Goldipucks and the Three Skaters: Pietrangelo, Letang & Pionk
As more and more of the season unfolds there can be a tendency to look at a skater's total points and think that tells the full story about him, when in truth it can be a poor reflection of what he stands to do going forward. To address that, I dig deep to figure out trends and the "story behind the story," letting you know how well (or poorly) a skater is due to perform in the coming weeks.
Specifically, this column is a play on words of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, except instead of there being three bowls of porridge I'm covering three skaters and declaring one too hot (i.e., doing unsustainably better than he should), another too cold (i.e., doing unsustainably worse), and a third "just right" (i.e., producing where he should be). I also assign each a rating of 1-10, indicating just how hot (rated 7-10, where 10 is the most unsustainably hot), or how cold (rated 1-4, where 1 is the most unsustainably cold), or how "just right" (rated 4-7, where 5.5 is the most "just right") he is.
This time around it's an all defenseman column, as being covered are rearguards Alex Pietrangelo, Kris Letang, and Neal Pionk. Before you read any further, see if your instincts are correct by trying to decide which of these three d-men is too hot, which one is too cold, and who is "just right." After you've made your choices, read the full column to find out if indeed your guesses were correct.
It's not often a player is poised to shatter his career scoring best in his tenth season at age 30; but that is exactly what Pietrangelo is poised to do, as the three-time 51 to 54 point scorer already has tallied 44 points with more than two dozen games remaining for the Blues. Can we put our faith in Pietrangelo keeping up this pace? As I'll explain more below, the answer is both yes…..and no.
Like other St. Louis skaters, Pietrangelo has thrived since Craig Berube became coach in November 2018, as Pietrangelo posted 34 of his 41 points in the 53 games that Berube coached (for a full season scoring pace that would have been 52 points) versus only seven points in his first 18 games before Berube came on board. Beyond that, last season Pietrangelo's SOG and scoring rates increased from the third to the fourth quarter, and lo and behold his SOG rate continued to climb in Q1 and Q2 of this season, with his scoring rate responding by climbing also this season versus the end of the 2018-19 campaign. A steady climb in SOG and higher scoring tend to go hand in hand, so from that alone we can presume there is at least some legitimacy in his 2019-20 increased scoring rate.
Pietrangelo also is being unleashed on the PP like never before, taking the ice for 68.7% of his team's PP minutes after only once having done so for over 56% and never before hitting even the 60% mark. And he's responding, with already 44 PP SOG, as he's on pace to easily shatter his personal best (51 in 78 games) in that area after only that one time even averaging one PP SOG per every other game. Sure enough, the PPPts have come as well, with Pietrangelo having tied his second-best PPPt output after only 49 games and being on pace for 29, which would exceed his previous high of 26 set way back in 2011-12. Yes, his IPP on the PP is running a bit high; however, that is likely due to the team revamping its first unit in the absence of Vladimir Tarasenko, who's likely out for at least the rest of the regular season. Given this, and his other PP-related data, I don't think there is reason to be concerned about Pietrangelo's PP scoring pace slowing.
In terms of luck metrics, Pietrangelo's OZ% is up slightly, but not only had it risen over the prior two seasons it also is at a number that should be maintainable based on the Blues as a team. Also, his overall IPP would be his second-lowest in seven seasons, signifying he's perhaps left a few points on the table thus far. As for his secondary assist percentage, it's 31.8%, showing he's dialled into scoring and could pick up a few points in the normal course. His personal shooting percentage is at his career average yet his team shooting percentage would mark a career-high by a decent margin; but to the extent, his scoring would be expected to slip somewhat on that basis, it's unlikely for there to be a net loss in points due to the potential for him to score even more due to these other factors.
So having read this far you can see why I concluded Pietrangelo's scoring could stay at this rate. Then why did I say yes and no above? Couldn't this be another situation like John Carlson, who also is 30 and scoring at an unprecedented rate for him?
The catch here is while Carlson isn't going anywhere, Pietrangelo is a UFA and almost assuredly won't remain in St. Louis next season, especially given that the team traded for and then signed Justin Faulk to a long term deal. So although Pietrangelo gets a rating of JUST RIGHT (and a rating of 6.0) for the rest of 2019-20, I'd expect his scoring to slow next season as although he'll likely get oodles of ice time it might not be for a very strong team, plus his deployment might not be as optimal, especially on the PP, where, as I noted, he's likely unsustainably benefitting this season due to Tarasenko's absence.
My take is if you own Pietrangelo in a keeper, hold him through the end of this season then try to sell high this summer when you'll have the double benefit of his UFA attention plus the recent memory of his lofty 2019-20 production, which I can't see him being able to duplicate pretty much wherever he lands for 2020-21. And in one-year leagues, avoid the temptation to value him based on his scoring rate this season; instead, let someone else reach for him in your draft(s).
Not to jinx things, but if Letang plays the rest of his team's games for 2019-20 he'll have suited up for more than 71 regular-season contests for only the second time dating back to 2013-14. Placing that aside, he's scoring at a 64 point full season pace. Should we figure that's about the best we can hope for, given he's now 32 years old? No actually – signs point to Letang being able to up his scoring rate before all is said and done with this campaign.
