Friday Four: Should Drew Doughty be on Team Canada for the Olympics?

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Sportsnet Central to discuss who he thinks will start in goal for Canada at the Beijing Olympics and what Canadians are playing their way on and off the team at this point in the NHL season.

The Friday Four, a collection of thoughts and information on some intriguing player performances, continues this week with some notes on:

• The polarizing picture of Drew Doughty and how he may factor into a Team Canada roster decision.

Alex Nedeljkovic and if the Carolina Hurricanes might one day regret not keeping him.

Erik Karlsson‘s throwback start to the season.

• And how the narrative on the Flames and Johnny Gaudreau‘s fit going forward has completely flipped.

(All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise)

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DREW DOUGHTY, LOS ANGELES KINGS

Depending on your opinion, the men’s Canadian Olympic team (with NHLers) could have as few as three and as many as five defence spots locked down. Alex Pietrangelo was one of the first three named to the team, so he’s on. Cale Makar? He might wind up being the team’s best blue liner. Shea Theodore is Pietrangelo’s Vegas teammate and the best left shot defender Canada has to offer. Dougie Hamilton? Some will see him as a bubble player, while others will call you nuts for thinking he doesn’t have a spot here. And then there’s Aaron Ekblad — Florida’s No. 1 defender leads all NHL blue liners in scoring right now.

Of those five names, just one is a left shot, so it’s reasonable to assume a second lefty will need to get picked out between the likes of Morgan Rielly, Darnell Nurse, Bo Byram or perhaps a more subtle defensive option like Devon Toews. Even if the lefty-righty split by pair isn’t as important to a non-Mike Babcock coached team, it’s hard to imagine not taking at least a second lefty.

This is the conundrum we face when trying to find a way to put right shot Drew Doughty on Team Canada’s roster. In building out a potential line-by-line, pair-by-pair breakdown for Team Canada this week, Doughty wound up as my “extra” on the blue line just to get him on the team, but he feels like a player who absolutely could end up in the top six. Team Canada loves him, he played at the last World Cup and the past two Olympics. And he’s not at the end of his career at 31 years old.

So should he make it, and how do you fit him on?

In Los Angeles, Doughty continues to play a big role, leading the team in average ice time a game (24:11) and playing in every situation. In both of the two games he’s played back from an injury (which he returned a few weeks early from) Doughty was on the ice for around 27 minutes.

The sample size is small this year because of that injury, but Doughty’s offensive numbers have been promising nonetheless. In only six games, Doughty has one goal and seven assists, with a 1.17 assists per game rate that ranks only behind Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid right now. According to Sportlogiq, by primary assist rate, Doughty’s 0.67 per game is tied for second in the league and is tops among all defencemen.

We can’t assume too much with that yet because, again, only six games, but there’s more.

When Doughty is on the ice at 5-on-5, Los Angeles has controlled 53.51 per cent of the shots and 55.9 per cent of the shot attempts, and both of those measures are improvements over Doughty’s impact stretching back five years. But, it should be noted, while LA has outscored the competition 6-4 with Doughty on the ice at even strength so far, he has a negative expected goal differential. It’s not all rosy and, inevitably, some tougher days are probably ahead as he gets more games under his belt.

But Doughty’s bid for a spot won’t only be about his on-ice shot metrics or potential goal splits on a still-emerging Kings squad that’s a true .500 team right now in terms of standings results and most underlying numbers. The fact that he can play the PK is important. Of the five defencemen mentioned above I’m not sure four of them are better suited for that than Doughty. And there’s a certain on-ice presence and impact he commands that tends to ignite the tired old analytics vs. eye test debate.

Doughty has been a common name to leave off these projected Canada lists because of the great right shot options there are and that’s given him a chip on his shoulder we really shouldn’t underestimate.

“It frustrates me, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that team,” Doughty said earlier this year. “You know, I don’t believe the media. I know that the GMs that are creating this team, they know hockey I think better than most people. So I’m using it as a tool to push myself, to prove to everyone I should be on that team. You know, I’ve been on the team twice before, played lots of minutes, and was a big part of those teams, and I think I can for sure do that again.”

Would it surprise you if Hockey Canada chose Doughty over, say, Hamilton, who hasn’t played nationally since the WJC nearly a decade ago? If Doughty cracks the roster, something at least mildly surprising has to give.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

ALEX NEDELJKOVIC, DETROIT RED WINGS

There are a promising amount of good stories about younger players in Detroit this season, which is just what you want from a rebuilding team. Two weeks ago we highlighted Lucas Raymond’s rookie contributions and he remains the favourite for the Calder right now, sitting as Detroit’s leading scorer. Defenceman Moritz Seider will be in the running for rookie of the year, too.

Despite being a Calder finalist in the shortened season, Nedeljkovic didn’t play enough games to remove his rookie eligibility. It might be harder for him to become a finalist again in a full year behind a team still in rebuild mode (and some other worthy rookies around the league), but the Wings are staying relevant, Nedeljkovic is playing well, and so maybe the idea he could be a back-to-back rookie of the year finalist isn’t out of the question.

By basic goalie stat measures Nedeljkovic ranks favourably across the league. His .923 save percentage is tied for 11th, 2.58 GAA 17th, and he’s faced the 15th-most shots in the league. They aren’t Vezina numbers, but clearly set him apart from the rest of the rookie stoppers — Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka is his closest challenger (.916, 2.80), but he’s 2-9-1 behind a tanking Coyotes squad.

