Month: April 2017

NHL playoff series digested: Minnesota Wild – St. Louis Blues (1-4)

Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues squared off in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with the Wild, who finished the regular season nine points behind, upsetting in six games a Blues team with eyes set on the Stanley Cup. Entering the 2017 playoffs, the roles were reversed, with the Wild, fresh of pushing forward all their chips at the trade deadline, expecting a long spring campaign and the underdog Missourians determined to crash their party.

Funny enough, former Wild coach Mike Yeo also exchanged benches in the meantime, and he played his part to once again shake hands for the winning side as St. Louis exacted their small revenge to book a place in the second round. How did they manage it?

Series Results:

Game 1: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild (OT)

Game 2: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild

Game 3: Minnesota Wild 1 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 4: Minnesota Wild 2 @ 0 St. Louis Blues

Game 5: St. Louis Blues 4 @ 3 Minnesota Wild (OT)

 

Jake Allen bested Devan Dubnyk

In his first NHL season as St. Louis’ undisputed starter, Jake Allen went through hell in the winter before finding his footing in March, arriving at the postseason on the crest of a 0.942 Sv% amassed over his last fifteen games. Truth be told, the Blues benefited from a soft schedule late and few believed Allen would maintain such a hot streak, yet he flat-out stole Game 1 in Minnesota with a 51-save performance and then kept frustrating the Wild for the rest of the series.

Over five games, the 26-year-old posted a superlative 0.956 Sv% and 1.47 GAA, marks that ranked second amongst his peers in the first round, and captured a series win his team had no business picking up. Not only because Minnesota significantly outplayed St. Louis in four of five matches, but also because his counterpart Devan Dubnyk put together an unappreciated effort that went to waste.

Jake Allen gobbles the puck on another Minnesota Wild chance in Game 2 (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Wild’s All-Star goaltender, who hit a rough patch late in the regular season, concluded the series with excellent numbers (.925 Sv% and 1.86 GAA) but he just couldn’t touch the same high notes as Allen. For example, at even strength, both men allowed one goal on low-danger shots and two on medium-danger opportunities, yet Allen blocked 23 of 24 (0.958 Sv%) high-danger chances whereas Dubnyk let in 4 of 20, sinking his EV Sv% to 0.911, fifty-seven points below Allen’s stellar 0.968.

Thus, it wouldn’t matter that Dubnyk stood close to perfection when the Blues were on the powerplay, deflecting 26 of 27 shots, as the one that snuck through went down as the game-winner in Game 2. So harsh can be the life of a goaltender come playoff time…

No Shattenkirk, no problem

With 19 points obtained in 26 playoff games over the last two postseasons, Kevin Shattenkirk was a major cog of St. Louis’ defence up to the deal that sent him to the Washington Capitals. While Doug Armstrong’s hand was forced by the need to recoup some assets, his absence represented a major drawback to the Blues’ chances this spring, and they needed someone to pick up the slack, especially five-on-five.

Cue the Blues second defensive pair, composed of sophomores Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko. Mobile, large, strong and, in this series, effective on both sides of the puck, the duo did a commendable job stepping up to the challenge. The less heralded Edmundson scored the OT winner in Game 1 and later broke the ice in Game 2, posting a series-high +6 and 16 blks in 22:10 min TOI/GP. As for the 22-year-old Parayko, he opened the scoring in Game 3 and set up Alex Steen for the Blues’ second goal in Game 5, skating to a +4 with 14 SOG and 13 blks in vital 24:44 min TOI/GP.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Parayko and company found a way to keep the puck away from their net. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Much like the majority of St. Louis’ players, it’s fair to point out they got plastered five-on-five in terms of possession (39.7 adj. CF%), but the pair still came out on the positive side in Scoring changes for (6-5) and, naturally, goals (4-0), while the same can’t be said for the Blues No.1 pairing, as Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester amassed a 37.0 adj.CF% and bled scoring chances (5-9).

Parayko and Edmundson accounted for a 111 PDO, which means they’re bound to regress hard – probably already against the Predators – but, for now, they’ve rewarded Mike Yeo’s confidence.

Bruce Boudreau tinkered his forwards lines incessantly but couldn’t find the winning combination

The Minnesota Wild manufactured 3.21 goals per game during the regular season, second best in the NHL, but those numbers don’t necessarily portend they possess a surplus of firepower up front. Bruce Boudreau’s team lacked a 30-goal scorer or a 70-pts player, and boasted just two forwards (Mikael Granlund (69) and Eric Staal (65)) niched inside the list of top 50 point getters. In other words, they lack the game-breakers that usually come in handy at playoff time and against an inspired Jake Allen that deficiency proved fatal.

The Wild mustered just 8 goals in the equivalent to five and a half games of hockey, and only Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle accrued two points at even-strength. The Wild’s top nine forwards in Game 1 were staggered in an All-Finnish line with Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, a Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Nino Niederreiter combination, and the duo Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle flanking Martin Hanzal, but it didn’t stay that way for long as Bruce Boudreau cranked up the blender in a hurry.

