The very first project I attempted on this blog was on the subject of the most impactful uncertainty, Leon Draisaitl - at centre, and away from McDavid.
The conclusion I approached was twofold: Draisaitl was inexperienced and unpolished as a disruptive force in the defensive zone but with anticipation requisite to success in that role, and that it was unfair to expect such without an upgrade in wingers.
Starting from the preseason and all the way up until a few games ago, I looked very wrong. The wingers were only ever a modest upgrade, but Leon and his line were lost in the defensive zone and time again, out-shot, out-chanced and out-scored. He was missing simple reads, disrupting exactly nothing and worst of all wasn't moving his feet.
Two of the last three games (Pittburgh, then Washington at home, and yesterday Nashville on the road) he's been on the ice for more shots and chances against, and three of three he's been positive by goals. He's managed to climb back to almost even, despite the unfortunate start (he was on the ice for zero goals for and one against for five games in a row before this three-game stretch), having now been on the ice for just one more goal against than for without the captain, 4 - 5.
It's not just been linemate chemistry, or fortunate shots from Chiasson, Draisaitl (and arguably the rest of the team) have been playing with more of a focus on creating more real offensive opportunities by carrying the puck in, and shooting from in closer.
In the early going, every member of the unit was dumping the puck in far more than they carried it, even Leon, who has historically been a guy who slices through the neutral zone, and Yamamoto, who of course did it in Spokane every game and has been showing us that he has that ability ever since Ty Rattie went down.
(peep Corey Sznajder's early season zonal transition counts after the first three games)
To see the kind of offense this led to, observe the shot-map that includes the whole season up until this point:
(A key part to note is the nifty "threat" measure, which is intuitively how dangerous the shooting locations have been compared to league average. Since this body of work is at -21%, the players on-ice would have to be tremendously talented finishers or running very hot to simply sustain NHL-average offensive production. Yikes.)
You can see how deep a hole was dug by the severity of this visual despite a few stronger games.
The way out is by forcing carries more often, and when you dump the puck you'd better have friends already moving their feet - Rieder helps in this department.
What's most important is playing the kind of hockey that forces the opposition to made hard choices while defending. Take the goal against Nashville for an example:
Klefbom makes an aggressive pass (past three possible touches) up to Rieder, who looks to the middle of the ice instead of down the wall, and Chiasson pulls both Nashville defenders down away from Draisaitl's shooting route.
There's plenty of easier plays to make. Klefbom can shoot for a tip-in entry, Rieder can look the push the puck down the boards for a Chiasson retrieval, plenty.
Instead, the defenceman makes a confident pass and the forwards make some confident plays using the rare time and space available in an NHL game to score a goal the way most goals are scored in a league that defends the cycle and point barrage on muscle memory.
The team started really well in the game yesterday, this clip is right off the first shift when Leon comes in for Connor after he and his linemates broke through and started getting chances. There's a couple spots highlighted where it'd be pretty easy to make a play back up high, especially the first where Johansen's both wrong handedness to intercept the point pass, and is holding his stick to contest a centre-feed. Nothing gives, but Draisaitl and Chiasson protecting the puck inside the trapezoid and threatening a net-front pass is infinitely more productive than the previous status quo of the unit.
You can see a couple good adjustments here, plus Kris Russel makes two solid plus-possession plays. One shot comes from a quick trigger by Chiasson, and the second comes from an intelligent hesitation by Draisaitl on his passing play. Both are from an unwillingness to simply fire the puck from up high without making a play first. I would rather see Darnell skate on his play, however.
As the best performing trio featuring Draisaitl defensively, it's imperative that this unit find ways to get to scoring areas, as although I've shown where they've done well here in the video, the entirety of their work together in 45 minutes hasn't been necessarily generating above average offense in a very sustainable manner. Peep the shot map:
Notice the theat level? Still negative, but heading in the right direction - which is encouraging considering I don't think one could argue there's necessarily more finishing talent added to the line, it's simply a core player playing much better in the offensive zone, and some like-minded complementary players complementing. Sample size is of course small, but that's why we went to video.
(Side note, NaturalStatTrick is much more complimentary of this trio, clocking them in at 13.25 HDCF/60 - that's a lot - and 29.16 SCF/60 - also a lot.)
Here's where the critical improvement is, in the time they've been together. Other iterations had their scoring woes, but were also impossibly leaky defensively, meaning they were attacking their net goal differential from both ways. Remember, simply sawing off is where we should be targeting for Draisaitl's unit, because of his short career away from McDavid as a centre. They don't have to fill the net, they don't have to be a shutdown line. Fifty percent goalshare against the competition they've faced (Malkin/Kessel, Backstrom/Oshie, Turris/Smith) is both nothing to be ashamed of, and infinitely impactful for this club's playoff chances.
Folks, I didn't think The Answer was going the be Alex Chiasson, but it's looking better than everything else did and not just by contrasting against the tire-fire - so run it.
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