Father Time forgot about Joe Pavelski

This week we look at Joe Pavelski, Florida's lifeless trade deadline paying off, the Flames' free fall, breakaway trends, Risto's resurgence and more.

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.

Not a fun year for the Flames

After a rollercoaster offseason, the Calgary Flames have followed it up with… a rollercoaster season. It’s really difficult to describe what exactly has happened with the Flames in 2022-23, but this is a good glimpse:

Add to that the fact they rank 29th in 5v5 save percentage this season and those numbers are borderline impressive. This is not a bad team, but they have been incredibly unlucky and have the second lowest team 5v5 PDO in the league as well. Naturally, when that happens we start to hear of players that are unhappy, problems with the coach — and Darryl Sutter certainly has a shelf life — and all sorts of stories like that. Big summer additions Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau are having very underwhelming seasons in terms of production. Jacob Markstrom has struggled in net, to put it mildly. It’s going to be fascinating to see how they approach this offseason.

Joe Pavelski keeps doing the damn thing

Father Time is undefeated when it comes to players declining, but maybe he's forgotten Joe Pavelski? What is happening here? He is turning 39 this summer! He had a career high in points last season, playing an integral role on one of the league’s best teams. This season he’s clicking at just under a point per game, but is once again a key part of one of the best lines in the league, on one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

At 38, the undersized Joe Pavelski is still one of the best players on one of the NHL's top teams. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)
At 38, the undersized Joe Pavelski is still one of the best players on one of the NHL's top teams. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

When Pavelski signed in Dallas, he was coming off of a 38-goal season and still very much a good player. But he was about to turn 35 and the Stars gave him three years and $7 million per season. Most people didn’t doubt he’d be good in the first year — which was, funny enough, his least productive season as a Star, though he was a monster when they went to the Cup that season — but what about year three? His production went up each year! As if he signed it when he was 20 years old. He got a contract extension, and now he has a second one.

The most amazing part is how he does it. He’s just 5’11 and he’s not particularly fast, but his mitts and hockey awareness are amazing. Pavelski has some of the best hand-eye coordination in the league and is still easily one of the best at tipping pucks in. His hands are great in tight and he just understands spacing. Look at him move around on this power play and tip one home with relative ease just this week.

He has made a career off this. Eventually Father Time will catch up with him, so let’s enjoy this greatness while it’s still very much happening.

Panthers did nothing at the deadline, and it's paying off

The trade deadline has so many variables to consider. One of the most difficult is the emotional impact it can have on your team. We have seen teams catch fire after a deadline, excited by the additions their management group has made. We have seen teams sell and punt their seasons away. What we rarely see is a team making no moves at all — let alone one that is legitimately in the playoff hunt. But that’s what the Florida Panthers did and they have responded with a top-ten points percentage in the league since the deadline.

Now, they did finally get Anthony Duclair back and that is noteworthy. He is a legitimate needle mover, though he still needs to get his game and timing back. Matthew Tkachuk, though, has been one of the best players in the league. He has two points per game since the deadline which is the highest rate of production in the NHL over that time. The Panthers are the fourth highest scoring team since March 3.

Carter Verhaeghe has continued one of the quietest star seasons in memory. Brandon Montour has continued to produce at an all-star level. The Panthers had no cap room or much draft capital to play with after last year’s debacle. Their contracts were generally to players they don’t want to trade, or can’t trade. Florida was locked in a stalemate, but they’ve taken that consistency and run with it.

Predators are thriving after deadline firesale

When Nashville traded away key veterans Mattias Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter as well as Tanner Jeannot, they were being honest with their roster and where they stood in the standings. They didn’t fully say they were out of the playoff race or completely fold up shop, but it was an admission that the current group needed to change.

