Mathew Barzal doesn't need goals to be an offensive menace

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at some impressive rookies, a different type of goal, some early returns on offseason moves and much more.

Owen Power is cruising out of the gate

Since 2010, only three rookies have averaged 23-plus minutes per game: Jonas Brodin, Miro Heiskanen and Moritz Seider. It's early, but Owen Power is trying to be the fourth. He's already playing over 23 minutes per game and it’s hard to see him slowing down. Amazingly, he’s really doing it as a 5v5 force. Power is on the second power play unit and averages just 46 seconds per game on the penalty kill. If anything, that second number could increase and result in even more ice time. His most common 5v5 defense partner is Kale Clague and they have dominated with over 65 percent of the shot attempts when they are together.

Power is largely playing against first and second lines — you pretty well have to when you play that much — and has even chipped in seven points in 13 games along the way. Power is an effortless skater, moving around the rink and using his 6-foot-6 frame to cover the ice and dictate play. You constantly have to remind yourself he’s that big because players that big at just 19 are not supposed to be that coordinated. What happens when his body fills out? Yikes.

That is butter smooth. Buffalo had to wait a year but they got a good one first overall.

This is the Brandon Hagel the Lightning paid for

Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning paid an eye-popping premium for Brandon Hagel, who is a good forward that can put the puck in the net. Along with two fourth-round picks, the Lightning acquired Hagel for Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, a third-rounder in the 2023 draft and a first-round pick in 2024. He was in the midst of a career-high 21-goal season when he was traded — he had never even scored in double digits before then, though he was only 23 at the time. But the player wasn’t the only thing the Lightning were acquiring. It was the cap hit, as most know.

The Lightning's top unit of Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel and Nikita Kucherov has been one of the NHL's best so far. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
The Lightning's top unit of Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel and Nikita Kucherov has been one of the NHL's best so far. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (AP)

Hagel is making $1.5 million this season AND next season. That’s what the Lightning paid a premium for. A good player that they projected to fit seamlessly on their team that is making far below his market value, which allows them to allocate money elsewhere. And it was for 2.5 seasons worth of that value. Hagel struggled to find his footing in Tampa when he was first acquired, putting up just seven points in 22 games and adding six points in 23 playoff games. Even with a cheap contract, if that were to continue it wouldn’t justify the price that was paid. It has not continued, though, and Hagel has started the season off well, with 11 points in 13 games.

It helps when your two linemates are Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, but Hagel is doing his part, too. That unit has been a force. They control nearly 60 percent of the shot share, almost 57 percent of the expected goals and have outscored opponents 9-4 in actual goals at 5v5. With Ondrej Palat gone, Hagel is firmly in the top six, averaging 17:28 per game. After being acquired by Tampa last season, he averaged 13:38. He fits in as a forechecker with enough skill to slide in alongside two elite players. He doesn’t pick up an assist here, but look how he supports the forecheck, gets to the puck behind the net, and ultimately creates space for his teammates to do what they do best — make plays and score goals:

It's not all bad in Arizona

Quick, do you know who the rookie leading scorers are? If you said Matty Beniers, the Seattle Kraken future star, you would be correct. But do you know who is tied with him? He plays for Arizona. Welcome, Matias Maccelli.

There is no secret about what Arizona is doing this season. But it can’t all be bad. Whether it’s veterans putting themselves in a position to be wanted by contenders come the trade deadline or young players taking advantage of opportunity, they need good stories to build a foundation. You can’t just drop a top draft pick or two onto a team and expect everything to be saved. Maccelli could be one of those stories. The 5-foot-11, Finnish winger was drafted 98th overall in 2019. He came over to North America last season and lit up the AHL with 57 points in 47 games before getting called up to the NHL and finishing the season with the Coyotes. He had six points in 23 games after that call-up.

This season, he looks far more comfortable with nine points in 12 games to start the season. He will need to shoot more. He has six shots in 12 games, which is not nearly enough. His one goal was a cross-ice pass that went off Dylan Cozens’ skate and in. But he is skilled and can play. He has found a home on the half-wall of the power play. He dominates this entire sequence, consistently finding the cross-ice pass and making the right reads. It eventually leads to a beautiful goal:

He's freezing defenders with the threat of a shot for now, but that won't last as teams will start daring him to shoot eventually. Maccelli will need to prove he can beat goalies, too, but the skill is there. Arizona might have a player here.

Mathew Barzal isn't scoring yet, but he's still dominating

As of this writing, Mathew Barzal has the most shots on net of any forward without scoring a goal (Jacob Trouba leads all players). That’s not to say he hasn’t been productive, though. He has 15 assists in 14 games, 10 of those are primary assists and seven primary assists are at 5v5. Fun fact: the Islanders have scored the most 5v5 goals in the league so far.

Barzal is fresh off signing a massive eight-year, $73.2-million extension that kicks in next year. A common comment was that he has only scored more than 20 goals once in his career. Even if he doesn’t, he’s worth the money. A play-driving, productive center is one of the most valuable, and difficult, things to find in the league. Even without a goal, he’s on pace for a career high in points per game, and ironically, shots per game! You can see it, he is hunting his shot, it’s just not dropping for him yet. He carries this entire shift, including a good shot on net, getting his own rebound, not forcing a second shot through and instead setting up a goal:

Like any superstar slump, the course correction will eventually come. That will happen for Barzal, too. Either way he’s producing and contributing to his team at a high level.

Will John Klingberg's bet on himself pay off?

