The risk and reward of considering Tom Wilson for Team Canada

The Friday Four, a collection of thoughts and information on some intriguing player performances, continues this week with some notes on:

Tom Wilson is on Team Canada’s long list of players for the Olympic team, but how realistic is his case?

Marc-Andre Fleury appreciation after a milestone victory and why his career isn’t finished being a wild roller-coaster ride.

Cale Makar‘s forward-like goal scoring and where his pace tracks historically.

• And the role Roope Hintz and his line have played in Dallas getting back into it after a nail-biting start.

Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals

The choices for Team Canada’s men’s Olympic team run deep at forward. A number of them are locks. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid are obvious. Your list of locks may run seven, eight or nine players long.

Where choosing a prospective group of forwards for Team Canada from the outside gets tough is at the fringes. Finding scorers is easy to do, but there is an aspect of team building here. You also need things like chemistry, defensive ability, and a penchant for winning corner battles — Team Canadas of the past have always been built this way.

This idea is why you see some “non marquee” names pop up in roster discussion.

Zach Hyman? Good in the corners, around the net and a proven complement to big stars. Present chemistry with McDavid undeniable. If you like building lines on duos, it’s not a bad start.

Anthony Cirelli? Certainly proven in big moments through back-to-back Stanley Cup wins and he’s one of the top shorthanded minutes gatherers among any Canadian forward in the NHL this season. Played with Canada at the juniors in 2017 and at the World Championship in 2019 as well.

Marcus Foligno? Not a lot of points there (though that and goals are coming at a good pace this year), but a defensive specialist who last played for Canada at the 2011 WJC.

Tom Wilson? He’s the subject of Hockey Twitter’s hot take of the week.

By offensive totals, Wilson is having a good season with nine goals and 24 points in 26 games. He shares a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, so that helps. But, again, if you’re building a case for Wilson to join Team Canada, his ability to score isn’t the primary argument.

Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong discussed some of the team-building elements he’s considering.

“We want to make sure we have a full complement of guys that can get down to the minutiae, who’s good on the right and left hand dots on penalty killing situations, what are the metrics of penalty killers this year around the league of the guys we’re choosing from. A lot of the players you’re looking at do touch every aspect of your game. I think as the game has evolved your top players don’t kill penalties as much as they used to,” Armstrong told 590 The FAN’s Kyper and Bourne. “You want to make sure you have guys who can close games out at 6-on-5 or produce goals at 5-on-6 or whatever it is. There are different things that go into that part of your lineup. But the thing we’ve looked at trying to have is great skating players if possible, but more importantly great hockey IQ, great hockey sense.”

If you’re building a case for Wilson to be on Team Canada you’re probably bringing him for the fear factor — a mountain of a player who could throw a huge hit and, yes, be difficult to handle in the corner and on the boards. It is worth mentioning he gets time on Washington’s second PK unit, so he fits Armstrong’s description in that regard.

But so do a lot of other Canadian forwards.

We can overthink these parts of a Canadian lineup sometimes — in 2006 the Canadian men’s Olympic team included Kris Draper (a fine defensive player) and had Jason Spezza and Eric Staal as extras. You know who didn’t make that team? A late-30s Brendan Shanahan on his way to a 40-goal season, or how about Sidney Crosby as an NHL rookie on his way to a 102-point season (sixth-highest in the league)? One roster decision wasn’t the only reason Canada struggled at that tournament, but they did finish seventh and had an awful tough time creating offence. That was the last time the Canadians failed to medal in men’s hockey.

Wilson is not a narrow specialist to win a draw or a must-have penalty-killer in a tight game. He’s proven to be a fine complement to Washington’s top players, has become somewhat of an underrated offensive player and, yes, can swing a game with his physical component, for better or worse. But international hockey is a whole different animal to NHL hockey. While desiring to have a player with “edge” is understandable, Wilson walks that line far too closely sometimes. International games are officiated more strictly by the book and there is a zero tolerance policy on all checks to the head, where the NHL keeps a little grey area. Jacob Trouba’s hit on Jujhar Khaira this week, or example, was legal in the NHL but would have been punished internationally.

