Alex Ovechkin can still rip the puck with the best of them

The NHL season is off to a wonderful start. (Getty)
The NHL season is off to a wonderful start. (Getty)

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at Erik Karlsson's renaissance, 100-point producers, the Hurricanes adjusting, Alex Ovechkin, florida's gamble on Tkachuk and more.

A rejuvenated Erik Karlsson is making the Sharks worth watching

After a decade, give-or-take, of success, the San Jose Sharks have fallen into a state of purgatory. There are some good players, quite a few bad ones, and the idea of making the playoffs appears years away. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good stories happening in Shark-land, even if they are easy to look past. Namely, is Erik Karlsson back? He had nine goals in 12 games to start the season! He had 10 in 50 last season. His all-time career high is 21.

One thing the Sharks wanted to accomplish in the offseason was putting an end to the experiment of having Brent Burns and Karlsson on the same defense. Two right handed offensive defensemen turned out to be a bit of an awkward fit. If nothing else, it didn’t work out the way they had hoped it would. Karlsson and Burns were one-two in power play ice time per game last season. As gifted as they both are, having not one, but two defensemen lead you in power play TOI is not optimal.

This season Karlsson is playing nearly 20 seconds more per game on the power play, and is surrounded by four forwards along the way. He’s launching 2.67 shots on net per game, which would be his highest rate in four seasons — though not nearly close to his peak days. More impressive, it looks like his speed is back. He races up the ice here with ease.

Karlsson is 32 and still has four years left on his contract after this one. Unless a significant retention takes place, it’s hard to see him going somewhere else anytime soon. But it’s nice to see him producing again.

The Blue Jackets PP has been horrendous

Columbus rightfully received a lot of attention after signing prized free agent Johnny Gaudreau in the summer. He was coming off a 115-point season, after all. There were a lot of questions about who would be his center and whether they had appropriate depth at that position but, if nothing else, they were expected to be a fun offensive team given all the options they possess. That makes this one of the more confounding notes from the early season: through 10 games, the Blue Jackets have yet to score a power-play goal.

They are 0-for-25 and have given up two shorthanded markers to boot. Patrick Laine getting injured obviously hurt. He leads their team in average power play ice-time per game but has played less than half of their games so far this season. Even still, there’s missing a player and struggling, and then there’s just being bad. This is at 10 games of no power-play goals and actively being outscored on the power play. As with most power plays that struggle, they are having issues simply getting in the zone and setting things up. In a game against Boston where they already gave up a shorthanded goal, this is them skating right into traffic for an easy turnover and scoring chance going back the other way.

Easily angled off, little speed being generated. The Canucks scored a shorthanded goal against them after Columbus had four players below the goal line, still lost the battle, which resulted in a 2v1 and goal against.

Dissecting Winnipeg's early-season success

The Jets are off to a decent start in the standings and one of the more interesting players to look at is Josh Morrissey. He has eight points in nine games — his career high in points is just 37! He’s averaging exactly one minute more on the power play per game, too, as the Jets have loaded up a top unit and let them run with it for as long as possible (their power play is only clicking at 13 percent so we’ll see how long that lasts). But at 5v5, just like his team, he is getting snowed under. His most common partner is Neal Pionk and their 5v5 Corsi is 37.28 percent. Away from Pionk, Morrissey shoots up to 56 percent. The Morrissey-Pionk pairing has outscored opponents by one this season so it might take a bit more time for that to be broken up, but along the way Morrissey has been productive — and notably more edgy, too.

He got into his second career fight against the Leafs in a game where he had 11 penalty minutes total. He’s at 1.89 penalty minutes per game because of that night. His career high in penalty minutes per game before that was .84, which was last season. He had never been above .54 in his career before that.

Scoring keeps trending upwards

Last season, the NHL had its highest goals per game (3.14) since the 1995-96 campaign, and so far in 2022-23, it has bumped even higher to 3.20. Naturally, more goals means more players racking up points.

There were eight players in the league last season that hit 100 points. That hasn't happened since the 2005 NHL lockout. It is far too early to make any notable inferences from the current player projections and games tighten up as the season goes along, but it’s noteworthy that the league hasn’t really instituted any rule changes to make it happen. Small things like faceoff advantages aren’t the catalyst to more offense. It’s just the skill in the league going up and stylistically how the game is changing — we mentioned last week how all the minute-eating defensemen these days are skilled.

Alex Ovechkin keeps refining his shot

This isn’t exactly news but Alex Ovechkin just keeps scoring goals. As of this writing, he has five goals through 11 games and, at 37, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. It’s not like he is reinventing himself much here along the way to keep scoring, either. Three of his five goals so far are from “his office” and you don’t need much more of a description to know what’s happening. Left faceoff circle bombs on the power play.

If you want an argument for being great at a particular skill and continuing to refine a certain skill as opposed to working on your weaknesses to round out your game — Ovechkin is a great case study. His shot is as good as it has ever been and continues to beat goalies. As long as he’s able to step into a one-timer, it’s a problem for opponents. One area that is growing for him, though, is defending leads. Last season Ovechkin had a career high nine empty net goals. In the season cut short by COVID, he was at six empty netters. He has one already this season.

