Hutch's Hockey: Watching Greatness

Hutch's Hockey: Watching Greatness

This was one of those weeks in the NHL where I really appreciate the talent that's in the league. There's moments where it's just a fun sport, and then there's stuff like this week with big performances and milestones that haven't been replicated in the decades. 

Take Mitch Marner versus Jason Robertson from Tuesday. A game with the longest pair of dueling point streaks to ever clash. Marner kept his going, while Robertson's game to an end -- not for a lack of trying. For Marner, he's rewriting Maple Leafs history every time he extends the streak. This isn't an expansion franchise either; this is one of the most iconic teams in the sport. 

Robertson, meanwhile, is bringing Dallas back to the days of Mike Modano. One American legend to another, through generations of the same team. Poetic or otherwise, what Robo's doing is special stuff. 

Then you've got the single-game explosiveness of Tage Thompson, who rained fury down on the Blue Jackets. If it hadn't been such a blowout of a game, maybe he challenges Darryl Sittler's 10-point effort. As it was, Thompson earned his second six-point game of the season. For reference, NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid hasn't had more than four points in any single outing this year. Leon Draisaitl's had a five-point effort. Thompson doesn't have the same consistency, but the burgeoning superstar is showing that he can take over a game here and there. 

It wouldn't be a history-focused lede if it didn't include some Alex Ovechkin fun. The Great Eight put away four more goals this week, all into empty nets. With that, he's pulled within 100 of Wayne Gretzky's 894. Ovechkin seems like he could set the record some time in 2024-25 if everything continues to go right for him. He'd be 39 that year -- could he play another two or three years beyond that and make a run at 1,000? I wouldn't bet against him. 

History-chasing is fun. As my esteemed colleague Janet Eagleson said Sunday, it's must-watch hockey. The one downside of focusing on fantasy is that these massive performances often aren't something that can impact your roster unless you drafted them or you're matched up against them. The margins in fantasy come farther down the roster. 

While not widely available, scan the waiver wire for Blake Wheeler this week. I'll admit: before the year, I thought he was done. He's a gritty player, so he could still kick around as a third-liner even when his offense fades, but injuries just seemed like they'd caught up with the once-durable forward. Wheeler's doing just fine this year with nine goals and 16 assists in 27 games, and he's earned 15 of his 25 points in the last 11. The big difference is more consistent shot volume now. He's taken a lot of the physical play out of his game -- it's an adaptation to keep him healthier and productive, even if it makes him a bit more one-dimensional in the virtual game. 

The Maple Leafs' blue line remains wrapped in caution tape at this point, but Rasmus Sandin looks like the one to have. He's picked up five points in his last six games, and he's averaging 3:54 of ice time per game on the power play in his last nine outings. Yes, that's time with the likes of the aforementioned Marner, Auston Matthews and Saturday's five-point special from William Nylander. There's very little wrong with how Toronto's playing despite the injuries, and this should only strengthen Sandin's case for more time even once Morgan Rielly (knee) returns. 

If you want to get in on the Maple Leafs' even-strength offense, there's a case to be made for Michael Bunting. He's got points in eight straight games, though his first goal in that span came Saturday versus the Flames. He's shooting 10.2 percent this year -- that's fairly average, but well under the 13.1 percent he posted last year in a 23-goal, 63-point campaign. He's got enough grit in his game to make up for when the offense fades, and most importantly, he's been a staple on Matthews' left side for the better part of this year and last. 

This might not be a play for now, but Sean Durzi's been solid lately. He's got a goal and nine assists in his last nine games, with six of those helpers coming on the power play. The Kings are a little weird (in a good way) right now, as their "second" power-play unit is arguably more clinical than the first unit. The time has balanced out a bit more. Durzi has posted zeroes against the Maple Leafs and Canadiens during the Kings' road trip, but they'll be home by the end of the next week, with the Sharks and Ducks the first two teams to welcome them back to LA. He should be near the top of the list for midweek pickups. 

If you know what to make of Kasperi Kapanen, you might be more qualified to write this paragraph. Here's the facts: after a seven-game stint in the press box, the 26-year-old posted four goals and two assists in his last six outings. He's seeing power-play time, but he's on the third line at even strength. He's picked up a respectable 11 points in 19 contests overall. As long as he's doing something, the Penguins should keep him in -- Kapanen's more talented than Josh Archibald or Danton Heinen. One injury to a top-six winger could get Kapanen bumped up, but a slump could send him out of the lineup. I'm keeping an eye on him for my teams in deeper formats. 

Patrik Laine has returned from another injury, so it's time to carry the flag for Boone Jenner again. The Blue Jackets' struggles as a team hasn't stopped their top-six forwards from being useful. As of the weekend, Laine has moved to the second line at even strength, but Jenner is still with Johnny Gaudreau and all three play a role on the power play. Jenner's got a goal and five assists in six December games, and he racks up hits. Ignore the name and add him for the role. 

Kevin Hayes has flown completely under the radar this season. Yeah, the Flyers have averageed 2.41 goals per game, better than only the rebuilding Blackhawks, so it's fair to just steer clear of the team altogether. Hayes shouldn't be shunned like that, racking up nine goals and 19 assists in 29 games. Again, it's role over name here: Hayes is the No. 1 center, first power-play unit, do-it-all man on a team that simply doesn't have the talent for anyone else to fill the role. He's shooting 10.3 percent, but that's in line with his early career compared to the sub-10-percent marks he's had in the last two campaigns. 

It took nearly two months, but Nick Bonino finally reacquainted himself with the goal column. He's scored in three straight games, albeit against the Sabres, Canucks and Ducks. The Sharks recently got Nico Sturm back to center the third line, freeing up Bonino to play alongside Logan Couture in a top-six role. Six points in 27 contests is nothing special, but Bonino's 39 blocked shots have him second to only Anze Kopitar (41) in that category. It's a small contribution, but one that can help in deeper leagues that count the defensive stat. 

I don't want to discount the work of Jack Quinn. Since returning from an upper-body injury Nov. 19, the 21-year-old has five goals and six assists in 11 games. The Sabres' second line of Quinn, John-Jason Peterka and center Dylan Cozens has been a sneaky good depth-scoring trio lately. I'd take Cozens in all formats, while Quinn and Peterka are better served in leagues with 12-plus teams, though that has the potential to change quickly if they keep putting up big numbers. 

The chaos of the last few weeks means there's not been many new names to add to the goalie conversation. Injuries have elevated backups in starting roles, and there's little need to rehash that. The one goalie I'm keeping an eye on is Pheonix Copley. It's a small sample so far, but he's picked up wins in both of his starts while allowing just four goals on 55 shots. That's solid work for the Kings, and they need someone to step up, lest they waste a strong offense. Jonathan Quick has done little to be convincing since Cal Petersen was sent to the farm, so there's a chance Copley could carve out a 50-50 split if he stays reliable. 

As easy as it is to get caught up in the day-to-day of managing fantasy hockey teams, sometimes it's just so much fun to take a step back. I did a bit of that this weekend, to enjoy the moments and watch some games as a fan, rather than looking for an analytical angle. These are the players we'll be telling future generations about, just like we heard stories of players from the Original Six and expansion eras (depending on your age). It makes you wonder which of these players are destined for the Hall of Fame, with their number in the rafters and rings of honor. Maybe someone we're watching now could end up being so great, they get the Gretzky treatment to be retired league-wide. Enjoy the ride, and we'll talk again next week. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. In 2023, he was named FSWA Hockey Writer of the Year. Shawn serves as a contributor for hockey and baseball, and pens the "Hutch's Hockey" column. He also enjoys soccer, rooting for his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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