That’s the risk you inherit by bringing Wilson. He’s a fine enough player, but doesn’t provide more reliable offence than other choices, and he’s not a decisively more secure PK option. If you want guys on the ice late in a game you’re leading or trailing by one, I’m not sure Wilson is ever going to be someone you put over the boards for Team Canada. He’d be there for physicality and, ironically, that’s where he has more potential to hurt you than anyone else with one line-crossing moment.

But Armstrong has built a team in St. Louis that is a good blend of skill and grit and you can see how Wilson could be appealing. Putting him on Team Canada is a tough squeeze and, in building out a roster last week, I don’t see how it works. However, what if you brought Wilson as one of the two extra forwards? That would give you an option to insert someone who brings such force later in the tournament, if it does become obvious that more muscle is needed.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago Blackhawks

Speaking of Team Canada, after a very slow start Marc-Andre Fleury is making a strong push for the roster again, and is firmly back in consideration for the starter’s job if Carey Price doesn’t go.

Some of this turnaround can be attributed to how improved the Blackhawks have been in front of Fleury since the coaching change made on Nov. 6, when Jeremy Colliton was dismissed and Derek King took over on an interim basis.

Here’s a look at some key stats that reflect Chicago’s team defence before and after the coaching change (shots against, scoring chances, high danger chances and expected goals against rates, all per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, via Natural Stat Trick):

The Blackhawks were seeing marginal improvements in terms of how many high quality looks they were giving up compared to last season before Colliton was let go, but under King the change has been significant. The workload placed on Fleury has broken a bit and it shows in his numbers. Since Nov. 7, Fleury is 7-3-0 with a .939 save percentage and 1.87 GAA that ranks among the league leaders in the past month.

It’s the latest wild swing in a career that has been full of them. Ryan Dixon covered off the roller-coaster career of Fleury’s last May ahead of the goalie’s 145th career playoff appearance and a Game 7 against Minnesota. They won that game 6-2 and went to the Cup semifinal.

Fleury has had a lot of highs in his career, from being the No. 1 overall draft selection, to a multiple Stanley Cup winner and, though it took him until age 36, a Vezina Trophy. But his career has been dotted with dips, too.

At the 2004 WJC his bungled clearing attempt hit teammate Braydon Coburn and went into the net behind them to gift Team USA its first junior gold. His second-last Stanley Cup win with the Penguins was spent mostly as Matt Murray’s backup and one season later he unceremoniously left the organization that drafted him through Vegas’ expansion draft. He was that franchise’s smiling face, all-star goalie and led them to the Stanley Cup final with three rounds of absolutely stellar play (historical, really) until it melted away in the final. Two years later Robin Lehner came along and relegated Fleury to playoff backup again.

Fleury is one of those players who is beloved by all — teammates, opponents, fans — and easy to root for. Through all the ups and downs both recent and not, Fleury is in the final stages of what will be a Hall of Fame career. On Thursday night he won the 500th game of his career, becoming just the third goalie to do so. If he were to hang on for another two NHL seasons or so (and possibly even one more) he could pass Patrick Roy for second on the all-time list yet.

And the roller-coaster ride isn’t finished yet. With his Olympic candidacy taking off again, there’s also a trade deadline to look forward to in March. The Blackhawks are still eight points out of a wild card spot at the moment and realizing they’re probably still rebuilding. It’s entirely possible Fleury gets back from the Olympics and finds himself at the centre of trade rumours again and, possibly, another playoff run ahead.

Stay tuned.

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

We’ve had some impressive goal scoring so far this season.

Leon Draisaitl was making us wonder early if he could track down a 50 goals in 50 games (or less) start, last accomplished by Brett Hull in 1991-92. Draisaitl has 23 goals in 25 games to lead the league and that’s sensational, but he’s actually lost pace recently with three goals in six games — a reminder that chasing 50 in 50 is a monumental ask.

Alex Ovechkin isn’t being slowed at 36 years old and is second in the league with 20 goals in 26 games. He’s pacing ever closer to Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record, which is still a couple years away.

Overshadowed by all this, perhaps, is the significant goal-scoring pace we’re seeing from Cale Makar as a defenceman. The Avalanche blueliner has 11 goals in 20 games, but has missed three Avs games. Barring bad injury luck or otherwise, Makar’s pace could put him on a special, historical road as well.

