Except for supernatural talents, every youngster that dips his feet on the NHL goes through a similar process of assimilation to a new reality. They crawl out of the gates, trying to adapt to an intense, unbeknown environment and hoping to minimize mistakes on the whirlwind of action around, and then ease into the rhythm, striving to find their niche on the ice and showcase the qualities that brought them there. Eventually, if they’re able to gain the thrust of the coaching staff, they excel, climbing the ladder to fulfil the expectations placed on their shoulders and the role best suited for their abilities.
The entire journey, depending on a myriad of factors, may take just a few months, a complete season or a few years, but once settled in, the wholesome package that separates the real deal from the bust eventually flourishes before the eyes of the hockey sphere. Discounting the natural ebbs and flows, slumps and hot streaks that take a hold of every player regardless of position or stature, when a player takes a decisive step towards complete assertion at the top-level, we can usually notice it. Whether it is the swagger displayed by a defenseman with the puck on his stick, the coolness of a goalie in net or a forward’s confidence to slow the game down and try a different move.
However, those are attributes difficult to pick up on if you don’t watch a player on a daily basis, hence our need to rely on statistics to point the way. The 2016-17 NHL regular season is ending this week, so we have a large sample of data to dive on in a quest to identify some of the players who have made the leap on their performance over the last year.
Taking into account that rookies are naturally excluded from this analysis, and so are players whose natural progression made their statistical explosion a certainty (looking at you, Connor McDavid), I selected seven names to highlight in this article, ranging from former top picks who finally panned out to blue-chip prospects who broke through or under-the-radar players who made the best of golden opportunities.
Be aware that the following analysis is punctuated by references to hockey and “advanced” statistics terminology. Therefore, I’ll leave below a small recap of the nomenclature and abbreviations used. For an explanation of the most complex terminology, you can use Corsica’s glossary.
SOG: shots on goal; TOI/GP: time on ice per game played; PP: powerplay; PPP: powerplay points; PK: penalty kill; SH: shorthanded (time on ice); SHG: shorthanded goals; RFA: restricted free agent; GAA: goals against average; Sv%: save %; SO: shutouts; Sh%: shooting %
(adj)(rel)CF%: (adjusted)(relative) Corsi For %
PDO: not an acronym, just a proxy for luck; stands for the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (Sh% + Sv%)
GF%: Goals For %
SCF%: Scoring Chances For %
DZS%: Defensive zone starts %
OZS%: Offensive zone starts %
Points/60: points for 60 minutes
David Pastrňák (Boston Bruins, RW)
Drafted in the tail end of the 2014 first round (25th overall), Pastrňák took advantage of a Bruins roster short on offensive game-changers to guarantee a surprising 49-game stint (26 points) on his age-18 season, which, in retrospect, accelerated his learning curve. As a sophomore, his production flatlined (27 points), but he still tallied 15 goals in 51 matches, setting the stage for the outburst of 2016-17.
The Czech winger came out of the gates on fire, netting 13 times in the first 17 games, and steadied the inevitable regression to maintain a scoring clip befitting with a near point-per-game pace. With 68 points in 72 games, his 0.94 ppg regime is the 12th highest in the league (over 50 games played), trailing only Brad Marchand on his own team, while a robust bump in shot generation – he’s firing 1.3 extra SOG/GP – has resulted in a 32-goal barrage on a sustainable 12.7 Sh%, in line with his career average.
The 20-year-old has enjoyed riding shotgun on Boston’s top line with Patrice Bergeron and Marchand for most of the season, forming the league’s most dominant group possession-wise, with a sterling adj. CF% of 62.6 and a 56.7 GF% despite awful luck (98.2 PDO), but even when he was shifted down to try to juice up the second unit, Pastrňák has made good use of the 4 min uptick in TOI/GP from last season.
With his ELC expiring at the end of the season, Pastrňák’s success puts Boston in a bind, since they’ll need to ante up significantly to retain the services of their young star long-term while managing a forward group that already comprises four players raking in over 6M per year until 2021 (Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and Backes).
Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh Penguins, D)
After signing in Edmonton as a highly-sought after college FA, Justin Schultz was successively scapegoated for the Oilers’ mediocrity and failure to ice competitive rosters. At the 2016 trade deadline, the Penguins took a flyer on Schultz and they’ve reaped tremendous dividends from it this season, since what once seemed like a perennial double-digit minus player is now an in-vogue offensive force. However, more than new career highs in goals (12) and points (48), which place Schultz inside the top ten amongst defensemen, what truly opened some eyes was the 26-year-old’s ability to step up when his team needed him to.
Schultz started the year besides Ian Cole on Pittsburgh’s third pairing, driving play, piling the positive ratings (+25) and heaping goals (63.6 GF%) and chances (60.5 SCF%) on the opposition while taking advantage of favourable deployments (just 27.4 DZS%), yet the duo quickly ascended through the lineup, first conquering top four status and later assuming top-pairing duties to help supress Kris Letang’s absence.
