Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bakersfield Condors 2017-18: Playing Catch-Up

When one investigates into the whys of the Edmonton Oilers' lack of success over the last decade and change, an easy route to take is to find and focus on all of the differences between their operations and that of a successful teams, and dissect those differences to find their effects on the organisation's inability to properly build a team.

Put another way, if a perennially losing team is doing something differently than a perennially winning team, there's a chance - one worth looking into - that difference is part of the team's problems. There's a lot of moving parts in the hockey operations sector of an NHL franchise; there's a reason why there's so much disagreement among Oilers fans about where the team is going wrong because there's just a lot of individuals involved and a lot of decisions being made each day.

Just because the failure of the team is so pronounced doesn't mean they're not doing anything right, the strengths of the organisation could just be overridden by the weaknesses. This can perpetuate widespread inefficiencies across an industry, as good ideas are implemented at bad times or by bad actors and the history of the technique is tainted by circumstances in spite of its value.

So, when you look at the differences between how successful clubs utilise their farm teams and how the Edmonton Oilers have, you keep those two things in mind - they could be part of the problem, but they also could be a strength obscured by weaknesses elsewhere.

It doesn't take long for this detective to lean to the former when it comes to their farm team processes, but it's important to keep the tenet on hand that just because a decision is made by an organisation that fails, doesn't mean it contributed in that direction.

Here's the shortlist we'll look at, containing the two largest differences between successful AHL teams - as well as the AHL teams for successful NHL teams - and the Edmonton Oilers.

  • Successful teams play their prospects. We don't have league-tracked time-on-ice numbers for the AHL yet, but through various proxies numerically, and through anecdotal reports, Oilers prospects have not gotten large minute shares in offensive situations with any immediacy after turning pro. AHL teams that produce NHL-ready players at respectable rates give their draft picks preferential treatment in the form of a playing time push, at evens and on the power-play.
  • Successful teams sign offensively productive veterans. In the holes between what would be a perfectly balanced forward corps of purely legit NHL prospects, players are signed with a track record of scoring.
These two factors are intertwined. Not only do prospects not play up the lineup immediately, but alongside them are players without the offensive talents to nurture the same in the prospects. Good teams play good players with good players. The Golden Knights used the Chicago Wolves for their AHL club this year, and supplied them with forwards like Teemu Pulkinnen, Beau Bennett and TJ Tynan. That's a first round pick that had first round pick offense in Junior, and two more players who also had first round pick offense in Junior but without the skating or size to complement their production enough to have themselves selected high in the 2010 and 2011 drafts, respectively. If you're short one forward from having an all-prospect powerplay, not only do you help your prospects learn how to play with skill and build confidence scoring goals when you sign a more productive pro, but the team is stronger as well and will play games into spring.

Having an AHL team deep with skill helps you make the playoffs and makes them more useful also, because when you add your junior prospects to the club like Tyler Benson and Ostap Safin last spring, even if they're playing down the lineup they're making and taking passes to and from players that better resemble the teammates offensively that you hope to play them with when they do turn pro.

I have my criticisms of checking bottom-sixes in the NHL, and I believe the most common defense against my argument there - that there's simply not enough forwards in the league with the requisite talent to run a full skill line as your fourth unit - falls flat when it comes to the AHL because the players pushed off of NHL rosters in this way are the perfect specimen to provide this job for. Since NHL rosters run checking fourth lines, there's plenty of players to pluck from rosters' edge, ones that NHL coaching staffs have decided aren't quite productive enough for the top-nine. Pay these guys, and they'll play hockey for you.

What's the offensive Pedigree of the Bakersfield 18?

The Condors released their camp roster a few days ago, among 31 names there were 18 forwards. Via Holty's Blog, the cuts since then have resulted in some tryouts being released and some players being assigned to the Wichita Thunder (the ECHL affiliate), but 17 forwards still remain. Let's run it down the list of contracted players for the former draft-and-follow college guys and undrafted signings and assess their historical production individually, and then evaluate the group.

(I will be using the players' last AHL seasons' boxcars where possible, and their last amateur season's NHLE - using Emmanuel Perry's latest conversion. For CHLers, their over-age season will be omitted and the previous one used, to combat the quirks that come with using a non age-adjusted factor.)   

Joseph Gambardella - Scored miles from PPG (the wrong way) in the USHL  as a 19 year old, that was a bad omen, but blossomed in his junior year of college, which is usually a good one. Thing is, he was older than an average NHL-prospect junior who enters the NCAA at 18, and his NHL-potential scoring number his senior year (52pts in 41 GP) thus came at a more mature age as well. From my readings, much of his contributions come from his forechecking prowess and other activity without the puck.

2016-17 NCAA NHLe - 17.68

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 13.21

Tyler Vesel - Another player who played in the USHL for their 19 year old season before heading off to college, Vesel scored at a much better rate - 33 goals in 49 games - but once he hit college, he took until his junior year to ramp up offensively, and never quite hit the numbers needed to show a true NHL likelihood. Like Gambardella, he has a two-way reputation.

2017-18 NCAA NHLe - 12.39

Evan Polei - Came in at under a point per game as a physically mature over-ager in the WHL, while racking up tons of penalty minutes. The player-identity here is quite obvious. Spent half his last season in the ECHL, clocking in at about 0.60 points-per-game.

2015-16 WHL NHLe - 7.75

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 10.43

Nolan Vesey - Another NCAA player, who played the regular NHL prospect age-seasons there, at 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. Spending time on the top unit as a senior still didn't result in skill-player type scoring numbers - the team was unsuccessful as well, to be fair - and from my readings is yet another 'two-way' guy.

2017-18 NCAA NHLe - 9.42

Colin Larkin - This is a 24 year-old player from the NCAA, like the others, except... he played Div. III. This is why I won't be using an NHLe for his amateur seasons - and why he's not projectable as a scorer at any professional level. Scored two points in his 16-game appearance in Bakersfield last year. This is a microcosm of the study, finding out what the Oilers organisation does, that nobody else does. One of the things that fits? Signing a 24-year old Division III college free agent to a pro contract.

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 4.35

Mitch Callahan - An 188 penalty minute man ten years ago in the WHL, at age 18. Another 'two-way' player, who also earned the label of 'agitator'. He's been a successful player in the AHL for years skating alongside NHL prospects like Teemu Pulkinnen, Tomas Nosek, Anthony Mantha and others in Grand Rapids. A fine complementary player at that level, and fell off in an eyebrow-raising fashion upon arrival in Bakersfield. A clue that there's more at play than just player personnel when it comes to the lack of offense for this team.

2010-11 WHL NHLe - 10.71

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 6.95

Josh Currie - Undrafted out of junior, blew up his boxcars as an over-ager and earned an ECHL spot, got himself promoted to the AHL from there and has put up a couple 20 goal seasons since. A nice story, but another player without a great history of production. Played for the Condors when they were an ECHL team.

2011-2012 QMJHL NHLe - 7.21

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 23.52

Cameron Hebig - The first player so far with a history of production at an early age. Was well shy of being a substantial prospect in his draft year, and then once he got going thereafter he sustained some pretty serious injuries and the implications from them scared teams away. He's a longshot, but he's got skill and plays well with skill, skating with Sam Steel very effectively this past season. The kind of player you don't mind playing alongside your scoring prospect, because that's exactly what he's been doing in his junior career.

