Victor Olofsson

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

Leave a comment

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Unacceptable finish’ sends Sabres to another loss

Sabres
Getty
6 Comments

With their most recent loss on Saturday afternoon, a 6-3 decision at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks, the Buffalo Sabres continued their slide out of playoff contention. For as frustrating as this season has been in Buffalo, this latest defeat seemed to really sting because of how close they were to getting something out of it.

With 14 minutes to play in regulation they were tied in a competitive, entertaining back-and-forth game that seemed to be there for the taking.

It was at that point that everything started to unravel as they surrendered three unanswered goals,

“That’s definitely something we can’t accept,” said coach Ralph Krueger after the game.

“It was a hell of a hockey game until 14 minutes to go, and we turned it into a very painful, unacceptable finish. We know how they play, we respect their skill, and the way they push the game offensively. They like to play an open game. Somewhere through all that we ended up trying to play more their game than on our, and gave up on it. It’s very frustrating right now for all of us.”

He continued: “We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves. The comebacks from going down 2-1, going down 3-2, I thought we stayed pretty calm, we stuck with it, it was a good game going on. Just too many individual breakdowns today through the game, from beginning to end. We need to look hard at this. Those final 14 minutes we really, really have to put a mirror in front of our faces and figure out why we gave up on what is our game. There is just no sign of it.”

The Sabres are in a world of trouble right now. They are without two of their best offensive players in Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson due to injury, and they do not have enough depth after Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to make up for it.

On top of that, they have now won just three of their past 12 games.

After starting the season with a 9-2-1 mark through 12 games, they are just 10-16-6 in the 34 games since. That leaves them seven points out of a wild card spot (with five teams ahead of them) before the rest of Saturday night’s games. If they do not get this turned around it is going to be the second year in a row they waste a fast start to the season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

NHL Power Rankings: Maple Leafs, Lightning back on track

Order has been restored to the NHL’s Atlantic Division.

After miserable starts to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, they enter the week as two of the NHL’s hottest teams and have rocketed to the top of this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

The Maple Leafs are currently on a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) and have looked like the powerhouse offensive team they were built to be under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

The Lightning, meanwhile, are quietly starting to wake up from their early season slumber. Since Dec. 1, the Lightning have the second-best record in the NHL and are starting to post downright dominant underlying numbers. Their shot attempt share since then is second best in the league. They are third in expected goals (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick). They are averaging more than three-and-a-half goals per game. Finally they are starting to look like the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago.

Both teams continue to make big jumps in the power rankings and occupy the top two spots for this week given their recent play.

Where does everyone else sit?

To the rankings!

1. Toronto Maple Leafs. They have not lost a game in regulation since Dec. 12 and have the league’s best record (15-4-1) since hiring Keefe. They have some flaws, but they look like the team they were were supposed to be.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. Everyone was so quick to bury the Lightning this season that no one seems to be paying attention to the fact they have been one of the league’s best teams for more than a month now.

3. Washington Capitals. They showed the San Jose Sharks on Sunday that they are never out of a game.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They are by no means giving up on Matt Murray but the net belongs to Tristan Jarry right now, and he has earned it.

5. St. Louis Blues. A tough road trip that saw them go 0-2-1 and get outscored 16-8 drops them from the top spot for now.

6. Vancouver Canucks. They have feasted at home this season and enter the week on a seven-game winning streak. But they have to show they can win on the road, too, and they get a chance to prove that this week as they start a five-game road trip.

7. Dallas Stars. If you like goals this is not the team to watch because they don’t score many and they don’t give up many. What do they do? Win.

8. Boston Bruins. Is this too low for a team in first place in its division with one of the best overall records in the league? Not when consider they have only won four of their past 15 games. To be fair, six of those 11 losses have come in overtime or shootout (they have zero OT or shootout wins during that stretch) and there is a HUGE element of bad luck there.

9. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped for a bit, but then started to break out of it with back-to-back blowout wins against the Blues and New Jersey Devils.

10. Vegas Golden Knights. They were better than the early record showed, and now the results are starting to back up the process.

11. New York Islanders. Overall, they are fine. But they have struggled a bit over the past couple of weeks. They have won just four of their past 10 games and only two of those wins have been in regulation. Losing Adam Pelech will not help.