Here’s a look at some of Nedeljkovic’s work this season and his league rank:

As you might expect, the Red Wings don’t insulate their goalies much yet, and allow the sixth-most shots against per game. According to Natural Stat Trick, Detroit allows the third-most high danger chances per game in all situations, so it’s not like these starts are breezy for Nedeljkovic (or Thomas Greiss for that matter).

According to stats from Sportlogiq, Nedeljkovic ranks 15th in inner slot shots faced and his .814 save rate on those opportunities is 13th, one spot ahead of Toronto’s Jack Campbell. Nedeljkovic is trending up, too, allowing three or more goals just once in his past seven starts, and only four times in the 12 starts he’s made since a season-opening 7-6 loss to Tampa Bay.

Nedeljkovic is helping patch up any lingering looseness in the Red Wings play and elevating them to fourth place in the Atlantic Division (fifth place by points percentage). It’s a positive right away that the Wings will be playing meaningful games for some time now, rather than being among the Ottawas, Montreals and Arizonas of the league and out of it already. That’s a change from previous seasons.

We wonder how the Carolina Hurricanes might one day look back at how they chose to handle Nedeljkovic. As a member of the Canes, Nedeljkovic started last season on waivers and passed through unclaimed. Then he put together one of the better single-season Hurricanes goalie performances of the past few years, which elevated them into a well-rounded Cup contender. Even after that, the Canes weren’t keen on paying him in arbitration and so dealt the 23-year-old to Detroit for a third-rounder.

Frederik Andersen has been fantastic for the Canes already this season and if they do end up winning a Stanley Cup nothing else matters. But if they aren’t able to climb that hill and Nedeljkovic goes on to have a steady NHL career, it’ll be a move they’ll want back.

ERIK KARLSSON, SAN JOSE SHARKS

Is Karlsson back?

Like Doughty, the 31-year-old’s absolute peak is behind him and Karlsson probably won’t win a Norris again. But we’ve spent the past couple of seasons wondering how much of a liability he could become for the Sharks as a player making $11.5 million against the cap and a league-high $14.5 million in actual salary this season. But strip out the contract talk and we can absolutely see an impact player bouncing back this season.

When Karlsson is on the ice, San Jose carries the play, generates most of the high quality scoring chances, and outscores its opponents both in actual and expected goals. This is a big change from the past two seasons where, combined, the Sharks were outscored 95-80 and outchanced in the high danger area 429-385 at 5-on-5 when Karlsson was on the ice. He’s a transition monster, often putting the Sharks on offence himself. As Shayna Goldman explored a couple weeks ago, Karlsson is again elite at carrying the puck out of his own zone and up the ice.

This season, among all NHL defencemen who have logged at least 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, Karlsson ranks 22nd in goals for percentage, 17th in expected goals for percentage (signifying how they control the quality chances) and 16th in high danger chance percentage.

Karlsson’s five even strength goals on the season are tied for third-most among all NHL defencemen and he’s coming by it honestly. Though Karlsson’s shooting percentage may be a little high right now, that could be due partly to the fact he’s getting a lot of high quality looks — the rate at which he’s getting front of the net chances for himself at 5-on-5 ranks within the top 10 NHL blueliners.

And incredibly, Karlsson had to miss six games after testing positive for COVID-19, saying he was symptomatic and “got it pretty bad.”

He’s played 10 games since coming off the COVID list, registering seven points and playing over 22 minutes a night.

JOHNNY GAUDREAU, CALGARY FLAMES

It’s pretty wild how the narrative has changed course around the Calgary Flames’ direction as a team, and Johnny Gaudreau’s place within that.

All last season as Calgary spiralled in the North Division, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Gaudreau’s time with the team was running thin. Whether that meant a trade in the summer before he became a UFA, something closer to this year’s deadline, or a split when his contract ends in 2022, playoff success wasn’t coming for Gaudreau or the Flames and so a change of direction was the likely course.

Now we’re wondering if he could actually be extended.

Under Darryl Sutter this season, Gaudreau has been fantastic and a great fit. While Calgary gets a lot of credit for keeping the shots against down (sixth-best in the league) and scoring chances against to a minimum (second-best in the league) it isn’t accurate to say they play slow hockey. The Flames are one of the best transition offences in the league and Gaudreau has been a leader.

According to Sportlogiq, Gaudreau leads the league in rush chances and is 15th in shots from the slot. That’s led to nine goals so far, which is already about half way to his final goal totals from the past two seasons.

But Gaudreau is more playmaker than goal scorer. He’s third in the league for even strength assists (14), two off Kirill Kaprizov’s pace. All of those helpers have been primary assists — in fact, Gaudreau leads the league in even strength primary assists. Again according to Sportlogiq, Gaudreau is hanging with some elite names in getting the puck to the slot area for his teammates.

It’s no longer too early this season and so what we’re seeing from Gaudreau has some real meaning now. He’s not slowing down either, with 11 points in his past eight games, and is pacing pretty closely with his career-best 2018-19 performance — a 99-point season he hasn’t come close to matching since.

But there are other things to consider here when discussing how the Flames should approach Gaudreau’s future or what a contract extension might look like. One is that he’s doing this in a contract year after not playing to this level in back-to-back seasons. Another is that in his 99-point season, Gaudreau was shut down in the ensuing playoffs and recorded a single assist in a five-game first-round loss to the Colorado Avalanche.

In the end, Gaudreau’s true value may only present itself after he shows what he can do in the post-season again. But, if he continues on this tear all year and then follows with a career playoff performance, the price tag and term on his next contract — which will mostly cover his early-30s — could get tricky to agree on.

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