One key area where Letang has been unsustainably hindered is with the man advantage. From 2010-11 to 2018-29 Letang averaged .32 PPPts per game, both helping and being helped by a team power play which had the second-best PP conversion percentage over that span at 21.4%. For the majority of the 2019-20 campaign, though, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin weren't in the line-up; not surprisingly, the team's PP suffered, clicking at 19.8% to put them in the middle of the NHL pack in that stat. And lo and behold Ketang's PP scoring is only .24 per game. Beyond that, Letang's average IPP on the PP over the past five seasons had been 62%, versus only 50.0% this season. With both Malkin and Crosby back in the line-up and Letang's IPP with the man advantage should be expected to rebound, and, as such, he could find his way to scoring a handful more points in the second half.
Letang SOG total is right on par with most of his recent seasons, and he's even shooting more on the PP, perhaps owing to the absence of first Malkin then Crosby. Moreover, his PP deployment (i.e., his share of his team's man-advantage minutes) is higher than all but two seasons of his career. Also, there's his IPP in general, which had averaged 50.6% over the past six full seasons but is 43.4% for 2019-20 thus far. And looking at his other metrics, his offensive zone starting percentage and team shooting percentage are both at usual levels. Collectively these provide a further basis for Letang scoring at an even higher rate over the remainder of the regular season.
But what about the idea that he's slowing down due to his age? For one, since 2000-01 there've been six d-men who produced a 62+ point season at age 32, so d-men at that age are far from washed up. Moreover, although 32 is Letang's actual age, his on-ice age is less, as he's not even played 800 regular-season games. To put that in perspective, Drew Doughty has played over 1000 regular-season games but is two years younger, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is roughly the same age as Letang and has already bested the 1000 regular-season game mark. And Alex Pietrangelo and John Carlson trail Letang by only about 50 in career regular-season contests despite both being about two years younger than him. In other words, Letang's frequent injuries, though often a source of frustration to poolies, have actually led to him being younger – in terms of "NHL legs" – than his actual age. As such, Letang is really more like a 30-year-old and thus is in even less danger of being washed up than were he just a normal 32 year old, in which case, as noted above, he'd still be a viable candidate to put up lots of points.
Based on all these factors, I'd look for Letang to have a stronger remainder of 2019-20, and as such he is TOO COLD. His rating is 2.5, signifying he could score at 75+ point pace over the rest of the season.
After being undrafted, Pionk defied the odds and made it to the NHL by age 22, putting up a point per every other game in 28 contests. Then last season he produced a decent but by no means impressive 26 points in 73 games. Still, that was enough to entice Winnipeg to have New York include Pionk as part of the Jacob Trouba deal. And with the Jets Pionk has thrived, playing major minutes and on pace to score 53 points. But is he really even a 50 point rearguard, or just producing unsustainably well? Signs point to the latter.
Since the end of 2018-19, the Jets lost not only Trouba, but also Tyler Myers and, unexpectedly, Dustin Byfuglien. Enter Pionk, who's become a de facto top d-man. So why, then, can't he keep up his current pace? Lack of SOG for one, as Pionk is averaging 2.2 per contest. And looking at the 61 rearguards who scored 53+ points in a season from 2010-11 to 2018-19, only ten averaged fewer SOG per game than Pionk; and of them, and just three hadn't previously scored 53+ points in a season. So for Pionk to be able to keep up this scoring pace without shooting the puck more would defy the odds.
There's also his overachievement on the PP. His 21 PPPts puts him tied for second (with Pietrangelo) in the entire league among rearguards. But his PP TOI only ranks him 19th, with the next highest PPPt total among someone who played fewer total man-advantage minutes being 17. And although Pionk has shown the ability to produce well with the man advantage even in his previous campaigns, this season's pace is unlikely to be sustainable.
The other concern regarding Pionk is his high percentage of secondary assists (versus primary assists and goals) at 43.2%. Although defensemen are expected to have a higher percentage of secondary assists than forwards, Pionk's percentage ranks him sixth-highest among all rearguards with at least 30 points. If that shrinks to the more customary 35% or so that one expects from even well-scoring d-men, it would mean a decent drop in scoring rate over the remainder of the season.
No question Pionk has talent, and he's in an ideal situation on a high scoring team with an undermanned blueline. Still, though, Pionk's modest SOGs per game, unsustainably high PP scoring rate, and high secondary assists percentage individually and cumulatively suggest he's TOO HOT and give him a rating of 8.25, suggesting he should score at closer to a 45 point rate over the remainder of the season.
A Quick "Real Life" Note
As longtime readers are aware, I have a "day job" as an attorney. It turns out the position I had (for 13 years) is being eliminated due to my company having been purchased. If you're aware of anyone that is in need of a very experienced intellectual property/patent attorney (located in Massachusetts), I'd like to hear about the potential opportunity, which you can do by private messaging me at "rizzeedizzee" at the DobberHockey Forums or by sending an email to [email protected] with "Roos Job Lead" in the title. Rest assured, my column will not be affected.
Mailbag questions needed. I'm always in need of questions to answer in my monthly mailbag column. There are two ways for you to get your questions to me – (1) email them to [email protected] with "Roos Mailbag" in the subject line, or (2) send me a private message at the DobberHockey Forums with your question (my username is "rizzeedizzee".
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