Wild West: Tortoises and Hares Among Forwards

by Kevin Wickersham on November 6, 2017 | (0 Comments)

As NHL teams hit about the 15-game mark in the campaign, we start to see what we might have hoped to be some players’ short lulls turn into more serious patterns of below-expectation play, or initial hot streaks look a bit more enduring. We’ve now gained enough of a sample size to start evaluating a player’s year. That’s not to say players can’t completely turn things around, but the longer they wait, the more risk they bring. Here are a few forwards that have come out strong and appear continuing in that vein, and others whose slow starts increasingly indicate possible slow years.  

 

Tortoises

 

Jussi Jokinen – Edmonton (0 goals, 1 assist, 10 games)

An offseason sleeper, coming into the year Jokinen was looked at as a possible top-sixer who might help mentor some of the upcoming Oilers and re-kindle the scoring he’d exhibited in the not-too-distant past. With 60 points in 2015-16 and 57 two years prior, and as a new member of high-octane Edmonton, it seemed he should at least hit the 40-50 point range. Edmonton hasn’t been scoring though, and that includes Jokinen. With just one assist, that on a power play goal by Ryan Strome a few weeks ago against Carolina, the 34-year-old vet’s twelfth NHL campaign is off to an excruciatingly slow start. It’s a bad sign that he’s seen just 12:22 in average ice time over this initial span, with two contests under ten minutes in the past four games. Currently he’s most often on third line duty with Strome and Drake Caggiula. We’ll see if that helps him snap out of his slump or if, at this stage of his career, he’s more of the 11-goal, 17-assist player we saw in Florida last year.

 

Martin Hanzal – Dallas (1 goal, 0 assists, 11 games)

Hanzal was supposed to up his production on the Stars second line skating with Jason Spezza and a left wing to be determined. Instead he’s registered just one point on the young year – an empty-net goal against Detroit in the campaign’s third contest - and a minus-9 while most frequently lining up with Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark and Remi Elie. Prior to a recent lower-body scrape forcing him to miss the last three contests, their prized free-agent acquisition missed much of training camp with an ankle injury and the results may be showing. He’s averaged a little under two minutes per-game on the power play but has yet to rack up a point. His overall TOI is 14:53, more than three minutes short of his career mark. 

 

Joel Eriksson Ek – Minnesota (1 goal, 2 assists, 12 games)

Perhaps the expectations were too great, but after a prolific 15-game NHL showing last year (three goals, four assists) and another solid year in Sweden’s top league, the 20-year-old Eriksson Ek was considered a strong candidate for a third-line center role this offseason. On a Wild team finishing second behind Cup-winning Pittsburgh in goals scored in 2016-17, the potential for decent numbers is still there. But, in an injury-marred first month Minnesota’s production is much less, as their 37 goals has them tied for 23rd in the league. Eriksson Ek is currently serving on a checking line with Marcus Foligno and (surprisingly the team’s top goal-scorer with six) Chris Stewart, eking out just 12:53 average TOI. The Swedish rookie, and Minnesota in general which sits at 13th in the West’s point standings, have lots of time for improvement, but the early returns aren’t great. 

 

Sam Gagner – Vancouver (1 goal, 3 assists, 13 games)

Fewer points seemed par for the course with Gagner moving from Columbus, who registered the league’s sixth-most goals last year, to the Canucks who finished above just Colorado as the league’s second-least prolific squad. Largely a power-play specialist, Gagner earned the first 50-point campaign of his ten-year career with the Blue Jackets, and following a generally lost year in Philly his hockey life was back in gear. But, in spite of Vancouver’s 7-4-1 start, the points this year have not come easily. While serving as a bottom-six wing next to Alex Burmistrov and Thomas Vanek, their line has only generated three points. With Vanek and the Sedin twins on the man advantage that number’s up to five, including a goal and an assist for Gagner, but his 0.31 points-per-game pace is half his 0.62 CBJ mark, and nearly the same discrepancy compared with his 0.57 career average. With Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat leading the way, things are looking up for the Canucks, but the results have yet to appear for Gagner. 

 

Hares

 

Jaden Schwartz – St. Louis (8 goals, 12 assists, 15 games)

Amid a host of early St. Louis injuries Schwartz has ignited the Blues’ most productive line (23 points) alongside Tarasenko and Schenn, and been on the ice for all the squad’s power-play points. Registering 20 points so far to lead the West in scoring, he’s on pace to smash his 2016-17, 55-point total and 63-point career high. While the 24.2% shooting percentage is sure to dip, if he can maintain his place on the top line he’ll solidify his reputation as one of the league’s most dangerous two-way players. 

 

Blake Wheeler – Winnipeg (5 goals, 12 assists, 13 games)

Jets’ Captain Wheeler has continued as a main cog in Winnipeg’s burgeoning scoring machine. Hopefully for Manitoba it will translate to an elusive playoff spot this year. Lined up with Mark Scheifele, and alternately Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, he’s registered the second-most assists in the West, setting up the majority of Ehlers’ eight goals and Scheifele’s seven. This is of course no surprise as Wheeler hasn’t dipped below 60 points in a non-strike year since the Thrashers moved north, dishing at least 40 helpers in all but one of those campaigns. Currently on almost an assist-per-game pace, and with Connor coming out of the blocks strong (two goals and three assists in eight games since his promotion from the AHL) Wheeler could hit another level altogether.

 

Anze Kopitar – Los Angeles (7 goals, 10 assists, 14 games)

After struggling to score in 2016-17 with just 2.43 goals-per-game, sixth-lowest in the NHL, this Kings’ year has been greatly bolstered by Kopitar’s hot start. Their franchise center has clicked with Dustin Brown (six goals, seven assists) and rookie Alex Iafallo as the trio’s produced 22 points at even strength. Kopitar’s 18.9% shot percentage will likely drop as the weeks pass, but it’ll surely surpass last year’s 8.0% which, if all goes reasonably well, will help return him to the upper echelon of NHL scorers.

 

Clayton Keller – Arizona (10 goals, 6 assists, 15 games)

Despite the Coyotes vying for one of the worst NHL campaigns ever, October’s NHL Rookie of the Month Keller is absolutely killing it. Their 19-year-old hopeful franchise savior has scored more than a quarter of the squad’s 38 goals. His ten goals is tops in the Western Conference. I’d imagine his 17.9 shooting percentage will drop, but he’s done all this facing some historically-epic, daunting circumstances so perhaps he’s just that good. Of course the rigors of the long NHL season might catch up with his supremely talented 5-10, 168-pound frame, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

 

Brock Boeser – Vancouver (5 goals, 8 assists, 10 games)

Like Keller, Boeser was a pre-season Calder candidate but didn’t get as much fanfare as the Boston University rookie. At this early juncture their stats are comparable. After a hat trick topped off with an assist in their latest outing, Boeser’s 1.30 points per-game average stands third in the West behind Schwartz and Wheeler. If Vancouver and Arizona maintain their respective paces over the long run, particularly if the Canucks – currently tied with many for the conference’s fifth spot with 16 points - crack the playoffs, Boeser may emerge the victor. In spite of Boeser sitting three contests, the top-line trio of he, Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi has generated 17 points (fourth best in the West) and another eight on the power play.

 

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