Blake Wheeler

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Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

Jets’ turbulent offseason capped with injuries to Little, Beaulieu

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Few teams come into the very beginning of the 2019-20 season quite as bruised and bewildered as the Winnipeg Jets.

After a tough end to last season that included a Round 1 exit, the Jets absorbed body blows that were more than just flesh wounds during the offseason. They waved goodbye to some key players from rental Kevin Hayes to defensive mainstays including Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers. Things were bumpy, to say the least, with Patrik Laine, from ambivalent comments about his future, not-so-kind comments about linemates such as Bryan Little, and finally a very short-term truce with the team via a two-year deal. There was also uncertainty with Kyle Connor until he signed a lengthy pact. If that wasn’t all enough, Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating retirement, and didn’t exactly give the Jets a ton of notice about what’s either a soul-searching sojourn or the end of a truly unique NHL career.

After all the corny (yet inevitable) “day off” jokes that once followed GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, one couldn’t blame the executive if he felt both relieved and exhausted as the season merely begins.

Unfortunately, the hits kept coming in the final days of an offseason that rarely felt like time off.

The Jets provided two unfortunate bits of injury news on Tuesday, as the team announced that Little is out indefinitely with a concussion, while defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is IR-bound with an upper-body injury that’s expected to sideline him for about four weeks. Both injuries happened during what ended up being a very costly 4-1 preseason win against the Minnesota Wild.

(This Luke Kunin hit injured Little, and Scott Billeck reports for the Winnipeg Sun that head coach Paul Maurice was understandably unhappy about it.)

All of these injuries, free agent losses, and Byfuglien-sized curveballs create some massive craters in the Jets’ lineup, which is troubling since Winnipeg looked so wobbly at times last season, even with the likes of Trouba in the mix. Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart presented their plummeting play in a dramatic way:

Some of those months were without Byfuglien, but again, with Trouba. Taking Ben Chiarot and Beaulieu out of an already troubled group slices up that defense even more.

Meanwhile, the Little injury stacks the deck against Maurice and the Jets, too.

The team shared line rushes that would include Andrew Copp as a second-line center, with Adam Lowry possibly as the 3C.

That doesn’t inspire the highest level of confidence, although maybe this is a time where Maurice should be more willing to experiment. While this would be out of necessity, you never know when you might find different things that work, possibly giving you a Plan B (to Z!) for when matchups become tougher during playoff skirmishes.

What if Jack Roslovic could thrive in a 2C or 3C role? Is it possible that breaking up Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele could benefit the likes of Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers? Considering his traditionally impressive possession stats, would Mathieu Perreault be worth a look at one of those center spots, too?

It’s possible that none of those alignments would be optimal, but you don’t need to look too hard to see that these aren’t the most optimal times for the Jets.

Again, though, sometimes bigger challenges bring out the best in players. In the past, it might have felt like the Jets had a luxurious surplus of talent, maybe allowing some to believe – consciously or subconsciously – that they could “flip the switch” and turn things around, even with red flags waving.

Under the current circumstances, they’re going to depend on not just Scheifele and Wheeler, but also Laine, Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Connor Hellebuyck. Without pressure, you can’t get diamonds, and so maybe that thought will serve as the Jets’ silver lining.

Because, frankly, there are some uncomfortable forces bearing down on them as the season begins.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Captain Couture; Blues ready to defend Cup

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Logan Couture is the new captain of the San Jose Sharks. [NBC Bay Area]

• Time for the St. Louis Blues to “charge back up the hill” and defend the Stanley Cup. [Post-Dispatch]

Blake Wheeler on how the Winnipeg Jets’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup affected him: “I was disappointed for the first time in myself after last year not because we didn’t win the Stanley Cup. I lost touch with myself as a dad, as a husband, first and foremost, because I invested so much into trying to win. Everyone was talking about this is our year to win and I felt like we had a real opportunity to win and when I was home, that’s where I was – I was trying to win the Stanley Cup.” [TSN]

• Why the Mitch Marner contract drama isn’t as complicated as it seems. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland is in no rush to trade Jesse Puljujarvi until he gets the right offer. [Edmonton Journal]

Loui Eriksson says his comments that he and Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green don’t get along were “overblown.” [Vancouver Sun]

