Doran Libin takes a look at the winners in some key West training camp battles…
There are always a couple of surprises coming out of training camps each season. For example, last season not only did Johnny Gaudreau win a spot on the Flames NHL roster but he won a spot on what would become one of the best lines in the NHL. While not all of the training camp surprises work out as well as the Johnny Gaudreau example did these developments are something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Jumping on a training camp battle can provide a low risk gamble with the potential to pay off big down the road.
Chicago – Top 6 Forward
Winners: Artemy Panarin
Immediately after the Brandon Saad trade to Columbus and as the Blackhawks came into camp the consensus seemed to be that the last spot amongst the Hawks’ top six was Dano’s to lose. Jeremy Morin and Artemi Panarin were certainly possibilities but after the success Dano had to close last year in Columbus he looked to at least have the inside track. Given the struggles many Europeans have had adjusting to the NHL Panarin even seemed to have a strike against him. The combination of the Blackhawks’ cap troubles and Panarin’s Europe clause, however, seem to have combined to make Panarin the best option for a spot in the Hawks’ top six. Panarin looks to set to play on the ‘second line’ as Teravainen plays a very similar style to Patrick Kane and as such looks to be a logical fit on the top line alongside Toews and Hossa.
By looking at the point totals of the players occupying the wing spot alongside Kane the last two seasons it should be possible to gather an idea of how many points Panarin’s new spot is worth. In 2013/14 Brandon Saad was the most common winger with Kane and he finished with 47 points in 78 games while last year Versteeg finished with 34 points in 61 games. Saad’s total production looks to be much better but the rates of production are very similar at 2.23 points per 60 minutes for Saad and 2.14 for Versteeg. The even strength rates are even closer as each player was on pace for 34 even strength points over an 82 game season. As a spot on the ‘second’ line with Kane looks to be worth 30-35 even strength points over a full season, with some power play time Panarin should be worth 40 points this season.
Vancouver – 2nd Line Winger
Winner: Sven Baertschi
Sven Baertschi is the big winner in Vancouver, as he looks set to start the year on the second alongside Bo Horvat and Radim Vrbata. That means that he will at least have a chance to prove he belongs in the Canucks’ top six even after Chris Higgins returns from injury. The real camp battle here may be Bo Horvat beating out Brandon Sutter for the second line center except that it appears that Willie Desjardins really likes Sutter playing alongside the Sedins. Of the two though, Sutter and Baertschi, Sutter seems much more likely to lose his spot when Chris Higgins is healthy. There is a lot that still needs to shake out on the Canucks roster but youth looks set to be served. The one thing that seems certain is that Linden Vey is all but dead on the Canucks roster as his lot looks to be centering a ‘grind’ line between Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust. That is not a recipe for a lot of points or a lot of ice time. Furthermore, with Baertschi, McCann and Virtanen making the Canucks it is exceedingly unlikely that Vey will get the modicum of power play time that he received last season which helped push him over the 20 point mark for the season.
Aside from the doom that seems to mar Linden Vey’s career what can be expected from Sven Baertschi as a second line winger on the Canucks. Over the last two years Higgins has been a constant on the second line with Ryan Kesler in 2013.14 and Nick Bonino last year. A consistent spot on the second line in Vancouver seems to be worth at least 35 points almost regardless of the amount of ice time received. Last year Higgins received three fewer minutes per game and produced essentially the same number of total points. As Horvat was able to produce at a similar rate last year to Bonino and Higgins, albeit in a different role, there should not be a huge drop off as he replaces Bonino. What this all amounts to is that if Baertschi produces well enough to hold onto his spot on the second line he will threaten 40 points this year.
Arizona – Power Play Quarterback
Winner: Mikkel Boedker
This is a big development given how blueline centric the Arizona power play has been over the last couple of seasons. Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL) and Kaith Yandle never failed to get at least 20 power play points in each of the last two seasons. Despite the success of Coyotes’ power play during that time they are the only Coyotes season to record 20 power play points in either season. That is more than a little surprising as the Coyotes are the only team to have a 20% success rate in each of the last two seasons. Despite not having produced 20 power play points in each of the last two seasons Boedker has actually produced at a higher points per 60 rate than OEL on the power play and at a similar rate to Yandle. Last year was the first year Boedker came close to receiving three minutes of power play time per game and his pace in the 43 games he played would have seen him finish with 30 power play points last season. In fact at the rate Boedker was scoring overall he was on pace to finish with more power play points than even strength points. As the Coyotes power play has proven to be able to produce even when the Coyotes are horrible Boedker taking over from Yandle on the back end may be sufficient to provide enough of a threat at the back end for the Coyotes power play to continue to thrive. This development may allow Boedker to reach 50 points this season despite the ridiculous lack of talent on the Coyotes’ roster.
For Stone and Elliott losing this battle means that a break out season for either is highly unlikely. Stone seemed to be in line to inherit Yandle’s spot on the Arizona power play and as such looked like a decent bet to threaten for 30 points this season. That will not happen now unless there is a long term injury that opens up a spot on the first power play unit.
Edmonton – Backup Goalie
Winner: Anders Nilsson
Loser: Ben Scrivens
The starting goalie job in Edmonton seems like a death sentence. That is because the Oilers give up a ridiculous eight to nine high danger shots per game, those are shots that great goalies stop 85% of the time. As a point of comparison whereas Viktor Fasth faced 214 high danger shots in 26 games last season, Antti Raanta faced 175 high danger shots in 25 games for Chicago in 2013/14. That works out to an extra goal against every 5 games. The point being that the starting goalie job in Edmonton is hardly a secure position, so the back-up goalie is as good of a bet to finish the season as the starter as whomever starts the season with the job. This season the man in front of the firing squad is Cam Talbot but the guy next in line is something of a surprise. Anders Nilsson surprised everybody and beat out incumbent starter Ben Scrivens for the back-up goalie job. After never really getting a shot at an NHL job Nilsson went to the KHL last year and pulled a MIkko Koskinen and dominated the league. He timed his jump to the KHL perfectly as he has been able to return to the NHL and grab a job immediately.
The numbers from the small sample of NHL games that Nilsson managed to get into look really bad. However, look deeper and the numbers are not nearly as bad as they first appear. His sub-.900 save percentage at the NHL level is dragged down significantly by a sub-.850 save percentage on the penalty kill. That might have something to do with the Islanders having an absolutely abysmal penalty kill in 2013/14, the last time he played in the NHL, as they killed less than 80% of the penalties they took. His even strength save percentage numbers that seasons were actually slightly above average, meaning there is evidence that he is capable of being a competent NHL goalie. The fact that his AHL numbers were abysmal is still somewhat concerning though. All told the Oilers should be better defensively but this is still one of the most up for grabs starting jobs in the NHL. The Oilers clearly want to see what they have in Nilsson so he will be given plenty of chances to succeed, making a decent low cost, low risk, potentially high reward option as a depth goalie.