Capped: Searching for, and avoiding, sophomore slumps

Alexander MacLean


Welcome back, I hope you've all been enjoying the non-stop hockey as much as I have. Who am I kidding, no one is enjoying this as much as I am! While you take a break either before the early start games, or in an intermission, here's some reading material aimed at getting you to think about your expectations for your rookies that won't be rookies much longer.

The sophomore slump is a very common phrase in fantasy hockey, as it does seem that a lot of rookies disappoint. Is it really more common though for a player to take a step back rather than forward in their second year? The bottom line is no, but it's more common in forwards.

Parsing through some data and breaking it down by position, relevant goaltenders over the last ten years who hit 20 games and a save percentage over .905 percent managed to put up similar or better stats in a large majority of cases. Some of the outliers were lower upside players such as Anton Forsberg, but for every Forsberg there were four or five success stories.

Looking at the blue line, there is an increased frequency of cases where a player takes a big (sometimes permanent) step back in year two. This includes players like Will Butcher, Nikita Zaitsev, Brady Skjei, Ben Hutton, Eric Gelinas, and others. However, the ratio is similar to the goalies overall, and probably only about one in five that disappointed in year two after shining in year one. Most defencemen that hit 20 points in year one managed to put up similar and/or better stats the following year. Thus far it seems to be about one in five that struggle to keep pace in year two.

Moving forward to the wingers and centres, it seems that there is more of an adjustment period up front. Over the last ten years, the fantasy relevant first year forwards (40+ points) have managed to keep up that pace about half of the time. For every breakout and disappointing follow up from a Jeff Skinner, there are just as many players that show consistent growth like fellow Sabre Sam Reinhart.

If anyone wants to see the research, I can put that together for next week, but it would just be a whole bunch of numbers to say what I've generally outlined above.



One of my league mates was musing about what Kirby Dach's sophomore season may look like, so let's check in on him and a few others since the performance of youngsters on cheap contracts is key to putting together a solid fantasy team.



The Skaters:

The Calder nominees Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, and Dominik Kubalik we can expect to see continued growth from. All three players succeeded with only a moderately inflated shooting percentage for Kubalik, and skewed offensive deployment for the duo on the blueline as outlying underlying numbers. They should continue to produce at high levels moving forward. Adam Fox could have been a Calder candidate, and there's nothing to worry about on his end. In fact, he put up 11 points in his final nine games, with none of them on the power play – he could be in line for a minimum of 40 points next season, and a huge breakout if he lands with the top powerplay unit.


Kirby Dach (C) – Chicago Blackhawks

Cap Hit: $925,000 – RFA in 2022

Kubalik's rookie teammate in Chicago didn't put up quite the same offensive season, but Dach still showed plenty of flashes, and some good growth as the season went on. Dach was a little more sheltered than Kubalik, however his underlying numbers show there is a large amount of room for growth. With a shooting percentage of only 8 percent, had he hit a more reasonable 12 percent like he did the WHL season the year prior, he would have paced for 15 total goals, which is likely his floor in a full season. Same thing with his team shooting percentage adding a few more points as it ticks up from the 8 percent it was at this past season. While we're at it, add another few powerplay points to his total for next year as well, because there's no way he only puts up three powerplay points in exactly 100 total power-play minutes. On top of all the rate stats, Dach will simply be better after gaining the playoff experience as almost a second season, in addition to simply seeing more ice time – he was up to about 16 minutes per game by the end of the regular season. He's the real deal and it's unlikely we see a slump here.


Nick Suzuki (C/RW) – Montreal Canadiens

Cap Hit: $863,333 – RFA in 2022

Nick Suzuki put up some solid regular season numbers for a team that really doesn't have any outstanding player on forward. The two best forwards thus far in their play-in series are arguably 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and soon-to-be 21-year-old Nick Suzuki. What does that mean for a follow up performance next season? Kotkaniemi was insanely sheltered, while Suzuki was deployed as an average forward. That bodes well for Suzuki continuing where he left off, as he shouldn't be bogged down by a few more defensive zone faceoffs.

Suzuki's first quarter of the season was also a stretch in which he was only given 13 minutes of ice time per game. He was up over 16 minutes per game the rest of the season, and put up a 50-point pace the rest of the way, including a nine-game stretch right at the end with only one point. Having rebounded in the playoff games, Suzuki appears set to pace for 50 points again next year.


John Marino (D) – Pittsburgh Penguins

Cap Hit: $925,000 – RFA in 2021

Marino was arguably the Penguins' second-best defenceman this season after Kris Letang, and he was impressively productive in his 56 games. Marino put up 26 points, played 20 minutes a night, and added a shot, a hit, and a block per game for good measure while racking up a plus 17 ratio. However, unless there is an injury to the aforementioned Letang, an increase in production probably isn't in the cards for Marino next season. He is unlikely to see more ice time, and doesn't need sheltered offensive minutes. His underlying percentages were a touch high, but generally should be repeatable. Accounting for a slight decline from the percentages, and a slight increase due to talent growth, a similar season from Marino is likely in the cards – that means around a 30-point-pace.


