A look at Erik Karlsson’s play amidst the Senators’ struggles, plus two other trends

Ottawa Senators' Guy Boucher addresses the game of Erik Karlsson, pointing out that the slow start for the defenceman is due to his recovery from last season's injury.

Last week we bounced around the league, looking at an eclectic assortment of trends such as the Winnipeg Jets improved goal prevention, Jack Eichel’s lack of support from his teammates, the Stars change of pace under Ken Hitchcock, and Charlie McAvoy’s heavy usage.

It’s a new week, which means it’s time to dig into some new topics. Let’s start with…

1. Ottawa’s struggles, and Erik Karlsson’s maligned play
The wheels have really come off the bus in Ottawa, with the Senators currently mired in a funk that’s seen them come away with just two wins in 14 games since coming back from the Global Series in Sweden.

They’ve been outscored by a whopping 50-23 margin in that time and their season-long goal differential has fallen all the way to 29th (ahead of only Arizona and Buffalo). Their odds of making the playoffs have been progressively plummeting with each of those defeats, now all the way down to just 17 per cent.

At the root of their problems is the fact that their goaltending, which served as the team’s back bone last season, has completely imploded. Last year, the Senators were 10th in five-on-five save percentage and eighth in all situations. This year, those totals have plummeted all the way down to 30th and 31st respectively, with only the Penguins getting less reliable netminding at five-on-five.

It’s been a staggering regression for a duo that was such a great story last season and was as rock solid as it gets. It may sound overly simplistic, but if your goalies can’t hold up their end of the bargain and make a certain number of saves, it ultimately doesn’t matter what you’re doing in front of them.

No one has the brunt of that more than their best player, Erik Karlsson, who is currently in his own personal hellscape on the ice. No one in the league has been the victim of worse goaltending than Karlsson this season, and if you take it back all the way to 2007, he finds himself in some impressively unfortunate company:

Player Season 5-on-5 On-Ice Save %
Marcel Goc 2007-2008 85.36
Matt Calvert 2012-2013 85.49
Paul Ranger 2007-2008 85.51
Roman Cervenka 2012-2013 85.56
Derek Dorsett 2012-2013 85.65
Erik Karlsson 2017-2018 85.68
Colin Miller 2017-2018 85.92
Dalton Prout 2016-2017 85.96
Phil Kessel 2007-2008 86.37
Derek Meech 2008-2009 86.41
Johan Franzen 2009-2010 86.46
Michael Nylander 2007-2008 86.46
Jonathan Cheechoo 2009-2010 86.48
Mark Giordano 2012-2013 86.51
Mike Richards 2012-2013 86.70
Dan Boyle 2007-2008 86.85

Even someone as good as Karlsson can’t get out from under a situation that dire. While he’s clearly nowhere near 100 per cent coming off a major off-season operation, the Senators have still been a dramatically better team when Karlsson is on the ice. His unique ability to control the pulse of the game has been reflected in the shot shares, with the Senators controlling territorial play whenever he’s out there and succumbing to a barrage of shots when he’s not.

But it hasn’t mattered because Karlsson and the Sens haven’t gotten the bounces. Despite a generally sound process and good underlying numbers they’ve been buried by goals with Karlsson anyway. They’re getting outscored 30-13 at five-on-five with him on the ice, leaving Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Clayton Keller as the only players in the league with a worse plus-minus than Karlsson’s minus-18.

Season Relative CF% Relative SF% Relative GF% Relative xGF%
2014-2015 +4.82 +4.47 +2.83 +0.93
2015-2016 +6.48 +5.09 +2.78 +2.96
2016-2017 +1.59 +1.56 +8.04 +3.22
2017-2018 +6.64 +7.60 -20.57 +6.33

CF= shot attempts for, SF= shots on goal for, GF = goals scored for, xGF = expected goals for. All stats are relative, showing Erik Karlsson’s on-ice results at five-on-five in relation to that of his teammates.

It’s been ugly in Ottawa this season, but unless the Senators are able to get their off-ice affairs sorted and keep their superstar happy, things are only going to get worse. As rough a go of it as they’ve had, at least Karlsson is still on the team — and it’s hard to think things will get better if he wasn’t.

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2. Nico Hischier is having a sneaky good rookie campaign
As strange as it sounds to say about a player who was picked first overall just six months ago, it feels like Nico Hischier is somehow managing to fly under the radar.

That’s largely due to the tremendous individual campaigns some of his peers are having, with the likes of Mat Barzal and Brock Boeser soaking up such a large chunk of the Calder Trophy buzz. Barzal’s emergence has immediately raised the trajectory of the Islanders as a whole and finally gives them a legitimate second scoring line. Boeser is quite literally scoring a goal every other game, but just as important, he’s also given fans in Vancouver something to get excited about.

Barzal and Boeser have totals that capture your attention whereas Hischier, on pace for 14 goals and 55 points, doesn’t yet. In today’s NHL those are perfectly respectable totals, especially for an 18-year-old rookie, but they aren’t going to show up amongst the league leaders.

While that sort of superficial look at his production doesn’t do Hischier any favours, his resume benefits from a facelift once you peel back a layer and look closer at his underlying contributions.

One particular area he looks great in is the art of drawing penalties, where he’s already proven capable of using his shiftiness and speed to force opponents into committing infractions as a last recourse to try and slow him down.

