Welcome to Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.
This week, we take a look at Mason McTavish's breakout with the upstart Ducks, Oliver Ekman-Larsson's bounce-back campaign in Florida, Mathieu Joseph's play in Ottawa, the surprising Jets and red-hot Capitals.
Mason McTavish is him
The Anaheim Ducks have been one of the best stories this season.
Through just 16 games so far this season, they already have six third period come-from-behind victories. In the past four seasons they have finished 32nd, 23rd, 30th and 27th, and that has resulted in a collection of high draft picks that are finally starting to develop.
For a few years now, Trevor Zegras has grabbed headlines with flashy plays and was the presumed star to lead the franchise back to relevance — he even ended up on a video game cover. But he has just two points in 12 games this season and is now on injured reserve.
Anaheim's true breakout star has been 2021 third overall pick Mason McTavish, who is turning 21 in January. There is a real craftiness and deception to his game that throws off opponents. This is a nothing play in overtime, as he collects the puck after a save with two guys already back for Arizona. He just lulls it to sleep, selling a regroup that basically all teams do and the second he has the right body position on Nick Schmaltz towards the Coyotes net, he spins up ice and turns on the jets for a 2-on-1 leading to the winner:
Against the Penguins, he effectively had the game winner with the clock about to expire in regulation, but what’s really impressive is how he sells his shot. He’s standing basically upright instead of crouching over to get under the puck and elevate it. The shot itself is just a simple flick of the wrist and Tristan Jarry doesn’t even move — a sign that McTavish completely fooled him.
He’s making players and goalies look like this on the regular. They will eventually catch on and he’ll have to adjust to their adjustments, but there’s no doubt he’s a crafty talent on the way to becoming a real star in this league.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has found his game in Florida
The Vancouver Canucks took a big swing when they acquired Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Connor Garland, and it fell flat.
Ekman-Larsson had his two least productive campaigns in Vancouver since his first two seasons in the league, and his ice time decreased by more than two full minutes per game from the first season to the second. It was an untenable situation and ultimately resulted in a buyout despite Ekman-Larsson having four years left on his contract at $8.25 million per season.
Suddenly an unrestricted free agent for the first time, he ended up signing a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers worth $2.25 million. The Panthers returned the core that just went to the Stanley Cup Final, but with one big caveat: Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, their two offense drivers on the back end, were both hurt to start the season. That opened up a prime opportunity for Ekman-Larsson to assert himself offensively to start the season, and he’s done just that.
The 32-year-old has been paired with Gustav Forsling so far on Florida's top pairing and is averaging 23:33 of ice time per game, a mark he hasn't reached since his 2018-19 season. He already has four goals, too. On Vancouver, he had seven goals in 133 games.
This is a defenseman who had a six-season stretch in Arizona where he averaged 16.5 goals per season. He’s currently shooting 13.8% so some of that is going to come crashing down, and he’s likely not going to play on the top power-play unit when Montour and even Ekblad return. However, the Panthers' power play ranks 20th, but he does have five points on it so you could argue he deserves a spot on the top unit over Evan Rodrigues.
Beyond the offense, Ekman-Larsson and Forsling are winning their minutes across the board — shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and actual goals are all north of 50%. Forsling is a really good top pairing defenseman which helps, but you can’t play big minutes like that and be successful as a passenger. He has been aggressive in transition, showing the skill that he was once known for. Here is a good example of him jumping on a loose puck, making a crisp outlet pass, then trailing on the attack before getting the puck up high, calmly looking up and finding his spot with a shot:
How the veteran and the Panthers adjust when Ekblad and Montour return will be fascinating to watch play out, but for now he is holding the fort and playing like the contributor many remember from his time in Arizona.
Sens made right call with Mathieu Joseph
Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. The Ottawa Senators found themselves in a cap crunch to start training camp with a key player in Shane Pinto unsigned. Mathieu Joseph and his $2.95 million cap hit with three years remaining were very much available to be had to open up some cap space. Even with the ensuing Pinto suspension aside, it’s a good thing they kept him.
