Just two weeks ago, Jonathan Huberdeau sat for the third time as the Calgary Flames pulled off a comeback victory over the Nashville Predators. Unfortunately for the Flames, the winger didn’t make the difference.
That’s what inspired us to dust off our friend from the game, the stress-o-meter™️.
It’s still early in the 2023-24 season, so sounding the alarms may still be a little surprising. However, some troubling trends and performances raised red flags early on.
That brings us back to Huberdeau.
The Daryl Sutter Effect seemed to crush a lot of flames last year. The management seems confident that the team will bounce back under a new coach. That didn’t happen for Huberdeau and others in Calgary. This may indicate a trend going forward, not just an external one.
At his best, Huberdeau is a star forward who raises his game to reach the Art Ross Trophy conversation. But even at his best — his 115-point campaign in 2021-22 — some holes in his game should have kept him out of Hart Trophy contention. Sure, you’ve crushed it on the score sheet, but sometimes those points hide what’s beneath the surface. Huberdeau was a quality passer, but he wasn’t among the leaders in shot assists when he expanded to the power play, where he had the most success. There were also some defensive concerns.
But despite his highs that season, flaws and all, the fall was much harder than expected. A strong commitment to defense weighed down the offense in the Flames’ first year. And this season, there hasn’t been much improvement in buying that. Huberdeau has 10 points in 17 games, which translates to 2.05 points per 60 minutes. Not only is it far from the career year, but it even dates back to last year. While his on-ice shooting percentage at five-on-five is somewhat low, it’s not just poor shooting opportunities. It’s the lack of playmaking in the minutes — the Flames don’t even break even on expected goals with him on the ice, and much of that has to do with how much quality offense they receive. The loss is not only in minutes, and for the second consecutive season, he is negatively relative to his teammates in terms of expected goal creation. The winger’s primary scoring production continues to trend downward as Calgary needs him to be the man.
The biggest flaw in all of this may be this logic: Huberdeau is an extremely talented offensive talent, but a team shouldn’t rely on him to be their No. 1 playoff hitter. Maybe he’d be better off being the second star on a team, with a more valuable forward than his face (Aleksandr Barkov, who was mostly in Florida). It’s not his fault that he received a hefty contract, but that management gave him one – especially when they haven’t built a roster to elevate someone critical to their success.
This is a contract the Flames can’t move, which makes it all the more important for the team to find a way to boost Huberdeau’s confidence and get him to play to his strengths. Even if he can’t return to the heights of his career, there should be gear above his current level. Calgary saw glimpses of that last week against the Canucks, but games like that were the exception, not the rule.
Considering the Flames brought Huberdeau to Calgary to replace Gaudreau’s top-line play — their senior seasons in 2021-22 are closely matched in the scoring race — the two could always share a link.
Unfortunately for the Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets, that link extends to the fact that neither of them matched that elite offensive punch with their new teams. Huberdeau’s is a bit longer, but Gaudreau’s trend is declining this year. And he’s not the only player who’s been considered a difference maker in Columbus — so has Patrick Laine, which is why he was a healthy scratch on Sunday night.
Laine should have been hit or miss years ago, but for Gaudreau, this is completely out of character. Although last year wasn’t nearly as high on the score sheet, it wasn’t quite as spectacular of a fall as Huberdew’s. But scoring at a 1.22 points per clip in 60 and 18 games is terrifying. Every year in the work, the speed at least doubles.
Gaudreau’s vision continues to dwindle across the board — from the amount and quality of his shots, to how he can tilt the ice five-on-five. Even known strengths have slipped. Gaudreau was a zone slot machine in 2021-22. That’s down from 25.4 entries per 60 in his first season to about 20 and 18.6 this year. For someone who carries the punch 70 percent of the time, that’s about 54 percent. The winger’s rush-based game has slowed down, and he’s not setting up teammates as often.
It’s no surprise that Gaudreau was ineffective outside of the 2021-22 Flames squad — when he joined the Blue Jackets, the structure and quality around him was a big letdown. But he has one of the biggest gaps in the NHL between his net rating this season (8.3) and what he’s actually walking right now (minus 6.9). It would help if Columbus started to settle down around him, but individually he needs to wait a lot.
The New York Islanders are a .500 team that has been undefeated this season. But over the last 10 2-4-4 stretches on Long Island, he has increased his threat.
It’s not just about whether the islanders lose a game, but how they lose. This is not a team that falls behind early and can’t dig out of a hole. In all situations, the Icelanders lead 37.7 percent, which ranks ninth in the league. And the team only trails 20 percent of the time — only the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins spend their time facing deficits. But there is an eight-point gap between Rangers and the Islanders in the standings. The main difference is how these teams manage the game when they are ahead.
