Grading every NHL team's right wing depth
On Monday, we graded every NHL’ team’s left wing depth. Today, we take another run at our talent tiers, this time with a focus on the right wing position.
Since this is a multi-part series – and I’ve already been advised by the trusty editorial team we will be doing a mid-year update, which is awesome news – I wanted to address some of the common feedback I received on the initial post. They break down into three common points:
1. Interchangeable (LW/RW) wingers
There are about 10 to 12 wingers who are interchangeable (left wing/right wing) and many more who have position interchangeability, but do not actually play one of the two sides at present time. This positional issue only exists at the wing, but in a few circumstances there are overriding changes that should be made.
i) Edmonton’s Evander Kane is the best example of this. Kane has played exclusively at left wing in Edmonton over 43 games, but has position interchangeability. He should have been identified as a left wing, not a right wing. But the blanket positional methodology I’m using – which calls the NHL play-by-play sheets and two independent depth chart databases for buybacks at CBS and CapFriendly – identify him as a right wing.
ii) The solution going forward is to aggregate both wing positions and grade out ‘wingers’ like we will centres and defencemen. It takes the positional noise out of the equation, which also exists to a significant degree when you start looking at plausible fourth-lines for about half of the teams in the league. For now: it is still zero sum, and so if a winger isn’t identified on one side (see: Los Angeles’ Kevin Fiala as another example), he will be on another.
2. Scoring doesn’t correlate to the talent tiers!
That is a feature, not a bug. The upside of using a regression-based model like Goals Above Replacement is to capture other metrics we know add goals and win games – primarily defensive contributions, but ability to draw penalties and the like.
3. Why did my team show poorly when the top-six is great?
Having talent at the top of the lineup is more important than talent at the bottom, but bottom-six forwards play an awful lot of minutes (and are appropriately weighted in this), and having depth can be as valuable, if not more, than a top-heavy lineup.
To the right wing tiers!
Tier 5, In Trouble: San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets
Tier 5, In Trouble: San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets
With Timo Meier captured on the leftwing previews), this group is very limited on impact players. Winnipeg’s Cole Perfetti is an interesting breakout candidate to watch, though. We saw 18-games of Perfetti last season, playing mostly with the likes of Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois. More intriguing is his second season with the Manitoba Moose saw nearly point-per-game production – for a 19-year old at the time, certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Not much else to say here. Pretty grim.
Tier 4, Underperform: Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, New York Rangers
This tier had more teams in consideration for a downgrade to tier five than an upgrade to tier one. Way too many questions across these lineups – a team like Calgary have depth but may lack the top-end talent, a team like Columbus has no less than ten (subpar) options to try and slot into a weak bottom-six, and teams like Detroit and New York are banking on some real growth from their younger weapons heading into next year.
I wanted to focus on those two, because I think they are in interesting spots. Detroit was the best tier four team and the only one I considered for tier three: Lucas Raymond looked outstanding in his rookie year (23 goals and 34 assists in his age-19 season) and is must-see television when he’s on; fellow first-round draft pick Filip Zadina also had his best season as well, but the scoring output just hasn’t been there in his first 160-games. I think Zadina deserves the benefit of the doubt considering how bad the Red Wings have been over the last few years, and he already looks a capable middle-six option, but this year will surely be about evaluating how high his ceiling may be. And David Perron is still quite the player, but as he crosses the 1,000 game mark, we can’t be certain of what his production looks like.
New York is also banking on Alexis Lafreniere (one of those players who could see time in either or both wing spots) and Kaapo Kakko to step forward next year. Neither have had a season quite like Raymond, and Kaako – entering his fourth season now – has started to draw the ire of his own coaching staff. If the Rangers can’t get anything out of players like Kaako (and below him, Sammy Blais), this group is teetering on tier-five territory. It’s certainly the weakness of an otherwise very talented team.
One note on this group: I dare others to try and figure out what Columbus is going to do with their bottom-six at right wing. There are nearly two handfuls of options, and Jakub Voracek – while still a playmaker on the attack – all of a sudden can’t buy a goal. This group is an enigma.
Tier 3, Solid: Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights, Washington Capitals
Like their left wing counterparts, the middle-tier group is generally a combination of teams that have a couple of one-dimensional talents (e.g. bring a lot of offence or a lot of defence, but not both), are too top-heavy, or don’t have enough firepower up front.
The Vegas Golden Knights are perhaps the most interesting team in this group, because they’re a possible rebound candidate into a higher tier in advance of the mid-year update. Mark Stone is still one of the best two-way forwards in the game, but injuries have plagued his career in Vegas over the past two seasons. If Stone can stay healthy and head coach Bruce Cassidy has an appetite for it, I think a tandem with the likes of newly-acquired centre Jack Eichel could take the Western Conference by storm. Stone is exceptionally reliable defensive forward with an awareness grade off the charts; Eichel is one of the best passers and playmakers in the sport, and despite Vegas’ disappointing 2021-22, had a good start to his career down south. We will see if these two unite at any point.