Martin Hanzal rams through Jake Allen in Game 3, but to no effect. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

For Game 2, Zucker returned to the left of Koivu and Granlund to try to rekindle the magic of the regular season, while Niederreiter was dropped to the fourth line to make room for Charlie Coyle. Then, in Game 3, Haula was moved to centre between Jason Pominville and Chris Stewart, with Niederreiter joining Hanzal, but nothing seemed to juice up the offense.

Down 3-0 in the series, Boudreau separated the Granlund/Koivu and Parise/Staal duos and connected Pominville, Hanzal and Zucker, who scored in the Wild’s win. You don’t change what’s working, right? Nope. In Game 5, the wheel kept spinning, with Parise alongside the reunited Koivu and Granlund up to the moment Eric Staal left the game injured. After that, more reshuffling, obviously. And, soon after, the Blues closing the series in overtime.

All things considered, despite controlling the puck (58.9 adj. CF%) like no other team in the first round, averaging 9.6 more SOG per game (36.4 to the Blues 26.8), and slugging to a 55.1 adj. SCF%, the Wild scored just five even strength goals – one with Dubnyk pulled – and registered a single forward line who logged more than 20 minutes together. Jake Allen’s brilliance may have been the major reason for the Wild’s demise, but Bruce Boudreau’s actions didn’t help.

Best players in the series

Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues)

For the reasons exposed above, Jake Allen was the X-factor for St. Louis in the series, yet forward Jaden Schwartz deserves an honourable mention. The 24-year-old picked up a series-high 5 pts (2+3), and his contributions encompassed the game-winners in Game 2 and 3, three shots on goal per game, 22 min TOI/GP – tops among Blues forwards – and respectable underlying metrics. In fact, Schwartz and linemate Vladimir Tarasenko were the only Blues’ forwards simultaneously above 44.0 adj. CF% and 54 adj. SCF%.

Jaden Schwartz is about to blow the puck past Devan Dubnyk to give the Blues victory in Game 2 (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)

Without standout Minnesota Wild performances in the series, left winger Zach Parise – 3 pts (1+2), including the late goal to tie Game 1 – wouldn’t be a terrible choice here. However, he also accounted for a -4 rating and 4 minor penalties, therefore I’ll appoint Mikael Granlund. Minnesota’s best forward during the regular season struggled to make an impact on the scoresheet, collecting just 2 assists in 5 games, but he still looked dangerous at most times, impacting the play with a massive 85.1 adj. SCF% (1st on the team) and excellent 63.1 adj. CF% (4th).

Will the Minnesota Wild return to the playoffs next year? 

Boudreau’s teams have always turned into regular season juggernauts, so you can safely bet on that. However, Minnesota’s long-term prospects don’t look good with Ryan Suter (32) and Zach Parise’s (soon to be 33) contracts running until 2071 (approximately) and age clearly catching up to them.

Dubnyk and most of the defensive core have contracts with a few years left, providing cost certainty in the near future, which is exactly why 22-year-old Matt Dumba (RFA in 2018) may have to be sacrificed in the expansion draft instead of Marco Scandella (UFA 2020) or Jonas Brodin (UFA 2021). In a perfect world, they would rather ditch 34-year-old forward Jason Pominville – whose 5.6M deal until 2019 looms large – yet his NTC/NMC prevents that.

The Wild have 15 players signed for next season and 11.4 M in cap space, but most will be absorbed by the contract extensions of RFA’s Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. In a conservative estimative, the Wild should assume their raises will trim that number to less than 3M, which won’t be enough to bring back 30-year-old Martin Hanzal, in line for a healthy increment from his current 3.1 M cap hit. And they can’t bring back the valuable picks they forfeited for his five playoff games either…

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

Maybe the Minnesota Wild will have more reasons to celebrate next season (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

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NHL playoff series digested: Chicago Blackhawks – Nashville Predators (0-4)

On their way to the Championships in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. The Western Conference top seed had realistic expectations of reviving history, but facing a spiked, underperforming lower ranked team is always dangerous, and this time the Predators came out determined to bite back and change the narrative. They couldn’t have done it in a more emphatic way, authoring the most stunning first round sweep in the NHL this century and their maiden playoff triumph in just four matches. Let’s dive into the numbers to understand how such an outcome materialized.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 1 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 2: Nashville Predators 5 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks 2 @ 3 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

 

Pekka Rinne, the Great Finnish Wall

The career of the Predators goaltender has been dotted by more peaks and valleys than his pedigree would anticipate and, following an average regular season, all eyes were on him as pundits gauged Nashville’s chances of making a run for the Cup. In four of Rinne’s five previous playoff campaigns, his overall Sv% didn’t rise above .912, consequently it was time the Finnish goalie justified his hefty 7M cap hit in the postseason. However, few could have predicted the level of domination he displayed against the Blackhawks.

