Goldipucks and the Three Skaters: Ehlers, Rantanen, & Patty Kane
After a break to focus on goalies, this week it's back to Goldipucks and the Three Skaters, which, for new readers, is a play on words of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story. Here though, instead of there being three bowls of porridge I cover three skaters and declare 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.
My last column about skaters covered three from the Eastern Conference, so this time I figured let's focus exclusively on the West, and specifically Nikolaj Ehlers, Mikko Rantanen, and Patrick Kane. Although hockey is less fresh in your minds than it normally would be, you should still try to guess which was too hot, who was too cold, and who was "just right" going into the break. Then read on and see if your choices turned out to be correct.
After Ehlers opened eyes as a sophomore with 64 points, many expected he was on the fast track to stardom. Instead, he shed a few points in 2017-18 and then his scoring cratered for 2018-19, down to a pace of 49 points. This season though, he was clicking at a 67 point clip, which would've marked a career-high. Can poolies count on 2019-20 as a stepping-stone to a full-fledged breakout? Unfortunately no, as it strongly appears Ehlers overachieved this season given his suboptimal deployment and off the charts metrics.
In upping his scoring pace, Ehlers saw his IPPs skyrocket, as at 5×5 it was 90.6. To put that in perspective, no other 40+ point scorers in the entire NHL even had an IPP of 85%, and the highest from a scoring forward in 2018-19 was 82.6%. And while Ehlers has always been strong in this area, his career IPP average was 70.8%, which means he had roughly 25% more points this season than would have been expected given his past IPP results. Even if we remove his rookie season's IPP, his average in his most recent three campaigns was 74.4, which still is markedly lower than 90.6% and signifies he lucked into quite a few unsustainable points.
Beyond just showing he overachieved, his IPP also will likely keep him glued to the second line. After all, the Jets figure if Ehlers can do well there, why tinker with things by trying to shoehorn him into a top-line spot, where Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and, after a slow start, Blake Wheeler, were doing great.
It's s similar situation in terms of the PP, where Ehlers once saw nearly 50% of his team's total PP minutes but the past two seasons haven't even been on ice for 30%. Yet Ehlers' IPP on the PP was also unsustainably high at 83.3%, despite only 5 PPPts. So he's not helping generate PP2 offense, but what little offense there is on PP2 he's factoring into the scoring.
It's true if Winnipeg gets more scoring depth, that should help Ehlers. Yet at the same time that would reduce his IPP, so he'd not come out ahead and perhaps even see his numbers suffer. Moreover, if the team is going to add more talent, chances are it'd be to fill a blueline depleted by the departures of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, and also by Dustin Byfuglien's contract being terminated.
What do player comparables tell us? Ehlers scored 250-300 points (257 to be exact) in his first five seasons by age 24, yet did so with fewer than 1000 SOG. Since 2000-01, a total of 14 other wingers met the same criteria, yet the only ones with fewer points per game were Max Domi and Derek Stepan. On the one hand, that shows Ehlers didn't produce as well as others, but it also might demonstrate he's doing the best he can with subpar deployment.
The good news is with the emergence of Connor, Ehlers is "forced" to have some talent with him on the second line, as there's also Patrik Laine in the mix. So either Laine skates with Ehlers on the second line, or one of Wheeler, Scheifele, or Connor does so. But that was already the case this season, so it's likely a red herring as far as impacting his output.
Another plus for Ehlers was fewer than 20% of his points came via secondary assists, versus goals or primary assists, putting him just outside the top ten among 50+ point scorers in terms of lowest secondary assists percentage, with all but one of those ahead of him having scored 75+ points at least once in their career. That having been said, Ehlers also had the second-lowest ice time of any of these players and as the season wore on he was seeing even less time, including on the PP. Moreover, even if he was to see a boost in secondary assists that would not be enough to offset points he'll lose when his IPPs come back to earth.
Ehlers is a very talented player who deserves better deployment. But when rating players we have to focus on reality; and in Ehlers' case, that reality is being mired on the second line at even strength and on the PP. He's trying to do the best he can under the circumstances, as seen from his IPP and low secondary assists percentage. The issue is, his IPPs were just too high to be sustainable no matter how much talent he possesses. As such, for2019-20 Ehlers was TOO HOT. Given the likely status quo for Ehlers in 2020-21, I'd predict his output will slide back to closer to 60 points, translating to an 8.25 rating and more frustration for those who own him in their league(s).
