How Darren Archibald got his groove back

You would be forgiven if you had forgotten Darren Archibald. It’s been two years since the Canucks signed the power forward prospect as a free agent out of the OHL and he had completely disappeared from the spotlight. Archibald didn’t even merit a mention on Hockey’s Future’s list of the Canucks’ 20 best prospects, while he barely snuck in at #19 on Canucks’ Army’s similar list.

Archibald needed a strong 2012-13 for the simple reason that his contract expires after this season. For him, the NHL lockout could not have come at a worse time, as it crowded the Chicago Wolves’ roster, sending him once again to the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL.

Now, however, Archibald is back with the Wolves and has found his scoring touch at the AHL level. In just 11 games, Archibald has 6 goals, tying him for third on the team. It’s exactly the kind of hot streak he needed to get the Canucks’ attention and prove that he’s worth the investment of a contract extension.

Archibald has been pegged as a late bloomer, not making the OHL until his second year of eligibility. It’s not quite a fair label, however, as he did score 25 goals in his rookie season with the Barrie Colts, following it up with 26 goals in fewer games the next year. Still, concerns over his skating prevented him from getting drafted and tryouts with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings went nowhere.

It was his over-age year that really caught people’s attention. He started the season on fire for the Colts, scoring 18 goals in 24 games before being traded to the Niagara IceDogs. Mike Gillis had seen enough at that point, signing him to an entry-level contract shortly thereafter. He finished the regular season with 41 goals and 66 points in 61 games, then went on to score 10 goals in 14 playoff games for the IceDogs.

The disparity between Archibald’s goals and assists made it clear that he is essentially a pure goalscorer and his first prospect camp seemed to confirm that. Archibald was one of the best players at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, scoring 2 goals and adding an assist to tie for the tournament lead in points. His first goal was scored by simply going hard to the net, as a power forward should, while his second showcased the release on his snap shot.

Though Archibald got cut from main training camp¬†after he failed to step up against tougher competition, it seemed certain that he would be a strong addition to the Wolves’ roster. Instead, Archibald faltered and found himself in the ECHL with Kalamazoo. A strong showing with the K-Wings, where he showed his playmaking side, scoring 14 goals and 31 assists in 49 games, earned him another shot with the Wolves, but it went no better. Archibald finished with just 1 goal and no assists in 20 AHL games that season.

It seemed like Gillis’s rolls of the dice with late-blooming free agents that had been so successful with Chris Tanev and Eddie Lack had finally come up snake eyes. For most non-goaltending prospects, spending the bulk of a season in the ECHL is the death knell for a shot at the NHL.

Then came the lockout, pushing several players down to the AHL, including young power forward Zack Kassian. Archibald simply didn’t have a spot on the roster and once again found himself in Kalamazoo. With two straight seasons in the ECHL, it seemed like Archibald could be written off.

His strong play for the K-Wings, however, earned him another shot with the Wolves and he made the most of it, scoring in just his second game on November 30th, then adding another in his third. After two goalless games, he scored two more against Hamilton on December 13th. He has yet to go three games without a goal, scoring again against the Griffins on December 22nd and the Heat on December 29th.

Archibald is now tied for third on the Wolves in goalscoring with Andrew Ebbett and Zack Kassian, though he has no assists.

A hot streak like Archibald’s is almost always unsustainable, dependent on an unreasonable high shooting percentage, and that is certainly the case here. Archibald’s shooting percentage currently sits at 18.8%, which can’t last. What’s encouraging, however, is that it’s actually that low. Archibald has 32 shots through 11 games, for a solid average of 2.9 per game. Kassian leads all Wolves forwards in total shots and is averaging 2.7 shots per game. Archibald’s goal total, while somewhat inflated by his high shooting percentage, is still a reflection of his ability to get the puck on net with consistency.

There are some warning signs, however, that Archibald’s success is a little artificial. Three of his six goals have come on the powerplay, with one other coming just after a powerplay ended. While there’s nothing wrong with being a powerplay specialist – his combination of size and soft hands make him an ideal candidate to provide a screen in front of the net – and the Wolves certainly need help on the powerplay, it’s disconcerting that he’s not really scoring at even strength.

That said, Archibald was matched up with Jordan Schroeder and Kassian midway through Saturday’s tilt against the Heat and the trio seemed to find some instant chemistry, combining beautifully for Archibald’s sixth goal of the season (at the 2:15 mark):

While Archibald was a healthy scratch on Sunday, that shouldn’t be much of a concern: the Wolves have been rotating players in and out of the lineup all season on what seems to be a predetermined schedule.

On paper, the combination of Archibald, Schroeder, and Kassian makes all the sense. Schroeder is under-sized, so putting him between two massive wingers can only help his game. Both Schroeder and Kassian are natural playmakers, so putting a goalscorer like Archibald is ideal. Also, having another power forward to go to the net frees Kassian up to be more of a playmaker, rather than a one-dimensional north-south skater.

While Archibald has scored most of his goals from directly in front of the net while screening the goalie, he did score one beauty off the rush that bore a striking resemblance to the goal he scored at the Canucks’ prospect camp. Archibald will need to start scoring in more varied ways, while continuing his work on the powerplay, if he wants to continue impressing Canucks’ management.

Still, the fact that he’s even in a position to do so is a major step forward.

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