The NHL’s All-Star Weekend isn’t the mathematical midway point of the season, but it is perhaps the spiritual one. As we head into this week’s events, it is a good time to reflect on some notable performances we have seen in the 2019-20 season.
But rather than running down the current leaders for individual awards, heralding players who will be recognized for their work in St. Louis this weekend or in Las Vegas at the NHL Awards this summer, let’s have some fun with it by creating new categories of our own.
Here are your Analytics All-Stars for the first half of the 2019-20 regular season:
Criteria: Given to the player who has taken the biggest offensive leap, seemingly out of the blue, after having already been in the league for a couple of seasons and never really showing this level of production. So named after William Karlsson’s 43-goal campaign in the Golden Knights inaugural season of 2017-18, after scoring 18 combined goals in the three seasons prior.
One possible explanation for Rust’s sudden scoring outburst is that he was secretly involved in the filming of “Space Jam 2” and has benefited from stealing the athletic ability of other star athletes. The other more realistic one is that he is now in the perfect role, riding shotgun alongside a suddenly reinvigorated Evgeni Malkin.
There is no shortage of numbers to illustrate both Rust’s impressiveness and how improbable it has been given his historical track record heading into the season. Coming in with career highs of 18 goals and 38 points, he already has blown past both figures despite playing just 35 games.
His 13 5-on-5 goals are tied for the team lead with Jake Guentzel and have him in lockstep with the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Elias Pettersson and Max Pacioretty for the 15th-best total leaguewide. And that is before accounting for all the games he has missed. Once you prorate his production on a per-minute basis, Rust is seventh in goals per hour and ninth in points per hour.
On the power play, Rust already has five goals and 12 points in 77 minutes, after having only two goals, five points and just under 100 total minutes with the man advantage to his name for his career before this season.
A 19.3% shooting rate certainly helps, but it isn’t like his success is entirely contingent on inflated percentages. He is generating the 48th-most shots and 21st-most high-danger chances per minute in the NHL, which is the type of volume that should sustain him even when he stops scoring on nearly one out of every five pucks he fires on net. Playing nearly 90% of his minutes with Malkin doesn’t hurt, either; but it also isn’t like Rust is a complete stranger to playing alongside a stud center, after seeing north of 1,200 5-on-5 minutes with Sidney Crosby over the past three seasons.
Any way you slice it, this kind of sudden breakout isn’t normal for a 27-year-old with 250-plus games of NHL service already under their belt. But the Penguins aren’t your typical franchise. Beyond being blessed with two generational greats down the middle, their uncanny ability to keep uncovering gems such as Rust is a big reason for their continued success. That is especially true this season, during which they have been decimated by injuries and have needed new players to step up and fill important roles.
Criteria: Given to the goalie who does everything humanly possible to carry his team to victory on a nightly basis, despite getting nothing resembling help from the players who are supposed to be defending in front of him. Honoring the +53.4 goals above average that John Gibson saved from 2016 to 2019 (the second-best rate, behind Sergei Bobrovsky, among all goalies in that span), ultimately netting Gibson a grand total of one third-place vote for the Vezina Trophy — because the team in front of him wasn’t good enough to get him enough wins.
Let’s play a quick blind résumé game:
.935 5-on-5 save percentage
.930 overall save percentage
2nd in goals saved above average (+25.5)
3rd in goals saved above expected (+18.9)
.928 5-on-5 save percentage
.924 overall save percentage
3rd in goals saved above average (+23.8)
5th in goals saved above expected (+9.7)
Player A was Robin Lehner last season with the Islanders. Player B is the pace Robin Lehner is on this season through his first 28 appearances with the Blackhawks.
It is hard to conjure up two more extreme defensive environments than the ones in which Lehner has found himself over the past two seasons. There was some understandable skepticism about his sparkling numbers with the Islanders, given the effect Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn have on their goalies, but Lehner has backed it up in a big way behind a Blackhawks team that can be charitably described as porous defensively.
If there is a metric depicting shot or scoring-chance suppression, Chicago ranks near the very bottom of it. The only reason it is staying afloat right now is because of how good its goaltending has been despite the adverse surroundings. To wit, last season Lehner was 40th out of 60 qualified goalies (minimum of 1,000 minutes) in shots faced per minute and 53rd in average distance of shots faced. This season, those figures have ballooned to first (i.e., most) and eighth (i.e., closest).
The fact that he has produced similar numbers with a sharp increase in the degree of difficulty is a testament to both how good he has been and how legitimate is his case of being a top-flight goalie.
Criteria: Given to the player who plays heavy minutes routinely against the other team’s best players and manages to avoid hurting his team with penalties, thanks to expert positioning, slick skating and deft stick work. Honoring Jared Spurgeon, who is currently in the midst of his sixth season with single-digit penalty minutes and has never taken more than 10 penalties in a single season in a decadelong NHL career, despite averaging north of 23 minutes per game.