The Islanders are a team to watch when they’re behind – they generate quality shots and don’t give up too many, scoring 61 per cent of their expected goals. And the team has outscored opponents 9-5 in that span, which is why it doesn’t often get overlooked. But few teams are as porous defensively as the Icelanders at the helm. They are a bottom five team in both possession and scoring opportunities, giving up 62 percent of their chances.
New York’s struggles were evident in the third period. Not only were the Isles one of the lowest scoring teams (11 goals overall), but they gave up 24 in the final frame. Only Seattle and San Jose received more. That was the theme of their recent road trip, where they gave up unanswered goals in the third to Edmonton, Vancouver, Seattle and Calgary (where they lost three of four games).
The management has invested a lot in this core and this window of play, so every point is more crucial in a competitive metropolitan division. If the Isles can’t defend their lead and play a more active third, their playoff chances will disappear, just as they did a few points in the Western Conference swing.
The New Jersey Devils were a threat entering this season after losing two key defenders in Vitek Vanacek and Akira Schmidt, especially in Ryan Graves and Damon Severson. It was a calculated threat given the caliber of those two goaltenders last year and New Jersey’s high-pressure possession game. It was important for management to know if they could avoid sewing in nets after investing heavily in their cheerleading squad.
Now through 16 games, this looks like a weak spot in New Jersey.
It’s not just about scoring goals. The team is second only to 40.5 percent shooting at five-on-five, and some of that has to do with a lack of goal support. The Devils are falling short of expectations in the scoring department and aren’t driving plays to last year’s level, with just under 54 percent of their expected field goals. That should improve as the team gets healthier, and having Jack Hughes back in the lineup should make a big difference.
But New Jersey ranks in the bottom five in goals against, which is a problem. Both goalkeepers are not responding well to the workload in all situations. Schmid is below average in six games. Vanacek, meanwhile, has allowed six more goals than expected, which is third-worst in the league.
Vanacek’s stellar start to the season continued in the second half. The expanded workload began to weigh on him as the year progressed and that seemed to carry over into the game, where he has yet to show a positive experience. So management needs to reassess the position in the next couple of months to see where this goes. Can Vanacek be a contender starter or was last year an outlier? Can Schmidt bounce back or is he better served in the AHL in a starting role? Management should be able to figure out those answers and find a solution. That’s why the worry-o-meter isn’t as high as it could be — but that could change if the situation worsens or the team is struggling to find a stronger alternative.
Wild penalty kill
The Minnesota Wild are doing everything they can to get back on track as a defensively strong team. It was a rare season in Minnesota where the team fumbled in its own zone and didn’t have a reliable field goal to save those defensive fumbles. This is true both on the strength and in the team’s worst area of play to start the season: the penalty kill.
Last year, Minnesota’s penalty kill was the eighth-most goals scored. And their goal scorers upped the ante by making more saves than expected based on the quality of the shots they faced. The Wild did a better job of protecting the middle of the ice in front of the blue paint than the rest of the league.
This year, the Wildcats are succeeding in limiting shooting opportunities and scoring chances. Before Sunday morning’s game in Sweden (where the Toronto Maple Leafs were 1-for-2 on the power play), Minnesota was ranked as the fourth-worst team in both shots and expected goals allowed. Unlike last year, a lot will come from home plate in front of the crease. The team’s 60-goal death toll is 14.03. The Wild’s penalty killers aren’t doing their goaltenders any favors, but nobody’s netminder is responding badly to their workload when they’re short-handed, allowing a better-than-expected 4.77 goals-against lead.
Key injuries were a big blow to the penalty kill, especially with Jared Spurgeon sidelined. He was often above the board while shorthanded, and even though he played against top power-play units, he helped limit scoring opportunities from the middle of the ice. While already narrowing down a small sample, Minnesota wasn’t much better on the penalty kill with him in the lineup. Perhaps if the team’s stars had stepped up, they would have been able to overcome their problems earlier. But now that’s not the case, which makes this an even more obvious weakness.
The condition of the cap of maple leaves
William Nylander is thriving this year and the Maple Leafs are enjoying it now, but if he continues at this rate, it will have long-term implications that management may not be ready to deal with. Nylander is getting himself a more expensive contract in the game, forcing serious conversations about how to balance the salary cap in Toronto. Perhaps the management should have focused more on extending both of their pending UFA stars last summer – as this may not be an easy situation moving forward.
– Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones and NaturalStatTrick. This story is based on bullet-specific parameters; Here’s a primer on those numbers.
(Top photos of Jonathan Huberdeau and Johnny Gaudreau: Derek Ling/Getty Images and Ben Jackson/NHL by Getty Images)