Victor Olofsson (LW) – Buffalo Sabres

Cap Hit: 2020 Unrestricted Free Agent

Olofsson had an excellent start to the campaign but really tailed off after his injury. The powerplay production was especially hurt, as he went his final nine games pointless with the man advantage despite averaging three minutes per game of powerplay ice time. Olofsson seems like the most likely candidate to suffer from a sophomore slump for many reasons. Many of his underlying percentages are high, he played a sheltered role in Buffalo, and he may have almost 10 months between games by the time the 2020-2021 season gets underway. Buffalo also isn't exactly the greatest place for consistent production – just ask Jeff Skinner.

A sophomore slump for Olofsson would likely look like a 40-50-point-pace rather than the 60+ point-pace that he put up this past season. Accounting just for a decrease in shooting percentage Olofsson would have been around a 55-point-pace this season. He may be tied to Eichel less in his second year, as well as getting a little more responsibility around the ice. In addition to having the added pressure and expectations of a new contract, the red flags are all flying high here.



Ethan Bear (D) – Edmonton Oilers

Cap Hit: 2020 Restricted Free Agent

In Bear's case, his numbers all look reasonable, he was actually already deployed against better competition and the underlying numbers thrived. His PDO and shooting percentage are, if anything, low – his full season 25-point pace is at minimum repeatable. However, Bear's issue isn't his own fault, but he may lose minutes and further offensive zone starts to the possible addition of Evan Bouchard and/or Philip Broberg to the team next year. That would be in addition to the top four defencemen all currently under contract, plus Caleb Jones and maybe a re-signed Mike Green; and those are just the internal options. If Bear were to lose minutes, it shouldn't necessarily be classified as a sophomore slump, but the overall numbers could drop in year two. At best Bear is a 25-30 point defenceman next year (likely due to at least one injury in the top four) at worst, he struggles to get into games due to the internal competition. If he's in the lineup he's a safe play, but try to include him in your roster planning as a bench defenceman rather than a starter.



The Goalies:

Goalies are tough to evaluate on their own, so I'm lumping them all together to cross-examine.


Mackenzie Blackwood (G) – New Jersey Devils

New Cap Hit: 2020 Restricted Free Agent


Elvis Merzlikins (G) – Columbus Blue Jackets

New Cap Hit: $4,000,000 – RFA in 2022


Ilya Samsonov (G) – Washington Capitals

New Cap Hit: $925,000 – RFA in 2021


Mackenzie Blackwood looks to be getting the starters reins in New Jersey, which could be a blessing and a curse as the volume will be there, but the percentages may struggle, especially later in the season as Blackwood tires. In Elvis' case, his cap hit being higher than Korpisalo's should mean he sees a minimum of 35 starts, and good ratios on a defensive team.

In Washington, whether this season's counterpart Braedon Holtby gets re-signed or not, the Capitals will likely insulate Samsonov with a veteran presence, meaning we can expect a 40-50 start pace for Samsonov.

Those numbers would be similar for Merzlikins and Blackwood, and would represent an increase in games for Samsonov.



The underlying ones are where things get interesting. Goaltending stats are near impossible to predict for a veteran, meanwhile for a sophomore it's a dart throw. Generally though, talent wins out, and when you put together talent with a defensive system, good results follow. That's what we see in Elvis' case, and why he's my pick of the three to actually put up a more valuable season next year than this past regular season. Looking at the table below, the goals saved above average (GSAA) should be the biggest indicator of talent, and the Columbus netminder also paces the pack in save percentage shorthanded, on the powerplay, and at evens. The lowest percentage of really bad starts is also a nice cherry on top.



Of the remaining two, neither plays on a team with an excellent defensive system. The Devils could see a lot of internal growth, but multiplying zero by anything still leaves you with zero, which is about how much defence was being played in New Jersey last season. Add in a poor defensive coach in Lindy Ruff (profiled here by Michael Clifford), and this isn't the recipe for a good sophomore year by Blackwood. Meanwhile, Washington has a bit of a cap crunch and won't be able to shore anything up on defence.

Blackwood's GSAA stat sticks out as something that will serve him well next year, and Samsonov's was positive too. However, both players struggled a little with their save percentage at various ranges, and if the defensive structures of both teams aren't improved then neither goalie inspires a lot of confidence going into next season, especially with the increased workload for Samsonov.

The bottom line here is to always be wary with goalies in fantasy, but especially sophomore goalies. The historical numbers say that two of these three should succeed next year, and the stats show that one of them should be Elvis. The other success story is up in the air. The full season numbers will likely favour Samsonov, but without a heavier workload in his career, he may tail off faster as the season wears on him.



If you have any article topics for me to look into, give me a shout! You can find me on Twitter @alexdmaclean for questions, comments, or article requests.

And stay safe!



Previous Capped Articles:

Values for Players Outside the Top Tier

Players to Target – Or Not – Based on their Fluctuating Value

Salary Predictions for the Top 200 Free Agent Skaters


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