A funny thing has happened since, though. They turned their roster over to younger players, and they have delivered. The Predators are in the top ten in points in the league since the deadline passed (13th in points percentage). Their top three leading scorers since the trade deadline? Tommy Novak, Luke Evangelista and Philip Tomasino. The fourth is 27-year-old Kiefer Sherwood, signed in the offseason, who is flashing out there with his tenacity. The most promising story is Evangelista, who just turned 21 in February and is having an excellent first pro season, with 41 points in 49 AHL games, followed by 9 points in 12 NHL games so far. Last season, his final in the OHL, he had 111 points in 62 games. He makes this goal look way easier than it actually is.

Rookies barely 10 games into their career in March shouldn’t be doing that.

Then there’s Tommy Novak, perhaps the most interesting story in the league that nobody is talking about. He has 33 points in 39 games this season! He has 14 goals in that time, though he is shooting almost 19 percent. A third-round pick back in 2015, he took the long way to the NHL, playing four full seasons in college, then parts of four campaigns in the AHL, and now he looks like he’s in the NHL to stay.

Tomasino has the most pedigree of all of them — he was a first-round pick in 2019 and had 32 points in 76 games as a rookie in the NHL last season. He’s still 21 years old, but he’s figuring the league out and starting to score like it. Is Nashville going to make the playoffs this season? They are still in tough. But this is suddenly a fun team with an elite goalie locked up for two more years. There’s hope here.

Blue Jackets have a player in Kent Johnson

After an exciting offseason where Columbus signed prized free agent Johnny Gaudreau, the Blue Jackets had some expectations. Now, their hope is to win the draft lottery and the rights to Connor Bedard. It has been a tough season to say the least, but one of the benefits of struggling is that young players get plenty of opportunity to work through things and figure it out.

In Philadelphia, Owen Tippett is becoming a player in front of our very eyes. In Nashville we are seeing this. In Columbus, the hope on the current roster is Kent Johnson. Drafted fifth overall in 2021, he got a cup of coffee in the league last season but has been a full-time player this year. There has been a lot of learning. He has 37 points in 68 games. Since the deadline, he’s clicking at just under a point per game, playing around 15 minutes per night. The skill is clearly there, it’s the rest of his game that needs to be ironed out. That’s why the minutes aren’t higher. The two players he has played with the most this season are Jack Roslovic and Cole Sillinger. Not exactly veterans that are going to teach him about the league and protect him.

His talent is off the charts.

But he has been sheltered and caved in. It’s a lot to ask a rookie to walk into the league and take on tougher assignments. The fact he’s producing strong down the stretch is a great sign of the type of player he can become.

Ristolainen is putting up a sneaky bounce-back season

Long a controversial player, it’s noteworthy that Rasmus Ristolainen is having maybe his best season in the league. The big, right handed defenseman has always been a debate between tools and results. On the surface he has size, he can skate, he has some skill — including four straight 40+ point seasons — he is mean and physical. All things that teams look for and crave. But he has played on poor teams his whole career, evident by never having played in the playoffs, and has generally been caved in when it comes to shot share, scoring chances and goals against.

With Travis Sanheim as his partner this season, they have generally been outplayed, but with Nick Seeler of all people, things have started to come together. In about 300 minutes this season together at 5v5, they are up in scoring chances, expected and actual goals (on the Flyers!) 17-14. There are two particularly interesting things of note here: this is the lowest ice time Ristolainen has gotten per game in his career (18:48) and this is the highest percentage of defensive zone starts in his career.

Many of the things that teams have generally really liked about his game would get him in trouble, too, free wheeling up the ice, trying to make too many plays with the puck, and just generally being too overzealous — but the Flyers are reining him in. He doesn’t get an assist on this play, but he hung back just enough on the failed breakout to disrupt the scoring chance and turn the puck up ice.

It is the type of play he has often blown the zone on, even as a defenseman. The Flyers are still using him offensively, too. He is playing the net-front role on the power play for them (with mixed results so far, but a worthwhile experiment). In a bit of a reduced role, though, he’s showing he can be a legitimate NHL contributor.