2015-16 WHL NHLe - 14.38

Braden Christoffer - Another high penalty-minute WHL guy. That's one of about three or four solid trends we're discovering here. His AHL scoring is so low that it prompts investigation into playing time, which turns up that he didn't have plenty, but enough that his ability or inability offensively isn't shrouded in mystery. 

2013-14 WHL NHLe - 6.94

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 8.28

John McFarland - A former second-round pick (2010) who had the requisite offense as an April birthday to have a legitimate shot at the highest level. Has moved around a ton, played for three OHL teams, then had injury issues, then bounced between AHL and ECHL in the Panthers system, played in Finland for a year, then Switzerland. Very hard to get a read on the guy, besides that he was a legit junior talent who didn't take his boxcars with him when he turned pro.

2011-12 OHL NHLe - 13.39

2015-16 AHL NHLe - 14.90

Patrick Russell - The fifth college guy in this group, the fourth to play a 20-21 year old season in the USHL, the third to have below point-per-game production in junior. His sole substantial season offensively as an amateur player offers a red flag - he skated alongside a potential offensive prospect Kalle Kossila, man of 54 points in 55 games for the San Diego Gulls a year ago.

2015-16 NCAA NHLe - 13.94

2017-18 AHL NHLe - 13.80 AHL NHLe

Well, then. In terms of acquisition, there's not a lot of aiming high going on, when it comes to scoring. I've talked about why I don't like this philosophically, and now we're going to show the effects of player personnel strategy like this - in terms of what elite systems are doing.

The Bakersfield Condors' forward scoring rates against Syracuse, Toronto and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton

Now, to apply the lessons above: What is the results of Edmonton's bias towards checking, 'two-way' players in terms of who they're recruiting to surround their prospects on their farm team?

I've chosen teams known for their forward-thinking, skill and speed based scouting programs, who focus on creating offense through their systems on the ice, and providing their coaching staffs with offensive players to nurture their system's prospects.

Below is the 5v5 points-per-hour rates of each forward who played more than 200 estimated minutes 5v5, via

The Lightning have been at the speed-and-skill game at this level for the longest, since they were the Norfolk Admirals. Julien Brisebois is the common denominator, and he's built Calder Cup finals teams three times. Both of the years they missed the playoffs, they'd graduated their best players to the NHL the year before. One thing to pay attention to is the sheer amount of players above 2.00 - this is a well coached club. Another thing? They keep their draft picks. A ton of these guys are from rounds 2-7 years past, and then when they do acquire outside players, they all have substantial junior or pro scoring numbers.

This is a more top-heavy team, but still six players above 2.00/60. It's the same story: the less draft picks you trade away, the more young scoring forwards you have on your farm. It sounds silly typed out like that, but the difference really is massive, and it's not just about having players arrive to the NHL - every step of the way having skill in your system benefits you. Playing with skill breeds skill. Look at their 'outside' guys: Soshnikov and Aaltonen were a scoring forward in the KHL. Ben Smith had a history hovering around point-per-game rates in the AHL.

This is just filthy. Four forwards above 3.00, plenty more close. Twelve above 2.00. The Penguins have a team that's something of a blueprint for the Oilers - they've started succeeding (again) from adding cheap skill on the wings and running a farm like this. They've been Stanley Cup contenders every year, and still haven't dipped below .600 winning percentage on the farm more than once since winning their first Cup at the higher level.

Dominik Simon was drafted overage out of the Czech league, he was a scorer there, put up 25 goals in his rookie NA pro season. Dea was signed after 45 and 49 goal seasons in the QMJHL at age 18.5 and 19.5 and has been a scorer for them at this level ever since. Daniel Sprong is a driver on this team after they kept their 2nd round pick in 2015. Aston-Reese's senior year was a 63-point campaign. Blueger was a long-shot draft-for-skill selection out of Shattuck St-Mary's. There's also some players in here that are clearly getting elevated by an offensive-minded team that puts a couple skilled guys on every line.

Is it better or worse than you were expecting?

I imagine someone could say, "they're a worse team so of course they score less".

The thing is, the way they got here is pathological.

It's like what the other team's forward corps look like if you had chopped off the top six (in the case of the Marlies) and the top nine (in the case of the other two) most productive players.

Which is exactly the process in acquisition.

They don't look for scorers at all, so they don't score.

The near-entirety of the pool they sign from?

"Two-way" players who didn't crack PPG at 20 in the USHL and then went to the NCAA and delivered average late round pick offense - despite advanced age.

"Two-way" players who had triple their points in penalty minutes in the WHL at 21 years old.

There's a massive difference between the player personnel management styles of the group of three winning teams I've outlined, and the Bakersfield Condors - and where the Oilers farm and theirs diverge, the winning teams all share similar methods.

For every Cameron Hebig and John McFarland, there's five or more offense-less acquisitions.

This is part of the reason why Puljujarvi couldn't do much - and part of the reason Benson and Marody might need a Kailer Yamamoto to score properly. There's no skill to play with on this team, and the only way it's going to change is if the Oilers keep their draft picks. They can also speed up the process by drafting older players from across the pond in later rounds, and re-examining the way their pro scouting operates. All three of the winning teams and productive farms sign free agents with offense - European scorers, CHL stars, and NCAA players who score more, younger.

Drafting has been turned around since Peter Chiarelli, and later Keith Gretzky arrived. But the former has signed many of the players filling out the farm today and the man sitting in the GM's chair for the franchise has been there since 2014 too - Bill Scott.

And good drafting will not save an AHL team by itself. Some drafted prospects will stay in European leagues, some will be in the NCAA, some will be in their junior leagues for two years after drafting. You only get seven draft picks a year - it's not enough to have 9 skilled, scoring forwards on your minor-league team at all times. You must be able to fill in roster spots with players who can nurture your drafted talent, and help them see the playoffs.

The Edmonton Oilers do several things differently than teams with productive pipelines, and you can draw a straight line between those decisions, the floundering farm team, and the holes all over the NHL roster.

Taking steps towards solving these problems may be the highest-yield action the current organisation can take.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Kailer Yamamoto's Arrival Time - The Defensive Zone and Transition

Last time I wrote about the Edmonton Oiler's first-round draft selection from the 2017 NHL draft, it was to address the readiness of the player, by examining a popular narrative about the strength of the player and the importance of that factor on his arrival time in the NHL. This was done primarily through video review of offensive zone play with focus on his ability or inability to enter the middle of the ice against bigger, stronger players.

This time we'll again examine the same general talking point - the effects of a difference of strength - but with a focus on play in the defensive zone and in parallel there'll be discussion of the players' positioning in these areas so as avoid narrowing the scope of the piece to the detriment of its practical application. Shorter: it would be silly to proclaim any player never lost any battles if that was only the result of never being on time for one.

