10 NHL insights and observations: Skinner's resurgence a much-needed win for Sabres

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The Sabres really needed a good bounce in the 2021-22 NHL season and Jeff Skinner has given them one. (Getty)
The Sabres really needed a good bounce in the 2021-22 NHL season and Jeff Skinner has given them one. (Getty)

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at no-look passes, the Rocket Richard race, Jeff Skinner rebounding, the Kraken’s tough start as a franchise and much more.

1. In the NFL, no-look passes have been all the rage of late. Patrick Mahomes has a whole highlight reel of them while Matthew Stafford made his biggest pass, in the league’s biggest game, a no-looker.

In the NHL, meanwhile, it has rather quietly become a big thing too. It makes sense as to why: teams are so good at defending and coaches can put systems in place to reduce offence. You need to create misdirection and confusion.

Just this week, Mikko Rantanen no-look passed the game winner right through Erik Gudbranson’s legs for a tap-in game winner.

Here’s Kirill Kaprizov with a no-look pass earlier this season. The goal looks poor at first, and it was a great shot, but just a second of confusion leads to a domino effect of sliding over a hair late and not setting yourself properly.

There are countless examples of no-look passes throughout the league now, and we probably don’t give them enough attention as they appear to be increasing throughout the league. As goalies and defencemen continue to get better, and nets stay the same size, skill players need to find creative ways to produce offence.

This is one way to keep opposing defenders and goaltenders on their toes.

2. Last season was simply an all-around nightmare for the Buffalo Sabres. There was some light at the end of the tunnel when they got to select Owen Power first overall, but they’ve drafted high for a decade. They needed more than simply drafting high.

Enter, the return of Jeff Skinner.

Skinner is at or above his career averages in goals per game, assists per game and points per game. He is three goals away from his fifth-career 30-plus goal season. And he has found something with Tage Thompson, and now Alex Tuch.

Thompson is having a great season as well, something that has been well documented by many at this point. Earlier in the season, he was playing with Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund. It hasn’t been Thompson – Skinner the entire time, which means the current trio still has room to grow – they are giving up as much as they produce at 5v5 (18 goals for and 18 goals against in almost 300 minutes together). They are only slightly above water at controlling play at 5v5, scoring chances and expected goals.

But the combination of Thompson and Tuch’s size, Skinner’s shiftiness and everyone’s skill is tantalizing. Part of that is Skinner’s re-emergence as a top-six-level scorer in the league.

it was only last summer that Skinner was available for the Seattle Kraken to pick for free. The 29-year-old was likely available to anyone in the league at a modest cost. Today, Skinner would lead all Kraken players in goals and points. That’s not to say they should have selected him – that’s a different story altogether – but Skinner finding his form again is a great story for a Buffalo franchise that has had a number of wins this season as they try to climb back to respectability.

3. On that note regarding the Kraken, I started wondering how many players they passed on would in fact be leading their team in scoring.

For the sake of this exercise, we won’t include players that were unrestricted free agents because there were no guarantees they would be able to sign any of them.

Yanni Gourde is currently leading Seattle in scoring with 39 points and the Kraken are fifth-last in the league in goals per game as a team. We’ve already established Skinner as one player that would be leading their team in scoring with his point totals to date. The rest of that list currently includes the following: Shayne Gostisbehere, Jakub Voracek, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Killorn and Alex Kerfoot.

There are some reasonable circumstances at play here to understand the Kraken's decision to pass up on those athletes – big contracts, older players, one guy having a career season. But it’s a reasonable amount of talent left on the table (plus other players who have been productive such as Nino Neiderreiter) for a team that lacks talent on the whole.

4. One aspect of the Kraken's game that seemed destined for success on paper was goaltending. It hasn't played out that way, though.

They selected Chris Driedger and promptly signed him to a three-year, $10.5 million contract, making him a notable presence on their expansion draft day program. Then, they one-upped themselves by locking in Phillip Grubauer to a six-year, $35.4 million contract. If nothing else, they should have been good in net.

Instead, the Kraken are second-last in the league in 5v5 save percentage. Overall, in all situations, they are dead last. Grubauer is having by far the worst season of his career with an .889 save percentage. He had never been below .916 before this season. Driedger hasn’t been much better at .892, but it’s at least somewhat understandable for a guy that only had 34 starts in the league coming into this season.

And it’s not as if the Kraken are awful defensively, either. In all situations they are 13th in expected goals against according to Natural Stat Trick. They are sixth in scoring chances against, sandwiched between Toronto and Colorado. They are fifth-best in high-danger corsi attempts allowed.

It really has been a tough first year for the Kraken in a number of areas.

5. The Carolina Hurricanes are having another excellent season, led by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Frederik Andersen is having a great campaign. Jaccob Slavin is his usual elite self. Rod Brind’Amour, as you’d expect, has the team structured and organized.

They present a ton of challenges for opponents to work through.

One of those is their third line of Nino Neiderreiter – Jodan Staal – Jesper Fast. None of those players are in the Canes' top five in scoring, though Neiderreiter does have 21 goals. They maybe don’t grab the headlines because of that, but the trio has formed a rather effective line, capable of checking top lines and scoring against weaker ones. They have strong underlying numbers in nearly 400 minutes together – above 55 percent in shot share, expected goals and scoring chances.

