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Mikko Rantanen might never get the respect he deserves

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 players thriving post-waivers, John Tavares winding it back, the criminally underappreciated Mikko Rantanen, the NHL failing its fans with no international hockey and much more.

The Blues go as Jordan Kyrou does

It was only on September 13 of this year that Jordan Kyrou signed an 8-year, $65-million contract extension with the St. Louis Blues. The extension kicks in next season and will make him, along with Robert Thomas, the highest paid Blues by annual average. Last season he had a breakout year, putting up 75 points in 74 games, along with 9 points (7 goals!) in 12 playoff games. Also, those 75 points surprisingly made him fourth on the team in scoring last season — Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Robert Thomas all passed that mark.

This season, though, isn’t off to quite the same rosey start. He has eight points in 15 games and is a minus-15 (say what you want about plus/minus, but if you’re dash-15 in 15 games, that is bad). Other than Brayden Schenn, his linemates have been a bit of a revolving door of "what will work here?" His shooting percentage is over 12 percent (just below his career average) but he has the 10th worst PDO among regular skaters so far this season.

Perhaps he is starting to climb out of it with three goals and a helper in his last four games (all Blues wins) including an awesome tally against Colorado that stood up as the game winner and another beautiful goal against Chicago a few nights later. This is not the start the Blues envisioned for their season but we can’t count them out this early. We’ve seen before that they're capable of rebounding from a tough first half. Kyrou getting rolling would help. That PDO in particular will stabilize and Kyrou's production should follow.

Post-waivers Martinook is thriving

Every season there are a few fringe players that are good, helpful NHLers that get put on waivers, that could have been picked up for free, but they go unclaimed, end up staying with that team and go on to play good hockey. A few years ago Paul Byron was passed through waivers three times, unclaimed each time. He ended up playing in all 22 of the Habs' playoff games that spring, putting up 6 points (three big goals of note) and being an important role player. Of course, he wasn’t put on waivers because the Habs didn’t like him, it was because of his cap hit. There's a group of players that are always part of this bucket — good NHLers that get waived for cap reasons.

The Bruins have put Mike Reilly there twice already but know he can play in the league (though he has been squeezed out of their top six so far). One waivers graduate who hasn’t been squeezed out of the lineup, and is thriving, is Jordan Martinook. He has some of the best underlying numbers in the entire league and he’s not exactly playing pillow-soft minutes. Martinook is riding shotgun alongside Jordan Staal, which naturally means checking assignments and defensive-zone starts. Together, the two are getting over 70 percent of shot attempts at 5v5. They've outscored opponents 10-2 at 5v5 as well. He is a meat and potatoes type player. Good at cycling on the wall, and an honest player that doesn’t cheat the game — stands in the right spots, gets in the right lanes, etc. In 16 games so far, Martinook has 4 goals and 9 points (he had 6 goals and 15 points in 59 games all of last season).

A lot of teams in the league likely recognize Martinook as a solid bottom-six player. He didn’t go unclaimed because teams think he’s bad. The question is whether he’s worth it — he’s making $1.8 million this season and next. The Hurricanes are one of the best teams in the league (fifth right now in points percentage) and Martinook is playing over 13 minutes a night for them and doing well. You’re telling me a bunch of mediocre teams across the league couldn’t have used him at that price point to help solidify a line in the bottom six? For $1.8 million? C'mon.

Vincent Trocheck's sneaky physicality

When the New York Rangers signed Vincent Trocheck to a sizeable contract this summer, did anyone think they were getting a physical player? Right now, Trocheck ranks sixth among forwards in the league in hits, something that caused me to double take. Was this the case of the Rangers stat trackers being a little trigger heavy? It wouldn’t be the first time — a known secret around the league when it comes to any stats, really, coming out of MSG. But looking back over the past few seasons, Trocheck has been a bit more physical than expected for a player listed at (generously) 5-foot-11, 184 pounds. Last season he was 24th in the league among forwards with 185 hits. The year before that he was still in the top 40.

He is playing more this season so that helps — he’s averaging nearly 21 minutes per game this season after not even averaging 18 minutes last year. The 2017-2018 season where he put up 31 goals and 75 points for the Florida Panthers seems like an eternity ago. His production dipped after that, he got hurt, and the organization soured him. Carolina was happy to pounce and when he hit free agency, the Rangers were waiting, effectively choosing Trocheck over a known commodity in Ryan Strome. He is a better two-way player than Strome, but not sure anyone knew they were getting a little extra bite to go along with it.

