The Best XI of the Euro 2020 Group Stage

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Wednesday’s enthralling conclusion to EURO 2020’s group stage capped off a collection of impressive individual and team performances, some more expected than others, and fashioned new national heroes to praise and exalt.

Unheralded players broke onto the international stage and singlehandedly dragged their team to respectability, icons of the sport continued to proclaim their excellence, and some surprising figures caused consternation for more historically acclaimed opponents, all of which offered up a long list of footballers worthy of recognition.

However, a few caveats should be noted before I list my team of the group stage.

To be eligible for the starting eleven and honourable mentions, the players had to have played at least 2.0 full 90 minutes (180 mins total) or what would generally be 2 out of the three possible group stage matches.

This yardstick was chosen to recognize those who had a claim to most if not all of the overall success of their team rather than someone who had a sparkling performance in a single game or half of play.

This criteria unfortunately penalized players who gave impeccable performances but were recovering from injuries (Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, Italy’s Marco Veratti) and those teams who locked up their place in the knockout stage ahead of their third match (Italy and Belgium primarily) and could afford to rest their key contributors. 

If these teams progress further in the tournament, most of the snubs will likely play key roles and would be chosen in my final team of the tournament.

Lastly, some of these players may not have ranked highly in the traditional counting stats such as goals, assists or clean sheets, as these do not account for team and opponent strength. 

The most glaring example of this disconnect would be Italy’s goalie Gianluigi Donnarumma who posted 3 clean sheets in the team’s unblemished conquest of Group A.

You might be thinking, “he didn’t allow any goals, why shouldn’t he be among the two best goalies of the group stage?” But, if you dig a bit deeper, you would see that in over 270 minutes of match-time, Italy only conceded two shots on target and the lowest cumulative expected goals against in the entire tournament to this point.

As such, Donnaruma’s perfect goaltending record is more a testament to Italy’s impenetrable defensive structure rather than his ability to stop quality chances.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the best eleven of the group stage. For those who just want to skip ahead, a squad graphic can be found at the bottom of the article.

Goalkeeper

Stole Dimitrievski, North Macedonia

EURO 2020 marked North Macedonia first appearance at a major tournament of any kind, and the newcomers were always going to be in tough to advance further than the group stage.

On the surface, selecting the keeper who tied for the lead in goals allowed as the best goalie of the group stage may seem nonsensical, but as I mentioned earlier, traditional goalkeeping metrics do not account for chance quality and treats all shots against equally.

Despite entertaining as worthy combatants in their group stage matches with a skilled midfield and daring fullbacks, their defence was porous in allowing the highest cumulative post-shot expected goals against (only considers the quality of shots that are on target) in the tournament as well as the second greatest quality of chances against per shot faced.

While only Martin Dubravka and Lukas Hradecky prevented more goals above expected, they did not face anywhere near the amount or quality of chances as Dimitrievski, and it can be assumed that the sheer volume of his workload likely tired him out as the group stage progressed. 

Using more traditional statistics, the North Macedonian goalkeeper faced the second most shots on target (21) while making the third most saves (13), keeping the minnows competitive in their matches and giving them the confidence to venture forward when needed, making them appointment viewing for many neutral observers.

Honourable Mentions – Martin Dubravka – Slovakia, Lukas Hradecky – Finland

Full Back

Andrew Robertson – Scotland

The early returns of EURO 2020 suggest this will be the tournament of the adventurous full back, with several worthy candidates being instrumental in their side’s offensive generation through a heavy dose of progressive dribbles and passes that move the ball out of their own half and set up their teammates in dangerous attacking positions.

With little quality up front or in midfield, Robertson had to bear the brunt of the offensive workload for the Scots, with his passing creating almost all of their scoring opportunities in the final third and ranking at or near the top of all of the tournament’s passing leaderboards.

First, only Germany’s Robin Gosens accumulated more expected assists (measures the chance quality of any shots taken following a pass) than Robertson, who was also the unluckiest creator in the tournament in terms of the number of dangerous chances that were not converted off of his live-play or set-piece deliveries.

Robertson also tied for and held the lead in the group stage in key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot) and completed crosses into the opposing penalty box, with 9 and 5 respectively.

His large involvement in progressing the ball and creating chances for Scotland did not preclude him from fulfilling his defensive responsibilities, as he posted respectable totals for clearances, tackles and interceptions, which he could have been forgiven for shirking seeing as how much Scotland relied on him elsewhere.

Robertson will surely be frustrated with the inability of his teammates to finish off any of the numerous chances he created especially as even one (perhaps against England) may have given Scotland the points necessary to advance to the knockout rounds.

Joakim Maehle – Denmark

A large part of a sneakily threatening Danish attack that finished in the top five in actual goals scored and non-penalty expected goals accumulated, was Maehle’s mazing runs and precise ball delivery from the wide areas of the pitch.

Maehle was particularly threatening during the run of play, tying for the fifth most scoring chances created from a pass during live play, and third in shots created from dribbling past an opponent, which allowed Denmark to create many odd-man opportunities and overwhelm their opposition in threatening areas. His total distance from progressive carries ranks 2nd in the tournament and was a large part of keeping opponents on their toes.

The Danes were also able to challenge well in the air, with Maehle’s 11 completed crosses creating plenty of heading chances for their forwards, adding another dynamic to the Danish offence which makes it difficult to plan for their attack.

Despite Maehle’s large involvement offensively, he was rarely caught out of position and his commitment to tracking back made him a constant threat to initiate a rapid counter on which the Danes were more than equipped to capitalize.

Denmark attempted the fewest pressing challenges in the group stage but Maehle was very effective in his pressures, helping Denmark dispossess targets 52.2% of the time (the third best rate in the tournament), which was important in giving the Danish attack a chance to recover from being vulnerable high up the pitch.

With Denmark being placed in the weaker portion of the bracket, a run to the semi-finals is not out of the question and Maehle’s two-way excellence will be required to ensure the Danes do not wilt under increased expectations. 

Honourable Mentions – Jordi Alba – Spain, Vladimir Coufal – Czech Republic, Denzel Dumfries – Netherlands, Robin Gosens – Germany

Center Back

Leonardo Bonucci – Italy

It would be a travesty to name a best eleven without a single Italian given their perfect display in the group stage, even if the reason is because they did not meet my minutes threshold. 

Luckily, Bonucci featured often enough that I feel comfortable recognizing his irreplaceable presence in the Azzurri’s overall tactical scheme, whether it is in marshalling an unpenetrable backline, or distributing passes from the heart of defence.

The significant number is the zero goals allowed, but their pristine defensive record is a product of allowing the least cumulative expected goals against in the group stage and tying for the tournament lead in shots on target allowed, as the Italians protect keeper Gigi Donnarumma by methodically neutralizing any opposing threats in the air and closing gaps in and around their penalty area.

Although Italy is not lacking for technically proficient midfielders to progress the ball, Bonucci relieves much of the pressure on his teammates by spraying long passes to his forwards and breaking the lines under pressure, completing the 6th most long passes (those travelling more than 30 yards) in the group stage, allowing the team to quickly transition out of defending and into a counterattack. 

Bonucci and the rest of the Italian backline do not have to complete many tackles but that is mostly due to their positional awareness and effective pressing which causes their opposition to lose the ball before they can manufacture an attack.

The Italians look poised to make a deep run and Bonucci’s effectiveness on both sides of the ball will be a key determining factor in their success.

David Alaba – Austria

Austria’s tactical Swiss Army knife was a major reason for their second-place finish in a tricky group which also featured Ukraine and North Macedonia.

It is rare that any player, let alone a centre back, is responsible for as much as Alaba is tasked with and, in a similar vein to Bonucci, Alaba coupled defensive sturdiness with a heavy passing workload that demonstrated his importance to Austria’s hopes of further success.

Alaba was the most effective presser in the group stage, with Austria recovering possession within five seconds of an Alaba press 52.8% of the time, showing that although he is not necessarily as physically imposing as other centre backs, he possesses tactical awareness that puts his team in a better position to start a counterattack.

The Austrian national team always faces a positional conundrum when deciding where Alaba will lineup as his technical ability and defensive positioning allow him to thrive in any setup.

Through the initial three games of the tournament, Alaba is tied for third in shot-creating actions (passes, dribbles, being fouled), with his 6 from dead ball situations currently the most of EURO 2020.

He is also one of four players tied for the lead in key passes leading to a chance (with Robertson, Pierre Hojbjerg, and Kevin De Bruyne) despite playing most of his minutes at centre back, and is tasked as Austria’s main ball transition option out of their defensive half.

Clearly, being stationed in the backline has not suffocated Alaba’s creativeness and if Austria is to meaningfully test the Italian’s in their round of 16 clash, he will have to continue maneuver around opposing defences with his penetrating ball distribution from anywhere on the pitch.

Honourable Mentions – Milan Skriniar – Slovakia, Aymeric Laporte – Spain

Central Midfield

Toni Kroos, Germany

After a poor showing at the 2018 World Cup, the Germans underwent some introspection and decided to turn to their bottomless reserve of talented youth in hopes of injecting some pace and creativity into their aging squad.

Even with the well overdue upheaval, the Real Madrid man retained his place in the starting eleven, with his measured and purposeful passing still able to unlock opposing defenses at the highest level.

Kroos completed the most total passes of any player in the group stage, the most progressive passes (at least 10 yards towards the opponent’s goal), the most passes entering the opposing third of the pitch, and tied for fourth in key passes leading to a shot.

The German midfield maestro has been proficient from set-piece scenarios, creating the 2nd most chances from such situations, making Die Mannschaft a threat to score from anywhere on the pitch as long as Kroos is delivering the pass.  

Without Leon Goretzka for most of the group stage, Kroos has had to take on more of the defensive responsibility in a double-pivot consisting of himself and Ilkay Gundogan.

Although his astute defensive awareness allowed Kroos to accumulate the most combined tackles and interceptions at the tournament, it is less than ideal when he is the focal point of the German attack but a testament to how influential Kroos remains to the overall success of the national program.

For a player who is nearing his 32nd birthday and has logged as many minutes in domestic and international competition over the past decade, Kroos is still as effective as he was in his mid-20s Real Madrid’s dynasty in the early 2010s, and will need to continue being at his puppeteering best if Germany is to break their quarter century drought at the European Championships.

N’Golo Kante, France

The second midfield spot is taken by N’Golo Kante, whose extremely jovial nature masks a ruthless, machine-like efficiency on the pitch.

In a team stuffed to the brim with offensive superstars, Kante is the sober point of conscience, and his tireless running allows loose balls to be recouped with ease and to break up even the most relentless of counter-attacks.

His defensive steel was doubly important in a group that featured continental superpowers in Germany and Portugal, with only two guaranteed a place in the knockout round. 

Even with all of the talent available to manager Didier Deschamps, the French have instead succeeded at the 2018 World Cup and this year’s EUROs on the back of clamping down defensively and playing low-event football. 

Kante’s tenaciousness at the heart of midfield is integral to this strategy, as was demonstrated by his 20 combined tackles and interceptions were tied for third in the group stage, and only behind Kroos among non-defenders.

The diminutive midfielder also harries opponents at a relatively high rate, ensuring that France can regain the ball in advantageous positions and spend very little time having to defend their goal, which resulted in Les Bleues allowing the third least non-penalty expected goals against per 90 minutes behind only Italy and England.

Although capable, Kante is not relied upon for ball progression as his passing output is limited to short passes to Paul Pogba or his centre backs after recovering a loose ball, which frees the Chelsea man to focus on his strengths. 

Even with Kante moving out of his prime, his tireless commitment to defending is still as effective as it was in France’s World Cup triumph and it would not be a surprise to see the French take home another international trophy.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Denmark

In a result that I’m sure delighted nearly everyone, Denmark comprehensively dismantled Russia in their final group match to reach the knockout round after a horrifyingly traumatic experience in their tournament opener in which Christian Eriksen, their midfield fulcrum and emotional leader, was struck by cardiac arrest before half-time. The prompt delivery of medical attention ensured his survival, but his footballing career remains in jeopardy.

In his absence, the role of Denmark’s primary creative director needed to be filled and Hojbjerg stepped up admirably over the course of the group stage, leading the tournament with three assists thus far.

As has been mentioned several times thus far, Hojbjerg was among those tied for the tournament lead in key passes and passes leading to possession further up the pitch, consistently finding teammates in stride and manufacturing shooting opportunities for their talented forward group to challenge opposing defences.

Hojbjerg was also able to place opponents into difficult defensive situations by passing the ball into their penalty box 8 times in the group stage (the second highest total in the group stage, forcing defenders to make potentially destructive split-second decisions.

While much of the offence generated by Hojbjerg was a product of his incisive passing, the Tottenham midfielder did not hesitate to attempt beating defenders off the dribble, completing 6 of his 7 attempted dribbles, a success rate that was third among players with at least 5 total attempts.

Eriksen’s cruel and unfortunate end to the tournament forced Hojbjerg to occupy a role with which he was not overly familiar, but his decisiveness and confidence in possession has almost fully made up for what is missed in Eriksen’s absence.

As I noted in Maehle’s section, Denmark is well-positioned to go far and if they do, it will largely be on the back of Hojbjerg’s emergence as a credible creative threat.