One of the more surprising developments in the summer was how long it took John Klingberg to find a home. NHL free agency opened on July 13 and many deemed Klingberg the best defenseman on the market. Ultimately, he ended up taking a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks, effectively betting on himself to cash in next summer. He'll need to have a big playoff for that to really happen.

He has a decent-but-not-great seven points in 14 games playing on one of the worst teams in the league. Cut it any way you want, but that’s not going to result in a big payday. But Anaheim will be sellers yet again and an expiring contract where they can eat additional salary if necessary is an attractive chip. He’s playing with Dmitry Kulikov right now and they are getting snowed under, controlling under 40 percent of the shot share and getting outscored 7-13 so far at 5v5. It's been a tough start to the season for Anaheim all around.

Gabriel Vilardi has finally arrived

The most underrated player in the league is always tough to pick out. Who qualifies? How good does a player have to be? Is it a good player that is hidden in plain sight or a player doing well that nobody really knows about? Not sure what the answer is, but is anyone talking about Gabriel Vilardi in Los Angeles? He has 15 points in 15 games to start the season and leads the league in penalty differential.

Vilardi is becoming a force after going 11th overall in 2017 (part of the reason he actually fell that “low” is because of injury concerns). Specifically, he had back issues for years. In his draft season he played 49 games. The following season he played just 32 (plus 16 playoff games, in fairness). The season after he played only four. When he returned, he played only half a season (42). In his NHL debut, he scored on his first shift:

Now he appears to be healthy and is showing what most always knew — he is a dominant force. A 6-foot-3, right-handed forward with skill, he was originally a centre but with Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danaut in the top two centre spots, he's found a home alongside Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. Vilardi already has 10 goals, though he is shooting 25 percent. Only two of his 15 points are on the power play. The combination of size and talent is exciting to watch now that he’s healthy. If he keeps this up, everyone is going to know his name in short order.

Jaccob Slavin appreciation post

One of the most fun things in the league is keeping an eye on Jaccob Slavin’s penalty minute totals each season. It is downright ludicrous how he plays so much and manages to stay out of the box — while being a force, no less. Over his career, Slavin has averaged 22:54 per game. He has 70 penalty minutes in 521 career games. In the bubble season, he took one penalty in 52 games and it was a delay-of-game (over the glass) call. It wasn’t even an infraction on the ice!

These aren’t pillow soft minutes Slavin is playing, either. He plays some of the toughest minutes in the league. A certain level of physicality is required and that doesn’t necessarily mean hits — he averages about 52 per 82 games. But you need to engage physically against skill players in some capacity to take away time and space, that's a key part of defending.

Slavin has some of the best stick work in the league, too. You barely notice his game unless you look for it. Subtle positioning and stick placement to take away lanes and suffocate his opponents. Almost never losing body positioning. Any defender should pull up Slavin tape for a masterclass on gap control. So far this season he has yet to take a penalty. It’s only 12 games without a penalty for Slavin, which is essentially nothing for him. How far can he take it this season though?

Jake Oettinger is barreling toward elite goalie status

Jake Oettinger had a playoff series to remember last year (even though they lost), and then he needed a new contract. He has pedigree as a first round pick, 26th overall, in 2017 but had just 77 regular season games to his name. How much do you pay a goalie, of all positions, in need of a new contract? A stalemate occurred. Ultimately, he signed an extension on Sept. 1. Both sides hedged with Oettinger signing a three-year, $12-million contract. He might have wished he signed for less years, though.

He has been sidelined with a lower body injury since Oct. 29, but before then he was lights out. In seven appearances, he’s 5-1-0 with a .952 save percentage and a shutout. He's allowed only nine goals. The Stars are a middle of the pack team in terms of controlling shot share and expected goals at 5v5. Their special teams have both been high-end so far (fourth in power play and the penalty kill). Scott Wedgewood has filled in during Oettinger’s absence and has a .903 save percentage — so it’s not as if it’s the ideal place for goalies to play. Oettinger was already well on his way to establishing himself as an elite goalie, but hopefully he returns soon as he continues to cement himself in that category.

A new way to score on the power play

While pretty well every team in the NHL runs some form of a 1-3-1 power play formation, sometimes we do actually see some creativity and different looks. One thing a few teams have started to play with is working power plays from below the goal line instead of the half-wall or the top of the point. A big reason why is because it requires the goalie to look back and it requires defenders to turn their backs completely to players in the slot to keep an eye on the puck carriers.

Now, this is a goal scored on a 5v3, but it’s still noteworthy. There is no look to collapse the zone and set up a one timer from the top of the circle, or some sort of half-wall, backdoor cross ice pass. This is all about moving the goalie back and forth and potentially bumping a pass right to the slot. Instead, Kaprill Kaprizov took matters into his own hands and scored a gorgeous goal. This is hockey art:

Both of the Wild’s most skilled forwards are behind the goal line. They can’t be chased. They have time and space galore. This is the type of creativity you love to see on the ice. A very different goal than what we traditionally get. More of this please.

Paul Maurice keeps climbing the all-time coaching ladder

Congratulations to Paul Maurice for moving into sole possession of sixth in all-time coaching wins. It was poetic that he passed Al Arbour against the organization he spent the most time with — the Carolina Hurricanes. Next up ahead of him is Devils coach Lindy Ruff, who is nine wins ahead of him. In fourth sits Ken Hitchcock, who has 50-plus wins over each of them (meaning, neither is catching him this season).

Maurice was first an NHL head coach in 1995 for the Hartford Whalers. In 18 full seasons coaching, he's made the playoffs eight times while making three conference finals, including one year making the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Detroit. It's amazing to consider this is the fourth decade he's coached in the league, and he's still just 55 years old! Respect.

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