The St. Louis Blues have won six games in a row despite injuries to forwards Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie (and a temporary absence for captain David Backes). One of the biggest reasons the Blues have stormed back near the top of the League standings after an uneven start is the play of forward Vladimir Tarasenko.
While Stastny was the headliner among the offseason additions, with forward Jori Lehtera and a full-time roster spot for goaltender Jake Allen probably next in line, one of the best reasons to think St. Louis could improve in 2014-15 was the maturation of Tarasenko and forward Jaden Schwartz. Tarasenko is off to a great start with eight goals and 14 points in 12 games, including the best goal of the season to date Monday at Madison Square Garden and then the lone goal of the game one day later across the Hudson River at Prudential Center.
Tarasenko is already one of the top Russian players in the NHL (in the NHL is an important distinction, because he was not happy with his role on the national team in February). Where does he stack up among the top Russians in the League? Here's a look at the most productive players from his homeland since Tarasenko joined the Blues at the start of the 2012-13 season:
That group doesn't include the two above-average goaltenders, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky and the Colorado Avalanche's Semyon Varlamov. The top three could be tough to crack until Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk decides to stop making magic, but Tarasenko has a legit claim to being the fourth-best Russian skater in the NHL, and maybe fourth-best player (it says here that he is, just slightly ahead of Bobrovsky).
One reason for Tarasenko's excellence could be his development path. The Blues, either by choice or by his contract situation at home, did not rush Tarasenko to the NHL. He probably could have played in 2011-12, but an extra year-and-a-half in the Kontinental Hockey League seems to have helped. He quickly became an impact player for the Blues, and now he's evolving into a potential superstar.
Some of his classmates from the 2010 NHL Draft have a significant head start in the counting statistics, so how does Tarasenko compare to those guys if we look from the start of the 2012-13 until present (as of the games Tuesday)? Here are the top 10 scorers from the Class of 2010, but just their production from the past two-plus seasons:
|*CF% from 2013-15 only
He's not the third-best player in his draft class to this point, but could he get there? The Corsi-for percentage is inflated by usage -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was able to shield him early in his career, unlike some of the guys who played on bad teams. Ryan Johansen's ability to be a franchise center in Columbus will be a big factor, as could Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner's ability to rack up goals when healthy or even a late-bloomer by NHL standards like Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund or Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The Blues have built a contender with responsible play and the ability to grind teams down, but the offense has gone dry at the wrong time the past two seasons. Tarasenko is incredibly talented, the type who could dominate a Stanley Cup Playoff series when St. Louis needs it.
Some of the other top contenders in the Western Conference are scuffling a little bit of late, but add Stastny and Oshie to this group and this looks like the best Blues outfit of the Hitchcock era.
DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information.
1. St. Louis Blues (8-3-1)
The Blues were one of about a half-dozen teams that began the 2014-15 season not knowing who the No. 1 goaltender would be. Through either injury or performance, Darcy Kuemper, Frederik Andersen and Antti Niemi have all become pretty clear-cut No. 1s, at least for now. St. Louis still doesn't know, but that's not a bad thing. Brian Elliott has a 2.06 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, and Allen has been even better.
MUST READ: Louie Korac writes about Tarasenko's rise for NHL.com.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (8-2-1)
The top of these rankings could have been about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and it could have been three times as long as the ode to Tarasenko. He's divisive, to put it mildly. The Penguins signed Fleury to a four-year, $23 million contract extension Wednesday. He's won a ton of games and is one of five active goalies to have been mobbed by his teammates at the end of a Stanley Cup Final. Since lifting the Cup in 2009, Fleury leads the NHL with 184 victories.
Then there are the numbers, specifically the one (save percentage) that is less team-dependent than wins and goals-against average. Fleury's career save percentage is .911, and since the start of 2009-10 it is only a little better (.914). That's tied for 25th-best in the NHL in that span among goalies with at least 100 games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have signed goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to a four-year, $23 million contract extension, sparking debate about whether he is worth such an investment. (Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI)
There is lots of data to suggest Fleury is a slightly-below average goaltender on a great team. Even at his best, he has been average or a tick above for a relatively small sample.
Players with the amount of experience Fleury has at the NHL level don't often find mid-career improvement, but there is a slight chance he could be different. Fleury worked his entire career with goaltender coach Giles Meloche, until he retired and was replaced by Mike Bales before last season.
The end of Meloche's tenure was a disaster for Fleury. He had a second straight terrible postseason, and he was unseated during the 2013 playoffs by Tomas Vokoun. With Bales in charge, Fleury has a .917 save percentage in 73 regular-season games. He had a .915 save percentage in the 2014 playoffs, a significant improvement from the past four postseasons.
There are lots of questions about the Fleury extension. The analytics community is adamant teams shouldn't pay the market price for average goaltending. The idea is if an elite guy isn't available, then go cheap with two of the dozens of goaltenders who can also provide average goaltending and use the salary cap savings to improve the rest of the team.
While most NHL teams have embraced other elements of analytics, moving away from an established No. 1 goaltender and going with two less-proven options has yet to be a popular tactic for general managers.
