In an NHL that’s becoming more and more obsessed by statistical analysis every day, one of the more telling numbers also tends to run a little under the radar. We are speaking of five-on-five scoring, and doing it mostly in the context of the Edmonton Oilers, a team everyone wanted to monitor in a shortened NHL season because they were young men of great promise.
The Oilers are three years into a scorched-earth rebuild that delivered blue-chip talents such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov at the top of the NHL entry draft. Defensive prospect Justin Schultz was so enamoured of Edmonton’s future that he chose to sign with them as an unrestricted free agent, turning his back on the team that drafted him originally, the Anaheim Ducks, to do so.
Trying to assess when a rebuilding team is ready to make that great leap forward is always a tricky suspect business. Usually, improvements occur in small increments and are often hard to detect, and then it all comes together in one big push forward. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it in the second year of the Sidney Crosby era, jumping from 58 to 105 points. The Washington Capitals did it in the third year of the Alex Ovechkin era, jumping from 70 to 94 points. The Oilers were hoping for a breakthrough this year, but reasonably objective observers had to concede they could still use another year or more to get the collective act together.
Curiously, what’s largely set the Oilers back this year is the popgun nature of their offence – and more specifically, the inability to score goals at even strength. The NHL keeps track of this as a ratio of five-on-five goals scored for and against – and Edmonton ranks dead last at 0.52 (calculated by dividing their 29 even-strength goals against into their 15 even-strength goals for). It isn’t even close by the way. The Florida Panthers are 29th at 0.65, followed by the New York Islanders (0.66), the Calgary Flames (0.68), the Washington Capitals (0.74) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (0.74).
See a pattern here? Teams that generally can’t score at even strength generally don’t win regularly either. And the numbers hold true at the top end too. The Ducks, the team Schultz turned down, are one of the biggest early-season surprises in the Western Conference and it is mostly because they have the best five-on-five goal-scoring ratio in the league at 1.64. They are followed by the Chicago Blackhawks at 1.57 and then by three Canadian teams, the Montreal Canadiens (1.43), the Vancouver Canucks (1.32) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (1.30).
Often, you will hear coaches and players drone on endlessly about the importance of special teams and slumping power plays and/or effective penalty-killing units. And while all those factors can have an impact on results, the easy-to-overlook reality is the game is played mostly at even strength and there is not always enough of a value placed on a player who contributes five aside when there’s a little less room to manoeuvre.
In the Oilers’ case, there is an expectation that as their younger players mature, they will gradually become more adept at playing the game at full strength, rather than what they are now, a team that relies on its special teams to score goals, when they score at all (which hasn’t been enough this season).
Overall, Edmonton has just six wins in its first 16 games this season, and lost back-to-back matches at home this week, to the Los Angeles Kings and the Minnesota Wild. After Saturday’s home date with the Phoenix Coyotes, they head out on the road to play nine games away from Rexall Place, evicted by a scheduling conflict with the Briar curling championships. If the Oilers can’t find a way to win on the road, or find a way to score more goals at even strength, then they could return home just past the halfway point of the season, realistically looking at another year without playoffs. They are currently at six and counting.
THE QUICK AND THE FASTH: Headline writers for southern California newspapers were applauding loudly this week, when the Ducks signed goaltender Viktor Fasth to a two-year $5.8-million contract extension.
Fasth is a fascinating story, a late developer who, up until the age of 25, scuttled around in the Swedish second division, going nowhere fast (sorry) - playing for a variety of different teams and supplementing his income by taking a second job as a high school teacher. Eventually, Fasth worked his way up to the Elitserien, playing two years for AIK Stockholm. After winning consecutive goalie-of-the-year awards in Sweden, the first to do so since Henrik Lundqvist with Frolunda, Fasth signed a one-year deal to play for the Ducks last summer. Pressed into service by an injury to starter Jonas Hiller, Fasth responded with a perfect 8-0 start, one of the primary reasons Anaheim is pushing the Chicago Blackhawks for top spot in the conference.
