Your weekly dose of hockey-related banter and chitchat
Welcome to Where the Puck Drops, a weekly-or-more-often-run column in which I cover some of the hot topics around world-hockey, plus some historical issues, random questions and other tidbits linked to the sport of the puck, the sticks, and the goalie masks. This week, among other stuff, I talk about Angry Ovechkin’s revenge, the NHL’s first Aussie debut, why the GOAT will always be the GOAT and finally I seriously overreact to some early season stories.
1. Forget about the numbers, the GOAT is the GOAT
Imagine a world in which time machines exist. In this world, you can go back in time, pick someone and bring him to the present day. Or you can pick someone from today and send him back in time to some other era. If this world existed, we would be able to do some hockey-related experiments because who wants to kill baby Hitler when we can mess around with stupid and nonsensical stuff like this? So, the first thing that comes to mind is to form super teams, or which is the same, put together some of the best players together and think about what could happen.
Our case study for today: is there any pair of players that would top Gretzky’s performance alone? If you were awarded the chance to build a one-year team with two players – both at the peak of their performance levels – and enter a tournament against a team featuring Wayne, would that be a better selection than just getting Gretzky alone? Well folks, let me tell you something. When I first thought of this weird idea I truly thought that there must be a pair worth considering, and yes probably it is, but just that. Considering. Because there is no way any pair of players would outperform Gretzky. It’s impossible to pick just one peak season of Gretzky because he had such talent that he posted incredible and virtually similar numbers more than a few times during his career. In any case, I’m picking his 1981-82 campaign. Looking at Hockey-Reference.com Adjusted Stats, during that season – Gretzky’s third in the NHL – he would have scored 156 points and 68 goals and given 88 assists. With him on the ice, his team scored 265 goals and allowed 123 for a +/- of 81, getting him to 19.7 Point Shares.
The immediate pair that comes to mind while thinking about two players that could outperform Gretzky’s greatness is that formed by Mario and Sidney. By looking at the numbers there are much better options, but those three individuals are in the conversation for who’s the best of all time – as if there is any discussion still –.
Peak Lemieux appeared during the 1988-89 season. He would have scored 165 adjusted points, 71 goals, and 94 assists. Peak Crosby (2009-10) would sit at 117 adjusted points, 56 goals and 61 assists. If we just focus on points, that means a combined 282. The difference with Gretzky is 126. Without adjusting for era, four players would have been enough to clear that difference: ’85 Marcel Dionne, ’84 Paul Coffey, ’79 Mike Bossy and ’69 Phil Esposito. Just by pure numbers, it is clear how a pair of this caliber would probably outperform Gretzky, but by how the game goes, I would take Wayne over any pair of players always. What he was able to do back in the day has yet to be seen again and I don’t think we’ll be able to anytime soon (sorry, McDavid).
2. Juiced pucks
Do you know how many goals have been scored in the first six days of regular season hockey? 200. Do you know how many hat-tricks we saw on the first day of the season? Four. Do you know what that is? A 100-year record broken. Why? Because the pucks are juiced, that’s why.
We’re in the middle of the MLB postseason. The topic of the MLB regular seasons has been no other than the balls being juiced. And now we’re going to deal with juiced pucks, right? Like, it fits the story like a glove. Come on. One of the most recurrent topics around hockey has been the decrease in goalscoring during the past few years. We’re no longer in the seventies nor the eighties. The last team to score 6+ goals in more than 30 games during the same season were the 88-89 Kings, and the other five teams to do it did it between 1970 and 1986. Now, all of a sudden, goals are being scored in bunches. The sample size is ridiculously small but we’re at a 6.45 goals/game pace with 200 in 31 games. We can do some simple math and assume those goals are equally shared by the two teams playing each game, dividing them by two, and then multiplying the result by the 82 games each team plays. We get something near 262 goals per team during the season. Can we expect almost 300 goals per team over the whole season? Nope. Can we expect a bump from past seasons? Almost certainly.
The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about the scoring evolution and jumps that we may experience this season is the presence of an extra team in the league. I don’t expect Vegas to be a goal-scoring machine by any means, but we can expect to at least be average in those terms. But what are they going to do with goals against? Maybe not much. And that is going to allow the rest of the field to bump their numbers. It’s not that I expect Vegas to concede six or seven goals per game – although from the trade deadline on I wouldn’t rule out that scenario – but they’ll suffer the consequences of being an expansion team. Hell, Fleury had to save 45 shots on his first appearance for the Golden Knights against Dallas and only allowed one goal. That is insane. It is a stupid .978 SV%. Since the NHL was formed, it has only happened 166 times and just two during the 2016-17 season (performances by Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Murray).