Despite missing time due to injury, Rantanen was just below the point per game mark when the season stalled. That, after 96 and 85 points paces in his prior two campaigns. Could it be that Rantanen's star shined bright in one season but in reality, he's closer to just a point per game player? On the contrary – the output we saw in 2018-19 is reflective of what to expect from Rantanen going forward.
This season Rantanen was injured for part of the campaigns, while in 2017-18 Nathan MacKinnon missed time due to injury. What was the one season when both were healthy for the most part? Try 2018-19, when Rantanen excelled. That also was when Rantanen saw nearly 21:00 of ice time, versus less than 19:00 per game this season and 2017-18. But his ice time for this season is skewed, as factored into it are three games where he had less than 11:00 per contest. Remove those from the equation, and his ice time would be at 19:40 per game. Also, before his first injury, his ice time average was above 20:00 per game, and right before the season ended he saw 22:00, 21:37, 20:11 and 18:57 in his last four full games. Long story short, it's more likely than not Rantanen will return to a higher TOI and, with that, be poised to be able to score more, as his points per game in his best season was 3.4, which was only a bit above his 3.1 from this season and 3.3 from 2017-18.
A big difference between his 2019-20 campaign and what he did in 2018-19 lies in his PP scoring. After tallying 68 PPPts in 155 games over the previous two seasons, for a rate of 0.44 PPPts per game, he slipped to a rate instead of just one per every three games. Had he put up strong PP numbers only in 2018-19 I'd be more inclined to see that season as an outlier; however, it was 33 in 2017-18 and 35 in 2018-19, meaning he'd done well twice and suggesting his 2019-20 rate was abnormally low.
If we try to search for player comparables for Rantanen, we come up empty, as looking back through the last 30 seasons, no other winger, by age 23, had three campaigns of 0.9 points per game while averaging under 2.75 SOG per contest each season. The closest comparison is Johnny Gaudreau, who did so twice and, after posting 99 points in 2018-19, saw his stats crater. Could Rantanen be at similar risk for his scoring to drop precipitously? Not from where I sit, as with all due respect to Sean Monahan, Rantanen playing with Mac virtually guarantees his stats won't suffer.
But with MacKinnon realistically being a 100+ point downside player, is there room for someone else to score 95+ points on the same line? If we look at all the instances of 95+ point scoring by a winger since 1990-91, more than half had a center on the same team also tally 95+ points the same season. Yes, that doesn't mean every instance of a 95+ point center comes with a 95+ point performance by a winger on the same team/line; but with MacKinnon and Rantanen having both scored at a 95+ point pace once, and neither one remotely close to his peak agewise, it's not difficult to envision the same thing happening again in 2020-21 and for seasons to come.
There's also the reality that Rantanen's 2019-20 IPP was 67.2%, which, although not too far below his 73.1% from 2018-19 or 69.4% from 2017-18, was indeed lower and likely cost him at least a few points even in his abbreviated number of games played. Couple that with a secondary assists percentage of 25% in 2018-19 but under 20% for 2019-20 season, and there are even more points he should've received.
Rantanen is a player who defies comparison in that he's a high scoring yet not high shooting volume winger. Yet when playing with a center like Nathan MacKinnon, who fires pucks on net at rates not usually seen in other centers, you get a dynamic where Rantanen takes on the role of the playmaker and Mac the finisher, hence Rantanen's low SOG and secondary assists. I see no reason for this dynamic to change; yet if it did, then it wouldn't mean fewer points for Rantanen, just perhaps more SOG and goals. For now, though, signs point to his 2018-19 as being more his norm than his 2019-20 or 2017-18, making Rantanen's 2019-20 TOO COLD. Look for him to push 100 points again in 2020-21 provided he and MacKinnon both stay healthy, and thus giving Rantanen a 1.5 rating for 2019-20.
Looking at Kane's stats going back to 2016-17, every season he's scored at a pace which is either at least 13 points higher or lower than his previous season, with a range from a low of a 76 point pace to a high of 111. This season he was almost in the middle at a 98 point pace. Given his trends, should we expect 85 or fewer points or 111 or more points for next season? Nope – I think the data suggests he'll buck his recent trends and score right at or near the same rate as 2019-20.
