Greg Wyshynski and Chris Peters face off on the NHL’s most pressing questions this week, including who will lead the league in goals, which player’s March scoring surge has been a fluke, how to fix the goalie interference issue once and why face-off percentage and hits are among hockey’s most overrated stats.
Who will win the Maurice Richard Trophy this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: If he’s healthy — and given that he left Tuesday night’s game after blocking a shot, that’s still an “if” — I’m taking Patrik Laine, even though Alex Ovechkin closes the season emphatically as a goal scorer (0.69 goals per game in April, for his career). I think the difference will be the power play. The Winnipeg Jets are third in the NHL in conversion rate, at 23.7 percent, while the Washington Capitals are fifth (22.5). But the big difference is in opportunities: The Jets are fifth in the NHL with 245 power-play opportunities, while the Capitals are 25th (213). Simply put, Laine is going to have more man-advantage chances to unleash his cannon than will Ovechkin.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: I’m sticking with old reliable. Give me Ovi in this one. As Greg noted, Ovechkin has often closed out the season well. He didn’t last year during what was a down scoring season for him overall, but Ovechkin seems as determined as ever this season. He is still averaging more than four shots per game and has been doing more of his damage at even strength this year anyway. We’ll have to wait and see on Laine’s injury, but if the Jets forward can return, I think Ovi will enjoy being pushed by the young pup a bit.
Whose March scoring surge is most flukish?
Wyshynski: Nick Bjugstad has been tearing it up with Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov for the Florida Panthers, using his big body as sort of a poor man’s Jaromir Jagr and racking up five goals and seven assists in March. He has fooled me before with an offensive breakout, and he’s a player I like, so I’d be happy to be wrong. I just don’t think he’s 14.3-percent-shooting-percentage good.
Peters: There is no question that Laine is one of the elite goal scorers in the game already. He has one of the best shots I’ve seen and I think he’s going to win many Rocket Richards before his career is over. That said, his 12 goals on 37 shots in March is simply absurd. Laine will have a higher shooting percentage than most players, but 32.4 percent is inhuman. I don’t know if “fluke” is the right word for someone of his skill, but it’s a ridiculous hot streak that has been fun to watch. Now let’s all hope his lower-body injury isn’t too serious and we get to see an honest-to-goodness Rocket race.
What would you do to fix goalie interference?
Greg Wyshynski: As I said on the ESPN ON ICE podcast this week, there are really only two ways this can go for the NHL now that it is demonstrably clear that the referees are going to be so subjectively inconsistent that they make MLB strike zones look standard by comparison. Either we take goalie interference out of the the coach’s challenge, or we centralize the calls in the NHL war room. The latter isn’t a cure-all, but at the very least it would offer a steadier philosophy on what constitutes goalie interference than the ideological gumbo we have now.
Chris Peters: I’m with Greg on this one. I think this has to be a centralized so that we’re getting the same interpretation of the rule. Whatever is going on right now is not working and I think teams and fans deserve better than the guessing game this has become. It isn’t going to make it perfect, but anything that gives us some semblance of consistency would be a step in the right direction.
How would you change the draft lottery?
Greg Wyshynski: Two changes, immediately. First, I’d restrict the top pick in the draft to the 10 worst teams in the NHL each season. To paraphrase Bat-fleck: “If we believe there’s even a one-percent chance that a team that finishes one point out of the playoffs can win the lottery, we have to take it as an absolute certainty that the system needs change.” Second, institute a variation of the Edmonton Rule: Don’t limit the number of times a team gets the first pick in, like, five years; restrict teams from picking in the top three to once every three seasons. Spread the welfare.
Chris Peters: In short, I wouldn’t. I think the odds, as they stand now, have disincentivized tanking at least a little. Sure, having the best odds is something, but there is still only an 18 percent chance that you will get to pick No. 1. I know tanking will still happen to a certain extent, but I’m willing to let the current system ride out for a few more years.
What is the most overrated hockey stat?
Greg Wyshynski: Faceoff winning percentage, with due respect to Patrice Bergeron. It’s one of those stats that’s impressive at first glance before you realize you have absolutely no situational context regarding who is on the other side of the faceoff, where it’s taking place and what the ultimate goal of that draw is (i.e. sometimes it’s to intentionally lose one). Shorthanded faceoff percentage offers a bit more clarity. For what it’s worth, Bergeron is 59.8 percent there, too.
Chris Peters: Hits. Once we get player tracking and the data is collected more accurately, maybe they will matter a little more. Right now, hits are basically just noise because it’s hard to trust the way they are tracked from arena to arena — and the way a hit might be defined from tracker to tracker. Additionally, the team that has more hits than the other usually is on the wrong end of possession, and the players who often lead in that category aren’t having as much of a positive impact on the game as their high hit count might suggest, if it’s even accurate in the first place. Body checking is valuable in hockey on its own, but the hits stat has too many flaws to be taken seriously.