Before we begin in full, a few things. I'll reference back to the opening statistical analysis of the player I did, where I wrote about the outstanding possession metrics of the individual coupled with a contextual warning about the team's similar performance on the whole. Kailer Yamamoto's shot and chance numbers are all ridiculous against the entirety of the NHL - both individual and on-ice. What I mean to say, is, there'll not a hell of a lot of tape on defensive-zone #56. We'll see his effect on this, how well he does as a facilitator of the transition and as a disturber of inter-zone movement by the opposition. After all, one can look at the overall team shot and chance shares during his 9 games and say that he was simply along for the Corsi-dominant ride, but the possibility exists also that he was a major contributor in this area as the most skilled natural winger the team iced the entire season and that the difference between his and his replacement's talents in transition were in actuality close to as stark as the numbers imply, due to both his tremendous ability and his replacement's vacuous lack thereof.

Note: I write primarily through induced vomiting of my stream of consciousness and wanted to quickly re-factcheck and be more precise about my assertation of Kailer Yamamoto units spending less time in the defensive-zone, verifying that the percentage shares weren't just bolstered purely through increased offense. I found that in the Oilers pre-November 10th stretch last year, McDavid had 46.5 CA/60, 20.6 SCA/60, and 7.2 HDCA/60 with Yamamoto and 65.1 CA/60, 33.2 SCA/60, and 16.75 HDCA/60 without. That's incredible.

A second preface:  We're searching for an uncertainty from the start when we look for mispositioning from a fresh draft pick who's just made the team in his first camp. This is an area where if any doubt remains throughout the preseason that the player knows where the coach wants him to be, he'll be assigned elsewhere. You just don't often see a non-lottery pick get that kind of leeway from an NHL coach. If this were not a player who made the coach feel good about sending him over the boards, he would not have made the team. The argument against would be a counter that Yamamoto was simply the best of a bad bunch, but we should remember every coach's (ranging from reasonable to otherwise) preference to ice veterans even in spite of ability.

As such, the parallel track may be more interesting - just how important was Kailer to the strong possession game the Oilers played during his audition?

Just as McDavid mucks up all statistical analysis, he does the same often for video. It's much easier to get the puck up ice when the most prolific zonal transition player is a minute contribution from yourself away from doing all the work for you. This mostly effects the defencemen, but we'd be wise not to discount McDavid's effect on Kailer in the games they shared a unit.

As for the medium, I figured two types of games featuring substantial time-on-ice for the player would meet a good standard of thoroughness. One type being a dominant shot-share game, where we can observe how much the player influenced the possession dominance of the line he was on, then the opposite, so far as it exists, and we can observe how much the player had to do with a loss of the possession battle.

I dug up every 5-on-5 shift from these games, selecting those that I found were important: shifts of extended periods in the defensive zone, and every single breakout that either came up his side of the ice or involved him in some way good or bad. I've pointed him out in red where necessary to get the gist of the play on the first viewing.

(Another note, as you may have already figured out I am an absolute fiend for hockey systems and coaching literature, devouring everything on tactics and strategy that I get my hands on. That being said, I'm not an ex-coach with 35 years experience or some other equivalent character that you'd feel silly contesting on little details, so feel free to point out in the comments if I'm missing or misidentifying something.)

November 5th vs Detroit Red Wings

Here's an even possession game, which should offer plenty of transitional play despite the lack of defensive zone starts.

  • Kailer makes a good case for himself here, those simple exit passes are a lot more valuable than they appear at first, and the team missed good execution on these plays from a lot of their wingers all year, one of the reasons why I always shout about the wingers when the outlet passing of the defense is mentioned(though I will say the current D-corps wasn't above NHL average in execution there either).
  • Something we'll notice a lot is how a good first few steps and a high-octane hockey brain combine for much more than the sum of their parts. If a player can position yourself well in real-time, they can get away with being slower than the average guy. If you process the game quickly and add plus skating, you get a guy like Kailer Yamamoto.
  • Notice how he's always looking around to make sure where the layers of the opposition are, and that he's in the correct seam. Some wingers can end up second to the puck when they should be on the inside of the opposing team's point man, because they're not keeping up their vision.
  • At the play starting at 7:42 left in the first, game time, you see some good defensive anticipation to close a gap followed by using that skating to break free on the transition.
  • He uses his feet well in the next play, too, several times as well as a successful breakout on "Russell-Gryba" difficulty level.
  • In general he makes himself a very easy target to pass to, through separation, creating his own lane, and just generally handling the puck well.
  • There's one moment where if he's going to dump the puck in, he should be dumping it harder and just immediately changing, instead of chasing from an outside position, losing the battle and delaying the wholesale change.
  • …My mouse is on the screen at some point. Sorry.
  • He doesn't seem wise to Detroit's pick plays, that's a rookie thing and it gets the vets all the same half the time.
  • He gives up creating his own lane when the team collects a rebound at 11:35 left in the 3rd, but Nuge likely blasts that puck up the wall without looking either way.
  • This is a well-played game in the DZ and NZ from a (usually) F3, in my opinion.

October 14th vs Ottawa Senators

This is one of the games taken from category dominant. A tragic result, sure, but this time on the McDavid line was a success by process, and while sometimes a large shot attempts advantage can be mostly erased by narrowing to count only shots on goal, this is the opposite case.

  • A couple of early plays I can nitpick about positioning too deep against the point man (especially on the DZFOL), they end up in fairly harmless releases, but a more dangerous passing play can be made when Yamamoto leaves all that space and time to the defencemen with the puck.
  • The goal against comes early, and is an error in communication between Patrick and Kailer. If Maroon is going to cover the centre slot like that, he needs to actually take the man. The way it went, he doubled up on coverage and then ended up not even contesting the shot, which is the type of defensive breakdown necessary to make a three-on-five play look like the five is outnumbered.
  • The next shot against is just a teammates giveaway, Kailer shouldn't be expected to come off the wall there but the poor pass in the neutral zone is on him. Ottawa is obviously in full trap mode at that point in the game and the type of clean-ish possession he had between the bluelines was a precious commodity.
  • Yamamoto follows the puck too closely when he should be in the centre lane on the play at 15:30 left in the 3rd, if that puck comes off the wall with any kind of force, it could easily get past him to the Senator in front of the net alone. That doesn't happen, but by process that's a poor play.
  • He sneaks free at the blueline for the perfect anti-trap stretch pass and uses his feet well to get out clean, a rare misplay on the pass by 97 or the puck would've been in the back of the net coming from the defensive zone in about four seconds flat.
  • This wasn't a strong performance in the plays highlighted. There was still a net positive contribution on the night from the player based on the offense delivered, but in the areas we're looking at there's some rawness to be seen. It was a strong night by the numbers almost solely because once the unit was in the offensive zone, they stayed there, not because they got in at will. In fairness, this is understandable to a degree given score effects and the opposing team's tactics.

October 19th vs Chicago Blackhawks

Another dominant game, from an even higher shelf. The 97 line plus the Swedish top pairing laid waste to the Toews and Keith shutdown unit. Eight shots on goal by our subject himself, of eleven attempts at even strength. Another game where, if I show only his errors, know that that wasn't the story of the effort overall on that night. We're looking for what we're looking for, though.

