NHL News

Fixing the biggest player-usage mistakes on NHL playoff contenders

Now that the NHL trade deadline has passed, there are only so many ways teams in the playoff mix can improve their rosters between now and the postseason. Aside from a magical late-season call-up of a young impact player, which comes once in a blue moon, most clubs will instead have to look from within to maximize their chances.

The easiest way to accomplish that is by tightening up the way minutes are distributed, and making sure the best players are the ones actually playing the most. That might seem obvious, but it’s not always the case in a league where head-scratching usage patterns are quite commonplace. Whether it’s because of risk aversion or a loyalty toward certain veterans, ice time isn’t necessarily always dictated by productivity in the NHL.

Each of those individual decisions is under a microscope at this point in the season, considering the razor-thin margin for error. A single point could realistically represent the gap between making the playoffs and missing, or earning an easier road map through the first couple rounds. For any number of teams in either conference, every single little thing could wind up making a big difference.

Let’s look at some of those teams, where there are obvious lineup adjustments to be made.

Many stats in this piece are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and are current through the games of March 4.

Everything is bigger in Dallas (except for some players’ ice time)

For the better part of a decade, everything in Dallas has revolved around its dynamic duo offensively. From the moment they acquired Tyler Seguin from the Bruins, the Stars have built around Seguin and Jamie Benn as the two pillars of the franchise.

In the window spanning Seguin’s arrival in 2013 through the end of last season, the two accounted for nearly 30% of the team’s total goals scored. The gap between Seguin and Benn (206 and 199 goals, respectively) and third place (Jason Spezza‘s 81) in that time is as big as you’ll see on any team in the league. They are the franchise’s two highest-paid players by a sizable margin. When things were going poorly last season, they were the two names who were publicly singled out by the organization’s CEO.

While they still play the most, make the most and are generally thought of as being the most important forwards on the Stars based on habit alone, it’s become debatable whether they’re still deserving of the same high usage as in the past.

The debate gets particularly spicy since the Stars have a far more dynamic duo in Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov waiting in the wings for the time being because the coaching staff seems inexplicably reluctant to fully unleash them. One possible explanation for why they play so little is because the team feels their playing style is too risky, especially in comparison to the defensive ethos of the team. Beyond that, there’s no evidence in the numbers or the eye test to suggest that Hintz and Gurianov shouldn’t be force-fed more ice time until they prove they can’t handle it.

Watching the team’s even-strength shifts with Hintz and Gurianov out there versus all of the others has been disorienting, almost as if the two are operating at different speed settings or difficulty levels. When Hintz and Gurianov are on the ice, there’s a free-flowing nature to the way the Stars play, attacking off the rush like a locomotive gaining momentum. They create offense in such an easy manner, immediately pushing the defense on its heels.

The pair are currently tied for the team lead in 5-on-5 scoring, with 12 goals apiece, and are the only Stars in double digits. That’s notable considering that they’ve largely been used as complementary bottom-six players, as opposed to the front-line offense drivers they’ve been; Hintz currently averages 14 minutes, 44 seconds of total ice time per game, while Gurianov is at 12:51. Their combined scoring efficiency has been remarkable, and they’ve earned more ice time, especially considering the natural fit between the skills they provide and what the team needs.

The gap between Gurianov’s production and usage has been particularly comical. Of the 78 players in the league who have scored 20 goals thus far, no one has played less than Gurianov has. Here’s his prolific scoring résumé this season, in relation to his teammates and his peers around the league:

  • First in 5-on-5 goals on the Stars (12), tied with Hintz

  • First in total goals on the Stars (20)

  • 40th overall in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes (1.13), just behind Connor McDavid

  • 13th overall in total goals per 60 (1.53), tied with Max Pacioretty

Now here’s the usage he’s received despite that success:

  • 12th among Stars forwards in 5-on-5 ice time per game (10:25)

  • 11th among Stars forwards in total time on ice per game (12:51)

  • 341st among all forwards in 5-on-5 ice time per game (minimum 20 games)

  • 307th among all forwards in total ice time per game (minimum 20 games)

Part of the reason they’ve been playing as little as they have is because no one splits their forward usage up more evenly than the Stars do. Aside from Seguin, who plays a minute more per game at 5-on-5 and two minutes more across all situations than any other Stars forward, everyone else falls within a narrow window between 10:25 and 13:22 per game at 5-on-5.

While the idea of rolling four lines seems fine in theory, the only way it actually makes sense as a tactic is if you actually have four lines that are of relatively equal ability. With all due respect to the Stars’ depth players, this is not one of those teams.

