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 talk about Carolina’s three-headed goalie monster, the Calder Trophy favorite, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and much more.
Carolina’s three-headed goalie monster
It’s hard to win without a true starter, but the Carolina Hurricanes seemingly test those limits every single season and make it work. Their latest experiment? A three-headed goalie monster:
They went down this path before in the COVID bubble season with the trio of Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. Last season, they split duties between Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. This season, they returned that tandem while Pyotr Kochetkov emerged as a legitimate goaltending option when Andersen went down with injury in November. Carolina believed in his early sample so much that it signed him to a four-year extension worth $2 million per season. He is the only goalie the Hurricanes have under contract for next season.
More than a decade ago now, Chicago, and even Philadelphia when it made the Stanley Cup Final in 2010, proved that you don’t need an elite goaltender to win a title. We were far removed from the days of workhorses like Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy trading Cups. Even then, with Chris Osgood and the Red Wings, followed by Antti Niemi and the 2010 Blackhawks, those teams showed that you need to have an elite team to overcome average goaltending.
That’s extremely difficult to put together in a hard cap system. The Colorado Avalanche somewhat managed that last season. The Hurricanes have been betting on that for years now. It hasn’t paid off yet, although Raanta was quite good in the playoffs last season, but this season they might have more options than ever.
Calder race getting interesting
With the Matty Beniers injured, the door is slightly open for Cole Perfetti to make a run at the rookie scoring race. The Winnipeg Jets winger is currently seven points behind Beniers with each having played 47 games, but he has the skill and linemates — Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele — to make it interesting.
Lots of things have gone right for the Jets as they have put together a strong season to date. One of them is Perfetti coming into the league and being an effective player. He just turned 21 on Jan. 1 and has played to a 51-point pace in his first full season of NHL action. The 10th overall pick in 2020, Perfetti is just 5-foot-11 but has speed to burn. Look how he turns on the Jets (pun fully intended) to close the gap on the puck and knock it free before scoring a beauty:
That’s a high-end play. Beniers has 10 more goals and plays just over two minutes more per game than Perfetti, so it’s going to be hard to catch him unless he goes on a massive heater. But this is a very promising first full season for him. Winnipeg has to be thrilled.
The real Calder winner should be…
For what it’s worth, my Calder pick to date would still be Owen Power. He is averaging 23:38 per game, over two minutes more than any other rookie. He has a solid 19 points in 47 games as a defenseman. Most importantly though, Power has been a force on a Buffalo team that is rapidly ascending.
The 6-foot-6, 218-pound blueliner is already in the top 25 in ice time per game among defensemen. He’s playing primarily with Henri Jokiharju and they have been hovering at the equator in shot share, expected goals and coming out slightly ahead in actual goals. When he scored his first of the season in January, an overtime winner, you could see that boost his confidence as he potted one in each of Buffalo’s following two games.
When the Sabres drafted Power in 2021, he became the rare first overall pick to not play in the NHL right away. He elected to go back to Michigan for one final season. It was worth the wait. You constantly have to remind yourself that he’s 6-foot-6 when you watch him because he’s so smooth. Power handles the puck like someone who is a half foot smaller than him. Watch how he roams the offensive zone here leading to a tap-in goal:
Are you kidding? Twenty year old defensemen should not be doing that. Twenty year old defensemen who are that big and skilled are unicorns. Buffalo has a budding superstar here.
When Sidney Crosby compliments someone’s game, it grabs your attention. He doesn’t exactly dish out praise of an opponent like he’s Bill Belichick preparing for a Sunday night showdown. Who did he compliment you ask? That would be Alexander Barabanov of the San Jose Sharks.
It helps when you have three points, including this gorgeous behind the back pass on the game-winning goal:
Barabanov had more than 20 teams in the league interested in signing him from the KHL before he ultimately decided to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. That’s a less than ideal time to enter the league and on a team with high expectations and top talent taking up scoring roles.
