What We Learned: Who are most and least exciting NHL players?
(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
The National Hockey League is obsessed with making itself as entertaining as possible, and for good reason. Sports, at the end of the day, are an entertainment product.
The problem here is that there are so many things in the NHL that conspire to keep the game not-fun, or at least not-as-fun-as-it-could-be, that get pretty frustrating. “We don’t want the game to get like soccer,” is a common refrain among those who want to see more excitement in the game, and it’s understandable that you don’t want scoring to drop to a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games. That kind of contest can be fun, of course, but usually it requires both goalies to stand on their heads and stop a million shots, and teams to concede a lot of odd-man rushes without conceding a lot of goals. It’s rare that such a thing happens, at least where both teams are concerned.
But it is worrying to some extent that we equate “entertaining” with simply “scoring a lot.” It’s a little more nuanced than all that, I think. Because if scoring a lot were the key to making the game popular, it would have been the biggest sport in the world in the 1980s. It wasn’t so much that teams were scoring a lot back then, of course. I mean, they were, but it was also to do with the fact that all of the top seven — and eight of the top 10 — of the highest shots-per-game seasons in terms of shots per game were in the decade from 1983-92.
But here’s the interesting thing: the other two in that group were 2009-10 and 2010-11.
The big difference from the free-wheeling ’80s and early ’90s to today’s NHL? People actually put thought into the goaltending position. Three decades ago, the average save percentage couldn’t reach .890 if it were standing on a ladder. Today, anything less than .910 will get a goalie run out of the league with a pitchfork. Modern goaltending costs the league an average of two goals per game, or thereabouts. And there’s no way to legislate that out of hockey without fundamentally changing how it’s played (i.e. not allowing goalies to go into the butterfly, changing the size of nets, etc.).
So with all this in mind, it seems like a good idea to look at the players who are on the ice for the most- and least-fun hockey in the NHL today. What hockey makes hockey fun, besides simply featuring somewhere between 7.5 and eight goals a game?
Up-and-down action, with players cramming as many shot attempts and scoring chances as humanly possible into every second of the game they play.
The question is: Who are those players? Here is every player to play at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 both this season and last in total shot attempts and scoring chances per 60 minutes of ice time, and there are some pretty clear outliers from the league average right from the start.
Obviously what we’re interested in here are the guys in the upper right quadrant, those who are on the ice for at least 109.5 shot attempts and 16.5 chances per 60. Once you carve out the players who don’t quite reach that level of action, your pool drops sharply, from 560 to just 260. That’s still about 40 percent of the guys in the league, of course, but we’re getting closer to nailing it down.
But once you splice that group of 260 into a similar chart, your upper right quadrant gets a lot less crowded. In fact, the elite players in terms of up-and-down action only numbers 14. So who do you end up with? A hell of a lot of Dallas Stars.
Half of the 14 players left on the list once you pare it down play in the free-wheeling Lindy Ruff system: Klingberg, Spezza, Goligoski, Hemsky, Benn, Seguin, and Janmark. You might have been able to guess that.
The other guys on the list include a couple of Canadiens (Pacioretty and Gallagher), a couple of Islanders (Strome and Tavares), a Blue Jacket (Dubinsky), a Jet (Little), and a Capital (Williams).
So quick aside here: Who are the most effective players in the league who happen to also be the most exciting? Well, they’re mostly Stars. You want to be in the upper right here as well (the gridlines here obviously represent 50 percent):
On the other hand, won’t it be interesting to look at the people who fall on the opposite side of the first graph? The guys who suck all fun out of the game are also easily identified by their denial of attempts and chances are easy to identify as well, simply because they fall in the bottom left quadrant, giving up fewer than 109.5 shot attempts and 16.5 scoring chances per 60 minutes of ice time.
From that initial pool of 560 players with at least 500 minutes since the start of 2015-16, but the bottom left quadrant only had 121 players in it. That’s about 17.5 percent of the players in the league, a little less than 1 in every 6.
But once you look at those 121 players on their own separate graph, you find that five are really in the depths of the truly most boring players in the league, with incredibly little actually happening when they’re on the ice. They come from four different teams, and all are pretty low-quality at this point in their careers. Nashville was the only club with two entrants on the list: Austin Watson and Paul Gaustad. The other three were Florida’s Derek MacKenzie, Minnesota’s Ryan Carter, and St. Louis’s Ryan Reaves.
