Cage Match: Kyle Connor vs. Alex DeBrincat

by Rick Roos on October 31, 2018


With the 2018-19 season now nearly a month old, poolies are wondering how still largely unproven youngsters might continue to fare, including this week’s combatants Kyle Connor and Alex DeBrincat. Both excelled in 2017-18 and seem poised to improve in 2018-19, but which one should end up the better own for this season and beyond? Cage Match is here to find out!
 

Career Path and Contract Status

Connor, 21, was drafted 17th overall in 2015, and played one season of college hockey, amassing 71 points in only 38 games and being named college rookie of the year as well as finishing runner-up for the Hobey Baker award. That was enough to convince Connor, and the Jets, to have him turn pro; and although he didn’t thrive in the NHL (five points in 20 games) he took his demotion to the AHL in stride and posted 44 points in 52 games. Then after starting 2017-18 in the AHL and posting five points in four games, Connor was back with the Jets and responded with 57 points in 76 games while cementing a spot on the team’s top line. For 2018-19, although thus far the Jets’ top line isn’t firing on all cylinders ala last season, Connor has been at or near the point-per-game level.

DeBrincat, 20, was selected 39th overall in 2016 after back to back 100+ point OHL seasons. Upon his return to the OHL for his age 18 season he took things up a notch by bettering the two points per game mark (127 points in 63 games) and leading the league in scoring by 18 points. From there it was a ticket straight to Chicago, where last season he showed poise and consistency beyond his years in posting 52 points, ignoring the rookie wall and posting 13 points in each of the season’s four quarters. For 2018-19 he’s showing no signs of a sophomore slump. On the contrary, as he’s put up 14 points in 12 games to start the season.

This is Connor’s last season on his ELC, which dings the cap at $0.925M, whereas DeBrincat’s ELC runs through 2019-20 and carries a slightly lower cap hit of $0.778M per campaign.
 

Ice Time (Data for 2018-19 in this and the other tables reflects games played through October 30)
 

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)

2018-19

19:17 (K.C.) – 3rd

17:43 (A.D.) – 4th

3:24 (K.C.) – 3rd

3:19 (A.D.) – 2nd

0:06 (K.C.) – 7th

0:06 (A.D.) – 8th

2017-18

16:54 (K.C.) – 5th

14:48 (A.D.) – 6th

2:40 (K.C.) – 4th

2:02 (A.D.) – 6th

0:01 (K.C.) – 12th (tied)

0:09 (A.D.) – 11th


For Connor, arguably more important than the sheer minutes he played last season is the extent to which he shared the ice with one or both of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Why? Because in some cases poolies figured Connor was being carried by the two stars and was more so “along for the ride” as opposed to being a key contributor. For what it’s worth, 37 of Connor’s 46 ES points and nine of his 11 PPPts were tallied while one or both of Scheifele and Wheeler were on the ice, translating to 80% of his production. But it turns out he lined up with one or both for roughly 85% of his total TOI. Thus, 20% of his total points were scored in the 15% of ice time spent away from those two, seemingly suggesting he can score in his own right and wasn’t being “carried” per se.

And that’s a good thing, because if October is any indication the Jets are seemingly more willing to try other wingers alongside Wheeler and Scheifele. Just in the past week Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers spent time on the top line; but neither one has stuck. Yet still, the result has been that in games through the 30th Connor has spent closer to 70% of his even strength shifts with one or both players, but 83% (i.e., five of six) of his even-strength points have come with one or both on the ice; so clearly it is in his (and poolies’) best interest for the Jets to maintain the status quo from last season.

Looking at DeBrincat, he certainly maximized his TOI in 2017-18, as of 87 players who tallied more points than him in 2017-18, just one (Thomas Vanek) averaged less TOI per game than his 14:48, and only two others (James van Riemsdyk, Daniel Sedin) had less than 16:00. And if we look at points per 60 minutes, DeBrincat was 66th, quite a bit higher than his scoring rank. That lends credibility to his productive start to 2018-19, what with him seeing nearly 3:00 more ice time than last season and 60% more power-play time. What’s essentially happened is he’s displaced Brandon Saad in the depth chart, plus eaten up minutes Patrick Sharp had during last season. And with DeBrincat succeeding to the extent he is, chances are his ice time will stay this high if not even increase. Of course we’ll have to check to see if his vastly improved scoring is for real, and we’ll do that by looking at his other metrics.
 

Secondary Categories
 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2018-19

0.33 (K.C.)

0.66 (A.D.)

0.00 (K.C.)

0.33 (A.D.)

0.08 (K.C.)

0.41 (A.D.)

2.91 (K.C.)

3.16 (A.D.)

0.41 (K.C.)

0.16 (A.D.)

2017-18

0.21 (K.C.)

0.07 (A.D.)

0.23 (K.C.)

0.48 (A.D.)

0.34 (K.C.)

0.31 (A.D.)

2.52 (K.C.)

2.21 (A.D.)

0.14 (K.C.)

0.16 (A.D.)


