I’m bored writing about COVID-19. I’m bored reading about cancellations. I don’t want to hear the word “unprecedented” ever again. I just want to hear about hockey.
And frankly, the hockey has been quite enjoyable this season, even if we’re seeing the same teams play the same teams each night. In a crazy turn of events, cancellations for Colorado and Minnesota meant St. Louis and Arizona met up seven times over the past two and a half weeks, finishing their mid-season playoff round Monday afternoon.
So let’s keep it simple. We’re talking hockey, including the top storylines you need to know from the past week:
Nikolaj Ehlers is unstoppable
Ehlers is the real deal, isn’t he?
The Winnipeg Jets made a big splash this season by moving noted goal-scorer Patrik Laine – along with Jack Roslovic – to Columbus in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois. Early on, Dubois has yet to record a point through two games after sitting out two weeks due to quarantine, so the Jets have needed their wingers to pot a few goals from time to time.
Last week, Ehlers did exactly that with three goals and four points in three games, tying Mark Scheifele for the team lead in that span. Ehlers currently has nine goals and 16 points in 14 games on Winnipeg’s second line with Paul Stastny and Kyle Connor. Having two powerhouse lines has helped make up for the Jets’ weak defensive unit, and if Ehlers continues at this rate, we could be talking about a top-10 NHL scorer for the first time in his career.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Ehlers has always been a tremendous goal-scorer, recording at least 20 goals in four of his first five NHL seasons. Ehlers’ 1.81 goals-per-60 is ninth among forwards with at least 150 minutes of five-a-side action and his 3.61-points-per-60 bumps him up to fourth, both good for first on the team. He’s been criticized for inconsistency and a lack of drive at points, but when Ehlers is on his game, he’s REALLY on his game.
The real Jakob Chychrun has arrived
It feels like ages ago at this point, but I remember seeing all the attention Chychrun received in minor bantam with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens in 2013-14. It was my first time covering the OHL draft and Chychrun was by far the most impressive kid in his age group. An injury took him out of play in the prestigious OHL Cup, which turned out to be a microcosm of the early days of his hockey career.
Chychrun was taken first overall by Sarnia in 2014 but injuries and occasional subpar play saw him fall to 16th at the 2016 NHL draft – a selection that many expected to turn out quite well for the Coyotes. Injuries began to plague the young defenseman who, over the past four years, has yet to play a full season of NHL hockey. But he’s healthy now, and with 11 points in 14 games – including a three-assist run last week – Chychrun finally looks like the defensemen scouts fawned over prior to turning pro.
The Coyotes aren’t a high-offense team, but defense is the name of the game. Chychrun, 22, leads all Coyotes in ice time with 22:31 per game and trails only forward Conor Garland (52) in shots (40), so the Coyotes clearly like utilizing him at both ends of the ice. Chychrun is currently on pace for 41 points, and anything above his previous career-high of 26 would be a bonus. At the very least, it’s great to see him explode at both ends of the ice like he has as of late.
Marc-Andre Fleury is the Golden Knight in Vegas
When agent Allan Walsh famously tweeted a photo of client Marc-Andre Fleury getting stabbed with a sword bearing the name of Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer during the 2020 post-season, it seemed all but certain that Robin Lehner had the net in Vegas sealed up and that Fleury would find himself on the move over the off-season.
But Fleury remained in Sin City, and it was obviously the right move for everyone involved. Through eight games, Fleury holds an overall record of 7-1-0 with two shutouts, including a 3-1-0 run and a shutout last week. Fleury allowed just six goals in that span, sitting behind Calgary’s Jakob Markstrom for the second-most saves last week with 100. On the flip side, since inking a five-year, $25 million dollar deal in October, Lehner has posted a 3-1-1 run, though his .879 save percentage and -3.47 goals-saved-above-average at 5-on-5 puts him 46th among 48 goalies with at least five games played.
The Golden Knights shouldn’t be too worried about their goaltending situation just yet, but Lehner has been anything but solid early on. This was his crease to lose, and he lost it. As long as Fleury continues to play like his old self, the Golden Knights will continue to be a top team, but they still need to be able to rely on Lehner, whose athleticism has been a point of concern after a month of play.
John Hynes could be in trouble
When the Predators fired coach Peter Laviolette last January, it made sense. Sure, Laviolette – a proven commodity – was snagged up quickly by Washington over the off-season, but he had lost his impact in the room, and a strong Predators team quickly found themselves underachieving and in need of a fresh look.
More surprising than Laviolette’s send off was the hiring of John Hynes a month after being released by New Jersey. Hynes was criticized for the poor deployment of top players and fans were relieved when the Devils decided to go in a different direction. Hynes struggled to get his troops to rally over Arizona during the playoffs, but the Nashville brass had evident confidence that things would improve in 2021.
That projection couldn’t be further from reality, though, as the Preds sit in 24th place with a 6-9-0 record – including a 2-6-0 run since January 30th. NHL journalist Adrian Dater tweeted that he believes Hynes is on the hot seat, and rightfully so. The Predators haven’t looked good with him at the helm, and while some bad contracts definitely limited the team’s capabilities, it feels like Hynes isn’t getting the most out of a team that was viewed as a Stanley Cup contender about 18 months ago.
With their championship window closing quickly, will the Preds look elsewhere for a spark?
The Penguins are ready for a shakeup
A couple of weeks after the surprise resignation of GM Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that long-time rival and ex-Flyer Ron Hextall was to assume the management duties, with former NHL GM and television personality Brian Burke taking over as president of hockey operations.
So what happens when you mix a hard-ass goaltender known for fighting with a hard-ass management wizard who isn’t afraid to speak his mind? You get a fiery and savvy pair ready to make some changes to a team that’s been in decline since winning consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017.
The Penguins are in rough shape. They’ve got a weak prospect pool, poor goaltending, and an aging core that receives band-aid fixes each off-season with very few long-term improvements. This is understandable for a team that was so competitive for so long, but do the Pens wants to back down in the final years of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s careers?
The new management duo hasn’t made a change to the team just yet, but there’s a lot of optimism in a city that craves success. I wouldn’t blame either Hextall or Burke if the Penguins miss the playoffs this season, but I do expect them to have an aggressive off-season. The 2021 draft isn’t strong enough to tank for, but 2022 and 2023 could have some team-changing players ready to take an organization like Pittsburgh’s into the next generation. If I were a Pens fan, I wouldn’t be too worried about struggling this season because I have full confidence in Hextall and Burke making solid changes before too long.