Nashville’s goaltender Pekka Rinne erected a brick wall in net during the series first two Games in Chicago

The 34-year-old stonewalled the high-flying offense of Chicago on the road in the first two games of the series, turning aside all 59 shots thrown at his net, and kept his spectacular form in the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena, pitching two more wins to close out the series with only three goals allowed in 126 shots faced.

That’s a scintillating 0.976 Sv% and 0.70 GAA over a near perfect series, where Rinne allowed a single even-strength goal in 115 shots (0.991 Sv%!), 15 of those of the “high-danger” variety, and posted a preposterous 6.21 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating in just four games. Such brilliance turned the Predators into the 13th NHL team to quell their opponent to three or less goals in a four-game series, and just the fourth in the last 38 years (1994 NYR, 2001 TOR, 2003 ANA & 2013 BOS).

For good measure, Rinne also picked up two assists in Game 2, something no Blackhawks player could do over the entire series.

Pounce early on to steal away home ice advantage

The noise inside Chicago’s United Center after the usual pregame festivities is further amped up come playoff time, therefore it was imperative for the Predators to withstand the impact of the first few minutes on the road, as Chicago posted the second best Win% after scoring first (0.740) during the regular season.

Furthermore, Nashville had dropped 9 of the previous 10 games in Chicago and compiled the worst road record amongst playoff teams in the NHL this season, yet the visitors looked anything like an anxious bunch as they scored early in both games to put the Blackhawks on their heels.

The tallies by Viktor Arvidsson, with 7:52 min played in Game 1, and Ryan Ellis, just 3:44 min into Game 2, both due to the work of Nashville’s top forward line against the Jonathan Toews unit, calmed the crowd, injected life into Peter Laviolette’s bench and forced the Hawks to take chances and shorten the bench as the clock advanced.

In Game 1, the pressure of Chicago, especially the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin trio, almost cracked Rinne, but the Predators were able to hang on to a 1-0 victory, while in Game 2 their strategy worked to perfection. They dominated possession and scoring chance metrics throughout, and took advantage of the Hawks lackadaisical defensive play to deliver two back-breaking goals in the second period that put the game away.

Nashville Predators players celebrate the team’s 2nd goal in Game 2 (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bolstered by two “by the book” road performances, the Predators returned to Tennessee with home ice advantage, a firm grasp on the series and the seed of doubt planted in the mind of their accomplished opponent.

The Predators top line tortured Chicago, the others delivered the knockout punches

Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for five goals, 17 points, a 60.2 FF%, 12 scoring chances for and just 2 against – an outstanding 88.3 SCF% -, six goals for and 0 against while on the ice.

There’s no way around it. The Predators top forward unit dismantled the Hawks, who had no answer for them even if Joel Quenneville tried everything. Going power on power with the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, deploy Jonathan Toews to slow them down, tap on the defensive prowess of Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, and shuffle his defensive pairs when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson (13-28 Shots For, 3-8 SCF, 0-3 GF) botched the job. Eventually, he would be forced to load up with Toews between Kane and Panarin for Game 4, and they responded with a 66.7 CF% in 18 min together, despite struggling to create chances (1-3 SCF). It was already too late.

Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson exult after tying the score late in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the No.1 line wreaking havoc on the Hawks, it was up to Nashville’s other forwards to find a way to impact the tie decisively, and all units had their moment in the sun. The physical Harry Zolnierczyk – Mike Fischer – Austin Watson group couldn’t drive play but still crafted a huge 2-0 goal in Game 2. Colton Sissons finished up a great shift by Craig Smith to follow up with the third on the 5-0 rout, and added a monumental tally in Game 4 that all but sealed the sweep. As for the second line, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal accounted for a 57.1 CF% and 61.6 SCF%, but looked snake bitten until they orchestrated the vital GWG in Game 3 OT.

On the other side, with the Patrick Kane unit unable to break through, the blender of Joel Quenneville functioned incessantly but to no avail. Their only 5-on-5 goal came off a good cycle by Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen and Richard Panik, opening the score in the second period of Game 3 and breaking Rinne’s SO streak, but the Hawks couldn’t hold on to the lead.

Best players in the series

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)

As evidence above, the performance of Pekka Rinne was the primary factor behind the Predators smashing triumph, but many of his colleagues also excelled individually.

For instance, center Ryan Johansen, who was a force up the middle and collected a series-high 6 pts (1+5), or Filip Forsberg, who posted 5 pts, including two goals in Game 3 to rally the Predators back. Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Josi netted twice in the series-clincher and his pairing with Ryan Ellis amassed a +5 rating in spite of heavy deployment and a whole lot of rubber flying around (24 blocked shots accumulated between the two).

Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks)

The reigning Hart Trophy winner couldn’t rise above the nightmarish series for the Hawks, failing to hit the scoresheet with the regularity Chicago fans expected, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. While fellow superstars Jonathan Toews (-5) and Duncan Keith (-6) were mostly invisible, Kane flung a series-high 23 SOG, logged 23:55 min TOI/GP, and notched a PP goal in Game 3 to extend the Hawks lead at the time. And while things never broke his way, he wasn’t careless with the puck, giving the puck away only once and picking up three takeaways.

Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to the playoffs next year? 

Absolutely. There’s probably another long run left in this group although the Blackhawks status as the class of the West is ever more fragile with every member of the core over 28 years old and hence with its best years behind. More importantly, there’s not one of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford that doesn’t possess some kind of NMC/NTC protection, which severely limits Stan Bowman’s ability to shake things up after a second consecutive first round exit.

The responsibility to bring the team back into title contention next year falls on the Chicago Blackhawks’ core group (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Unless they decide – and find a way – to offload Seabrook, Crawford, Hossa or Anisimov, with Artemi Panarin’s extension kicking in and his cap hit jumping to 6M, the Hawks have minimal margin (around 3M) to compose their roster with two blueliners that can fill in for veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya – whose time in Chicago should be finished for good -, a couple of depth forwards and a solid backup goalie, now that Scott Darling appears ready for a more prominent role elsewhere.

RFA Richard Panik priced himself out of Chicago with a 22-goal season, and his role will have to be assumed by one of the young players that populated the lower lines this season (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen) with mixed results. Unless the exciting Alex DeBrincat, who scored 65 times in 63 OHL regular season games this season, can jump right into the spotlight.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Calgary Flames (4-0)

The back half of April comprises what is, by far, the most compelling portion of the NHL schedule. The 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is a delightful feast of action-driven evenings and late nights when hockey fans can barely manage to catch their breath while the scaled up intensity of postseason play bristles in multiple channels. Keeping an eye on all happenings and storylines is virtually impossible, thus the need to compile reports on the feats taking place across different boards.

This spring I’m aiming to do just that, so after every playoff series reaches its epilogue, I’ll provide a roundup of the aspects that concurred for the end result, regardless of whether we witnessed a routine triumph by a top-seed, a tight seven-game series or an epic upset. To maintain some resemblance of consistency as we move forward, I’ll try to stick to a structure that I believe will allow for a concise, informative dispatch targeted to those that couldn’t follow the matchup in question, but still want to comprehend the outcome.

Hence, I’ll start by objectively pinning down the three key factors that justify the final scoreline, offering the underlying rationale, before electing the best player in the series for each side. Finally, with an eye on the future, I’ll dispense my prediction on the response for a simple question about the future of the team that just got laid off: Will they be back on the same stage next year?

Fifteen best-of-seven series are contested in the Stanley Cup playoffs until the chalice is awarded, and the first to be completed pitted two Pacific Division opponents that seemed to find their stride late in the season. The Calgary Flames entered with a large cloud hanging over their heads, as the Canadian side had failed to secure a win at Anaheim’s Honda Center in 13 years, a string of 25 consecutive regular-season matches, but despite that many – including myself – still expected a evened up encounter. Obviously, it didn’t unfold that way and I’ll try to explain why:

Series Results:

Game 1: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 5 @ 4 Calgary Flames (OT)

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 1 Calgary Flames

 

Brian Elliott sputtered badly

The veteran goaltender was one of the building blocks behind Calgary’s push towards a playoff spot after the All-star break, but he authored a disastrous array of games which effectively submerged his team’s chances of going deep into the postseason. Just 52 seconds into the first game, Ryan Getzlaf’s long wrister found a way past Elliott’s shoulder, and the puck would continue to trickle through his body in virtually every way possible from then on.

A Jakob Silfverberg snap shot from the top of the circle crept below his arm to stand as the GWG in Game 1, and the Swedish winger also whizzed another shot past his tucked-in glove to open the score in Game 2 before Rickard Rakell stuffed the puck from behind the net for a Ducks two-goal lead. Then, in game 3, the 32-year-old found another gear, spewing out a terrible rebound to the front of the crease, right towards the onrushing Nick Ritchie, to wake up the visitors, contributing decisively to their three-goal rally from 4-1 down when a Shea Theodore wrister handcuffed him on the second goal, and finally surrendering the OT winner by deflecting a puck thrown from the boards towards a teammate standing in front, where it ricocheted to the net.

The puck sits behind Brian Elliott after the OT winner in Game 3 (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Elliott probably didn’t deserve to start Game 4 with the Flames season on the line, but he did, and responded by giving up another snoozer on a Patrick Eaves attempt from the boards that squeaked in short side. Just 5:38 min into the night, his season was finished as he was mercifully pulled by coach Glen Gulutzan.

Overall, Elliott posted a putrid 3.89 GAA and .880 Sv% in four postseason games and conceded a mediocre 7 goals in just 42 low-danger shot attempts faced, which is absolutely unacceptable for the AHL, let alone the NHL playoffs. The sweep is on him.