In special, Schultz usual 20min TOI/GP escalated by more than 3 minutes during Letang’s multiple injuries, and he was also asked to shore up the top powerplay (22 PPP), which improved from erratic first half form towards top-five status in large part due to his composure in 3.40 min of PP TOI/GP. Most of Schultz’s offensive contributions date back to December and January, when he accumulated 29 pts in just 26 games, but even when the puck stopped going in Mike Sullivan’s confidence didn’t waver.
The former 2nd round pick is scheduled to be a RFA with arbitration rights in July 1st, and is due a healthy raise from his current 1.4M cap hit, however there are more than just salary cap considerations swirling around as the Penguins mull over an extension offer. Schultz’s steady play may force an unexpected change on their expansion draft plans, with ramifications felt elsewhere on the roster.
Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville Predators, RW)
An overaged selection on the 4th round in 2014, Arvidsson was seen by the Predators staff as a diamond-in-a-rough that escaped the scouting net, and those expectations were certainly vindicated when he put up 55 points on his debut AHL season in 2014-15. He followed that up with 16 in 56 games at the NHL level last year, playing as an energetic, fearless bottom six forward before stepping it up another notch in 2016-17, carving a leading role on a team with championship ambitions.
Peter Laviolette tested Arvidsson alongside star forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen and the undersized Swede run with the opportunity, smashing his career highs by amassing 29 goals, just two off Forsberg’s team-best, and 57 points, four less than Johansen’s 61.
The 23-year-old’s 2.36 Points/60 top the team as do the 240 SOG and 5 SHG, a figure unequalled around the NHL this season. Moreover, Arvidsson’s prowess on the PK, hoarded in just over 1 min of work per game, contributes greatly to his +15 rating, best among Nashville’s forwards, while he is just the tenth-ranked Predator in terms of PP TOI/GP, meriting less than 2 min on the man advantage.
With a cap hit of just 631k, Arvidsson leads the league in cost (cap hit including potential bonuses) per point obtained in 2016-17, but Nashville’s bargain is about to be rewarded, as the Swedish winger is an RFA this summer. After his break out season, a multi-year-deal commensurate of a top-six forward is certainly on the table.
Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers, G)
An undrafted free agent signed by the NY Rangers in 2013, Talbot’s NHL numbers have been consistently excellent at this level, as attested by his career 0.923 Sv%, yet he gets a nod for a fantastic showing in the role of a first-time workhorse goaltender.
Functioning as the backbone of a fledging team where all key players are yet to reach 25, Talbot’s performance falls under the large cast of Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre brilliance, hence it’s probably bound to go down as exceptionally unappreciated. The 29-year-old is third in the NHL in wins, with his 40 triumphs just one short of Bobrovsky and Dubnyk’s total, first in games started with 70, seven more than the next man, first in saves made and tied for second in SO (7).
Furthermore, on a team with a problematic history in the crease over the last fifteen years, Talbot’s 2016-17 performance isn’t just the best in terms of GAA (2.36) and Sv% (0.921) since 2001-2002 (min. 40 apps), but also compares quite favourably against his league peers, ranking 7th in 5 on 5 Sv% (0.929), 8th in overall Sv%, and first in medium-danger Sv% (0.954), despite a workload well above anything he’s experienced before. For instance, Talbot has faced 469 high-danger shots this season, while no other goalie has even surpassed 400.
The 29-year-old is signed for two more seasons at a 4.16M cap hit, and that deal looks like a steal by GM Peter Chiarelli, who dished out three picks in 2015 to gamble on a guy that might shepherd Connor McDavid’s era and seemingly hit the jackpot.
Alexander Wennberg (Columbus Blue Jackets, C)
Jarmo Kekalainen’s desire to build the Columbus Blue Jackets from the backend out led to Seth Jones’s acquisition last season, but also left a major void at the top of the team’s forward depth chart. Top-line centres don’t grow in threes, and the best way to find them is through the top of the draft – as Columbus learned with Ryan Johansen – consequently they should be thrilled that the solution was in-house all along.
Wennberg, the 14th overall pick in 2013, saw less than 16 min of TOI/GP during his first two NHL seasons, but was still able to double his point production as a sophomore (20 to 40) and another 20-point jump is in reach in 2016-17. Feasting on a scorching PP top unit, the Stockholm-native notched 33 pts in 35 games to start the season before cooling off down the stretch, yet he’s still seeing 18.21min of TOI/GP, just eight seconds less than captain Nick Foligno, who leads among Jackets’ forwards.
