November 19 NHL Best Bets Chicago Blackhawks Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes St. Louis Blues

The synergy between the analytics movement and improved technology has had an exciting, if unsurprising, spillover effect: the power play has turned into a well-oiled machine. The set plays used are brimming with creativity, and the speed at which the puck zips around makes mincemeat of the penalty kill. Even some of the NHL’s worst teams can be deadly when they play up a man.

My hook this weekend: players who will lay goose eggs on the scoresheets because they don’t see time on the first power-play unit (or get power-play time at all). Scoring points at 5-on-5 is hard, especially for these half dozen players.

Chicago Blackhawks at Boston Bruins
Saturday, November 19 – 7:00PM ET

As of this writing, nearly ten teams have a worse points percentage than the Chicago Blackhawks. My suspicion is that Chicago might look back on this time fondly as the period before the team completely unraveled.

If you watched the Blackhawks play the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night you could be fooled into thinking this team’s biggest problem is its defense, which is admittedly awful. But it is actually Chicago’s offense that vies for worst in the league.

In goals per game, shots per 60 minutes, expected goals, and high-danger chances produced, the Blackhawks are 31st. Ew! And to make matters worse, this woeful offense will be facing the best defense in the NHL Saturday in the Boston Bruins.

The lack of forward talent is so striking that Max Domi went from fourth line on the Carolina Hurricanes last season to first line center for Chicago. Interestingly, his chemistry with Patrick Kane is legitimate; we’ve seen it at 5-on-5, with those two working give-and-go’s to pave a lane or delaying after the entry to feed the trailing defenseman on the rush. The Blackhawks rank 11th in the NHL on the power play, and Domi and Kane’s playmaking from the flanks has worked.

This is what makes fading Andreas Athanasiou and Philipp Kurashev so appealing. Neither plays on the first power-play unit, so betting on them to fail to register a point is predicated on them flopping at 5-on-5 or not scoring in the waning seconds of the power play on the second unit. Athanasiou and Kurashev did connect for a goal on Wednesday night with time running out on the man advantage, but the Bruins have an excellent penalty kill and presumably won’t be subjected to a coverage breakdown akin to the one we saw from the Blues.

At 5-on-5, Athanasiou is at his most dangerous off the rush, but surely Boston at home will utilize Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand against Kane, Domi, and Athanasiou. Good luck with that. Since Marchand has returned from an injury, he and Bergeron have allowed only one 5-on-5 goal against.

I’m not sure the Bruins are quaking in their skating boots about playing against Kurashev, Jonathan Toews, and Taylor Raddysh either. In the 76 minutes that trio has played together this season, they have accounted for one goal at 5-on-5.

It is also important to remind readers that the Blackhawks’ defensive group is terrible, and their impending struggles to exit their zone will lead to Bruins’ zone time. It’s a safe guess that the Blackhawks will be chasing the puck for most of this contest. I don’t think the Blackhawks are going to generate many scoring chances in this game, and I am dubious of Athanasiou and Kurashev’s ability to get on the scoresheet playing outside the first power-play unit.

Picks: Andreas Athanasiou U 0.5 points -132, Philipp Kurashev U 0.5 points -144

Carolina Hurricanes at Minnesota Wild
Saturday, November 19 – 8:00PM ET

In the NHL, optimism deteriorates into concern at the snap of a finger. The Wild are entering dangerous territory as they sit below the playoff line and American Thanksgiving is next week. Marc-Andre Fleury had a miserable October but had been playing stellar hockey in November before injuring himself.

Historically, the Wild have been awesome at home, but they are 2-5-1 in their own arena this season and are playing the second game of a seven-game home stand. And they will face a Hurricanes team that is 6-3-1 on the road and has the best advanced stats away from its own barn of any team in the NHL.

But there is a blueprint to win for Minnesota. The Wild rank eighth in goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The Hurricanes rank seventh, so this game could be a tight-checking affair. If the Wild keep the Hurricanes at a stalemate at even strength, maybe they can eke a victory on special teams, an area where they have an advantage. And this envisioned scenario spells trouble for defenseman Jaccob Slavin, whose production will be reliant on 5-on-5 scoring.