Again, this hints at the team’s philosophy. There’s no particular reason why a player with Blake Comeau‘s skill set should be playing more than Hintz or Gurianov, unless you think he’s a safer option, and you’re more comfortable trying not to lose as opposed to winning outright.

As an organization, the Stars have clearly identified that they need to play a particular way to be successful. They pride themselves on being one of the most defensively stingy, low-event teams in the NHL. While that has worked for them during the past two regular seasons, the playoffs are a different animal. Especially if that animal is the Colorado Avalanche, whom they could realistically face in the first round.

At that point, they’ll need to make the necessary adjustments and deviate from their previous script, trying to find creative ways to squeeze more offense out of their lineup if they wish to keep up in a seven-game series. If they don’t, they’ll risk being blown out of the water by an Avalanche team that can create offense at a snap of the fingers.

The Stars notably didn’t dip into the trade market for an influx of secondary scoring at the deadline like they did in 2018-19. It was a puzzling decision given their obvious need, considering that they’re currently 29th in goals at 5-on-5 and 25th overall. But if the logic behind the patient approach was that they had bigger plans for their young players, then it could work out for them after all. We just haven’t seen it yet. Until we do, it’s fair to wonder whether there actually is a plan at all, or if this is just who they are.

Fool me twice, shame on me

It’s fitting that the Nashville Predators come up right after the Stars in this particular discussion, because they’re Dallas’ only real rivals when it comes to the even distribution of even-strength minutes among their forwards. When John Hynes replaced Peter Laviolette as the coach of the team back in January, we identified that as a reason for the previous regime’s undoing.

That trend has, regrettably, continued on Hynes’ watch, which perhaps shouldn’t be a surprising development given all of the warning signs from his time in New Jersey. While he certainly wasn’t dealt the strongest hand during his time coaching the Devils, it’s tough to say that he made the most of what he was given. The nagging theme of that tenure was his overreliance on depth players, which often came at the expense of more talented options.

He’s hardly the only NHL coach guilty of having tunnel vision for personal favorites despite their lackluster production, but when the chasm between the capabilities of the players in question is as broad as it’s been in this particular case, it becomes a significant problem. That has carried over to his first few months coaching the Predators, where there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to who plays the most at even strength.

It’s gotten to the point where you might as well just pick names out of a hat, which is quite alarming considering that the Predators aren’t blessed with 12 equally gifted options. The 13:45 even-strength minutes per game Mikael Granlund has been seeing is the high-water mark, the 9:46 even-strength minutes Austin Watson has been playing is the low-water mark, and everyone else is jammed in somewhere between 10:45 and 13:05.

Here’s how each regularly used forward’s ice time has changed since the coaching switch, with the first category being average time per game at 5-on-5 and the second one being average time per game overall:

Mikael Granlund: -0:02, +2:07
Filip Forsberg: -0:31, -1:30
Matt Duchene: -0:04, -1:27
Calle Jarnkrok: -0:55, -1:01
Ryan Johansen: +0:16, -2:07
Viktor Arvidsson: +0:34, -1:23
Rocco Grimaldi: +0:55, +0:38
Nick Bonino: +0:41, -0:50
Kyle Turris: +0:46, +1:42
Colton Sissons: -0:04, -0:12
Craig Smith: +0:10, +0:20
Colin Blackwell: +0:08, +0:14
Austin Watson: -0:38, -1:36

This recurring issue with Hynes makes evaluating him complicated, because it’s difficult to say whether he simply doesn’t know who his best players are, or if he does but just doesn’t think it’s important to play them the most. Either one would be bad, although it’s debatable which is a bigger indictment.

Of all the things to nitpick about Hynes’ handling of various players, the most egregious has been the way he’s used Forsberg. He has been the biggest victim of Hynes’ reshuffling, quickly becoming the new poster boy for the most underused star in the league now that Auston Matthews is being properly deployed by Sheldon Keefe. Forsberg is playing just 12:41 per game at 5-on-5 and 16:27 total under Hynes, which represents a notable dip from the 13:12 and 17:57 he had been seeing under Laviolette.

In that time, his game has coincidentally fallen into a complete funk. He has just five goals in 26 games since the Hynes hiring, with his goal on Thursday his first since the start of February. With Forsberg on the ice, the Predators have fallen under 50% in shot attempts, shots on goal, high-danger chances, and expected goals, which has been the most stunning development for a player who has historically been one of the biggest play drivers in the league.

