Dominik Kubalik is making Steve Yzerman’s money well spent

Winging It In Motown

The 2022-23 NHL season has only just started, and one of Steve Yzerman’s free-agent acquisitions for the Detroit Red Wings is ensuring the money was well spent. Sure, it’s only six games, but what’s an NHL season without some instant reaction?

Stats Don’t Lie

Kubalik has been the best offensive player on the Red Wings in terms of pure stats. His 15 points lead the team, tied with captain Dylan Larkin. They have seven points more than any other Red Wing. In the NHL, Kubalik finds himself tied for 16th place in points but sits 22nd on the leaderboard.

What’s even more impressive about this is he’s doing this with significantly less ice time than the league’s other top scorers. Looking at the 21 other players to be tied or ahead of him in points, Kubalik is 14 seconds behind the next lowest player at just 15:53 TOI/GP. Roope Hintz, who has 16 points in 12 games, is the next closest player with that little ice time.

A couple of big stats show how much the start of this year has been an improvement for the Czech winger. First of all, his shooting percentage is off to a fantastic start. His 20.7% would be a career-high, and while that is hard to sustain, it would fix one of the biggest problems he’s had the last two seasons.

In his rookie season, Kubalik had a 19.1% shooting percentage which played a massive part in his 30-goal rookie campaign. However, he has shot just 10.9% and 9.3% in the past two seasons, respectively, leading to 17 and 15-goal seasons. Again, 25% isn’t sustainable, but if he even keeps it over 15%, that’ll make him a lot closer to reaching that 30 mark for a second time.

The other big stat is his assist numbers. His career-high assists before this season was just 21, which he had in 2020-21. He already has 9 in 12 games which have set him up to shatter his career high in that stat easily. Again, much like the shooting percentage, almost an assist per game for a player who has never even averaged .5 assists per game before this year isn’t sustainable. But he’s only 12 assists away from setting a career-high with 70 games. I’d be stunned if he doesn’t shatter that by the all-star break.

That will be easy to make happen if he continues his outstanding play on the power play. I’ll let Jeff focus more on the intricacies of what has made him so effective on the power play, but the big thing is he already has six assists on the power play this season. He’s played a massive part in why that unit has gotten off to a solid start this year and will be a crucial reason if the unit continues to produce.

Finally, to get the point across, in 2021-22, Kubalik scored 10 goals on 12.1 expected goals (xG) at 5v5, suggesting he would probably regress slightly to the mean. In 2022-23 so far, he’s scored four goals on 1.3 xG, which is a huge difference. He will most likely regress as the season continues to move forward. Still, the Red Wings having a talented shooter like him will help their chances of becoming a legitimate playoff contender.

What’s the eye test saying?

Kubalik scored the most points ever (8) in Red Wings history through his first five games since Paul Coffey scored two goals and eight assists for 10 points in his first five games. In an interview with Bally Sports Detroit, he noted that even he was surprised about his strong play through the first stretch of the season but was happy that it was happening because it lets him know after two rough seasons that he could score at a good pace.

“I didn’t expect it to be that good right away from the beginning, but I’m happy about it. Overall, it was something that I was hoping for. Last year didn’t go that well, so I was hoping for something like that to get the confidence back and know that I’m still able to do it.”

There are a lot of things that Kubalik does well. He finds open space in the slot (where three of his four 5v5 goals have come from) well, and in his first and only 30-goal season with the Chicago Blackhawks, that is what he excelled at. He found ways to get to loose pucks first and put them home. He also outshot his expected goal value that season because of where the shots and goals came from. He has a great shot from the outside, like the one he used against the New York Islanders to give the Red Wings a 3-0 lead. However, that isn’t where he has historically scored unless it’s on the power play. And even then, it’s not where he should be expected to score from.

Kubalik’s goal against the New Jersey Devils on October 15th—his first as a Red Wing—is one that everyone who has watched him should be familiar with. He picks up the loose puck created by Larkin, slips behind Lucas Raymond’s defender and in front of his own, heads to the slot, and deposits a backhand by Vitek Vanecek.

Even his goal against the Devils again 10 days later is a perfect example of finding open space in the slot and being an option for his teammates.

Kubalik got a boost from being given a first-line role. Playing with players like Larkin and Raymond should help give anyone a boost. He wasn’t given much time in Chicago with players like Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat. He saw a decrease in his time with those two players over the two seasons that he struggled, and without Jonathan Toews—the forward he spent the most time with during 2019-20—it just didn’t appear as if he could find his footing.

The key to unlocking Kubalik has been a mix of a few factors. The first being plays him with good players who are strong offensively. If you want Kubalik to score and play at his best, allow him to play with players that can find him in and around the net because that is his bread and butter.

Second, give Kubalik a spot on the power play. The Red Wings’ power play has been humming at a success rate of 20.5%, which sits 18th in the NHL. The sample is small, but the bar isn’t very high, considering how abysmal it was last season. Adding Kubalik to the power play has been a big reason for its success. His ability to find Raymond and David Perron through seams is a big reason they’re producing goals. LaLonde should keep it that way.

The third and final reason is simple, but a fresh start always helps. Playing with good players, finding the slot, and having an opportunity to be on the power play are three reasons in themselves, but the impact of a fresh start in a new system cannot be understated. He is proving to be worth every penny Yzerman spent on him over the offseason, and the hope is that he will continue on that pace for the rest of the season. Plenty can change in 70 games, but this foundation he is building is excellent.

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