Fasth’s contributions cannot be overstated, given how the absence of a quality reliever cost the Ducks so badly last year when Hiller struggled because of the lingering effects of vertigo. Hiller was far better in the second half than in the first, but by then, the Ducks had fallen out of the playoff race and cost Randy Carlyle his job as coach. This year, facing a similar potential crisis, the Ducks received high quality goaltending from their backup – and didn’t miss a beat. Fasth is just the third goalie in NHL history to win his first eight career decisions (the others: Ray Emery, with the Ottawa Senators from 2003-05 and Bob Froese with the 1982-83 Philadelphia Flyers).
Both Emery and Froese went on to have good careers, but faced some bumps in the road too. The same could happen with Fasth too, although he seems uniquely equipped to handle the challenges that may come his way, given his intriguing back story.
When asked this week how old he was when he could reasonably expect his dream of playing in the NHL to come true, he answered with one word: “29.” When I laughed at that, he laughed too and elaborated: “Actually, after I had my first year in Swedish Elite League, teams started to contact me and that’s when I first thought of it – thought that it would be a possibility. So yeah, as funny as it sounds, it’s true.”
Fasth is not the only Ducks player to moonlight as a teacher in his formative years. Teemu Selanne did it as well – although Selanne taught kindergarten. Trying to juggle two careers was a challenge, Fasth noted: “There were some tough times, but I’m glad I’ve done that. I know how it is to play in the lower levels and I know there are many good hockey players just fighting their way – having a day-time job at the same time they try to perform at the hockey rink, so it’s pretty tough in the lower leagues.”
Fasth worked with Ducks’ goalie coach Pete Peeters last summer to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface and then played three games with the team’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk before joining the team just before the start of the shortened season. This week’s contract extension means Fasth could be in line to eventually replace Hiller as the team’s starter somewhere down the line.
It wouldn’t be the first time a 30-something goaltender emerged (see Johnny Bower, Dominik Hasek, Dwayne Roloson, Tim Thomas and scores of others) to make an impact in the NHL. The Ducks play the defending Stanley Cup champion and cross-town rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, on Monday night. Depending upon the goaltending rotation for both teams, it could be Quick (Jonathan) versus Fasth – and may the best man win. You gotta hope anyway.
AND FINALLY: Loved Danny Briere’s reaction to the charges made by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tanner Glass that he’s a dirty player. "Honestly, I didn't even know who he was,” said Briere. “I might have played once against him in Winnipeg. Maybe we have our history in PlayStation. That's probably where he remembers me from. That's about the only place I played against him” … Just about everybody will tell you Stanley Cups are not won in October or February, but the Chicago Blackhawks fast start – points in their first 16 games – bodes well for a championship down the road, if history is any indication. Of the five teams in NHL history that earned points in 13 or more consecutive games from the start of the season, four went on to win the Stanley Cup, including the most recent example, the 2006-07 Ducks. The only one that didn’t – the 1994-95 Penguins … Back on Valentine’s Day, the Maple Leafs’ Mark Fraser put a big hit on the Carolina Hurricanes Jeff Skinner who, like a lot of players, felt okay in the immediate aftermath of the hit, practised the next day and only began to experience symptoms a few days later. Right now, he is out in definitely, the second time in two seasons he’s been sidelined with a concussion. Last year, he missed 16 games in all. The 2011 Calder Trophy winner was off to a flying start, with 14 points in his first 13 games, second on the team behind Eric Staal … Meanwhile, the 2012 Calder Trophy winner, Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog, is inching closer to a return, after he suffered a concussion earlier this season on a hit from the Sharks’ Brad Stuart. Landeskog accompanied the team on a three-game California road trip that begins with a game in Los Angeles Saturday afternoon and was expected to participate in contact drills Friday. "You've got to make sure you're responsible with what you're doing out there,” Landeskog told the Denver Post. “You've got to make sure you keep your head up. I didn't keep it up as much as I should have.”