Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.
This week we look at some capable centers, a fake slap shot, an interesting trade, Elias Pettersson the penalty killer and much more.
Pettersson's dominance a bright spot in Canucks' bleak year
In Elias Pettersson’s first four seasons in the league, he played about 58 minutes shorthanded. Through the first three months of this season, he more than doubled that number. In fact, no other Canucks forward has spent more time on the ice shorthanded this season than Pettersson. He even leads all Canucks forwards in blocked shots by a relative mile — his 76 is way ahead of second-place Curtis Lazar, who isn’t even on the team anymore. In general, he’s tied for second overall among all forwards in blocked shots.
For good measure, Pettersson also leads the league in shorthanded points. His speed and instincts stand out and teams are learning the hard way that if they make low-percentage plays in his vicinity, they are going to get burned (as the Leafs did twice in one power play).
A lot of things have gone wrong for the Canucks this season but Pettersson lighting up the league, adding additional defensive responsibilities to his game and re-establishing himself as a top center is a massive development.
Eyssimont trade is one worth remembering
One little trade to keep an eye on is the Tampa Bay Lightning acquiring Michael Eyssimont from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Vladislav Namestnikov.
Eyssimont took a step last season in the AHL. He led Manitoba in scoring and had his most productive pro season to date since coming out of college with 42 points in 58 games and even got into his first NHL game. He started this season in the AHL, had nine points in nine games and then was promptly called up. He scored his first career goal in his fourth NHL game this season.
Eyssimont doesn’t have eye-popping numbers but you notice him out there due to his speed, and his underlying numbers are surprisingly strong for a player who played in San Jose this season. He spent some time alongside Logan Couture and Alexander Barabanov and did not look out of place. Look at how he tracks back here and uses his speed to catch the puck carrier before laying a big hit that leads to a goal.
He has some jam to his game — he even fought new teammate Brayden Point just a few weeks ago. His four goals have all come off going to the net/throwing pucks on net, but he has some skill, and even his goals speak to his willingness to go to the dirty areas and battle.
Even on bad teams, you don’t just get to play with legitimate stars like Couture unless you earn it and can make it work. Tampa Bay has had all sorts of success with late-blooming players over the years, from Tyler Johnson, to Alex Killorn or Yanni Gourde, to finding Jonathan Marchessault or Carter Verhaeghe. I’m not saying he’ll be as good as any of these players, but the Lightning clearly see something in Eyssimont and have a track record of success, making him a player to keep an eye on.
All Keefe does is win (at least in the regular season)
I'm not sure if we congratulate someone for being the third-fastest to do something, but Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe became the third-quickest head coach to reach 150 wins a few weeks ago.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) February 19, 2023
You need to be blessed with a strong roster to help you get there and Keefe has had that at his disposal, but there are countless examples of good teams that struggled under coaches. Everyone plays their part in the success or failure of a team.
The playoff success hasn’t come to this point and while that’s ultimately what he will be judged on, there’s no denying the regular-season results. Since taking over and coaching his first game on November 22, 2019, the Leafs are fourth in the league in points percentage, second in goals per game and second in power-play percentage.
What really stands out is how he’s able to cut through the noise in a long, 82-game season, especially in a tough, ultra-scrutinized market like Toronto where the wins and losses can feel like a roller-coaster ride. When players get cold, he doesn’t make knee-jerk reactions and will ride out the percentages as long as possible.
This season, he has helped the Leafs transition from being a high-flying, offensive team to more of a grinding, defensive team. They made a number of moves over the past few weeks to help reinforce that strategy.
Unlikely hero stepping up for Islanders
One of my favourite things about the postseason is how proverbial unsung heroes and depth players emerge every year. While we aren’t in the playoffs yet, some teams are playing for their playoff lives and some unlikely contributors are already emerging. To that end I offer Hudson Fasching of the New York Islanders.
Turning 28 this year, he has all of 71 NHL games to his name, with 33 coming this season. He has 13 career points but five of them have come in his last seven games, including a game-winning goal against the Sabres in a massive game for the standings. The goal was controversial to some — for me it’s off the shin pad and thus clean — but how about the lead-up where he went all the way down the ice and made a power move before creating a scoring chance.
Earlier in the game he made a nice play behind the net to center the puck to Casey Cizikas, who scored.
The Islanders are missing four legitimate contributors to their roster in Mathew Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Oliver Wahlstrom and Cal Clutterbuck. That’s a third of their regular lineup out. You need players to step up and fill voids when that happens, and it’s happening at a time where every single point is a big deal as the Islanders scrap to hold onto one of the wild-card spots. Fasching stepping up is a nice little story so far in their race to make the playoffs.
Walman deal looking like good business for Red Wings
Right before the trade deadline, Jake Walman and the Detroit Red Wings came to terms on a three-year, $3.4 million AAV deal. It’s a good investment for the Wings and one that Moritz Seider is surely happy about. Since pairing up with Walman in mid-December, Seider has 21 points in 35 games. In his first 29 games, he had 12 points.
