Tage Thompson isn't the only Sabres player on the rise
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 a few players doing well in tough spots, under the radar depth players, emerging young stars, the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and more.
Dylan Cozens is a star on the rise
The Buffalo Sabres have a number of players making big headlines, and rightfully so.
Tage Thompson just had a five goal game and is top five in the league in both goals and points. Rasmus Dahlin is second among all defensemen in scoring. Owen Power is a legitimate Calder candidate. Alex Tuch has been great since being acquired in the Jack Eichel trade. There are so many storylines in Buffalo, which makes it almost easy at times to forget Dylan Cozens and the breakout season he too is putting together.
Cozens, drafted seventh overall in 2019, hasn’t been in the league that long and it hasn’t been easy so far for him. His first season in the league was the Covid bubble season, when the Sabres had the worst goal differential and finished dead last in the entire league. Last season, the Eichel saga hung over the franchise until it finally concluded. The first half of that season wasn’t much better. From the beginning until Feb. 1, which is when most teams have played between 40 and 45 games, the Sabres were tied for 28th in points percentage.
Tuch really breathed some life into the second half of that season and the team found a bit of a swagger. The Heritage Classic was a standout game, which included Cozens running Auston Matthews and getting into a fight. He is a big, strong guy at 6-foot-3. That size and skill is catching up to him now and I’m not sure his size is respected enough. Look at how he just pokes this puck free and then uses his strength and size to position himself to score with ease.
Cozens is over a point per game so far this season with 27 points in 26 games. Last season he had a career-high 13 goals and 38 points. He has 10 goals already this season, and his 14.3 shooting percentage, while a career high, isn’t exactly an unsustainable number. He is getting top unit power-play time. He is a mainstay on the penalty kill. He is being tasked with centring a kid line featuring Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka. That’s a lot of responsibility for a player who is still just 21, and he is thriving.
Paul Cotter (who?) steals the show
The Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights have been two of the best teams in the league so far, so naturally when they met for a primetime clash on Monday, one of the players to star in the game was… Paul Cotter.
Who, you might ask? He’s a bit of an interesting story. A fourth-round pick in 2018, the Golden Knights' second-ever draft, he’s actually the only player from the team's draft class that year to play in the NHL so far.
The Canton, Michigan native was drafted out of the USHL and then went to Western Michigan University, where he played all of eight games before deciding to forgo college and join the OHL's London Knights. He wasn’t exactly lights out there, scoring Just 25 points in 48 regular-season games and being held pointless in 11 playoff games — not the kind of production you’d hope for in his draft plus-1 year. Cotter went to the AHL after that and put up nine points in 56 games, improved to 16 points in 38 games in 2020-21, and then 34 in 59 in 2021-22, earning a seven-game call-up and potting his first two NHL goals.
Now in his fifth season with the organization and despite being waiver exempt, Cotter made Vegas right out of camp after a strong preseason in which he had five points in six games. In the second game of the season, he unleashed his powerful shot to notch the game-winner.
Against the Bruins, he again showed off his big shot, scoring from the hashmarks and just inside the top of the circle. He can rip it. He has four goals and only 24 shots in 18 games, but he is showing he belongs. He is a player.
Aliaksei Protas is an absolute unit
One of the more interesting projects in the league is Washington Capitals forward Aliaksei Protas. The 6-foot-6 Belarusian is just an absolute mountain of a man out there. He is officially listed as the second tallest forward in the league (Detroit's Elmer Soderblom is first). His weight (225 pounds) is listed as 36th in the league and the 21-year-old is very much growing into his body. He’s playing over 11 minutes per game this season and has just five points in 28 games.
Protas is not even close to a finished product, but he shows flashes that are tantalizing. This goal starts with him poking the puck free below his goalline before racing up ice and finishing with a nice move for anyone, let alone a man his size.
Watching him hold the puck here against two Predators, seemingly without effort, was hilarious — you can’t move him. Once the puck gets worked up to the point, he does what you want to see anyone do and goes to the net and wins a battle to get the puck before scoring.
You can see why Washington wants to give him every opportunity to develop. If it pays off, he’s going to be a force.
Trial by fire
It’s hard for anyone on the Arizona Coyotes to stand out as they embark on a significant rebuild, but there has been the odd good story. One such story is J.J. Moser.
The 22-year-old Switzerland native is a 2021 second-round pick and has found a way to produce some offense as a defenseman on the fourth lowest scoring team in the league. He has played over 30 more minutes than any other Coyote and is a regular on the top power play and penalty killing units and getting tough zone starts on a bad team.