  • The first two clips and  several throughout feature defencemen not displaying much ambition for creating clean exits, which hurts a winger's ability to participate in a breakout.
  • The goal shows what can happen when you generate clean breakouts with 97 on the ice.
  • Yamamoto's very active away from the puck, he gets a stick on almost anything near him and I believe he gets a piece of the puck in the late first period scramble.
  • For the first time in the review, Kailer just completely loses his check on the first 2nd period clip, for some reason skating outside-in on the carrier, except, on the wrong side of the puck. Already bad, but he wipes out in front of the perching linesman.
  • In that very same shift, he ends up getting the better of a battle and crashes the crease offensively, completing an effort that very well encapsulates the players' competitiveness and all-shift-long effort level.
  • The next shift features a shot against that the player had nothing to do with.
  • Throughout this game and throughout this feature, we see Kailer Yamamoto's closes on the point man quickly, every time. He'll score some goals and draw some penalties from those plays every year of his pro career.
  • He also stretches out defending structures very well as the first man out of the zone, and knows which lane to drive.
  • This was a good game, he forced Duncan Keith to make quick decisions time and time again, capping the game off with a brilliant rush one-on-one against the future Hall of Famer who is famous for being excellent in those situations. Could have drawn a penalty and sealed the game on the rush he did have the puck, and on the one with 30 seconds on the clock he took the defenceman entirely out of the play by dashing up the ice at the first sign of a turnover. 
  • That was on a shift where the player stayed on for the faceoff after his OTF shift, with seconds left on the clock, at 19 years-old.

October 17th vs Carolina Hurricanes

Here's another more even game, at least by shots on goal. There's a hard matchup against Slavin-Pesce, who defended well but didn't have adequate forward support to make use of their admirable stifling of the McDavid unit. Every game I listen to an away broadcast, the opposing team's media needs very little goal-against-less time to pass before declaring that their checking centre or defense pair is shutting down 97. In Carolina's case there's some validity to it, as their pair is easily one of the more effective at the impossible task. Also note the majority 5v5 time-on-ice with defenceman Kris Russell, more on that shortly.

  • I axed quite a bit of this game, that consisted of the kind of wasted neutral zone hot-potato that plagues the modern NHL. Kris Russell has his strengths as a player, but when he elects to give up clean possession in order to have the puck exit the zone, it plays into the opponents main strategy when McDavid is on the ice against him. In every season since 2012 besides the red-hot run by the Calgary Flames in 2014-15, having Kris Russell on the ice has lowered the shot, chance, and goals for rate of the star forward of his team and my eyes argue that it has to do with a lack of facilitating DZ exits and OZ entries with possession. This resulted in a number of plays out of the zone that Yamamoto couldn't contribute to, through no fault of his own and were thus excluded from the review. (He also wasn't the only one, and you'll see some of what I'm talking about in the clips that weren't cut)
  • Kailer's habit of staying aware of the layers away from the puck and being puck-side of the point man at all times shows up again. Watch for his continual mindfulness of his positioning, always checking over his shoulder.
  • The routine plays along the wall and the handoffs to 97 are much more important than they seem, and were much less than routine for much of the roster on the wings for the rest of the year.
  • This was another game spent trailing and attempting to puncture a conservative neutral zone setup, which means it features even more reset and regroup heavy attacks coming out of the zone.
  • A couple nice carries by the player in this collection.
  • Most of the futility of his unit and their efforts came in the offensive zone, as they didn't score despite ample time there. The 20-8 shot attempts edge and the video back up that they didn't have too much trouble getting through the trap, which is a credit to both 97 and our subject.

The Verdict

I came in doubtful and that may have coloured my conclusions before I came to them, but the data already cast doubt on the notion that Kailer Yamamoto wasn't NHL-ready in terms of positioning and transition, and the video reviewed confirms it. This is a player who won the coach's trust on merit, and although he can improve further in these areas, his arrival as a top-six option in the NHL at 5-on-5 play will not be delayed by an inability to keep up at these aspects of the game. If Kailer Yamamoto is to establish himself as an NHL player this season for the Edmonton Oilers, it will be because he has improved in other areas to complement his existing ability to contribute to those reviewed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Evaluating Pacific Forward Groups - American Teams

(Author's note before I begin - There's a different font this article because whenever I copy+paste from word onto blogspot, it shows up in a super-tiny font and that is unchangeable and doesn't respond to any editing, so a work-around I'm using is to change the total font to something larger. I'm totally not mad as hell, and definitely didn't spend 45 minutes trying to fix this, and I'm absolutely not rage-typing this at a million WPM right now.)

(Second Author's note - If you're skeptical of GAR/WAR metrics, count me with you, and this doesn't mean the piece isn't for you. What we have here is something to look back on - if these are far off from what happens, we can learn about either why I'm a poor interpreter of the metrics, or why the metrics aren't accurate, or both to varying degrees. The spirit of these two articles is examining the ways in which these controversial metrics run counter to a popular notion that the Oilers are more vulnerable on the blueline than they are up front. )

I believe the Edmonton Oilers have miles more problems at forward than they do on the blue.

Aided by this summers’ developments like the still-ongoing Nurse negotiations, the Sekera re-injury and subsequent Jerabek addition, as well as the drafting and present-time evaluation of Evan Bouchard, much of the talk about the upcoming season is focused on the defense.

There are reasons for this, a decade-long conditioning from having one to two top four defencemen on the team, the still-stinging memories of an overwhelming amount of defensive lapses, and the sheer magnitude of the goals-against number the Oilers accrued last year. The fall from the previous successful years’ team defense went to much lower depths than the team offenses’ tumble.

What, then, is the reason to be more concerned about the forwards? It’s two-fold – the role that the forwards played last year in the demise of a previously successful defense, and the plentiful reasons for a rebound from the defencemen and goaltending.

The Oilers, last year, had three forwards that contributed at a top-six level, and added no sure things while taking away the next closest in Patrick Maroon. As I’ve mentioned before, this team needs at least three gambles to pay off in order to ice six scoring forwards – Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto’s swift emergence, and a full rebound from Milan Lucic.

And that’s without touching the team’s transitional problems from having so few truly skilled wingers who can pass or carry the puck from zone to zone – Jesse Puljujarvi being the only true winger who exhibited any ability in this area.

To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to repeat my exercise used in the Sans-Sekera piece and go from team to team looking at their forward groups comparatively – an imperfect process when prior to training camp. Still, most of the important players are where they are and a critical difference between the Oilers and their competition is the numerical amount of such players.

As with every project I set out to do, this ended up being much more work than I thought it would be, so I’m splitting them into separate articles detailing the American teams, and then the Canadian teams.

On these graphics will be three (sometimes two) metrics, along with a display of my considerable gifts with Microsoft Paint.

For Corsica Player Rating, and my view on models and what they can give us, refer to my previous post here, and my follow-up comment with the formula for Game Score here.

In situations were there was no GAR from Chace McCallum, I used EvolvingWild’s numbers, their twitter is here and the website is where you can find the tables. In situations with rookies, I'm using NHLE and NHLP.

