March 23, 2023

Welcome to the second edition of the 2022-23 NHL Analytics Report, a weekly roundup of the latest analytical trends and a collection of statistical observations from around the league. An important caveat: the overall sample sizes are still small in the grand scheme of things, and it’s foolish to make sweeping declarations this early. Statistical regression is a fickle beast (in both directions) and developments that may seem permanent now, may not appear so at the season’s end. To better understand what is being discussed in this rundown, read THW’s primer on advanced analytics which explores the landscape of modern hockey analysis. With that, here are five more observations after another full week of NHL hockey.

Eichel Leading Golden Knights’ Revival

Reports surrounding the Vegas Golden Knights’ demise may have been a tad premature. The NHL’s 31st franchise missed the playoffs for the first time in their brief existence last season, with a torrent of injuries keeping them from icing their best lineup on an almost nightly basis.

According to NHL Injury Viz, only the Montreal Canadiens experienced worse injury luck in 2021-22 as the Golden Knights accumulated the second-highest Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP) over the course of the campaign. Most notably, Alec Martinez (56 games) Mark Stone (45), Max Pacioretty (43), Reilly Smith (26), and of course, Jack Eichel, saw significant absences as the Golden Knights missed out on a playoff berth by three points. Part of their inability to manage an avalanche of injuries was their own doing, but no one can deny that losing so many key contributors represented an awfully high hill to climb.

Jack Eichel Vegas Golden Knights
Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, the Golden Knights have reverted back to the form which saw them accrue the fourth-highest points percentage (PTS%) over their first four years in the league. Their 13-3-0 record and corresponding .813 PTS% have them leading the Western Conference and sitting second in the entire league while posting the second-best goal differential (plus-22). According to Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank fifth in score-adjusted shot share (SF%), sixth in their share of scoring chances (SCF%), third in high-danger chance share (HDCF%), and own the fourth-best share of expected goals (xGF%), all at 5v5.

Apart from the otherworldly numbers being put up by dual Calder and Vezina Trophy candidate Logan Thompson, the Golden Knights’ resurgence has largely been driven by Eichel. In his first full season in Vegas, the 26-year-old center has produced 19 points in 16 games (tied for sixth among all skaters) while spearheading the team’s dominant performance at 5v5. According to MoneyPuck, the Eichel, Chandler Stephenson, and Mark Stone line holds a 68% share of xGF (fifth among lines with at least 50 minutes played) and has outscored the opposition 11-3 while playing top competition.

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If the Golden Knights aim to win their first-ever Stanley Cup, that triumvirate must continue to buzzsaw through the competition. Considering how they’ve fared through the first month of the season, the rest of the NHL should be on high alert.

Sharks’ Karlsson Experiencing Career Renaissance

For those who predicted Erik Karlsson to lead all NHL defensemen in scoring through the first month of the season, what do you plan to do with your lottery winnings? The 32-year-old San Jose Sharks’ blueliner looks fully healthy for the first time in years, and is producing at the level he showed during his Norris Trophy wins in the early-2010s.

Karlsson leads all defenders in virtually every offensive category including goals (10), points (22), even-strength goals (nine), and even-strength points (16). He’s launched 53 shots on goal (fifth) and ranks third in scoring chances (46) while also carving up the opposition off of the rush (his 11 rush attempts rank first among defensemen). For someone who has frequently been lambasted for his lack of mobility in recent seasons, this offensive resurrection is among the league’s biggest surprises over the first month of the season.

Erik Karlsson San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If his scoring totals weren’t enough, Karlsson has also been a defensive stalwart despite taking on a heavy workload for the rebuilding Sharks. He ranks sixth in average all-situations ice time and second in even-strength usage, but is putting up strong numbers for a team who is sub-50% in shot- and scoring-chance share at 5v5 this season.