Despite his struggles, it doesn’t justify the kind of usage he’s been seeing under Hynes. Regardless of effort level or any other kind of intangibles that have been used as reasons for his lack of opportunities, a player as uniquely gifted as Forsberg can break a game open on a single shift.

That’s why the smart course of action would be to give Forsberg as many of those chances as possible to do so. For as hard as someone like Grimaldi has worked to get to this point, there are certain things he’ll never be able to do with the puck that Forsberg does effortlessly because he’s in the top percentile of talent. That’s why there’s no universe in which Forsberg should be playing less than Grimaldi, let alone less than four other Predators forwards on average.

It’s unlikely that Forsberg suddenly forgot how to play hockey at a high level during his age-25 season, when he should be in his absolute peak. Perhaps he’s not right physically, or that he’s not responding well to the way he’s been used. Since he’s been on the ice every night, we have to assume it’s the latter until we’re informed otherwise. Regardless of whether this season is lost, the Predators should have “Figuring out what’s been ailing Forsberg and fixing it” near the top of their to-do list.

In a way, the woefully uninspired usage has been fitting for this Predators season. Despite some occasional highs and lows, they keep finding their way back to completely average results. While certain things have been out of their control — such as the shaky goaltending and long-term injury to foundational player Ryan Ellis in the Winter Classic — the more disappointing thing about the way they’ve fallen short of expectations is how much of it has been self-inflicted.

The 70% club

Earlier this season, we wrote about general power-play philosophy, and how certain teams were leaving meat on the bone by giving their top units a quick hook halfway through their man-advantage opportunities.

Let’s update that list. Reminder: As a proxy for each team’s respective top unit, we’ll use the amount of time its most frequently used player has been out there, as a portion of the total power-play time the team has had. Teams in a playoff spot — or close to it — are in bold:

1. Capitals: Alex Ovechkin, 89.3%
2. Oilers: Leon Draisaitl, 87.0%
3. Sabres: Jack Eichel, 79.3%
4. Penguins: Kris Letang, 76.5%
5. Bruins: Torey Krug, 75.9%
6. Panthers: Keith Yandle, 73.7%
7. Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon, 73.3%
8. Lightning: Nikita Kucherov, 71.6%
9. Blackhawks: Patrick Kane, 71.3%
10. Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews, 70.7%
11. Jets: Mark Scheifele, 70.6%
12. Golden Knights: Shea Theodore, 70.4%
13. Rangers: Artemi Panarin, 69.5%
14. Canucks: Elias Pettersson, 69.3%
15. Kings: Drew Doughty, 68.4%
16. Blues: Alex Pietrangelo, 68.2%
17. Senators: Thomas Chabot, 65.4%
18. Flames: Johnny Gaudreau, 63.8%
19. Islanders: Mathew Barzal, 62.8%
20. Red Wings: Dylan Larkin, 62.6%
21. Sharks: Brent Burns, 61.5%
22. Predators: Roman Josi, 61.4%
23. Hurricanes: Teuvo Teravainen, 61.3%
24. Coyotes: Phil Kessel, 60.7%
25. Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski, 58.6%
26. Flyers: Claude Giroux, 58.0%
27. Devils: Kyle Palmieri, 57.5%
28. Ducks: Cam Fowler, 56.0%
29. Wild: Ryan Suter, 55.9%
30. Stars: Joe Pavelski, 55.9%
31. Canadiens: Jeff Petry, 52.9%

It’s no accident that 12 of the top 14 teams here are playing competitive hockey in March. The only two in that group that are already out of it are the Sabres (Eichel’s 79.3%) and the Blackhawks (Kane’s 71.3%). This is largely explained by the fact that good teams have better players, which makes it easier to identify who should be predominantly playing in high-leverage scoring situations.

Still, I’m of the belief that every team should strive for something near the vicinity of 70% at the very minimum when it comes to the percentage of power-play time it allocates for its top scoring unit, which would mean that you give that group the first 1:20 of any two-minute minor before you even consider making the switch.

It’s surprising to see teams such as the Blue Jackets, Coyotes and Islanders near the bottom of this list, because of how offensively challenged they’ve been. You’d think they’d be incentivized to be more aggressive when it comes to trying to squeeze easy goals whenever they can get them out of their power plays. But part of that dissonance presumably has to do with the scoring-by-committee approach they employ generally.

It’s less surprising to see the Stars and Predators near the bottom, considering much they’ve been spreading their minutes out and how conservative they’ve been using their most skilled players. For those teams to move up the list, they’d first need to identify who their five best options are, which has clearly been a struggle, as discussed earlier. At least Dallas’ power play has been effective under Rick Bowness, unlike the Predators, who find themselves near the bottom of scoring efficiency with the extra man.