The Kraken didn't miss on Morgan Geekie

If you were to guess who on the Seattle Kraken is tied for the league lead in game-winning goals who would you pick? Would it be Morgan Geekie? Because that’s the right answer. The Kraken made a number of mistakes in the expansion draft, and while they could have selected the better-now Nino Niederreiter from Carolina, I don’t think going with the early-20s, 6-foot-3 centre was a terrible choice.

Last season was Geekie’s first full campaign in the NHL and there were growing pains on a team that was simply bad last season. His ice time is actually down over 2 minutes per game this season and he has seemingly lost it in the faceoff circle (winning under 43 percent even though he’s a career 51-plus percent at the dot). But his production is up with eight points in his first 13 games. In fairness both his shooting percentage and PDO are through the roof right now. Those coming down to earth along with his ice time being low means reality will eventually set in. In the meantime though, the good times are rolling. And these aren’t cheap goals either.

That’s a big-time finish. Geekie has consistently produced at all levels but in the context of age and league he has played in, he’s never had eye-popping numbers. A similar trajectory in the NHL is likely.

John Tavares is turning back the clock

Congratulations to John Tavares for not only scoring his 400th career goal, something only 107 players ever have done, but for turning back the clock in general. One of the biggest hockey lies out there is a player coming to training camp and talking about how they feel good, healthy, had a summer of training, etc, and are fresh and ready to go. More often than not, it’s a whole lot of noise that leads to little noticeable difference. That is not what happened with John Tavares.

A few years ago he was knocked out of the Leafs' first-round series against the Canadiens and noted after that in the summer he missed a good chunk of his offseason training. This summer, he had a normal offseason and has hit the ground running. He has been, and pretty well always will be, great below the top of the circles. His 400th goal was classic Tavares, finding a soft spot in the defense, slipping open, and if you give him a little time from there he is going to rip one home, which he did with what looked like ease.

Where his game has shown more promise this season compared to last is how well he’s moving out there — attacking off the rush, beating defenders and scoring highlight-reel goals, and getting to scoring spots with much more ease. He’s firing 3.41 shots on net per game, which would be his highest mark since his career high 47-goal, 88-point first season with the Leafs (he launched 3.49 shots on net per game that year). This looks like early 2010s Tavares.

Travis Konecny is finding his first-line form again

The Philadelphia Flyers are clearly a team in transition, and part of that process is putting building blocks in place to put you on a trajectory back to being a contender. Travis Konecny has been one of the more confounding players on the Flyers. A few seasons ago he had 61 points in 66 games and looked like one of those legitimate, first-line building blocks. There’s a lot to love about his game when he’s on as he can score, he’s crafty and he can get under people’s skin. He is not afraid to mix it up. Sometimes that can turn into antics that impact his game, though.

The next two seasons following his breakout campaign, his .92 points-per-game dropped to .67. Still a productive player that brings other things, but not quite in the top-line category that you’d hope for. This season, he is rediscovering his offense in a big way. He’s up to 19 points in 16 games already. His 12.7 shooting percentage is not astronomical and his PDO is actually a decent 98.4. He is, however, playing almost 45 seconds more on the power play per game (a few seasons ago he wasn’t even firmly on the top unit). In his most productive season he had 23 power-play points. In the two seasons that followed, he had 11 and 10, respectively. This season, Konecny already has seven power-play points. Amazing what a spot on the top PP unit can do for your production when you run with the opportunity.

Mikko Rantanen's value to Avalanche can't be overlooked

When you think of Colorado, it’s natural that Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar come to mind — they are arguably two of the top five players in the game today. The elite of the elite. Alongside them is Mikko Rantanen, who everyone knows is great, but he’s almost become a superstar in plain daylight. ESPN ranked him 24th among all players headings into the season. Through the last three full seasons plus the beginning of this one, he ranks ninth among all players in points-per-game with 224 in 183 games . His 25 points in 20 playoff games was second on the team (it will never not be hilariously good that Cale Makar led the team in scoring with 29 points in 20 playoff games — as a defenseman).

