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Highlighting an unheralded player from Canada’s Eastern Conference teams

Last week, sparked by a question for the analytics mailbag, we looked into some unheralded local fan favourites on Canadian teams in the Western Conference. In that article, we looked at what makes Andrew Mangiapane, Kailer Yamamoto, Andrew Copp, and Josh Leivo stick out for fans despite rarely getting national spotlight.

Moving on to the Eastern Conference, we’re going to look at three more forwards who deserve a bit more recognition.

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Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens

The young rookie, who was the main asset in the return for Max Pacioretty when he was traded to Vegas, has been a relatively consistent bright spot for a Canadiens team that has desperately needed positive stories as they stare down a third straight season of missing the playoffs.

Suzuki’s 41 points in 71 games before the league was suspended was the highest point total for a Canadiens rookie since Michael Ryder scored 63 back in the 2003-04 season — and he was 23 at the time, while Suzuki turned just 20 right before the season began. To find a Canadiens rookie closer to Suzuki’s age who also produced this well, you have to go all the way back to 1994-95 with Saku Koivu scoring 45 points at age 21.

In fact, looking at that name beside Suzuki’s, I think I know why he has captured the hearts of Canadiens fans so quickly. Suzuki has a very similar frame and playing style to Koivu, as well as a similar blend of offensive and defensive smarts.

Suzuki doesn’t have the speed that Koivu did — especially before a collision with Jeff Shantz started a runaway train of injuries that kept Koivu from being truly appreciated league-wide for his talent — but there are a lot of similarities when you dig into it.

Despite his skating not being among the league’s elite, Suzuki has been a strong transition player as a rookie, completing 19.5 plays that move the puck up the ice per 20 minutes, which is within the top five per cent of all forwards. He’s in the top 20 per cent of all forwards at both blue lines, where he creates tons of controlled zone exits and entries and that has allowed him to force his way up the lineup, and from the wing to the centre position.

Without the puck, Suzuki is among the top 10 per cent of all forwards in blocked passes, and in the top two per cent in loose puck recoveries overall. Those are key metrics to quantify a player’s positioning and hockey smarts, which he has in spades.

Koivu is probably a lofty goal for Suzuki to emulate, but the similarities are hard to ignore.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs

If you ever venture into Leafs Twitter you probably see a lot of Pierre Engvall mentions. Fifteen points in 48 games doesn’t look that impressive, but Engvall brings a surprisingly well-rounded game to Toronto’s bottom-six forwards.

As a shooter Engvall isn’t brilliant, but he is within the top 20 per cent of all forwards in both inner slot shots and slot shots overall. He also controls the puck a lot, with offensive zone possession time in the top 20 per cent of all forwards as well.

Where Engvall truly stands out, though, is how he moves the puck forward. He’s in the top 10 per cent of all forwards in successful transition plays per 20 minutes, with a specific strength of getting the puck out of the defensive zone.

Engvall is in the top three per cent of all forwards in controlled exits, and he’s downright clinical with the puck in his own zone, succeeding on 75.2 per cent of his attempted plays in the defensive zone, which is in the top one per cent of all forwards.

Engvall’s turnover rate in the defensive zone is just eight per cent, which is the second-lowest rate of any forward in the entire NHL after teammate Ilya Mikheyev — and Engvall’s maintaining that while making controlled plays with the puck more often than not, since he chooses to exit the zone with a dump out attempt just 5.2 per cent of the time. That rate is also the lowest in the league.

When Engvall is forced to dump the puck out, though, he boasts a 92.9 per cent success rate at getting the puck into the neutral zone, which is, as you may have guessed, the top mark in the league.

When the Leafs need to move the puck in the defensive zone, Engvall is a man to trust and fans have noticed.

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Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators

Duclair has received his share of press this season, but it’s a little bit tough in Ottawa to find someone on the roster who the fans are attached to that everyone doesn’t already know something about. Everyone knows about Thomas Chabot, for example.

Senators fans are more focused on prospects and the future than the current team, which makes total sense when you see what stage of a rebuild they’re currently in.

Duclair was the talk of the league for a short time earlier in the season when he was scoring at the same pace as Auston Matthews, but he has slowed down considerably since then, and was closer to a 30-goal pace after being on pace for over 40 at one point.

Nevertheless, Duclair has been full value for the goals he has scored, and the underlying numbers suggest this is who he is when he’s given a chance.

Duclair is in the top five per cent of all forwards in inner slot shots on net per 20 minutes, and the top two per cent in shots on net from the slot overall. He’s also incredibly accurate within the slot, where 73.5 per cent of his shot attempts hit the net, which is within the top one per cent of all forwards.

More than being just a good shot, Duclair is also within the top five per cent of all forwards in controlled entries, and he’s an underrated playmaker with fringe first-line level slot passing and rush passing.

Without the puck Duclair leaves a bit to be desired, but as a scoring winger there aren’t many teams who wouldn’t love to have him.

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