And just because it’s worth mentioning, the guys who are the best in the league in terms of being on the ice for the most goals are pretty much all high-level players on teams that are considered not-great defensively. McDavid, Seguin, Benn, Jagr and Hudler are your top five in that regard. Of that group, only Jagr can really be said to be on a stalwart defensive team, but Florida still tended to give up a decent number of goals, even as the ageless wonder led the league in goals-for over the last 90ish games.
So the lesson here: If you think hockey needs to be more exciting, and want to make the league more fun in general, swap out low-skill players like Watson, Reaves, Carter, and Co. for good players. And maybe watch more Stars games.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: And believe me folks, Randy Carlyle knows “nowhere near NHL caliber” hockey when he sees it. Because he’s seen it for the last 200 games of his career or so.
Arizona Coyotes: Speaking of which, this is a question that could have been asked at any point in the past five years and you’d have been right to ask it.
Boston Bruins: My ultimate dream for beautiful Tuukka Rask is that he’s like .925 this season but the Bruins miss the playoffs anyway and he gets traded at the deadline straight-up for Pekka Rinne because the Bruins want to get out from under that $7 million cap hit a few years early and also they think Rinne is still good even though he isn’t and then Rask wins a Cup with Nashville.
Buffalo Sabres: Oh yeah, remember Brent Sopel?
Calgary Flames: If you mean “Will the Flames be as bad as they were to start the year?” the answer is “probably not.” If you mean “Will the Flames make the playoffs?” I’m gonna say “well, their division is awful, so maybe.”
Carolina Hurricanes: These nice boys, on the other hand, I expect will turn things around.
Chicago: This is not something I would have expected but once you say it, it makes perfect sense. Hossa sure did bounce around a lot in his early days.
Colorado Avalanche: I like these Avs, man. Amazing what a difference a new coach who knows what he’s doing makes.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Okay but that doesn’t mean they’re good.
Dallas Stars: It’s almost like everyone on this team has been hurt all season.
Detroit Red Wings: In contrast to the Columbus thing, the Wings might actually be worse than anyone thought. They closed Saturday night the worst possession team in the NHL.
Edmonton Oilers: Yeah the Oilers are going to be able to generate a lot of scoring chances, but if they get outshot every night, it’ll catch up with them.
Florida Panthers: Luck can really turn against you in a hurry, eh? Not a great team last year, and they break 100 points. Much better team this year, and they can’t figure out the winning component. Would you believe their PDO is in the toilet?
Las Vegas No-Names: It would certainly be interesting to see Vegas go with someone out of college hockey or the ECHL, but I’m not sure it would actually happen.
Los Angeles Kings: Basically every goalie in the Kings organization is hurt, with AHLer Jonah Imoo the latest victim.
Minnesota Wild: Ahhh, that’s bad.
Montreal Canadiens: Oh hell yeah Alex Radulov rules.
Nashville Predators: What a headline from Coop.
New Jersey Devils: What a spooky story on Halloween wow so scary.
New York Islanders: You could literally just change the Islanders’ team name to “Sidney Crosby goal leads Penguins past Islanders.” Crosby torches the Islanders like no other team in the league; 96 points in 55 career games, and the next closest is 83 in 56 against Philly. Good thing those teams play him 15 times a year.
New York Rangers: Yeah I’ll say!
Ottawa Senators: This is the good ‘tent, baby!
Philadelphia Flyers: At what point do we start to worry that the Flyers have little to no defensive structure? Lots of shots against, third-lowest 5-on-5 save percentage in the league so far, etc. etc.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Yeah Malkin and Crosby are still gonna win you a whole lot of games.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks haven’t lost at home yet. I could use another deep playoff run for these guys. Fun team.
St. Louis Blues: Colton Parayko is breaking a lot of sticks this year: about 12 in eight games. Doesn’t he know the Blues are a budget team?
Tampa Bay Lightning: Oh uh… hmm. That’s… good?
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner owns. Period. Incredibly fun to watch.
Vancouver Canucks: It’s almost like they’re the worst team in the league. Weird. Wild.
Washington Capitals: Oh yeah you know who’s not doing a good job? Barry Trotz. Wait what?
Winnipeg Jets: Never be afraid to send down high-end young talent if they’re not cutting it in the NHL.
Play of the Weekend
Gold Star Award
Here’s undrafted UNH freshman Peter Grasso scoring four goals on Saturday night, including a hat trick in the first 9:44 of the game. He has eight goals in six games. Seems good.
Minus of the Weekend
Can something just happen with Jacob Trouba already? Good lord.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Jaynki” wants to save the Islanders some money.
Straight up for
2016 and 2017 first round pick
Who’s that goat-legged fellow? I like the cut of his jib.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)