Calgary’s top lines controlled the play but couldn’t convert 5 on 5

The Flames scored nine goals in four games and their PP looked sharp throughout, connecting on 6 of 16 chances, but they just couldn’t keep up with the Ducks five on five, at least on the scoresheet. At even strength, the Ducks tallied 10 times to just two by the Flames, and only one of those came from Calgary’s top-six forwards. The Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland combo squared off almost exclusively against Anaheim’s premium shutdown unit (Cogliano – Kesler -Silfverberg) and ruled the matchup to the tune of 60 CF% and 70 SCF% (12 For – 5 Against) but was unable to hit the twine even once. In their defence, the Flames’ stars can point out the +4 penalty differential aggregated, which contributed to the four goals buried by the opportunistic Sean Monahan on the powerplay.

Meanwhile, the other battle of heavyweights had more balance to it, with the two-way mastery of the Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik line neutralizing Anaheim’s top guns, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, at large, but failing to tilt the ice in the right direction as the Flames needed. The Backlund unit managed a 51 CF% and created six scoring chances for while allowing just five, but lost 3-1 in goals. Since further down the lineup they couldn’t make up the difference, with the third forward unit tallying once while Anaheim’s fourth-liner Nate Thompson, for example, amassed 2G and 2 A at even strength, defeat proved inevitable.

Johnny Gaudreau was stifled by the Anaheim Ducks throughout the series (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anaheim’s defensive depth holds the fort

With lynchpin Cam Fowler sidelined and Sami Vatanen missing in action after Game 1 (plus the long-time absences of Clayton Stoner and Simon Després), the Ducks had to rely on their flaunted defensive farm in key situations and the kids held their ground. Promising offensive-minded blueliner Shea Theodore was paired with veteran Kevin Bieksa 5 on 5 and the duo stood tall under pressure, spitting out a 51 CF% and surviving the negative (7 for – 10 against) scoring chances differential to post a positive +- rating (Theodore ended at +3, Bieksa +5). The 2013 first round pick, who played six playoff games last year, also collected five points on the series, including two goals at 5 on 5 and a couple of assists while anchoring the top PP unit ( 2.57 min PP TOI/GP).

In another pair, postseason greenhorn Brandon Mountour skated alongside Hampus Lindholm and they ended the series without surrendering a single tally at even strength  – and watching three pucks fly in on the other end – despite a CF% under 40. The duo still managed to balance out the scoring chances (7-7), but unsurprisingly will enter round two with a sky-high PDO of 113. Montour played a healthy 19:27 min per game, while Theodore soaked up over 20 mins, numbers that Anaheim would certainly like to temper a bit moving forward when Fowler and Vatanen return to top-four duty. Korbinian Holzer, the 29-year-old German defenseman, filled in for Vatanen on his first ever NHL postseason cameo, and also escaped with a neutral +-rating in 14.39 min of nightly action.

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks captain set the tone in the series with the early goal in Game 1, finished it off with an empty net tally in Game 4 and, in the meantime, was a workhorse for coach Randy Carlyle, leading all forwards with 22.18 min TOI/GP. The 31-year-old collected a total of 3 goals and 2 assists over the four games, one point less than teammates Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell, but more than enough to deserve the distinction on a series where his team wasn’t bothered too much.

Mikael Backlund and Ryan Getzlaf race for a puck during Game 1 (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames)

While Sean Monahan’s four goals and one assist sparkle, his dearth of production at even strength knocks him down in favour of Backlund. The impressive two-way pivot spearheads one of the NHL’s most underrated lines, and while they failed to reach the same heights in the postseason, the Swede never stopped battling on his 19:48 min TOI/GP. He fired a team-high 14 shots on goal, picked up 3 points, and his excellent shorthanded goal in Game 2 brought the Flames back into contention until a fortuitous bounce gave Anaheim a two-game lead.

Will the Calgary Flames return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, probably. Glen Gulutzan’s team charged up the standings late backed up by solid possession stats and the core group is locked long-term, with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Michael Frolik, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie all under contract, at least, until 2020. The only exception is Mikael Backlund, a UFA in 2018 the team can’t afford to lose.

This summer, the Flames have decisions to make on defence with Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Michael Stone all up for new deals, while retaining UFA Kris Versteeg should be a priority, as the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion pieced together a nice season. Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett are RFA’s that won’t break the bank to re-sign, while Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson’s future needs clarification.

However, the time devoted to that will pale in comparison to the big resolution needed in goal. Both Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson are UFA’s, and if Johnson might return to reassume his role, Elliott’s playoff performance definitely sealed his fate in Calgary. The Flames will shop for a goalie and who they settle for will say a lot about their future.

Can they strike a deal with Ben Bishop, the biggest fish expected to be available on the market? Would they look to pry away Marc-Andre Fleury or Jaroslav Halak? Is one of the other free-agents to be (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Scott Darling, Steve Mason) the answer they’re looking for? With a few more pieces added around the edges, this could be the difference between a true contender for the Cup in the coming seasons, or a team topping as a perennial challenger for a playoff spot.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

The Calgary Flames say goodbye to their fans after the defeat in Game 4 (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Seven NHL Players who made “the leap” in 2016-17

Except for supernatural talents, every youngster that dips his feet on the NHL goes through a similar process of assimilation to a new reality. They crawl out of the gates, trying to adapt to an intense, unbeknown environment and hoping to minimize mistakes on the whirlwind of action around, and then ease into the rhythm, striving to find their niche on the ice and showcase the qualities that brought them there. Eventually, if they’re able to gain the thrust of the coaching staff, they excel, climbing the ladder to fulfil the expectations placed on their shoulders and the role best suited for their abilities.

