- Category: Hockey Rambling
- Written by Thomas Drance
Thoughts on Ryan Johansen, Brent Burns, and player age
As negotiations drag on with little movement, the Columbus Blue Jackets are reportedly preparing to enter training camp without top-line center Ryan Johansen. The 21-year-old pivot, already a thirty-goal scorer in the NHL, has been unable to come to an agreement with the club that drafted him with a top-five pick a few years ago; and the two sides are thought to be as much as $3 million apart.
As good as Johansen is, and I really think he has the potential to be a lockdown top-line center with first-liner skills - in the mold of an Anze Kopitar - there are some good reasons for the Blue Jackets to be leary of compensating him like he's a top-20 centerman (namely that he's an RFA who isn't arbitration eligible).
Chief among those reasons, obviously, is that Johansen is only about 15-months removed from being a healthy scratch in the Calder Cup Playoffs and has only performed at a 30-goal, 60-point, play-driving dynamo level in one of his three professional seasons. Another reason: Johansen's 30 goal season was driven in large part by extraordinarily favorable, Joe Pavelski-like, shooting luck as Jonathan Willis touched on at length over at Sportsnet.
Personally I'm higher on Johansen than Willis is, but it's worth noting - especially for fantasy owners - that he's probably not a true talent 30 goal guy. He's especially not a 30 goal guy if he's going to miss the first couple of weeks of the hockey season to a contract dispute...
Let's take a minute on this labor day long weekend and discuss player age, shall we? Repeated studies from folks with Ken Kryzwicki and Gabriel Desjardins have shown that players 'peak' from an offensive production standpoint a lot earlier than conventional hockey wisdom might dictate.
There's no easier way to get hockey fans upset than describing a player like 26-year-old superstar Phil Kessel as "likely past his scoring prime" but, you know what, mathematically speaking it's probably true.
The key word there is 'probably' though, and obviously a guy like Kessel is a pretty special player. Also we're talking about players as a group, not as individuals here. Obviously there's going to be individuals who buck the wider trend, but that doesn't mean you can't use the data to better inform your fantasy hockey decision making...
Anyway, I was thinking a lot about player age this week because of a couple of recent news items. The first was the reaction when Justin Schultz signed his one-year, nearly $3.5 million contract (an awful deal for the Oilers, by the way).
Shortly after the deal was done, Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish described the ex-Wisconsin Badger as having "Norris potential" and Schultz himself said that he'd like to win a Norris one day "but it's early." Well, you know what, it's not really that early - Schultz is 24 and is likely in the midst of his prime scoring years.
Not only is Schultz nearing the point of his career where he sort of just "is what he is," but also, like the Oilers themselves, Schultz is a spectacular defensive liability despite his boundless offensive skill and "potential." I don't think people understand just how lost Schultz is in his own end, but I really think his defensive game is Marc-Andre Bergeron quality at the moment.
Consider that Schultz is the only NHL blue-liner to rank in the bottom five in the league over the past two seasons in goals against and shot attempts against per sixty minutes of ice-time (minimum 1000 even-strength minutes). Beyond the numbers too, I've recently been cutting video of Edmonton's defensive posture and systems, and Schultz's issues are noticeable.
It's strange, because it's not like he gets dummied repeatedly by opposing forwards in puck battles, it's more that his positioning seems brain dead sometimes and I've seen him get burned a few times by looking to jump into the rush before the Oilers have actually even cleared the puck...
Anyway those are ugly numbers and they match the eye test, and taken together, I have no issues suggesting that Schultz's defensive issues might be uniquely glaring at the NHL level. I don't know if he can help a good team win NHL games at the moment, unless he's being used - like Torey Krug was in Boston last season - in more of a specialists role...
I also thought about player age, and the common misapplication of which years constitue an NHL players "prime", when reading that the Boston Bruins have begun casual contract extension talks with center David Krejci. Krejci, 28, has led the Bruins in playoff scoring during both of the club's recent extended playoff runs; and he's produced 60 or more points in four of the past six seasons. Obviously you lock up a player like that long-term, right?
Well, no, not without reservations - particularly considering Krejci's career arc and recent signs of decline. Despite Krejci's continued productive play, I'd be very worried were I the Bruins (or a fantasy owner considering drafing Krejci) about how the skilled playmaker is going to age. Personally, I think Krejci's first-line center wheels are about to fall off. It's not that he won't remain a productive player for several years yet (he probably will), but that he's going to need to play fewer minutes against weaker competition to remain as effective as he's been from his age-22 season to now.
Krejci's performance this past postseason is a particularly dramatic red flag for me, by the way. No Bruins forward outside fourth-liners like Gregory Campbell and Jordan Caron, posted a worse shot attempt differential in the postseason than Krejci did. He also just looked older and slower and I was convinced that he was injured. When the playoffs ended and he didn't have surgery shortly thereafter, I got a bit worried.
Against Montreal, I'm convinced that Krejci's line with Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla cost the Bruins the series. It's not only that they couldn't get anything going, but they were getting stuck in their own end shift after shift, they were surrendering more goals than they were producing. They were an active liability.
My advice: be wary of drafting older players, particularly if they've shown recent signs of precipitous decline. And when I say by wary of drafting older players, I'm not talking about late 30-something guys like Iginla, I'm talking about 28-year-old guys like Krejci.
The Sharks are probably making a mistake moving 'stud defender' Brent Burns from forward - where he's an elite winger - back to defense. Sure the club lost Dan Boyle in free agency, but Jason Demers and Justin Braun are both capable right-handed shooting defenders who can handle the defensive responsibilities demanded of a top-four defenseman. Actually, they can handle those responsibilities better than Boyle can at this stage of his career.
I wrote at length about why this decision is senseless this week. Replacing a defender who logged third-pairing minutes at even-strength at the cost of a super elite first line forward (and the patron saint of forechecking) is a thoroughly perplexing choice for the Sharks to make.
Just so long as Burns remains listed as both a forward and a defender in fantasy, am I right?
Sounds like Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot will get a long look from the club at training camp this fall, which isn't a huge surprise considering the club hired his WHL coach this offseason. With the Prenguins losing Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland in free agency this summer, and potentially adding Pouliot (as well as Christian Ehrhoff) to a group that already includes Kris Letang and Olli Maatta - this Penguins defense corps could be really, really fast this season.
I'd suggest that Pouliot has some sleeper potential, and might be worth a late round risk. Remember also that Letang is not all that good on the power-play for some reason, so presumably there's a slot that a player of Pouliot's ilk might realistically fill.
Thomas Drance is a news editor at theScore.