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Cullen: Notes on Leafs, Penguins, Nyquist, Palat, more

Scott Cullen
3/26/2014 4:37:20 PM
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Scott Cullen checks in on the falling Maple Leafs, fading Pittsburgh Penguins and notes and stats on Nyquist, Palat, Iginla, Cammalleri, Giordano and Jarnkrok.

FALLING LEAFS

To say this has been a roller-coaster season for the Toronto Maple Leafs means that one is paying closer attention to the standings (the wins and losses therein) than they are the underlying statistics because the underlying statistics for the Maple Leafs have held pretty consistently all year long.

Their Fenwick Close (measuring unblocked shot attempts when the game is within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third period) has been below 43% since October 19. At 41.6% for the season, they rank ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres in this puck possession metric.

Fighting that uphill possession struggle night after night, the Maple Leafs still managed to sit in playoff position for a good portion of the season for two reasons. First, goaltender Jonathan Bernier has been excellent, probably even better-than-advertised when they acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings last summer; his .925 save percentage ranks third (behind Tuukka Rask and Ben Bishop) among goaltenders with at least 35 starts this season. So, yes, outstanding goaltending can help thwart the puck possession monster, but that's a risky proposition because goaltending performance tends to vary so wildly.

Take Bernier's partner in the crease, James Reimer, for example. This year, thanks to his recent run of poor outings, Reimer's save percentage has dipped to .908, below average for an NHL goaltender. Last year, it was .924; the year before that, .900 and, as a rookie in 2010-2011, .921.

Over those four years, Reimer's save percentage sits at .914, which is good enough to be an NHL starter, but the fluctuations in save percentage are standard for most at the position, making it a dicey proposition to bank on winning that battle of percentages when the alternative, having a successful possession team, allows much more leeway for the unpredictable nature of the position.

So, the goaltending has helped the Leafs, that's no secret.

The other factor that has played a big part in the Leafs' bid for a playoff spot this season has been success in the shootout. Despite not reaching a shootout since January 15, the Leafs are tied for second in the league with nine shootout wins; their 9-4 (.692) shootout record standing behind St. Louis (8-3), Pittsburgh and Columbus (both 5-2) in terms of winning percentage.

This matters because shootouts are essentially a coin-flip exercise so, for one thing, it's not sustainable to do especially well (or especially poorly) and -- as I've referenced to those who have railed against where the Leafs sit in my Power Rankings -- there is no correlation to shootout results and a team's ability to win a (theoretical) seven-game series.

The point of all this isn't to pile on the Leafs when they are hitting a rough patch at a critical time; it's more to note that the perception of this team has been affected by strong goaltending and shootout success. A team that sits 29th in Fenwick close needs incredibly, perhaps impossibly, good fortune when it comes to the percentages to not be a disaster and, thanks to above-average goaltending, the Maple Leafs have managed to hold a playoff spot for much of the season.

With time running out to earn a playoff spot this season, however, it's terribly ungrateful to now set sights on goaltending as the cause for this team's troubles. The issues run deeper and have been running that way virtually all season.

PENGUINS FADING

Lest we pretend that the Maple Leafs are the only team having trouble when it comes to advanced metrics, let's look higher up the standings at a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has been on a gradual, but steady, decline since Christmas. While Pittsburgh's record is 19-10-4 in that span, their Fenwick Close has declined from 54% to 50.2%, the kind of dip that reveals cracks beneath the surface of that 19-10-4 record.

It's not as though this is wholly mysterious. The Penguins have endured significant injuries, losing players like James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang and Paul Martin for more than 20 games apiece. It's understandable to have performance fall off for a team missing quality players for large chunks of the season, but there are other issues at play too.

The Penguins' bottom six forwards have been getting destroyed in terms of puck possession and while some of that is a matter of how teams deploy their talent (starting more shifts in the defensive zone makes it harder to generate positive possession stats), the Penguins' player usage chart also shows that their defence is in trouble without Martin and Letang to aid in the puck-moving effort.

Matt Niskanen and rookie Olli Maatta are above break-even and Simon Despres has relatively strong possession stats in the 17 games that he has played this season, but Robert Bortuzzo, Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland and Rob Scuderi are all under 47% Corsi and that's a hard way for a team to remain near the top of the standings.

In the Penguins' case, they can out-perform possession numbers, to some degree, because they have rare elite forward talent in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, driving the offence. With Malkin out, perhaps for the rest of the regular season, that's putting a heavy load on Crosby's shoulders.

That means the likes of Brandon Sutter, Marcel Goc and perhaps a soon-returning Beau Bennett have to take responsibility for improving the play of Pittsburgh's bottom six forwards.

For much of the season, it appeared to be a two-team race in the Eastern Conference, but it's pretty clear now that the Boston Bruins are ahead of the fading Penguins and now Pittsburgh needs to get healthy and playing better in a hurry if they're not going to be a vulnerable favourite in round one of the playoffs.

MOTHER GOOSE

When the Detroit Red Wings opened the 2013-2014 season against the Buffalo Sabres, their opening night lineup included Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, Cory Emmerton, Drew Miller, Mikael Samuelsson and Stephen Weiss. Tomas Tatar was a healthy scratch.