The entire journey, depending on a myriad of factors, may take just a few months, a complete season or a few years, but once settled in, the wholesome package that separates the real deal from the bust eventually flourishes before the eyes of the hockey sphere. Discounting the natural ebbs and flows, slumps and hot streaks that take a hold of every player regardless of position or stature, when a player takes a decisive step towards complete assertion at the top-level, we can usually notice it. Whether it is the swagger displayed by a defenseman with the puck on his stick, the coolness of a goalie in net or a forward’s confidence to slow the game down and try a different move.

However, those are attributes difficult to pick up on if you don’t watch a player on a daily basis, hence our need to rely on statistics to point the way. The 2016-17 NHL regular season is ending this week, so we have a large sample of data to dive on in a quest to identify some of the players who have made the leap on their performance over the last year.

Taking into account that rookies are naturally excluded from this analysis, and so are players whose natural progression made their statistical explosion a certainty (looking at you, Connor McDavid), I selected seven names to highlight in this article, ranging from former top picks who finally panned out to blue-chip prospects who broke through or under-the-radar players who made the best of golden opportunities.

Be aware that the following analysis is punctuated by references to hockey and “advanced” statistics terminology. Therefore, I’ll leave below a small recap of the nomenclature and abbreviations used. For an explanation of the most complex terminology, you can use Corsica’s glossary.

Basics

SOG: shots on goal; TOI/GP: time on ice per game played; PP: powerplay; PPP: powerplay points; PK: penalty kill; SH: shorthanded (time on ice); SHG: shorthanded goals; RFA: restricted free agent; GAA: goals against average; Sv%: save %; SO: shutouts; Sh%: shooting %

Advanced

(adj)(rel)CF%: (adjusted)(relative) Corsi For %

PDO: not an acronym, just a proxy for luck; stands for the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (Sh% + Sv%)

GF%: Goals For %

SCF%: Scoring Chances For %

DZS%: Defensive zone starts %

OZS%: Offensive zone starts %

Points/60: points for 60 minutes

 

David Pastrňák (Boston Bruins, RW)

Drafted in the tail end of the 2014 first round (25th overall), Pastrňák took advantage of a Bruins roster short on offensive game-changers to guarantee a surprising 49-game stint (26 points) on his age-18 season, which, in retrospect, accelerated his learning curve. As a sophomore, his production flatlined (27 points), but he still tallied 15 goals in 51 matches, setting the stage for the outburst of 2016-17.

Boston Bruins David Pastrňák celebrating one of his 32 goals this season

The Czech winger came out of the gates on fire, netting 13 times in the first 17 games, and steadied the inevitable regression to maintain a scoring clip befitting with a near point-per-game pace. With 68 points in 72 games, his 0.94 ppg regime is the 12th highest in the league (over 50 games played), trailing only Brad Marchand on his own team, while a robust bump in shot generation – he’s firing  1.3 extra SOG/GP – has resulted in a 32-goal barrage on a sustainable 12.7 Sh%, in line with his career average.

The 20-year-old has enjoyed riding shotgun on Boston’s top line with Patrice Bergeron and Marchand for most of the season, forming the league’s most dominant group possession-wise, with a sterling adj. CF% of 62.6 and a 56.7 GF% despite awful luck (98.2 PDO), but even when he was shifted down to try to juice up the second unit, Pastrňák has made good use of the 4 min uptick in TOI/GP from last season.

With his ELC expiring at the end of the season, Pastrňák’s success puts Boston in a bind, since  they’ll need to ante up significantly to retain the services of their young star long-term while managing a forward group that already comprises four players raking in over 6M per year until 2021 (Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and Backes).

Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh Penguins, D)

After signing in Edmonton as a highly-sought after college FA, Justin Schultz was successively scapegoated for the Oilers’ mediocrity and failure to ice competitive rosters. At the 2016 trade deadline, the Penguins took a flyer on Schultz and they’ve reaped tremendous dividends from it this season, since what once seemed like a perennial double-digit minus player is now an in-vogue offensive force. However, more than new career highs in goals (12) and points (48), which place Schultz inside the top ten amongst defensemen, what truly opened some eyes was the 26-year-old’s ability to step up when his team needed him to.

Schultz started the year besides Ian Cole on Pittsburgh’s third pairing, driving play, piling the positive ratings (+25) and heaping goals (63.6 GF%) and chances (60.5 SCF%) on the opposition while taking advantage of favourable deployments (just 27.4 DZS%), yet the duo quickly ascended through the lineup, first conquering top four status and later assuming top-pairing duties to help supress Kris Letang’s absence.

