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Kesler thriving in monster role; McDavid drawing penalties galore; Blues sunk by goaltending

Takeaways: A weekly spin around the NHL

Ryan Kesler has never played this much in his 16-year NHL career.

The Randy Carlyle-led Anaheim Ducks are leaning hard on the 32-year-old for a little bit of everything, and he’s delivering with his finest season in years. Kesler is averaging almost 22 minutes per-game, the most in his NHL life and the second-most among all forwards this season, trailing only reigning Hart trophy winner Patrick Kane by a few seconds. 

The quality of those minutes impresses as much as the quantity.

Kesler is starting only 33 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone, the slimmest among Duck forwards and one of the lowest such marks in the league. The Michigan product gets the toughest matchups for the Ducks each night; his most frequent opponents this year (per the Natural Stat Trick website) have been the Sharks’ top trio of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, followed by heavy duty against Vancouver’s Sedin twins and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.

Kesler garners about 16 minutes on average at even-strength and about three minutes each on both the power play and penalty kill.

He’s not just treading water either, but thriving at both ends. Kesler enters a Monday tilt in Winnipeg leading the Ducks in goals, points, power-play goals, power-play points, all while owning a sharp 52 per cent possession mark. He’s on pace for his best offensive campaign since 2010-11 when he posted 41 goals and 73 points for the Canucks.

His long-term contract is certainly worthy of concern â€” five more years with a US$6.875 million cap hit — but for right now at least the Ducks are getting their money’s worth.

DRAWING PENALTIES

No one in the NHL is better at drawing penalties right now than McDavid. He drew two more against the Flames on the weekend: Michael Frolik for hooking and Sean Monahan for tripping.

NHL leaders in penalties drawn this season (per Corsica Hockey):

1. McDavid: 22

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg: 18

3. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary: 17

4. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary: 15

4. Ryan Hartman, Chicago: 15

Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri was the NHL leader with 38 penalties drawn last season, 12 better than pesky Stars forward Antoine Roussel.

WORST IN TEAM HISTORY

This year’s Colorado Avalanche squad is almost sure to finish as the worst in franchise history and one of the worst in the NHL in recent memory.

The Avs are on pace for a measly 24 wins and 52 points, not even close to the 30-win, 68-point team of ’10-11 which currently ranks as the franchise’s worst in an 82-game season. Only two NHL teams since 2000 have been quite that bad: the ’13-14 Buffalo Sabres and ’00-01 New York Islanders, both of whom finished with 52 points.

The last club to finish with fewer than 52 points: The ’99-00 Atlanta Thrashers, who had 14 wins and 39 points in their expansion season. 

GOALTENDING WOES

The Blues challenged Dallas for the best record in the Western Conference last season, but this year they find themselves just fighting for a wild card spot — on pace for an 18-point drop-off from last season’s 107-point team.

One big difference: goaltending.

The Blues have the second-worst netminding in the league at five-on-five this season (.905) after finishing last year with the fourth-best mark (.932). 

Jake Allen, above all, just hasn’t been able to fill the No. 1 role. The 26-year-old was pulled after 25 minutes in each of his last two outings, surrendering seven goals combined on just 25 shots. His .897 save percentage is third-worst among goalies with at least 20 starts, better than only Detroit’s Petr Mrazek (.895) and former Blue Brian Elliott (.893), now the Flames’ part-time starter.

St. Louis left Allen home for a recent road trip to Winnipeg â€” a “reset” was how the team described it — opting to start undrafted 25-year-old Pheonix Copley instead.

The Blues signed Allen to a four-year, $17-million extension in July, a deal that won’t kick in until next season

DON’T FORGET ABOUT JACK

Sabres’ centre Jack Eichel has scored 10 goals in 25 games (19 points) after a late start to the season. An ankle injury kept him out until late November.

Teammate Marcus Foligno on what makes the 20-year-old, picked second after McDavid in the 2015 draft, so unique: 

“I think it’s the way he’s strong on his skates. A lot of defencemen have tried to take him out, hit him in corners, pin him, and he gets loose. He’s strong on his skates for how young he is. His skating stride is very unique. He’s a strong skater and just the poise he has with the puck too. He’s scary when he gets it â€” just like (Auston) Matthews and McDavid when they get the puck in their zone, they have that full head of ice ahead of them, they make plays with it.”

MORE GOALS?

The Blue Jackets and Senators combined for 13 goals Sunday night in another high-octane NHL affair as the league sees a slight increase in offence this year. According to Hockey Reference, teams are averaging 2.77 goals per-game, the highest mark since the ’10-11 season (2.79) and a touch better than last year (2.71).

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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