So, even if Vegas doesn’t give anything of interest to the league based on his own performance, at least they’d be helping this goal surplus move forward. I guess something’s something.
3. Reshaping the market
This is already old news, but yes, Jack Eichel has become just the 19th player in NHL history to be awarded a contract with a cap hit and an AAV of $8+ million. Actually, he may have given the contract to himself, because knowing how Buffalo has dealt with Eichel and how Lil’ Jack looked to be the president, GM, manager, coach, puck carrier, net fixer, and star forward of the franchise that wouldn’t surprise me at all. Among those 19 players, Eichel is the second youngest only behind McDavid – who scored himself the fourth NHL $100 million deal earlier this summer – and also the only one to sign his deal at age 20 along Connor.
This contract will have implications thanks to its value. The market won’t turn crazy, though, because Eichel is truly an $80 million player. Still, money is starting to fly fast in the NHL and we’ll keep it moving hands and rising faster than ever. These are the number of $8+ million AAV and cap hit contracts signed per season: 1 in 2008, 1 in 2012, 4 in 2013, 3 in 2014, 1 in 2015, 4 in 2016 and already 5 in 2017, with some upcoming free agents – Tavares, anybody? – looking to engross that number.
Looking at the age of the player signing this multi-million contracts, not even Sidney Crosby got that big a deal at under-20 years of age in 2007 when he signed for an AAV of “just” $5 million. We’ve had to wait until this summer to see McDavid and Eichel sign their contracts at age-20 because the youngest player to get a deal this fat in that span had been Claude Giroux (2013) at age-25, already hitting his prime. This is key. By the time McDavid and Eichel hit the open market again in eight years, they’d be expected to have just hit their peaks as players at age-28. We should assume they would decline from that point on, but even with that, whoever pays for the rights to ice them will be hypothetically getting one of the top players of this era. Considering how salaries are raising and how they have already been awarded contracts in the $80-$100 million region, what can we expect from GMs in the future regarding those players? Free-flowing cash, baby.
4. Hey Aussie, welcome to the NHL!
I know a bunch of things about Australia. First thing that comes to my mind when thinking about it is kangaroos. Everybody likes kangaroos, albeit they’re pretty disgusting when it comes to baby kangaroos and where they’re placed on their mother’s body and all that, so let’s leave it there. I know koalas too because my friend Melchor went over to Australia for a year during his degree and brought me a signal with a koala drawn on it. Not the most expensive thing, but can I do?
Then there is Sydney (not Crosby), Foster’s, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and that’s pretty much all of it, to be honest.
Until now! Because now Australia has a new icon and leader and bright light to raise its value out there in American soil! His name: Nathan Walker.
Who the hell is Nathan Walker, you say. Not that I know much about him, nor had I heard his name before you have. Walker is an Australian hockey – former rugby – player of the Washington Capitals and he made his debut last Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens. Not coincidentally, he was born in Sydney (where else?) and became part of the NHL organisational system in 2014 when the Capitals drafted him 89th overall over not-too-many great players – the ones with more games and somewhat production at the NHL-level being Viktor Arvidsson (NSH), Gustav Forsling (VAN), Kevin Labanc (SJS) and Ondrej Case (ANA).
What can we expect from him? Sorry for putting it this way, but not too much. He’s four-line meat. He’s out there to fill the gap. He’s not mind-blowing and his abilities won’t make you jump out of your couch. Yes, he “scored” a goal in his first game ever, but not even he realized he had scored and the play had to be reviewed to assign him the point. But hey, he plays for the Capitals and he’s the first Aussie to make the NHL! And the Caps will ultimately let you down if you’re a fan of the franchise, so embrace the news and the novelty of the situation and cheer for the guy. Cheer for him because it’s the closest you’ll get to celebrate something this year, too!
5. Serious overreactions
The NHL is back and I can’t wait to overreact! Here is everything you need to know after the first few days of the season have gone by:
- Vegas and Detroit have yet to lose a game, which means they have a perfect record entering their third match of the season, which means they’ll face each other in the Stanley Cup Final if they keep this perfectly sustainable pace. You don’t believe me? Well, you should! The Golden Knights have a PDO of just 100.5 while Detroit’s sits at 101. Other perfect teams such as Chicago, Washington or Toronto have values over 110+. Now, that’s unsustainable!