 Mikko Rantanen has always been one of the NHL's most underappreciated stars. (Getty)
Mikko Rantanen has always been one of the NHL's most underappreciated stars. (Getty)

Rantanen is off to a scorching start to this season with 11 goals and 24 points in just 14 games. When Rantanen and MacKinnon are healthy they are stapled at the hip. They have played over 204 minutes together at 5v5 and spent just 19 minutes apart. They have outscored opponents 12-5 already. They are arguably (probably?) the best duo in the league. The general fandom doesn’t think of them like that, though. They think of MacKinnon and Makar, then Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. We should probably start talking more about where this duo rates in the league.

Appreciating John Marino

One of the more quiet trades this summer was the Pittsburgh Penguins effectively cap-dumping John Marino to the Devils for Ty Smith and a third-round pick. So far, it has contributed to swinging the balance of power within the division. The Penguins, who have been a staple in the playoffs, are struggling. The Devils, who have been a staple in the draft lottery, are thriving. Ty Smith is in the AHL — he has yet to play a game for the Penguins (which is really saying something considering the way the season has gone so far).

Meanwhile, Marino leads the second place (in points percentage) New Jersey Devils in time-on-ice per game. That’s right, the team is thriving and he is playing more than anyone else on the club. He’s even contributing on the scoresheet with 8 points in 16 games, even though that’s not really his game. And that’s probably where some of the sourness on him was rooted. He is a bit of an eye test enigma — a smooth player that is good at moving the puck, but he has never really been productive on the scoresheet. Instead, his game is more appreciated in subtleties. Quick breakout passes, blocking passing lanes, little things that add up but are tough to reflect in stats.

Look at this play here: his defense partner gets beat off the rush, but from the beginning he’s focused on doing his job (tying up Johnny Gaudreau). If he slid over and tried to cut off the angle, a pass across leads to a tap-in. Instead, he ties up Gaudreau and invites the shot from the angle. It’s harmless and no harm, no foul.

Alongside Ryan Graves, they are controlling play and coming out on top across the board at 5v5. A pairing that cost the Devils Ty Smith, Michael Maltsev, a 2nd and a 3rd in total. Great work from the front office here.

Best-on-best hockey seems like a distant memory

Extremely disappointed to learn that there will be no international hockey until *at least* 2025. That means there will be at least nine years passing between true best-on-best international hockey. People should be genuinely upset about this for a number of reasons. Unless you are an American Leafs fan, basically haven’t cheered for Auston Matthews while he is playing for your team since he represented the United States in the World Juniors (or potentially Team North America shortly after). Similarly, unless you are a Canadian Colorado Avalanche fan you haven’t cheered for Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar since they appeared in the World Juniors. There are, of course, a bunch of examples outside those three players but the point is that this is one way that fans really connect with players and that’s a big way to grow the league.

The hockey is so good it even draws in non-fans to watch and if you already are a fan it draws you closer to players that don’t play for your team. Maybe you actually look out for their games and watch them on the odd Tuesday because you became a fan of them while they represented your country. Heck, the fun debates for the entire season about who should be on each team alone make it worth it. This is low-hanging fruit for growing the game and the league.

Sometimes fans really just pile on Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, but aside from all the lockouts and the Blackhawks scandal, this is probably the biggest black eye of their tenures. Over a decade without best-on-best hockey is completely unacceptable. Are we actually never going to see Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby play together? What an utter waste. You can never make that up. Shame.

How do you measure all-time greatness in hockey?

And finally, a congratulations to all of the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. While I do not get a vote, my stance on the Hall of Fame has always been this: were you a top-five player in the game (or possibly position) at any point of your career? Alternatively, were you a trailblazer in the sport (i.e. the first one that came from a foreign country to breakthrough in the NHL and set the table for others, changed the way a position was played, etc). Ultimately it’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, the highest individual achievement possible. In a sport like hockey, it’s arguably the toughest to measure.

Most elite NBAers at least get to the NBA Finals if not win it outright. In the NFL if you are an elite quarterback, you too are probably going to the Superbowl. There are so many elite NHLers that never get a sniff. You can’t cheat by looking at the finals and asking if a player went or not. You almost have to throw it out the window unless things went the other way around and they proved to be elite in the playoffs or went on some crazy run. So much of this sport is dependent on the team around you. As an individual, your ability in isolation to impact where your team finishes in the standings is less than any other major sport, save for maybe baseball. So the question I simply ask is this: in any single season did I consider any given player to be one of the five best players in the league? Then I go from there.

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