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Nash, Forsberg among those putting up big numbers

by Evan Sporer

We're past the quarter mark of the 2014-15 season, and although there's still plenty of hockey remaining on the NHL schedule, we've learned a good deal about all 30 teams. From some of the League's biggest surprises, to those who continue to produce season after season, there are plenty of numbers to dissect from the season's first quarter.

Here are some of the most interesting numbers and trends:

Rick Nash's even-strength scoring

Rick Nash
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 25
SOG: 80 | +/-: 7
Since being traded to the New York Rangers before the 2012-13 season, Rick Nash has been the most prolific even-strength goal-scorer in the NHL. He averaged 1.37 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 he played in 2012-13 and 2013-14, most among players with 100 or more games, according to HockeyAnalysis.com.

It's been no different this season for Nash, who led the League entering Saturday with 2.76 goals for every 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The gap between Nash and second-place Tyler Seguin was pretty significant, with Seguin scoring at a rate of 2.22. Nash is second in the NHL in goals with 16, 12 of which came at even strength.

What's helping Nash is he's more efficient than in past seasons. His even-strength shooting percentage of 23.08 entering Saturday dwarfed prior seasons' percentages; his highest over the past seven seasons was 8.46 percent. Though Nash may be due for a regression, it doesn't necessarily mean his overall goal-scoring will tail off.

Two players have scored 40 goals without scoring 10 on the power play over the past two seasons. Nash has two power-play goals, but the Rangers are finding more success in man-advantage situations of late. That could be because of the return of defenseman Dan Boyle. Since Boyle came back Nov. 13 from a broken hand, the Rangers are 6-for-29 on the power play; Boyle sat Saturday with flu-like symptoms when the Rangers went 1-for-4 with the man advantage against the Philadelphia Flyers. Even if Nash's even-strength scoring regresses a bit, his scoring on the power play could be due for an uptick with Boyle back to man the point and Ryan McDonagh's return to the lineup.

Filip Forsberg's big opening act

Filip Forsberg
Center - NSH
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 23
SOG: 70 | +/-: 20
With 23 points in 23 games, Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg is off to the best start for a rookie since Evgeni Malkin averaged 1.09 points in 2006-07. Seldom is a rookie a point-per-game player, with only Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby accomplishing the feat over the past decade. There's still plenty of season left for Forsberg, and other rookies have gotten off to fast starts only to fall short of the 1.00 mark. In 2011-12, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had 22 points in his first 21 games (thanks in large part to five assists in his 19th game); Forsberg had 22 points through 21 games. Nugent-Hopkins finished his rookie season with 52 points in 62 games. Forsberg has been a key offensive piece for the Central Division-leading Predators, who are the focus of the next point.

Nashville's hot start

Under former coach Barry Trotz, the Predators consistently were one of the stingiest defensive teams in the League. Though Nashville is getting strong play from defensemen Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Roman Josi, and goalie Pekka Rinne, the real change under coach Peter Laviolette has come offensively.

Nashville's 49 even-strength goals are tied for seventh-most in the League. Last season, the Predators finished 12th in that category, averaging nearly half a goal less than this season. That's a significant season-to-season shift.

Forsberg leads the way; he's first on the team in goals with 10 and points with 23. Offseason acquisition James Neal has been a difference-maker; he's second on the team with nine goals. Then there's Mike Ribeiro, whose shooting percentage is more than seven points above his career average. Likewise, Craig Smith has been pitching in offensively, and though nothing jumps out in terms of unsustainability, he's on pace to take more shots this season than he has over any of his first three.

Thanksgiving playoff picture

Thanksgiving is an important benchmark when it comes to predicting which teams will be around come the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, 14 of the 16 teams to qualify were in a playoff position on Thanksgiving. The two teams that missed the playoffs (Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes) had the lowest point total in its conference among the top eight on Thanksgiving 2013.

In 2011-2012, 12 of the 16 teams in postseason position on Thanksgiving made the playoffs. Over the previous five seasons hockey was played on Thanksgiving, 80 percent of the teams in playoff position on the holiday have gone on to make the playoffs.

This Thanksgiving, seven of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2013-14 were on the outside of the postseason picture.

When Stars align

The Dallas Stars are one team trying to work its way back into the top eight of its conference. They'll have to move up in the standings without 19-year-old forward Valeri Nichushkin, who had hip surgery Nov. 18 and is expected to be sidelined four months.

Nichushkin played last season with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, a line that buoyed Dallas offensively. When the Stars added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky this offseason, they decided it made sense to play the former Ottawa Senators linemates together and keep Dallas' top line from last season intact. But with a spot on Seguin's line open with Nichushkin out, it seems like the obvious move was to put Spezza there.