Player Penalties Drawn Penalties Taken Penalty Differential
Nico Hischier 17 5 +12
Mathew Barzal 17 5 +12
Johnny Gaudreau 16 4 +12
David Pastrnak 16 5 +11
Kevin Fiala 15 4 +11
Ondrej Palat 12 2 +10
Matthew Tkachuk 19 10 +9
Matt Duchene 11 2 +9
Bryan Rust 16 8 +8
James Neal 14 6 +8
Gabriel Landeskog 14 6 +8
Nikolaj Ehlers 14 6 +8
Connor McDavid 12 4 +8
Claude Giroux 12 4 +8
Sean Couturier 11 3 +8

Only Matthew Tkachuk and Tom Wilson have drawn more penalties than Hischier this season, though it’s worth noting they have taken significantly more penalties as well because of the style of game they play. The ability to singlehandedly move the needle in one direction the way Hischier has here is an incredibly valuable skill, and one that typically doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The other thing worth considering is how he’s been accruing his points thus far. Context is important here, because the reason his overall totals haven’t ballooned are (in no particular order):

1. He’s converting on just 7.8 per cent of his shots, with the league average for forwards hovering around 11.2 per cent this season. Based on his profile, there’s no real reason to believe Hischier is that inefficient as a shooter, which suggests he’s due for an uptick at some point.

2. Not only have 15 of his 20 points come at five-on-five, but only two of them have been secondary assists. If you account for that, all of a sudden his production looks far more comparable to his peers.

Player 5-on-5 Time on Ice 5-on-5 Points 5-on-5 Primary Points
Mathew Barzal 393.75 18 14
Brock Boeser 359.78 16 13
Nico Hischier 373.42 15 13
Clayton Keller 462.45 13 10
Alex DeBrincat 352.40 12 9

If you pro-rate those numbers for the amount of minutes he’s been getting, Hischier jumps up to 35th in the league in points per hour (sandwiched between Johnny Gaudreau and David Pastrnak) and 24th in primary points per hour (between Jack Eichel and Vladimir Tarasenko).

It may not seem like it at first glance, but Hischier is having a fine rookie season. He’ll have a difficult time putting up the necessary counting stats to legitimately enter his name into the discussion for the Rookie of the Year, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t living up to the expectations of a top pick.

The dynamic skill and high-end pace he plays at have provided a much-needed shot in the arm to the Devils franchise, helping make them both significantly more competitive and also infinitely more watchable than in years past.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

3. Jonathan Marchessault and the Golden Knights continue to impress
When we were all going through the process of projecting what the Golden Knights would look like in their inaugural season, it felt like we collectively reached an agreement that the team’s outlook in Year 1 was somewhere in the happy middle of the spectrum.

The lack of star power would ultimately limit their ceiling, but their floor would be elevated well above the expansion franchises that came before because of their ability to load up on middle-tier contributors. Couple that with the healthy supply of defencemen and goaltenders who were exposed in the expansion draft and you could see there was enough for the team to at least be respectable out of the gate.

Thus far they’ve wildly exceeded even the most optimistic of those expectations, comfortably holding on to a playoff spot in the Pacific Division over a third of the way through the schedule. While it’s fair to still have reservations about how good they actually are, it’s clear Vegas has stumbled on a recipe that is working for the time being.

At even strength they play at an incredibly fast pace from the top of the lineup to the bottom and opponents are having difficulty adjusting. They’re in the black in both shot share and expected goals. They’re well-coached and don’t really shoot themselves in the foot – they’ve taken the third-fewest penalties and enjoy the second-best differential in the league. They have the best home record in the NHL, which I’ll just present as a fact and leave open to interpretation.

While none of those things are all that shocking, the rate at which they’ve been able to generate offence has been: they’re fourth in goals per hour at five-on-five, and third in all situations. Some of that can be attributed to a rather favourable shooting percentage, which is currently fifth and fourth in those two areas.

The biggest driving force behind that surprising success has been their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson, which has been one of the most dominant trios in the league this season. In the 250-plus minutes they’ve spent together at five-on-five, the Golden Knights are controlling 55.4 per cent of the shot attempts, 56.7 per cent of the shots on goal, and a clean 59 per cent of the expected goals.

The story here is Marchessault, who was inexplicably gift wrapped to George McPhee this summer by the cash-strapped Panthers, as they shed Smith’s contract in the process. Vegas came out of it with two legitimate top-six forwards, and the framework for its de facto top line.

Last season, only Sam Gagner provided a better bang for the buck than Marchessault from a dollars-per-point perspective amongst players not on their rookie deals. This year, not only has no one on a post-entry-level contract been a better value than Marchessault, but you actually need to mix him in with those players on their first contracts to properly contextualize just how valuable he’s been:

Player Type of Contract Points Dollars Per Point
Connor McDavid ELC 39 23,718
Brayden Point ELC 28 24,524
Jonathan Marchessault Standard 26 28,846
Mathew Barzal ELC 28 30,833
Brock Boeser ELC 29 31,897
Alex DeBrincat ELC 23 33,841
Jake Guentzel ELC 21 34,960
Auston Matthews ELC 26 35,577
Patrik Laine ELC 26 35,577
Mikko Rantanen ELC 25 35,767

It’ll be fascinating to see what Marchessault’s future holds, and what his next contract looks like.

From Vegas’ perspective, it makes sense to vet what he truly is as a player before committing big dollars to him over the long term. It takes time and patience to do so. But while they wait, the asking price theoretically rises as he continues to produce at this level.

It wasn’t that long ago we were wondering if Marchessault would ever get the chance to succeed like this, or how Vegas would be able to acquire an impact player as they were forced to pick from other teams’ scraps.

However it ultimately plays out, this seems like a good problem for both sides to have based on how far they’ve already come.

(All data in this piece via Corsica, and updated prior to Thursday evening’s slate of games)

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