Honourable Mentions – Jorginho – Italy, Gini Wijnaldum – Netherlands, Ruslan Malinovskyi – Ukraine

Forward

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal

In the opening salvo of EURO 2020, Cristiano Ronaldo once again waved off Father Time and was the creative engine of pre-tournament contenders in Portugal, posting six goal contributions in the process of qualifying for the knockout stages out of a group in which every match was tensely contested.

Yet, despite only 2 of Ronaldo’s tournament leading 5 goals coming from open play, his all-around attacking performance still rates him as among the competition’s top forwards after the group stage.

In terms of non-expected goals for plus expected assists created per 90 minutes, Ronaldo ranks 1st among players with more than 1.5 total 90s. Apart from his teammate Diogo Jota, the rest of the Portuguese side have not pulled their weight offensively, leaving Ronaldo to drag them across the line to qualify in a performance resembling that of their last European Championship.

Ronaldo is no longer the shot generating fiend that he was in his prime, but he has still been able to carve out quality chances when the opportunity presents itself, with his expected goal value per shot taken ranking 5th among all players at the tournament.

As Ronaldo has moved into a central striker in the twilight of his career, he has relied less on his dribbling to beat defenders but still completed 5 of his 7 attempts in the group stage to create several of his own chances.

Even though it is foolish to bet against Ronaldo once again being able to mask Portugal’s deficiencies, it seems unreasonable to have to ask the 36-year-old to not only create and finish his own chances, but be the main playmaking option in the side.

If supporting stars in Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva don’t step up, Portugal will likely be going home earlier than most people predicted.

Memphis Depay – Netherlands

With 7 years between major international tournaments, the absence of the Netherlands has robbed several consecutive competitions of a certain flair and panache, and their long-awaited return emphatically delivered on such hearty praise.

Depay has been a key cog in a rampaging Dutch attack reminiscent of their revolutionary teams of the 1970s, and the versatile forward was involved in scoring or assisting four of their tournament leading eight goals, second behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. 

While the Netherlands’ core midfield pieces of Gini Wijnaldum and Frenkie De Jong are more than capable of creating chances for themselves and their teammates, Depay has taken a leading role in generating scoring opportunities within the nation’s prolific offence.

Depay is tied for second among all players at EURO 2020 for shot creating actions and 4th in per 90 rate among those with at least 2.0 90s played, with his contributions coming from an even mix of live-play passes, set-piece deliveries, and dribbling past opponents.

He hasn’t been afraid to test opposing keepers himself either, taking 10 shots (tied for 2nd overall) in the group stage, although he could stand to show greater composure in front of goal.

Even with his finishing leaving something to be desired, Depay has been a stalking predator thus far, completing the 4th most dribbles at the tournament while being among the leaders in dribbles into and touches within the penalty area.

With how dangerous the Netherlands has already looked, knowing Depay is capable of more should strike fear into any future opponents as the Dutch eye an attainable spot in the semi-finals.

Robert Lewandowski – Poland

With so many deserving attacking candidates, choosing three to highlight this best eleven relegated several strong contenders to the honourable mentions.

What worked in Lewandowski’s favour was how integral he is to Poland’s success in all facets of a game, and how little he had to work with in comparison to other forwards. 

Despite being Poland’s sole offensive threat and commanding most of the defensive attention, Lewandowski was able to tally 3 goals which tied for second in the group stage, as well as accumulating a tournament-leading 12 shots, 4 of which were on target (also tied for 2nd).

He should probably have even more if he had converted on several glorious chances including a header right in front of the net against Sweden that instead went careening off of the crossbar, and may have been the difference between missing out on or making the round of 16.

His non-penalty expected goals total was enough to rank 6th and he had the 4th most touches of the ball inside the opposing penalty area, only serving to highlight how frustratingly unlucky he was to not capitalize on a greater number of prime scoring chances.

His aerial presence was also a central strategy in Poland’s transition of the ball upfield, as he won the 5th most heading duels among forwards which set up the Poles in an attacking position closer to the goal. 

Poland was one of the most aggressive teams in their pressing style, applying the 2nd most pressures in their opponent’s third of the field in an effort to regain the ball in a compromising position.

Lewandowski’s tireless running was needed to succeed in this area, as the striker applied the 4th most pressures in his attacking third among all players. 

It could be said that the pressure as Poland’s primary attacking option, the reliance on his aerial ability, and pushing him to press high up the pitch likely sapped him of energy by the final group game, as he played every minute of his team’s group stage matches.

As another early exit befalls Poland and the almost 33-year-old Lewandowski, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we never see one of this generation’s best strikers experience notable international success.

Honourable Mentions – Gareth Bale – Wales, Romelu Lukaku – Belgium, Andriy Yarmolenko – Ukraine 

It was extremely difficult to narrow down a final eleven as so many players have put in wonderful performances through the initial group phase, and the differences between them were very slight.

It will be very interesting to see who can continue their strong form and make sure to check back here for the final team of the tournament.

Group Stage Best XI

All data courtesy of Football Reference. Top image of Memphis Depay taken from Twitter.

You’re Up Next: Five of EURO 2020’s Breakout Candidates

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With the 2020(?) European Championships beginning tomorrow, there’s no better time to preview which players will unexpectedly shine the brightest at this summer’s showcase. Everyone knows of Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are several others biding their time before jumping to claim wider recognition. But first, some context surrounding this year’s European adventure. 

The pandemic-induced delay of the previous football season has necessitated that much of the football calendar be compressed and expedited to get back to regularly scheduled programming as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the breakneck speed at which the 2020 and 2021 seasons were completed resulted in an increase in significant injuries to players who were forced to suit up more frequently while combatting a drastic reduction in rest time between matches.

As you’ll see, the aforementioned injuries have created vacuums to be filled, mostly by youngsters making their debuts on the international stage or players flying under-the-radar who currently find themselves outside of the purview of the continent’s monoliths.

A year can feel like an eternity in sports, and COVID was not necessarily gentle with aging veterans slumping further along in their physical decline and instead granted many young players an additional year to develop through regular first-team football who might not otherwise be considered for selection. 

For many casual soccer fans whose interest in the sport is often circumstantial and fleeting, major international and continental tournaments are a way to discover rising stars who, for one reason or another, have not yet broken through the public consciousness.

In either case, there is a collection of talent eagerly awaiting the opportunity to grab centre stage and announce themselves to the world as the next generation’s household names, potentially sealing a lucrative transfer in the process.

For those entering the tournament without a team to root for, these five players should excite neutrals and bring some spice to what may at first glance be considered underwhelming fixtures.

1. Alexander Isak – Forward – Real Sociedad/Sweden

In the FIFA video game series Career Mode, once iconic players retire in-game, a player colloquially known as a “regen” is automatically created and placed within the league from which the initial player concluded their career. The “regen” hails from the same country as the retired player, and possess similar physical and technical attributes.

For a Swedish side used to relying on the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the better part of 2 decades, Isak is as close to a Zlatan “regen” as you could hope for without cloning the man himself and the Swedish icon’s unfortunate injury has pushed Isak to the forefront of Tre Kronor’s attack.

To some, Isak’s imposing physical presence (he stands at a towering 6-foot-4) and professional demeanour conjures up an image of a more mature player, and it’s often difficult to remember that the Real Sociedad striker only just celebrated his 21st birthday.

Since his professional debut for AIK Stockholm at the age of 16, Isak has accumulated 140 appearances in all domestic and inter-continental competition posting 67 goal contributions (55 goals plus 12 assists) in the process.

In terms of comparables, the 17 non-penalty goals Isak scored in Spain’s La Liga this season ranked 5th behind Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Luis Suarez. Outside of En-Nesyri (who’s a promising talent in his own right) his peers include three of the past decade’s most prolific attackers. Heady company, and a credit to Isak’s ability to carve out dangerous chances in front of goal.

In fact, Isak ranked among the top quartile of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues in terms of his goals and shots taken per 90 minutes, a testament to the raw talent he has already displayed.

Despite his lumbering frame, Isak is anything but a prototypical target man. He is deceptively quick and rarely hesitates to take on defenders with his dribbling, completing 1.33 dribbles per 90 minutes this season.

In terms of link up play, Isak completed 77 percent of his short and medium passes in all competitions this season, meaning he won’t necessarily turn into a liability if Sweden require more involved playmaking contribution from him at some point in the tournament.

Although football history is littered with hundreds of young stars who fizzled out after bursting onto the international scene, Isak appears poised to take the next step and find success at a larger club with rumours of potential moves to Barcelona and Arsenal already springing up following his superb 2021 campaign.

Sweden finished the EURO 2020 qualifying campaign with the 7th most goals scored among all competing nations and Isak contributed 3 of their 23 tallies mostly in a substitute role, but scored at an incredible rate of nearly 1 goal per 90 minutes (0.81).

For reference, Messi scored 0.89 goals per 90 minutes in La Liga play this season. While Isak’s international output came in a very small sample, he clearly possess the talent to turn a game on its head and will look to link up with RB Leipzig’s all-action midfielder Emil Forsberg and Juventus starlet Dejan Kulusevski.

With their group consisting of a newly rebuilt Spanish side counting on young, but supremely gifted players, an always defensively stout Poland led by arguably the world’s prolific striker in Robert Lewandowski, and the tricky Slovakians, Isak will have to replicate his hot domestic and brief international form for Sweden to move on to the knockout stages.

2. Nikola Vlasic – Attacking Midfielder – CSKA Moscow/Croatia

Vlasic is another entry in a long line of technically gifted midfielders bred by Croatia, and the 23-year-old looks poised to make his mark at this summer’s showcase.

With national team mainstay Ivan Rakitic retiring from international duty shortly after Croatia’s second place finish at the 2018 World Cup, Vlasic was gifted a starting spot alongside 2018 Ballon D’Or Winner Luka Modric, and has become an integral conductor of the Vatreni’s attacking intentions.

Vlasic parlayed impressive performances in Croatia’s First Division as a teenager into a surprise move to Everton but struggled to find consistent playing time in his preferred position. After a single season in the Premier League, he swapped the blue of Merseyside for CSKA Moscow in the hopes of fighting for an expanded role and furthering his development at a level more appropriate for the early stages of his career.

In his two most seasons since arriving in Russia, Vlasic has been among the league leaders in goals and assists tallying 23 goals and 10 assists in 56 appearances, with many of Europe’s top clubs taking note of his identity as a chance generating threat and aggressive dribbler capable of evading even the most relentless of opponent pressing schemes.

The 2021 season saw Vlasic complete over 4 progressive carries per 90 minutes, defined as carries which move the ball at least 5 yards closer to the opponent’s goal (while past the halfway line) or into the penalty box.

Internationally, Vlasic’s dynamism has rescued Croatia from embarrassment in the qualifying stages on occasion, with his slaloming runs and ability to strike the ball from distance offering a different dynamic to a Croatian attack that can sometimes become stagnant and too often rely on hammering crosses into the opponent’s penalty area in spite of its enviable collection of midfield talent.

As Vlasic is only slightly above average in terms of his defensive impact and ability to play cutting through balls, Croatia can depend on their hardened veterans in Modric and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic to pick up the slack allowing Vlasic to focus on making up for their deficinecies in ball progression via dribbling and penetrating the opponent’s penalty area.

With tournament play notorious for drawing out frustrating defensive strategies which revolve around conservative low-blocks with most of a team’s attackers behind the ball, this skill will be crucial in unlocking opposing defences.

With much of the core of Croatia’s World Cup runners-up squad moving out of their prime, including the 35-year-old Modric, Vlasic will be called upon by coach Zlatko Dalic to provide attacking verve and infectious energy as the they seek to replicate their form from 3 years ago.

If he succeeds, Croatia can once again be considered a legitimate dark horse at an international tournament and may precipitate Vlasic’s return to a more prominent league in Europe.

3. Adam Hlozek – Forward – Sparta Prague/Czech Republic

In a group headlined by two of the previous World Cup’s four semi-finalists in England and Croatia, the Czech Republic will be hard pressed to advance to the knockout stage of the competition.

While the squad is anchored by the duo of Hoffenheim’s Pavel Kaderabek and West Ham’s midfield behemoth Tomas Soucek who form its defensive spine, the Czech’s lack offensive impetus and will have to hope they can collectively muster up enough of an attack to challenge the group favourites.

That’s where Hlozek can shine.

Despite being only 18 years old and featuring in just over half of the season’s fixtures due to injury, Hlozek eviscerated the Czech First League while leading Sparta Prague to 2nd place in the division.

The Czech phenom tied or outright held the lead for virtually every one of the competition’s offensive categories including goals (15), goals plus assists (22), and their corresponding per 90 minute rates.

Just to further highlight how ridiculous his production was in comparison to his peers, Hlozek’s 1.31 goals and assists per 90 was 0.34 higher than the next best outfielder, the same difference between 2nd and 10th place.

Even while often operating at the peak of his team’s attack, Hlozek frequently carries the ball into critical areas through his agile dribbling, and is unafraid of firing on goal whenever possible. He has a knack of popping up in opportune positions in and around the box and the ability to capitalize on said chances.

His capacity as an offensive threat is only heightened when he is able to isolate his defender and take him on directly. Call it the Hlozek Torture Chamber, if you will. When he locates the net, there is very little a defender can do to prevent him from bursting forward towards goal.

Despite playing most of his minutes at striker, Hlozek seemingly has free license to roam anywhere along the team’s front line and will look to lead a rapid counter-attack whenever the Czech’s are able to regain possession.

