NHL hockey nears a return and Scott Cullen weighs in on what happened during the Olympics and how it will affect players and teams going down the stretch. Notes on Zetterberg, Tavares, Ovechkin, Kessel, Granlund, Crosby, Kunitz, Price and more.
1. It's been a big enough challenge for the Detroit Red Wings this season, battling injuries as they sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but as they return from the Olympics, they do so with the knowledge that star LW/C Henrik Zetterberg is out for at least the next eight weeks following back surgery. For the record, there are about seven weeks left in the regular season, so expecting Zetterberg for the first drop of the puck in the playoffs sounds a tad optimistic.
No big deal. Zetterberg merely leads the Wings, with 48 points in 45 games and, at 20:33 per game, is one of two Red Wings forwards (Pavel Datsyuk, at 20:45 ATOI is the other) to play more than 18 minutes per game. He's a puck possession star who plays tough minutes, so the Wings are going to be hard-pressed to replace Zetterberg's contributions.
Certainly, if Datsyuk is healthy enough to play -- and he was healthy enough to put up six points in five games for Russia at the Olympics -- then that will help matters, but the Wings are still going to depend heavily on their young forwards that have been playing an increasing role as the season has progressed. That means the crew of Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Darren Helm all have to raise their games if the Wings are going to survive Zetterberg's absence.
The other option is that the Red Wings could use some of their organizational depth to acquire more immediate help.
2. The New York Islanders are, understandably, not thrilled about the prospects of spending the rest of the season without C John Tavares, who suffered a knee injury against Latvia but, provided he has a full recovery, there isn't much downside for the Isles.
The Islanders, 12 points out of a playoff spot, weren't going to contend for the postseason this year and are already preparing to move LW Thomas Vanek prior to the March 5th trade deadline. Under those circumtances, there will be some opportunities available for other Islanders, rookies Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson among them, to play more prominent offensive roles.
Additionally, the loss of Tavares ought to ensure a higher draft pick for the Islanders. While the Islanders would prefer a healthy Tavares, if his absence results in picking a couple of spots higher in the summer, then that's not the worst thing in the world.
If someone is potentially going to take a hit without Tavares, it could be RW Kyle Okposo, who has been having a career year playing primarily with Tavares and Vanek and will be rolling with new linemates over the final quarter of the season.
3. Rangers RW Mats Zuccarello, the team's leading scorer with 43 points in 58 games, suffered a broken hand while playing for Norway at the Olympics and is expected to miss the next couple weeks.
While Zuccarello is out, that could offer more power play time for Blueshirts wingers, maybe even captain Ryan Callahan, who has been an afterthought in that respect, ranking eighth among Rangers forwards in power play ice time per game (1:47). Callahan has ranked first or second among Rangers forwards in power play time over each of the past three seasons.
4. Penguins D Paul Martin has endured a difficult campaign, missing 25 of 58 games already mostly due to a fractured tibia, and now he could miss another month with a hand injury. Since the Penguins are already going without Kris Letang, in the aftermath of his stroke, they are going to need to lean heavily on young defencemen.
19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta has been a revelation, scoring nine points (3 G, 6 A) in his past 11 NHL games and adding five points (3 G, 2 A) in six games for Team Finland at the Olympics. But the Penguins will need more than Maatta and Matt Niskanen. It could be an opportunity for Simon Despres, who hasn't been able to stick full-time with the Penguins, but has 22 points in 34 games with AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
5. Capitals RW Alex Ovechkin took plenty of heat for Team Russia coming up short on home ice, and with one goal and two points in five games, Ovechkin was due for criticism. At the same time, he had 24 shots on goal in five games (4.8 per), the kind of shot volume that would typically lead to more than one goal. It just so happened that, in this tournament, it didn't.
I've defended Ovechkin's play in the NHL this season already, so there's no need to get too far into his Olympic performance. Could he have been better? Sure, but he was hardly alone in his performance and, considering the number of shots he generated, there's little reason to think he won't be able to continue scoring goals when Washington's season resumes.
Ovechkin wasn't the only Russian superstar to struggle. Penguins C Evgeni Malkin had a goal and two assists in five games, despite putting 20 shots on goal. Two goals on 44 combined shots (4.5%) from Malkin and Ovechkin is a difference-maker, in the wrong direction.
In the NHL this season, Ovechkin has scored on 13.4% of his shots and Malkin on 12.6% of his shots, so if they managed to hold form on those 44 shots, that would have given them an expected 5.7 goals. But, sometimes in short series or tournaments, the pucks don't go in and the result was disastrous for home team Russia.
6. One of the stars for Team USA in Vancouver was Zach Parise, who had eight points in six games, including that late tying goal in the Gold Medal Game. It didn't quite work that way in Sochi, for Parise, however, as he was held to one goal and 11 shots in six games.
