Evgenii Dadonov's curious and confounding NHL career
This week's 10 Insights and Observations looks at the Lightning's power play, Barrett Hayton coming into his own, a motivated Evgenii Dadonov and more.
Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.
This week we talk about Victor Hedman and the Tampa Bay power play, Barrett Hayton coming into his own, a motivated Evgenii Dadonov, 2-on-0s, a faceoff play and much more.
The curious career of Evgenii Dadonov
Evgenii Dadonov has one of the more bizarre career arcs I can remember. Drafted in the third round in 2007, he stayed in the KHL for two more seasons after that before coming to North America in 2009-10 and putting the time in. He played 76 games in the AHL that season.
The next two years he bounced between the AHL and NHL before heading back to the KHL at 24 — when the NHL had a half-season lockout — and he stayed there. He had 30 goals and 66 points in 53 games in his final season there and he followed it up with 19 points in 18 playoff games.
He wanted to return to the NHL and Florida won a reasonable bidding war for his services. Dadonov did not disappoint over his three campaigns with the Panthers, putting up back-to-back 28-goal seasons and a 25-goal season in his contract year.
From there he signed with the Senators and it started to go south. His style of play did not mesh with DJ Smith at all and he struggled, eventually getting shipped off in a trade.
His game rebounded with the Golden Knights as he had a 20-goal season, but they were in cap trouble and looked to ship off his money in an awkward situation where the trade was announced but he exercised his no-trade clause and voided it. Then he had to play out the rest of the season with Vegas. To his credit he played well.
Last summer, he was traded for Shea Weber’s contract and he hardly looked interested in playing hockey on a blatantly bad Montreal team.
He was acquired by the Stars at the trade deadline and looks like a new man. He has eight points in 10 games, playing alongside Jamie Benn and Wyatt Johnston on a contending team. He has had nicer highlights since joining Dallas but look at the effort here to get the puck back, win a battle, and pass it off to Max Domi (who makes an amazing saucer pass) for the overtime win. The skill has always been there and getting a motivated and engaged Dadonov is a really quiet but nice addition.
Déjà vu for Stecher
Is Troy Stecher going to do it again? Last season, Drew Doughty got hurt down the stretch for Los Angeles and Stecher was acquired for essentially nothing (a seventh-round pick). While his numbers won’t wow you, he played roughly 18 and a half minutes per game for the Kings and was on the right side of shot share and chance generation.
He wasn’t the reason the Kings made the playoffs and they did get bounced in the first round but he gave them good minutes at a time when they were trying to piece together their defense because of such a big loss.
Despite his solid showing, Stecher had no free-agent market and ended up signing with Arizona. At the deadline, he was again traded for very little in what was a four-player trade with the Flames highlighted by the Ritchie brothers swap. He isn’t playing nearly as much in Calgary at just over 14 minutes per game so far, but in a sheltered role alongside Nikita Zadorov, he’s helping to round out the Flames' defense, giving them a third pairing they can reasonably trust.
Stetcher has limitations but if Calgary makes it, this will be the second straight year he went to a bubble team at the deadline and helped them get there.
Lightning improve on what was already a strength
Victor Hedman put up monster offensive stats last year with 20 goals and 85 points. Those numbers were both third among NHL defensemen as he played over 25 minutes per game. He also contributed 38 power-play points, which led not just Tampa, but was the most power-play points among all defensemen.
As a team, Tampa’s power play ranked eighth and clicked at 23.9 percent. What has been interesting this season is that Hedman’s power-play ice time per game is down from 3:35 last season to 2:51 this season, and his production on the man advantage has also slipped as he has zero goals and 12 assists.
The big benefactor has been Mikhail Sergachev, whose power-play time is up nearly a minute, making up that drop for Hedman, and Tampa’s power play is actually clicking at a higher rate, ranking second this season at 25.4 percent.