If there’s one team that can be excused for rotating various players on the power play because of the specific personnel it has, it’s the Flyers — at least when they’re at full health. Now that Shayne Gostisbehere and James van Riemsdyk are both out, the decision to ride their top unit should become significantly more clear. Then again, maybe they shouldn’t mess with whatever they’re doing right now, considering their current winning streak.

Success stories

Since we’ve been largely negative thus far, let’s end on a positive note with some teams who are doing it right.

It seems like we’ve been waiting for ages for it to finally happen, but Kevin Fiala‘s offensive breakout comes at a fairly appropriate time considering the Minnesota Wild winger is still 23 and less than three years removed from a devastating leg injury he suffered during the 2017 postseason.

We’ve become so spoiled by all of the young talented players who make a sustainable impact from Day 1 that we’ve come to expect it from everyone. In reality, not everyone develops at the same pace, and some players take a while to put it all together. Those who have been patiently waiting for Fiala to do that, given his tantalizing physical skills, have been handsomely rewarded, as he’s exploded all over the scoresheet in the past 15 games:

The talent has never been the question for Fiala, who has put it on display since he entered the league as an 18-year-old. Similar to Nathan MacKinnon, his speed was sometimes to his detriment because he hadn’t yet learned how to control it. He was seemingly so fast at times that he’d skate himself out of optimal shooting lanes.

Now that Fiala’s game has matured, he’s honed all of the things that made him special through the neutral zone and as a puck carrier, while refining his game in the offensive zone as a shooting threat. Kudos to the Wild for not only being patient with him, but putting him in a position to succeed in a featured role of late.

He’s seen his 5-on-5 usage skyrocket from a previous 11:34 per game to 13:10 on average during this hot streak, which is tied for the lead among all Wild forwards. On the power play, he’s been seeing 2:58 per game, which is 2 seconds behind Ryan Suter for the team lead. It’s been satisfying to see Fiala utilized as a trigger man on the right circle with the man advantage.

It’s a dangerous game to unabashedly buy in on a player when everything is going his way like it is for Fiala right now. But this isn’t a completely shocking development. We’ve been waiting to see him put together a stretch like this for a while now, and he’s starting to deliver on all of the hype.

The Wild have been desperately craving a game-breaking offensive weapon like him for years, and they’d become typecast as a team that always has solid-but-not-exhilarating talent. It’s no coincidence that they’ve ridden this outburst to a 6-2 stretch, during which they’ve scored 32 goals, clawing right back into the wild-card discussion after ostensibly throwing in the towel by firing their coach and trading Jason Zucker not too long ago.

One of the other recent revelations out West has been Andrew Mangiapane, who has gone from being an intriguing project with a memorable name to becoming a permanent top-six fixture for the Flames, and someone who should be a household name for all hockey fans.

His path to this point isn’t quite as extreme as Jonathan Marchessault‘s, but he’s overcome similar obstacles to get his chance. Despite producing scintillating offensive numbers in both the OHL and the AHL, he had to wait for years to get his first real chance, seemingly due to an undersized 5-foot-10 frame.

What really sticks out while watching Mangiapane play is how quickly his game alleviates any of those lingering concerns about his stature, due to how hard he works to be around the puck at all times. Watch how relentless he is hounding defenders to create an easy goal for Elias Lindholm the other night, when Calgary didn’t have anything else going offensively.

His emergence has been a massive boost for the Flames, filling a void on what’s become not only Calgary’s most important forward line, but one of the best lines in the entire league. The trio of Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk has been dominant since being put together at 5-on-5, completely tilting the ice in their team’s favor:

Mangiapane’s effect has been twofold. The most obvious difference he’s made is through his own production, with nearly all of his offense coming at even strength. His 15 goals there is behind only Lindholm on the team, and his 27 points is within striking distance of team leader Johnny Gaudreau‘s 30. On a per-minute basis, he’s been Calgary’s most efficient scorer.

But just as importantly, he’s allowed Geoff Ward to reunite Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Gaudreau after all of the success they had early last season. Getting those latter two going offensively to their previous heights is crucial to the Flames’ success moving forward, and we’ve already started to see flashes of that during the recent 8-4-1 run that’s vaulted them up the standings in a wide-open Pacific Division.

It’s been wonderful to see Mangiapane make the most of his opportunity. He might not be tall or physically imposing, but he’s an excellent hockey player, and that’s all that should ultimately matter.

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