But this is about Walman, who has just 12 points overall in 45 games but is flashing that he can be a creator. He needs the production to come through to back it up but he might be one of the best defensemen walking the line already. This goal is just outrageous.
He looks like prime John Klingberg or Brent Burns doing stuff like that, and it’s not a fluke. Walman loves using a fake shot to freeze defenders and once they freeze, he gets to work combining all sorts of shoulder dips, fakes and edgework to create shooting lanes.
This is the most he’s ever played in the league (45 games and counting) and he’s already 27, but Detroit seems to have found something here.
New role not a problem for Charlie Coyle
Boston has had so many things go right this season, which is what has to happen when you’re having a historically great year. One of the most fascinating decisions the Bruins have made is the usage of Charlie Coyle. In nine full seasons in the league, he has had 5-on-5 defensive zone starts over 50 percent only three times, with the highest being 55.1. This season he's at 67.2 percent. That is a massive, massive swing.
He has responded to a complete change in role and usage by winning a career-high 53 percent of his faceoffs along the way. That makes life easier on Patrice Bergeron, who is finally showing some slight signs of age. Coyle, predictably, is having a bit of a down season in terms of possession numbers but he has hovered even in terms of expected goals. He is also up 40-26 in actual goals at 5-on-5. It’s just that type of year in Boston. Credit to Coyle for buying into a new role and doing it well.
Kucherov the wizard
There might be nothing better in hockey than a great fake. And there might be nobody better at a fake shot than Nikita Kucherov. You need to have a great shot to sell it and Kucherov has one, as he showed here against Vegas:
Then, moments later, the same play is set up and he counters it with this?!
Pick your poison. It almost feels like he decides how he wants the goals to be scored, not whether they will be scored. Kucherov can overdo it at times with that fake pass, but it's perfect when he does it.
The sneaky-good career of Erik Haula
It is very difficult to find good centers in the NHL. If you look around at most rosters you will see two, maybe three legitimate pivots. A lot of the forwards in the league were usually centers growing up because they cover the most ice and can impact the game the easiest. Yet when most of them come to the NHL they end up playing on the wing because playing center is very, very difficult.
All of which brings us to Erik Haula, a legitimately solid NHL center that just keeps changing teams. He broke into the league with the Minnesota Wild and played there for four seasons before Vegas claimed him in the expansion draft. In his first season with Vegas, he had a career-high 29 goals and 55 points, and he was a big part of their Stanley Cup Final appearance.
The following season he started well but took a crunching hit from Patrick Marleau and suffered what has been called a “unique knee injury” that required surgery. He didn’t play again that season.
The following summer, he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in a deal that netted Vegas Nicolas Roy. He had a decent enough start to his career in Carolina, but then was packaged in a deal to Florida in a trade that sent Vincent Trocheck the other way. All told, he played seven games for the Panthers.
He signed with Nashville before the COVID season and the following offseason he signed with the Bruins, where he put up the second most productive season of his career with 18 goals and 44 points.
Yet after the season, the Bruins traded him to the New Jersey Devils straight up for Pavel Zacha. And now he’s on the upstart Devils, playing their third-line center, chipping in some offense and using his trademark speed to create plays. He’s shooting at his second highest rate and scoring at his lowest, but his overall production has generally held steady with 32 points in 63 games. In a league where it’s hard to find centers, he has been a good one. His teams have made the playoffs every single year he has played and he has never made even $3 million per season.
Wennberg finding himself after early hype
Another legitimate NHL center that has bounced around but is intriguing? Alex Wennberg. It seems like ages since he put up 59 points in 80 games in the 2016-17 season as a 23-year-old. He looked like a rising star and even caught the eye of the Sedins at the time.
Wennberg has never even hit 40 points since that season. He actually went three years without hitting double digits in goals, including a two-goal season in 75 games! When you have a strong season at a young age then fail to replicate it, it is seen as a failure. The talk of a player disappointing snowballs to the point that they eventually become a bit underrated. His team controls play when he’s on the ice and he has outscored opponents at 5-on-5 in six of his last eight seasons, with one of the times he didn’t being last year on an awful Seattle Kraken expansion team.
He’s clearly not going to be the extremely productive center many hoped he’d be early in his career but he chips in offense at a respectable enough rate. Again, it’s hard to find centers in this league and Wennberg is a solid one.
A broadcast change that is actually working
We love to see anything that will advance the game and one subtle addition making its way through broadcasts is having player names hover on the screen when someone has the puck on the power play. Some broadcasts have even played with minor puck tracking by highlighting the puck’s path.
It’s a bit more difficult at 5-on-5, but on the power play — where the play is more stagnant — it’s helpful for fans learning the game and it’s not intrusive for viewers that already know the players. That is a perfect balance.
There have been very few innovations when it comes to actually viewing gameplay at home over the years. The camera angles have generally not changed and when they have (the behind-the-net camera to show power plays), they have been headache-inducing at times. This is a keeper, though, and might present more opportunity over time. A big thumbs up here.