6 things we learned in the first half of the 2018-19 NHL season

erik-karlsson-lines-up-for-a-face-off

San Jose Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson lines up for a face-off. (Tony Avelar/AP)

With a little more than half of the games played, we look back at the start of this NHL season to see if we learned anything new about the league and where it’s headed.

What did we come away with? Goal trends, struggling stars, the importance of a quality backup goalie, plus lovable dogs and mascots.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

DON’T FREAK OUT OVER STARS STRUGGLING EARLY

Every October and November we’re on the lookout for those early storylines that will unfold through the year and help define that NHL season. Maybe it’s goals on the rise, or a specific team or two that are taking a step up or down. But the first half of this season served as another reminder to take a deeper look before drawing any grand conclusions about player performances specifically.

From Erik Karlsson to Patrik Laine and Sergei Bobrovsky, a collection of star players we’ve come to expect big numbers from didn’t get off to the best starts this season. Sometimes these slow starts are followed by calls to trade the player, questions of whether they’re declining and past their prime, or just wonder at what the heck has gone wrong — is it the way they’re being used, or are they doing anything differently?

In almost every one of these cases the underlying numbers indicated a course correction was coming — and looking at some of these players now, it’s clear there wasn’t anything to get overly concerned about.

Take Karlsson for example. After being traded to San Jose in September, he had to get used to a new team and system and had a variety of different defence partners off the hop. Through 18 games he had zero goals and just eight points, far from the near point-a-game numbers he’d built a career on.

But it was clear that most of this had to do with unlucky percentages — he was the fifth-best defenceman in the NHL in shot-attempt differential as of Nov. 2, but the Sharks were scoring on less than five per cent of their shots with Karlsson on the ice. He was generating a pile of high-danger chances for himself and his teammates, but the bounces just weren’t going his way.

Today Karlsson is tied for fourth in scoring at his position and is currently on a 14-game point streak, which is the longest by a blueliner in the salary cap era. He has 25 points over that stretch and at this pace he’ll be in the Norris Trophy discussion by the end of the year.

Laine, too, reminded us that even the best snipers are inherently streaky. He had just three goals in October with a 6.8 shooting percentage, then scored 18 times in November. Since that month closed, Laine has three goals in 18 games, so while this won’t go down as his best season overall, it would also seem to indicate another strong stretch is on the horizon.

Bobrovsky, too, started with a woeful .882 save percentage in the first month, then followed it up with a .932 November in which he lost only two games. He’s still one of the better goalies in the league and though this won’t be a Vezina-worthy season for him, there may be something else going on between the pending UFA and his team.

If there’s one star who hasn’t course-corrected yet, look no further than Vladimir Tarasenko. One of the top goal scorers over the previous four years, Tarasenko has just 12 at the midway mark. His shooting percentage is just 8.1, though, which is the lowest of his career, and the quality of his shots are actually better than ever. If any team can buy low on him this trade season, the 27-year-old is a good bet to recover just fine.

The conclusion: if a star player is still somewhere in their prime and have been putting up consistently strong numbers for years, don’t read too much into low totals in October and November. If the underlying numbers are still showing well, the turnaround will come.

BACKUP GOALIES NEEDED

It’s becoming clear that having a rested No. 1 is as important as ever to succeeding in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Consider that none of the past five championship netminders played more than 57 games in the season they won it all, and of the 40 teams that advanced past Round 1 over the past five years, just 16 had a goalie who played 60 or more times in a season. And more often than not, those goalies were eliminated in Round 2.

It’s not that you can’t win the Cup or go on a post-season run with a goalie leaned on this much — it’s about giving your team the best odds to do it.

Having a backup goalie to do more than just spell a starter for one side of a back-to-back seems to be a key factor for start-to-finish team success these days. Not only will a good backup help make sure your starter goes into the post-season fresh, but they can also help sustain a team through a bad stretch by the starter. For instance, Jaroslav Halak has been stellar for Boston this season when Tuukka Rask was having a rough patch and without that the Bruins might not be in a playoff spot right now.

Aaron Dell has been huge for the Sharks, Laurent Brossoit for the Jets, and Casey DeSmith was better than Matt Murray and kept the Penguins alive when the latter went down to injury. Meantime, Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen and Calgary’s David Rittich have all but taken over the top job.

