Despite a couple of losses in a row, the Vancouver Canucks have ridden a surge to the top of the Pacific Division, and a big reason for that is our Spotlight performer of the week.
For years we were told Jacob Markstrom was the next great goaltending prospect, but he floundered in Florida and struggled to keep his spot in the league. Eventually the Canucks acquired him, but even with the confidence many hockey people had in him, it took a long time for Markstrom to establish himself.
For the past three seasons now he’s been a high quality starting goaltender for the Canucks, and at the age of 30 he’s having the best statistical season of his career on the surface. Digging a little deeper, his performance is even more impressive than his .916 save percentage — which is way above the league average of .909 — shows.
While the Canucks are a much-improved team this season in many areas, they still struggle to defend a lot of the time, especially off the rush. The Canucks give up more rush chances than any other team in the league this year, which should give some added context to Markstrom’s numbers.
From the most dangerous area of the ice, Markstrom has been incredible this season, posting the fourth-highest save percentage from the inner slot in all situations in the league. Only Tuukka Rask, Jake Allen, and Henrik Lundqvist have been better in tight.
From the high slot Markstrom is similarly dominant, exerting his influence on the slot overall to give the Canucks a breather when they have defensive breakdowns. Only Connor Hellebuyck, Carey Price, David Rittich, and Sergei Bobrovsky have faced more scoring chances on net overall than Markstrom, and of that group he holds the highest overall save percentage from the slot at .854, which says a lot.
It’s a lot easier to build a team when you have a goaltender you can rely on night in and night out, and Markstrom has been that for the Canucks.
Steve Dangle was busy this week, so I’m going to do an impression of him and imagine what he would have asked if he had a chance.
“Clifford! Not the big red dog, but Kyle! Is he good? What can we expect?”
Kyle Clifford has been a depth guy who a lot of teams have coveted for a long time, although that happens a lot with depth guys who are on Cup-winning teams regardless of whether they’re actually good or not.
Clifford was the first person to downplay his offence upon meeting with Toronto media, but with 14 points this season and 21 last year, that’s actually solid offence from a fourth line type, and it’s not like he’s shooting the lights out either with a 6.7 shooting percentage this season, just a hair below his career average.
What Clifford does bring is a surprisingly strong possession game.
A rough and tumble type, Clifford has a strong defensive impact. He limits high danger chances against at the same rate as Anze Kopitar and stays above team average in all shot-based differentials.
Now, he’s not facing the same level of competition Kopitar does, but when you can have a depth line controlling over 56 per cent of shots from the inner slot, you’re probably pretty happy.
Despite downplaying his offence, Clifford was actually generating the fourth-most scoring chances on the Kings before the trade, outpaced by only Austin Wagner, Tyler Toffoli, and Jeff Carter. So despite his claim about not being the second coming of Auston Matthews, don’t be surprised if he chips in with the odd goal and can even play up in the lineup for short bursts to add some net front presence or cover for an injury.
Clifford’s a big fan of the heavy game, something most people would agree the Leafs are lacking a little bit. He plays with fire and uses his body to win puck battles at a rate higher than 80 per cent of other forwards in the league.
He exerts that influence most effectively on the forecheck, where he creates turnovers for his teammates to take advantage of and cuts off opponents trying to take the puck. He’s not going to single-handedly fix the Leafs on defence, but there appears to be a lot of areas where he can help out overall.
• One of the main reasons the Minnesota Wild have been so disappointing this season has been Devan Dubnyk. No goaltender who plays regularly has a worse inner slot save percentage at 5-on-5 than Dubnyk’s .635, and no one is worse than him in all situations either at .675. Those shots are more dangerous, but at a certain point you do need a goaltender to make some tough stops.
• Another goaltender holding his team back is Marc-Andre Fleury, who faces the least pre-shot movement of any goalie in the NHL this year with just 11.7 slot passes against per 60 minutes.
• Contrast Fleury’s numbers with Robin Lehner, who the Blackhawks leave out to dry to an embarrassing degree. He faces a league-high 17.4 slot passes against every 60 minutes in all situations, and a league-high 8.3 inner slot shots.
• The most familiar name possible has taken over the NHL’s goal scoring lead. Alex Ovechkin already has 40 goals with 29 games left to go, and he leads the league in scoring chances with 245. Next after him in both goals and chances is Matthews with 39 and 226 respectively.