ECH Scouting Spotlight: Week 6

Welcome to week 6 of our weekly series called “Scouting Spotlight”! Every week, we’ll highlight three players around the NHL who are potential picks for the Kraken in this July’s Expansion Draft. We’ll provide a bit of background on the players and why they’re worth watching this week.

Each Scouting Spotlight will finish with a “Game of the Week” which will showcase some potential Kraken players in an exciting matchup.

Here’s our picks for Week 6 of Scouting Spotlight:

Schedule this week: Wed. 2/24 @ PHI 4PM PT – Fri. 2/26 vs. BOS 4PM PT – Sun. 2/28 vs. BOS 9:00AM PT

After doing my initial expansion draft research in January, I would’ve been surprised to hear that I would cover a single Rangers player in Scouting Spotlight all season. On paper, the Rangers were positioned perfectly for the expansion draft. Among their expansion-eligible players, they had only six forwards and three defensemen worth protecting. If a Rangers player was going to be worth getting excited about, someone was going to have to surprise with a breakout season. Turns out, one of the more unassuming names has jumped off the page and into consideration for the Kraken: Colin Blackwell.

When looking for intriguing names in January, Blackwell was an easy player to miss. 27-year-old forward with only 33 NHL games? Nothing to see here. The four-year Harvard player was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 2011 but didn’t play his first NHL game until eight years later. However, there were a lot of encouraging signs in Blackwell’s game during his time in the Predators organization.

Those who had seen him in Nashville were ahead of the curve. On The Forecheck editor Bryan Bastin called Blackwell “an absolute steal” when the Rangers signed him in October.

Blackwell has certainly turned out to be a steal for the Rangers so far. His 0.625 points per game ranks 3rd on the team and he’s 1st or 2nd on the team in every major possession metric.

According to a Newsday article by Colin Stephenson, Blackwell has credited some of his success to being given the opportunity to play with different types of players last year. “I think last year [with Nashville] was a good experience for me because I got to play kind of up and down the lineup. For a long period of time, I was kind of playing like a fourth-line role and playing that kind of gritty, grindy, sandpaper type of game. And then there are some other nights where I got to play with some high-end players.’’

That versatility is proving valuable for Blackwell this season with the Rangers. No matter who he’s played with, he’s performed well. He’s even started getting some time on the powerplay, which payed early dividends for the Rangers with this slick deflection goal against the Flyers:

As an undersized, late-drafted player who had to work eight years to get to the NHL, Blackwell’s underdog story has quickly given him a cult following among Rangers fans.

Only time will tell if Blackwell can keep his early success going, but he’s certainly earned a spot on Seattle’s radar.

Schedule this week: Tues. 2/23 @ DET 4:30PM PT – Thurs. 2/25 @ DET 4:30PM PT – Sat. 2/27 vs. CBJ 12PM PT – Sun. 2/28 vs. CBJ 12PM PT

Hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest may remember Ryan Johansen from his two seasons with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. Johansen’s story is the opposite of Blackwell’s. While Blackwell is a relatively unknown player having a breakout year, Johansen is a highly-regarded player with plenty of name recognition who has been underperforming. With only four points in 10 games, Johansen hasn’t been the play driving center the Predators need him to be. His possession stats are okay but they’ve been buoyed by his favorable usage. His 64.9% offensive zone starts this season mean that he’s being put in a position to score but isn’t taking advantage of the opportunity.

One might question whether Johansen’s struggles are entirely his fault, as the entire Predators team hasn’t looked right in 2021. With a 7-10-0 record, they sit 28th out of 31 teams in the NHL standings. Their -17 goal differential is tied for third-worst in the league. The poor start has led some to call for big changes to the roster and the front office. It’s entirely possible that Predators general manager David Poile, the only GM in the team’s history, may actually be on the hot seat. If so, it stands to reason that no players are safe from being moved.

Johansen’s decline presents Poile with a conundrum. Is Johansen the true top-line center the Predators brought him in to be? If not, his $8 million cap hit through 2025 looks scary. Would Poile try to get out of the contract now while he still can and leave Johansen exposed in the expansion draft? It would be a high-stakes wager. If Johansen continues his decline, it would be a brilliant move for Nashville to dangle Johansen and hope the Kraken take the bait. If Johansen’s game returns to the level it was three years ago, Poile would have let a first line center go for nothing.

Would taking a flier on Johansen be worth it for the Kraken? Here’s a taste of the upside:

Picking Johansen is something Ron Francis would have to seriously consider if he was given the opportunity. Johansen will return to the Predators lineup tonight after missing seven games with an upper body injury. Will he be able to regain his old form? If not, he might be available to the Kraken this July.

Schedule this week: Wed. 2/24 vs. NYR 4PM PT – Sat. 2/27 @ BUF 10AM PT – Sun. 2/28 @ BUF 12PM PT

The Flyers have many big names (and big contracts) potentially available to the Kraken this July. Jakub Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, and even James van Riemsdyk might be left exposed in the expansion draft. While those players offer higher upside and more extensive NHL pedigrees, I think the smart move for the Kraken would be to take a player like Nicolas Aubé-Kubel instead.

His scoring numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet, with five points in 15 games. But for a player like Aubé-Kubel, scoring only tells a small part of the story. Aubé-Kubel is a great utility player. He can play anywhere up and down the lineup and provide an injection of energy to whichever line he’s on. Despite being only 5’11 and 187lbs, he’s ready and willing to go to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals.

He’s also not afraid to get into a scrap occasionally:

This guy is tough. And he doesn’t just bring physical toughness to a team. The 24-year-old plays tough minutes, especially for his age. In last week’s Scouting Spotlight I talked about offensive zone starts as a measure of how a player is used. I pointed out that Miles Wood had a very low oZS% of 31.6, meaning that he was largely put in defensive situations, making his stats that much more impressive. Aubé-Kubel has had similar usage with the Flyers this season with a slightly lower 31.5 oZS%. The fact that a veteran coach like the Flyers’ Alain Vigneault would trust a 24-year-old who has only 60 NHL games to his name with that kind of role speaks volumes about how highly the Flyers think of him.

Fortunately for the Kraken, Philadelphia has a surplus of talented forwards who will need expansion draft protection. While the Flyers would love to be able to protect Aubé-Kubel, right now it seems like he’s on the outside looking in. When you watch the Flyers play this week, let your eyes follow Aubé-Kubel for a few shifts. I think you’ll like what you see.

Scouting Spotlight Game of the Week: Philadelphia Flyers @ New York Rangers, Wednesday 2/17, 4:00PM PT on NBCSN

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In this week’s Game of the Week, the Philadelphia Flyers will try to get back on the right track following a 7-3 outdoor loss to the Boston Bruins in Nevada. It’ll be the Flyers’ second nationally televised game in a row. The New York Rangers are coming off an impressive 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals but are reeling in the wake of some shocking news.

The Rangers will have a big hole in their lineup Wednesday as star winger Artemi Panarin has taken a leave of absence from the team. Assault allegations by a former coach recently surfaced against him in a Russian newspaper. The Rangers and Panarin immediately denied the allegations and called them an “intimidation tactic” likely in response to Panarin’s support for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. It’s a scary story and I hope everything works out for the best with Panarin and his family. While that story is bigger than hockey, it will have consequences on the ice. The unfortunate news might provide an opportunity for Colin Blackwell to play higher up in the lineup and get more ice time. Keep track of Blackwell’s usage as the Rangers will surely have to move things around without their best player.

On the Flyers’ side, in addition to Aubé-Kubel, keep an eye on Jakub Voracek. He has 12 points in 13 games but his expensive contract could cause him to be exposed in the expansion draft.

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