Grading every NHL team's left wing depth
The National Hockey League calendar goes eerily quiet every August. For many, it’s a brief respite in anticipation of another lengthy hockey season. At TSN, such a break is the perfect opportunity to spend some time dissecting rosters in finer detail.
Starting today, we will unveil a multi-piece series grading every team’s lineup across the positional groups in tiered fashion. We will analyze the depth charts across all positions and create talent tiers for all 32 franchises. For the opener, we will start at left wing. A few housekeeping notes before we get into the piece:
-The tiered approach is meant to bucket teams with similar talent profiles at a given position.
-Position changes (intra-year and during off-seasons) are rather common in the NHL, and in one season, a left wing may see more minutes at centre or vice versa. We scraped the depth charts of two public databases (CBS and CapFriendly), reconciled them against positional usage in prior seasons, and in a handful of cases, made some forecast changes or educated guesses in anticipation of what coaching staffs may do in the upcoming year. Positional volatility only impacts the forward group, so we will manage through each carefully.
-Player contributions will be measured in Goals Above Replacement, which isolates player performance into the following pertinent categories: value added offensively and defensively at even-strength, value added across special teams play (if applicable), and value added by way of drawing and taking penalties. Last year’s leaders, for your brief sanity check, include Johnny Gaudreau, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.
-We will use a weighted system for 2022-23 expectations. Top-six wingers generally play about 62 per cent of all available minutes; bottom-six wingers play the remaining 38 per cent of available minutes.
Let’s get started:
Tier 5, In Trouble: Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks
You could call this tier the ‘we were dominant franchises a decade ago and are now in the throes of a multi-year rebuild’ (San Jose and Chicago), ‘pretending we aren’t but are’ (Philadelphia), and ‘emerging’ (Los Angeles). Across the sixteen expected regular left-wingers within these four teams, we have reasonably high expectations for two of them: Chicago’s Andreas Athanasiou, and San Jose’s Timo Meier.
With how much talent exists league-wide at the position, these depth charts are relatively very weak on offensive firepower, and there are a bunch of penalty magnets within the bottom-six that force their teams into penalty killing situations more than their head coach would like. The saving grace for a team like the Kings is they have plenty of strength around the rest of their lineup, which offsets an obvious positional weakness. For the other three teams, it’s a primary reason why they’ll struggle all season long. Oh, and I did I mention Meier is a restricted free agent at the end of the year?
Tier 4, Underperform: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins
There is certainly less fat within this group relative to your tier five teams, but noticeable missing is still the top-end firepower. We have seen electric seasons from Anaheim’s Adam Henrique (always productive, but with availability concerns), Arizona’s Clayton Keller (fresh off a point-per-game season), and Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel (40 goals last year!) in prior seasons, but it feels like this small group of players are carrying the lion’s share of production at the position for their respective teams.
I think one of the interesting depth charts to follow in this group heading into next season is Montreal. The Canadiens continue to rave over Cole Caufield and his shooting ability, and Evgenii Dadonov – who never developed much favour down in Vegas – is still a very capable playmaking middle-six forward, even at the age of 33. For a truly rebuilding team like the Canadiens, there is a decent amount of talent here, but I think it does hinge on a player like Caufield being a more productive two-way winger in his second season. He’s certainly going to get the minutes to prove it.
Speaking of make-or-break type of seasons: Buffalo’s Peyton Krebs, he of the famous Jack Eichel trade return package. Alex Tuch has fit in like a glove with Buffalo, and was a key reason why the Sabres were so competitive down the stretch last year. Krebs didn’t have the same sort of fortune, struggling and routinely out-scored on lines featuring Dylan Cozens and Vinnie Hinostroza. Krebs is still just 21-years of age, but expectations for the former first-round pick remain high, and he’s going to get a big shot on a Sabres team that aims to be more competitive in a top-heavy Atlantic division.
Tier 3, Average: Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Vegas Golden Knights, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers
I want to start with a team that shouldn’t be in this group, and that’s the Winnipeg Jets. The Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers tandem at the wing position is effectively as good as it gets – you are talking about two players who combined for 75 goals last season, and Ehlers only played 62 games. They are remarkable playmakers and scorers, and the key reason why Winnipeg’s top-six can still be ferocious, even as the rest of the group’s future remains ambiguous as ever.
Jets fans know this all too well, but they are a great example of how poor depth can undermine broader team outcomes. Whether it’s Morgan Barron, Jansen Harkins, or a number of other options in the pipeline, expectations for production from this bottom-six group is muted. Harkins had just 40 per cent of the goal share a season ago. Barron? 38 per cent. Kristian Vesalainen? 37 per cent. The departed Zach Sanford? 44 per cent. You get the point.