Here's a quick utility-explainer for each:

Corsica Player Rating - ( )

  • These ratings are the key metric for overall evaluations in this article, and most properly grasp the players ability moving forward. 
  • This is a metric that makes a ton of sense for where it has pretty much every forward, except for (sometimes) parts of large TOI share player duos, which of course is a problem that's present in pretty much any method of evaluation, to the point where the ground truth itself is obscured.
  • A particular strength of this metric is comparing players with large time on ice disparities in comparison to the game score and GAR, which I'll explain further shortly.
Game Score per 60 - ( Measuring Single game Productivity )

  • This is a rate metric, one that gives us more context on who was most efficient in their time given in 2017-18. 
  • The metric does what it says it does well - it's slanted towards shooters and scorers and box score contributors
  • CPR does not use points, so Game Score is a good contrast as it measures goals-established scoring ability, and gives us an idea of who has efficient point producers throughout their lineup.
Goals Above Replacement per 82 - ( Goals Above Replacement

  • A second rate metric, to contrast against Game Score's shooter and scorers slant and attempt to better identify defensive contributions, and compartmentalise contributions in general.
  • Deployment seems to muddy the waters in those defensive areas.
  • Whenever I'm mentioning penalty differentials or defensive contributions. I'm talking about those components of Chace's GAR.
  • I considered using Emmanuel Perry's GAR here but decided to stick to the Sekera piece script.

  • This is an estimation of the amount of points a player would score based on their points per game in another league.
  • These are non-age adjusted factors, and I will contextualise further when they come up.
NHLP by Blue Bullet Report - ( )

  • This is an estimation of what a players career season in the NHL will be based on their CHL production.
  • I will use this alongside NHLE for players drafted highly, to capture what the upper end possibility could be - although few forwards peak in their rookie season, scoring forwards show themselves early and a stronger season than raw NHLE is possible for high first rounders.
In short, CPR are the overall guiding light, then we use Game Score (per 60) to illustrate the box score power and which teams will likely have the highest forward GF totals, and then we examine a players GAR to see what they bring in different areas.

Then for fun I'll do two little unscientific, novelty combinations of the metrics, along with a third that I think is Actually Important:

Top-Six Rating - the sum of the projected top two lines of forwards' Corsica Player Rating

Soft-Parade Potential - the total net amount of previous-season Offensive GAR (from a team has outside of their top two lines

Potential Negative Against Replacement Candidates - The amount of players who have a history of delivering negative GAR totals, or whose totals in offense are so low that they sit right at the water line and have a negative GAR season easily within their personal variance, oftentimes these are 4th liners who get caved on the shot clock and take penalties

The last one is important because theoretically if you have three or four guys taking a couple goals away each, that's basically subtracting a quality, salaried forward's entire contribution out (eight goals against replacement is a fine total for a forward).

Anaheim Ducks

A lot of what can be said about the Anaheim Ducks can also be said about the other two teams that compete in-state. Their financial audit reads almost exactly the same; there’s a collection of older players on contracts with different combination of movement protection and large dollar commitments - these vary in their projected value, and can often wildly swing in output even year-to-year. Take Dustin Brown’s pact, one that was often and early mentioned in any discussion of the most problematic contracts around the league every recent year until last. 

All three of the sunshine-state team’s forward corps consist quite uniformly of these contracts, some middle or late twenties players that are middle-first round hits on good contracts, and potent, potentially highly valuable ELCs. 

At Centre

Possibly subject to immediate change is Ryan Kesler’s appearance here. In late May this year, Elliote Friedman detailed in a 31 Thoughts column that there was a chance Ryan Kesler would not play the 2018-19 season at all. They’ve already got their contingency in Adam Henrique, who also works in that role  if Kesler’s performance last season is indicative of his play going forward. That’s to say Henrique might be their 2C on merit even if Kesler is healthy. Henrique is a player who’s fairly controversial – he’s been playing tough matchups for a long time without a ton of overt success. You can look at his numbers and excuse them due to his particularly difficult deployment, but there are other players who play in that role with more success than him. What he does have going for him, though, is when he takes a defensive zone face-off against a tough matchup, the defencemen behind him are one of the very best pairings in the league, Lindholm-Manson.
Contrast this centre depth with the rest of the division and it doesn’t look fantastic given the risk factors. Getzlaf is still as good as any non-McDavid centre, but after that it doesn’t particularly seem like they’ve got anyone playing below their established level of ability unless Kesler is both healthy and at a level of play of two years ago, and that would be so generous that if you had time for that possibility you'd have to have time for the absolute best case scenario of every other team.

At Left Wing

Rakell is the high-end against this group and the division, and his presence makes the position a mirror image of the centre group, where there’s an elite player at the top of the lineup, a skilled checker below with metrics in disagreement, followed by a bottom end that offers exploitability to opposing teams. Brian Gibbons was a good bet for the Devils last year, cost nothing and they got a lot of important goals out of him in the early part of the season. He got himself a follow-up deal in California, and good for him. He’s one of many smaller players to trash the AHL without further opportunities for many years of their twenties. The math doesn’t like his chances at a repeat performance, however.
Nick Ritchie is an extremely dangerous player to ice, capable always of taking unnecessary penalties and often missing coverage. He’s also liable to draw penalties, however, just as every player of his player type does – mysteriously drawing more calls than more offensively dangerous players by virtue of provocation. He’s volatile both ways, could add or subtract three or so goals against replacement in a year.

At Right Wing

This is a position of balance for the Ducks, especially in comparison to the other top-heavy columns. The top-heaviness of Anaheim’s right wing is instead in the financial sector, consisting of their fanbases’ most loathed contract – Corey Perry’s – and below three positive value contracts, with one concrete and two subject to speculation.
Despite Corey Perry’s decline in season-total scoring, he’s still a player that draws penalties and provides 5v5 offense at a first line per hour rate, in the 83rd percentile to be precise. He’s become a drag on possession, however, especially once you factor in how good his linemates are and his favourable deployment, particularly for a veteran player. The most alarming part of his production is that he’s begun to undershoot his expected goals, meaning his finishing talents are waning and he’ll likely have to transition into a playmaking role, much like what Oilers fans saw Mike Cammaleri do this spring first-hand. He’s also one of Capfriendly’s most popular buyouts – I’d say a rebuilding team should absolutely explore a trade for him as his decline while real seems overstated.
Jakub Silfverberg is a success story in defensive deployment with a  killer shot whose only weakness is that he has a bad penalty differential. What’s also interesting is that at age 27 his defensive contribution actually declined year over year, and I personally trace that back to the slashing crackdown. The Cogliano-Silfverberg-Kesler line was one of the most hand-slash-happy units in the NHL for years, and they’ll pay in both effectiveness and infractions for the crackdown that’s come to the once-ubiquitous tactic that was especially prominent in teams coached by Bruce Boudreau past or present.
Below those two we have two players highly likely to provide value beyond their salaries, to buoy Perry’s impact in that area. Ondrej Kase delivered a balanced season last year, being one of the most efficient scorers in his minutes while also providing fantastic defensive value even against rather sheltered minutes. Everything about him is a bargain – he’s a former 7th rounder on a 2.6mm AAV contract that has that elusive third year on a bridge.

