The NHL’s All-Regression team: Bounce-back candidates, players due for decline
Life as a hockey fan becomes a whole lot simpler when you finally embrace the inherent randomness that’s in the game. As physically gifted and skilled as the players are today, there are many different things that need to come together to create a goal, some of which are ultimately out of their control. A random bounce here or there, and the outlook for a player’s stat line can change dramatically.
That’s why it’s particularly dangerous to put too much stock into wild shooting percentage swings over a short stretch of games. While there’s no doubt that a shot from Nikita Kucherov is more likely to go in than one off of a fourth-liner’s stick, those are two ends of the extreme. For the players in between, we expect their shooting percentage to gravitate back to somewhere in the low teens over the long haul.
Everything that’s either significantly above or below that, especially early in the season, should be handled with care. That’s especially true if we’ve never seen the player perform at that level before, and there’s no discernible change in environment or circumstances to account for it. In that case, a shooting percentage is far more representative of how fortunate a player has been to date than how well they’ve actually played. If it’s already ballooned, chances are they’ll eventually go through a stretch where they can’t buy a goal. If it’s deflated, don’t be surprised if they start having pucks go in from weird angles and off an assortment of body parts.
Now that we’ve reached the 30-game mark of the season for many players, it’s time for a closer investigation of the players who are riding seemingly unsustainable shooting percentages, and are therefore due for some sort of regression based on their career norms. On the flip side, who are the bounce-back candidates who are due for a correction in the positive direction?
To figure this out, we compare players’ current goal production to the total we’d expect them to have if they were converting the same number of shots into goals that they historically have in recent seasons (assuming the same volume of shots taken thus far).
It’s worth noting that we’re using shooting data from the past three seasons, which cuts out some young players who lack a track record. Until we get a better sense of what their true shooting talent is, it’s impossible to know whether their current performance is who they really are or just a blip on the radar. The reason why we’re using only the most recent seasons is because something a player did a decade ago when they were at a different stage of their career may not accurately capture the skills they have right now.
All of the numbers cited in this piece are courtesy of Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick, and are current through the end of Monday’s games.
Riding a high (shooting percentage)
These are the 10 players who have scored the most goals compared to what we’d expect from them based on their current shot totals and personal conversion rates for the past three seasons:
1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Senators: 16 goals, 5.5 expected goals
2. David Pastrnak, Bruins: 25 goals, 17.4 expected goals
3. Jack Eichel, Sabres: 18 goals, 10.7 expected goals
4. Joonas Donskoi, Avalanche: 13 goals, 5.7 expected goals
5. James Neal, Oilers: 14 goals, 8.3 expected goals
6. Brayden Schenn, Blues: 14 goals, 8.3 expected goals
7. Elias Lindholm, Flames: 14 goals, 8.6 expected goals
8. John Carlson, Capitals: 11 goals, 5.7 expected goals
9. Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche: 12 goals, 6.7 expected goals
10. Mathew Barzal, Islanders: 12 goals, 7.0 expected goals
Honorable mention: Zack Kassian, Oilers: 9 goals, 4.4 expected goals
Great timing for Pageau
There have been very few bright spots in Ottawa this season, but the dream season Jean-Gabriel Pageau is having is certainly one of them. He’s not only on pace for north of 40 goals and 60 points (after never having topped 19 or 43 in those categories prior to this season), but arguably no player has had a more profound impact on their team’s results than he has.
Senators with Pageau on the ice:
Senators without Pageau on the ice:
The wild thing is that those all-situations numbers aren’t inflated by cushy usage like they are for some top players, because Pageau has played nearly four times more minutes on the penalty kill than he has on the power play. Considering how feeble Ottawa’s attack has been with the man advantage, maybe that’s a good thing.
Where his production has been buoyed is in the percentages, where he’s currently riding a bender of epic proportions. Not only is he personally shooting 21.9% after having settled in south of 10% for the first seven seasons of his career, but the Senators are sporting an 11.8% shooting percentage and 92.1 save percentage with him on the ice. While neither is likely to continue, there’s no taking away the production he’s already banked for himself.
The timing of his career year is impeccable, for both himself and the team. He’s set to cash in this summer as an unrestricted free agent, elevating himself to an entirely different tax bracket with this unexpected offensive outburst. The Senators have enough cap flexibility for the foreseeable future to overpay him if they want to keep him around, but if he’s not an important part of their future plans, they should be able to flip him for a nice return at the trade deadline.