In the salary cap era, only one defenceman has scored 30 goals in a season — Mike Green hit 31 in 68 games with the 2008-09 Capitals. He had 73 points that season, too, and a 1.07 points per game mark that also stands as the best offensive season by a defenceman since 2005-06.

Here are five of the best goal scoring seasons by defencemen since the cap came in:

Makar stands out from the pack right now with a 0.55 goals per game rate that, in the same 68 games Green played, paces out to about 38 goals. How does that compare if we go back a bit further? Here are the top goal scoring seasons by any defenceman since 1980.

Makar is a special player and is almost like a fourth forward for the Avs. He’s among the best defencemen in the league at carrying the puck out of the defending zone, and into the attacking zone. And he’s not piling up most of these totals on the power play either — nine of Makar’s 11 goals have come at even strength (for reference only 12 of Green’s 31 goals in 2008-09 were at even strength).

There are some truly dynamic, young defencemen in this new generation of NHLers including Quinn Hughes, Miro Heiskanen and Adam Fox. Makar just may be the best of the bunch, at least as an offensive threat.

The number to wonder about with Makar is 40 — can he hit that goal total? It’s a huge ask as well, but it’s not out of the question yet. It may not hold the same significance as a 50 in 50 accomplishment, but if Makar were to score 40 goals this season it’d be just the fourth time it’s ever happened. Paul Coffey did it twice and Bobby Orr once.

Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars

We may only be just past the quarter mark, but the Dallas Stars’ season has shown two wildly different versions of this team.

They didn’t get their first regulation win until their 13th game of the season on Nov. 13. That win followed a 4-2 loss to Nashville that led to a post-game players’ only meeting to talk out a very slow start to the season.

Since that meeting, Dallas has been 9-3 and fit a seven-game winning streak in there, which was snapped with back-to-back losses this week.

“I know exactly what’s wrong with this team, and we’re going to fix it,” head coach Rick Bowness said after that loss to Nashville.

So what happened to turn it around?

Here’s a look at some telling stats on the Stars before that meeting, and after (all situations, via Natural Stat Trick):

For the past few years, Dallas has been one of the league’s best defensive teams. And even though their shots against per game don’t stand out high above the competition here, it’s worth mentioning that they keep high danger chances to a minimum — Dallas allows shots, but does an excellent job at keeping them to the outside.

The long-running question around them has been: can they score enough?

They have scored 41 goals in their past 12 games and over half of those (23) have come from the top line of Roope Hintz between Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski. The rest of the forwards have scored 16 times in that stretch.

Leading the way in this resurgence has been Hintz, with 10 goals in his past 12 games. And though he only had a single goal and two assists in his first 11 games, the truth is Hintz has been one of Dallas’ best forwards throughout.

Prior to the Nov. 13 turnaround, Dallas controlled 55 per cent of all shot attempts when Hintz was on the ice at 5-on-5. In this situation — and considering the quality of shots being taken at both ends — Dallas was expected to outscore its opponents 7.63 to 4.41 with Hintz on the ice in those first 11 games. The actual results, though, were six goals for the opponents and just two for the Stars with Hintz out there.

Some bad luck was at play here.

Hintz has still been one of the best Stars in all the same on-ice metrics since Nov. 13, but the funny thing is the splits haven’t been as kind. The shot attempts Dallas controls with Hintz on the ice has actually dropped to 52.72 per cent since Nov. 13 and the expected goal differential has been about an even split since that date.

But while Dallas’ team shooting percentage was a meagre 2.50 with Hintz on the ice in those first 11 games, it’s shot up to 16.46 in the 12 games since. Hintz’s own personal shooting percentage at 5-on-5, which was 7.41 in the first 11 games, is up over 26 per cent in the most recent 12-game stretch. Everyone on his line, in fact, is shooting over 20 per cent since Nov. 13.

Hintz is a heck of a fun player to watch. He’s quick and shifty and his rise as an important player to this team has been obvious for a couple of seasons now. He had 43 points in 41 games for them in 2020-21, which must have been the quietest point per game season in recent memory.

But this 12-game run is a bit too good to be true and the line will slow down to some degree. At that time, Dallas needs to show it’s more than a one-line team and be able to score enough to support what should be a tough defence again.

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