As teams have really focused on the Lightning's half-wall weapons — Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov — they have adjusted by bumping more pucks to the middle for Brayden Point to feast on. Point leads Tampa in power-play goals with 17 and Stamkos’s power-play shots per 60 is slightly down from last season, as are point shots, whether via Hedman or Sergachev.
This is a bread-and-butter play for Tampa, and you’ll notice Sergachev is on the point, not Hedman. It’s worked around the wall to the point, Sergachev walks the line to pull the defender over and plays a quick two-man game with Kucherov to open up some space as Point slips open for what ends up being an easy goal.
A lot of the focus is on the Lightning's shooters, but they’ve made subtle adjustments and have rather quietly improved their power play along the way.
It's not all bad for the Coyotes
Take a quick look at the standings since Feb. 1 and you will note the Arizona Coyotes are in the top 10 in points percentage over that time. Clayton Keller is second in the entire league with 31 points in 19 games over that span. He has already hit both 30+ goals and 70+ points for the first time in his career and he has been lights out. It’s a stepping stone and he has clearly been fantastic, but just below that is possibly a more positive development.
Barrett Hayton has 19 points in those 19 games — he had 24 points in 60 games in his rookie season last year. It helps he's playing with Keller but he’s not a passenger on that line and it’s clearly going to his confidence. This is a legitimate goal scorer’s goal from Hayton, pulling the puck in like he’s going to snap it far post with deception before shooting it short side and beating Filip Gustavsson cleanly.
Hayton was drafted fifth overall in 2018, one pick after Ottawa selected Brady Tkachuk, and Arizona has been a mess during that time. Because he was drafted so long ago it’s hard to reconcile that this is only his second real, full season in the league. Hayton has only played 162 games but he’s starting to show signs of life, playing in a legitimate 1C role. He and Keller are on the positive side of things in shot share, expected goals and actual goals at 5-on-5, outscoring opponents 32-21. On Arizona!
Since becoming the “Arizona” Coyotes in 2014, they have not had one single high-scoring center of note. They might have finally just drafted and started to develop one, though.
What's going on with the 2-on-0?
You would think a 2-on-nothing against the goalie would be almost automatic in the NHL, but that has not necessarily been the case. Here's what we've seen over the past week, starting with John Tavares and Michael Bunting:
Then Matt Duchene and Thomas Novak did this:
And finally Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau botched their attempt (though they scored right after):
What is going on here? Are 2-on-0s hard? All three examples are different approaches but all reek of overthinking it. Passing it too late (and on the backhand?) in the first one, essentially making it a breakaway in the second one, then slowing down to the point of standing still and passing it in the third one.
It should be really simple to execute: both players enter with speed and the first pass is either one-timed into the net because the goalie didn’t fully commit to sliding over, or the goalie slides over hard and it’s a one-touch back for a tap-in.
An easy way to drive a coaching staff crazy
We love a good faceoff play and sometimes the simpler the better. In this Hurricanes vs. Jets game, we see a win to the far-side Carolina winger, who loops high to the middle of the ice and simply drops the pass off to Brady Skjei, who has all the time in the world to skate in, pick his corner, and fire away.
🎯 Skjei rips one to make it 2-1!@Canes | #LetsGoCanes pic.twitter.com/TPBhBH2on4
— Bally Sports: Canes (@CanesOnBally) March 15, 2023
With Martin Necas cutting across it’s almost a pick play because he’s in the way of anyone racing out to the defenseman. But two Jets players actively committing to the puck carrier, as they both followed him, just can’t happen there at all. Before the puck is dropped both players should know their responsibilities and one of them — almost certainly the winger — is supposed to go to the defenseman. This type of goal would drive a coaching staff insane.
Hamilton reaching new heights
Devils blueliner Dougie Hamilton ranks second among all defensemen in goals scored over the past seven seasons. Because he’s not overly physical, it feels like people forget he’s 6-foot-6, 230 pounds and how that can benefit the rest of his game, particularly his shot, which is an absolute bomb. At that size and weight he can really lean into the puck and it takes very little for his wrister to get off. This play is from last season but it's a good example:
It’s almost unassuming. He doesn’t have to lean into it at all to get off a great shot. It almost feels like a golf swing as he stands upright and just leaves the magic to a combination of his stick, size, and weight shift. When he one-times it, it’s a missile.