On the other side of the equation, Patrick Kane is doing a lot of work holding up the right side of the Blackhawks lineup, and based on the demolition of their roster this summer, it doesn’t seem likely Kane will be in Chicago much longer. Kane is about as one-dimensional a forward can get, but that one-dimension – his ability to score at will; he managed 92 points in just 78 games last season – has tremendous value and will make him very valuable as a trade rental on his expiring contract. Once Kane is moved, the Blackhawks right side looks as thin as the rest of the roster, and this team is on the fast track to the draft lottery.
And speaking of very attractive trade rentals: St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko, infamously passed up on by the Seattle Kraken, is off a 34-goal season – his highwater mark since the 2016-17 season. The Blues have quite a bit more redundancy on the right side thanks to Jordan Kyrou’s presence, but Tarasenko seems another player who could be moving on in a matter of a few months.
Tier 2, Outperform: Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton OIlers Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, Seattle Kraken, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks
An interesting question with this group: which of these 10-teams has the best collection of talent on the right side? Of all of the tiers I have done so far, this is probably the one I feel best about – if you are looking for commonality in aggregate production, these 10-rosters feel pretty darn close to one another.
I will say this: the David Pastrnak and Craig Smith tandem is as solid a 1-2 punch as you can get, and if the Bruins (stop me if you have heard this one before) could get any firepower in the deeper parts of their lineup, they really would be a tough out again this year. The Bruins entire lineup comes off extraordinarily top-heavy and while that’s plenty enough to get through regular season play, it makes them vulnerable against deeper teams. Case in point: Boston’s struggles against Carolina all of last year. I’m not sure the top of the Hurricanes lineup is any more talented than the Bruins, but I am certain the bottom-half of their lineup is an order of magnitude better. And watching the games, you can see it – Carolina’s entire lineup plays at a ferocious and unrelenting pace, whereas half of Boston’s does.
Vancouver is another interesting team. Conor Garland fit in like a glove last season; the Canucks out-scored their opponents 66-46 (+20!) with Garland on the ice last year, him playing most of his minutes with Tanner Pearson and Elias Pettersson. Garland’s success in Vancouver is important, because it allows the Canucks to get creative with Brock Boeser’s minutes (mostly with J.T. Miller last year), and further allows them to ease young skilled players like Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander into the fray. If Poldkolzin takes a step forward in year two, this is a really good top-nine, and could help carry some of the weaker parts of Vancouver’s lineup.
Also: Oilers fans were rightly frustrated with a weaker grade on the left wing, owing to Kane’s positional interchangeability. But because it’s still zero-sum at the position, they now grade quite well here. Getting Jesse Puljujarvi inked for another season I thought was critical for this team, considering their Stanley Cup expectations – I’ve found data-types are too quick to overlook Puljujarvi’s lack of offensive output, the same way Puljujarvi’s critics brazenly overlook his large contributions, particularly defensively, around the rest of the ice. This is the definition of a make-or-break season for him, and with Kane likely seeing left-side minutes again this year, he’s going to get plenty of top-six work.
Tier 1, Elite: Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Toronto Maple Leafs
Minnesota (with Boldy positioned on the right side here) and Toronto (the same true for Nylander) are slam dunk tier one teams. Minnesota’s right side is loaded with gifted two-way players; Toronto’s combination of Marner and Nylander is probably the best you can find amongst eligible in the league, and Calle Jarnkrok (who could play in multiple positions this year) is an ultra reliable middle-six player. For my money, these two tandems are as good as it gets.
The Predators are an intriguing third team to consider here. Remember when Matt Duchene’s career just a few years ago, an embattled and enigmatic player in Ottawa who couldn’t find his way? It seems as though a change of scenery paved the way for his rebound, because Duchene was sensational last season. Playing alongside Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg, he finished second in team-scoring, and that included a whopping 43 goals – the quietest 43-goal season I can remember, considering it was one back (and technically better on a per-game basis!) than one Connor McDavid. And the Predators landing Nino Niederreiter on one of the best value contracts you will see – two years, $8-million total – bolsters their top-six in a big way.
And keep an eye on Phil Tomasino, too. The former first-round pick had a strong rookie season, with the Predators getting 55 per cent of expected goals with him on the ice. Nashville’s deeper lineup will continue to make them a tough out in the Western Conference; perhaps one of the best teams behind Colorado.
Data via CapFriendly, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, HockeyDB