Cage Match: Teuvo Teravainen vs. Nikolaj Ehlers

by Rick Roos on August 8, 2018

It’s very rare after as long as I’ve penned Cage Match (five years this month!) that I run into a true first: this week I think we have one in me pitting two players (Nikolaj Ehlers and Teuvo Teravainen) against each other who are both set to enter their “magical fourth year” (disregarding Teravainen’s abbreviated 2014-15 campaign with Chicago). Which one is poised for more success this season, and down the road? Cage Match is here to give you the all-important answers, and starts now!

 

Career Path and Contract Status

 

Ehlers, 22, was selected ninth overall in 2014 and returned to the QMJHL, where he nearly averaged two points per game, paving a path for him to enter the NHL for 2015-16. Ehlers appeared in 72 games as a rookie but barely surpassed the point per every other game mark, although 24 of those points came in his last 31 games, suggesting success to come. Sure enough, for 2016-17 Ehlers continued where he left off, rising to 64 points and looking like a player on the fast track to stardom. But then he dipped a bit in 2017-18 to only 60 points, leaving some to wonder whether he has more to offer and is being held back, or instead is perhaps not a player bound to score 70+.

Teravainen (“TT”), who turns 24 next month, was selected 18th overall in 2012 and arrived in North America at the end of 2013-14. But 2014-15 was his first true taste of US hockey and it didn’t go well; in the AHL he played decently (25 points in 39 games), yet for the talent-stacked Blackhawks he was a chicken and egg victim, not getting points to generate more ice time, which he needed to score, and he ended with only nine points in 35 games. For 2015-16 he was with the Hawks for a full season but again couldn’t carve out a featured role, posting 35 points in 78 games. That summer the cap-conscious Hawks included TT in a deal to unload Bryan Bickell’s albatross contract to the Hurricanes. In his first season with Carolina he didn’t show much more than in Chicago, with 42 points in 81 contests. In 2017-18, however, he broke out in a big way, upping his total to 64 points and then, if that wasn’t enough, shining at the spring IIHF World Championships to the tune of 14 points in only eight games, marking the fifth time he’d had point per game or better scoring in an international tournament despite not even having turned 24.

This season Ehlers commences his seven-year, $42M contract that was inked last October, while Teravainen will count $2.8M against the cap before – if not extended – becoming an arbitration-eligible RFA next summer.

 

Ice Time

 

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2017-18

16:05 (N.E.) – 7th

16:53 (T.T.) – 4th

2:02 (N.E.) – 8th

2:40 (T.T.) – 2nd

0:01 (N.E.) – 12th (tied)

0:01 (T.T.) – 10th (tied)

2016-17

17:29 N.E.) – 5th

16:14 (T.T.) 6th

2:37 N.E.) – 5th

2:14 (T.T.) – 3rd

0:01 N.E.) – 15th (tied)

0:01 (T.T.) – 11th (tied)

2015-16

16:06 N.E.) – 8th

15:21 (T.T.) – 7th

2:19 N.E.) – 6th

1:45 (T.T.) – 8th

0:01 N.E.) – 13th (tied)

0:47 (T.T.) – 9th

 

Looking at the last two seasons for Ehlers, his drop in production by a mere four points from 2016-17 to 2017-18 doesn’t look so bad after all, as it was in the face of him losing nearly a minute and a half of total ice time, a third of which was on the PP. And the fact that he still managed 60 points is impressive, since it means that twice by age 22 he tallied 60+ points while taking the ice in each season for less than 1500 minutes.

To underscore how remarkable that is, here’s the full list of players who, since 2000-01, also met both criteria and are now older than 25 (meaning we can get an idea of how their career is panning out or has panned out): Patrick Kane (who did it at age 20 and 22), Nikita Kucherov (at age 21 and 22), and Marian Gaborik (at age 20 and 21). All three went on to produce at least two 83+ point seasons, with Kane and Kucherov being two of the biggest stars in today’s NHL. Past data is not always predictive of the future, however, this is some pretty fine company for Ehlers to be in.

But here’s the issue – if we look at the players who received more ice time than Ehlers last season, all but one (Paul Stastny) is still on the team and none look to be in danger of losing their “spot,” with the possible exception of Kyle Connor in the event he has a sophomore slump. Thus, Ehlers may be oozing with talent waiting to manifest itself with higher scoring, yet if he can’t take the ice enough he’ll likely be stuck in the low 60s.

The silver lining is Ehlers’s situation likely can’t get much worse, so if he was able to score 60 points despite such poor ice time and deployment, that should be his absolute floor. And in fact, his floor could even be higher if he was victimized by unsustainable bad luck, which we’ll look at below.

Shifting to TT, he too made the most of his ice time, as although he tied for 54th overall in NHL scoring last season his 2.77 points per 60 minutes put him 36th overall (Ehlers’ 2.73 was 40th). But with TT already ranking fairly high in terms of total and PP Ice Time among his team’s forwards as compared to Ehlers, the major question we have to ask is whether there‘s realistic room for Teravainen’s situation to immediately improve?

The likely answer is yes, as the Hurricanes changed coaches in the offseason; and although there’s no telling for sure how new coach Rod Brind’Amour will approach ice time, chances are TT should see an improvement both overall and on the PP. After all, last season the Hurricanes were one of only five teams without a forward who took the ice for 18 non-shorthanded minutes nor a forward who skated for at least 3:00 on the PP. One of those teams (the Rangers) already fired its coach, while another (Minnesota) has a new GM. The other three, for those who are curious, were Vancouver, Toronto, and Las Vegas.

