How superstars like Connor McDavid can alter Round 2

Connor McDavid discusses his challenging head-to-head matchup with Ryan Kesler, whereas Patrick Maroon says elite players (McDavid) always find ways to create offence for themselves and teammates.

The opening round of the 2017 post-season is in the books, and staying true to form it was as unexpected as we’ve come to know the Stanley Cup Playoffs to be.

The top two seeds out West were bounced in quick fashion, with the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild combining for just one measly win. Meanwhile out East, what may have initially looked like two lopsided matchups based on shot metrics and general consensus went off script when the Ottawa Senators beat the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers upset the Montreal Canadiens. But it’s that sort of unpredictability that makes the NHL post-season the roller-coaster thrill ride that it is.

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Much like we did prior to the opening round, let’s take a look at some of the more notable individual matchups and telling trends that we should be keeping an eye on as these coming games play out.

1. The McDavid Rules (Revisited):

In the lead-up to their opening-round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, I posited that the San Jose Sharks would make it their mission to have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun shadow Connor McDavid at every possible turn throughout the series. The logic being that stopping the league’s most singular offensive talent is an impossible task for anyone, but at least the two of them – widely considered to be one of the best shutdown duos in the game – would have a fighting chance at making life difficult for him.

That head-to-head clash certainly came to fruition, with San Jose’s go-to shutdown pairing eating up a rather significant portion of the defensive responsibilities against Edmonton’s top scoring line:

Player 5v5 TOI vs. McDavid % of McDavid’s Shifts
Justin Braun 75.50 79.17
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 74.77 78.40
Brenden Dillon 11.45 12.01
Paul Martin 9.73 10.20
Brent Burns 9.72 10.19
David Schlemko 9.53 9.99

While they did an admirable job of actually keeping McDavid off of the scoresheet at five-on-five (all of his points came on either the power play, short-handed, or in an empty-net situation), the Oilers still dominated play in those sequences. They were responsible for 54 per cent of the shots, 61 per cent of the scoring chances, and 56 per cent of the expected goals as team, a sure sign that the process was sound even if the pucks themselves weren’t actually making their way past Martin Jones.

Spinning things forward, it goes without saying that how the Anaheim Ducks set up their line of defence against McDavid (and his running mate Leon Draisaitl) will dictate how their upcoming series shakes out. What makes the decision much more interesting is that they’re expected to get both Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler back in the lineup just in the nick of time, giving them some intriguing options.

The most appealing of the bunch figures to be the combination of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, who after spending much of the past two seasons locking opposing forwards down were broken up for their first-round series against the Flames out of necessity. With young, inexperienced defenders like Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour having to step into the lineup, it made sense that Randy Carlyle would prefer to spread the wealth and provide each of them with a reliable partner.

But now with the blue line approaching full health once again, things seem to be falling into place perfectly for the Ducks. As was the case in the last round with Vlasic and Braun, how much it’ll ultimately matter remains to be seen, but what the Ducks have going for them is that they possess something of a defensive ace in the hole here. Since the start of last season, no regularly used pairing (minimum of 500 minutes spent together at five-on-five) has been better at suppressing the opposition’s offence than the duo of Manson and Lindholm:

Player 1 Player 2 Time on Ice Shot Attempts Against/Hour Shots Attempts For %
Hampus Lindholm Josh Manson 1510.89 31.86 58.94
Drew Doughty Brayden McNabb 1272.13 31.96 61.11
Kevin Shattenkirk Carl Gunnarsson 653.40 33.74 51.42
Brenden Dillon David Schlemko 665.01 33.74 55.32
Nate Schmidt Brooks Orpik 558.92 34.31 56.31
Matt Niskanen Dmitry Orlov 802.91 34.60 57.47
Victor Hedman Anton Stralman 1275.48 34.72 55.98
Ryan Ellis Mattias Ekholm 970.84 34.87 54.92
Chris Tanev Alex Edler 892.94 35.07 51.72
Colton Parayko Carl Gunnarsson 625.95 35.19 53.05
Adam Larsson Andy Greene 1200.56 35.21 45.46
Marc-Edouard Vlasic Justin Braun 1954.46 35.44 51.82
Jaccob Slavin Brett Pesce 1063.91 36.26 53.06
Duncan Keith Niklas Hjalmarsson 1695.93 36.30 52.79
Mark Giordano Dougie Hamilton 1161.78 37.21 56.38

Much like he did all season, McDavid will find a way to get his and be productive. You can slow a talent like him down for a while, but eventually he’ll break through because all he really needs is a glimmer of daylight to make something happen.

The Ducks can’t really do anything about that, but what they do have is a say over how often it happens and how hard he has to work to get there.

2. The Power of a Transcendent Talent:

There’s no getting around the fact that hockey is a team game. To be successful you need multiple different (and sometime unexpected) sources to contribute. Unlike in the NFL where a great quarterback can propel the entire team to greatness, or in the NBA where a single superstar gives you a chance to win every single night, you really do need a lot of things to go right to win in the NHL.

With that said, I think sometimes as a result we tend to underestimate the impact a single skater can have on the outcome, assuming the skater in question is a generationally transcendent talent playing at the peak of his powers. What separates a good player from a great player is the innate ability to elevate the performance of everyone he plays with, propping them up to levels they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach by themselves.

A good way to capture that kind of effect is how an individual player’s team does with him on the ice compared to with him on the bench, to see if there’s any sort of noticeable impact, and if there is, then how much it’s actually worth. Ottawa’s splits with and without Erik Karlsson in the opening round are rather jarring – they go from a dominant team that is significantly outshooting, out-chancing, and outscoring the opposition when he’s out there to a team that can’t seem to find the puck or create anything without him.

Situation Shots For Shots Against Shots % Chances For Chances Against Chances % Goals For Goals Against
OTT with Karlsson 103 73 58.5 12 6 66.7 6 2
OTT without Karlsson 122 143 46.0 12 18 40.0 2 4

3. The Elephant in the Room:

There’s been a lot of angst this season in the hockey community about the current playoff format with regards to seeding and determining who plays who.

Assuming the objective of the system is to reward teams for their strong regular-season play (which it presumably should be, otherwise what’s the point of playing 82 warmup games?), then it’s particularly difficult to reconcile that with the current second-round landscape.

Here are the current matchups based on regular-season seeding:

1 vs. 2
6 vs. 8
9 vs. 12
10 vs. 16

Those sounds you hear are the collective groans of Washington Capitals fans. After a dominant regular season in which they won the most games, accumulated the most points, and registered the greatest goal differential, they now have to play the reigning Stanley Cup champions who similarly upset them at this time last year.

On the other end of the bracket, you have two clearly inferior teams playing each other for the right to waltz into the Conference final. It may come off as sour grapes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not completely justified either.

My proposed solution: seed the 16 playoff teams from top to bottom based on regular-season points, and have the top seeds pick who they play against in order. It could turn into a televised event where the matchups are announced, which would surely prove to be a massive marketing success for a league that desperately needs it right now.

That’s probably wishful thinking. But a revised system where teams are seeded first through eighth in their respective conferences, and re-seeded after each round, would be nice middle ground, and a good step in the right direction.