With Karlsson, the Sharks control 53.5% of all shots and 53% of all scoring chances at 5v5, representing around a five percent improvement on their overall numbers. When looking at his relative impact (when he’s on compared to when he’s off), the Sharks perform 8.8% better in terms of shot-share (10th among qualified defenders) and 7.6% better in scoring chances (23rd). What’s more impressive is that unlike a majority of those who rank ahead of him in those relative metrics, none eclipse Karlsson in 5v5 ice time.

After a difficult stretch of seasons for Karlsson, few in the game deserve this return to form more than the future Hall-of-Fame defenseman. The Sharks look to be graduating into tank mode and his cap hit and contract term might prevent him from being moved to a contender at the deadline, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy his play in the purest sense. Does he have enough in the tank to capture the third Norris Trophy of his illustrious career?

Devils’ Hischier Rounding Into Selke Trophy Form

As I covered last week, the New Jersey Devils have ascended into the stratosphere of Stanley Cup competition on the back of outright dominant 5v5 play and respectable results from their special teams. Among the many figures who can claim responsibility for the team’s success, none have had as much of an impact at both ends of the ice as darkhorse Selke Trophy candidate Nico Hischier. Hischier paces all Devils’ forwards in both shorthanded and all-situations ice time and has seen his game readily evolve this season.

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The former first-overall pick has often been derided for his lack of offensive ceiling as far as first-overall picks go, but the 23-year-old pivot has hit a new gear. His eight goals, nine assists, and 17 points in 14 games all represent career-high rates, but it’s his masterful display at 5v5 which has earned him numerous plaudits so far in 2022-23.

Hischier owns a plus-4.9% relative expected goals rate at 5v5 (how the team fares when he’s on the ice and when he’s not) and has amassed 15 takeaways in all situations (tied for sixth among all forwards). Further, the Devils’ forward line of Fabian Zetterlund, Hischier, and Tomas Tatar leads the NHL in xGF% (75%), according to MoneyPuck (minimum 50 minutes played), acting as a powerful neutralizing force for the surprising Eastern Conference power-brokers.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s early, but Hischier may have already earned himself the first Selke nod of his young career. He has orchestrated the Devils’ territorial dominance with his two-way play and his scoring outburst is being powered by sustainable underlying numbers. His individual per-60-minute rates of shots, expected goals, scoring chances, and high-danger looks at 5v5 all represent career highs which suggest that the Swiss native has taken a clear step in his development.

For a team often tipped as the NHL’s next superpower in recent seasons, Hischier’s mouth-watering potential was a major reason for that optimism. Now that it’s been reached, the league landscape figures to look drastically different from here on out.

Vejmelka Preventing Coyotes’ Tanking Efforts

For years, the 2022-23 season has been marked as the battleground of the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, with the NHL’s worst teams handed the best odds of capturing a generational talent. Although several organizations shuffled their rosters in anticipation, an unexpected crop of basement dwellers has sprouted in place of who many predicted would emerge.

Instead of supposedly forlorn franchises such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Arizona Coyotes, the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and St. Louis Blues are currently in prime position to land the best odds for the first-overall pick. Although each team has its reasons for over or underperforming expectations, the Coyotes have been buoyed by Karel Vejmelka, the 26-year-old unexpectedly keeping them afloat.

At first glance, Vejmelka’s 3.16 goals-against average (GAA) and .910 save percentage (SV%) don’t resemble the numbers typically posted by Vezina winners. However, when considering his playing environment, the sophomore netminder should be widely praised for his efforts in the crease. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Coyotes allow the second-highest rate of scoring chances, the third-highest rate of high-danger chances, and the fourth-highest rate of shots against at 5v5. Whether you’re evaluating Vejmelka’s workload by quality or quantity, there’s no denying it’s among the most difficult in the NHL.