It may be horribly unfair and unreasonable to expect an 18-year-old to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for creating chances and orchestrating his nation’s attack, increasingly younger and younger players are confidently stepping into professional sides, and Renato Sanches’ poised performance as a teenager in the middle of Portugal’s midfield at this very tournament 5 years ago suggests that age is but a number if you genuinely possess the skill and ability to dictate a match.

Hlozek’s dominance in his domestic exploits suggests that he’s prepared for a new challenge, and a salivating performance at EURO 2020 will only cause his price tag to balloon even further in the eyes of Europe’s elite. Realistically, a step up to a mid-table side where he could accumulate a greater number of minutes would be more beneficial to his development.

If you can find time to catch one of the Czech’s matches, make sure that you’re stapled to your seat. You might just witness the ascent of one of the sport’s next superstars.

4. Eljif Elmas – Midfielder – Napoli/North Macedonia

While many have bemoaned the European Championships recent expansion from 16 to 24 teams, the new format has undoubtedly offered smaller nations a greater opportunity to share the stage with the continent’s traditional superpowers.

North Macedonia is one such country, with the miniscule nation of just over two million people punching their ticket to EURO 2020 on the back of national hero Goran Pandev, whose goal in a qualifying playoff final booked Macedonia’s place in a major tournament for the first time in their independent history.

Eljif Elmas is the key component of a technically proficient Macedonian midfield, with the 21-year-old pacing those around him like a metronome, combining with the sly Enis Bardhi, and charging forward himself when the opportunity for an attack presents itself.

His skillful ball control and technical dribbling allows him to move around the pitch with ease, and to retain possession while seeking out a more preferable avenue of attack.

For his club team Napoli, Elmas is less of an important piece as he frequently makes appearances off of the bench. When he does play, his preference is to maintain and recycle possession although he is not shy to test opposing defences with his creative passing or slippery movement around the box.

He is also an underrated attacking talent as is demonstrated by his 4 goals during EURO 2020 qualifying, which was enough to lead Macedonia in that department.

In fact, it was Elmas last minute goal in World Cup qualifying which sprung Macedonia towards capturing one of the most famous victories in the country’s history, a 2-1 victory over Germany.

He is somewhat limited in his tackling and defensive awareness which likely means that he will be positioned higher up the pitch for this tournament, operating as the offensive fulcrum for the European minnows. As Elmas goes, so does Macedonia.

They will be thrown into a struggle with Ukraine and Austria for the 2nd and 3rd places in a group headed by the Netherlands who are returning to their first major tournamnent in over half a decade, and if they are to make good on their status as the tournament darlings, Elmas will have to exert his influence on their fixtures from the outset.

5. Jonas Wind – Forward – Copenhagen/Denmark

With each successive tournament, several tournament dark horses lead bandwagons out of the stable, with their triumphs often sparking cries of “I told you so” across countless bars, living rooms, and patios.

Ahead of EURO 2020, Denmark has quietly taken that mantle and if everything goes right, their exploits this summer could resemble their inaugural bow at this same tournament 29 years ago where geopolitical conflict in Yugoslavia forced the crumbling state’s withdrawal, and set the stage for their Danish replacements to unexpectedly win the competition outright.

While Inter Milan’s Christian Eriksen will take his regular place at the heart of the Danish attack, the spot ahead of him has yet to be assigned to various applicants.

Enter, Wind.

As national team regulars in Yusuf Poulsen, Kasper Dolberg and Martin Braithwaite struggling for form, there is a strained desire for more consistent attacking in the Danish camp.

The 22-year-old Dane took a definitive step domestically this season scoring 15 goals in 28 appearances for Copenhagen, which was tied for 2nd in the Danish first division.

Wind was also a shot generating machine this season, with his 3.04 shots per 90 minutes ranking 3rd in the Danish Superliga. If Wind can develop a harmonious relationship with Eriksen at this tournament, he should find it relatively easy to find space to fire numerous attempts on goal and challenge keepers.

At 6-foot-2, Wind is a welcome threat in the air and will be an additional target for Eriksen and Andreas Skov Olsen to aim for in the box making him more of a versatile presence in Denmark’s tactical setup.

Wind is a multifaceted attacker and his ability as a playmaker should not be understated as he finished with 8 assists, good for fourth in the entire league. Denmark boasts several intriguing attacking options around him, meaning it will be imperative for Wind to find teammates when under pressure around opposing penalty areas and his domestic performance suggests that is a skill he can flaunt this summer.

Although Wind is relatively green at the national level (7 caps for Denmark thus far), he’s potted 3 goals in his limited appearances at a rate of 0.8 goals every 90 minutes, a blistering pace to be sure, but one that will undoubtedly cool down as he faces stronger competition.

With a sturdy central spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Andreas Christensen and Eriksen, Wind would fit seamlessly into a team capable of upsetting the biggest sides through dedicated defending and underrated ability to create chances.

If he can break into the starting eleven and carry his domestic form onto the continental stage, Denmark can potentially recreate their tournament magic from nearly three decades prior.

Honourable Mentions: Orkun Kokcu – Turkey, Manuel Locatelli – Italy, Dani Olmo – Spain

Data courtesy of Football Reference and StatsBomb. Main image of Cristiano Ronaldo from Francisco Leong/AFP.

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens

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They’re here, after a truncated season and a schedule ravaged by a pandemic, they’re finally here. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, where legacies are forged, champions are crowned and if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs, an opportunity to relive deep-rooted trauma stemming from early postseason exits. What, too soon?

The format of this year’s playoffs guarantees that a Canadian team will reach the league semi-finals at the very least, and represents the best opportunity a team from the 49th parallel will have to win the Stanley Cup in recent memory.

The journey to crown the kings of the North Division begins with a showdown between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, fierce historical rivals that have not faced off in post-season play since 1979, a year in which Margaret Thatcher became the prime minister of the United Kingdom. It’s been a while.

Seeing as someone who was born when the Leafs last won a series can now obtain a driver’s license in Ontario, it’s understandable that fans are apprehensive of the team’s chances to break the drought, even in a year where they finished atop the North division.

Although part of the allure of sporting competition is that the unthinkable can and will happen, Leafs fans can rest assured that the team is much better equipped to return to the 2nd round, although the Canadiens will not be a pushover by any means through their physically abrasive style.

Season Stats

All statistics are at 5-on-5 unless indicated otherwise.

Head-to-Head Comparison

Lineup Comparison

For this roster comparison, I used Dom Lusczysn’s roster value visualization except instead of using his Game Score Value Added metric, I substituted it with Evolving Hockey’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric which sums up a player’s total value in finishing, play-driving, defensive impacts, and the rate at which they take and draw penalties, among other things. A more thorough explanation can be found here.

Some pitfalls of using this metric is that since I am only using a player’s total for this current season, their performances from past seasons are ignored.

This is especially important when trying to evaluate a player’s single-year output in that their WAR value will be skewed by unsustainably high or low shooting percentages and by their deployment and usage. In other words, luck and circumstance.

A more sophisticated player value model would account for a player’s performance in previous years, as it may suggest that they will likely rebound to their normal output. However, this offers a rough evaluation of each team’s lineup come Game 1.

Offence

Toronto’s offensive firepower is well-documented and presumed Rocket Richard trophy winner Auston Matthews spearheads the battalion, leading the league in individual expected goals created in all situations, and capitalizing on those chances to the tune of 41 goals, a new career high and a rate that hasn’t been seen this century.

Outside of Matthews, the Leafs can rollout several other scoring options, with 4 other players (Marner, Tavares, Nylander, and Hyman) hitting 15 goals in this shortened season.

On the red side of central Canada, Montreal’s offence resembles more of collective approach, with Tyler Toffoli the only skater to have cracked 20 goals (28) on a squad that scored the 17th most goals in the league.

The Leafs and Canadiens represent two sides of the chance quality versus quantity debate when it comes to determining which is a better predictor of future success.

Montreal is one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the league, often controlling play through relentless forechecking and being quick to jump on the counterattack when given the opportunity. Their defensemen are not shy to jump into the play, and their forwards do not hesitate to test the opposing goalie from anywhere on the ice.

However, while the Canadiens often win the possession battle, the Leafs are much better at generating higher quality chances and convert on said chances at a better rate.

The health of Brendan Gallagher will determine how much offence the team can muster, as he consistently finds himself near the top of the league in creating scoring chances and best embodies the Canadiens offensive ethos.

That’s Gallagher allllllll the way in the top right corner.

His absence due to injury has played a part in Montreal’s recent slump, with his 1.3 individual expected goals per 60 minutes being the best rate in the NHL among skaters with at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5.

If he has not fully recovered from the injury which limited him to only 35 games this season, the Habs may be hard pressed to find offence elsewhere.

As such, Montreal’s trio of promising youngsters in Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Alexander Romanov will surprisingly start the series as healthy scratches, a questionable decision when less effective skaters have been left in the lineup of a team that has struggled to generate much offence.

Head coach Dominic Ducharme indicated that he is starting with veterans steeped in playoff experience and that they may draw back in eventually, but the opportunity cost for a team with little offence beyond their top two lines may be crippling if Toronto takes an early series lead.

Caufield in particular has given the Canadiens a much-needed spark, potting four goals in 10 appearances since signing his entry-level deal late in the season.

For Montreal to have a chance in this series, their primary objective must be to prevent Auston Matthews from waltzing into high danger chances, which is easier said than done.

Their strategy of choice will most likely be to deploy their top line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Brendan Gallagher against Matthews whenever they have the opportunity as that line is outright dominant, with their goal share (1st), expected goal share (1st), and shot share (3rd) being unparalleled among lines with at least 200 minutes played at five-on-five.

Luckily for Toronto, their own line of Matthews-Marner-Hyman ranks right behind Montreal’s trio in those metrics, promising a very intriguing head-to-head battle of dominant 5-on-5 lines and one that may determine the result of this series.

While Montreal can roll four dependable forward lines, they lack true elite talent and Toronto can match them depth-wise making it unlikely that they find an advantage in this department.

Defence

In previous seasons, Toronto’s blue line and commitment or lack thereof to defence has been a frequent scapegoat of a team loaded with offensive weapons.

However, the addition of TJ Brodie on the first pair and the welcome emergence of Justin Holl as a legitimate top-four defensemen, the Leafs boast their most dependable defence corps in years and alarms no longer blare when Toronto’s defensemen handle the puck in their own zone or are swarmed opposing forwards.

The likely third pair of Rasmus Sandin and Zach Bogosian completes the lineup and should complement each other nicely as Sandin has taken on a more prominent role in transitioning the puck up the ice, and Bogosian has shown a penchant for making the safe, simple play while being responsible defensively which is all that you can ask of your bottom pair.

In fact, all three of Toronto’s most common defence pairs this season (Reilly-Brodie, Muzzin-Holl, and Dermott-Bogosian) posted an expected goals share of over 55%, giving head coach Sheldon Keefe the peace of mind to throw any of the pairs into important situations and get results.

Toronto has seen their defensive results improve drastically, with their ability to prevent shot attempts and to keep opponents out of dangerous areas both ranking in the top third of the league, making life much easier for their goaltenders.

For a Montreal team that already struggles to shoot from prime scoring areas, the Leafs will not make it any easier to get into better positions.

Montreal’s defence corps is led by Jeff Petry, who scored 10 goals this season and often showed off his ability to join the rush and give the team another option on the attack. With their forwards adept at controlling play but not finishing on chances, a good chunk of the scoring load will fall on Petry.

As with Toronto’s defence group, the Canadiens can deploy three steady pairs that will keep the puck and tilt the ice in their favour.

A large part of Montreal’s defensive strategy is to control possession and limit the number of chances that their opponent gets. They rank in the top third of the league in both expected goals and shots against per 60 minutes, and do not make it easy for other teams to overpower them.

Whether each team continues to maintain their focus on quantity over quality of chances will be interesting to follow.

Goalies

The goaltending situation in Toronto has been a carousel, with 5 different net minders suiting up at some point in 2021 for a variety of reasons including health and issues with consistency.

Jack Campbell’s historic run thrusted him into the starter’s role, especially after Frederik Andersen has struggled mightily this season and was forced to miss several months with an injury.

His dependable performances visibly buoyed the team and propelled their attack, confident that their net minder could shore up any of their missteps.

I can too often harp on the hard data aspect of hockey, but there is something to be said of knowing the goalie behind you can bail you out now and again. Not to be an amateur psychologist, but the Leafs often looked sullen and dejected when Andersen would let in a stinker in previous years.

The mental fortitude provided by Campbell’s stability should not go unnoticed. Doesn’t hurt that his teammates love him either.

Despite his success, Campbell’s lack of playoff experience and experiencing his own injury troubles earlier this season may be a point of caution for Toronto, as a goaltending implosion would be the most costly development in a short series.

However, Andersen’s recent playoff struggles should make the team hesitant to throw him into such a high leverage situation, which means that the net is Campbell’s for the foreseeable future. Unless Campbell’s play more resembles the hiccups from a month ago, I doubt that Andersen will see the ice for the duration of this playoff run.

His lack of playoff experience may be a point of tension but trying to guess how a goalie will perform can be a fool’s errand, and Campbell has shown enough consistency dating back to last season to assuage concerns.