- Montreal doesn’t even know what they’re doing when they’re in possession of the puck. Well actually, they know what they are doing, only they’re not doing it the right way. Montreal has shot 113 times on goal, which is 10 times more than the team with the second-most shots, the Flyers. If we consider shooting as a proxy for possession, that’s good, and the results over three games should have shown up. The problem is, Montreal’s shooting percentage is down to a demoralizing 2.7%, dead-last in the league under Dallas’ 3.5%, Nashville 5.5% or Vegas 5.6%. It’s okay to shoot, only I guess it’d be better if you put some pucks into the net.
- The Devils are the early Power Play/Penalty Kill dominators. New Jersey has seen 4 power plays and scored in 3 of them while not conceding any goal in the 6 penalty kill opportunities they’ve had to defend. That accounts for a combined 175% over a maximum 200%. But that is not all, folks, because that sample size isn’t that large. One rather interesting number is that of the Leafs. Toronto boasts a PP% of 50 and a PK% of 81.8% for a combined 131.8%, NHL’s second-best, in 21 penalty kill plus power play situations, 11 more than those of the Devils. Talk about up-and-coming teams!
- Time to get nerdy! Let’s check some random advanced stat leaders you won’t even believe. Do you know who is leading the league in CF% having played at least 2 games with a 16:00+ TOI? Arthur Lehkonen, from the Montreal Canadiens! Now you kind of understand why Montreal leads the league in shots but not in shooting percentage, as Lehkonen is not a premier sniper, let’s say, and this is just his second season at the highest level so the 22-year-old is just throwing bombs anytime he gets the puck. What about the best forward in terms of oiSH% (team’s SH% with the player on the ice) that starts most defensive face-offs? There are some candidates here, such as Ondrej Palat (TB; 55.6 oiSH%; 64.7 dZS%), Brayden Point (TB; 55.6 oiSH%; 62.5 dZS%) or the not-anymore-a-prospect-but-rather-stud Auston Matthews (TOR; 35.7 oiSH%; 70.6 dZS%). Not only are all of them helping their teams back at their net, but also improving their scoring chances while on the ice. Keep an eye on them.
- Ultimate Calder Watch: Three players – Martin Frk (DET), Will Butcher (NJD) and Jakub Vrana (WSH) – lead the rookies in points with 3 and one of them doesn’t have just a single vowel in last name, unbelievable! Charlie McAvoy is already leading the Calder candidates in PIM with 6, making a name for himself. Finally, the very own Martin Frk is 6th in the whole league Point Shares leaderboard with 0.5 tied with players such as Patrick Marleau, Corey Perry, John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews or Jonathan Toews. Not a bad start for our early Stanley Cup finalists Detroit Wings’ winger!
6. Beware of Angry Ovechkin
I don’t think there can be a better compendium of narratives to build Ovechkin’s 2017-18 season. Honestly, it feels like the NHL has been run over a scripted series of events as of late. Go back in time to the second round of last season’s playoffs. Think of what happened to the Washington Capitals. Already there? Okay. The Caps, once again, were eliminated and couldn’t make the conference finals going home two steps into the run for the Cup for the third consecutive season. What happened next? Everybody went nuts, myself included, and called for a complete rebuild of a core that looked more done than anything.
Backstrom, Ovechkin, Johansson, Oshie, and Holtby (even Kuznetsov if we’re radical) couldn’t and probably would never make it. Trades were proposed, crazy ideas about a total reshape were floated and the talk about a possible goodbye to Caps-GOAT Alex Ovechkin was stronger than ever.
On top of that, the NHL had already informed teams, players and everybody else that the 2018 Olympics were out of the equation and no one would be able to play for their nationals teams while contracted to an NHL franchise. What does that mean? No Ovechkin playing for Russia, which to Ovi must feel like prohibiting hockey in Quebec for any Canadiens’ fans.
So, to sum up, everything aligned to make Ovechkin be a little too pissed off. Just a tiny bit. And how did Ovechkin respond to all of this? Well, if you have watched – or not, because you already know about this stuff – X-Men anytime during your life, you’ve seen Wolverine turn into an unstoppable beast. That moment when he changes for semi-normal being to the ultra-killer thing — that’s Alex’s start of the season. In two games, Ovechkin has scored 7 goals on 21 shots, 14 of them on goal. That is a 50% S%. And this has just started. What Ovi has done had not been seen in the NHL since its first season a mere 100 years ago, when three guys scored two hat-tricks during the first two games of the season. This is basically history. And it has only taken Ovechkin two games to let us know he’s back and alive.
Washington may end disappointing us all again, but it doesn’t look like Alex will be part of the flop.