In his first few games in the league, the then 25-year-old looked like a deer in the headlights and you’d be forgiven for thinking he might not be able to cut it. Barabanov had one point in 13 games, and as a skilled player playing on a skilled team, it was hard to justify keeping him in the lineup with that level of production.
He was then sent to the AHL, where he played two games and put up five points. Clearly too good for that league, it appeared it was NHL or bust. Enter the San Jose Sharks, who swooped in and acquired Barabanov for forward Antti Suomela. Barabanov hasn’t really looked back since.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound winger was on a one-year contract so he had to show something, and he did by putting up seven points in nine games with the Sharks. Last season, his first full season in the league, he put up a respectable 39 points in 70 games. This season, he’s already up to 31 in 46 games.
A pass-first winger, he doesn’t shoot or score that much with 20 goals in 138 NHL games on 209 shots on net. But the vision is there, he can play alongside skill players (he is lining up with Logan Couture) and for someone on the smaller side, he’s strong on his skates. Signed for another season at $2.5 million, he has become a pretty good player in the league on a great contract.
A moment of appreciation for Crosby
It should be noted that in that Sharks-Penguins game, Crosby picked up two points to pass Stan Mikita for 15th place all-time in NHL scoring. He has an absolutely absurd 1,469 points in just 1,157 games. That’s 1.27 points per game for his career, which is seventh all-time. Crosby is 62 points away from Paul Coffey, who is 14th all-time, so it’s probably not happening this season. And he’s 329 points back of Ron Francis for fifth all-time, so he’d need to likely stay healthy and keep producing at a high rate for at least another three seasons to get there. It’s certainly not impossible and I for one will not be betting against him.
At 35, he’s still rolling with 60 points through 49 games. He was putting together a heck of a playoff series against the New York Rangers last season before getting hurt. When the chips are down, he’s still about as good as it gets in this league. Three Stanley Cup rings, two Olympic golds, countless individual awards — he’s the best player of a generation, which is saying something considering there’s another guy that will likely break the all-time goal-scoring record.
Crosby was so good in his prime it was almost infuriating at how unfair it was. But he still has gas left in the tank, so we should truly make an effort to enjoy the twilight years of his career as much as possible.
Just McDavid things
Standing fourth all-time in points per game? That would be Connor McDavid at 1.469. Only Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky have higher career outputs.
Looking at the NHL scoring race is jaw dropping when you really soak it in. There’s McDavid, leading the league in goals with 41 and points with 92. In 50 games. That is actually slightly below his COVID bubble season pace of 1.88 points per game (he’s at 1.84 right now), but it would be a career-high output over a full season.
It is becoming so commonplace for McDavid to be the best offensive player in the league that we don’t even really process it anymore. You simply skip past his name on the scoring leaderboard because you already know he’s so far ahead of everyone else. But we can’t ignore this. It’s the best output of offense we’ve seen in decades. The highest scoring season anyone has had this millennium is Nikita Kucherov’s 128 points in the 2018-19 season. As long as McDavid stays healthy, he should demolish that. This is an insane season and we need to recognize and cherish it.
Engvall has a bomb, he just needs to use it
The Leafs tried something last season that drove fans nuts: putting Pierre Engvall on the half-wall with the second power-play unit. He’s not exactly an offensive force out there and he’s prone to the odd head-scratching decision. Why would Sheldon Keefe try this out? Well, for starters, when he coached Engvall with the AHL’s Marlies, he played him there and it went well. But perhaps more importantly, he has a bomb of a shot and Keefe likely wanted to give it a look. He surely sees it in practice everyday.
Engvall is 6-foot-5 and a solid 220 pounds — he is built like a truck even if he doesn’t use that size and strength the way fans want him to. And he can really shoot it. A few weeks ago he went coast to coast for this beauty against the Bruins in Boston, perhaps the hardest combination of opponent and venue in the league right now.