For Dominic Ducharme, the most pivotal decision he may have to make is in goal, with Jake Allen outplaying Carey Price this season and stepping in admirably when Price went down with injury.

Price’s reputation with his peers precedes him, although it is not clear that he is at all close to level he demonstrated at the peak of his career. His recent playoff numbers have been much better than those he’s posted in the regular season, but his struggles this year coupled with a recent conditioning stint in the AHL suggest he may not be completely healthy heading into Game 1.

If he were to go with who is performing the best at this moment, Allen would be his guy. But, as I acknowledged earlier in this section, intangibles should not be cast aside, and Price’s impenetrability in the playoffs should hand him the reins to start.

One thing to note as this Twitter user points out, is that Campbell has been less effective than Price at stopping high danger chances. If Montreal can find a way to engineer more scoring chances around the slot and net front, they may stand a chance at overcoming the discrepancies in talent elsewhere in the lineup.

Special Teams

One of the biggest stories in Toronto is how the Leafs power play has dropped off a cliff after a torrid start to the year, at one point . With short playoff series extremely susceptible to rapid swings in momentum, a lacklustre power play can often spell disaster.

While it is definitely disconcerting that the team can often appear stationary on the man-advantage and have struggled to capitalize, their results indicate that they are generating chances at a rate that is top-three in the NHL.

With the presumed Rocket Richard Trophy winner in Auston Matthews and John Tavares as the triggermen on the man-advantage, it would not be shocking for their luck to turn and to see their conversion rate resemble that of their performance at the beginning of the season.

Current publicly available expected goal models are unable to capture variables such as a player’s pre-shot movement as well as how a puck made its way to the shooting location. Whether the shooter skated into the slot with the puck or if they received a pass across the slot for a one-timer, the expected goal value of that shot would be the same.

However, it is more difficult as a goalie to stop a one-timer than it is to challenge a shooter skating directly towards the net. This could be a potential explanation for why despite generating tons of scoring chances, the Leafs’ power play has gone cold.

They would do well to create more opportunities where the opposing goalie has less time to set up in his stance and locate the puck, as well as finding a less predictable outlet than the Marner-Matthews connection.

An insightful look into how Toronto can mix up their power play structure.

If Montreal has any hope to pull off an upset, its special teams will have to be much better than they have shown up to this point, with their rates of scoring chance generation on the power play and scoring chance prevention on the penalty kill both ranking in the bottom third of the league.

Staying out of the box will also be a critical factor in determining who gains the upper hand in this series, as Montreal, while feisty and pestering in their forechecking, have significant difficulties in keeping disciplined, ranking very close to the bottom in penalty differential.

The Canadiens often undisciplined play combined with their porous penalty kill may lead to regret about tempting the slumbering beast that is the Maple Leafs power play.

It should be noted that the rate at which penalties are called in the playoffs drastically decreases compared to the regular season, which may benefit Montreal in their attempt to physically antagonize the Leafs’ offensive stars.

The Verdict

With a history of memorable playoff collapses in their stead, Leafs fans can be forgiven for preemptively heading to the bomb shelters.

What is true this year that hasn’t always been the case with this core (save for last year’s Columbus debacle) is that they are the overwhelming favourite, and boast the series’ best player as well as more robust depth than the Canadiens up and down the lineup.

When the benches are shortened and stars are leaned on, possessing a true game breaker can be the key to success and Matthews is unlike any skater the Habs can throw on the ice.

However, Montreal’s chippy style will be sure to frustrate the Leafs in their attempt to impose their freewheeling style on play, and should be more effective in the playoffs when penalties are called much less frequently.

If vintage Carey Price re-emerges and Campbell falters in his first true test as a starter in the playoffs, the Leafs’ advantages in other areas of the ice won’t matter, as there isn’t much that the Leafs can do to prevent Montreal from turning the series on its head if their goaltending implodes.

Ultimately, the Leafs have been much better over the course of the season and especially so in their head-to-head matchups with the Candiens, and shouldn’t pose too much of a threat to Toronto’s chances of advancing to the second round for the first time since Usher’s “Yeah!” was top of the charts.

I’m calling the Leafs in five. Famous last words?

Main picture is from Flickr/ Rick Harris.

Statistics are taken from ESPN, Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck and NHL.com.

Kaprizov Versus Robertson: Sizing up the NHL’s Rookie of the Year Race

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The NHL’s Rookie of the Year award, the Calder Memorial Trophy, is hotly contested by the league’s rising stars and gives fans a glimpse of the future torchbearers of the sport. This season, two wingers have pushed to the front of the pack, the Minnesota Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov and the Dallas Stars’ Jason Robertson.

Both Kaprizov and Robertson have exceeded expectations and have provided a welcome boost to their respective team’s offence for different reasons, but the unique context surrounding their emergence has initiated spirited debate over which player should be rewarded with hardware at season’s end.

The three main frontiers of this argument have been what each player’s success means for the trajectory of their franchise, intense scrutiny over their isolated individual contributions, and the impact that the quality of their teammates has had on their results.

As a qualifier, both players should be commended for seamlessly stepping into major roles as their teams’ primary facilitators of offence and it truly is a shame that only one can be immortalized in the league’s history.

However, that sort of wishy-washy indecisiveness doesn’t make for good content so time to spit out some hot takes. Fun!

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

The Narrative

Minnesotans have been eagerly awaiting Kaprizov’s arrival in North America since he was drafted by the team all the way back in 2015. After dominating the KHL in the proceeding years, a league that is notoriously reluctant to give young players significant ice time.

After years of contract negotiation backdropped by fears that he would never make the plane ride across the Atlantic, Kaprizov finally landed with enormous hype around his arrival generated by numerous eye-popping YouTube highlights and a large collection of accolades while playing against grown men.

His age at the beginning of his rookie season has been a particularly divisive detail in this debate seeing as most high-profile NHL rookies usually enter the league at the age of 18 or 19, and generally can’t claim multiple years of professional experience before making their debut.

His situation almost exactly mirrors that of countrymen Artemi Panarin who was crowned the Rookie of the Year as a 24-year-old following a strong showing in the KHL culminating with being named an All-Star in his final season. Can’t wait for the next Russian newcomer in his mid-20s to take the league by storm and have this debate once again!

However, since the criteria for the Calder Trophy currently indicates that Kaprizov is eligible, the fact that he should be planning for retirement is a moot point, and will not be held against him for the purposes of this article.

But seriously, start filling up that Roth IRA.

In terms of his impact in a Wild sweater this season, Kaprizov has almost singlehandedly vaulted the perpetually middle-of-the road franchise (1 division title since their inception in 2000) into being believable contenders, one that has historically succeeded due to their sound defensive structure rather than outgunning opponents.

Not to completely dismiss the franchise’s all-time goal leader in the just as exciting Marian Gaborik who still holds the franchise’s single season points record (a relatively paltry 83), but no Wild skater has so quickly given the franchise a facelift as Kaprizov with his youthful exuberance and nightly displays of hypnotic skill, and who recently broke Gaborik’s records for goals and points in a season by a Wild rookie.

Minnesota’s newfound emphasis on speed, youth, and skill has made them a more dangerous group with the Wild challenging their rivals and league heavyweights in Colorado and Vegas for the West Division title this season while scoring the 10th most goals in the league, something that seemed unfathomable prior to the start of the year.

The rookie is leading Minnesota in points this season, helping to virtually lock in a playoff spot fairly early in the season while rapidly becoming appointment viewing around the league. As a fan of the Colorado Avalanche, this pains me greatly.

Very greatly.
Very, very, greatly.

Now, enough with the Kaprizov praise. Jason Robertson deserves some shine for an unexpected breakout in his first full NHL season after playing most of last year with Dallas’ AHL farm team in Texas.

Keep in mind, Robertson is also slightly older than the traditional rookie at age 21, making a comparison with Kaprizov more justifiable than with a teenager straight out of junior, such as 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, who has struggled to acclimate to the NHL as a 19-year-old rookie.

While Kaprizov was immediately thrust into a leading role for the Wild and already leading the team’s forwards in average time-on-ice in the first month of the season, Robertson has steadily grown into a prominent member of the Stars’ forward group over the course of the season.

From mid-January to mid-February, Robertson was playing just above 12 minutes a night, ranking among the lowest of Dallas forwards. However, significant injuries to Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz on top of the team’s top centre in Tyler Seguin already missing to recover from offseason surgery, forced Dallas to promote Robertson almost out of necessity.

He saw his ice time rise to 14 minutes in the second month of play and eventually jumping to 18 in the past 6 weeks, an increase that coincided with a jump in production as Robertson posted 36 points in the 39 games since February 13th.

The start of Dallas’ season was delayed due to a COVID outbreak and the resulting congested schedule that was necessary to catch up to other teams was likely a contributing factor in the aforementioned injuries.

By starting 2 weeks later than the rest of the league, Dallas found themselves facing an uphill battle to make the playoffs before they even played a game.

They’ve managed to scrap their way into a struggle with the Nashville Predators for the final spot in the Central Division and it likely wouldn’t have been possible without Robertson taking his opportunity and running with it.

With the narrative context surrounding the pair and their teams fully explored, why not see how the two have matched up directly this season.

The Individual

While the story associated with a player definitely impacts awards voting and shouldn’t be discounted, you have evaluate if the narrative correlates with what is actually happening on the ice.

When we compare Kaprizov and Robertson’s seasons in an even-strength context, we can isolate how impactful each player has been while accounting for the discrepancy in the pair’s ice time this season.

The stat line above each player’s rate stats are their numbers at all strengths.

What is immediately apparent is that at 5-on-5, Robertson has been better than Kaprizov at generating scoring chances for himself and for his teammates.

Robertson almost doubles Kaprizov’s rate of primary assists per 60 minutes suggesting that Robertson has had more of a hand in directly creating goals than the Russian, with Kaprizov inflating his overall totals with secondary assists that likely occur in the build-up of scoring chances rather than immediately before a goal.

As for where he ranks across the league, Robertson’s per 60 rates for primary assists (3rd) and points (5th) rank extremely highly among skaters with at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5, an outstanding feat for a first-year player when those ranking above him include Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid.

In terms of the teams results with each player on the ice, there is once again a major difference. According to Natural Stat Trick, Dallas controls 55% of all shot attempts and 56% of the expected goal total with Robertson on the ice, compared to Minnesota’s 47% in both categories when Kaprizov has hopped on for a shift.

Notably, Robertson’s numbers rank first among all rookie skaters with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, with Kaprizov near the bottom. As Kaprizov is tasked with driving Minnesota’s offence, his focus on scoring understandably results in his possession and scoring chance results lag behind his counterpart.

Despite Robertson’s more efficient display at 5-on-5, the power play is still an important part of any game and Kaprizov’s excellence on the man-advantage should be noted in the name of fairness.

What is behind these results is that Kaprizov’s puck handling and elusive skating are extremely valuable skills when it comes to utilizing the extra ice available on the power play.

These traits also likely account for Kaprizov’s propensity to slither away from opponents and draw penalties at a higher rate than Robertson, which is an underrated way to impact a game, especially when your team has the talent required to capitalize on the advantage.

Among skaters with at least 100 minutes on the power play this season, Kaprizov finds himself 14th in goals per 60 and 29th in individual expected goals per 60, demonstrating that he is already comfortable being one of the team’s main weapons on the man advantage and in particular, occupying the role of the final shooter of any sequence.

It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to expect Kaprizov to hit another level next year and enter the conversation of premier power play marksmen.

Robertson is less of a graceful skater and does not possess the same level of stick handling that Kaprizov has shown, but he succeeds due to his offensive intelligence when it comes to going to getting himself and the puck into high danger areas. Although it can be a cliche to tout someones hockey IQ, Robertson does really possess the ability to succeed when there is less time and space.

Although this section has swung the argument in Robertson’s favour, each player’s deployment has likely had an impact on their results and should be equally considered.

The Workload and Supporting Cast

As I alluded to earlier, Kaprizov has borne the brunt of the scoring and puck transition workload in Minnesota from the outset, while Robertson has somewhat benefited from being shielded by the forward depth of a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals last season.

First, Kaprizov has played just over 40 minutes more at even strength than any other Wild forward this season while Robertson has seen his success come mostly on a secondary scoring line facing weaker defensive competition, rather than being the focal point of attack, ranking 6th among Stars’ forwards in even strength ice-time.

Again, its important to remember that Robertson only received increased ice time when more established veterans hit the injured list and was thus afforded the chance to gradually get accustomed to NHL play.

According to Corey Sznjader’s micro-stat research, Kaprizov ranks highly in offensive zone entries in terms of total volume (26.36 completed entries per 60) and success (74%), success that is driven by his dynamic skating.

For context, Kaprizov results are comparable to those of elite puck transporters in Nik Ehlers, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisatl. I’m not completely sure, but being in the same tier as former MVPs and scoring leaders is a good sign that you’re having a strong opening salvo in the NHL.

Carrying the puck is not a clear strength of Robertson’s as his volume and success is almost exactly league average, and Dallas would rather trust winger Denis Gurianov and its smooth-skating defence corps (John Klingberg and especially Miro Heiskanen) to move the puck up the ice.

When looking at how often the pair pressure opposing teams in their own zone to retrieve the puck, Kaprizov has driven Minnesota’s forechecking efforts in being tops on the team with just over 5 recovered dump-ins per 60 minutes. He is clearly concentrated on making a difference defensively to complement his offensive impact.