At $5.75 million per season, Fleury has to at least be average for the contract to make fiscal sense. In Pittsburgh though, the contract will be judged solely on whether there is another June dogpile in Fleury's crease.
He might need to be better than average for that happen, and less than average could be a big problem.
MUST READ: Adam Gretz writes about the problems with goaltending contracts for CBS Sports, while Greg Wyshinski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog offers six reasons why the deal might turn out alright.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (7-5-1)
Patrick Sharp is the best fourth or fifth wheel in the NHL. It feels like a slight to call him that, but there are four other players building Hall of Fame-level resumes on the Blackhawks. Sharp does everything really well, but he plays on a team with players who are great at what he does.
||30+ GOAL SEASONS
He can make highlight-reel plays, but Patrick Kane does it more often. He can be a leader, but Jonathan Toews might be the preeminent captain of this generation. He is a wing who is strong at both ends of the ice, but Marian Hossa is one of the best in the past two decades at that.
Sharp is also an incredibly consistent goal scorer, and that is an area where he has no equal in Chicago. He has three 30-goal seasons in the past four. Only Alex Ovechkin has four. Sharp also has four seasons with at least 30 goals in the past six. Toews and Hossa combined have four, and Kane has one.
His all-around ability can sometimes go underappreciated, but Chicago could miss Sharp's offensive consistency while he's out of the lineup.
MUST READ: Rob Vollman writes about teams that are improving at puck possession and could threaten the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings at the top of the NHL mountain.
4. Minnesota Wild (7-4-0)
Speaking of key offensive players going missing, the Wild have been one of the top possession teams in the NHL this season and could be without volume shooter Zach Parise for a bit. Like Hossa, Parise is a menace all over the ice. Parise's 47 shots on goal lead the Wild, but there is plenty of depth in Minnesota to survive in the short term without Parise.
MUST READ: Alec Schmidt of Hockey Wilderness writes about the resurgence of Jonas Brodin.
5. Anaheim Ducks (10-3-1)
It remains too early to draw any conclusions, but the Ducks are accumulating less than 49 percent of the shot attempts at even strength. That is near the bottom of the League, though each of their California rivals is also down in that area as well. When the score is close, the Ducks are better and when it is Fenwick (cut out blocked shots) considered and not Corsi, Anaheim is above 51 percent and barely on the positive side of the middle of the pack.
MUST READ: Matt Eaken of Anaheim Calling breaks down Corey Perry's scoring prowess at the start of the season.
6. Los Angeles Kings (7-4-2)
The Kings had 12 points after 13 games in 2012-13, and considering the players who have been unavailable at different points it would be hard to call this start a "Stanley Cup hangover," but Los Angeles has had some weird games so far this season and the scoring outburst by the line of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson has masked some deficiencies.
MUST READ: Steve Lepore writes about the recent surge of analytics in hockey for Rolling Stone.
7. San Jose Sharks (7-4-2)
The usual suspects are among the top 15 in the NHL in shots on goal to this point with a couple of exceptions. Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist is second in the League behind the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, and he can thank Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh power play for that. Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux is shooting a lot more this season with forward Scott Hartnell gone to Columbus. Tarasenko has more than doubled his per game average from last season.
Perhaps the most unexpected name in the top 15 or 20 is forward Tommy Wingels, who checks in tied for 12th with 3.62 shots per game. He's tied with forward Joe Pavelski, who topped 40 goals while playing a lot next to Joe Thornton in 2013-14.
Wingels averaged 16:06 of ice time last season, which was fifth among Sharks forwards, and the increase this season (16:45) is not enough to explain why he is putting 1.5 more shots on net per game. Spending about 40 percent of even strength ice time with Logan Couture on the second line has helped.
He's also been more aggressive on the power play. Wingels logged more than 94 minutes on the power play last season and had only 14 shots on goal (and no goals). This season his power-play time per game is 33 seconds higher, but he's already got 10 shots on goal in less than 24 minutes.
A heat map comparison from Sporting Charts also shows Wingels is clearly spending more time in front of the net on the power play this season.
MUST READ: Brent Burns uses hockey to help fuel his other passion, helping people in the military, writes Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning (8-3-1)
The top of the Eastern Conference is still pretty unclear at this point. Pittsburgh is off to a great start, but several of the other teams expected to be at or near the top of the East have dealt with injuries to key players. Tampa Bay has been without No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman for seven games, but defenseman Anton Stralman looks even better as a free-agent addition than he did in the summer and Jon Cooper proved last season he can steer this team through troublesome times when forward Steven Stamkos was hurt.
MUST READ: Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune writes about the great start for Stralman.
9. Nashville Predators (7-3-2)
Ryan Ellis might be the epitome of a "post-hype sleeper," which is a popular term in fantasy sports circles for someone who failed to live up to expectations, but then after people forgot about them began succeeding. Ellis struggled to find a regular role for Barry Trotz after having an incredibly productive Ontario Hockey League career, but the arrival of new coach Peter Laviolette has been a boon. Ellis is receiving a lot of offensive zone starts, but he's tied with Shea Weber for the team lead in points among defensemen and that Corsi-for percentage at even strength of more than 61 percent is very nice regardless of his usage.