The second potential value contract is Troy Terry’s, a former 5th round pick that formed one of the best lines in college hockey despite him and his goalscoring partner – Henrik Borgstrom, age 20 – being much younger than typical feature lines in that league. Who you play with is very important in any league, so you can be wary of his NHLE, but anecdotally I seem to see only the third member of a forward line having inflated value, unless the first is generational or close. The verbal out of Anaheim says he’ll at least get some NHL time, and it’s been since he participated in the USA Olympic squad that it’s been implied he’ll have every chance to make the Ducks.
Overall, I’d say Anaheim’s flirting with disaster at centre, has a just as top-heavy but significantly less risky left side, and a well balanced and deep right wing.

Top six rating - 456.45
Soft parade potential – +8.17 OGAR
NAR candidates – three, one on the third line and two on the fourth.

Arizona Coyotes

Arizona’s had a top end problem for years. They didn’t hit well in the first round at all at forward, and didn’t win any lotteries. Despite having a defenseman like Ekmann-Larsson to ease the burden of playing at the top of the forward line-up, no one really hit that lowered threshold of ability until Stepan-Keller. Stepan had thoroughly better metrics in New York, and now that the pairings are more set behind him, I think a lot of the possession value will turn as well as Keller’s second year improving his offense. There’s more centres on this team than those listed, but consulting the talk about the team it appears this is how they’ll run on default - there's a number of battles but I'm betting on draft clout and skill to force guys up the lineup. Whether I'm right or wrong on who plays where, we still have a good read on the amount of impact players available by potential or pedigree.

At Centre

What we’ve got here is a low-end 1C, followed by a powder-keg in Galchenyuk who could blow up with minutes at his natural position and decent wingers like the efficiently productive Hinostroza. Or, he could prove why he was so sheltered in Montreal and get eaten alive by other team’s skilled lines. You can see which metric bets for and which bets against.

Dvorak got a somewhat strange long-term contract this summer, core-identifying and rich in term and average annual value. He’s certainly not the worst 3C in the division, but he looks to be about Ryan Strome-level  and he’ll need both of his wingers to help him score 5v5.

Speaking of not scoring 5v5, Brad Richardson’s sole value is in his average defensive contribution pulling horrific scoring rates out of the negative and a slightly positive penalty differential compounding into meagre value, rating him as one of the better 4C’s in the division against some other team’s possibly negative contributors.

At Left Wing

Arizona’s LW is the opposite of Edmonton’s. They’ve got a sure bet at the top end, and then two intriguing youngsters at the bottom 6 instead of the top six. Which is good, because Perlini’s a heartbreaker of a #12 overall, one of the ones I mentioned earlier in this Arizona feature. His only redeeming ability appears to be finding the back of the net, but he doesn’t do so often enough to outweigh the bad defensively. This is said, unfairly, about a great many skilled forwards, in his case it’s much more accurate than most.

Grabner is one of my favourite players, he's some kind of lab experiment. His scoring numbers, even in the WHL, look like they're of a players' work previous to the implementation of the forward pass. He's a bit of a dangerous player to acquire, as he can hurt you if you put him in the wrong spot, but because he's selling goals, he can be a money sink based on market value if you don't get his one dimension in spades. I think the best spot for him might be a sheltered forward line rounded out by a young defencemen who also needs those soft minutes but whose headman passing is beyond his years.

Lawson Crouse is a much lesser bet numerically, but still has draft pedigree and only needs to contribute in a complementary fashion offensively to become a useful player. If you’re Arizona, you hope to turn him into a player who can be the third on a skilled line for cheap, and penalty kill on the top unit. He was a bad bet for an impact player at #11 overall, but is a better one for a checker after being a useful AHL player with a good playoff spring. Still, it could be too early and the lack of offensive flourish could mean he brings down the unit a bit

At Right Wing

Richard Panik’s showing here surprises me, and It’s rather uniform, too. His GAR is made up of great complementary offense, above average defense, and a fine penalty differential. I don’t like the type of trade that was made, but among its kind it’s a wildly successful one. Panik pushes talented players down at this position, delivering respectable depth to the top nine.

Hinostroza is the latest boon from the Coyote’s cap-gaming dealings, and I’d mark it most successful if the competition wasn’t so heavy. The Hawks losing this player is devastating to a suspect middle forward group, and he arrives just in time to another, bringing efficient scoring and good zone-moving ability.

Fischer is a similarly efficient player who’s more defensively valuable, and he checks well without taking many penalties. His last year represents a likelihood of an extremely important 2nd round hit. He scored 15 goals as a ~5% shooter, that’s encouraging for the probability of an even better second season. The third in the order for each of Arizona’s forward positions seems to point to the possibility that should the team falter, it’ll be because of the top end and not the depth giving goals back.

Arizona's got much better depth than a number of teams in-division and balances out well with an assortment of offensive and defensive forwards, passers and playmakers. They're missing a scoring piece, and that's critical - especially given their drafting lately being slated away from some of the top producers available. They're in very good shape should either Dylan Strome or Nick Merkley hit some time during the year.

Top-Six Rating -  443.36
Soft-Parade Potential - +3.46 OGAR
NAR Candidates - two, both fourth liners 

Los Angeles Kings

Several players could arrive right on time for this club.

The Kings had a problem, and they still do, too. The half-turn around from last year, in fairness to Darryl Sutter, can’t be entirely explained by coaching. Adrian Kempe emerged last year in a big way, after appearing to flounder in the AHL. In fact, his 16 NHL goals is four higher than his single highest one-season total on the Ontario Reign. 

He joined two former Reign who made the jump in Iafallo and Amadio, and solved some of the top-heaviness of the Kings offense that was beginning to sink the ship. Players like Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and crew were giving back against weak competition what Carter and Kopitar were earning in the stronger minutes (sound familiar?) and as the defence declined behind them, the talent of the top-end was being obscured.
This is a team that made the playoffs without some 50 games of Jeff Carter, who is still an excellent player capable of forming as strong a second line as any in the division. The elephant in the room is the question of whether Brown’s resurgance was a blip, and if Kovalchuk still has it. They’ll have plenty of help via Hart candidate centre and a Norris candidate defenseman killing plays and moving the puck up the ice.

At Centre

Kopitar is one of the very best players in the league, and his talents offer elite value in every facet of the game as he defends to near perfection while taking little penatlies against top competition and then turns around and scores on them endlessly as well.

As with each of the Hart nominees, what we likely witnessed was a career season in points, though that may not be true for MacKinnon due to the youth of his linemates. It’s unlikely that these players deliver on their GAR, and I would say their also-but-less flattering Corsica Player Rating may capture the potential their upcoming season holds more realistically. 

Jeff Carter’s GAR is an unscientific projection based on his small amount of regular season games where he was likely running hot, to re-use the point just made about Kopitar. Still though, he’s more than enough as a second line centre especially between two strong offensive wingers like this. Skaters such as him seem to age slower than the rest, though the injury problems may continue.