In terms of Robertson’s forechecking, he ranks 11th among Stars forwards in puck recoveries and almost 2 full recoveries less (3.2) than Kaprizov’s per 60 rate. The difference between the pair could simply be down to their assigned role, but it does suggest that Robertson expends much less energy focusing on defensive responsibilities, which may explain his better shot chance share from the last section.

From @PR_NHL on Twitter.

Lastly, line mates can be just integral to a player’s success as how they’re deployed. Robertson has played the majority of his 5-on-5 minutes with Roope Hintz (350 minutes) and Joe Pavelski (303 minutes). Hintz was a sleeper breakout candidate who has averaged about a point per game this season when healthy and a defensively responsible Pavelski who has also scored at least 30 goals in a season 5 times in his career.

On the other hand, Kaprizov’s most common line mates this season have been Victor Rask and Mats Zuccarello (399 minutes each at 5-on-5), solid players in their own right, but by no means world beaters with the two only having having combined to score 60 points in a season one time.

After some further digging, it becomes clear that Robertson has been allowed to focus on generating scoring chances beside better line mates which likely contributes to his more efficient showing at 5-on-5. Although this shouldn’t fully discount Robertson’s stats, it does help illuminate just how important Kaprizov is to the Wild in all facets of the game, especially when he has less support to fall back on.

The Verdict

If one assumes that a player’s performance when the playing field is level should be weighted more heavily than when a team is at a distinct advantage, Robertson has outplayed Kaprizov this season.

However, just because it should technically be easier to produce on the power play, it still does require players to actually have the ability to convert. Kaprizov has a ways to go before he is in the same stratosphere as historically dominant power play scorers such as Alexander Ovechkin, but he’s shown preliminary evidence of being a tenacious sniper when given the opportunity.

Additionally, Kaprizov immediately stepped into a primary role for the Wild on both sides of the puck and has held his own against top competition with weaker line mates, something that hasn’t been true of Robertson this season.

It should be said that several years of prior professional experience likely made it less of a rocky transition to playing in the NHL although Robertson did have a season in the minors to develop as well.

Minnesota has shown a visible swagger this season and Kaprizov’s ability to pounce on any perceived weakness makes them a much more dangerous out come playoff time and it will be interesting to see how he fares when he is thrown repeatedly to the apex predators of the West division over the course of a seven game series. Their success compared to the Stars will likely influence how voters perceive the pairs respective seasons.

The Stars have worked hard to put Robertson in a position to succeed in terms of easier deployment and being paired with stronger line mates but his success shouldn’t be discredited in spite of this reality.

Both Robertson and Kaprizov have injected their teams with youthful talent and buoyed their team’s performance in a chaotic season but Kaprizov’s consistently great performances from the beginning of the season coupled with what his emergence means for the Wild would probably see me vote for “Dolla Dolla Bill Kirill” as the Calder recipient.

Although it appears as though one has had to overcome more obstacles in becoming an impact player, both can reasonably stake a claim to the award and should be recognized for their success this season, regardless of who is eventually crowned the winner.

Statistics courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com, and are accurate as of April 30th.

Feature images of Kaprizov and Robertson are taken from @PR_NHL on Twitter.

Grading the Biggest Moves of the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline

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Yesterday marked the beginning of the stretch drive for many NHL teams, with about a month left in the regular season before the arduous grind of the postseason begins. It was a very quiet deadline, with a confluence of factors coming together to stifle the appetite of executives and owners to grow their salary bill, including the stagnant salary cap, delays associated with quarantine policies, the public health concerns of allowing fans into arenas negating the league’s main revenue stream, and the spectre of the Seattle expansion draft looming in the offseason.

Luckily, a few notable transactions were sprinkled among what would be described as teams moving to supplement the fringes of their lineups. Despite the more conservative environment, the league’s elite creatively took advantage of the suppressed market to strengthen their rosters at more of a bargain than might otherwise be expected. So, what do the more significant deals from the days leading up to the deadline mean for the balance of power in the NHL? Let’s take a look.

1. To Boston: LW Taylor Hall (50% salary retained), RW Curtis Lazar  To Buffalo: LW Anders Bjork, 2021 2nd Round Pick

This was the one everyone was waiting for, and it came just before the stroke of midnight on the eve of the deadline. A trade involving Hall was telegraphed as far back as when he first signed his 1-year deal with the Sabres last summer, with his pending UFA status positioning him as a prime deadline target for a contender in the case Buffalo found themselves out of playoff contention. However, everything that could have gone wrong for Hall and the Sabres, did.

First was the Pegula’s and rookie general manager Kevyn Adams’ assertive proclamation that Buffalo was looking to challenge for the Stanley Cup this season, and that Hall was the guy to put them over the edge.

Then came the early season COVID outbreak that put the team on hiatus from February 1st until the 15th, followed by significant injuries to starting goaltender Linus Ullmark and to captain Jack Eichel, who is still uncertain to return at all this season.

Buffalo’s turbulent season hit rock-bottom after the team tied the NHL’s record for a losing streak, which was punctuated by an overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game in which they held a three goal lead heading into the third period.

For Hall, the team’s historic ineptitude coupled with the loss of his superstar linemate in Eichel, has led to the poorest statistical totals of his career, with only 2 goals to show for the $8 million he was owed this season.

With no Eichel to help juice Hall’s numbers in advent of a trade, and due to the leverage offered by the No-Move Clause in his contract, Buffalo was cornered into an extremely underwhelming return for the former league MVP, even when accounting for the hellish season for both the player and the franchise. For example Sam Bennett, a decent bottom-of-the-lineup support player but nowhere near Hall’s level, reaped 2 2nd round picks for Calgary.

Definitely two guys with similar value. For sure.

The above chart is a RAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus) Chart, which illustrates and compares a players contributions in terms of finishing (goals for per 60 minutes), generating offence and scoring chances (expected goals and Corsi (shot attempts) per 60), and their defensive impacts (expected goals against and Corsi against per 60), with this chart looking at even strength (EV) impacts. These are represented through standard deviations from the league average, and as you can guess, the bluer the bar, the better.

Personally, I saw both fans and media alike slating Hall, with many bashing him as not being worth a high draft pick, and that he was no longer a top player in the league. Much of this derision comes from the fact that Hall has not played in very many playoff games up to this point in his career, but that is not as much on him as it is reflective of the quality of the teams he has played for.

I’m thinking this might not all be on Taylor Hall.

Ignoring the fact that he was marooned on the Edmonton Oilers who were constructed by a cartoonishly inept management group, and that he singlehandedly dragged New Jersey to the playoffs on the back of his Hart Trophy season, his underlying numbers still show that he is among the league’s best at driving play and setting up his teammates in dangerous scoring positions.

First, Hall’s merger goal total can mostly be chalked up to his astonishingly unlucky finishing, with his 2.3% shooting percentage this season being way off from his career average of 10%, which would give him about 8 goals if he was converting at a rate more in line with his prior seasons.

Comparing Hall’s individual expected goal total at 5v5 (6.12) to his actual total (1 goal) also suggests that he is just extremely snakebitten, rather than having abruptly lost his ability to create scoring chances. Further, the Sabres were converting on only 6.37% of their chances with Hall on the ice, one of the worst marks in the league, suggesting that his linemates poor finishing likely contributed to his lower than expected point total.

This is not for lack of trying, with Hall still among the league’s best at carrying the puck into the opposition’s defensive zone, and possessing the league’s best per 60 minute rate in passes that lead directly to a scoring chance, according to Corey Sznjader’s passing data.

In response to claims that Hall doesn’t play in ways conducive to playoff success, Hall currently ranks 19th in the NHL in penalties drawn at 5v5, an ability that will be extremely useful come the post-season when powerplay opportunities can be a deciding factor when the games are much tighter. He also doesn’t necessarily shy away from physical battles, as Hall is an effective forechecker, recovering 4.8 dump-ins per 60 minutes, a mark that ranks inside the top 25% of the league.

For a team like Boston that desperately needs offensive support (currently 2nd last in 5v5 goals) beyond their three superstars up front, the benefit of adding one of the league’s best playmakers is more than worth giving up a 2nd round pick.

With the Bruins 4th in their division, barely even in goal differential, and hovering below 50% in their expected goals share at 5v5, this could represent the last gasp of the aging Bergeron-Marchand-Rask core, and I would not at all be surprised if Hall regresses to his career average and sparks a late season surge once everyone is healthy, especially since Boston’s complete lineup wouldn’t have them playing this glorified AHL defence corps.

I don’t know, this guy feeding passes to David Pastrnak might just turn out well

In Buffalo’s case, Bjork is still under contract beyond this season, and has posted respectable defensive results in sheltered minutes, with Boston receiving a similar player in Lazar, making this portion of the deal essentially a wash. Buffalo should jump at the chance to grab any NHL-caliber skaters that are under contract to fill out their roster, with the season’s debacle likely diminishing the franchise’s allure for free agents.

However, this deadline should ultimately be considered a disappointment for the Sabres, with the team only holding 5 picks in the first 3 rounds of the 2021 draft – and only their own picks in the first 3 rounds of 2022 – which is poor even after accounting for the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 draft. Apart from Eichel, who may still be traded in the offseason, no asset should be off limits, and selling off players for picks should have been the main priority.

They will still have the opportunity to strip the roster and accumulate draft capital in the summer when positive news regarding fans in buildings may push more teams to add, but the process should already have been kickstarted with nothing left to play for this season beyond locking in the best odds possible for the draft lottery.

The Verdict: Misguided player evaluation and the organizational incompetency associated with the Sabres tanked Hall’s value, giving Boston the opportunity to swoop in and acquire a legitimate top-line talent for an absurdly low cost.

However, his apparent desire to only waive his No-Move Clause for Boston restricted Buffalo’s ability to recoup more assets, a frustrating position for a team holding one of the biggest trade chips. My guess is that Hall finds success in Boston playing in more of a supporting role, and makes a better choice as a free agent this summer.

2. To Washington: RW Anthony Mantha To Detroit: LW Jakub Vrana, LW Richard Panik, 2021 1st Round Pick (from Washington), 2022 2nd Round Pick (from Washington)

As the final trades of the day were trickling in, the Capitals and Red Wings offered some unexpected excitement in what was otherwise a dreary deadline.

A quick look at each team’s age profile should explain their reasoning for this trade, with Washington (2nd oldest roster in the NHL) and Detroit (youngest) occupying opposite ends of the competitive spectrum. As franchise cornerstones in Niklas Backstroke (age 32), Alex Ovechkin (34), T.J. Oshie (33), and John Carlson (30) are either entering or are firmly entrenched in the back half of their careers, this iteration of the Capitals’ core is nearing the close of their Cup contention window.

Who doesn’t want more of this

It also appeared as though both Mantha and Vrana needed a change of scenery, as recent disagreements with management and coaches over effort and lineup role likely being inciting factors in the swap.

As Mantha is still under contract for 3 more years (owed $5.7 million per year) and until his age 29 season, Washington has themselves a top-6 winger under team control through the rest of his prime, with his production more of a sure thing compared to Vrana, who was often stuck playing third line minutes, and whose upcoming contract uncertainty may not have been appealing for the Capitals, with Ovechkin also needing a new deal for next season.

After taking a quick glance at Washington’s projected lineup, it appears as though Mantha will slot in at the 2nd line right wing spot, with his scoring (on pace for at least 20 goals in each of his previous campaigns) and enormous physical frame (6″5, 234 lbs) being a significant upgrade on either one of Conor Sheary or Daniel Sprong, with the East Division full of teams that do not shy away from physical play come playoff time.

Not that Washington’s lethal power play (4th in the NHL at 25.5%) needed another weapon, but Mantha also ranks 48th in power play goals per 60 minutes since 2018, among skaters with at least 200 minutes on the man advantage. Mantha is also not a defensive liability, with his team usually finding themselves above 50% in shot share with him on the ice.

What also might have been appealing to Capitals is that Mantha was often playing tough minutes in Detroit, with fewer offensively gifted teammates than he will find in Washington. They are likely banking on Mantha being able to flourish offensively with opposing defences mostly preoccupied with their top line.

For Detroit, Steve Yzerman continued the process of rebuilding the Red Wings, acquiring two early-round draft picks, and two forwards who could later be flipped for more assets. Of the two, Vrana presents the most intrigue in that he is 18 months younger than Mantha, and has been a very efficient scorer during his Capitals tenure, albeit in much less challenging minutes.

Over the past three seasons, Mantha has played nearly 3 minutes more per game at even strength than Vrana (15 vs 12.5), with Mantha thrown to top defensive pairs, while Vrana has been left to feast on the weaker competition afforded to him as a result of playing behind Washington’s vaunted offensive stars.

Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Vrana finds himself 18th in the NHL in 5v5 points per 60, scoring the 9th most goals in the NHL at 5v5, and ranks 6th in 5v5 goals per 60 among skaters with at least 1000 minutes played, finding himself in the company of the league’s offensive elite in Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Ovechkin.

In Richard Panik, Detroit has a forward who has posted strong defensive impacts in the past two seasons, but with a $2.75 million cap hit that priced him out of Washington’s future plans. I would think Yzerman flips him for picks in the offseason or at next year’s deadline while retaining some salary.

