We’re trying out something new here. We’re going to use some underlying numbers to identify a few notable trends that have been bubbling under the surface and merit further investigation.
This week, that includes the historically great performance being put together by the current holder of the “best goalie in the world” title, the hidden benefits of riding shotgun next to a great player and the way superstars get officiated.
Arguably no single player in the league is living a more charmed life than Alex Chiasson right now. After assuming the role of NHL vagabond, bouncing around four different organizations over the span of just five seasons, he earned himself a Stanley Cup ring as a rotating member of the Washington Capitals‘ fourth line last spring.
Despite failing to parlay that team success into a bigger payday this summer, he finally landed a league minimum contract with the Edmonton Oilers on the eve of the regular season. As it turns out, that was the best thing that could’ve happened to him — because he wound up falling into the absolute perfect landing spot. He’s been the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change, having worked his way into Ken Hitchcock’s good graces and into a cushy gig on the team’s top line.
Playing the role of third wheel alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl certainly has its advantages, and Chiasson has been opportunistically riding the wave to a career year. On a personal level, he’s already got 15 goals in just 29 games, which is an individual best. He’s 23rd in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and 10th in all situations.
On a team level, he’s been a sneaky little find. Considering the measly price the Oilers paid for him, he’s served as one of the most cost-effective goal scorers in the entire league (Note: stats updated as of Dec. 20):
The elephant in the room is that Chiasson is converting a ludicrous 31.3 percent of the shots he’s put on target into goals, which obviously won’t continue for much longer. Even with the brilliant playmakers around him that tee him up for prime scoring chances with regularity, that figure should realistically be sliced nearly in half by season’s end. But even so, the goals he’s scored are already banked for himself and the Oilers, and anything else from this point forward is just found money for both.
On a macro level, the list above highlights two other points. The first is that one of the secondary benefits of already having superstar players on your team is that you don’t need to necessarily spend additional valuable resources to complement them. You could put a broomstick next to Connor McDavid and he’d find a way to carry it to 25 goals, which is obviously a tremendous luxury. It should theoretically allow you to use the remaining cap space you’re saving to prudently bolster the rest of the lineup.
With Alex Chiasson doing what he’s doing — and Pontus Aberg, the only other non-entry-level contract on the list, who’s similarly thriving next to Ryan Getzlaf for pennies on the dollar — it only makes the decision to throw money at Milan Lucic all the more baffling. Moving forward, there should be an endless list of Alex Chiassons lining up for the chance to not only play alongside McDavid for a year, but potentially use that as a launching point for a bigger contract somewhere else down the road.
The other takeaway is that finding cheap young contributors is absolutely vital for contending teams that are dishing out large dollar figures to their established star players. It’s not surprising that the Tampa Bay Lightning has three players in the top 20, with a few others like Yanni Gourde and Cedric Paquette not that far behind. They’ll need to continue to mine gold in that fashion moving forward with Brayden Point set to become a rich man this summer, but if we should have confidence in any organization to do so, it’s them.
John Gibson is in a league of his own
We’re still early enough into the season that it’s generally premature to start talking about individual awards. But barring some sort of cataclysmic collapse, Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson appears to have the Vezina Trophy cinched up already.
His dominance in the first two months has been so singular that perhaps the more interesting questions than whether he’s been the best goalie this season are:
How does his performance stack up against the all-time great seasons we’ve seen?
Could he become just the third goalie since the turn of the century to double-dip by taking home the Hart Trophy as well?
To get a better a sense for those answers, let’s try to quantify just how valuable he’s been to his team. Corsica has goals saved data going all the way back to the 2007-08 season, which essentially tells us how much better or worse a generic league average netminder would’ve done under the same given workload. It’s a wins above replacement stat, designed specifically for goalies, and importantly, it’s not a rate stat, meaning that the goals saved number will continue to increase as the netminder plays more games.
By this measure, if Gibson didn’t appear in another single game, he’d still end the campaign with the 17th-most-impactful season a goalie has had in the past decade, having already miraculously saved nearly 24 more goals than a league average puck-stopper would have in his place.
There are three other goalies in double digits at this point this season: Jaroslav Halak (12.27), Pekka Rinne (10.52), and Thomas Greiss (10.06). Of the other trendy picks for Vezina candidates this season, Frederik Andersen (8.9) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (6.27) are lagging just behind, through no fault of their own. They’ve been stellar under any normal circumstance, but unfortunately for them, Gibson is currently performing in his own universe.