That goal seems to have gone to his legs and his confidence. It’s something he’s trying to do each game now. A week later he tried it again:
He didn’t score, but that’s not the point. The first step is having the confidence to keep going for it. His shots per game rate is slightly down from last season (1.97 to 1.72) and that needs to go up. He has a good enough shot that if he lets it rip he’ll rack up the goals. Last season he had a career-high 15 goals in 78 games. This season he’s at 10 through 50 games. Going into the season — and a contract season — he had a goal of hitting 20 for the first time. He’s a little off that pace, but he has time and the ability to do it.
Burakovsky bet paying off for Kraken
Andre Burakovsky has one of the stranger career arcs.
A first-round pick in 2013, he scored 17 goals in his second season and looked like a rising offensive force on a high-powered Washington team. He scored 12 goals the following season. Then he got hurt and scored 12 goals again the year after. Washington won the Cup that season but he played just 13 games in that run. The hope was that he would take off from there, but again he scored a mere 12 goals in 2018-19.
Washington decided to move on, trading him to the Colorado Avalanche in June 2019 for Scott Kosmachuk, a 2020 second-round pick (Tristen Robins) and 2020 third-round pick (Jake Boltmann). In Colorado he finally emerged.
In his first season with the Avs, he had his first 20-goal campaign and a career-high 45 points in 58 games. In the playoffs, he was a beast with 17 points in 15 games. The next season he was again productive… and again, injured. Last season, a contract year, he put together his first 80-game season of his NHL career and put up 22 goals in 61 games. In the playoffs, he was again hurt but productive when he played, with eight points in 12 games. His talent was never in question, but his ability to stay healthy and maximize his potential was fair to wonder about.
The Kraken bet on Burakovsky and signed him to a five-year contract worth $5.5 million per season. He has missed just one game so far and has 39 points in 48 games, which leads all Kraken players. It’s unlikely the 27-year-old ever becomes a 40-goal scorer or 80-plus point player at this rate, but his level of production and game-breaking ability at that age, and that price, is not something you usually see come together. It’s looking like a good bet so far.
Bright spot in Florida
A lot of things have gone wrong in Florida this season, but Carter Verhaeghe is not one of them.
His story is well known at this point. A third-round pick of the Leafs in 2013, Verhaeghe never played a game for Toronto and was traded along with four other players in a contract dump to the Islanders for Michael Grabner. He never played a game for the Islanders either, bouncing between the AHL and ECHL before eventually being traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis. Verhaeghe was sent to the AHL yet again, but this time he lit it up. He had 48 points in 58 AHL games in 2017-18 followed by 34 goals and 82 points in 76 games in 2018-19.
The next season, six years after being drafted, he finally got a taste of the NHL. He contributed a modest nine goals and 13 points in 52 games for the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, adding two assists in eight playoff games. That summer he got signed by the Florida Panthers and really hasn’t looked back since.
His first season in Florida was the bubble season and he broke out with 18 goals and 36 points in just 46 games. Last season, he had a career-high 24 goals and 55 points. This season, he has 26 goals and 43 points in just 51 games. At this rate he’s going to have a chance at cracking 40 goals. Verhaeghe is doing that without even being a regular on the top power-play unit.
After that long journey, he’s still just 27 — turning 28 in August — and continues to improve, as he has shown over the past four seasons. He has a nose for the net and is super crafty. This is legitimately one of the nicest passes of the season. (Bonus points to Aleksander Barkov for the way he waits out the puck instead of just swinging at it and calmly puts it in the net.)
Signed for two more years at just over $4.1M per season, Verhaeghe is a total steal.
Let the fun begin
January is officially over. The trade deadline is a month away. The All-Star break is upon us, and each team has roughly 30 games or so left to play.
Hockey is really broken down into three buckets. There is nothing like playoff hockey — the regular season never comes close. But now we are in the stretch drive and the action is really starting to pick up.
Carolina’s recent comeback against the Kings was exceptional. The Bruins have played some real barn-burners lately against Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto. Hockey is shifting into a new gear now. The physicality is starting to ramp up; line matching doesn’t involve as many experiments with young players; the trade chatter is loud. You can feel the excitement of spring hockey brewing.
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