DeBrincat’s SOG rate is up by nearly one per game. Before we consider this his new normal, let’s keep in mind the Blackhawks have played a total of 12 games and going back to last season DeBrincat had a 12-game stretch from late January through mid-February where he averaged 3.83 SOG per game, so this is not unprecedented territory for him. That being said, with DeBrincat’s added minutes plus a full season under his belt and natural maturation of his game, his SOG jump is likely more “for real” than not; as such, I’d expect him to stay at or above the three SOG per game mark for the season.

That, in turn, also makes it less likely DeBrincat’s scoring rate will crater. Or does it? Let’s say he ends up with 250+ SOG, which would mean an average of 3.05 per game if he plays all 82 contests, or slightly higher if he misses a few games. Over the previous five seasons, there’s been a total of 86 instances of players with 250+ SOG in a season, yet 23 of the 86 (i.e., 26%) had fewer than 65 points in the same season. And it turns out that only 19 of the 44 instances of 80+ point scoring over those same five seasons were accomplished by a player who fired 250+ SOG. So make no mistake – shooting the puck a lot is still a very good way to produce in the NHL; however, plenty of players do well without shooting a ton, and far from all players who are high volume shooters end up scoring even 65+ points.

The numbers that jump off the page for Connor are zero hits and one block through his team’s first 12 games. We knew he was a category killer in these areas from last season, but he looks to be even worse thus far, whereas DeBrincat’s outputs are comparable except for PIM, where he’s already eclipsed his total for all of last season. Where Connor is performing well is SOG and PPPts, which are key to scoring. His PP prowess should help him not only stay on PP1 but also could lead to the team being more inclined to keep him with fellow PP1 linemates Wheeler and Scheifele. And his SOG rate climbing is, as for DeBrincat, not automatically going to mean more points but is certainly better to see than a decline.
 

Luck-Based Metrics
 

Season

Personal Shooting %

Team Shooting % (5×5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

Average Shot Distance

Secondary Assists %

2018-19

17.1% (K.C.)

21.1% (A.D.)

5.43% (K.C.)

9.48% (A.D.)

55.0% (K.C.)

77.8% (A.D.)

53.4% (K.C.)

66.3% (A.D.)

28.8 (K.C.)

32.1 (A.D.)

40% (K.C.)

83% (A.D.)

2017-18

16.1% (K.C.)

15.6% (A.D.)

8.51% (K.C.)

9.54% (A.D.)

69.5% (K.C.)

69.3% (A.D.)

54.4% (K.C.)

57.2% (A.D.)

26.6 (K.C.)

29.6 (A.D.)

50% (K.C.)

37% (A.D.)


Both players have remarkably similar data for 2017-18. For each to have posted a nearly 70% IPP in their first full seasons is impressive, and it also goes a long way toward disproving the theories about Connor being “along for the ride” on the first line, since lining up with the caliber of players of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and still managing to register a point on 70% of goals scored while he was on the ice with the likes of them demonstrated that Connor is a contributor and a player who finds a way to grace the scoresheet.

That being said, the low 2018-19 team shooting percentage number for Connor, plus those of Wheeler (5.75%) and even Scheifele (7.55%) might explain why the Jets have been tinkering with the make-up of the top line during the early part of this season. Moreover, if these three sporting such low team shooting percentages continues, it might leave the team with no choice but to split up that line on a more regular basis. And although the end result likely would mean Connor still playing with one of the two, that would be a far cry from the dream deployment of having both as linemates. It’s a situation worth monitoring. After all, of the three Connor is the least proven, having played only one full season and being apart from both for only the small sample size of 15% of his shifts last season, although for what it’s worth as we saw above he did produce okay in the rare occasions when he was apart from both players in 2017-18.

One interesting development is Connor’s IPP being barely 50% thus far. Of course it’s early and it could spike to above 70% again with just one or two great games. But the fact that it’s as low as it is raises at least a back-of-the-mind concern about perhaps him having overachieved in this area last season. Yet the fact that his scoring rate is nevertheless up despite this lower IPP is a very good sign, suggesting he’s coming into his own as a skilled player and that his IPP is more likely to rebound than stay low.

For DeBrincat, we see that five of his six assists have been secondary assists, suggesting that he’s lucked into at least some of them. He’s also benefitted by his OZ% rising to essentially two-thirds of his shifts. Taken collectively, this paints the picture of DeBrincat’s better than point per game October start as being somewhat of a temporary mirage; however, he’s still managed a 77.8% IPP, suggesting he has a nose for scoring and is a driving force for offense. As such, the bottom should not fall out when it comes to his production.
 

Who Wins?

It’s never easy picking a winner when dealing with youngsters who’ve played roughly 100 NHL games in their careers to date. That being said, DeBrincat already looks to have the makings of being an impact player in his own right, whereas Connor is a valuable cog in the wheel but not an offensive force in and of himself. Of course in fantasy hockey points are points, regardless of whether a player was the driving force behind them or more so along for the ride. Yet with the Jets starting now to play around with the make-up of their top line, that raises enough concern about Connor to tilt the scales to DeBrincat.