Sometimes this job looks easy. Compare two hockey players. They were born six months apart. Both are in the primes of their careers. Both play left wing. They both have solid 6-foot-1 frames. Each of them has played more than 500 NHL games with good durability. Neither of them has any glaring weaknesses. One of the players, Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers, has outscored the other player, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, by almost 0.10 points per game during his NHL career.
Huberdeau, as the calendar turned to 2020, was having his best season. He was sixth in the NHL scoring race and had been selected to play in his first All-Star Game. Landeskog had fewer than one-third the number of points as Huberdeau after missing 16 games with an injury. It sounds like an automatic choice – Huberdeau over Landeskog. Not so fast.
Huberdeau’s role on a Stanley Cup contender is important but limited. He is a productive left winger on an offensive line. If somebody gets the puck to him and he has open ice, he can make top-caliber plays to teammates in scoring position. He is very good on the power play and can be positioned on either wing on the half wall. Playmaking again is his forte. He is not effective playing center, and he has just one short-handed point in his NHL career.
Landeskog has a much more diversified role on a contender. He is an effective left winger on the first line, creating turnovers and getting pucks to his linemates in scoring position. He can also drive to the net, deflect shots, score on rebounds and draw penalties. In addition, he can play either left wing or center on a line more concerned with checking. He is often on the first penalty-killing unit and takes a number of big faceoffs. Edge: Landeskog
Until the past two seasons, I would give an edge to Huberdeau. He has always been a quick, fluid, balanced skater who does not possess great speed but overall is above average by NHL standards. Landeskog was a powerful skater with quickness and the ability to make tight turns in confined areas, but in the past two seasons, he has overcome the clunky aspect of his skating in open-ice situations. His speed is fine and is above average in straight-ahead situations. After recently scouting games for both players, I did not notice any real difference in their skating. Edge: Neither
This category is no contest. Huberdeau is one of the elite puck-handlers in the NHL. His hands are soft and quick. He can make quick, accurate passes on the forehand and backhand. When he does elect to shoot, he has a quick release and an accurate wrist shot. Landeskog has good hands in tight situations. When he causes turnovers, he can keep possession of the puck. He can elevate rebounds effectively and deflect shots. His playmaking is good, but it’s not at the elite level. His shooting can be erratic. If he required to release a shot quickly, his accuracy is inconsistent. Edge: Huberdeau
This category is also no contest, but in the other direction. Huberdeau displays characteristics of a top offensive player who is playing on a non-playoff team. He gets points, particularly on the power play, when he can rely more on pure talent than on real effort. In games against good teams, his line with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov was ineffective. Huberdeau began a late-December hot streak when he was moved to a line with Noel Acciari and Vincent Trocheck. His new linemates created turnovers and got the puck to Huberdeau in the offensive zone. He was then able to return the puck to them in good scoring position. Acciari recorded back-to-back hat tricks with Huberdeau assisting on four of the six goals. Meanwhile, Frank Vatrano was more effective than Huberdeau had been with Barkov and Dadonov because he was getting to loose pucks and creating turnovers.
Landeskog displays characteristics of a captain of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. He is noticeable on virtually every shift of a game. He is the ideal complement to Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on Colorado’s first line. Landeskog can skate with them, get the puck to them and create turnovers to get the puck back to them. He plays the game at a higher tempo than Huberdeau. Landeskog is also very effective centering a line with J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost. Landeskog forechecks diligently and can play whatever role you want in the defensive zone. Even when he is playing left wing, he is used for some key faceoffs. Take a look at the Colorado bench during timeouts or in late-game situations. More often than not, Landeskog is leading the discussions. This guy plays like he means it. Edge: Landeskog
I love the expression that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics.” However, there are certain numbers that simply cannot be overlooked when comparing Huberdeau and Landeskog. Huberdeau averaged 0.10 points per game more than Landeskog. This is due to one factor: Huberdeau has more assists, particularly on the power play. Huberdeau is a younger version of Joe Thornton – Huberdeau makes good plays from the perimeter, and people are puzzled that his team does not win more often. Landeskog actually has more goals per game than Huberdeau.
Landeskog goes to the greasy areas and gets his nose dirty. In an era that values puck possession, the most compelling statistic is takeaways versus giveaways. Huberdeau has a minus-96 takeaway/giveaway ratio while Landeskog has a plus-136. Landeskog has almost twice as many blocked shots per game and almost three times as many hits per game. Despite Huberdeau’s great hands, Landeskog’s success in the faceoff circle is almost 10 percent better. The numbers make it clear Landeskog plays a much more complete game than Huberdeau. Edge: Landeskog
My approach is that of a GM trying to win the Stanley Cup. Huberdeau and Landeskog both have pedigrees that will require top-dollar contracts, and there is only so much money for players at that level. Beware of teams that invest big money in players like Huberdeau. If you give them enough ice time with your top players, especially on the power play, they will put points on the board, but you pay a price for that production, and the team’s makeup and style of play has to fit into their comfort zone.
Landeskog is a top-level player who can enhance the play of his teammates. He can play on an offensive line or a checking line. He is equally effective at left wing and at center. He can be used in all crucial situations in a game. MacKinnon and Rantanen benefit from Landeskog’s ability to create turnovers, his net-front presence and the knowledge he will protect them on the ice. Two of the game’s greatest talents have more value because of Landeskog. This is how you win a championship. Jonathan Huberdeau is a skilled offensive player. Gabriel Landeskog has more value in a quest to claim the Stanley Cup.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.