Now we’re looking at teams such as Toronto, Columbus and even Calgary — as long as Mike Smith struggles to reach a .900 save percentage — and recognize they need credible backups to either give the No. 1s a break or maintain a certain level in case of injury. The trouble is there are very few options on the trade market outside of, possibly, Jimmy Howard — and Red Wings GM Ken Holland wants a first-round pick for him.

What does this mean for the second half? The top four goalies in games played are Marc-Andre Fleury (39), John Gibson (37), Jake Allen (34) and Devan Dubnyk (34). Of those, Fleury and the Golden Knights would be the only one in the “Stanley Cup contender” category.

In Fleury’s career he’s played 64 or more games in a season six times. Of those years he got out of the first round just twice and has a cumulative .894 post-season save percentage. Vegas may want to find some more starts for Malcolm Subban in the second half.

GRITTY IS GREAT

When the Philadelphia Flyers unveiled their new mascot in September, who would have guessed the googly-eyed cousin of Youppi! would so instantly become a beloved member of the NHL community?

Love him like most do, or hate him, Gritty is the best story out of the Flyers organization this season. In what’s been a majorly disappointing first half for the hockey club, the mascot has effectively been the face of the franchise.

ALL DOGS GO TO… THE NHL

Speaking of distractions, everyone seems to be getting a dog this year.

In a trend started by, we think, Bark-Andre Furry, who is the unofficial pup for the Golden Knights, some teams around the league have officially adopted dogs into their organizations.

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TOP SCORERS SKEWING YOUNGER

If you take a look at the top scorers in the NHL right now, you’ll notice a pile of young players leading the way.

Eleven of the top 20 scorers right now are under the age of 25 — that includes six of the top 10 and two of the top three (Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen).

The NHL has been skewing younger for a few years now as the league gets faster and older players have a harder time keeping up with the pace. The first time this started to change in a major way was following the 2004-05 lockout — four of the top 10 scorers at the end of the 2005-06 season were under 25 years of age. That’s compared to just two in 2003-04 and 2002-03 and one in 2001-02.

Just two of the top 20 scorers right now are over 30 years old, and Blake Wheeler is the only forward. Compare that to seven of the top 20 being over 30 in 2003-04.

This just hammers home the point even further about how important it is to draft well and go all-in on a winning window before your players hit UFA age. It also shows that it’s worth it to pay through the nose to keep your high-end young stars, even if it means shelling out $10 million on their first post-ELC contract.

These are the best, most productive players in the NHL today. So when this summer’s big RFA crop starts signing for monster dollars, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense.

GOAL TRENDS

Everyone knows goals are up again this season. With an average of 6.10 goals per game, this is the most offence we’ve seen since 2005-06 when power plays were handed out at the highest rate on record.

But while goal totals are up over last season (5.94), power-play opportunities and success rates have stayed relatively flat, while shot totals have actually declined a little from 63.6 shots per game to 62.4. Meantime, the average save percentage has fallen from .912 last season to .909 this season.

Part of that could be due to the smaller, streamlined goalie equipment, with under-arm shots having a better chance of going in than before. But more than that, while teams are shooting a little less overall, they’re actually creating more scoring chances. Perimeter shots are in decline, so it seems teams are passing up those opportunities to try and get in a little closer to the goalie.

SEASON GOALS/G PPO/G PP% SV% SA/G
2018-19 6.1 6.14 20.14 0.909 62.4
2017-18 5.94 6.08 20.18 0.912 63.6
2016-17 5.54 5.98 19.1 0.913 60.2
2015-16 5.42 6.22 18.66 0.915 59.2
2014-15 5.46 6.12 18.66 0.915 59.6
2013-14 5.48 6.52 17.89 0.914 60

*per Hockey-Reference

This year’s average save percentage is the lowest in a decade, but 10 years ago teams were averaging a combined two extra power plays per game than they’re getting right now. Power plays are far more successful now — this year and last are the first two times the average PP was over 20 per cent since the end of the 1980s.

Offences are getting more efficient, which could be due to game planning, more skill throughout the lineup, smaller goalie gear, or all of the above.

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