• Bruce Boudreau and his players are confident the Minnesota Wild can pull off a turnaround this season. [Star Tribune]

• How Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon can play positive roles on the Tampa Bay Lightning power play. [Raw Charge]

• Great read on Detroit Red Wings prospect Jalen Smereck and his complicated relationship with hockey and home. [The Score]

• Brady Keeper became the first member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation to sign an NHL contract last season with the Florida Panthers. He’s confident heading into his first training camp. [NHL.com]

• No matter what happens this season is a win-win for the New York Rangers. [Gotham Sports Network]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Wheeler keeps dealing; big apples

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

What a night for the wildly underrated Winnipeg Jets captain.

Wheeler scored a goal and four assists, crossing 400 for his (again, wildly underrated) career. That milestone helper came as he read Nathan MacKinnon to create a turnover and set the table for Nikolaj Ehlers. Three of Wheeler’s four assists were primary helpers, too.

As usual, the winger brought a great all-around game, earning a +3 rating and logging a significant 3:13 of shorthanded time.

This virtuoso performance extended Wheeler’s point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists). Wheeler’s now at 21 points on the season, with 18 of them being assists, which ranks second in the NHL.

Mark Scheifele had a strong game against the struggling Avs, too, scoring a goal and two assists.

2. Mikael Granlund

The Wild absolutely dominated the Ducks, who seem to have no gear other than “hope John Gibson and a few deadly shooters can save the day.”

Granlund and Jason Zucker both generated three points, so you could consider them tied for the second star. Granlund gets the slight edge because he scored two goals and one assist, while Zucker generated two assists and one goal. Again, you could make the argument that Zucker should get that nod instead (or be the third star, if you’re really being difficult), as he had five SOG to Granlund’s two, and Zucker’s tally was the GWG.

Still, Granlund enjoyed a slightly more impressive night, including really making it easy for Zucker on his goal.

The Wild are quietly heating up, with wins in nine of their last 11 games. Bruce Boudreau just finds ways to keep his team’s regular-season-relevant, doesn’t he? Granlund and Zucker deserve serious credit for stepping up with Eric Staal banged up.

3. Chad Johnson

Friday was a solid night for goalies around the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky earned praise from Torts and had the same number of saves (33) as Johnson. Like Bob, Frederik Andersen only allowed one goal while making 38 stops.

Chad Johnson is the only goalie who earned a shutout on Friday, though.

Considering Jake Allen‘s substantial struggles, the Blues might want to lean on Johnson for a while, as the journeyman goalie has – on occasion – shown that he can carry a team in net at times during certain stretches. The Blues have been able to occasionally create a really nurturing atmosphere for hot-and-cold goalies (like Brian Elliott, Johnson’s creasemate from last season), so perhaps Johnson could go on a mini-run? If nothing else, this was a nice win, especially if Mike Yeo is in any way looking over his shoulder at Joel Quenneville.

In other Blues news, Ryan O'Reilly is on a nine-game point streak.

Highlights

It didn’t translate to a goal, but this bit of Scheifele wizardry was magical:

Speaking of magical, Nick Foligno‘s beautiful pass to Oliver Bjorkstrand played a trick on three Capitals opponents:

Andreas Athanasiou ranks as one of Friday’s honorable mentions, scoring the goal that sent Detroit’s game against the Rangers into OT, then setting up Dylan Larkin for this OT game-winner:

Lowlight

Here’s hoping referee Brad Meier is feeling OK after this uncomfortable fall:

Factoids

Wheeler’s 400th assist wasn’t the only milestone from Friday. Patrick Marleau didn’t do a whole lot for it (Nazem Kadri ended up batting down a puck for a nice goal), but most of his 600 career assists have surely been impressive. (These two assist milestones explain the big apples part of this post’s headline, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Kinda cool to see his old buddy Joe Thornton on this list with him:

Chad Johnson’s enjoyed some nice peak moments in the NHL, but it’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a night like Friday.

Rarely a bad time to see your name next to Wayne Gretzky’s, eh, Blake Wheeler?

Scores

TOR 6 – NJD 1
CBJ 2 – WSH 1
DET 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
STL 4 – SJS 0
WPG 5 – COL 2
MIN 5 – ANA 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.