Pastrnak continues to defy expectations
It’s a testament to how obscenely prolific David Pastrnak has been as a shooter and scorer that he still comes in just a hair behind Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl even after you regress his shooting percentage back down. In terms of expected goals, only Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews are currently ahead of Pastrnak, which checks out because they’re likely the three best pure goal scorers in the NHL.
While it’s fair to suggest that he won’t keep turning north of 20% of his shots into goals — and we’ve already seen him slow down a little by not scoring on the 13 shots he has registered in the Bruins’ past four games — I’m also willing to leave the door open to the possibility that he’s capable of efficiency that would be considered unthinkable for nearly anyone else.
He’s still just 23 despite how long he’s already been with the Bruins, and has continued to get noticeably better every season. The fact that his shooting percentage had likewise increased in each of the past three seasons prior to this one isn’t surprising considering his increased role, in which he has now become the featured trigger man on one of the most lethal power plays in the game. If he keeps scoring at this rate, it’ll become untenable for opposing defenses to give him anything resembling time and space, but with deadly snipers such as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron soaking up their own share of attention there’s only so much they can do in that regard given his passing ability.
The new normal for Eichel?
Eichel is a tricky one to evaluate here because while he has been a premier offensive player since entering the league, he has profiled as much more of a volume shooter than an efficient one. That trend reached its crescendo last season, when he scored a career-high 28 goals despite shooting just 9.2%, largely because of the whopping 303 pucks he put on net. While he has maintained that volume this season, the 16.2% he has turned into goals is unlike anything he has really done before.
The best-case parallel here would be Nathan MacKinnon, who followed a similar trajectory early in his career. In MacKinnon’s first four NHL seasons, he scored just 75 goals on 929 shots (8.1% conversion rate). Since then he’s scored 99 goals on 793 shots, elevating his shooting percentage to north of 12% without sacrificing the volume of shots. Much like Eichel, MacKinnon’s skills always seemed too good for him to be a below-average finisher, and he finally put it all together in his fifth campaign. Whether it was better preparation, attention to detail, or simply learning how to better use his freakish speed to manipulate defenders and create more optimal angles, MacKinnon has become an entirely different player and has never looked back.
Only time will tell whether this is a new normal for Eichel as a shooter, or if he’s just running hot at the moment. If it’s the former, that’s a huge development for both him and the Sabres because he’s taken his game to an entirely different stratosphere during this recent point streak of his. Here’s what he’s done during those 13 games:
10 goals and 13 assists
50 shots on goal and 80 shot attempts
Nine penalties drawn
Sabres are outscoring teams 18-8 at 5-on-5 and 29-12 overall with him on the ice
Sabres have been outscored 14-12 at 5-on-5 and 30-13 overall without him on ice
It’s good to play with McDavid and Draisaitl
It’s not exactly breaking new ground, but the effect great players such as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have extend far beyond their own individual production. It’s no surprise that James Neal and Zack Kassian show up on this list of players producing over their heads, considering they’re the two biggest beneficiaries of regular ice time with them.
Of Kassian’s nine goals, all of which have come at even strength, just one wasn’t assisted by at least one of McDavid or Draisaitl, while five of them were assisted by both of them. While you’d figure that he would cash in this summer after making the most of his glorious opportunity, it’s worth noting that neither Patrick Maroon nor Alex Chiasson had much luck turning their production alongside McDavid into a payday in recent offseasons.
Meanwhile, 10 of Neal’s 14 tallies have come on the power play where he gets to ride shotgun with the league’s top two scorers. Regression has already hit Neal pretty hard after his scorching hot start. He has just two goals on 26 shots in his past 14 games, which is far closer to what we’d expect from him moving forward after he scored 11 goals on just 42 shots in 14 October games.
Change of scenery good for a pair of Avs
While neither Joonas Donskoi nor Andre Burakovsky will keep shooting over 20%, there are a couple things to consider. First, they’ve been home run offseason additions for an Avalanche team that desperately needed secondary sources of offense after spending most of last season as a one-line team.
