Flames reeling after offseason blockbuster trade

This week we look back on a few trades, talk about a potential deadline target, the Calder race (or lack thereof), the NHL's playoff format and much more. (Getty Images)
This week we look back on a few trades, talk about a potential deadline target, the Calder race (or lack thereof), the NHL's playoff format and much more. (Getty Images)

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 back on the Flames-Panthers summer blockbuster, talk about a potential deadline target, the Calder race (or lack thereof), the NHL's playoff format and much more.

Jason Zucker can't catch a break

If there was ever a trade that I thought was a great fit, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins acquiring Jason Zucker in February 2020.

A speedy, if undersized, winger who can score and has some jam to his game. He’s in the mould of a lot of players that have had success there — Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin, to name a few. These aren’t all exactly the same type of player, but they all have that aforementioned speed and jam. As does Zucker, who at the time was only a season and a half removed from a 33-goal campaign.

The Penguins were a top-five team in the Eastern Conference that season and while they were struggling a bit when things shut down due to COVID, they had all the ingredients for a playoff run. Zucker, for his part, started with 12 points in 15 games with Pittsburgh. When the COVID playoff bubble came around, the Penguins, while there in body, failed to show up in spirit. It wasn’t much of a showing from Sidney Crosby and Co., who were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in five games in a qualifying round.

Then it was the shortened season and while you thought he might take off, Zucker produced just under his career averages while missing time. The next year, his numbers dipped even lower as he played only 41 games last season. In 2022-23, though, he was finally rebounding, sitting fourth in team scoring with six goals and 20 points in 27 games, until he injured himself blocking a shot against the Dallas Stars on Monday. Now Zucker is listed as week-to-week with a lower body injury.

We’ll see if it derails what was starting to look like a promising season for a player that originally cost the Penguins Calen Addison, Alex Galchenyuk and a first-round pick (Carson Lambos). I still think it’s a good fit here, and a good player who is turning 31 in January, but the circumstances all around have made it a tough few years. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Letting it rip on a breakaway

Leafs fans may have to cover their eyes for this one.

For years, if you even considered taking a slap shot on a breakaway, you’d only hear two words: Robert Reichel. His playoff penalty shot lives in infamy.

Bill Clement's “what was that?” reaction is priceless. The call in Canada at the time was, “a slap shot on a penalty shot?!” It was something you simply didn’t consider doing after it went so horribly wrong in such a big moment. But now… it’s cool? And it works.

This is just awesome. A full on bomb on a breakaway. How do you stop that when it’s done right? The funniest one of all-time might be from Evgeni Malkin, in the playoffs no less, just full-on taking his frustrations out with a huge wind up and rocket.

Sheldon Souray was great at the fake slap shot then step around the goalie. The mere threat of it can now throw a goalie off. You need the time and space to make it work. If you have it, it’s a worthy consideration.

Flames feeling fleeced in Matthew Tkachuk trade

It’s always fun to track trades in the months and years that follow it.

There was no bigger move last summer than the deal that sent Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames to the Florida Panthers for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar. On a team level, both have been worse off so far (not that it’s the only move each team made last offseason). I think it's already safe to say the Panthers will not be repeating as Presidents' Trophy winners. They will be battling for a wild-card spot at their current rate.

The Flames are headed towards the same fate with a slow start to the year. Tkachuk, though, has been full value. He is tied for sixth in league scoring, actually producing at a higher clip than last season’s 104-point output. It was fair to wonder how he’d do without Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm — easily the best line in the league last year — and yet here is not missing a beat while not even lining up alongside Aleksander Barkov regularly.

The same cannot be said about the other two significant pieces in the deal. Huberdeau’s production has completely fallen off and so has Weegar’s, though he has at least been solid in other areas. Even with their team results falling off, I think the Panthers would make that trade 10 times over. Tkachuk is 25 and pacing to finish top-10 in league scoring for the second year in a row, to say nothing of everything else he brings. He is a true difference maker.

The NHL's newest penalty-kill specialist

It’s not often you see a player have 75 percent of his goals short-handed, but if you are Connor Dewar, that’s where you stand right now.