What this likely means is that with TT – unlike Ehlers, or at least the Ehlers of today – being an offensive focal point and a new coach coming in, his output could jump significantly. Here too though there has to be confirmation that TT didn’t luck into his jump in scoring last season, which is more of a concern than with Ehlers, for whom, as noted above, 2017-18 marker a second straight 60+ point campaign.

 

Secondary Categories

 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2017-18

0.31 (N.E.)

0.17 (T.T.)

0.47 (N.E.)

0.31 (T.T.)

0.33 (N.E.)

0.27 (T.T.)

2.81 (N.E.)

2.25 (T.T.)

0.16 (N.E.)

0.24 (T.T.)

2016-17

0.46 (N.E.)

0.19 (T.T.)

0.52 (N.E.)

0.33 (T.T.)

0.34 (N.E.)

0.40 (T.T.)

2.48 (N.E.)

2.08 (T.T.)

0.14 (N.E.)

0.17 (T.T.)

2015-16

0.29 (N.E.)

0.25 (T.T.)

0.40 (N.E.)

0.30 (T.T.)

0.34 (N.E.)

0.39 (T.T.)

2.32 (N.E.)

1.74 (T.T.)

0.15 (N.E.)

0.11 (T.T.)

 

First things first – both players are liabilities in physical categories, with Ehlers being slightly less bad. With respect to the areas that influence scoring, TT has seen his SOG and PPPts per game increase in each of the past two seasons. That in and of itself is a good sign, as is the fact he’s far from maxed out both in terms of pure numbers and especially when factoring in the added ice time that, as noted above, he figures to get under Brind’Amour.

As for Ehlers, he’s also seen his SOG and PPPts increase with each season, however, we can’t quite feel as overwhelmingly positive about his situation as we did for TT. For one, the Jets seem completely opposed to using Ehlers on PP1. Though he managed to produce more PPPts despite fewer points overall and less PP Time in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, there’s not much hope of big gains there. The good news is he’s shooting a ton, and his rate can still climb if/when he gets more ice time.

But one thing that’s of slight concern is when looking at players who, like Ehlers, had a season in which they were age 22 or younger and had 230+ SOG in 75+ games despite taking the ice for less than 1300 minutes overall, the list is not nearly as star-studded as what we saw above for his points and minutes. It consists of one player who looks to be a star in the making in David Pastrnak, although he did so at age 20, with the rest consisting of two players who had a couple of decent seasons (Maxim Afinogenov, Devon Setoguchi), one who hasn’t lived up to expectations as yet (Jeff Skinner), one whose career was cut short due to injury (Joffrey Lupul) and one who morphed his game into less of an offensive role (Michael Frolik). This is food for thought and not predictive data, yet it can’t give poolies the warm and fuzzies like the comparisons above to Kane, Kucherov and Gaborik, that’s for sure.

 

Luck-Based Metrics

 

Season

Personal Shooting %

Team Shooting % (5×5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

Average Shot Distance

Secondary Assists %

2017-18

12.6% (N.E.)

12.4% (T.T.)

8.69% (N.E.)

9.32% (T.T.)

70.6% (N.E.)

71.1% (T.T.)

53.7% (N.E.)

59.0% (T.T.)

35.6 (N.E.)

33.5 (T.T.)

32% (N.E.)

41% (T.T.)

2016-17

12.3% (N.E.)

8.9% (T.T.)

10.27% (N.E.)

6.88% (T.T.)

73.6% (N.E.)

67.7% (T.T.)

53.4% (N.E.)

58.8% (T.T.)

31.5 (N.E.)

31.5 (T.T.)

48% (N.E.)

55% (T.T.)

2015-16

9.0%(N.E.)

9.6% (T.T.)

8.17% (N.E.)

5.51% (T.T.)

60.3% (N.E.)

70.0% (T.T.)

55.7% (N.E.)

43.6% (T.T.)

31.4 (N.E.)

29.7 (T.T.)

30% (N.E.)

27% (T.T.)

 

One interesting bit of data for both is that, as noted above, their SOG rate increased from 2016-17 to 2017-18 and so did, as we can see here, their average shot distance. Yet despite this their personal shooting percentage also increased. That’s an odd combination of factors to all simultaneously occur. The question is what, if anything, should we make of it. My take is it’s a not a bad sign. Someone who can shoot more and from farther away yet still see his personal shooting percentage rise strikes me as a player to whom even better things, including in the goal scoring department, are in store.

That’s not to imply all is well for both though. In fact, each has a question mark when it comes to his 5×5 team shooting percentage and the fact that his most productive season coincided with that number being above the 9.0% level generally associated with scoring forwards. For TT, it was barely above the threshold, so we can look past it. And even though Ehlers exceeded the number by a far greater amount the fact that he managed 60 points this past season given his overall metrics shows that rather than being a case of unsustainable good luck, Ehlers’ data for 2016-17, which also included an impressive 73.6% IPP, was more of his fantasy coming out party. Long story short, I don’t see red flags here; and in fact with both having exceeded the 70% IPP threshold twice and having very healthy secondary assists rates the same number of times, they seem poised for continued success.

 

Who Wins?

 

If you want immediate results, Teravainen is the choice due to his “spot” and the likelihood of a new coach giving him even more and better ice time. The only risk is TT’s OZ% might drop a bit. However, that would be a small price to pay for another 90+ seconds of ice time and 30+ seconds more on the PP. If you’re planning further ahead, the choice would appear to be Ehlers, who has favorable player comparisons due to his production at his age despite low minutes and who, thanks to the young Winnipeg core, also will have what looks to be a better surrounding cast once he gets a chance to strut his stuff.

 

 

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