Second, their production thus far has surely been aided by a mutually beneficial environment. Because of injuries to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, Donskoi got to spend 220 5-on-5 minutes playing with Nathan MacKinnon, while Burakovsky got 85 of his own with the supernova. Those fun times have come to an end now that the Avalanche are getting healthy up front, but if there’s any substance to the speculation that Colorado could be a landing spot for Taylor Hall, at least one of them could replicate a similar connection with a player whose game mirrors MacKinnon’s in a lot of ways.
Regardless of specific lineup considerations, it’s clear that both players have greatly benefited from playing in Jared Bednar’s up-tempo system. Considering how much the Avalanche attack off the rush, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if both continued to score more efficiently than they had in their previous stops. That’s especially true in the case of Donskoi, who must be loving life after all of those years he spent in San Jose’s more methodical offensive zone cycle game.
Johnny Norris’ wild ride
Considering how exceedingly rare it is for a defenseman to maintain a shooting percentage in the double digits for the entirety of a season, it’s highly unlikely that John Carlson keeps scoring goals at the rate that he has so far.
The good news is that he may not need to score another goal to lead the position in scoring at the end of the season given the early lead he has built, and the passing ability he has already displayed. He’s got a 15-point lead on Dougie Hamilton at this point, which is the same gap as the one between Hamilton (No. 2 in scoring) and Carlson’s teammate Dmitry Orlov (tied for 45th in scoring).
To Carlson’s credit, it’s not like he’s simply padding his stats by playing a supporting role on a top power play, either. He’s sixth in 5-on-5 points among all players, and he’s tied with McDavid for second in primary assists. If there’s an offensive category, chances are Carlson is right near the top of it this season.
There’s certainly more to being an effective defenseman and winning the Norris Trophy than just racking up points, but the gap between Carlson and all of his peers is so large right now that it’s almost impossible to overlook.
These are the 10 players who have undershot their expected goal totals by the biggest margin thus far, and should therefore be projected for some positive regression in the near future:
1. Alex DeBrincat, Blackhawks: 8 goals, 15.1 expected goals
2. Josh Anderson, Blue Jackets: 1 goal, 7.4 expected goals
3. Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets: 7 goals, 13.1 expected goals
4. Taylor Hall, Devils: 6 goals, 11.9 expected goals
5. Patrik Laine, Jets: 8 goals, 13.9 expected goals
6. Tyler Seguin, Stars: 6 goals, 11.5 expected goals
7. Jamie Benn, Stars: 6 goals, 11.0 expected goals
8. Johnny Gaudreau, Flames: 6 goals, 11.0 expected goals
9. James van Riemsdyk, Flyers: 6 goals, 10.9 expected goals
10. Wayne Simmonds, Devils: 4 goals, 8.5 expected goals
Honorable mention: Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings: 5 goals, 8.9 expected goals
Buyers needn’t beware on Taylor Hall
Hall has never been a particularly efficient shooter. He’s resided somewhere between 8% and 11% in six of the past seven seasons, with the one outlier being his Hart Trophy campaign when he turned 14% of his shots into goals.
While he’ll likely never consistently be that kind of scorer for a sustained period at this point of his career, it’s also highly unlikely that he completely forgot how to shoot and became the 5.6% finisher he’s been this season.
There are some red flags about how his game will age into his 30s, and whether his injury-riddled history makes him a risky long-term investment this summer. But for a team that’s looking at buying him as a pure rental this season in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup, his shooting percentage and counting stats aren’t a real concern. It’s been such a mess in New Jersey this season, and even a player as great as he is isn’t immune to getting bogged down by that type of stink around him.
There shouldn’t be any shortage of teams interested in acquiring his services, but the one that makes the most sense stylistically is Colorado. Hall has shown this season that he’s still a tremendous north-south player when it comes to carrying the puck in the neutral zone, and he’d presumably flourish in a system where he was fully unleashed to play that kind of game alongside other talented players.
Brighter days ahead for Stars scorers?
Tyler Seguin has somehow been even less productive thus far this season than he was at this time a year ago, when his lack of offense contributed to the team’s CEO publicly calling out his performance. At that time he had 11 goals in 38 games, but had converted just 7.5% of his shots after having consistently been somewhere in the low teens throughout his career.
That last fact made him an obvious regression candidate, and he didn’t disappoint. He wound up scoring 22 times in his next 44 games, getting back to shooting 11.7% during that time. That would be the good news for Seguin and the Stars, in that they’ve recently seen this story and how it wound up turning around.