Sent to the AHL, because he didn't need to clear waivers (like Tatar or Joakim Andersson), was LW Gustav Nyquist, the hottest goal-scorer in the league who has 20 goals and 12 assists in the past 25 games.

Nyquist, a fourth-round pick in 2008, was a star at the University of Maine, scoring 144 points in 113 games, then adding 122 points in 122 career AHL games before this season. He had 13 points in 40 NHL games over the past two seasons, in limited ice time, so he had shown that he could play and deserved a real opportunity.

This year, in total, Nyquist has put up 25 goals and 17 assists in 47 games and while he's obviously been experiencing good luck (a shooting percentage of 19.2% isn't sustainable long-term), Nyquist is also doing the kinds of things that portend to future point production.

While facing high-quality opposition, Nyquist is generating positive puck possession numbers and his shots/60 minutes of 5-on-5 play ranks 38th (among players to play at least 500 minutes), just ahead of Taylor Hall and Bobby Ryan.

This isn't to say that Nyquist is a surefire star, based on a third of one NHL season, but he's established that he can score in the league and, even when his percentages come back to earth, he can be a top six or potentially top line winger.

BURNING BRIGHT

It's been a tough season for the Calgary Flames, but that hasn't meant that everything has gone poorly. A few veteran Flames, for instance, have enjoyed productive years.

Defenceman Mark Giordano has put up monster possession numbers and has tied his career-high with 43 points, despite playing in only 54 games. If not for missing 18 games earlier in the season due to a lower body injury, Giordano could be in the Norris Trophy discussion.

While it's no surprise that Giordano, signed to a reasonable contract, would remain with the Flames through this rebuilding process, there was pretty much shock when LW Mike Cammalleri wasn't moved at the trade deadline.

Heading towards unrestricted free agency, 31-year-old Cammalleri made sense as a rental for a playoff team needing a scoring boost, but his late-season scoring has been working for the Flames. In 11 games since the trade deadline, Cammalleri has nine goals and six assists and he's continued, for the most part, to put up solid possession stats.

Cammalleri's up to 23 goals on the season, his most since 2009-2010, despite playing only 55 games; production that will get him paid this summer, even if it's at a rate below the $6-million per season that he's commanding on his current contract.

STILL GOT IT

There was a time this season, through say the beginning of December, that is looked like Bruins RW Jarome Iginla might be nearing the end of the line. The ever-reliable veteran had five goals and 11 assists in 29 games, while playing on the Bruins' No. 1 scoring unit.

Maybe it simply took him time to adjust to new linemates David Krejci and Milan Lucic -- a line that coach Claude Julien virtually never tinkers with -- but Iginla has been on a good run since, scoring 23 goals and 19 assists in 43 games. Like many Bruins, Iginla's puck possession stats are strong, but Iginla's riding a bit of good luck too, as he, Krejci and Lucic are among those with the highest PDO (5-on-5 shooting plus save percentage -- which serves, generally, as an indicator of luck) in the league.

Luck or not, Iginla's recent run has pushed him to 28 goals, a total that he has hit in every full year that he's played (excluding last year's lockout-shortened season) since 1997-1998.

ONDREJ THE GIANT

When it was looking like Lightning C Tyler Johnson might be pushing for the Calder Trophy as top rookie, competing with Avalanche C Nathan MacKinnon, another Tampa Bay forward inserted himself into the discussion.

Since the trade deadline, LW Ondrej Palat has scored five goals and nine assists in 10 games, playing more than 21 minutes in six of them. He has spent the bulk of his time on a line with Valtteri Filppula and newcomer Ryan Callahan and rarely gets power play time.

There is good fortune at play, as Palat is on the high-end in both on-ice shooting percentage (10.3%) and save percentage (.940), but he also deserves credit for earning his production at even-strength. Palat's 35 5-on-5 points ties him with 10 others for 28th in the league.

Not bad for a seventh-round pick out of Drummondville in the QMJHL, as a 19-year-old, in 2011. Palat currently ranks seventh in that draft class with 55 NHL points.

GOING BACK TO CALLE

While it's understandable that the Detroit Red Wings wanted immediate help, in the form of veteran C David Legwand, and felt emboldened by the play of their AHL call-ups this season, including Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan, they may soon regret sending Calle Jarnkrok to the Nashville Predators in that trade.

A second-round pick in 2010, Jarnkrok got off to a slow start in his first AHL season, scoring 17 points in 41 games through January 18. At that point, the numbers started falling into place for Jarnkrok and he scored 26 points (8 G, 18 A), with a plus-9 rating, in 21 AHL games before the Predators promoted him.

Skating on a line with Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith, Jarnkrok has started his NHL career with three assists in three games. Of course this is a super-early assessment, but he's not getting beaten in the advanced stats either, posting positive possession numbers with balanced zone starts.

For a team like Nashville, that needs more skill up front, their acquisitions in the past two trade deadlines -- Jarnkrok and Filip Fosberg -- could become major pieces in their attack going forward. And, for the Red Wings, even with all the great contributions they are getting from young players this season, they may soon rue the day they surrendered Jarnkrok.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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