The Verdict: I think that both teams made out fairly well with this deal, swapping forwards that could not carve out a definitive place in their respective franchise’s future. In Mantha, Washington likely gets the stronger play at this point in time which matches up better with their competitive timeline.

However, they relinquished a number of significant assets for someone who might not be that much of an upgrade, depending on Vrana’s production in greater, and more difficult minutes.

Detroit continues to build toward the future, turning a player who would be exiting his prime as the team entered their contention phase, into early draft picks and a pair of effective forwards, one of whom may be an underrated star-in-the-making, or could later be flipped for more assets if Detroit’s management is so inclined. I say Detroit comes out ahead in overall value.

3. To Toronto: LW Nick Foligno (50% salary retained by both Columbus and San Jose), RW Stefan Noesen To San Jose: 2021 4th Round Pick (from Toronto) To Columbus: 2021 1st Round Pick (from Toronto), 2022 4th Round Pick (from Toronto)

With Toronto occupying top spot in the North Division and gradually separating themselves from the pack, many Leafs fans were eagerly anticipating significant additions to bolster their roster in preparation of a potentially deep playoff run, with a relatively clear path to the final four representing their best opportunity to win a championship since the early 2000s.

Rumours swirled that Toronto was looking for an additional top-six forward, which would give an already potent offence (3rd in the NHL in 5v5 goals) even more firepower.

However, Alex Galchenyuk’s strong play (6 points in 11 games) alongside John Tavares and William Nylander since being acquired in a trade with Carolina, seemingly reassured management that their attack was settled, and that addressing a perceived weaknesses in defensive play and toughness within their forward group should be a top priority. The team’s listlessness in their most recent playoff exit at the hands of the Blue Jackets likely weighed heavily on the minds of those in management.

Ironically, it was with those same Blue Jackets that the Leafs made their most significant trade ahead of the deadline, acquiring their captain, Nick Foligno, for a hefty price, with a 1st round pick among the assets sent to Columbus. Although Foligno’s acquisition cost was certainly expensive, research on the value of draft picks suggests that picks closer to the end of the 1st round generally hold similar value as that of early 2nd rounders. Additionally, Kyle Dubas’ success with drafting in later rounds may ease some concerns that the Leafs’ prospect pipeline will soon run thin.

If the Leafs’ postseason goes according to plan, the pick that they sent to Columbus would be within the 28-32 range, an acceptable price when considering the potential of a championship. However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Toronto could have gotten a better return for their 1st rounder, especially considering that more talented forwards (Kyle Palmieri; Hall) were acquired for less.

His trademark grit and toughness has been on full display this season, as he has usually been playing between 18-20 minutes a night for the Blue Jackets and facing other teams’ top lines. Although his defensive impacts in terms of suppressing opposition chances are still strong, they have somewhat declined in recent years, and so he may benefit from a lighter workload in Toronto, allowing him to focus solely on his defensive assignments.

Foligno’s positional versatility in being able to play centre or on either wing, gives Toronto the flexibility to comfortably adjust their lineup according to their opponent. It should be noted that Foligno offers very little by way of offensive contributions, not eclipsing 35 points in 5 years.

The addition of Foligno also represents an additional influx of invaluable leadership, with the former Columbus captain joining Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and current team captain John Tavares, on the list of skaters who have donned the “C” for their former clubs. For someone who looks heavily to statistics, even I can’t deny that their presence benefits the young stars running the show in Toronto.

For older Maple Leafs fans, Foligno’s arrival may revive fond memories of Toronto’s run to Conference Finals in 1993, with Nick’s father Mike scoring a timely overtime goal along the way.

When it comes to a franchise that has witnessed its fair share of capitulation, train wrecks, and on-ice nightmares, it’ll take any positive omens that it can get.

For Columbus, Foligno’s departure carries significant weight on and off the ice. Not only has his dependable two-way play led to relative competitive success for the franchise, but his impact in the community cannot be overstated, with Foligno forging a strong bond with the people of Columbus since his arrival in 2012. With Columbus’ playoff hopes fading in recent weeks (MoneyPuck has them with a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs), Foligno waiving his No-Move Clause allows the Blue Jackets to build for the future, with the team now holding 3 1st-round picks in the 2021 Draft.

San Jose was simply included as a third party to further launder Foligno’s cap hit, as the Leafs were with the Robin Lehner trade to Vegas last season, and were given a mid-round pick for their cooperation.

Stefan Noesen will likely provide the AHL Marlies with some depth, and would only suit up for the Leafs if a cavalcade of injuries suddenly strikes the dressing room.

The Verdict: Foligno gives the Maple Leafs another rugged, defensive-minded winger to supplement their stars in anticipation of the grinding slog that is the NHL playoffs. In a division that boasts offensive flamethrowers in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, Kyle Connor, and Nik Ehlers among others, a responsible skater to counter the opposition’s attack is a welcome addition, even if the acquisition cost is a tad high.

This is a no-brainer move for Columbus, with draft picks a valuable commodity even in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 iteration. Although the loss of a character teammate is bittersweet, it should be noted that he did not rule out a return in the offseason, and I would not be surprised to once again see him in a Blue Jackets uniform in 2021-22.

4. To Detroit: 2021 4th Round Pick (from Tampa Bay) To Tampa Bay: D David Savard (50% salary retained by both Columbus and Detroit), D Brian Lashoff To Columbus: 2021 1st Round Pick (from Tampa Bay), 2022 3rd Round Pick (from Tampa Bay)

Detroit and Columbus were among the busiest teams at the deadline, with both franchises using their bevy of trade chips and ample cap space to recoup future assets. Like San Jose above, Detroit offered Tampa Bay their cap haven to reduce Savard’s cap impact in return for a draft pick, demonstrating a rare instance of creativity on the part of NHL executives.

The Red Wings look set to significantly strengthen their already overflowing stable of prospects in the next few drafts, with the team holding 12 total picks in 2021 and 7 in the first 3 rounds alone, and have already amassed 10 picks for 2022. If Yzerman’s plan comes to fruition, Detroit should be set to challenge for the Stanley Cup in the back half of this decade.

From CapFriendly; Detroit’s draft picks in the first 3 rounds of the upcoming drafts

As I mentioned in the Foligno trade section, Columbus has hit a wall in the past month, only winning 2 of their last 11 games. They currently possess less than a 1% chance to make the playoffs and are only above Detroit in the Central Division, with the final slot (Nashville) being 9 points up with the same number of games played, and their other two other main adversaries (Chicago, Dallas) having games in hand. As such, they correctly identified themselves as sellers and have recouped significant assets for solid, but aging veterans in Savard and Foligno.

As for the defending champs, they looked to recreate their deals for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at last year’s deadline and add an effective depth piece to their formidable championship core. Although one might wince at their recent history of trading 1st round picks, banners fly forever and with league parity at an all-time high, they are right to capitalize on any legitimate chance they have to win a Cup.

Almost all of David Savard’s impact comes in his own zone, with Natural Stat Trick ranking the defensive-defenceman among the league’s best at preventing other teams from getting scoring chances both at 5v5 (54th in xG/60 among D with 500 minutes played), and on the penalty kill (4th in xGA/60 since 2018 among D with 200 minutes played).

2020-21 EV Results: Savard will not generate offence for your team

Even though some of his success may be attributed to the system Columbus plays (former teammates Zach Werenski and Seth Jones both rate highly in these departments), Tampa is no slouch defensively, with their penalty kill ranking in the top 5 of the league in terms of chances allowed per 60.

Savard will not be relied upon for his offence or puck movement, with Tampa’s triumvirate of Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev on the left side of defence more than capable of generating chances and transitioning the puck to their forwards.

Uhh, hold on a minute.

The premium that Tampa paid for a player that looks like a luxury add rather than one necessitated by need, was probably made palatable due to otherwise having to run a right side of Erik Cernak, Luke Schenn and Ben Thomas on defence in the playoffs.

Just because they succeeded in spite of that group last season doesn’t mean they should make things difficult for themselves again, with Savard taking some of the defensive workload off of the left-sided trio, and pushing those on the right side down the lineup where they may be more effective.

The Verdict: For a team that is challenging for the best record in the league even without Nikita Kucherov, Savard’s addition coupled with a timely return for the Russian for the playoffs, should strike fear in the heart of every fellow Cup contender, with Tampa showing no discernible weakness as they look to repeat this spring. Detroit and Columbus both receive assets meant to drive future success, making this a fair trade all around.

5. To New Jersey: LW AJ Greer, C Mason Jobst, 2021 1st Round Pick (from New York Islanders), 2022 conditional 4th Round Pick (from New York Islanders) To New York Islanders: RW Kyle Palmieri (50% salary retained), C Travis Zajac (50% salary retained)

Although this trade occurred a few days before the actual deadline, I’m still going to count it.

The season-ending injury to the Islanders’ captain and top winger, Anders Lee, demanded that GM Lou Lamoriello fill the void, with the Islanders challenging for the top spot in their division once again and looking to build upon their impressive run to the Conference Finals in last year’s bubble. Lamoriello turned to two players he knows well from his time leading the Devils and who, in Zajac’s case, possess significant playoff experience gained from the Devils’ Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2012.

The trade also reminded fans of Lou’s strict “no facial hair policy”, with Palmieri’s wife comically tweeting about Kyle’s drastic change in appearance. It’s a shame that such a wonderful beard was sent to a farm in the countryside.

As has been a common refrain on this list so far, several contenders have been willing to part ways with their 1st round pick, with many seeing the 2021 draft as more of a crapshoot than other years due to the pandemic reducing the number of meaningful opportunities for scouts to evaluate prospects.

A fictional video game NHL franchise with about as many real scouts as the Buffalo Sabres

If the Islanders go deep, the pick would be a late 1st, a price that would be more than acceptable for most to pay in return for playoff success. The conditions on the other pick are that it can turn into a 3rd rounder in either 2022 or 2023, if the Islanders advance to the Cup Finals. With the Islanders among the oldest teams in the league, their window to win a Cup is now.

It was also reported that Taylor Hall had considered several of the other contenders in the East Division, including the Capitals and Islanders, which may have also been a welcome addition to a New York roster without many dynamic forwards, although with Hall’s playing style fairly similar to that of Mat Barzal’s, it would have been an awkward fit and most likely led to Lou looking elsewhere for reinforcements.

Although the Islanders are a defensive buzzsaw, and the best at preventing high-danger scoring chances at 5v5, their special teams have left a lot to be desired, with both their power play and penalty kill ranking in the bottom half of the league. Luckily, Palmieri and Zajac can help in those areas.

Pictured: A guy who has seen some shit

Palmieri can be counted upon for consistent scoring, with the winger on pace for at least 20 goals in each season since arriving in New Jersey in 2015. He has also sneakily been among the league’s best snipers on the power play, scoring 24 goals on the man advantage since 2018, the 24th best mark in the NHL over that time.

As for Zajac, the 35-year-old’s value is predominantly derived from his work on the penalty kill at this point in his career, with the veteran centre playing the 26th most minutes in the league down a man in the past two seasons, while also posting one of the best expected goals against per 60 rates among penalty-killing forwards.

Unsurprisingly, with teams relying heavily on Zajac to kill penalties, he has consistently ranked among the league leaders in both face-offs taken, and won. Even with his success rate dipping slightly in recent years, he remains a steady presence in the face-off dot, and on the penalty kill.

This is why you pay for experience

In return for the two veterans, the Devils received two valuable picks to further their rebuilding efforts. With the team once again near the bottom of the league, they are fully turning the keys over to the youth, with New Jersey currently having the youngest roster in the NHL. With two 1st overall picks in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes already in tow, New Jersey’s journey back to relevance is already well underway.

However, they would do well to add a few veterans in the offseason to fill the void left by Zajac and Palmieri to help support their young stars, with Buffalo and Edmonton two prominent case studies in what can go wrong if the youth are left without any guidance.

The other two players involved in this deal, Greer and Jobst, are career minor leaguers and were thrown in to match the outgoing contracts.

The Verdict: Both Palmieri and Zajac fit the Islanders mantra of committed, defensively responsible, next-man-up hockey, and add some punch to their forward group by way of scoring and veteran presence, with both serving as alternate captains for the Devils in recent seasons.

With timely scoring, a defensively stout team such as the Islanders can replicate their success from last season, making the acquisition cost an affordable one. The Devils part ways with two franchise leaders, collecting some draft picks and giving their younger players a greater opportunity to play and develop to close out the season. Once again, a relatively fair deal.

Statistics courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving-Hockey, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com.

Data visualizations from Corey Sznajder and Evolving-Hockey.

Contract information from CapFriendly.

Main photo of Taylor Hall from Getty Images

Naming The NHL’s Mid-Season All-Underrated Team

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With the NHL recently passing the mid-way mark of the schedule, it is an appropriate time to identify the players who have offered up the best performances to this point.

While it would be easy to simply name Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Andrei Vasilevskiy to these teams, that’s to be expected, and does not make for much of an intriguing read.  

Therefore, to be named to my All-NHL lists below, players must have never been named to an end-of-season All-NHL team, or have played in the All-Star Game, allowing us to shed some light on a few of the league’s best performances that may otherwise go unnoticed. I will also be using underlying metrics to parse out the field even further.

What is Goals Above Replacement?