Considering Parise has put up 3.91 shots per game for the Wild this season, his best rate since 2009-2010, and had nine points in seven games upon returning from injury prior to the Olympics, his lack of production was surprising.
7. If the Wild might be concerned about Parise's Olympic showing, they have to be even more encouraged by the play of second-year C Mikael Granlund. Finland was shorthanded down the middle, with injuries to Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and, early in the tournament, Aleksander Barkov, thinning out the middle of the ice.
No matter, as Granlund rose to the challenge, finishing with seven points (3 G, 4 A) in six games. The poing production is nice, and not completely out of line with his production in Minnesota, which includes three goals and 13 assists in the past 22 games, the last 15 of which have come while playing more minutes in the absence of Mikko Koivu.
What's more interesting about Granlund, however, is the 20 shots on goal he registered, the 3.33 shots per game a far cry from the modest 1.51 shots on goal per game he's averaged through his first 73 NHL contests. In the last handful of games before the break, Granlund had put up 20 shots on goal, so maybe there is some change coming to his game, and if he's generating chances more consistently, then it's change for the better and Granlund may start living up to the hype that preceded his arrival in North America.
8. No player entered the Olympic break on the kind of roll that Maple Leafs RW Phil Kessel was, putting up 32 points (14 G, 18 A) in 21 games since Christmas and Kessel didn't miss a beat at the Olympics, leading the tournament with five goals and eight points, while playing a modest 15:20 per game for the Americans, which ranked sixth among U.S. forwards.
There's nothing to say that scoring in the Olympics will make Phil Kessel more legit in the NHL, but it's encouraging to see that he was still a dangerous offensive threat against Olympic competition and the Leafs have to figure that Kessel and LW James van Riemsdyk (1 G, 6 A in 6 Olympic games) will be poised to lead them down the stretch as they battle for playoff position.
9. Blackhawks RW Patrick Kane took some heat for his lack of production (0 G, 4 A in 6 GP) for Team USA, but it only highlighted that Kane had been in a bit of a slump before going to the Olympics.
In his past 18 NHL games, Kane has four goals and six assists and while Kane exploded in December, for 23 points and 55 shots on goal in 14 games, he's come back down a level from that peak production.
10. Islanders LW Thomas Vanek didn't do much for Team Austria, managing one assist and 10 shots on goal in four games, but the national team captain was also criticized in reports that noted Austrian players were drinking until 6 a.m. the night before their elimination game against Slovenia.
It's not going to affect Vanek's NHL trade value, because he's still one of the premier offensive players available as the trade deadline approaches, but it's understandably disappointing for an Austrian team that had three NHL forwards on the roster. Islanders RW Michael Grabner (5 G, 1 A in 4 GP) and Flyers LW Michael Raffl (1 G, 2 A in 4 GP) were others.
11. Kings D Drew Doughty was spectacular for Team Canada, scoring four goals and six points in six games, prompting the question: is he reined in too much in Los Angeles? It may just be small sample stuff -- Doughty had a very productive 2012 NHL playoff too (4 G, 12 A in 20 GP) -- but it's puzzling to see a player who had 59 points in 82 games as a 20-year-old continue to linger between 35 and 45 per season since.
With 30 points in 59 NHL games, Doughty is on pace for 42 points this season, which would be his most since that 59-point season in 2009-2010.
12. The same question might be asked of Kings RW Jeff Carter, who had his selection questioned in some circles prior to the tournament, but Carter was clearly one of Canada's best forwards, using his speed to play strong defensively, backchecking and killing penalties, in addition to scoring three goals and five points in six games.
Since the start of the 2008-2009 season, Carter ranks sixth with 182 goals but, as he showed for Team Canada, he's capable of more than merely scoring goals.
13. Penguins C Sidney Crosby was a story, particularly early in the tournament, as the narrative about him being so difficult to play with angle gained more legs. Crosby didn't produce much throughout the tournament, finishing with three points (1 G, 2 A) in six games, though his lone goal was both crucial and an impressive individual effort to give Canada a 2-0 lead in the Gold Medal Game.
And, truth be told, Crosby created a bunch of chances in the semifinal against USA, even though he wasn't rewarded on the scoresheet.
There has been research done on the subject that indicates playing with Crosby isn't such a daunting task, but when the Crosby line wasn't producing, the tendency was to pin blame on those with whom Crosby played which, in some respects, is letting Crosby off the hook.
On one hand, there are legitimate arguments to make about player selection and coaching decisions about who gets to play with No. 87, but some of it has to fall on Crosby too. It's tough to be universally considered the best player in the world in a team sport -- and he is -- yet simultaneously difficult for anyone to play with.
14. Which brings us to one of the most criticized selections for Team Canada, Penguins LW Chris Kunitz, with the chrous perhaps reaching a crescendo during the 1-0 semifinal win over USA, when Kunitz had an altogether decent game, but missed several quality scoring chances that would have obviously helped provide insurance in such a close game.