MUST READ: Kevin Woodley writes about Pekka Rinne's advantage because of his glove skills for NHL.com.
10. Vancouver Canucks (9-4-0)
Finding depth scoring behind forwards Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin (and Ryan Kesler) has been a challenge even during the recent glory years. Depth up front has been a huge positive to this point for the Canucks. The typical fourth line of Linden Vey, Jannik Hansen and Derek Dorsett has combined for nine goals and 16 points (though Vey has a third of those goals on the power play). They've also been healthy. Forward Alexandre Burrows' three-game suspension was the first opening for anyone outside the top-12 forwards, and now Vancouver has exciting prospect Bo Horvat healthy and trying to secure a permanent roster spot.
MUST READ: Thomas Drance writes about whether or not Vancouver's hot start is sustainable for Canucks Army.
11. Detroit Red Wings (6-3-4)
The Red Wings stole a point in the final seconds at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, but failed to secure the second one for the fourth time already this season. The five Detroit players who secured the point were striking. After a long shift by the top guys, forward Tomas Tatar scored on a pass from forward Andrej Nestrasil. Forward Riley Sheahan was out there too. Tatar is the elder statesman of the trio at 24 years old. Detroit's young talent is making an impact, and elite prospect Anthony Mantha could still end up helping this season after he's recovered from an injury.
MUST READ: Rhys Richards of The Hockey Guys writes about the Red Wings' success being tied to the health of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
12. Dallas Stars (4-4-4)
Given the talent and a consensus of optimism after another big offseason, the Stars might be the most disappointing team to this point. Dallas is tied for 26th in goals-against per game and 24th in Corsi-for percentage at 48.47 percent. All the talent that had everyone excited is still there. Lindy Ruff is still one of the better coaches in the League. Maybe most importantly, goalie Kari Lehtonen has four straight years of a .914 or better save percentage on his resume, so it is pretty easy to expect better from him in the near future. Ruff will take care of some of the problematic play in front of him, and Lehtonen will stop more pucks.
MUST READ: Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News writes about the frustration for players and fans of the Stars' home struggles.
13. Boston Bruins (8-6-0)
Last season the Bruins lost defenseman Dennis Seidenberg to a major knee injury, had a dip in form during a brief adjustment period, and then eventually became the best team in the East again with other defensemen collectively assuming more responsibility. Boston is without defensemen Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug at the moment, but the Bruins are 4-1-0 since the night Chara was injured. The only loss featured a third-period rally by Minnesota. It looks like the Bruins needed some games to adjust to life without defenseman Johnny Boychuk, but 16 goals against in the past eight games and a 6-2-0 record sure looks like the old Bruins.
MUST READ: Mike Leonard breaks down the streaky nature (or lack thereof) of Milan Lucic for Stanley Cup of Chowder.
14. New York Islanders (7-5-0)
After the 4-0-0 start, the Islanders have looked more like previous iterations at times, but they do have four wins against teams currently ahead of them on this list. The additions of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson were expected to significantly improve New York’s goal prevention, which has been a serious problem for a decade. The Islanders were 28th last season in goals-against per game at 3.18 and are currently in a three-way tie for 26th (so still only better than two teams) at 3.42.
Halak and Johnson are both below .900 in save percentage, so that's part of the problem. The defense corps in front of them, even with the late adds of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, is also still not among the best in the East. Travis Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky are two of the four best defensemen on the team, and they've combined to miss 10 games.
Whoever is at fault for the defending in front of the goaltenders, they are seeing closer shots than goaltenders on other rival teams. Here is a look at average shot distance from Sporting Charts faced by Halak and Johnson at even strength compared to the other goalies in the Metropolitan Division. The sample size is still pretty small at this point and it's not perfect, but once there is enough data shot distance is a decent proxy for quality.
MUST READ: Islanders fans should not panic because of the recent wobble, says garik16 of Islanders Analytics.
15. Montreal Canadiens (9-4-1)
It went beyond warning signs this past week for the Canadiens. Montreal was in the red in shot attempts at even strength with the score close in eight of the previous 12 games before playing the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday. Even owning 60 percent against the Sabres is actually an improvement against the mean for Buffalo. While the Canadiens have been successful in the shootout, they have fewer regulation/overtime wins than their pals to the southwest, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They had back-to-back poor showings, first getting blown out by Chicago and then needing the shootout to defeat the Sabres. This is one of the top teams in the East on paper, but it hasn't looked like it lately.
MUST READ: The Canadiens had a successful October but not a pretty one, writes Andrew Berkshire of Eyes On The Prize.
16. Washington Capitals (4-5-3)
There is so much evidence the Capitals have played better than their record indicates. Holtby's place on that graph about shot distance is one. Washington is fifth in the League in Corsi-for percentage at even strength. It is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Yet the Capitals have lost five straight games and allowed at least four goals in all of them. The process, for the most part, has been sound, and should the Capitals continue to play well the luck will turn. If frustration and negativity becomes a problem, then keeping players focused on the process could as well.
MUST READ: Jon Press of Japers Rink details the unlucky nature of the current slide of offers some reason for hope.