Where does Ivan Barbashev fit with the Blues?

One of the more overlooked players in the league: Ivan Barbashev. How many people know he put up 26 goals and 60 points last season?! He had never scored more than 14 goals or had more than 26 points before last season. He did shoot over 23 percent last season so it would be hard to repeat, but a fun fact is it’s the second time in his career he’s shot 23-plus percent over a full season.

On the 2019 championship Blues team, he was a useful role player. We’ve seen this movie before — a good role player on a championship team blossoms into a top-of-the-lineup player with opportunity. Chandler Stephenson in Vegas might be the current poster boy for that.

A quick look at the Blues lines and he’s centering Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich. He only has two points in eight games and his ice time is down nearly 2 minutes per game from last season. So how long will any of this last at this rate? Last season he was a nice player up the lineup, and so far this season he’s trending as a nice player down the lineup.

The Hurricanes never skip a beat

The Carolina Hurricanes have been a regular-season beast for a few years now but have not been able to get over that second-round hurdle — so they shook things up this summer with some notable moves. Out went Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter and Tony DeAngelo — their third, fourth and fifth leading point getters last season. In came Brent Burns, Paul Stastny and, hopefully, Max Pacioretty eventually. But the Hurricanes wheel of tilting the ice just continues on. They are the top possession team in the league and if there’s one thing you can count on from a Rod Brind’Amour coached team, it’s that they will work annoyingly hard for all 82 games.

Nothing comes easy against them. They will grind you right down. The biggest beneficiary of it all might be Martin Necas. He averaged 16:11 per game last season. This season he’s up to 19:48. He’s leading the team in scoring and while it seems like he's been in the league forever, he’s still just 23 years old. He and Brind’Amour have not always seen eye to eye, to say the least, and while the Canes said goodbye to a number of good players, the benefit might be in increasing internal ice time more than anything else this season. So far, the Hurricanes look like the same tough out they have been for a few years now.

Dominik Kubalik's start in Detroit

For the past few seasons, there seems to be an annual summer exodus of decent players the Blackhawks will not qualify who go on to be solid elsewhere. David Kampf has been solid in Toronto. Pius Suter has mixed reviews. Dylan Strome is off to a productive start in Washington. And then there’s Dominik Kubalik. He of the 30-goal rookie season, only to regress ever since. He has still been able to put the puck in the net at good rates because he has a great shot. The rest of his game leaves something to be desired. But you can last a long time in this league if you produce, and so far, he is producing.

He is up to 11 points in nine games to start the season. He is shooting 20 percent and his PDO is 108 — way above his career average (in his rookie, 30-goal season he did shoot just under 20 percent so that is at least somewhat possible). It helps when your most common linemates are Dylan Larkin, David Perron and now Andrew Copp. But they are getting buried in their own end. This Tage Thompson goal made all the highlights, but watch Kubalik and Copp — what positions are they playing? Who is the centre, who is the left winger?

It’s chaos. But on a Detroit team that’s going to struggle to remain in the playoff race throughout the season, the hockey will be free-flowing and there will be a lot of offense, which looks like it will mean a lot of points for Kubalik.

Tkachuk gamble looking good for the Panthers so far

There are a lot of things that go into a star-player producing. Linemates, usage, team systems, and so on. When you take a player out of one situation, away from a particular set of linemates, and air drop them on another, it’s always interesting to see how players respond. The Florida Panthers paid up big for Matthew Tkachuk in the offseason. So far, so good. Tkachuk played with two high-end linemates in Calgary — Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm — forming what was arguably the best line in the league. In Florida, his most common linemates so far are Sam Bennett and Rudolfs Balcers. No offense to those players, but that is quite the drop off.

Doesn’t matter, though. Tkachuk is off to a productive start with 13 points in 10 games. He's averaging 21:29 TOI per night, which would be far the highest average of his career. Tkachuk has never averaged more than 18:18 per game before this season. He’s actually shooting below his career 13.5 shooting percentage so far, too (he’s at 10 percent), and he's yet to score on the power play this season. You could argue that last year Tkachuk wasn’t the best individual player on his line. Not this season though, and he’s still humming along. The Panthers bet big on him and have to like the early returns.

The Blackhawks have been shockingly fun

Team tiers looked down on the Chicago Blackhawks, and for admittedly fair reasons. They would be the first to admit they are going through a full-fledged rebuild and this will almost certainly be a season where they trade away the two remaining pieces from their dynasty days. But so far, they have actually been kind of… fun? They are getting handled, as to be expected, and will drop down the standings from a low-20s team to a bottom-five team if they continue to be caved in on possession (they are the third worst possession team in the league so far at 5v5), but they have had a number of high scoring, back-and-forth games, and have a few players capable of creating the odd highlight, outside of Patrick Kane even. This will be one of the goals of the year:

Tyler Johnson was a nice story until unfortunately getting injured. Kane is up to his usual tricks. Jonathan Toews already has six goals — he had 12 in 71 games last season. Jason Dickinson has six points in 11 games — he had 11 in 62 last season. As a team they are tied for 13th in goals per game so far. The Blackhawks are still firmly in the Connor Bedard race but at least they are creating some highlights and fun along the way.

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