On Twitter, I wondered if Kunitz, an undeniably solid NHLer, whose next NHL goal will be No. 200, has his reputation raised because of the fact that he rides shotgun with Sidney Crosby. Team Canada brass made it clear that Kunitz was selected on the merits of his own play and that sounds reasonable enough for a player that has 107 points (49 G, 58 A) in 106 games since the start of last season.
Of course, we could also compare that to someone like Oilers LW Taylor Hall, who has 106 points (36 G, 70 A) in 108 games over the same time period, and then consider that Hall is doing it with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as his centre, and not Crosby, and that's where the water gets murkier. Players are valued on more than points alone, obviously, but there is an inherent challenge in figuring out the impact of a player's linemates on their production.
Trying to identify an individual's contribution is the challenge of player evaluation and one that is ever-evolving and it's hard to separate Kunitz's production from the fact that it's coming alongside the best player in the world.
The thing is, for all the criticism of his inclusion among Canada's best 13 forwards, Kunitz is the kind of wonderful story that is easy to get behind. He was undrafted out of Ferris State, hardly a hockey factory, and didn't stick in the NHL for keeps until he was 26-years-old after being waived by the Atlanta Thrashers. He's a hard-working two-way winger who had won a couple of Stanley Cups, a Gold Medal at the Olympics and is having the most productive years of his NHL career as he approaches his mid-30s.
After scoring his only goal of the tournament to seal the Gold Medal win, Kunitz won't have to listen to the criticism and he and Crosby can prepare for a stretch run and potentially a new winger before the trade deadline.
15. Canadiens G Carey Price was excellent (0.59 GAA, .972 SV% in 6 GP) behind Canada's spectacular defensive effort, and now returns to a Montreal team that has been decidedly unimpressive defensively.
The Canadiens are allowing 30.6 shots against per game, which ranks 21st, and their puck possession numbers have been declining steadily since the start of the season, so if those trends don't reverse, a lot of Montreal's playoff hopes (or even getting to the playoffs), will depend on their goaltender.
He's been great this year, posting career-high .925 save percentage in 48 games, but the Canadiens need every bit of that greatness.
16. 43-year-old Ducks RW Teemu Selanne, whose role has decreased in Anaheim -- he has 20 points (7 G, 13 A), with 13:57 ATOI in 47 games -- turned up the heat for a brief run and was named MVP of the tournament, scoring four goals and six points in six games for Finland on their way to a bronze medal.
It wouldn't be reasonable to expect Selanne to rise up for a big finish to the season, just based on some short Olympic tourney success, but it does leave open the possibility that perhaps he could be a productive complementary player for the Ducks in the postseason.
17. The Czech Republic team was in disarray at times, but Oilers RW Ales Hemsky had a strong showing, with three goals and an assist in five games, despite averaging only 12:01 per game (some of that disarray was in how ice time was allocated).
Combined with his lesser role in Edmonton, there's a decent argument to be made in favour of Hemsky as a trade deadline acquisition who has some upside if plugged into a role alongside skilled players and allowed to play significant minutes. As noted in the Kunitz portion, it matters who you play with.
18. Sweden reached the final with an injury-depleted roster, but there were some odd decisions in their blueline deployment. Coyotes D Oliver Ekman-Larsson was glued to the bench for five of the final six periods of the tournament and averaged 9:43 per game, while Blackhawks D Niklas Hjalmarsson played 18:20 per game.
This was also a team that left Lightning D Victor Hedman at home, so there is a definite disconnect between the Swedish team and the esteem with which some its players are held in the NHL.
19. Speaking of Swedish defencemen who are held in high regard, Senators D Erik Karlsson was a dynamo on the big ice, as might be expected with such an exceptional skater.
Karlsson had four goals and eight points, tying Phil Kessel for the tournament lead in points.
20. Switzerland played an extremely buttoned-down game, scoring a total of three goals in four games, but NHL goaltenders Jonas Hiller (Ducks) & Reto Berra (Flames) turned in strong performances, combining to stop 96 of 99 shots faced.
21. Blue Jackets D Fedor Tyutin is out for 2-3 weeks after suffering an ankle injury. He ranks third on the Columbus defence in time on ice (21:34 per game), so someone will have to take on more minutes, potentially Nikita Nikitin, whose ice time has decreased quite a bit to 17:12 per game thsi season after playing 24:35 per game for the Blue Jackets in 2011-2012.
22. Panthers C Aleksander Barkov suffered a knee injury at the Olympics and is out indefinitely. The Panthers were shallow enough down the middle this season that 18-year-old Barkov has been their No.1 centre. If the Panthers trade veteran centre Marcel Goc, that could really change the minutes available for the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Drew Shore and Shawn Matthias.