Leon Draisaitl is becoming NHL’s ‘Mr. Game-Winner’
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 Mr. Game Winner, the Boston Bruins seemingly never slowing down, a nice 2-on-1 play on offense, some sneaky good defensemen, a Habs goalie flying under the radar and much more.
Leon Draisaitl always comes up clutch
If you look up who has the most game-winning goals year after year, there is one certainty: Leon Draisaitl. League-wide, here is where he has ranked in game-winning goals over the past three plus seasons:
2019-20: Tied for first
2020-21: Tied for third
2021-22: Tied for first
Since entering the league, he is second in game-winning goals. Connor McDavid has eight more than him in that time. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, nobody has more game-winning goals than Draisaitl. In the playoffs, he has an absurd 59 points in 37 games. His performance last postseason playing through injury was incredible. Some of the defensive criticisms he faces are real but with the game on the line, he might be the best game-breaker in the league.
When teams embark on a rebuild, the obvious starting point is to bottom out and collect high draft picks. It is the best way to accumulate high-end, cost-controlled talent. When you look at the top scorers in the league, the vast majority of them have been drafted by the team they are scoring for. Teams are not in the habit of losing top-end players, so the general solution is that you need to draft them yourself.
But you can’t just rely on drafting high-end players at the top of the draft order. You need to win in the margins and collect talent all sorts of ways — value free agent signings, developing later-round picks through your system, winning trades and maybe even waiver claims.
The Habs might have found one of those wins with waiver claim Sam Montembeault. He struggled last season, to put it mildly. In 38 games he had an .891 save percentage and while the roster in front of him was weak, he did them no favours and helped them land the first-overall pick. It didn’t take a goalie expert to notice routine shots going in and questionable positioning. This season, though, he has been a new man.
It’s not going to get much attention on a bad team but even just a .910 save percentage in front of that defense/roster in arguably the toughest division in the league is quite impressive. A third-round pick by Florida in 2015, Montembeault is turning 27 in October. He has one more year left on his contract, making just $1 million before being eligible to be a UFA. So he likely won’t be cheap by the time the Habs want to make a real playoff push. But he’s showing this season that he can play in the league.
Nikita Zadorov has settled in nicely in Calgary
The career arc of Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov has been fascinating. The 2013 first-round pick has bounced around a little bit. He was included as a big piece in the trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo. He was up and down in Colorado, eventually getting traded in a package deal that netted the Avalanche Brandon Saad. In Chicago he got thrown to the wolves, with almost 62 percent of his non-neutral zone starts coming in the defensive zone.
The thinking was surely that his 6-foot-6 frame and penchant for physicality would be best used in the defensive zone to snuff out time and space for defenders. The Blackhawks struggled and eventually moved on from Zadorov for a third-round pick.
Darryl Sutter decided to change things and actually use him more in the offensive zone. So far in Calgary he has the two highest offensive zone starts of his career. His 22 points last season were a (modest) career high. He has tied his career high in goals already this season with seven, which is tied for 17th among all defensemen. With his size he has all the leverage in the world to really lean into his shot and get some serious heat on it.
Some of the offensive usage is getting out of hand at times when he’s on in the final minute of a game with the goalie pulled when Calgary is trying to score. The Flames do have better offensive options but he is showing he can produce a bit and his shot is a legitimate weapon. Combine that with being one of the better hitters in the league and still just 27 years of age, and he’s putting together a nice little career for himself.
Continuing on the train of defensemen having interesting careers is Colin Miller. Originally drafted by the LA Kings, he was part of the trade package that saw LA get Milan Lucic. He put together a promising show with the Bruins that resulted in him getting claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights, where he was a regular in their Cup run, playing over 19 minutes per game and chipping in seven points in 20 playoff games at age 24.
But the next season he started to fall out of favor a bit in Vegas as younger defensemen developed, so the Sabres saw an opportunity to swoop in and get what was thought at the time to be a promising young blueliner who was ready for more in a different situation. But it just didn’t work out in Buffalo, in part because the Sabres were just a bad team.
Halfway through last season he had surgery and only played six games after that. He needed a fresh start, and he is getting one with the Dallas Stars. It helps when you’re spending most of your time playing with Miro Heiskanen, one of the best defensemen in the league, but he isn’t a passenger on that pairing. Heiskanen has played more with Miller than any other Stars player at 5-on-5. In over 381 even-strength minutes together, they have controlled over 54 percent of the shot share, 57 percent of expected goals and outscored opponents 23-9.
Nobody is confusing Miller for a top-pairing defenseman all of a sudden — he’s only playing 16:36 per game, to keep it in perspective. But by doing well alongside Heiskanen and winning their minutes by a big margin, it has allowed them to split up their top defensemen. Their top three minute-eaters on defense — Heiskanen, Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell — all play on separate pairings. Last season, Heiskanen’s top two partners were Suter and Lindell. It’s a creative way to space out your top defenders and to ensure you always have a top-quality player on the ice.
The 2-on-1 sneak attack
There is nothing worse than a 2-on-1 where the puck carrier patiently tries to make a play but they take too long and eventually skate themselves into a low-percentage opportunity. They get around the hashmark, the defender goes down to cover the pass, and unless they make an incredible saucer pass that actually connects, they take a meager shot on goal that the goalie can easily angle off. Even worse is the pass simply getting blocked altogether and not even getting a shot off.