As a trio, they have 25 goals for at 5v5 to only nine against. And this is a line that generally handles tough matchups while doing that. Staal turns 34 this year, but he remains a horse at 6-4 and uses that strength and reach to end plays cleanly in the defensive zone.

All three players are feisty and they have enough skill that if they get open chances, they can bury. Look how all three hound the puck when it’s their turn to, leading to an easy goal.

6. It wasn’t too long ago that Mats Zuccarello appeared to be on track to a big decline.

After getting traded to the Dallas Stars – where he was having an awesome start – he suffered a broken arm that required surgery. He never played for the Stars again. That summer Zuccarello signed with the Wild and put up a career-low 37 points in 65 games, at the age of 32, outscored by a 35-year-old Zach Parise on a fairly average Minnesota team.

It was fair to wonder how that contract would age. Like a fine wine though, it just keeps getting better.

At the age of 34, he already has a career-high in points with 67 in just 57 games. He is lapping himself many times over here. Zuccarello has always been a good, productive player but he’s never had a point-per-game season and he’s way above that now. His previous career-high in points per game was .83 – which is something he has done twice, including last season.

Playing with Kaprizov sure helps. They have been together for nearly 700 minutes this season and have 45 goals for to just 28 against while on the ice at the same time at 5v5. Zuccarello has played with good players before – Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider — but none as good as Kaprizov (given where those players were in their careers at those times compared to Kaprizov now). Teams spend a lot of time and focus on Kaprizov, rightfully so, and thus the game has slowed right down to Zuccarello.

Look at all the attention Kaprizov is getting to start this rush, and how calmly Zuccarello just allows the attack to come as he waits out the defender and beats the goalie cleanly.

7. One of the centrepieces of the trade that saw Erik Karlsson go from Ottawa to San Jose was Josh Norris.

A first-round pick by the Sharks in 2017, Norris played for a Michigan team that also featured Quinn Hughes. From there, he went to the Belleville Bulls where he led the team with 31 goals and 61 points in 56 games (in fairness, Drake Batherson likely would have led the team in points had he not been called up).

He followed that up with a solid rookie season, putting up 17 goals and 35 points in 56 games. This season, he has blown right up with 26 goals in 50 games. Part of that is due to a 20.8 shooting percentage. In fairness, he also shot a high 17.7 percent in his first season.

He’s now at over 100 games in the league shooting nearly 19 percent. It will likely come down at some point in time. Whether or when it does, one thing he has established for himself is a go-to one-timer on the power play. Norris's 13 power-play goals are tied for eighth in the league. Every single player tied with or ahead of him has played a minimum of 11 games more than him.

This is downright Ovechkin-esque, and he’s done it multiple times this season (and even last). Keep Norris there and just feed him one-timers all night.

8- Here is the list of Rocket Richard winners since 2010:

Year

Player

Goals

Games

2010–11

Corey Perry

50

82

2011–12

Steven Stamkos

60

82

2012–13*

Alexander Ovechkin

32

48

2013–14

Alexander Ovechkin

51

78

2014–15

Alexander Ovechkin

53

81

2015–16

Alexander Ovechkin

50

79

2016–17

Sidney Crosby

44

75

2017–18

Alexander Ovechkin

49

82

2018–19

Alexander Ovechkin

51

81

2019–20**

Alexander Ovechkin

48

68

David Pastrnak

Boston Bruins

48

70

2020–21**

Auston Matthews

41

52

As of this writing, Matthews and Leon Draisaitl are tied with 49 goals apiece. The Leafs have 16 games left in their season, the Oilers have 14 games left in theirs. This should be the highest-scoring Rocket winner since Steven Stamkos won with 60 in 2011-2012. The year that he won, Evgeni Malkin finished second in goals with 50. Stamkos upped him by 10 in an incredible season.

Matthews and Draisaitl are having incredible seasons of their own this time around, except it’s rather unlikely one ups the other by 10. This is a historic race from two elite goal scorers. Watching them go goal for goal down the stretch here is simply awesome.

9. In the NBA, sneakers are a big deal. Michael Jordan and Air Jordans made them a big deal. Now, players are all over grabbing and playing with cool sneakers.

I don’t think hockey will ever get to that level – after all, you can’t exactly show off your uniquely designed skates out in public. It’s for hockey arenas only.

That said, these Bauer skates made special for Pride Night are cool.

It would be nice to see a bit more personality added to equipment like this. Instead, the league bans things like jersey tucking. Maybe we get the odd interesting tape job of note. Even goalie masks are no longer as cool as they once were.

There are opportunities on the table for players to express themselves and for the league to push them toward doing so. Here's hoping they seize the chance.

10. Sorry to hear of the passing of Eugene Melnyk. He has always been a bit of a soft spot for me as he donated $1.8 million to fund and upgrade the athletic field at my high school with new state-of-the-art artificial grass, stadium lights, sound system, and an electronic scoreboard. The field, called The Eugene Melnyk sports field, is used not just by the students of the school, but by other schools and even school boards to host track meets. Many are also remembering Melnyk for the fact that he helped to keep the Senators in Ottawa and hope to see his goal of a new downtown arena. Rest in peace, Eugene.

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