Gaining the thrust of John Tortorella as a 22-year-old center is a tough task, but Wennberg is justifying the gamble by putting points on the board, to the tune of 57 in 77 games, four behind Cam Atkinson’s tally. With 13 goals on the season in just 100 shots, the young pivot would greatly benefit from a more resolute approach to the net, yet his line with Foligno and Brandon Saad is still generating offense aplenty, with a 59.1 GF% propped up by a bit of luck (101.4 PDO).
A RFA coming off his ELC at the end of the season, Wennberg probably won’t net a protracted extension with first-line money attached just yet, however the Jackets would be wise to treat him better than they did to his predecessor.
Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes, D)
The Carolina Hurricanes feature the NHL’s youngest defensive core and headlining the group is not Olympian Justin Faulk, as many believe, but Jaccob Slavin, the 22-year-old Denver-native completing his second NHL season.
After an unassuming rookie year where he compiled 20 pts in 63 games, Slavin and fellow sophomore Brett Pesce have taken the reigns of Carolina’s blueline and blended into one of the NHL’s best shutdown pairs, amassing more defensive zone starts than any other Canes unit (32.3 DZS%) and still delivering possession and chance-generation metrics (54.39 CF%, 57.3 GF% and 58.4 SCF%) ranked on the top 10 amongst pairs with over 700min played. Their success together is further expressed on Slavin’s (+23) and Pesce’s (+20) +/- rating, or their combined +5.5 relCF%, while, at the same time, the rest of the roster is barely above, or below, water.
The 120th pick in 2012 fends off from his regular partner due to a more refined all-around acumen, substantiated in 23.27min of TOI/GP, tops on the Canes roster, and high usage on the PK (3:04min SH TOI/GP), while soaking up just 57 seconds of PP TOI/GP, which is typically reserved for the likes of Faulk or 20-year-old Noah Hanifin. Still, in 2016-17, Slavin started to tap more into his offensive skill, amassing 5 goals and 33 points despite wiring just 96 pucks on goal, a good omen for increased production in the future.
With another season left on his rookie deal, Slavin is bound to upgrade his payday significantly in 2018, possibly fetching a deal more lucrative than Faulk’s 6 year, 29M contract signed in 2014.
Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild, RW)
We all saw the flashes of high end skill over the years, but it took Bruce Boudreau’s arrival in Minnesota to unlock the genius of Mikael Granlund. The former 9th overall pick never meshed with Mike Yeo, with whom he wandered between center and wing, and his counting stats ultimately stalled on the 40-point range, but, at age 25, the Finnish playmaker finally approached the wildest expectations bestowed upon him on the State of Hockey.
With 25 goals, more than on his last two seasons combined, and 68 points in 79 games, Granlund shattered previous career-highs as the offensive dynamo on Minnesota’s go-to two-way line. Sharing the ice with captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker, the trio was especially effective between December and February, when the younger Finn tallied well over a point per game (45 points in 39 games), but they’ve been important throughout the campaign, controlling the scoring chance battle (63.0 SCF%) while shouldering many defensive assignments (just 23 OZS%) and drawing loads of penalties (+21 in Penalty differential).
Meanwhile, Finland’s duo is also leaving a mark on special teams, where Granlund picked up 20 PP points and 3 SHG in 1:30min of SH TOI/GP, a number that only lags behind Koivu’s among Wild forwards, and mirrors the distribution in every situation (18.54 min TOI/GP).
Granlund’s 0.86 ppg pace – inflated by a 14.4 Sh%, almost 5 points over his career average – is the highest by a Wild player since the 2010-11 season and comes at a perfect time. His current 2-year, 6M deal is about to expire, thus it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double that cap hit going forward.
Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, RW): Ascended to All-Star status with 34 goals and 61 points after offering a glimpse of his ceiling with a 53-point campaign in 2015-16.
Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh Penguins, RW): Amassed 22 goals and 52 points in just 58 games riding alongside Sidney Crosby, a match of skill, speed, hockey sense and tenacity the Penguins had been looking for most of the last decade.
Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs, D): From so-called defensive liability to a 40-point season coupled with a stellar +26 rating and major responsibilities on the NHL’s second best powerplay unit (24.3% conversion rate).
Nazem Kadri (Toronto Maple Leafs, C): Shrouded by the Leafs’ rookie bonanza, Kadri stunningly evolved into Mike Babcock’s jack-off-all-trades middleman while compiling 60 pts and a maiden 30-goal season.
Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers, C/RW): 74 points in 78 games as Connor McDavid’s running mate to follow up a 51-point season centering Taylor Hall. Impossible to leave off the list had he posted similar numbers anchoring the second line, where the German ought to settle long-term (see Crosby/Malkin dynamic).
All stats referenced in this article courtesy of http://www.Corsica.hockey or nhl.com and updated until 3/4/2017. Unless stated otherwise, possession and scoring chances data refer to 5 on 5 play and are adjusted for score, zone and venue.