Is there a defenseman in the league 22 or younger in a tougher spot in terms of deployment and environment?
His defense partner is Juuso Valimaki. His most common forward linemates are Nick Bjugstad, Lawson Crouse and Clayton Keller. Some decent players there, to be sure, but boy that’s a big ask for a young defenseman playing his first full season in the league (he played 43 games last season).
There are going to be a lot of tough lessons along the way, like last week when he was absolutely torched by Anze Kopitar.
But he is getting all types of opportunity to grow and learn. If he can battle through it as Arizona inevitably collects draft picks and hopefully emerges, it could pay off.
A feel-good journeyman story
I always like to see a journeyman find his way in the league and become a player. Stefan Noesen might be doing just that.
Noesen was drafted 21st overall by the Senators all the way back in 2011. It was a pick they acquired when they traded Mike Fisher to Nashville. He was then part of the Bobby Ryan-Jakob Silfverberg swap in 2013. He was claimed on waivers multiple times and eventually was part of the three-way trade that saw Nick Foligno end up in Toronto (which Noesen did, too) in 2021. After that season he signed with Carolina.
He’s 29 and has never played more than 72 games in an NHL season. Beyond that one 72-game season in 2017-18, in which he played a respectable role on a Devils team that made the playoffs, he has never played more than 41 games in a season.
So far this season, on a strong Carolina team, he has played in 25 of 26 games as a fourth line mainstay. The Plano, Texas native is a grinder who knows his role, but seeing that perseverance pay off and becoming a regular on a strong team is quite the story. He has played primarily with Paul Stastny and is a fourth-liner in terms of ice time, but it's particularly interesting that he’s playing on the top power-play unit. He’s averaging more than three minutes per game with the man advantage and is third on the team in power-play points. Stefan Noesen! At 29! In what would only be his second full season in the league! It’s just a wild story.
A valuable chip for rebuilding Flyers
As was expected, this isn’t going to be a pretty year for the Flyers. They need to rebuild and John Tortorella has been very clear about that. But it's tough to survive when you're missing so many key players.
One player who was not particularly available last season but is now healthy and rolling is Kevin Hayes. It’s great to see. Hayes might not fit the Flyers timeline in terms of his age (he’s 30), but he has three seasons left on his contract after this one and carries a $7.1-million cap hit.
For his part though, he’s leading the team in scoring and is on pace for a career season. Hayes’ career high in points is 49 and through 27 games this season, he has 28. In fact, since returning from an abdominal injury on March 5, 2022, he is tied for 45th in the league in points with Bo Horvat, Pavel Buchnevich, Elias Lindholm, Nico Hischier and Mats Zuccarello. Pretty good company. He’s playing a career high 19:10 per game and on a team that really lacks talent, he stands out as an actual needle-mover.
For the Flyers rebuild, I’m sure they’d prefer him to be younger, but with retention he would be a heck of an acquisition for a contending team. A 6-foot-5 center that can produce offense and is sneakily one of the more dangerous penalty killers in the league — he might be a top five pick-pocketer among forwards — and is over a point per game is a nice asset to have.
Bruins' depth is unrivalled
As a general fan of simply watching good hockey players, it was great to hear that David Krejci was returning to the NHL. But it’s one thing to return, it’s another to excel.
You never know how a year away is going to go. Will the player return with renewed energy? Will it end up being a sympathetic victory lap that doesn’t amount to much? There are countless examples of each side. With 20 points in 22 games so far, it looks like Krejci never left. It’s tough to even compute that he’s 36.
The Bruins have had an elite top line for years, but you need more than that and Krejci just helps everything fall into place throughout the rest of the lineup. Centering the second line between David Pastrnak and Pavel Zacha, it allows Taylor Hall to play on the de facto third line with Charlie Coyle. Funny enough, it’s that depth that’s really helping the Bruins.
The second line last season of Hall-Erik Haula-Pastrnak was very successful, controlling 55-plus percent of shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals and outscoring opponents 27-12 at 5v5. They were good. The Zacha-Krejci-Pastrnak is just over 50 percent in shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals and outscoring opponents 4-3 so far in just over 100 minutes of 5v5 play.
Pastrnak is one of the NHL's best players that every team has to account for. Hall is very good and has to be accounted for. Last year’s third line of Trent Frederic-Coyle-Craig Smith was good, and probably underrated if anything. But nobody there has the talent and or game-breaking ability that Hall has. None of those players came particularly close to hitting even 50 points. Hall is a legitimate 60-plus point scorer — he had 61 points last season and is on pace for 66 so far this season.