In consulting some reporting about the teams upcoming training camp, what I found was that Vilardi is rehabbing his back, and may start on the team as a wing. His potential also mirrors Dylan Strome’s, his only weakness is his skating but it’s alleviated by the utterly ridiculous Junior numbers translated through NHLE. A better decision may be patience, but it’s been stated that he has every chance to make the team. Adrian Kempe is like a lot of young players – he gives back some of what he earns in offense according to GAR models. 

Amadio and Lewis will play as the two centres on the fourth line, and this represents danger as the young player is the only of the trio to bring offense to the table, meaning a lapse in goaltending could easily put them in the red. The less offense you provide, the lower the threshold for what’s out of your control to be able to lose you your minutes in goalshare.

At Left-Wing

*projected GAR provided by @EvolvingWild

Kovalchuk is an erratic player to project. I’ve included projected GAR by EvolvingWild, and it may be shy. As noted earlier, his is a spot in the lineup that’s both important but one that he’ll have plenty of help in as a likely first-unit powerplay player and playing shotgun for a Hart candidate. His NHLE is ridiculous due to his strength of team somewhat, but it can’t be ignored. Tanner Pearson remains underrated, and isn’t out of place at all on a second line, though he isn’t wildly above average among the division. 

Alex Iafallo’s season should be an interesting phenomenon – he played many minutes in Kovalchuk’s spot, and will be a fun little case-study in what happens when you reduce a player’s quality of teammate along with quality of competition. He added value immensely on the defensive side of the puck, but was playing mostly with Kopitar and Brown, and models can have trouble divvying up the separate contributions of large samples of minutes players played together, whom then played little minutes apart. Is 

Alex Iafallo truly a player that adds 2.4 goals against replacement defensively, against top competition, by himself? Surely that will take a little step back, but the amount is what counts and it’ll be interesting to see. 

Clifford is a generic fourth line guy who’s a negative against replacement candidate. More teams would do well to do what good teams have done, and cheaply turn over the bottom of the roster with younger players with more offensive potential, especially when they have a top line and defense pairing that can do all of the important checking for them.

At Right-Wing

Brown stepping back a bit from a second-half career season is to be expected, but this development should stop well short of putting him below first-line-wing category, particularly so due to the contingency the Kings run here, being able to put Pearson or Iafallo into Kovalchuk’s place should he falter and anchor down the line.
Toffoli is a bit of a one-way player, but given quality of linemates and competition he has and can easily continue to thrive, and should actually post better numbers than last year due to Carter’s health, though this did expose a bit the extent to which he relied on him. From the transition data, Toffoli appears to dump the puck in a ton, likely since Carter is the carrier of the line. His possession metrics should then improve with his centre’s return.
Everything written before about the third line dynamic of Vilardi and Kempe applies to the RW situation, as does the dynamic of Lewis as the second flank to a veteran fourth line that has trouble both transitioning the puck with possession, and with generating real chances and finishing them.
Overall, the Kings are well above average in their first unit, simply above average at the second, and have a question-mark third line with the ubiquitious archetype of youth and defensive uncertainty. Following is a commonly-found fourth line with two potential negative players and a skilled youngster tasked with putting them above water, made difficult because of the defensive depth at the same area of the roster among the blueliners.

Top-Six Rating - 465.54
Soft-Parade Potential - +5.47 OGAR
NAR Candidates - Two fourth liners

San Jose Sharks

This is the most complete forward group in the division, a title won through little competition, however.

It’s an envy-inducing compilation of all of the types of players a successful contending team can acquire to extend their window – a balance between successful mid-late first rounders, and late round picks  converting at a high rate into complete role players, with an added bonus of a star from 7th round

At Centre

Just fine Is their centre group, provided Thornton is healthy.

Thornton is a balanced player, adding just as much defensively as he does offensively in terms of percentile in his GAR, with substantial powerplay offense on top. It’s fairly difficult to construct a powerplay unit with this player on it that doesn’t score. He is declining, however, as in 2015-16 his line added about fifty-three (53!!!) goals against replacement between him(19.56), Pavelski(19.69), and pre-Dustin-Brown Tomas Hertl(13.67). This rolled down to about 14 in 2016-17, and 11 last year.

The numbers don’t rhyme on Couture, who is one of the best centres in the league by Corsica Player Rating, but has a rather pedestrian GAR in comparison. This is made up of strong offense, and then a curious defensive bite taken out of the net contribution from last year. This is out of character for Couture, who typically adds value both ways. I’m inclined to believe whatever Emmanuel Perry is doing to contextualise how hard his minutes lies closer to the truth on this player – and this could also be alleviated when Thornton returns.

Tierney is just average at 3C, with a better GAR percentile rank than CPR… but half of his GAR comes from the fact that he takes almost no penalties.  It’s basically most important that he has wingers that provide offense for him as he treads water in almost every way. By our principle of likelihood to deliver negative impact, he works just fine.

There’s a battle for 4C, just like in most teams training camps, and Gambrell could easily win it by what I’ve read. He owns an impressive NHLE, but there’s danger here as each of his strong college years have been spent on excellent University of Denver teams next to players who either are or project to be good NHLers – Danton Heinen, Will Butcher, Troy Terry, Henrik Borgstrom, Ian Mitchell. He was drafted overage after a successful year on Heinen’s line after considerable press. It’s considerable likelihood that his offense is inflated as both of his 17 and 18 year old seasons in the USHL were mediocre in that area, especially the last one which was also spent playing with 19-year-olds.  By our probability of negativity index, there’s a sign here, albeit not a flashing red one. This is important because the wingers have a history of this, as well as his possible competitors for the job.

At Left-Wing

Evander Kane adds a crown jewel to what would be a shy top-nine otherwise. Post-Dustin-Brown Hertl hasn’t delivered the quality his rookie season promised, but becomes much more valuable if pushed down to the second line. Joe Thornton talks glowingly of Kane, and all signs point to him as the first ingredient added to Big and Little Joe. This is a position that merely lacks a truly elite player, but with a total added value of about 25 goals in the top-nine looks just fine going forward, especially age considered. Contrast that with Calgary, who gets more than 25 goals off of just their top two left-wingers but then gives ~8 back in the bottom-six, or Edmonton, who only adds 13 total.
They do, however, run the risk of giving a little back on the fourth line, which isn’t a glaring weakness but is something that’s so easy to fix it should really get the attention it needs, given the more-than-meagre benefit.

At Right-Wing

Would you look at that, another 25 goals. This is a masterclass in internal development, with two 7th rounders, and undrafted player and a 4th rounder.  Joonas Donskoi is a fantastic carrier, by far leading his team in entries and a close second to Thornton in exits, both with possession of course. Labanc is a fascinating selection, plucked from the middle of the lineup of his junior team, his point totals gated by his ice time who subsequently exploded in his post-draft junior career and has doubled his totals year over year in the NHL. He near literally tripled his draft year total from 35 to 107 points and is now a well balanced middle sixer who is useful both even strength and on the powerplay. As an aside, off all the teams to select Ryan Merkley, the Sharks may be one of the most dangerous based on history.
Goodrow completes an a trio I’ve selected from the fourth line competitors ahead of the Sharks camp, with no player in particular changing the outlook – this may be a negative unit. Though this effect will easily be made back by the relatively strong third line, it would behoove the Sharks to make an easy fix and acquire more offensive players for their fourth line to complete their attack even further.

