NHL mailbag: Bruins' depth, draft busts and the best goalie debate

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With the season about 10 percent over — already? huh. — a lot of people are already starting to be pretty realistic about the stuff we either should have known or couldn’t have.

Teams that have been surprises are increasingly few and far between (at this point it’s basically just Montreal and Carolina right?) even if the standings themselves show, say, Ottawa “only” three points out of first in its division. Torrid scoring paces are down; Jonathan Toews is now tied for 48th in points per game. Slow starts are sorting themselves out; San Jose is 4-1-1 after a 1-2-0 start that weirdly had people wondering what was wrong with them.

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Now people are already starting to wonder how teams fix their problems, overcome them, or stay the course.

So let’s look into it together:

Dan asks: “How long can the Bruins win games while essentially relying on two players for all of their goals?”

Yeah I guess I hadn’t realized how much of the water they’re carrying here, but David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron have 17 of the Bruins’ 31 goals this season, and that’s with Brad Marchand basically never shooting the puck anymore (15 shots in nine games? What’s going on there?).

I’m not sure it’s surprising that this team’s mix of older, past-their-prime forwards (Krejci, Backes) and younger guys who are only still developing (Debrusk, Heinen, Bjork) isn’t lighting the world on fire offensively. They need to get Marchand going but with the rest of them, I think it’s about what I’d expect, maybe a little less.

I mean, the depth scoring problems aren’t to the extent that they were in the playoffs last year, but if that ends up being this team’s fate again I really won’t be surprised. The Bergeron line will be able to score forever just because of how skilled everyone is and how much they have the puck, but the rest? This is still an elite team, but we probably should’ve seen it coming.

Rod asks: “What would be the perfect number of teams to have in the NHL, so that the league was stocked full of exciting, talented, competitive rosters?”

Honestly, I used to be a “there aren’t enough skilled players in the world for even 30 teams!” guy, and in retrospect that probably wasn’t strictly true. NHL teams had a bad habit of employing guys who couldn’t skate, were low on skill, only existed to fight, etc.

At this point, I think we probably do have enough skill to fill out 30 teams or so, at least if talent were evenly distributed so currently bad teams (say, Ottawa) could actually skate a little bit with teams that are currently overfilled with high-end players (say, Tampa).

If you wanna knock it down to 28, I wouldn’t argue too much, but overall I’d say things more or less feel right these days. Not a bad time for hockey fans.

Mike asks: “Which bad team with a good goalie could actually sneak into the playoffs if the goalie has a career year?”

This is gonna be an unsatisfying answer: I don’t really think there is one. Maybe maybe maybe the Sabres but I’m not sure they’re at that level in the roster.

Even looking at the standings right now, I don’t see too many teams where a guy going off is going to drag someone by the hair into the postseason.

Arizona? They got .930 from Antti Raanta last year and didn’t get in. Edmonton? They already got a career year out of Talbot to get to 102 points, and that’s unlikely to repeat. St. Louis? We’re talking about Jake Allen. The Rangers? Henrik Lundqvist is 47. The Islanders? They’re the Islanders. Ottawa? The level needed to reach Craig Anderson’s “career year” is actually a lot higher than you would probably think.

There are, however, a ton of mediocre teams I can see getting into the Vegas territory of “at or near the top of their division because a goalie gets hot.” Florida, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas, Philly, Calgary. The “ifs” on those teams vary to a significant degree, but it’s possible.

Chris asks: “Is Pavel Zacha the biggest bust in a stacked 2015 draft class?”

You can make an argument for a couple guys here: Zacha for sure, but also Lawson Crouse (only 91 GP to Zacha’s 146, only 7-7-14 in those 91) who was No. 11 overall to Florida but got traded to Arizona before playing a game.

Speaking of Arizona I would also say you can make an argument for No. 3 pick Dylan Strome, who only has 36 games played and just 6-6-12, while No. 4 Mitch Marner looks one hell of a lot better than that.

Three guys from the first round haven’t even made the NHL — two of them Bruins’ picks from the infamous “They could get Barzal, Connor, and Kylington” run — and the third is Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, who’s considered the best goalie in the world outside the NHL (but whose AHL numbers in three appearances this year are terrible.

But yeah, gimme Strome or Crouse ahead of Zacha. Doesn’t mean he’s not a bust though.

John Gibson has been lights out for the Ducks this season. (Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
John Gibson has been lights out for the Ducks this season. (Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jake asks: “Is John Gibson the best goalie in the league right now?”

The numbers so far this year speak for themselves (.949 in eight appearances) and the fact that he didn’t get a single Vezina vote last year is criminal.

But at this point I really think you can make an argument: Of the goalies who have played at least 100 games since 2013-14, only 10 have save percentages north of .920. Gibson is No. 1 at .925 in 186 games.

The other guys, for the record: Philipp Grubauer, Carey Price, Corey Crawford, Raanta, Sergei Bobrovsky, Tuukka Rask, Ben Bishop and Semyon Varlamov. Some surprising names on there, but the fact that Gibson is No. 1 over a period of five-plus years (even if a good chunk of that was before he became a real starter), I think you gotta give him consideration both “right now” and “overall.”

He’s that good, and he’s been that good basically ever since he came into the league. Just a great player.

Tyler asks: “Would a Nylander-for-Panarin swap solve both teams’ problems?”

In no way would this solve Toronto’s long-term problems. Short-term? Sure, yeah, it would be nice to get a player that good, but the big issue for Nylander is the money four, five, six years from now.

LJ asks: “How far away are we from a sea change in GM perspective that stops them from retaining past-prime core pieces due to “loyalty”?”

I think it’s going to be a bug in the league’s player evaluation system for the foreseeable future. It’s just the way almost everyone in this league operates. But as teams start getting more high-end results by not over-committing to bad old players, there will be a gradual shift, especially as the old guard of GMs ages out of their jobs.

It’s probably never going to be able to be a thing where everyone is selling off even near-elite talent at age 28 just to get in front of the aging curve, but the league is getting younger and faster all the time and you can either, as they say in Moneyball, adapt or die.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise. Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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