Our perception of penalty minutes and what they represent has arguably changed more than anything else over the years. What was once worn as a badge of honor — representing toughness and physicality — is now rightfully viewed as a negative. That recalibration makes a ton of sense; by going to the penalty box, it means that you are removing yourself from the game, and you also are putting your team at a disadvantage.
The Lady Byng Trophy (awarded for “gentlemanly play”) should theoretically capture this concept, but it falls short of achieving its designed goal because of how it devalues the accomplishments of defensemen. Brian Campbell (2011-12) is the only blueliner to win the award since Red Kelly in the 1953-54 season, which doesn’t exactly line up with the reality of how much more impressive it is for a defenseman to be disciplined and effective without the puck than their forward counterparts, given the scope of the responsibilities.
That is especially true for a player such as Slavin, who eats up a high volume of minutes and is routinely tasked with going head-to-head with the most skilled puck handlers the opponent has to offer. His ability to stick with attackers and dislodge them from the puck in high-leverage areas of the ice — without getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar — is something that needs to be celebrated.
He came into this season having been whistled for just 24 total infractions in nearly 7,000 NHL minutes over the course of his career, and he has taken just three penalties in 1,100 minutes this season. What is doubly impressive about those figures is that Slavin had drawn 33 penalties prior to this season, along with another 10 so far this season. The only defensemen with a penalty differential over plus-5 this season are Slavin, Samuel Girard, Ryan Ellis, Miro Heiskanen and Charlie McAvoy, further illustrating how equally rare and valuable a trait it is.
Criteria: Given to the former star player who looked like his best days might be behind him after a couple of down seasons, only to turn back the clock and put together a vintage campaign. Honoring Claude Giroux’s 2017-18 season, in which he finished second in scoring with 102 points and fourth in MVP voting. What made his performance particularly impressive was his career-worst 2016-17 season with his 58 points, marking the third consecutive campaign in which his individual production had dipped.
Much like Giroux and most other players who have swings in performance, context is key here. In Giroux’s case, it was a combination of getting healthy and handing over some defensive responsibilities to Sean Couturier as he slid to the wing.
In Pacioretty’s case, he undoubtedly finds himself in a great spot this season, getting to play full-time minutes alongside a player such as Mark Stone. Stone’s brilliance as a possession player is well-established, but the beautiful marriage between his skill set and Pacioretty’s own as a trigger man has gotten the best out of both parties. With the two of them on the ice at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights have been absolutely decimating opponents territorially: They are controlling 62.3% of the shot attempts, 61.9% of the shots on goal, 64.6% of the high-danger chances and 65.0% of the expected goals (while actually outscoring teams by a 30-21 margin).
Pacioretty looks poised to set new career highs in every offensive category at the age of 31. Here are his current paces:
32 primary assists
350 shots on goal
622 shot attempts
Those last two categories are especially impressive, because they put Pacioretty in rarified air alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Ovechkin. Things haven’t gone the way they were supposed to for Vegas this season, but if there has been one consistent silver lining, it has been Pacioretty’s return to form as an offensive freight train. It is good timing too, considering the Knights’ $28 million investment in him (not to mention the assets they traded in the first place).
The Summer of 2016 Award
Criteria: Given to the free-agent signing who looked like a bad investment from day one but became an albatross more quickly than any of us could’ve imagined. Honoring the financially disastrous events of July 1, 2016, during which Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Frans Nielsen, David Backes, Darren Helm and Troy Brouwer signed for a combined $260 million.
Considering that the Panthers tragically committed to paying Bobrovsky big money for his age-31 through age-37 seasons, the contract was going to be ultimately doomed at the back end. Yet even the biggest critics of the decision itself (myself included) couldn’t have reasonably seen the wheels coming off this quickly or to this degree.
Out of 67 qualified goalies this season with a minimum of 200 minutes, here are Bobrovsky’s ranks in the major categories:
Salary: $11.5 million (2nd)
5-on-5 save percentage: .904 (57th)
Overall save percentage: .897 (54th)
Goals saved above average: -12.1 (64th)
Goals saved above expected: -13.1 (63rd)
As bad as he has been, it isn’t entirely his fault. The situation is less than ideal, with the Panthers struggling mightily in their own zone despite all of the money they spent on new coach Joel Quenneville and other new players this summer. They’re in the bottom 10 when it comes to the rate at which they concede shots, high-danger chances and expected goals against, meaning that their troubles extend beyond just the person in the net.
That said, when you invest $70 million into a player, like they did with Bobrovsky, you would like to see better return and a greater impact than the one the Panthers have received so far. It also raises the fair point of whether teams should be sinking premium resources into the goalie position, when they surely would be better off using it to address everything that is going on in front of them, instead.