Mind you, he only has four goals in total, so we are mindful of the obvious: it’s likely not going to last. For the time being, though, he has six career goals and half of them have come while down a man. Last season, Alex Formenton and Trevor Moore tied for the league lead in short-handed goals with five each. The COVID-shortened season before that, Connor Brown led the league with five in 56 games. The season before that, nobody had more than four. And before that, Michael Grabner led the league with six.

You can’t sit here and predict anyone is going to keep scoring while down a man (or more), but Dewar's speed is undeniable. When he gets just a second of space, he takes off and flies down the ice. Against Dallas, he turns on the jets the second he knows the puck is getting out. Ryan Suter knew he was burned and the race wasn’t even close.

Against Vancouver he picks off a bad pass and gets shot out of a cannon. Bonus points for the old school slap shot goal.

Dewar is a staple on the penalty kill and is making a case to be bumped to the top unit permanently. At 5v5, he’s on a pesky fourth line centring Ryan Reaves and Mason Shaw. They have been hot lately, relatively speaking, and while you can only ask for so much from Reaves, Dewar and Shaw have been good value on the penalty kill and a fun fourth line.

Senators finally finding their feet

Don’t look now, but the Ottawa Senators are 7-2-1 in their last 10 and are somewhat back in the wild-card race.

They are only two points back of the Panthers with a game in hand and four points back of the Detroit Red Wings. It’s not a mountain to climb at this point but they do have a top-10 most difficult schedule remaining. It was a tough start to the season, not only in terms of performance, but also potentially losing Josh Norris for the season. Few teams, if any, can survive losing their de facto 1C.

The lack of center depth is obvious, and perhaps no team in the league is banking on their wingers more. Tim Stutzle is playing a big role at center but the rest of the forward group is all winger driven — Alex DeBrincat, Drake Batherson, Claude Giroux and Brady Tkachuk. Derrick Brassard is taking shifts in the top-six. Shane Pinto is also an important piece at center, but the wingers really drive the train.

Cam Talbot has been humming along in the crease with a .917 save percentage. Perhaps their biggest question mark going into the season — along with how well rookie Jake Sanderson would handle a bigger role — is the least of their worries at the moment. Already averaging over 21 minutes per game, driving play and chipping in some production to boot. Sometimes you forget about teams after a bad start, but they have quietly come on and evened out to a fringe playoff battle, which is where a lot of people had them in the first place.

Lightning continue to churn out prospects

Tampa Bay just seems to find and develop guys every year.

They might be doing it again with Nick Perbix. When you get to learn alongside Mikhail Sergachev, that sure helps.

The rookie defenseman is averaging a modest 15:05 of ice time in 22 games for Tampa Bay so far this season, but he can play. Alongside Sergachev, they are on the plus side of every metric of note — possession, expected goals and actual goals.

He took the long way to the NHL, going from the USHL to playing four full seasons of college. When his college career ended last year, he had a cup of coffee in the AHL to end the season. He also played on the U.S. Olympic team. He only lasted two games in the AHL this year until Cal Foote got hurt, when he got the call up.

And it looks like he’s here to stay. At 24, Perbix isn't a young, bright-eyed kid, and is another big body on Tampa's blue line at 6-foot-4. He may not be a physical force out on the ice, but he’s strong and uses his body in a smart way.

He can shoot it, too, which is one thing he does have confidence in. He's putting nearly two shots on net per game and has three goals in just 22 contests. It’s earned him some time on the power play as he’s getting some looks at the tail end of man advantage opportunities. He's a player to watch as Tampa gets healthy on defense and they look primed to make a run at their fourth straight Stanley Cup Final.

The Calder is Matty Beniers' to lose

There's a fun race developing for the Calder Trophy.

Matty Beniers leads all rookies in goals and points and, perhaps more importantly, is playing a big role on a Seattle Kraken team that is having a surprisingly strong start. He is a legitimate game breaker. If you give him any sort of time and space, he can beat goalies with his shot, combining a quick release with pinpoint accuracy. If Seattle keeps up its playoff pace and he continues to lead all rookies in scoring, he's pretty much a lock to win the Calder. It won’t be much of a debate. That’s not to take anything away from other impressive rookies, like Mattias Maccelli and Cole Perfetti, but it’s the truth.

A look at the tank for Bedard

It’s time to start taking note of the race for Connor Bedard.

The Anaheim Ducks are leading it with an eye popping .283 win percentage, with two regulation wins as of this writing. Then you have the Chicago Blackhawks bottoming out, and likely looking to trade their two remaining cornerstone pieces from their dynasty.