That’s a no-screen one-timer and the goalie is not even competitive. He just blows it by him. Unlike defensemen like Roman Josi and Cale Makar, who also rate right up there in goals, Hamilton hardly does it with his legs. He’s not really slicing through neutral zones and having these highlight-reel rushes, though he will join the rush without the puck and find space to get his shot off. He by and large just powers pucks by goalies.
He’s already at a career-high 64 points (in 68 games) and his 18 goals ties his high-water mark. Hamilton has consistently been a good goal-scoring defenseman but this looks to be his best season yet, finding a whole new level as he’s surrounded by a very talented Devils team.
Staal anchoring Hurricanes' shorthanded mastery... again
Jordan Staal joined the Hurricanes before the 2012-13 season. From that time until now, the Hurricanes have the second-ranked cumulative penalty kill in the league.
Ranking first in that span is the Boston Bruins, who have had two stalwarts of their own over that entire time period in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Those two will go down as two of the best penalty killers of this generation, as not only are the Bruins first in penalty-killing percentage in that time, but Marchand and Bergeron are first and second in shorthanded points, too. Nobody is even remotely close to Marchand’s 45 shorthanded points, while Bergeron has 33.
While Staal will never be that productive — nor did he benefit from playing alongside two generational players in Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask — he is a driving force in terms of pure penalty killing in the defensive zone. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he is strong as an ox and if you get locked into a battle with him for the puck, it’s not going to go well.
There were some lean years in Carolina in terms of talent but its penalty kill has now been top-five for four years running. Staal has played over 100 more shorthanded minutes than any other Hurricanes forward in that time. You won’t find a highlight reel of his shorthanded play, it’s just a clinic in positioning, puck pressure and stick-work.
It’s fitting this year that the Bruins and Hurricanes are first and second in penalty-kill percentage, led by three of the best penalty-killing forwards of this era.
Eriksson Ek flying under the radar with another strong year
In the category of good player that doesn’t really get much love is Joel Eriksson Ek. He is an absolute force out there for the Wild and has grown into his 6-foot-3 frame to the point where he just muscles people off the puck and erases opponents along the wall in the defensive zone. Six full seasons into his career, he has never had a campaign below 51.3 percent in expected goals, and that was his rookie season.
It’s not like Eriksson Ek gets easy minutes either, as he has by and large been Minnesota’s matchup, shutdown center. His most common linemates in his career have been Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway. Those are solid, honest players, but they aren’t exactly stars. It has been Eriksson Ek as the line-driver up the middle.
This season he’s playing a career-high 19:13 per game as the Wild have battled all sorts of injuries. But once again they are stingy defensively and are primed to make the playoffs with the potential to be a problem. Over the last two seasons, he has become a net-front presence on the power play, using his size to win pucks in front and fire them home. He has 12 power-play goals in back-to-back seasons and is a very good, understated player.
Gourde does his best Karlsson impression
A few years ago, Erik Karlsson threw one of the nicest stretch passes we have ever seen when he saucered a breakout dish from his own end over everyone’s head that landed perfectly on Mike Hoffman’s stick, who then proceeded to score a beautiful goal for the Senators. To do that at any point, let alone a playoff game on the road, speaks to the quality of Karlsson.
It was fitting, then, that one of the nicest stretch passes we’ve seen since came while he was on the ice, but this time for the other team.
That’s Kraken forward Yanni Gourde with the outlet pass. The stakes weren’t quite the same as a road playoff game — San Jose is a bottomfeeder this season — but Seattle is trying to make a playoff push.
The pass though, is incredible. It cuts right through four Sharks, and to some degree, doing that largely along the ice is even more difficult. You have to really zip that puck to get it through like that and he put serious heat on that pass. He hits Bjorkstrand in stride, too. The whole play is done standing still to boot.