The bad news is that there are some more troubling underlying signs this time around. He’s creating less from both a quantity and quality perspective than he ever has, which should be of bigger concern than the fact that the pucks haven’t been going in. He also hasn’t been as close to scoring as he was last season, hitting the post far fewer times.
Still, he’s far too talented to keep shooting this ineffectively and scoring this rarely. We’ll see whether there are any structural changes to how the Stars play following their coaching change, but it certainly can’t hurt jump-start players like Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov.
Which one is the real Patrik Laine?
Laine’s transformation into a playmaker isn’t a development we saw coming, but it’s been a much-needed one considering the shooting funk he’s been in. It’s also an encouraging one, because if he can ever get back on track as the devastating scorer he was when he entered the league, he’ll be that much more of a problem for opponents.
His 12 primary assists through the first 28 games have already nearly matched his totals from his first two seasons, and he looks well on his way to shattering the personal best 17 that he had last season. It’s tough to say how much of it has been borne out of necessity as a concerted effort to adjust to his shooting struggles, and how much of it has been a natural evolution of his game.
He burst onto the scene with a shot unlike any we’d really seen since current-day Steven Stamkos or Ilya Kovalchuk in his prime. The sound the puck made coming off his stick was different than anyone else’s, and he routinely beat goalies cleanly from distance — quite a feat in the modern game.
It felt like he’d be one of those rare players who consistently outscored their expected totals and broke all the models, frustrating goalies and analysts alike. But whether it’s his own doing or opponents adjusting, he has been progressively less and less effective as a shooter over time:
First two seasons: 80 goals on 445 shots for 17.9% shooting percentage
Last season: 30 goals on 245 shots for 12.2% shooting percentage
This season: Eight goals (in 28 games) on 87 shots for 9.2% shooting percentage
While he’s more well-rounded now that he isn’t so one-dimensional as a threat with the puck, it would be quite disappointing if this was just the new normal for him moving forward.
Feeling blue in Columbus
It’s no surprise that the Blue Jackets have struggled to generate offense after all of the talent they lost this summer, and no one has felt it more than Cam Atkinson. It’s been tough sledding for him without Artemi Panarin, now that he doesn’t have an elite playmaker creating extra space and getting him the puck in prime shooting areas.
That’s been particularly evident at 5-on-5, where Atkinson’s shot isn’t nearly as potent now that he has to fend for himself. Last season, he finished eighth in 5-on-5 goals, just ahead of stars such as Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid. This season he has just two such goals in 30 games, not getting on the board at all until this past week.
Atkinson had a 35-goal campaign to his name before Panarin ever entered his life, so it’s a good bet that he’ll eventually get it going and start putting the puck in the net. But it’s clear that we need to collectively readjust our expectations. At this point, anything would be huge for the Blue Jackets as a team. They’re all the way down to 25th in scoring at 5-on-5 and 28th overall, and without the benefit of Panarin’s easy offense it seems like every goal they score is a minor miracle.
What happened to Andreas Athanasiou?
Whenever you have a historically bad team like this season’s Detroit Red Wings, there are going to be casualties. Arguably no one among the bunch has taken it harder on the chin than Athanasiou this season, as he is rapidly trending toward etching his name in the record books for all the wrong reasons.
He’s currently the clubhouse leader for the Green Jacket (awarded to the player with the worst plus-minus by season’s end), currently sporting a truly shocking minus-33 in just 29 games. Here’s how it has happened:
Athanasiou on ice at 5-on-5:
Athanasiou on ice in all situations:
When you get a save percentage that low, it’s never just on one person. The goaltending in Detroit has been unacceptably bad, but Athanasiou’s seeming disregard for his own play away from the puck has only compounded the issues. He’s always been the equivalent of a “designated hitter,” but that was easier to reconcile when he was producing on the other end of the ice with his dazzling breakaway speed. We’re just one season removed from a 30-goal campaign, but now that he’s shooting 7.1%, it has made his defensive deficiencies all the more glaring.
The Red Wings have been a train wreck, making it awfully difficult for bystanders to look away from the mess that’s unfolding. No one has better embodied that phenomenon in action than Athanasiou. A turnaround for him won’t necessarily mean this team will be back on track, but would help him avoid the ignominious accolade of the league’s worst plus-minus rating.