On the surface, Kane's scoring seems to correlate to his personal shooting percentage, with his low point coming when he shot 9.2% (the second-lowest rate of his career) and his 111 point season not only correlating to a 12.9% rate but also what was the highest shot total of his career, 341, or more than 4.2 per game. That shooting rate looks to be an outlier, as in the three previous seasons he had 282 SOG in 81 games, 292 in 82, and 287 in 83. What's more, his shots attempted in 2018-19 was much higher, at 598, with it not being above 500 in any of the previous three seasons. For 2019-20 he had 275 SOG and 464 shots attempted in 70 contests, which, although above his rates for 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18; were still a good bit below his rate for 2019-20, so we have to consider that season the outlier. In turn, we should expect an in-kind reduction in scoring, making his lower rate for 2019-20 easier to explain…..and sustain.
In looking at IPP, we see Kane's rate for 2019-20 is 84.8%, after only once having been above 78.0% in the past six seasons. Part of that is likely due to high shooting volume, although his IPP was a good bit lower (78.0%) when he had his 111 point pace and fewer SOG. The big key is he, like Ehlers, was tasked more with spearheading scoring for his line. The difference is Kane has "the guy" level talent and, in turn, is someone for whom an ultra-high IPP can be seen as sustainable, especially if called upon to play with the likes of Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander, and Brandon Saad as he was over the second half of the season.
Kane did score better in the first half when Alex DeBrincat was in the mix; however, by the midpoint of 2019-20, the team seemed to try to roll out three lines rather than stacking two as they did in 2018-19. The good news is it didn't negatively affect Kane's ice time, which actually grew as the season unfolded. Long story short, we should likely expect more of the same in terms of Kane's deployment and ice time in 2020-21 as he experienced in 2019-20.
Another factor that influenced Kane's production is, not surprisingly, his PPPts. Twice he's had 30+ PPPts, and twice he's bested 100 points. Last season he also fired 87 SOG with the man advantage, or well above his norm of 60-70. For 2019-20 his 82 game PP scoring rate was 27 PPPts, or a bit higher than his usual output, which isn't surprising since just as his SOG rate was a bit higher than usual so too was his PP SOG for 2019-20, which, projected to 82 games, would've been 80.
As far as comparables, over the past 20 seasons, only one winger (Jaromir Jagr) had a season of 110+ points while averaging 4+ SOG at age 30+, as Kane did in 2018-19. Moreover, Jagr did so at age 33, after which he, much like Kane this season, dropped to 96 points. And Jagr actually had fared worse than Kane in his early 30s. So the list of wingers who posted 110+ points while averaging 4+ SOG more than once in their 30s consists of zero players over the past 20 seasons, underscoring Kane's 2018-19 as unsustainable.
And it turns out we still get zero players if we lower the points threshold to 100 and the SOG rate to 3.5. Lowering the thresholds to 100 points and 3.0 SOG, however, gives us three instances – Daniel Alfredsson at age 33 in 2005-06, Martin St. Louis at age 31 in 2006-07, and Daniel Sedin at age 30 in 2010-11, each of whom was a "one and done" member of the 100+ point, 3+ SOG club while age 30+. Of them, however, St. Louis might offer a basis for some comparison, as he had 94 points at age 28, 102 at 31, then 94 and 99 and age 34 and 35 respectively, especially since St. Louis started his career late, so he didn't reach 1000 games played until age 38, whereas Kane will do so next season at 32.
Given his age, shooting trends and past precedent, Kane almost assuredly will not come close to hitting 110 points again. Yet with his "the guy" level of talent and still higher than normal shooting this season, he could be an elite scorer for several more campaigns in his 30s, ala what St. Louis did. Thus, Kane gets a rating of JUST RIGHT for 2019-20, and a rating of 6.0, suggesting a point total of roughly 95 points for 2020-21.
Questions for Mailbag column
The mailbag for next month is quickly starting to fill, so you should send me your questions ASAP if you want to hope to see them answered in next month's column. To get them to me, you can either private message “rizzeedizzee” via the DobberHockey Forums or, instead, send an email to [email protected] with “Roos Mailbag” as the subject line. Remember, with the season on pause this is the perfect time to ask a question about keepers, draft strategy, certain players, or just fantasy hockey in general.
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