Then you have the big spending, little-to-show for it Columbus Blue Jackets, followed closely by the San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes and maybe the Philadelphia Flyers. With a draft system in place, it’s partly luck of the draw, but from a league growth standpoint, you’d like to see players go places where they will be set up for success and in a market that will respond accordingly.

Sidney Crosby going to Pittsburgh remains a pivotal moment for the league. Right team, right city, and the results were massive. Connor McDavid has been full value and going to a Canadian market is helpful, but they haven’t exactly surrounded him with a great lineup the way Pittsburgh built around Crosby (and Malkin). The Flyers would be a sneaky fun location — they do have some good players and an electric market. San Jose is fresh off a decade of excellence and also has some good players of note. Columbus has an underrated market, but it’s fair to question their roster building (does anyone play defense there?). Chicago is pretty much a blank slate but it is a great market for the league. Anaheim doesn’t necessarily have the market but they would have fun pieces to pair up with Bedard. It’s tough to say there’s a favorite spot for him to go to, unless maybe the Flyers really bottom out.

Jonathan Toews will have plenty of suitors

On that bottoming out note, I think if a team is able to acquire Jonathan Toews, they are going to get a very helpful contributor.

Toews is playing at a 28-goal, 47-point pace, but he is shooting what would be a career-high 19 percent. That will eventually come down to earth. He’s also winning nearly 65 percent of his faceoffs, a full four percent higher than any other player who has taken at least 450 faceoffs so far this season — that's 27 skaters, basically the top faceoff-taking man on each team. You have to throw some of the numbers out of the window here, particularly the underlying ones.

Chicago has put together a very bad roster (on purpose). Toews isn’t going to be the superstar he was in his prime but there are shades of similarity here to Drew Doughty. On bad Kings teams, his numbers bottomed out and he faced a lot of criticism for his play, along with his contract. When Los Angeles finally started building a competitive roster, he was suddenly good again. I’m betting you’ll see something similar with Toews — if he goes to a good team he’ll get a spring to his step.

There are signs there when you watch him. He is sneaky strong on his stick (which is why he’s so dominant in the faceoff circle), he can still skate, and he is showing he can score, even if on an inflated shooting percentage. Nobody is bringing him in to be a 1C. But you play him down your lineup or move to the wing — as he showed he can do with Team Canada — and you have a good contributor with championship experience who will be hungry to be on a winner again for pretty much the first time in half a decade.

The never-ending debate over playoff formats continues

"You're looking to fix a problem that doesn't exist,” Gary Bettman said about the topic of playoff format at the NHL's board of governors meeting earlier this week. But it’s worth noting a few things here, as there was no problem when he changed it in the first place. More importantly though, there is a problem now.

The final weeks — not days, but whole weeks — of the regular season are completely meaningless. Here are the top three teams in each division right now by points percentage:

Atlantic: Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay

Metropolitan: New Jersey, Carolina and Pittsburgh

Central: Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado

Pacific: Vegas, Seattle and Edmonton

Seriously, how likely is this to change? Maybe Boston and Toronto swap? Colorado eventually gets healthy and goes on a run? Maybe the Rangers' four-game winning streak turns into something really special? There isn’t much here in terms of excitement. There are 15 games scheduled for Thursday, April 13, the second last day of the season. Pretty much every team in the league will end their season that night. Will a single game matter?

Playoff hockey is fantastic. Nobody will argue that. But the regular season has become a chore to get there. The standings didn’t move — save for some final wild-card spots — through nearly two full months to conclude last season. That’s not fun or entertaining. There isn't even any jockeying for playoff positioning to enjoy. You get locked into your bracket spot and with three-point games, it’s really hard to catch teams.

The regular season has to have races, it has to be fun to watch, it has to have teams feeling pressure and ramping up their game to climb the standings. There are teams out of a playoff spot that will take a run out of it. There will be a few interesting wild-card races of note. But it’s not enough. The 1-8 playoff match makes the standing watch much more interesting. The league thinks this creates interesting playoff matchups and rivals. There has been no real evidence of rivalries of note created. Interesting playoff matchups will happen no matter what. We got here because they sought to fix a problem that didn’t exist.

All stats live as of Dec. 15.

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