One of the best remedies to that is the high 2-on-1 pass. The offensive player makes the pass at or just before the top of the circle. It’s so high up in the offensive zone and far away from the net that the defender hasn’t even contemplated the pass getting through just yet and you catch everyone off guard. The Chicago Blackhawks used to be really good at it and perhaps no goal better demonstrates it than the Patrick Kane heartbreaker.
They make that play from the top of the circle. Rob Scuderi is actively deciding what to do with his stick and how close he should position himself to Toews while the pass is being made. Kane rips a one-timer from distance but it goes in. The odds of completing that pass from that far out are much higher because you have so much more space to play with.
We saw another good example a few days ago with Dillon Dube’s overtime winner against Columbus — again a high pass from the top of the circle and again a one-timer from the top of the circle. Vladislav Gavrikov is just starting to close the gap at that time. But you give NHLers that much time and space to step into one and it’s going to be a problem.
Who needs assists when you can score goals?
We love a good Cy Young winner in this column — someone who has a lot more goals than assists. Presenting a new potential option is always fun and with that we give you: Kirill Marchenko. The Columbus rookie has played 25 games so far this season and has a very good 11 goals. You have maybe not heard of him despite his decent goal total because he has zero assists. He is the definition of a trigger man, launching 45 shots on net through those 25 games and just hunting his spots to get a hold of the puck and let it rip. He is looking to attack at all times. Look at this hat trick he scored recently.
An off-the-rush wrap around, lingering in the offensive zone in the slot for a prime scoring opportunity, then spinning off a check and bringing a puck to the house to rip a shot — with zero regard for passing. He is a goal hunter.
It’s even more entertaining when you look at his early AHL production. In 16 games he had eight goals and 11 assists. But in his two KHL seasons before that he had more goals than assists in each season. Marchenko looks like an annual Cy Young candidate.
Panthers run out of gas when it matters most
The Florida Panthers have been a bit of a Rubik’s Cube all season and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than looking at their goals scored by period. The swings are stunning. Nobody in the league has scored more goals than them in the first period and they have a plus-10 differential in the opening frame. They are an even better with a plus-12 goal differential in second periods. And then they give it all back late. Nobody in the league has been scored against more times in the third period. They have conceded 76 goals in the third period through 50 games — last season the Red Wings gave up the most third-period goals with 124 (second place was a notable gap at 107).
Except the Panthers were supposed to challenge for a playoff spot, not be in territory with last year’s Red Wings. One working theory is that over the attrition of a full game, their goaltending struggles eventually reveal themselves. The Panthers have the sixth-worst all situations team save percentage in the league. On the flip side, only the Boston Bruins have been leading more times after the first period. The Panthers’ defensive depth took a hit in the offseason and that was something they were well aware of. But they have invested a lot into their goaltending and presumably hoped that would mitigate the losses on the blue line.
Goaltending isn’t the only reason, to be sure, but it hasn’t helped. Along the way, the Panthers have been bleeding goals against when the time to close games arrives.
In the category of amazing, how about Pittsburgh Penguins veteran Kris Letang? After suffering a stroke — the second of his career — it was fair to wonder if the 35-year-old would ever even want to play again. But just 10 days later he was back on the ice. He returned to game action only to suffer a lower-body injury that knocked him back out. Then his father passed away. He finally returned on Tuesday and had four points, including the overtime winner.
How happy he is there and how happy his teammates are for him is honestly just awesome to see. He’s an easy player to root for. Those are moments you follow the game for.
Bruins peaking too early or are they just one of the best teams in NHL history?
At this point I keep waiting for the Bruins to come down to earth… and it simply is not happening. If you sort the standings for the month of January alone, they are still in first. They are 10-1-0 since the calendar flipped to 2023.
No Charlie McAvoy and Brad Marchand to start the season? No problem. Lose Jake DeBrusk in the midst of a career year? Doesn’t matter. Taylor Hall goes on a 16-game goalless drought while DeBrusk is out? Just keep winning.
They have 11 players with at least 20 points already and seven players with at least 10 goals. It is almost fair to wonder if they are peaking too early, as they are on pace for a historically high points percentage. Their .851 points percentage is head and shoulders above the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning team that had a .780 points percentage in its 128-point season.
The Presidents’ Trophy has been awarded 33 times, but only eight of the winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup in their respective years. The last team to win both was the Chicago Blackhawks 10 years ago, when they beat the Bruins. Like that Blackhawks team, though, this Bruins squad has a championship core led by Patrice Bergeron and Marchand. You simply can’t bet against those two players.
If they keep up this pace and actually go on to win the Cup, it is fair to wonder if this is one of the best teams of all-time.
Islanders dealing with January blues
On the other side, the Islanders are 2-8-3 this month. Only Arizona has been worse by points percentage. The Islanders are averaging 1.92 goals per game in that stretch and their power play is clicking at 6.5 percent. Through those 13 games, nobody has more than six points (four players are tied for that amount, for what it’s worth). Anders Lee leads their team with four goals in that time.
For reference, the highest point-getter in the league in January has 19 points (three players have achieved that so far). The highest goal scorer has 12 goals. Brock Nelson leads all Islanders in scoring for the season with 43 points — tied for 50th league-wide.
They have some depth, good defensemen and a top-end goalie. They are top 10 in goals against per game. But you can’t survive this lack of scoring in this era. The Islanders had a decent start to the season and were in a good position to take a run at a playoff spot at the end of the calendar year. But January has not been kind to them.
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