The Hurricanes program their defensemen like robots. Don’t be afraid to use indirect means to exit the zone on breakouts (the flip pass and rim are two popular methods). Step up in the neutral zone to disrupt the opponent’s transition. Employ a ready-shoot mentality; ie shoot quickly when the puck spits back to the point. Seal the boards on pinches, and when a forward comes high to stretch the defense, rotate to the backdoor if you are on the weak side.

It will be difficult for Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin to register a working point within this agenda. He is a cog in a goal sequence, not a maker. On Thursday night, his assist came off a quick shot (ready, shoot) that produced a blocked-shot rebound and Martin Necas goal. In 17 games, he has four assists, and on Thursday night he did not appear on either power-play unit.

The Hurricanes live and die by their forecheck, and like the Wild, they are missing their starting goaltender. I suspect the Wild will try to give the Hurricanes a taste of their own medicine with extended zone time and playing behind the goal line. The Hurricanes’ defensive coverage exhorts their defensemen to chase puck-carriers who they are covering up high if pulled there, so I see Slavin spending his time in this game using that Twitter-famous pokecheck and his defensive prowess to lock down the Wild’s scorers. Furthermore, Slavin’s defensive partner is the swashbuckling Brent Burns, forcing Slavin to be the pairing’s defensive conscience.

With Slavin consigned to playing at 5-on-5 and killing penalties, I see his value coming from keeping the Wild off the scoreboard.

Pick: Jaccob Slavin U 0.5 points -196

Anaheim Ducks at St. Louis Blues
Saturday, November 19 – 8:00PM ET

If you’re idealistic, the future can be a lodestar for hope. At some point the Anaheim Ducks are going to be hard to play against. But I’m here to tell you that time is not now.

In the present, Anaheim has one line that is absolutely terrifying. Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry are threats to score every time they touch the puck. Give them an inch and they will make a fool of you. In every Ducks game, the viewer is left wondering whether two players can overcome the odds and will their team to victory. But the rest of the team is quite putrid, a problem only exacerbated by injuries, especially on the blue line. The second line is currently comprised of Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, and the undrafted rookie Slovakian Pavol Regenda.

Strome and Vatrano have played 131 minutes together this season and to say they have been bumpy is a generous characterization. In expected goals, they are sub-40 percent, which is ghastly. They have generated 16 high-danger chances while surrendering 40.

In truth, it isn’t all that surprising to watch a second line with these two players struggle, as Strome and Vatrano work as complementary pieces but aren’t puck-transporting playmakers. Vatrano can shoot the puck and Strome is good around the net. But if opponents have the puck in the Ducks’ end most of the time, things get grim quickly.

Still, it would be unfair to place the blame entirely on Strome and Vatrano. The Ducks’ breakout is pitiful, and that is because of an inferior blue line. Against the Jets on Thursday night, both of Kyle Connor’s goals at 5-on-5 came from the Ducks’ blunders in their own end before Winnipeg found Connor in the slot. The Ducks look to use the stretch pass and flip pass as exit strategies that will help them avoid getting hemmed in, but the Ducks’ bottom-nine forwards are relying on their forecheck while being terrible at it is a thorny predicament.

Like Strome and Vatrano, I think teammate John Klingberg is a player who has skill and can succeed when put in a favorable milieu. But currently, instead of dancing around the offensive zone and quarterbacking the first unit of the power play, he spends much of his time chasing the puck and trying to wrest it back. Once a staple on the first power-play unit, he now, alas, commands the second unit.

The Ducks’ opponent on Saturday has had a seesaw season, whiplashing between extended winning and losing streaks. Relatedly, while the Blues’ defense is far from perfect, goaltender Jordan Binnington seems to have found his footing. He is just outside the top ten in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) since the beginning of November among goalies with five or more games played. With Strome, Vatrano, and Klingberg all outside the first power-play unit, I’m skeptical of their prospects of getting on the board at 5-on-5.

Picks: Ryan Strome U 0.5 points -118, Frank Vatrano U 0.5 points -138, John Klingberg U 0.5 points -116

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