NHLN Notebook: The Surprising Blue Jackets, Slow Starters, and KHL Free Agents

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:15 am by Christian Pagnani

The Blue Jackets might actually be good, because woah, that Zach Werenski guy, while Patrice Bergeron, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrew Ladd are off to horrible starts, and the Oilers might have found a good right-handed defenseman (that didn’t cost them Taylor Hall). 

The Columbus Blue Jackets became the ninth team to generate 60 or more shots in a regular season game ever this weekend, and added to their 14-5-4 record. The Blue Jackets have a positive shot-attempt differential on the season and are receiving significant offensive production from the likes of Alex Wennberg and Cam Atkinson, but as well as rookie defensemen Zach Werenski. Columbus might have snuck under the radar and a strong season from Sergei Bobrovsky can help them stay competitive with few expecting them to be this good this far into the season.  

The pairing of Zach Werernski and SethJones gives them their most formidable pairing in the franchise’s history since, maybe, ever. Seth Jones may have cost them Ryan Johansen, but they seem to have been able to make do with a centre depth of Alex Weinberg, Brandon Dubinsky, and William Karlsson, which might have been laughed at prior to the season’s start but it’s working and Wennberg’s play helps mitigate Johansen’s loss. 

Werenski’s emergence might be the important for the Blue Jackets, and his case to be the Calder favourite is just as strong despite another rookie’s best attempt to score 50 goals and the Toronto trio all set to put up top-line numbers. Werenski is playing 22-minutes a night at age 19 and isn’t a drag at all on partner’s play. He already has 16 points and if he can come anywhere near the 50+ point pace he’s on he should win it handedly. Teams go crazy for defensemen and having one this young and this good saves a general manager from making a Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson-type trade.

All of Andrew Ladd, Evgenzy Kuznetsov, and Patrice Bergeron are over 50% owned in Yahoo! Fantasy Hockey leagues, with the latter two over 90%, so fans are riding on these players improving and scoring like previous years.

Patrice Bergeron’s case is curious as both his line mates, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, are near point-per-game players. Bergeron probably won’t score goals at half the rate he has during his career, but even that boost wouldn’t put him close to what you would usually expect scoring-wise. 

Kuznetsov and Bergeron are both on pace for less than seven power play points and that’s bound to improve, but Kuznetsov went from leading the Washington Capitals in even strength points to seventh on the team behind Daniel Winnik and Marcus Johansson. 

Andrew Ladd’s slow start might be the closest to his true talent level, but even the most heavy skeptics wouldn’t have predicted a 17-point pace for Ladd a third of the way through the season. Ladd has the lowest even strength production out of any New York Islanders forward who has played 50 or more minutes. Ladd also averages the third most minutes of the Islanders forwards and his most common linemate is John Tavares so its not for a lack of opportunity. Ladd’s shooting percentage is bound to climb, but his shot generation is among the lowest since his rookie season which has to be concerning for the Islanders and Islanders fans as Ladd is just beginning the first year of a seven year contract.

As far as Edmonton Oilers offseason moves go, signing Matt Benning was one of the more under the radar moves after trading for Adam Larsson and signing Milan Lucic in free agency.

The Oilers signed Drake Caggiula, one of the more heralded college free agents, but they also signed Benning late August after he elected to become a free agent and he’s been a regular in the lineup since being called up after the season began. Benning leads the team in generating and limited shot attempts at 56% corsi for, and has found a nice role on the Oilers’ bottom pairing with Darnell Nurse, but has also performed well in minutes with Andrej Sekera.

A lot is made of college free agents and sometimes you get a Justin Schultz, but Matt Benning is providing the Oilers with a right-handed shot that they severely lacked and that didn’t come at a significant price, which is huge for a team has struggled to find useful defensemen.

Nikita Zaitsev is playing top-four minutes for the Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile Alexander Radulov is putting up points for the Montreal Canadiens. The Kontinental Hockey League is quickly becoming an under-appreciated market to acquire good players.

Zaitsev is playing on an entry-level contract and Radulov is second in team scoring for Montreal at 5.75m. Artemi Panarin is providing the Chicago Blackhawks with two cheap years of borderline elite production before they attempt to perform more salary cap blood magic to keep him.

There’s also the misses from the KHL. Anton Belov couldn’t skate well enough, but he didn’t have a significant history of offensive production before coming overseas and Petri Kontiola shared a similar lack of quickness and went back, but these players cost nothing but money for teams to acquire and the reward far outweighs the risk.

Vadim Shipachev has Panarin-like points playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL and its been rumoured he’s considering a move to the NHL. Vladimir Tkachev, who has the same name as the player the Edmonton Oilers tried to sign in 2014, is young and putting up points in the KHL, and might be coming to the NHL too.

After the success of Panarin, Zaitsev, and Radulov, how can you not give these players a chance?

Stats from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/.
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