Early in the NHL season, the hockey is sloppy. Linemates and d-partners are new to each other, some players are new to their coach’s systems, and nobody has seen high-end game play since the previous season, as much as they may have tried to replicate it in the summer.
For first year offensive players, the NHL starts out as a dreamscape. They’ve achieved their biggest goal, they pull on that NHL sweater, then BOOM: breakdowns and chances and gumdrops, oh my. If your conversion rate on scoring chances is even remotely good you can get yourself in the Calder conversation. Though they’d never admit it, there had to have been a couple players this year thinking to themselves “I’ve got this NHL thing, I can hang. There’s potential here for me to have a great, long NHL career.”
And then, things tighten up.
Not all at once, not over the course of a week, but slowly but surely like a Boa Constrictor around your offensive neck, the life gets sucked out of guys.
Suddenly you can’t figure why you aren’t playing as well. It has to be something you’re doing, right? Your points-per-game pace has slowed, you’re not getting as many shots, and it just doesn’t make sense. What am I doing differently?
Sure, the season is getting on and you’re finding yourself a bit run-down some nights. You don’t have the jump you did early on, and the monotony of chicken and pasta and planes and hockey has forced each game to be no more special than the last. But still…what’s going on here?
It’s just a matter of things coming together, in particular for good teams. They’ve found their line combos. Everyone knows the systems, and people aren’t excitedly running around so much. Chances are fewer and farther between, and difference makers are becoming more important. Hell, the #1-seeded Penguins beat the #2-seeded Habs thanks to a Sidney Crosby goal last night. You need those guys down the stretch.
Look at how some of the rookies around the league fared offensively before things started to snug up for them, with arbitrary cutoffs to highlight how things have slowed of late.
12 points in his first 17 games
2 points in his last 14 games
10 points in his first 8 games (followed by injury)
4 points in his last 14 games
10 points in his first 18 games
4 points in his next 14 games
13 points in his first 20 games
2 points in his next 12 games
18 points in his first 18 games
6 points in his next 14 games
January 20th – March 12th: NHL
March 13th – ?: Not so much
There are exceptions, as there is to every rule – Jonathan Huberdeau’s decline has been mild (if non-existent), and Brendan Gallagher is in the same boat. But for the most part the opportunity party, especially for young players who’ll have a tougher time adapting to the tighter play and less open space, is coming to a close. And that means playoffs are peeking up over the horizon.