With 2021 winding down, we’re looking ahead to 2022. Specifically, we’re pinpointing players to watch in the second half of the season.
What makes a player one to watch? Strong underlying numbers are a start, but really we’re looking to those who are trending in the right direction as of late, or who should find themselves in a better position to succeed moving forward.
Let’s dive in.
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver
It’s only been a few games, but Bruce Boudreau seems to be making a difference to start his tenure in Vancouver. Whether minor tactical adjustments or just a change in the vibes, his players seem to be responding early. And that includes Pettersson, who got off to a challenging start this season and saw his minutes decline as a result.
Now, Pettersson seems to be trending in the right direction. At 5-on-5, we expect to see him excel alongside winger Conor Garland who can buy him time and space. Plus, there’s potential in a net-front role on the top power play unit moving forward. So, let’s see what 2022 has to offer after a tough second half to 2021.
Jason Robertson, Dallas
Through 23 games, last year’s Calder finalist is up to 10 goals and 25 points. He’s picked up right where he left off with his scoring -- now up to 3.86 points per 60 minutes in all situations that lands him 11th in the league -- and below the surface. That was the key to his Calder case last season; Robertson's play-driving was a huge difference maker at 5-on-5 that really fuelled his part in the race (in addition to his scoring).
That’s no different this year. Alongside Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski, the trio has earned over 69 per cent of the expected goal rate at even strength. So while the sophomore’s shooting percentage may be slightly elevated, this line is generating offence that may help keep their production sustainable moving forward.
Ivan Barbashev, St. Louis
Before going on the COVID list, Barbashev was clicking alongside Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich in St. Louis -- and as long as he returns to the middle of that trio, we expect it to continue.
Together, they have a 58 per cent expected goals rate in just over 73 minutes of play. Tarasenko’s having an excellent bounce back year, scoring up to expectation and often driving to the slot while two-way winger Buchnevich is the primary passer. As for Barbashev, he’s not far behind Buchnevich in his passes to the slot. Plus, he’s contributing some goal scoring; though he’s scoring at a higher clip than years past, his goal production does line up with expectations. So we’re curious how he builds on this start, in what looks to be a career year.
Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay
After breaking out in his second full NHL season and pushing his name into the Selke conversation, Cirelli took a step back last year -- especially while playing through injury. He didn’t score at as high of a pace as he did in 2019-20 and struggled defensively. This year, though, he’s rebounded when the team’s needed it most, as Tampa has been without Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov through much of the season to this point.
With the support of the Lightning’s best around him, we expect Cirelli to thrive in the second half of the season. As we noted just before the pause, Tampa kept collecting points as their offensive generation slipped at 5-on-5 and on the power play. Having their stars back should boost that and the players around them, too -- including Cirelli, who has tilted the ice in his team’s favour even while they were short-staffed.
William Karlsson, Vegas
Speaking of two-way centres, there’s Karlsson in Vegas. After being sidelined with a broken foot, he’s played just 18 games so far, netting eight points along the way. While it’s obviously a limited sample, it’s encouraging that the team has rocked a 61 per cent expected goals rate at even strength with him deployed. But we can see that getting even better as more reinforcements enter the lineup.
In a sense, he’s being bumped as the team’s 1C. So why mention him here? Because we’re curious about how Vegas shifts the lines for balance once Jack Eichel makes his debut. Slotting him between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone may stack one line too much, leaving some imbalance elsewhere. Maybe the answer is pairing Eichel with one of those wingers, and subsequently, Karlsson with the other. Or, if Pacioretty and Stone prove they should stick together, maybe Karlsson just rounds out that trio. Either way, our interest is piqued.
Evan Bouchard, Edmonton
After averaging 14:50 in all situations in 14 games played last year, Bouchard’s playing legitimate minutes for the Oilers in 2021-211, now averaging 21:28 through his first 29 games. On defence, that’s second only to number one Darnell Nurse. In those minutes, Bouchard’s scoring at a rate of 1.74 points per 60 in all situations, which ranks 24th in the league among defencemen.
At 5-on-5, Edmonton’s generating quality offence when the frequent-shooting Bouchard is on the ice -- a rate of 3.04 expected goals per 60, which ranks fourth on the team (behind Zach Hyman, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Connor McDavid). And for a team that needs contributions everywhere to support its elite leading forwards, Bouchard's contributions have been key. The second half of the season should help the Oilers see just how much they can lean on him, as they try to make the most of the two entry-level years remaining on Bouchard's contract.
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto
With no structural damage to his knee, it’s possible Sandin resumes his strong start to the season early in 2022. Before being sidelined with injury, the 21-year-old's minutes were fairly sheltered on the third pair. That said, he was making an impact. His transition play helped move the puck up the ice, standing out in particular in his passes to facilitate zone entries. And once in the offensive end, along with Morgan Rielly, Sandin helped set up his teammates with quantity and quality passing.
That play is going to come in handy down the stretch, especially if the coaches start shifting him higher if (and when) others struggle. It’s the final year of Sandin's entry-level contract on top of it, so this is a player (and situation) to keep an eye on.