Partly by being able to shuffle around all their talent throughout the top nine, the Bruins are sitting pretty atop the standings, a top five team in possession, expected goals and goals for percentage at 5v5.
Matt Boldy was no flash in the pan
Last season Moritz Seider was the rightful winner of the Calder trophy. He is the real deal, had a great season and has all the makings of a stud defensemen for many years to come. Had Matt Boldy played the full season last year, though, I think we’d be talking about him a lot more. For the first half of the season, he was with the Iowa Wild in the AHL and also battled injuries. He only played in 10 games but was full value in that stretch, eventually earning a call-up. He played his first game on Jan. 6, 2022 against the Boston Bruins and never looked back, ending the year with 47 games and putting up 39 points - a near 70-point pace. So far, he’s picking up right where he left off, putting up 18 points in 25 games, with 10 of those points coming on the power play. Boldy gives them a scoring threat that doesn’t play with Kaprill Kaprizov; his current linemates are Nic Petan and Frederik Gaudreau. With their buyout cap squeeze, having a legitimate top-six scorer on an entry-level contract is more important than ever. He’s listed at 6-foot-2 but almost looks and feels… bigger than that on the ice? Add in his skill and shot, and he’s hard to stop.
That should not be that easy! That’s Igor Shesterkin he coasted by to tuck one in.
He has a great shot, and he knows it, using it to beat goalies clean or to fake them and defenders out to open up opportunities for others.
Absolutely ridiculous. Beating a goalie five-hole before they can even go down has to be the most embarrassing thing you can do to a goalie.
Colin White working his way back to prominence
In the offseason, the Ottawa Senators faced an interesting decision on Colin White. He had not lived up to the six-year, $28.5-million contract the Senators had signed him to and, at the age of 25, this was the last opportunity the Senators had to buy him out at one-third of his remaining contract. Ultimately they decided to buy him out, as the cap hit is only $875,000 over the next five seasons (the other year is actually a credit of $625,000 where they gain cap space). That made White a free agent and offered teams an interesting opportunity to sign a still young-ish player looking for a fresh start. The Panthers ended up signing White to a one-year, $1.2-million contract that will see White become a restricted free agent when it concludes. So far, it’s a reasonable deal for the Panthers and understandable from the Senators. White is playing third-line minutes - averaging 12:01 minutes per game, with just under a minute of that coming on the power play. He has 11 points in 25 games, including five goals on what would be a career high 15.6 percent shooting. He has played primarily alongside Eetu Luostarinen and they are winning their minutes, on the plus side of possession, scoring chances and expected goals at 5v5. They are also up 8-2 in actual goals. It’s not the type of play the Senators would want to pay nearly $4.75-million per season and it’s reasonable play so far for the $1.2-million along with being a restricted free agent at the end of the season. A worthwhile gamble for a modest pay off, so far.
What a turnaround in Winnipeg
Who had the Winnipeg Jets leading their division well over a quarter into the season? It’s amazing to think back to their offseason and see where they are so far. Mark Scheifele pretty much put the organization on notice with very pointed comments at his season-ending presser, saying, “I just have to know where this team is going and what the direction is and what the changes are going to be, if any… I have to think about my career and what’s going to be best for me." Paul Stastny talked about the players needing to have more respect for each other. Pierre-Luc Dubois told the team he isn’t planning on re-signing when his contract is up after this season (he will be a restricted free agent).
They targeted Barry Trotz to be their head coach at first and ended up with Rick Bowness, who has ties to Winnipeg. He came in and almost instantly stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy. Their biggest free agent signing was Sam Gagner. When the season did start, Bowness got Covid and was not behind the bench. Nikolaj Ehlers has played only two games as he nurses a lower body injury.
Despite all this, they sit atop the Central Division, tied with the Dallas Stars on 33 points, with a 16-7-1 record. They allow the fourth-fewest goals per game in the NHL, and have the fourth-best penalty kill. Connor Hellebuyck is one of the early favourites for the Vezina, sporting a .932 save percentage and notching 13 wins so far. Josh Morrissey is having a monster year on the back end, leading the team with 27 points in 24 games, with Kyle Connor and Dubois following closely behind. They are getting things done by committee too, with five skaters above the 20-point mark so far this season.
It has been a wild rollercoaster in Winnipeg and while we’re not here to proclaim that they are legit, the start is insanely impressive, all things considered.
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