Since Nichushkin had the surgery, it's been mostly Cody Eakin taking shifts with Seguin and Benn. But earlier in the season, when Nichushkin was out of the lineup and not expected to miss any significant time, it was Spezza getting shifts on the top line, and the results were very good. Spezza's GF/20 rate (goals per 20 minutes of ice time) at even strength entering Saturday was 1.054, according to HockeyAnalysis.com. When he was on the ice with Hemsky, he was at 0.476 GF/20 compared to 1.650 with Seguin and 1.537 with Benn. To ask an opposing group to stop a line of Benn, Seguin and Spezza is arduous, and that's manifested itself in the numbers in the roughly 120 minutes of game time they've played together.

Chicago's right on pace

In third place in the Central Division, the Chicago Blackhawks' start doesn't suggest dominance, but there are several numbers that say otherwise, and those numbers indicate it's only a matter of time before they break out.

Last season, the Blackhawks were the second-highest scoring team at 5-on-5. They are 14th in even-strength goals so far, with 43, but that may not last. Chicago's even-strength shooting percentage (6.78) entering Saturday was 25th in the League. It's not for lack of attempts though; no team in the NHL generates more 5-on-5 shot attempts than Chicago, which was averaging 63.8 per 60 minutes entering Saturday, according to HockeyAnalysis.com. That's nearly three more attempts per 60 minutes than the New York Islanders, who were second, or about 240 attempts over a full season. The Blackhawks are an up-tempo team, reflected by the number of shots they take. They had also taken more than 38 percent of their even-strength faceoffs in the offensive zone entering Saturday. And when you spend a lot of time inside the opponents' blue line and shoot a lot, there's a good chance the goals will come.

Four for 100?

The last time multiple players had 100 or more points in the same season was 2009-10, when Henrik Sedin, Crosby, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each did. This season, Jakub Voracek, Crosby, Seguin and Malkin are on pace. Crosby and Malkin each had more than 100 points in 2008-09; they are one of three teammate duos over the past decade to hit the 100-point mark in the same season. (Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier did it in 2006-07 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley did it with the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06.) A few other players are not far off the 100-point pace, including the Flyers' Claude Giroux. How rare is it for two teams to each have two players reach 100 points in a season? The last time it happened was 1995-96, when three Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis) and two Avalanche (Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg) each eclipsed 100 points. Since 1990, two teams have had two players with 100 or more points in the same season four times.

It takes two

The Lightning and St. Louis Blues have a lot in common, including getting a lot of production out of their second line. For Tampa Bay, the line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has provided complementary scoring behind Steven Stamkos' line, with the trio combining for 58 points. For St. Louis, the line of Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko has combined for 68 points. It makes sense, with David Backes' line drawing the top defensive pairing when he's on the ice, as Stamkos' does with the Lightning. Secondary scoring is critical to success; the Rangers and Los Angeles Kings proved that when they made the Stanley Cup Final. If teams do decide to devote more attention to these second lines, it will free up more space for the top units.

The blocked shots question

The concept of the blocked shot is somewhat polarizing in numbers circles. That's mostly because simply counting blocked shots is leaving out a good deal of context. If a player or team blocks a lot of shots, it could be because he or it is playing without the puck for a good period of time. Likewise, because of the randomness involved in hockey, teams that give up a high number of shots are going to get their fair share of blocks because of that randomness.

But shot-blocking, in principle, isn't really a bad thing. If a player has the puck on his stick in a shooting position, there are three possible outcomes: a shot on goal, a missed shot, or a block. Certainly, teams would take a block every single time if possible, and that leads us to a different way to potentially look at this statistic: blocked-shots percentage. Again, a team may block a high number of shots because it gives up a high number. But by taking the total number of shot attempts a team allows, and then dividing through the number it blocks, it provides a different perspective.

Much like the broader, simpler blocked shots total, this is only a piece of the puzzle. The Calgary Flames had blocked 32.9 percent of shot attempts against entering Saturday, best in the League, but ranked second-worst in terms of Corsi For at 43.5 percent. Though the Flames are very good at blocking shots, they had allowed more attempts against entering Saturday (1,176) than every team in the NHL but the Buffalo Sabres. But then there are teams like the Capitals, steady enough in possession (CF% of 51.4 entering Saturday) and tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for eighth-fewest even-strength shot attempts against per game, yet they had blocked more than 29 percent of those attempts. The Islanders, one of the best possession teams in the League, are another example; they also had blocked more than 29 percent of shot attempts against. Simply put, those teams have the puck the majority of the time, and when they don't, they are effective in shot-blocking.

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