It was only a few years ago that Joseph put himself on the map with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he entered the playoff lineup after Alex Killorn got hurt, putting up two points in four games against the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final, including this beauty:
The following season he was traded at the deadline for Nick Paul as Tampa Bay upgraded their roster. Joseph was the price to pay and he went to the Senators and put up 11 points in 12 games before an injury ended his season. He was then signed to a four year, $11.8-million contract. It was a reasonable gamble at the time for a player with blazing speed, strong defensive play and showing flashes offensively.
Last season did not go as expected, though. He was injured two separate times, for five- and two-week stretches, and had just three goals and 18 points in 56 games. He started this season well enough and earned a promotion to play alongside Tim Stutzle and Claude Giroux, and so far he is making good on the opportunity. In Ottawa's first game against Toronto, he had three points. For the season, he’s up to 13 points in 14 games and is entrenching himself as a top-six forward option.
Joseph is playing a career high 16:24 per game and is averaging two shots on net per game, which is way above his career average of 1.22. He is a really useful player for just $2.95 million per season.
Jets firing on (mostly) all cylinders
Winnipeg said goodbye to some key players and big offensive producers in the offseason in Pierre Luc-Dubois and Blake Wheeler, and so far the Jets are scoring… way more.
The Jets averaged three goals per game last season, which ranked 21st, and their power play ranked 23rd. They largely made the playoffs on the back of getting top 10 goaltending. So far this season? They are ranked sixth in goals per game with 3.67 and 27th in overall save percentage and there are a ton of players off to scorching hot starts.
It starts with the NHL's co-goal scoring leader in Kyle Connor, who is shooting 19.4%, a mark that would shatter his previous career high of 16.1. Mark Scheifele is producing at a career-best rate in the early going, as is new Jet Alex Iafallo and holdovers Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. That’s a lot of players putting up career-best numbers and some will likely cool off. On the flip side, Nikolaj Ehlers is on the least productive pace since his rookie season and Connor Hellebuyck has an .894 save percentage, which would be the lowest of his career by a mile (his career average is .916). There's bound to be some regression to the mean there as well.
The real story of it all might be Cole Perfetti. Turning 22 on Jan. 1, the second-year forward is taking a leap. He had eight goals in 51 games last season and already has five in 15 this year. He hasn’t figured out faceoffs yet, winning just 27.3% last season and 40% this season, and is playing the wing with Vladislav Namestnikov and Ehlers.
For a team that has trouble attracting and retaining talent, this is a nice start to the season after forgoing a rebuild in the offseason and locking in two franchise icons long-term.
Don't write off the Capitals just yet
Going into the season, I had the Washington Capitals ranked in a tier of their own: “Stuck in purgatory but it might be getting worse.” They are one of the oldest teams in the league and have been delaying a changing of the guard as Alex Ovechkin chases greatness.
In the first few games of the season, that looked to be the case as they started slow as Ovechkin's production dipped and Nicklas Backstrom stepped back from the team. But suddenly, they are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and second in the Metropolitan Division.
What’s going on? First and foremost, Ovechkin’s production has come around (nine points in the past 10 games) even if the goals aren’t there. Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, their other key veterans, have started producing too, although T.J. Oshie only has one assist in 14 games on the season.
Their biggest development, though, might be two emerging young players in Rasmus Sandin and Connor McMichael. Sandin is on the top pairing with John Carlson averaging more than 23 minutes per game. His offense has been scaled back (he only has four points on the season) as he’s focused on being a solid defenseman who makes good outlet passes.
Alongside Carlson, they are basically drawing even across the board at 5v5 which is not leap-off-the-page good, but when you have two defensemen playing massive minutes together as a pairing and they are holding the fort, it sets the table for the second and third tier of players to tilt things in your favour. It should also be noted they are trying to split them up to spread the wealth but having a top pairing fallback is a great place to be.
Connor McMichael is one of those players starting to emerge with seven points in 14 games. His career high is 18 in 68 games back in 2021-2022. He averaged 10:28 per game that season, and he’s at 14:27 per game this season.
Washington is the second lowest scoring team in the league so far this season with the second-worst power play. If Max Pacioretty can successfully return, that would be a huge help. They need to create more goals if they want to have success this season, but hanging high in the standings while they produce such inept numbers could be a good sign if they can figure out how to put the puck in the net again.