The Ducks have 46 regular-season games left, and based on his current usage and assuming full health, Gibson figures to start somewhere in the ballpark of 37 of them. If he were to continue playing at this current level for the remainder of those games, he’d be trending toward not only smashing Sergei Bobrovsky‘s record, but potentially even venturing north of a staggering 50 goals saved for the season (he’s currently on pace for 54.1). That’s certainly a lot of ifs, but the fact that it’s even a legitimate discussion speaks to the rarefied air Gibson has ventured into this season.
Realistically, he’s the sole reason an otherwise largely underwhelming Ducks team currently sits in a playoff spot in the Pacific Division. They’re 29th in shot share at 5-on-5 — ahead of just the Senators and Rangers — and only Ottawa and Chicago give up a higher volume of shots against than they do. They’ve been chasing the game and the puck so often that it’s not particularly surprising to see that no team has a worse expected goals percentage than they do. But it ultimately hasn’t mattered, because they’re also first in save percentage across the board.
We don’t typically see goalies enter the discussion for the Hart Trophy, since it’s considered somewhat unfair because they already have their own award, but Gibson’s been so special that it may be impossible for voters to keep him off the ballot this year.
All Barkov, but with plenty of bite
The Florida Panthers haven’t had the kind of start that many people envisioned from them, after a spirited effort to end last season made them a trendy preseason pick to cause a shakeup to the status quo in the Atlantic Division. Instead, the Buffalo Sabres have jumped up to claim that spot, with the Panthers sitting seven points out of a wild card spot and 13 points behind Buffalo (albeit with a couple of games in hand).
Most of those struggles can be directly linked to their play in their own zone, with very few teams having been more porous defensively than they’ve been on a regular basis. Losing Roberto Luongo and Vincent Trocheck for a large chunk of that time certainly hurts, but it also doesn’t excuse being 30th in save percentage and 31st in goals against on a per-minute basis for the season.
Based on how bad things have been for the Panthers at 5-on-5, it’s actually kind of remarkable that they’ve been as competitive as they have, and that’s a testament to their absolutely lethal top power play.
It’s a unit that’s currently ranked fourth best in terms of both goals generated per 60 minutes and conversion rate, behind only that of the Jets, Lightning and Avalanche. Stylistically, it’s a perfect mixture of talent that they’ve assembled all across the chess board. With the addition of Mike Hoffman this offseason, and Keith Yandle looking more like the player he was during his peak years with the Coyotes, there’s isn’t a single weak link in the bunch. The puck flies around, all five options are equally willing shooters and passers, and it’s a sight to behold when they’re humming.
The discrepancy with how good they’ve been at even strength compared to the man advantage makes the season Aleksander Barkov is having that much more vital. He’s currently pitching a perfect game from a discipline perspective, having not committed a single penalty despite routinely being matched up against the other team’s best. What’s even more impressive is that he also leads the league in penalties drawn, bringing his differential to a jaw dropping plus-25 for the year.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the value he’s been providing in this area of the game. Sitting at sixth in individual power play goals scored, he’s been a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to drawing penalties and making opponents pay for their infractions. With that, the Panthers still have at least an outside shot at making some noise in the second half of the season. Without it, it’s frightening to think how far out of it they’d already be.
One final note: Ken Hitchcock made waves recently with his comments about the way Connor McDavid has been officiated this season, and he’s not wrong.
The comparison has been made to “the Jordan rules” for the way referees handled Michael Jordan during his heyday with the Chicago Bulls, but the more apt comparison may be to other physical specimens like Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James or Rob Gronkowski at their respective peaks. Even when they’re physically impeded, they’re such special talents that they can burst through and get the job done anyway, which can play tricks on the mind.
The reality is that there’s no one in the league who’s close to replicating what McDavid does with his combination of speed and skill, and it puts the officials in a tricky position. While he’s not that far off his career norm on a per-minute basis this season for penalties drawn, he could plausibly draw a call on nearly every shift, with defenders scratching, clawing and draped all over him in an attempt to slow him down to regular human speed.
The referees can’t call everything, and opposing players push the envelope knowing that fact full well. It’s one of the few curses that accompany the blessing of being an all-time great talent, regardless of sport and era.