They aren’t alone in this category either – lines anchored by Artemi Panarin routinely out-scored (+22) the competition, with the rest of the team treading near break-even (+3). In a hard cap league you can’t spend everywhere, but the Rangers, like the Jets, need a lot more punching power from their bottom-six forwards, particularly at the wing position.
On a brighter note: two Atlantic division teams in Ottawa and Detroit have made huge investments at this position. The Senators bringing in 41-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat gives them a ferocious top-six, whereas Detroit has four reliable left-wing options, including Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana, Dominik Kubalik, and Adam Erne that head coach Derek Lalonde will surely play with. I think this is a very intriguing group and, with some improvement at the centre position, could surprise to the upside next year.
Tier 2, Outperform: Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks
The outperformance tier is loaded with top-end talent and competency at the depth positions, but I think more than anything I am blown away with how many skilled players changed teams in this group. Calgary’s Jonathan Huberdeau, Carolina’s Max Pacioretty, Columbus’ Johnny Gaudreau, Dallas’ Mason Marchment, New Jersey’s Ondrej Palat, and Vancouver’s Ilya Mikheyev are all top-six attackers in this league right now.
And, more to the point of this exercise, remember how tier five had just two players across four teams we expected to have impact seasons? Across these ten teams, we expect at least 13 of these players to grade very well, and that ignores another obvious point: there are an abundance of forwards on these lists who aren’t going to lose in their respective minutes, and in a hard-cap league, playing to break-even performance on cheap contracts is nothing to sneeze at.
The most intriguing team in this group, in large part because they are an offensive enigma on most nights, is Dallas. The Stars finished just 21st in scoring last season, and was out-scored over the course of the season despite qualifying for the playoffs. And, let’s be honest, the hockey was structurally painful to watch from time to time.
However, 23-year old Jason Robertson exploded onto the scene last year. Robertson’s 41 goals and 38 assists felt effortless, and he established himself quickly as one of the league’s most impressive attackers. Moreover, it was clear that Robertson was the player stirring the drink, so to speak, on his line: as went Robertson’s play, linemates Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz followed. Not common you see left-wingers drive the performance of lines unless they are exceptional, and Robertson was last year.
Adding the 27-year old Marchment in free agency after his breakout second season gives the Stars two dangerous attackers inside of their top-six, though the Stars are hinging their hopes that neither Robertson nor Marchment had fluky breakout years. If Robertson and Marchment can replicate what they did last season this season, this Stars group is actually knocking on the door of elite status. Big if, but this is a positional group to watch come October.
One other team I’m keeping an eye on in this group is Carolina with Pacioretty in the fold. The Hurricanes took advantage of Vegas’ cap situation and added the sniper for free (also known as “future considerations”); it gives them redundancy and optionality around Andrei Svechnikov that the team may have not have had in prior seasons.
Tier 1, Elite: Florida Panthers, Seattle Kraken, St. Louis Blues
Three teams, with deep offensive firepower, and very few – if any – holes at the position. Not a single winger on this list figures to be replacement-level calibre or below. And for top-end performance, we have five players who we are keeping an eye on for breakout seasons or continuance of breakout seasons: Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe, Seattle’s Jared McCann, and St. Louis’ Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich.
I think the most debatable group of the three is Florida. I don’t think you can discount how dominant a player Tkachuk is – whether you’re watching video, looking up counting stats (I remind you, Tkachuk had a whopping 104-points last season, 8th highest in the NHL), or underlying numbers that give him even added credit for his ability to draw penalties. He’s a superstar in this league. And it’s not a surprise the Panthers didn’t blink trading a franchise name like Huberdeau for Tkachuk’s services, and his whopper of a new contract.
Behind him is Verhaeghe, who on a regular line with Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair, outscored opponents to the tune of 26 goals a season ago. Florida, despite the changes across the lineup, won’t have any difficulty scoring this year. But for this group to entrench itself in elite status, they’ll need strong seasons from the likes of Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins behind them.
One last note, this one on the Kraken: adding Oliver Bjorkstrand for such a minimal cost was highway robbery, and I’d argue the Kraken have the deepest left-wing position in terms of skill across all 32 teams. Seattle was a tough watch in their inaugural season, but you look at a depth chart like this and have real reason for excitement – I think it’s the best four-player group of all 32 teams. The notion a player of Bjorkstrand’s capabilities could see third-line minutes speaks to how good the likes of Schwartz and McCann are. And, maybe, to a better second year in Seattle.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Cap Reference, CapFriendly, CBS Sports