I will be selecting this team according to Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model, which does not purely rely on traditional box score stats such as goals and assists to evaluate players, but rather quantifies and combines a player’s impact in all facets of the game into a catch-all metric, putting more value on things such as a player’s ability to consistently create scoring opportunities for their team, their ability to supress opponent chances, and accounting for how often a player benefits or hampers their team by drawing or taking penalties. 

For those familiar with the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric in baseball, this all-encompassing value seeks to emulate the same thinking behind WAR, and apply it to hockey.

What statistical models attempt to accomplish is a dismantling of out-dated forms of player evaluation that are driven by common logical fallacies and the baked-in fallibility present in our confidence to accurately evaluate everything we are watching in real-time, often parroted by out-of-touch mainstream media members.

For a more in-depth explanation of advanced statistics, what is included in the model and the history surrounding the creation of such metrics in the hockey sphere, check out this three-part series written by the model’s creators.

Why You Should Look Beyond the Boxscore

This focus on the underlying metrics that are not necessarily tracked on the scoresheet is driven by the limitations of simply relying on points, which are often driven by usage (time-on-ice, role, and zone start deployment), special teams’ utilization, and the ability of one’s line-mates. 

 A player can make a career of juicing his point totals through constant allocation on the power-play and playing with his team’s top offensive stars. While they may be found near the top of the scoring leaderboard, their actual impact at even strength may be quite poor, ceding high-danger scoring chances when not propped up by the numerical and contextual advantages afforded by a power-play. 

The GAR model does have its limitations, penalizing players who do not get as many special teams’ opportunities and being partially informed by actual goals which, over a small sample, can be influenced by unsustainable shooting that is driven more by luck than actual talent. 

Yet, according to the GAR model, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl currently rank first and third respectively, in line with what the eye-test may suggest.

With that out of the way, here is my list of the unheralded players quietly putting together seasons worthy of greater league-wide recognition. 

All-Underrated Forwards

Chandler Stephenson – Vegas Golden Knights (2020-21: 8.3 GAR, NHL Rank: 16th)

While most fans will be familiar with Stephenson’s linemate Mark Stone, who is considered one of the top two-way wingers in the league, Stephenson is making a name for himself through his play on Vegas’ top line, matching previous career highs in goals and assists in almost half the number of games.

He has been making the most of his opportunity while playing an average of around 17 minutes a game, a sizeable increase from his final season in Washington (12:06) and even from last season (14:19), being trusted with increasingly more confidence from Vegas’ coaching staff.

Stephenson and Stone are most often flanked by Max Pacioretty, and the trio are running roughshod over their opposition, controlling play to the tune of a 60.2% in unblocked shot share, and capitalizing on this territorial advantage by outchancing their opposition with an 59% expected goals rate, the 6thand 7thbest marks in the league respectively among forward line combinations that have logged at least 200 minutes this season. 

Although it might seem that Stephenson is succeeding simply because he is riding shotgun alongside Stone and Pacioretty, he more than holds his own when not skating with either of the two, possessing a 60% share in unblocked shots, and a 58% share of expected goals, albeit in a much smaller sample. 

Stephenson also ranks 51stleaguewide in primary assists at five-on-five, demonstrating that he is more than the bottom-of-the-lineup filler that would be suggested given his ice-time in Washington, an outcome Vegas may not have imagined when they acquired Stephenson late in 2019 for only a 5thround pick, but welcome nonetheless.

Vegas’ ethos since their inception has been to take players who are buried on deep teams and give them an increased opportunity to produce. Stephenson is the latest breakout star in Sin City, inking a 4-year deal prior to the start of the season, re-affirming Vegas’ belief in his two-way play.

Conor Garland – Arizona Coyotes (2020-21: 6.0 GAR, NHL Rank: 56th)

Conor Garland is the latest in a long line of undersized forwards who have been overlooked and undervalued in their draft year, only to become offensive stars once they feature in the NHL. His 328 points in 206 Quebec major junior games should have been a sign of his immense talent, but he fell to Arizona in the 5th round of his second go-around in the draft, having gone undrafted in his first year of eligibility.

While his 22 goals in 2019-20 may be considered a breakout, the diminutive winger has hit a new gear in 2021, emerging as one of the league’s best in creating scoring chances both individually and for his teammates, ranking 39thin individual expected goals at five-on-five, ahead of established stars such as John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, and Taylor Hall, and 9thin terms of primary assists per 60 minutes among players with 200 minutes played. 

Garland also utilizes his speed very effectively, ranking third in the league in penalties drawn, consistently putting his team on the power-play, although Arizona has not been able to capitalize this season, ranking in the league’s bottom third for power-play efficiency.

His strong play is made all the more sweeter by the fact that his current contract is providing the greatest return on investment, with Garland posting the league’s highest points per dollar owed this season, something that will soon no longer be the case with Garland likely eyeing a substantial raise for next year.

With Arizona perhaps being unwilling to give Garland an extension for cap reasons, he could be an underrated addition for a contender at the trade deadline, giving Garland an opportunity to thrive alongside more talented line-mates.

Oliver Bjorkstrand – Columbus Blue Jackets (2020-21: 6.7 GAR, NHL Rank: 43rd)

The 25-year-old Danish winger has been one of the league’s most underrated forwards since his first full season in 2017-18, quietly producing for a franchise that has never been considered a bastion of offensive skill.

Bjorkstrand is a very efficient scorer at five-on-five, ranking 7thleague-wide in goals per 60 minutes, and 25thin points per 60 minutes since 2018, finding himself in the company of such offensive superstars as Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, and David Pastrnak, making his obscurity around the league all the more puzzling. 

This season, Bjorkstrand has taken on most of the responsibility for generating offence through his playmaking, with his 8 primary assists at 5-on-5 putting him 14thleague-wide, and is also tied for 7thin 5-on-5 points (22). In a team that is starved for offensive stars, Bjorkstrand has established himself as one of the league’s premier wingers at even strength, and one can only wonder how much more he would produce if he was prioritized on the power-play.

For all of his offensive chops, his prowess defensively should not go unmentioned, with Bjorkstrand just outside the top-20 in takeaways per 60 this season and while he is usually strong at preventing shots and chances against, Bjorkstrand has played most of his even-strength minutes with Patrik Laine and Max Domi this season, two forwards who are historically very poor defensively, and can be difficult to shelter at 5-on-5.

With Bjorkstrand in his prime, look for him to take another step offensively, and become more of a household name.

All-Underrated Defencemen

Samuel Girard – Colorado Avalanche (2020-21: 12.9 GAR, NHL Rank: 2nd)

With Colorado’s star defencemen Cale Makar missing half of the year due to injury, the Avalanche were hoping that another member of their dynamic rearguard battalion would take on a greater role in transporting the puck and in running the top powerplay unit.

Samuel Girard has done that, and then some, proving that Joe Sakic and the rest of the Avalanche management were correct in awarding him an extension well in advance of the expiration of his entry-level contract, a sizeable five-year deal that began this season.

Although Girard has not had to orchestrate Colorado’s attack to this extent prior to this season, he has always been one of the league’s best and transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone, mostly due to his unshakeable poise while carrying the puck in high-danger situations, and his patented spin-move.

My personal favourite spin is at 2:40.

Girard has also added a new offensive dimension to his game this season, ranking 4thin goals and 11thin primary assists among defensemen at five-on-five, and 6thin primary assists on the power-play.

Yet, what is most impressive is Girard’s ability to keep possession of the puck, and in turn, preventing other teams from shooting and accumulating high-quality scoring chances, while seeing the 11thmost ice-time at five-on-five and facing the opposition’s top lines.

His unblocked shots against per 60 (4th among defensemen at five-on-five), expected goals against per 60 (9th), and scoring chances against per 60 (3rd), are all evidence of a defensemen who is not only driving his team’s offence, but actively frustrating the opposition in his own zone.

Just to further drive home his relative dominance, the top two defence pairs in the NHL (with at least fifty minutes played) in terms of their share of expected goals both feature Girard, and are collectively responsible for an absurd 71 percent of said total while on the ice.

With Colorado’s lineup finally approaching full-strength and their depth delivering in more high-leverage minutes, the Avalanche look poised to dominate in the second half of the season.

Artem Zub – Ottawa Senators (2020-21: 8.3 GAR, NHL Rank: 15th)

I know what you’re thinking, how on earth could a defenseman for the bottom-feeder Ottawa Senators be anywhere near this list. Astonishingly, the rookie rearguard has more than held his own, controlling play at five-on-five, and keeping opposing teams from getting scoring chances while he is on the ice.

Last season, Zub was a top-pairing defenseman for St. Petersburg SKA, one of the best teams in the KHL. What often happens when such players make the transition to the NHL is that they can find the period of adjustment to be too turbulent, and struggle to find their footing. In addition, getting plopped into an Ottawa team that has been among the worst in preventing shots and chances in recent seasons probably would not be to the benefit of any rookie defenseman. 

However, among defense pairings with at least 150 minutes played, the Zub-Mike Reilly pairing is first in the NHL in terms of the number of expected goals they allow per 60 minutes, and 7th in unblocked shot attempts against per 60, both rates at five-on-five.

While the pair works well playing off of each other, Zub is more than competent on his own, with the 30th best expected goals against rate per 60 minutes at five-on-five. His 53 percent share of unblocked shots is also impressive considering he starts only 42 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone (161st out of 202 defensemen with at least 200 minutes played at five-on-five, and 19th out of 20 rookie defencemen) and is mostly tasked with moving the puck from the defensive zone and out of danger. His hands in tight aren’t too bad either.

That Zub has been entrusted with more responsibility and has not been sheltered with the offensive zone starts that are commonly reserved for young or defensively deficient defensemen, is a testament to his ability and the speed at which he has adjusted to the NHL, all the while playing for a rebuilding franchise that is not particularly interested in competing for a playoff berth at this point in time.

All-Underrated Goalie

Calvin Petersen – Los Angeles Kings (2020-21: 16.7 GAR, NHL Goalie Rank: 3rd)

In my last article, I identified Petersen as a potential target for the Leafs who would be able to thrive in their high-tempo system and hold the fort for a team that is still relatively poor defensively. 

He was given an opportunity for more starts due to Jonathan Quick’s injury troubles and has provided a steadying presence for the Kings who have surprisingly found themselves on the fringes of the playoff race, mostly due to their emphasis on speed and skill.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Petersen is among the top 10 in goals saved above average and Moneypuck has him recording the 8th most goals above expected in the NHL at five-on-five, outperforming not only his partner in the crease, but several of the league’s biggest names. 

What should also be kept in mind is that those totals are in spite of the fact that Petersen has only played the 23rd most games this season and does not have the level of a defense corps in front of him that can rival those of Western conference contenders such as Colorado or Vegas, with Los Angeles in the bottom-third of the league when it comes to preventing scoring chances.

Petersen has paid his dues in the AHL, appearing in 116 games since 2017, and performing well as a backup at the NHL level, posting a .923 save percentage in 19 games in the two seasons prior to this one. It is not inconceivable to say he deserve a greater share of starts for the Kings, even when Quick is fully healthy.

With Quick’s inconsistent health and overall decline in play, Petersen may be given the reins in anticipation of leading the Kings into their next era and if his performances this season are any indication, it should be a successful one.

Honorable Mentions

F. Jared McCann – Pittsburgh Penguins (21GP/ 7G / 6A / 13PTS)

F. Nick Paul – Ottawa Senators (36GP/ 3G/ 9A / 12PTS)

F. Joel Eriksson Ek – Minnesota Wild (32GP/ 11G/ 5A/ 16PTS)

D. Adam Pelech – New York Islanders (34GP/ 2G/ 8A/ 10PTS)

D. Devon Toews – Colorado Avalanche (29GP/ 5G/ 13A/ 18PTS)

G. Alex Nedeljkovic – Carolina Hurricanes (12GP/ 2.05GAA/ .929SV%)

What I hope this article has accomplished beyond anything is to have given you some tools to evaluate the players you watch every night, and become more effective in gauging who is actually having a positive impact on results.

While points and save percentage can be a useful shorthand for identifying which players may be producing in a given season, these statistics can often miss important contexts, and lead to fans and executives overlooking talented players who may have the misfortune of playing on a poor team, or in a city that is not considered a hot-bed of the sport.

Whether you adhere to the models tenets or not, it can be an interesting exercise to identify who may be flying under the radar.

Statistics are from Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck, and Evolving-Hockey and are accurate as of March 26th; Contract Information is from CapFriendly.

Header image of Chandler Stephenson from NHL.com.

Who Might Be in Goal for the Leafs Next Season, and Why It Won’t (Or Shouldn’t) Be Frederik Andersen

All contract terms are taken from CapFriendly, and all statistics from Natural Stat Trick; All information is accurate as of March 16th.

For the past half-decade, 31-year-old Frederik Andersen, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season, has taken on the often-thankless task of playing goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and provided them with stable goaltending not seen in the city since Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour manned the crease.

In the previous three seasons, Andersen ranks second in games played (178), is tied for 15thin all-strengths save percentage (.915) and amassed the 11th most goals saved above average (GSAA) – a statistic that determines how many more goals a given goalie has prevented, compared to a hypothetical league average netminder facing the same quality of chances. The ranks are all among goalies with at least 4500 minutes played, roughly equivalent to a full 82-game season’s worth of time-on-ice. 