How to bury a breakaway

It's always interesting to watch breakaway trends and what players are doing to beat goalies. Forehand-backhand-shelf used to be a big move. Then it was shooting low blocker (thanks, Jussi Jokinen), and now so many players are going five-hole — getting the goalie moving side-to-side and shooting it through them as they open up (TJ Oshie says hi). One move we haven’t seen much of is just waiting goalies out… on the backhand. Look at this move.

Canucks forward J.T. Miller goes backhand and you expect a shot, but not only does he wait, he actually pushes off with his skate again and just goes around him with the puck on his backhand the whole time, eventually getting a wide open net to score on. A few days earlier against the Kings in the shootout, he did something similar, but added in a little shuffle.

That’s an interesting little move.

Let them dance, liney

The league has trended away from fighting, and we've seen a decline in premeditated tilts that would generally happen for no reason at all. But sometimes there are heated, emotional fights and that is still very much part of the game.

There is certainly no rule that outlaws this from happening altogether. If there is a mismatch of epic proportions, or one of the combatants is unwilling, it is completely understandable for officials on the ice to prevent that fight from happening. Now, if there are two willing combatants agreeing to it with each other? They should be able to go through with it.

That happened in the case of Jordan Binnington and Marc Andre Fleury, and it was abundantly clear that both wanted it. Pretty sure their teammates were happy to see it and we know most fans in the arena wanted to see it. This isn’t to advocate for more fighting, but if two players mutually agree and it’s a fair situation, it should be allowed to happen.

Choose your weapon wisely

When it comes to required equipment to play a sport, there are few like hockey where your gear can have such a dramatic impact on your play. Most of the protective equipment, along with skates, is a matter of comfort. It’s generally negligible. What stick you use, on the other hand, can make a massive difference. From the length, to the curve, to the flex point, all three can play a big role.

We aren’t going to make this a brand review. Stick length impacts your ability to stick handle and defend, while the curve can change how you shoot and what type of shot you use best. A more flat curve leads to a better backhand. While more of a hook can help players get the puck up high, quicker. Recently, the NHL put this video out about stick flex and I found it fascinating and worth sharing.

I highly recommend watching it. What particularly stood out here is all the talk about wanting sticks to be "whippy." Shooting technique has really evolved along with stick technology, where players are shooting down on the ice, creating a bend, and letting the whip of the stick straighten out to add an extra burst to their shot. On the replays of this Matthews goal, who is featured in that video, you can see how he leans down on his stick and whips the puck off of it, ripping it by Sergei Bobrovsky in the process.

Players didn’t always shoot like this, especially with stiff wooden sticks. They powered through the puck instead. It’s an interesting evolution in the game.

Jets staring down an all-time collapse if they miss the postseason

Hard to imagine many teams with more on the line right now than the Winnipeg Jets. After a headline grabbing offseason where they eventually hired Head Coach Rick Bowness, stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy, had Pierre Luc-Dubois all but announce he didn’t want to be there and had Mark Scheifele question the direction of the franchise, they largely ran it back with little enthusiasm. But when the season started, they started to pile up the wins, to the point where the trade deadline approached and they were firmly in a playoff spot.

So, in fairness to the team, they mildly bought. There was no big, franchise-changing addition, but they added some helpful contributors in Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov expecting to get into the playoffs and possibly even make some noise considering they have one of the best goalies in the league. Since February 1, though, they are not even playing .500 hockey. The Jets are 9-10-2 in that time, and have often looked nervous or lifeless. Bowness has been pointed saying he needs to motivate veterans to play hard. Even in a recent game against the lowly Anaheim Ducks, Namestnikov missed an empty net and you almost felt it was all going to fall apart after that.

They were patient last summer and looked to be getting rewarded for it this season with a playoff appearance. If they spiral right out of a spot over the final 30 some odd games down the stretch, including after being buyers, what next?