Over the course of the last decade or so, the Carolina Hurricanes haven’t had the best of histories with developing forwards into legitimate NHL players.
For every Jeff Skinner, there have been three Zac Dalpe’s to match. For every Sebastian Aho, there’s been a Zach Boychuk, and so on.
If the Hurricanes hope to ever become a perennial playoff team, this is something that will need to change. They’re going to have to find ways to convert their forward prospects into players who can contribute at the NHL level.
Having guys like Skinner, Aho, Victor Rask, and Elias Lindholm is a decent start, but they’ll need to be surrounded with other talented, young forwards who bring skill sets that those guys don’t.
One such player with a unique skill set is Valentin Zykov, who made his NHL debut last night in the team’s 4-3 win over the New York Rangers. In doing so, he even scored a goal on his first ever NHL shot.
If Zykov is going to be the type of player who can compliment the Hurricanes’ core group of young forwards, he’s going to have to do so by using his frame to be a commanding physical presence around the net.
A Bit of Background
The Hurricanes acquired Zykov around last season’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Kris Versteeg to the playoff-bound Kings.
At the time of the trade, Zykov’s stock had fallen a bit due to his lack of production (14 points in 43 games) in his rookie year in the AHL.
Presumably, that made the Kings a bit more willing to part with the Russian winger for a rental such as Versteeg.
Zykov responded with a big bounce back effort in Charlotte this year, posting 30 points in 55 games in Charlotte before his call-up to Raleigh, and he had been getting better as the season wore on.
That brings us to last night, when...
Zykov’s Debut Was One of the Best Rookie Debuts This Season
That may seem like somewhat of an exaggeration, but statistically speaking, it definitely isn’t.
As far as the eye test goes, from my view in the press box, Zykov was a thorn in the Rangers’ side every time he was out there.
He was constantly causing havoc in front of Antti Raanta, playing a strong positional game through the neutral zone, and not spending very much time in the defensive zone.
The numbers from his debut support what I saw with my eyes last night.
Below is a tweet from @Cane_alytics (follow him) that does a good job of illustrating how dominant Zykov was last night:
xG team:— Cane-alytics (@Cane_alytics) March 10, 2017
Canes 3.18 - NYR 2.62 (5v5)
Canes 3.65 - NYR 5.76 (all)
HELLO TO YOU, MR. ZYKOV
Welcome to the Canes and the crease pic.twitter.com/FYr4bRNwaA
As you can see from the chart, Zykov had the best on-ice differential in expected goals at 5-on-5 play, he also absolutely destroyed the color spectrum that is used to give a visualization for how many expected goals a player generated on their own accord.
At even strength last night, Zykov produced 0.85 expected goals by himself. That may seem like a small number, but for one game it’s a ton.
I went through Corsica’s data for individual expected goals in one-off games, and I couldn’t find a single NHL debut by a rookie this year that came anywhere close to that number.
The closest I could find was Mitch Marner, who put up 0.5 expected goals on the night in Ottawa where Auston Matthew’s four actual goals stole the show.
Nobody other than that even came within one-half of 0.85. Matthews had .38. Travis Konecny had .33. Matthew Tkachuk had .17. Patrik Laine had .03 (he scored a power play goal anyway), and Carolina’s very own Sebastian Aho had .12.
In fact, Matthews has just three games with more than 0.85 ixG all season. Tkachuk doesn’t have one. Laine’s career high is 0.43.
Obviously taking one game of expected goal production is by no means an end-all, be-all of player evaluation, and the microscopic sample size that Zykov has at the NHL level should be taken with a metric ton of salt.
However, that does not mean that it isn’t highly encouraging that Zykov was able to be a dominant force against a big, tough defensive unit in his NHL debut.
Often times, bigger prospects who use their size well in juniors and the AHL shy away from doing so when they get to the NHL. Zykov certainly seemed very comfortable asserting himself, planting his backside in front of the net, and scoring dirty goals as a result of both of those things.
If he can continue to play as advertised, he’ll have a nice long career in front of him in Carolina, as he represents the exact type of player that this forward group has desperately needed since the departure of Erik Cole and the decline of Tuomo Ruutu.
I’m hesitant to declare with any level of certainty that he’ll be able to carve out that kind of career for himself, but we should all be very, very excited to watch him progress (and hopefully, produce) for however long he stays up at the NHL level.