Defenseman Justin Schultz has been an integral part of the Penguins’ success in 2016-17

In special, Schultz usual 20min TOI/GP escalated by more than 3 minutes during Letang’s multiple injuries, and he was also asked to shore up the top powerplay (22 PPP), which improved from erratic first half form towards top-five status in large part due to his composure in 3.40 min of PP TOI/GP. Most of Schultz’s offensive contributions date back to December and January, when he accumulated 29 pts in just 26 games, but even when the puck stopped going in Mike Sullivan’s confidence didn’t waver.

The former 2nd round pick is scheduled to be a RFA with arbitration rights in July 1st, and is due a healthy raise from his current 1.4M cap hit, however there are more than just salary cap considerations swirling around as the Penguins mull over an extension offer. Schultz’s steady play may force an unexpected change on their expansion draft plans, with ramifications felt elsewhere on the roster.

Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville Predators, RW)

An overaged selection on the 4th round in 2014, Arvidsson was seen by the Predators staff as a diamond-in-a-rough that escaped the scouting net, and those expectations were certainly vindicated when he put up 55 points on his debut AHL season in 2014-15. He followed that up with 16 in 56 games at the NHL level last year, playing as an energetic, fearless bottom six forward before stepping it up another notch in 2016-17, carving a leading role on a team with championship ambitions.

Peter Laviolette tested Arvidsson alongside star forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen and the undersized Swede run with the opportunity, smashing his career highs by amassing 29 goals, just two off Forsberg’s team-best, and 57 points, four less than Johansen’s 61.

5’9” forward Viktor Arvidsson has found a way to come up big for the Nashville Predators

The 23-year-old’s 2.36 Points/60 top the team as do the 240 SOG and 5 SHG, a figure unequalled around the NHL this season. Moreover, Arvidsson’s prowess on the PK, hoarded in just over 1 min of work per game, contributes greatly to his +15 rating, best among Nashville’s forwards, while he is just the tenth-ranked Predator in terms of PP TOI/GP, meriting less than 2 min on the man advantage.

With a cap hit of just 631k, Arvidsson leads the league in cost (cap hit including potential bonuses) per point obtained in 2016-17, but Nashville’s bargain is about to be rewarded, as the Swedish winger is an RFA this summer. After his break out season, a multi-year-deal commensurate of a top-six forward is certainly on the table.

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers, G)

An undrafted free agent signed by the NY Rangers in 2013, Talbot’s NHL numbers have been consistently excellent at this level, as attested by his career 0.923 Sv%, yet he gets a nod for a fantastic showing in the role of a first-time workhorse goaltender.

Functioning as the backbone of a fledging team where all key players are yet to reach 25, Talbot’s performance falls under the large cast of Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre brilliance, hence it’s probably bound to go down as exceptionally unappreciated. The 29-year-old is third in the NHL in wins, with his 40 triumphs just one short of Bobrovsky and Dubnyk’s total, first in games started with 70, seven more than the next man, first in saves made and tied for second in SO (7).

Edmonton Oilers’ goalie Cam Talbot is usually in control of the situation when the puck is around

Furthermore, on a team with a problematic history in the crease over the last fifteen years, Talbot’s 2016-17 performance isn’t just the best in terms of GAA (2.36) and Sv% (0.921) since 2001-2002 (min. 40 apps), but also compares quite favourably against his league peers, ranking 7th in 5 on 5 Sv% (0.929), 8th in overall Sv%, and first in medium-danger Sv% (0.954), despite a workload well above anything he’s experienced before. For instance, Talbot has faced 469 high-danger shots this season, while no other goalie has even surpassed 400.

The 29-year-old is signed for two more seasons at a 4.16M cap hit, and that deal looks like a steal by GM Peter Chiarelli, who dished out three picks in 2015 to gamble on a guy that might shepherd Connor McDavid’s era and seemingly hit the jackpot.

Alexander Wennberg (Columbus Blue Jackets, C)

Jarmo Kekalainen’s desire to build the Columbus Blue Jackets from the backend out led to Seth Jones’s acquisition last season, but also left a major void at the top of the team’s forward depth chart. Top-line centres don’t grow in threes, and the best way to find them is through the top of the draft – as Columbus learned with Ryan Johansen – consequently they should be thrilled that the solution was in-house all along.

Center Alexander Wennberg has step up for John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets this season

Wennberg, the 14th overall pick in 2013, saw less than 16 min of TOI/GP during his first two NHL seasons, but was still able to double his point production as a sophomore (20 to 40) and another 20-point jump is in reach in 2016-17. Feasting on a scorching PP top unit, the Stockholm-native notched 33 pts in 35 games to start the season before cooling off down the stretch, yet he’s still seeing 18.21min of TOI/GP, just eight seconds less than captain Nick Foligno, who leads among Jackets’ forwards.

