From big off-season acquisitions struggling to oft-maligned players proving their worth, the NHL has its fair share of players who are hard to figure out.
I’m still confused.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NHL’s five most confusing teams, at least from my perspective. These were the teams that I just couldn’t figure out. Were they good? Bad? Somewhere in the middle? I’d spent the season trying to work it out, and come up empty.
As it turned out, I wasn’t alone. More than a few readers confessed to being confused by those teams too, not to mention several others. It was like having a support group. A support group of confused hockey fans, all watching the games unfold with their heads tilted like a puppy seeing a toilet flush for the first time.
Well, today I’m going to call another meeting of the confused hockey fan network. But this time, we’re not looking at teams. No, today we’re going to dive into some specific players that have me perplexed. In most of these cases, I thought I had a handle on things. But now I’m not so sure.
Maybe you can help me out. Or maybe you’re just as confused as I am. Either way, I think it will be good for my soul to admit that I just can’t figure these guys out.
What I thought I knew: After an up-and-down start to this NHL career, Elliott had settled in to a predictable pattern with the Blues. He’d play well. He’d post strong numbers, sometimes even league-leading ones. And then, just when push came to shove, the Blues would lose faith in him and hand the starter’s job to someone else. Maybe it was the backup. Maybe it was a pricey trade acquisition. Maybe it was even a semi-retired legend, in a move we’d all agree to just pretend never happened. But time and time again, the Blues had no faith in Elliott.
And I was convinced that they were wrong. This was the classic case of a team over-thinking things, or maybe letting dressing room politics or a faith in intangibles override basic logic. The numbers didn’t lie: Elliott was one of the best goalies in the league. And when the Flames nabbed him at a discount in the offseason, I was sure that they’d found their starter.
Where I’m at now: Sitting around wondering what happened. Which is also where Elliott finds himself most games these days.
Chad Johnson has been a great story, and you can’t blame the Flames for riding the hot hand. Elliott got off to a bad start, and when you’re a young team that hasn’t earned a ton of self-confidence quite yet, you can’t let yourself fall too far out of the race. The Flames are being smart here.
But… Elliott is still good, right? Every goalie has the occasional slump, so we can’t panic over 13 games. Then again, Elliott’s never really done much outside of Ken Hitchcock’s goalie factory, and the Blues still didn’t believe in him. Did they know something that the rest of us, including the Flames, somehow missed?
What I thought I knew: Remember when Ryan was left off of Team USA in 2014, partly because Brian Burke didn’t think he could spell “intense”? What a ridiculous snub that was. Hey guys, 30-goal scorers in their prime don’t exactly grow on trees.
Where I’m at now: Has anyone noticed that Bobby Ryan doesn’t score 30 goals anymore?
Well, sure, I imagine Senator fans were already in the loop on this one. But it feels like the rest of us have been slow to realize that Ryan just hasn’t been the same player in Ottawa that he was in Anaheim. His best year since the 2013 trade was only 23 goals, and that was back in 2013-14. This year, he has just three goals through 21 games.
In hindsight, maybe we should have seen that coming. Ryan was 26 when the trade went down, and in today’s NHL, that’s already past the peak of many forwards. But the Senators clearly thought they were getting an elite player with some big seasons left in him – remember, we’re just two years removed from them handing him a $50-million contract.
Ryan’s had to overcome some tough hurdles in his life, including the loss of his mother this summer. It still feels like he could rebound and reclaim his status as a first-line player. But if not, the budget-conscious Senators may be stuck with an ugly-looking contract that they can’t really afford.
What I thought I knew: Any Leaf fan who was paying attention was in on this one. Sure, Bozak had put up some decent stats over the years, but he’d done it as Phil Kessel’s sidekick, inexplicably getting all the playing time with Toronto’s best player and reaping the rewards. And even then, his numbers had been just OK, never topping 50 points in a season and struggling in his own end.
It was a classic case of a superstar propping up an also-ran. And once Kessel was shipped out of town, we’d see the real Tyler Bozak.
Where I’m at now: Hey, it turns out the real Tyler Bozak is pretty good.
Not “first line center” good. Certainly not “team MVP” good, despite some of the sillier hype from the Kessel era. But his production hasn’t cratered without his superstar wingman. In fact, it’s improved slightly, and he’s on pace for the most productive season of his career this year.
Maybe he’s benefitting from the Leafs finally having some depth at center. Maybe he’s embracing his role as the “dad figure” on one of the league’s youngest rosters. Or maybe he was just better than I thought he was all along.
What I thought I knew: He’s easily one of the best young offensive defensemen in the league.
Where I’m at now: Pretty much the same place. Which is why what’s going on in Dallas right now is so hard to figure out.
Last month, Lindy Ruff made Klingberg a healthy scratch, and everyone went “What?” Then we found out that Klingberg had missed a team meeting, so fair enough — the rules apply to everyone. But then last week he was scratched again, this time for performance reasons.
And sure enough, he hasn’t been great this year. He’s on pace for the worst offensive totals of his career, and he’s getting creamed on possession, where he’d previously been very solid. Sure, maybe nobody would look good in front of that Dallas goaltending. And Ruff is carrying eight defenseman, which makes his decisions tougher. But Klingberg really has looked off this year, and with a 98.5 PDO, this isn’t all about bad luck and shaky percentages. Something’s wrong.
We’re talking about a guy who finished sixth in the Norris voting last year, in just his second NHL season. It looked like the Stars had themselves a poor man’s Erik Karlsson in the making. Maybe they still do. But this season has turned a sure thing into a major question mark.
What I thought I knew: No clue. None. He seems like a good guy. Smallish, and without any especially flashy numbers, but he always seemed like a nice underdog story who’d overachieved over the years on a long path towards earning some respect. I usually like those kind of stories.
But over the last few years, Russell has somehow morphed into the poster child for the debate between analytics and old school. And you’re not allowed to stake out a middle ground. You have to either think he’s the second coming of Scott Stevens, willing his team to victory by sheer force of heart, or you have to think he’s hot garbage. Those are your only two options. And you better choose quickly, because as soon as his name get mentioned, everybody is going to start yelling.
Where I’m at now: SO MUCH YELLING!
Honestly, I have no idea. When Russell hit free agency this summer, I thought the big numbers being thrown around were a little ridiculous. So did the league, apparently, since he had to settle for a one-year deal with the Oilers. That seemed like a good fit, and you figured Russell could settle in, put together a decent season, and take another shot at a big UFA payday next year.
No such luck. No, apparently we all have to keep fighting the Great Kris Russell Battle until the end of time. Is he good? Bad? What position does he even play? Nobody remembers.
We have always been at war with Kris Russell. Now pick a side and go yell at somebody about it.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.