Karel Vejmelka Arizona Coyotes
Karel Vejmelka, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Instead of crumbling under the strain, he’s standing tall in the face of a barrage of offensive pressure. By goals saved above expected (GSAx) – which accounts for the quality of shots a goalie faces – Vejmelka ranks fourth in the entire league with a mark of plus-8.4 according to MoneyPuck. Traditional tools of analysis for goaltending performance such as raw SV% or GAA treat each shot as representing an equal threat to score. Given that a shot from the point and a shot from the slot are clearly different, judging a netminder by methods that operate by old standards makes any analysis irrelevant.

Vejmelka’s performance is a key factor in the Coyotes’ respectable 6-7-1 record and if he can maintain his play for the entire season, there’s no reason he shouldn’t earn a Vezina nomination for his efforts. That’s much easier said than done of course, but he’s held the fort thus far. Of course, the Coyotes might prefer to increase their chances of drafting Bedard, but there’s no harm in finding the silver lining in an otherwise turbulent season.

Avalanche’s Toews-Makar Pairing Among the NHL’s Best

After watching the Colorado Avalanche dismantle a cap-era dynasty last spring, few need reminding of the talent contained on the Avalanche blue line. Future Hall-of-Famer Cale Makar collected his first Norris Trophy win last season while his defensive partner Devon Toews finally received mainstream recognition for his underappreciated efforts at both ends of the ice. Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar has kept the pair intact to start the 2022-23 campaign, and that decision has unsurprisingly paid immense dividends for the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Pairing (Team) Minutes xGF%
Ty Smith – Damon Severson (New Jersey Devils) 127 67
Josh Mahura – Radko Gudas (Florida Panthers) 155 66.9
Devon Toews – Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche) 147 66.4
Jonas Siegenthaler – Dougie Hamilton (New Jersey Devils) 203 66
Brady Skjei – Brett Pesce (Carolina Hurricanes) 232 65.1
The NHL’s best defensive pairings by 5v5 xGF% (minimum 75 minutes played) – via MoneyPuck

Although public perception paints Toews and Makar as an elite offensive force, much of their results are driven by excellence on the defensive side of the puck. The duo ranks fourth in goals for percentage (GF%), outscoring their opposition 10-3 when they take the ice. However, they also rank second in expected goals against per-60 and eighth in actual goals against per-60 among qualified pairs. The latter rate is often a reflection of the goaltending talent behind them, but their concession of actual goals is underlined by stingy expected numbers which bode well for future results.

The Avalanche sit second in the West by PTS% and fourth overall despite hemorrhaging a lot of talent in the offseason, and their top defensive unit is a big reason they’ve kept up the pace. Repeating as champions is an increasingly difficult feat in the salary cap era, but the Avalanche stand as good a chance as any with their dynamic duo leading the charge.

Analytical Notes & Observations from Around the NHL

  • The Dallas Stars’ vaunted forward line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski leads the NHL in goal difference, outscoring their opposition 15-2 at 5v5 according to MoneyPuck
  • Among the 73 goalies to have played in at least one game this season, Thatcher Demko (71st), Jack Campbell (69th), John Gibson (68th), and Tristan Jarry (66th) all rank in the bottom-10 by total GSAx, according to MoneyPuck
  • The Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk ranks first in the NHL in all-situations individual expected goals (ixG); The Edmonton Oilers’ Zach Hyman ranks first in ixG at 5v5, according to Evolving Hockey
  • The Los Angeles Kings’ Gabriel Vilardi ranks first in penalty differential at plus-22 (24 penalty minutes drawn, two minutes taken), according to MoneyPuck
  • According to MoneyPuck, the Sharks’ Karlsson has scored the most goals above expected (plus-7.6) while the New York Islanders’ Mat Barzal has most underperformed his expected total (minus-4.7)
  • Among skaters to have played at least 50 minutes at 5v5, Morgan Geekie of the Seattle Kraken ranks first in goals (2.44) and points (4.88) per-60-minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick

Data courtesy of Evolving HockeyMoneyPuckNatural Stat Trick, and the NHL. Statistics are accurate as of Nov. 13.

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