Top-Six Rating: 459.34
Soft-Parade Potential: +2.23 OGAR
NAR Candidates: Three, entire fourth line

Vegas Golden Knights

Among many tropes, conspiracy theories and regular theories for the Knights’ success, perhaps the most popular besides feelings-fuel was the one explaining that Vegas had four second lines, or unparalleled depth threatening the weak underbelly of salary-starved bottom sixes opposing them.

This is untrue by the numbers, which illustrate that an elite first-line resultant from franchise-altering mistakes slaughtered the league in front of average defensive depth and red-hot goaltending.

While this replicated itself in the playoffs, so too were the fairy tales.
There are, however, been two major moves made to form a stronger second line of attack, featuring two players who have shown over different years that they can add that level of ability.

At Centre

Someday, a winger will be credited publically with driving a line as often as it happens in reality.

Yesterday was not that day.

Karlsson is the second-best player on his line, going forward his Corsica Player Rating is likely more telling of his innate ability than the single season GAR/82 rate, as with any player far to either side of average variance. Accounting for that, he still stands above a few in-division first line centres, and has more than enough skill to keep up with his superstar winger and outscore almost any competition with some consistency.

Paul Stastny had a similar year, though a further regression to career mean is likely in order due to age, and those who hold the memory of his playoff run with Winnipeg as their evaluation on the player may be overestimating him going forward, as there’s a particularly pronounced step down in linemates coming.

Erik Haula being pushed down by Stastny, however, is found money for the Knights. He does everything at an above average rate, and ends up netting out at a couple GAR higher than your typical third line centre. Given this, the Knights have a strong ability to elevate one of their rookies and run them for a half season, like Cody Glass, given the amount of contingency on the wings should this fail.

Cody Eakin is… a face-off man. On the surface, he’s a 15-goal bottom sixer and that has value. Digging deeper, he does this in minutes where replacement level outproduces him, and he typically doesn’t make up for this defensively. He dumps the puck out, and he dumps the puck in. This player flirts with negative numbers often, and is a candidate to take a chunk - albeit not a large one - out of the goalshare.

At Left-Wing

Jonathan Marshessault is a superstar play-driving winger, full stop. He’s the carrier on his line, he added 8.9 GAR in 5v5 offensively to the next closest of 6.3, is the common denominator on the powerplay, and doesn’t give anything back defensively. He’s in the rank 7 peer-group in Corsica Player Ratings. He has the highest shot contributions on his team. There  precious few possible upgrades on this player.

I began writing this well before the Pacioretty trade, and so to contextualise how impactful the replacement on 2LW is, I’ll first start with what I had written previously about Tomas Tatar:

Tatar was what should have been a highly controversial acquisition, but the team’s success shielded the move somewhat. They got very little out of him, though he’s had better years than last. He’s a powerplay guy, delivering last season a 37th percentile 5v5 offensive contribution but a 70th powerplay one. Interestingly, his defensive contribution rockets up by that same measure if you look at his previous year. Which of course prompts me to investigate his linemates – where I find a partnership with one Mr. Henrik Zetterberg making up the large majority of his minutes. I’d wager also that Gerard Gallant would have a thing or two to say about that if you gave him a truth serum, given that the player was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. His entry data and passing metrics don’t shine on him either, leaving me still searching for an area strength.

Now, Max Pacioretty has been one of the best players at his position for some time, this much is certain. He’s a player that gets a lot done in tough times and without quality help, excluding just the last year. He drives offense against tough opposition perennially at a 90+th percentile level at even strength, doesn’t give a ton back and draws far more penalties than he takes. He does this without being a one-dimensional shooter, as well, as his passing metrics are far above average, and he was the rare player type that is an exceptionally good zone exit artist, making his centre (or whoever is F1 at the time) and defensemen’s jobs easier because of his intelligence, positioning, and skill with the puck coming off of the wall in the defensive zone. His talents are so pronounced that, if you add just one year to his last one, the aberration washes out and then some and he still ranked high percentile in important areas. A massive add to a position that needed it, one that will help to balance the Knights’ top-heavy attack. The key is whether or not last year wasn’t indicative of his impact going forward.

Ryan Carpenter is another damned Sharks product that’s a valuable all-around player, offensively ungifted but disciplined defensively, wins a big enough share of face-offs to add value there and can penalty kill competently as well. Him and Nosek could be swapped practically, and I wouldn’t doubt it could happen but they’d lose a little as they may be similar players, but Carpenter shows up a little bit better at everything. The good news is, there’s no negative history here.

The fourth left-wing is likely Tomas Nosek, but as with most teams I’ve detailed his spot is in contention. He’s a player that provides so little offensively that, if he had a history of bad penalty differential he’d be a risk factor. He doesn’t, but his prior history in the AHL shows a player with a fine goal differential and season PIM totals commiserate with his estimated TOI, so the bet is he’s fairly disciplined.

At Right-Wing

The second gift from the wise men is Reilly Smith, who rounds out the top line nicely though is generally accepted by each model and by traditional analysts to be the complementary player of the three. Still, given he adds up to a first line winger it would take quite a drop-off in performance for him to be ill-suited for the role. He’s just a good player, offensively defensively and on the powerplay.

Alex Tuch is a player who seemed to be obscured a bit in the NCAA and AHL – his potential based on scoring numbers was much higher in the USHL and I do wonder what his role was at BC. Regardless, he brought all kinds of tools up from the minor leagues and is now inspiring fans all over to project his success onto their favourite team’s 21-year-old AHL forwards.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is a living stereotype and is much rarer in player identity than he sounds. Usually, when a veteran player is known for providing little offense but checking consistently to a draw, both qualities are overrated and obscure what is a negative contribution player. Bellemare is an exception, I first noticed this player on Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup playing well above his pay grade and have been fascinated to find that he’s a success case of classic checking wing. He takes away offense against replacement for -1.4 goals, but then adds 3.8 goals defensively while critically taking little obstruction penalties, hanging out at four goals above sea level. I hope I’m contextualising just how rare this is, 3.8 goals defensively places him in a lofty percentile in that discipline.

Ryan Reaves as a player is so far into meme territory that it’s difficult to talk about the player. From goon-turned-good-player the traditional hockey media says about him, to the facetious  first-round-pick-fodder moniker given to him from the analytically-inclined, there’s a wide range of opinion on the player. Here’s the deal: there’s a boatload of evidence that he’s just a comically famous fourth line player. He dumps the puck in, he dumps the puck out. He hits people, he gets hit by people. He throws hands, and he catches hands. A bona-fide legend, to be sure, but I’m not at all convinced he affects Vegas’ chances on the ice in a positive way and he’s a candidate for a negative-against-replacement season.

Here’s what’s becoming a trope: the Knights could save themselves a chunk of goal differential by turning over the bottom end of their roster and running Daniel Carr, Bellemare and adding someone such as  Nick Shore to essentially erase the risk they run of eating into others’ positive contributions. Especially if they’re looking to come out of the West again.

Top-Six Rating - 466.73
Soft-Parade Potential - +8.27 OGAR
NAR Candidates - Entire fourth line