A busy man most nights – Photo: Flickr

While Andersen’s play has largely resembled that of an above-average goaltender in spite of a heavy workload, his spot as Toronto’s starter is all but assured for next season. This ambiguity stems from the historical mixed-bag of long-term contracts given to goalies over 30, with Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky being notorious examples of those whose play has noticeably declined after being awarded gargantuan deals based on name-recognition, rather than their actual ability at the time, and that apprehensiveness has only grown with Andersen’s poor start this year.

As of mid-March, Andersen is sporting a well below-average .900 save percentage and a mark of -4.00 GSAA, representing an inadequate return on the $5-million (tied for 13thamong goalies) he’s owed in 2020-21, and although the team still struggles to prevent scoring chances against (ranking 20th) and expected goals against per 60 minutes (19th) at 5-on-5 play, Toronto’s defensive play has looked better than the past and it is unnerving that Andersen’s numbers have fallen drastically in spite of their improved structure.

It is difficult to parse out whether his challenging start has simply been due to an unfortunate run of form, a by-product of a heavy workload taking its toll, or a symptom of age-related decline, although he has himself admitted that his recovery from injury this season has been turbulent, further casting his future productivity into doubt.

Why Does This Matter?

Professional sports are a callous industry, one in which players are judged through the lens of “what have you done for me lately?”, fairly or not. As such, Andersen’s recent performances have not inspired confidence at a time in which the Leafs should be poised to capitalize on a weaker division and avoid the league’s top contenders until the third round of the playoffs, representing Toronto’s best opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in several decades.

Most notably, Andersen’s tendency to fall flat in elimination games during the playoffs has been particularly back-breaking for the rest of the Leafs, who for all of their legitimate flaws, may desire the much-needed psychological reset that would come with Andersen’s departure.

With the salary cap remaining flat for the foreseeable future due to pandemic-related losses in NHL revenue, finding a bargain-bin free agent would allow the Leafs to re-allocate Andersen’s sizeable $5-million cap hit elsewhere, perhaps for an additional top-six forward to complement their already potent attack (Filip Forsberg or Taylor Hall anyone?), or a top-four defensemen (Dougie Hamilton?) to solidify their backend.

Regardless of which avenue they eventually choose, what is evident is that the Leafs have several feasible options heading into next year, with a mixture of experienced veterans and young, but unproven, alternatives available for relatively affordable prices.

Below, I will evaluate seven potential acquisitions, and determine how likely each one is to come to fruition.

1.) Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings (Age 26) / 2020-21 Cap Hit: $858, 333/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 15 GP/ .921 SV%/ 2.63 GAA/ 6.81 GSAA

Our first target comes from a familiar trade partner, and is someone who has a single year left on his contract after this season. Petersen has split the net with Jonathan Quick early on and has greatly outperformed the veteran when called upon.

Petersen’s posting of the 6th most goals saved above expected in the league this year has been an important factor in the Kings challenging for a playoff spot, only a year after selecting 2ndoverall in the entry draft. At 26, Petersen is in no real danger of declining anytime soon and could form half of a formidable partnership with ex-King Jack Campbell for less than a combined 3-million-dollar cap hit, significantly less than the probable cost of extending Andersen. 

However, his contract status suggests that Los Angeles would not be quick to part with him, especially as he is currently providing above-average goaltending for less than a million dollars. Further, while Quick has 2 more years left on his contract after this one, his shaky play and spotty health could give Petersen an opportunity to grab the starter’s role, and the Kings may view him as the 35-year-old Quick’s eventual successor. 

Petersen suiting up for the AHL’s Ontario Reign – Photo: Flickr

Despite Petersen’s surprisingly strong display this year, he has a limited sample-size of major league starts. His 34 games of NHL experience across several seasons means he is untested and may falter when entrusted with a greater workload. This assertion is borne out in his performance at the AHL level, as his numbers take a hit when starting a greater proportion of games. This represents a risky gamble if any of Jack Campbell’s pre-existing injuries flare up in the future, and Petersen must take the reins of a team who often relies heavily on their goalies.

Although Petersen does possess much of a track record in the NHL, he has played well in spot duty and his cheap cap-hit makes him a particularly attractive trade candidate. Additionally, the Kings allow a greater quality of scoring chances than the Leafs at 5-on-5, suggesting that he should be able to maintain his solid play in front of a more disciplined group. He’s worth a look.

2.) Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers (Age 26)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $850,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 12 GP/ .920 SV%/ 2.40 GAA/ 4.80 GSAA

When Sergei Bobrovsky faltered to start the season, Driedger was thrust into the crease and held the fort admirably for the surprising Panthers, who are currently tied for 1stin the Central division alongside the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Although Bobrovsky has recently regained the confidence of head coach Joel Quenneville, Driedger still ranks 9thand 10th this season in save percentage and goals saved above average at 5-on-5 respectively, proving to be a reliable option when necessary. In fact, Driedger has often found himself outplaying his goalie partner the past few seasons, extremely worrying for Florida when you consider that Bobrovsky is slated to make more than ten times Dredger’s salary this season, and most likely pricing them out of what would otherwise be an inexpensive back-up. 

Driedger is a typical journeyman, with extensive minor league experience bouncing around in the AHL and ECHL, ranking among the top of the leaderboards in both leagues since the 2017-18 season. Similar to Petersen, Driedger does not have much in the way of prolonged NHL experience and it remains to be seen how he would respond to increased responsibility, somewhat diminishing his appeal despite the minimal salary he would command.

Since Bobrovsky’s boat-anchor contract has essentially cemented his place in Florida for the foreseeable future, and with 2019 first-round-pick Spencer Knight dominating the NCAA circuit, the Panthers’ logjam at goalie may make Driedger expendable, with rumours already flaring up ahead of the trade deadline next month due to his palatable cap hit and sturdy play as a stop-gap.

 If he stays put, Toronto’s ability to offer significantly more playing time next season may entice him to join in free agency, costing significantly less than the Campbell-Andersen pairing, even after accounting for a slight raise in salary.

3.) Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars (Age 22)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $925,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 13 GP/ .917 SV%/ 2.10 GAA/ 2.91 GSAA

The Stars are currently carrying three capable goalies on their roster, and the fact that Oettinger has forced his way into more playing time has raised questions over the organization’s goaltending hierarchy.

Although he is relatively inexperienced for Toronto’s liking, and somewhat insulated within Dallas’ staunch defensive structure (they lead the league this year in expected goals and scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5), Oettinger has shown glimpses of his potential with Anton Khudobin struggling so far to replicate his form from last year’s post-season, posting a .907 save percentage that is a far cry from the .930 and .917 he put up in the regular season and playoffs, respectively.

Khudobin’s magical run to the Cup Final last season was rewarded with a three-year contract, an interesting development even with presumed starter Ben Bishop currently recovering from significant knee surgery. Bishop and Khudobin are both under contract until 2023, with the former’s deal carrying both a modified no-trade and no-move clause, leaving him to dictate his future in Dallas. 

However, with Oettinger still on his entry-level deal and being under team control for at least a few more seasons, Dallas probably feels comfortable with letting him marinate in the AHL once Bishop returns, grooming him to assume the starter’s role after their main 34-year-old options see out the remainder of their contracts. 

All things considered, Oettinger may be the least likely of arrivals on this list due to his draft pedigree and contract status but acquiring a touted goalie prospect would be a boon for the Leafs, with those currently in their pipeline looking more like wildcards than guaranteed starters at the NHL level.

4.) Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes (Age 31)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,250,000/ 2020-21 Stats: 9 GP/ .912 SV%/ 3.36 GAA/ 1.51 GSAA

5.) Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes (Age 30)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,500,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 18 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.41 GAA/ 3.43 GSAA

Despite his experience as a dependable starting goalie, one thing that may give the Leafs pause is Raanta’s checkered health over the past few seasons. At 31, Raanta is moving beyond his physical peak and his 56 combined games over the past three seasons does not resemble a goalie who is capable of shouldering a workload of 40 games a season, and of assuming the starting role in the event that Campbell is not fully fit.

Not to completely disregard Raanta’s portfolio, his play when healthy has been worthy of his 4.25-million-dollar salary, ranking 17thin 5-on-5 save percentage and 21stin 5-on-5 GSAA since 2018, all the while facing an inordinately high number of quality chances behind an Arizona squad that has often struggled to adequately shield their goaltenders. 

Raanta’s teammate Darcy Kemper is also an attractive commodity, but Arizona views him as a less uncertain gamble, being slightly younger and carrying another year on his deal, even with his own injury struggles.

Additionally, among goalies with at least 1500 minutes played, Kuemper ranks 2nd in all-strengths save percentage (.924) and 3rd in GSAA since 2018, often singlehandedly keeping the Coyotes competitive. With the extra year on his deal, Kuemper would have to be acquired in a trade, and his extraordinary play may make him unaffordable, just to give the Leafs another goalie at a similar cap-hit to Andersen.

However, one factor that may urge the Coyotes to part with Kuemper instead is that he is due to make $2-million more in real dollars (salary owed v.s. cap hit) next season ($5.5 million vs. $3.5 million) and with Arizona notoriously penny-pinching mess of an ownership group running the show during a financially crippling pandemic, Kuemper’s raise may be too much for them to stomach, leaving them vulnerable to Toronto’s deep pockets.

The boring answer is that Arizona promotes the much cheaper Adin Hill in Raanta’s place and cut their losses. If the Leafs limit the term they offer to 2 years, Raanta is a decent bet to work well in a tandem in the interim, but the concerns surrounding his physical condition may be too prominent to ignore.

6.) Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings (Age 32)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $3,000,000 – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 16 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.90 GAA/ 3.64 GSAA

Ah, Jonathan Bernier, noted appreciator of social justice icons. While most Leafs fans may most strongly associate Bernier with the tumultuous period occurring between the team’s playoff appearances in 2013 and 2017, he has impressed this season as the main goalie on a rebuilding Detroit roster. 

Despite facing the most shots against per 60 minutes (34.35), the 2ndhighest rate of expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.52), and 11thmost high-danger shots per 60 minutes (8.25) in the league at 5-on-5 among goalies with at least 500 minutes played, Bernier has managed to accumulate the 8thmost GSAA, showing that a heavy workload won’t deter him from keeping his team competitive. If those totals alone don’t impress you, consider that Thomas Greiss and Jimmy Howard, Detroit’s other most common net minders in the past few seasons, have been atrocious comparably.

If nothing else, Bernier can take solace in the fact that he has somehow stopped 91.4% of shots in all situations this year, behind an awful Detroit team. Seriously, he should get a Vezina nomination simply for winning a game in 2021. His numbers should improve behind a more structured and cohesive team, is familiar with how intensely the team is scrutinized within this market, and could most likely be had for around $3-million.

What’s that? Every Leafs fan is breathlessly mouthing “no!” at their screen right now? Fine. Let’s end of this entry with a glitch from the Yahoo Fantasy Hockey app in which Bernier was hilariously credited with the most saves in a regular season game in NHL history, at the bottom of the screen.

With how few people are willingly watching Red Wings games these days, who’s to say it didn’t actually happen.

7.) Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 4 GP/ .955 SV%/ 0.99 GAA/ 3.14 GSAA

 Carolina’s goaltending situation is intriguing in that potentially all three of Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, and Petr Mrazek may not be on the Hurricanes’ books come next season. The contracts of their goalie triumvirate are up for renewal this summer and with each one failing to maintain a grip on the starting job, significant turnover may be in the cards.

Petr Mrazek, who would be the most appealing option of the three upon hitting the open market, boasts a save percentage (.923) and GSAA (6.47) at 5-on-5 ranking in the top-30 of goalies since 2018, suggesting he could comfortably bear the brunt of a tandem workload. However, downplaying his numbers is the fact that he’s faced the third fewest shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2018 among goalies who have played at least 1000 minutes.

This is partly owing to Carolina’s identity as possession-dominating demons, which, despite their recent improvements as a defensive unit and increased focus on maintaining possession by recycling the puck into the neutral zone, is in stark contrast to the Leafs’ tactics. And yet, he saves a good amount of chances in high-danger situations which may reflect well on his ability to integrate into Toronto’s free-wheeling system. But, as has been a recurring theme of this article, inconsistent health is a concern, with Mrazek only suiting up for 4 games this season.

Carolina will most likely attempt to shore up their goaltending situation for next season by bringing in a proven starter to lead the dark horse Cup contenders. What may complicate things is that the expiring contracts of Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton must be addressed, likely eating into their budget for a starting goalie, and leaving an opening for the Leafs to pounce.

Where Do the Leafs Go From Here?

Frederik Andersen’s tenure as a Leaf should generally be viewed as a success, irrespective of the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs. Seeing as this article is being written in March and how goaltending is generally voodoo, Andersen may have reached new heights by June, singlehandedly dragging the Leafs to a championship, ensuring that he will never have to pay for a drink in Toronto until the day he dies.

Even if this fever dream materializes, and Andersen later leaves for a new challenge, Kyle Dubas can be confident in his ability to find an affordable, but imperfect, solution for next season, while comfortably walking away from the historically dicey gamble that is committing long-term to an aging goaltender solely because of their often out-dated reputation.

 If a team genuinely believes that Andersen can solve their goaltending woes and back up the Brinks truck for his services, he should take the money and run. But it shouldn’t be the Leafs.