12. Florida Panthers. Imagine how good they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky played like they hoped he would.

13. Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei Svechnikov is on his way to becoming a superstar in this league.

14. Arizona Coyotes. Goaltending is a big part of their success, and their top two goalies are currently injured. Hopefully for their sake Antti Raanta‘s injury is not serious.

15. Philadelphia Flyers. Every time you think you have them figured out, they do a complete 180 and go in the opposite direction.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. The injury list keeps growing, but they keep finding ways to collect points and keep themselves in the playoff race.

17. Minnesota Wild. Bruce Boudreau has done a really good job keeping this team in the playoff hunt because the roster just is not very special.

18. Nashville Predators. They are fine, and actually quite good, during 5-on-5 play. Their special teams and goaltending is sinking them.

19. Calgary Flames. They should be better than this, but outside of a brief surge following the coaching change they have been a pretty mediocre team all season.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They are trying to overcome the early deficit they gave themselves, but they still have a lot of points to make up and a lot of teams to jump over.

21. Edmonton Oilers. Huge win in Boston over the weekend. It was just their sixth win in 18 games.

22. Buffalo Sabres. Jason Botterill finally did something to address the defensive logjam and shortage of forward depth. Just not sure if it was enough, especially as they lost another top forward (Victor Olofsson) to injury.

23. New Jersey Devils. They have found some success in recent weeks, but it is probably way too little, way too late.

24. Winnipeg Jets. They are on the playoff bubble and heading in the wrong direction.

25. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin is on his way to a career season. He just does not have enough help around him yet.

26. San Jose Sharks. They have won a few games lately, but losing that game in Washington is going to sting. When you are desperate for points and have a two-goal lead with one minute to play on the road that has to be two points 100 percent of the time.

27. Montreal Canadiens. I don’t know if Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella can fix this. What they really need is a healthy Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Brendan Gallagher.

28. Los Angeles Kings. The short-term outlook is very bleak for this team.

29 Anaheim Ducks. The only games they have been able to win for more than a month now are the occasional game that makes it to a shootout.

29. Ottawa Senators. Just watching to see where Jean-Gabriel Pageau ends up and how they deal with Anthony Duclair‘s breakout year offensively (contract extension or trade while his value is at its highest point?)

31. Detroit Red Wings. Right now you are just looking for young players to make some progress. Filip Zadina has shown some flashes this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Big injury losses: Sabres’ Olofsson, Islanders’ Pelech

Pelech Olofsson injury
Getty Images

The Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders began 2020 with some tough injuries. The Sabres expect Victor Olofsson to miss five-to-six weeks, while the Islanders lost Adam Pelech to a season-ending injury.

Let’s ponder these losses for each team, and the larger outlook for the Sabres and Isles.

Olofsson injury continues turbulent times for Sabres

Don’t blame Sabres fans if they feel like their heads are spinning right now.

Jack Eichel touched on what Olofsson’s absence might mean, as reported by The Athletic’s John Vogl:

Olofsson tops all NHL rookies in goals (16) and points (35), leading both categories by four. Olofsson’s Hockey Viz heat maps back up Eichel’s comments about the rookie’s all-around play:

The thinning of the Sabres isn’t ideal considering their competition.

The Bruins remain perched atop the Atlantic Division, while the Maple Leafs and Lightning look like they’re back to being scary opponents. The Panthers also have more standings points (47 to Buffalo’s 43) despite Florida playing two fewer games (40 versus the Sabres’ 42 games played). The Metro could produce four or even five playoff teams, so Buffalo faces a perilous path without Olofsson.

Islanders lose Pelech for regular season

The Athletic’s Arthur Staple reports that Pelech’s injury timeline is four months, opening up some possibility of a playoff return. The Islanders currently rank second in the Metro with 53 points, so Pelech’s recovery window could indeed become relevant.

The Islanders stumbled a bit to end 2019 (3-1-4 in their last eight). With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how they handle the loss of a workhorse who ranked second in both time on ice per game (21:08) and penalty kill reps (2:47 per game).

Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said that “you don’t replace an Adam Pelech at the trade deadline,” according to Staple, so Barry Trotz faces a challenge in dealing with this loss. Pelech is the type of player Trotz adores, especially going by these quotes from Kris Knoblauch, Pelech’s former OHL coach.

“He’s very undervalued and underappreciated,” Knoblauch said back in October, via Staple (sub required). “We relied on him a ton — he was our power-play defenseman, our shutdown guy. There’s a lot of calm to his game now and there was back then, too.”

Can the Islanders continue to insulate their goalies without Pelech? We’ll find out. Either way, the Sabres and Islanders both received some rough injury news on Friday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes set up fascinating Calder race

The Colorado Avalanche get Cale Makar back on Friday, providing a worthy excuse to consider his exceptional rookie season. Remarkably, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes presents a worthy argument for the Calder Trophy, as well.

Back in 2018-19, Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin blessed hockey fans with their stupendous seasons, yet Makar and Hughes seem primed to set the bar even higher.

Fittingly, forward Elias Pettersson won the 2018-19 Calder, while Buffalo Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson cannot be ignored for 2019-20. For the sake of simplicity, this post’s deeper discussion will mostly focus on Makar and Hughes, though.

Makar, Hughes both light up scoreboards

First, the part you likely already know: both of these smaller defensemen can score.

With eight goals and 28 points in just 29 games, Makar dazzles the most. That said, Hughes is no slouch, generating 27 points in 37 games. Hughes managed 15 power-play points already, which earns a tie for second-best among all NHL defensemen. (Makar looms not all that far behind with 12 PPP, tying the likes of Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi despite missing time with injuries.)

Nathan MacKinnon already ranks Makar among the best — not just among the best rookies.

“I am surprised,” MacKinnon said, via the Canadian Press in early December. “In the playoffs he was so amazing, but I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league.”

Expect Makar’s production to settle down — even electric defensemen don’t steadily shoot at 13.8 percent — but not to an extent that he won’t remain dangerous for the Avs.

Makar and Hughes: more than just scorers

Look, there’s no denying that Makar and Hughes are being played to their biggest strengths. While both average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game (Hughes’ average: 21:20; Makar: 20:10), they’re both logging less than 10 seconds of penalty kill time each night.

Penalizing them too much for that can be silly, particularly since such decisions sometimes boil down to coaches being too timid.

Either way, their overall play is remarkable.

Consider this side-by-side RAPM chart comparison of their even-strength play, via Evolving Hockey:

Both excel by any standards, not just “rookie defensemen” standards.

Hughes recently achieved the rare goal of surviving a game against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with his dignity intact, drawing praise.

“For sure, he surprises me,” Jay Beagle said of Hughes on Monday, via Sportsnet. “I knew he was a great skater coming in. You could tell that from Day 1. Great with the puck. But there are obviously things that you learn about a guy just from playing more games with him, (and) his play away from the puck and his reads, it takes a long time for some guys to get that. He has it right away, which is good for us.”

Hughes and Makar aren’t making many big mistakes

Neither Hughes nor Makar are giving their coaches many excuses to plant them on the bench. (Hockey coaches almost trip over their feet to chastise a young player for a bad penalty or turnover.)

You could argue that Makar’s most impressive stat so far isn’t his wild 28 points in 29 games. Instead, “200 Hockey Men” might lean on Makar’s zero penalty minutes so far. Hughes rarely makes trips to the box, either, with a mere eight PIM in 37 games.

Olofsson also shines

Olofsson deserves credit for making this more than just a race between Makar and Hughes.

People might have been too quick to dismiss Olofsson because of just how hot his shooting start was, as he remains extremely impressive. His 16 goals easily leads all rookies, as Dominik Kubalik is the only other in double digits with 10. Olofsson also leads all rookies with 34 points in 38 games. Olofsson ties Makar with a rookies-leading three game-winning goals.

Makar and Hughes stand above Olofsson from an all-around standpoint, in my opinion. Olofsson’s Evolving Hockey RAPM charts provide some context:

Regardless, if Hughes, Makar, and Olofsson stay in the ballparks of their current play, they’d make for a formidable trio of Calder Trophy finalists. Hockey fans — not just Canucks, Sabres, and Avs fans — should consider themselves lucky.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.