Gaining the thrust of John Tortorella as a 22-year-old center is a tough task, but Wennberg is justifying the gamble by putting points on the board, to the tune of 57 in 77 games, four behind Cam Atkinson’s tally. With 13 goals on the season in just 100 shots, the young pivot would greatly benefit from a more resolute approach to the net, yet his line with Foligno and Brandon Saad is still generating offense aplenty, with a 59.1 GF% propped up by a bit of luck (101.4 PDO).

A RFA coming off his ELC at the end of the season, Wennberg probably won’t net a protracted extension with first-line money attached just yet, however the Jackets would be wise to treat him better than they did to his predecessor.

Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes, D)

The Carolina Hurricanes feature the NHL’s youngest defensive core and headlining the group is not Olympian Justin Faulk, as many believe, but Jaccob Slavin, the 22-year-old Denver-native completing his second NHL season.

After an unassuming rookie year where he compiled 20 pts in 63 games, Slavin and fellow sophomore Brett Pesce have taken the reigns of Carolina’s blueline and blended into one of the NHL’s best shutdown pairs, amassing more defensive zone starts than any other Canes unit (32.3 DZS%) and still delivering possession and chance-generation metrics (54.39 CF%, 57.3 GF% and 58.4 SCF%) ranked on the top 10 amongst pairs with over 700min played. Their success together is further expressed on Slavin’s (+23) and Pesce’s (+20) +/- rating, or their combined +5.5 relCF%, while, at the same time, the rest of the roster is barely above, or below, water.

22-year-old rearguard Jaccob Slavin has shined brightly in Carolina

The 120th pick in 2012 fends off from his regular partner due to a more refined all-around acumen, substantiated in 23.27min of TOI/GP, tops on the Canes roster, and high usage on the PK (3:04min SH TOI/GP), while soaking up just 57 seconds of PP TOI/GP, which is typically reserved for the likes of Faulk or 20-year-old Noah Hanifin. Still, in 2016-17, Slavin started to tap more into his offensive skill, amassing 5 goals and 33 points despite wiring just 96 pucks on goal, a good omen for increased production in the future.

With another season left on his rookie deal, Slavin is bound to upgrade his payday significantly in 2018, possibly fetching a deal more lucrative than Faulk’s 6 year, 29M contract signed in 2014.

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild, RW)

We all saw the flashes of high end skill over the years, but it took Bruce Boudreau’s arrival in Minnesota to unlock the genius of Mikael Granlund. The former 9th overall pick never meshed with Mike Yeo, with whom he wandered between center and wing, and his counting stats ultimately stalled on the 40-point range, but, at age 25, the Finnish playmaker finally approached the wildest expectations bestowed upon him on the State of Hockey.

With 25 goals, more than on his last two seasons combined, and 68 points in 79 games, Granlund shattered previous career-highs as the offensive dynamo on Minnesota’s go-to two-way line. Sharing the ice with captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker, the trio was especially effective between December and February, when the younger Finn tallied well over a point per game (45 points in 39 games), but they’ve been important throughout the campaign, controlling the scoring chance battle (63.0 SCF%) while shouldering many defensive assignments (just 23 OZS%) and drawing loads of penalties (+21 in Penalty differential).

Meanwhile, Finland’s duo is also leaving a mark on special teams, where Granlund picked up 20 PP points and 3 SHG in 1:30min of SH TOI/GP, a number that only lags behind Koivu’s among Wild forwards, and mirrors the distribution in every situation (18.54 min TOI/GP).

Mikael Granlund is finally carrying the Minnesota Wild’s offense

Granlund’s 0.86 ppg pace – inflated by a 14.4 Sh%, almost 5 points over his career average – is the highest by a Wild player since the 2010-11 season and comes at a perfect time. His current 2-year, 6M deal is about to expire, thus it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double that cap hit going forward.

Honourable Mentions:

Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, RW): Ascended to All-Star status with 34 goals and 61 points after offering a glimpse of his ceiling with a 53-point campaign in 2015-16.

Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh Penguins, RW): Amassed 22 goals and 52 points in just 58 games riding alongside Sidney Crosby, a match of skill, speed, hockey sense and tenacity the Penguins had been looking for most of the last decade.

Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs, D): From so-called defensive liability to a 40-point season coupled with a stellar +26 rating and major responsibilities on the NHL’s second best powerplay unit (24.3% conversion rate).

Nazem Kadri (Toronto Maple Leafs, C): Shrouded by the Leafs’ rookie bonanza, Kadri stunningly evolved into Mike Babcock’s jack-off-all-trades middleman while compiling 60 pts and a maiden 30-goal season.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers, C/RW): 74 points in 78 games as Connor McDavid’s running mate to follow up a 51-point season centering Taylor Hall. Impossible to leave off the list had he posted similar numbers anchoring the second line, where the German ought to settle long-term (see Crosby/Malkin dynamic).

All stats referenced in this article courtesy of http://www.Corsica.hockey or nhl.com and updated until 3/4/2017. Unless stated otherwise, possession and scoring chances data refer to 5 on 5 play and are adjusted for score, zone and venue.