When you compare Bobrovsky’s performance this season to the ones the Blue Jackets have received from the relative unknowns who have replaced him following his departure, it is especially eye-popping. Columbus is spending less than $3 million combined on the three goalies who have appeared in games this season (Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo and Matiss Kivlenieks), and they are second in save percentage as a team at 5-on-5 and third in save percentage overall. They make life significantly easier on their netminders with their exceptional shot blocking and scoring-chance suppression, which only further shines a light on just how dependant goalie performance is on the defensive system.
Criteria: Given to the player who is wildly underrated by the hockey masses, unlike present-day Jaccob Slavin, who has become properly recognized as one of the most effective defensemen in the league and is now an All-Star.
It is going to be tough for Coleman to get the love he deserves considering all of the factors conspiring against him right now. He came into the league as a relatively unknown and an undrafted college free agent, and he is stuck on a Devils team that has had a season from hell (pun fully intended). Strip the name brand value from the equation and all of the biases associated with it. Now check out Coleman’s résumé this season:
We wrote about his ascension into a legitimate weapon last season, and he has only continued to grow as a playmaker and creator since then. After quietly scoring 22 goals last season, Coleman is now on pace to become a 30-goal scorer in 2019-20, without being gifted any real power-play opportunities. He has always been a real asset as a penalty killer, using his speed and motor to create unexpected offense out of thin air. He also has found excellent chemistry playing with Nikita Gusev at 5-on-5 more recently, dazzling viewers with a number of superhuman efforts.
Coleman also is creating a good problem for the Devils moving forward. They have him under contract for next season at just $1.8 million, which is an incredible bargain for this type of dual-threat weapon. You would have to imagine that there are any number of playoff contenders that would be salivating at the idea of adding a player with his skill set at that price tag for not one potential playoff run, but perhaps two.
As valuable as he has been as a breath of fresh air to a Devils team that hasn’t had much else going for it this season, the potential return they can get for Coleman at the deadline might be too great to pass up. That is especially true given their current timeline as a franchise following the Hall trade and the fact that Coleman will be 30 years old in the first season of his next contract.
Criteria: Given to the player who is already one of the best defensive players in the league and deserves Selke Trophy consideration, but likely won’t earn the award because he doesn’t score enough yet. Honoring Sean Couturier, who has been one of the most impactful defensive forces for years but didn’t start to get real Selke votes until he began playing with Claude Giroux and scoring more. In 2016-17, Couturier finished 47th in voting with two fifth-place votes largely because his 14 goals and 34 points didn’t catch the eye of voters. Since then, he has put together back-to-back campaigns of 30-plus goals and 70-plus points — and finished second and sixth in Selke voting.
You’ll never believe this, but the Lightning have uncovered yet another gem outside of the first round. Cirelli becomes the latest in a long line of impressive talents whom the Lightning have drafted outside the first round, which has been a big driving force behind their sustained success.
Cirelli has had an intriguing developmental trajectory, because he has become consistently better year over year while jumping from one difficulty level to the next. That trend has continued in his second full season in the NHL, in which he has skyrocketed from playing 11:13 minutes per game at 5-on-5 to 13:46 at 5-on-5 and from 14:51 to 18:38 overall.
You can often tell how coaches feel about certain players based on the ways they use them; if that’s the case here, then Jon Cooper must love Cirelli. His 2:58 per game on the penalty kill is the fourth-highest rate among all forwards, and that boost in even-strength usage suddenly has him less than a minute behind the likes of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov for tops among all Lightning forwards. Maybe most importantly, that progression has allowed Cooper to spell Steven Stamkos from full-time center duties, freeing him up to roam more on the wing — similar to what the Flyers did with Couturier and Giroux.
From the eye test, it is easy to see why Cirelli has gained so much trust from Cooper in such a short period of time. His game is equally tireless and relentless, and he is the type of puck hound that must be abjectly miserable to play against with any regularity. It has shown up in the numbers, as well, with the Lightning controlling 53.3% of the shots, 59.1% of the high-danger chances and 57.6% of the expected goals with Cirelli on the ice at 5-on-5. The other added benefit of that speed and dogged nature are reflected in his impressive penalty rates, where his 23 drawn penalties and +11 differential are both in the top 10 leaguewide.
While Cirelli’s play off the puck is already advanced, his game with it is coming around better than some might have expected. While it remains unclear just how much talent he possesses as a shooter, it won’t ultimately matter if he can continue getting to the net with as much force and consistency as he has this season. He has been known to bull-rush toward the net with seemingly no regard for the well-being of himself or the opposing goaltender; and for someone who doesn’t profile as a pure, one-shot scorer, getting some cheap goals in tight is important.
Given his career path to date and the magic the Lightning spin when it comes to developing young players, I wouldn’t put anything out of reach when it comes to Cirelli’s ceiling. He already is really good, but if he keeps developing at this rate and adding more wrinkles to his game, he could eventually graduate to being great.