It’s said that stars are made this time of year. While that certainly may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean the players bursting into the public eye and cementing their status as household names are coming out of nowhere. If anything, their crowning represents something of a delayed reaction to trends that have been brewing all year.
The beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is things slow down from the blur of the night in and night out regular season schedule just enough for us to be able to soak up a larger share of the daily action and digest more information about what’s really taking place on the ice. The combination of that, and the naturally larger spotlight that comes with the national stage, is the perfect recipe for helping shine a light on more nuanced and under-appreciated stories.
One of my favourite examples of this from last year’s post-season was the emergence of Viktor Arvidsson, who used it as a launching pad for going from a fairly anonymous third-liner on the Nashville Predators to a name every hockey fan needs to be familiar with.
While his talent is undeniable, it may not have always been that obvious. It would have been hard to notice when he had the job description of a bottom-six player and getting 12 minutes of action a night.
What did stick out about Arvidsson even then, though, was his innate ability to always be in the middle of everything and create something whenever he got an opportunity. Even with the restricted playing time, he was an absolute force during Nashville’s run against the Ducks and Sharks. He had only one goal (and another assist) to his name in those 14 games, but his activity and impact on the game were noticeable as he looked like a puck-shooting, scoring chance-generating demon.
It was a trend that had carried over from the regular season, where an unfortunate combination of a suppressed shooting percentage and lack of exposure were really the only things keeping Arvidsson from completely blowing up.
Betting on a) his shot-generating ability being something he could reproduce, b) the puck luck eventually normalizing to something close to league average for forwards, and c) him receiving a larger workload, was a big reason why I ultimately felt comfortable featuring Arvidsson as a top breakout candidate prior to the season.
There’s a lot to glean from looking at individual shot rates because of what they represent. The reason why we should care about it is because, at the root of everything, there is the following relationship: shots lead to goals, and goals lead to wins.
This year’s list of highest-volume trigger men features a lot of the usual suspects, with a few intriguing young names who we should keep an eye on:
|Player||5v5 Shot Attempts/Hour|
Timo Meier’s place atop this list is likely exaggerated by the fact he only appeared in 34 games (and just under 400 minutes) this season, but with that disclaimer out the way, there’s still a lot to be excited about with him. Especially since he’s been nothing but a high volume shot generator at every level he’s played (unfortunately the data available for the lower levels is archaic so we’ll have to work with shots on goal per game, which is good enough for our purposes):
Right now, he’s buried on the depth chart of a deep team that’s in win-now mode, but he also looks like he’s a prime candidate to take a leap forward next year depending on how the next few months shake out for the Sharks and whether they’re willing to get younger this summer or bring back this roster for one more spin in 2017-18. With Meier, it’s more a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’ he’ll break out in a big way.
Then there’s Frank Vatrano. Shooters shoot, and Vatrano seems to have gotten the memo.
In all honesty, Vatrano almost definitely would’ve been on that aforementioned pre-season list with Arvidsson if not for the unfortunately timed foot injury that sidelined him for the first two-plus months of the season. He scored an unfathomable 36 goals in 36 AHL games last season, putting north of five pucks on net per game.
In nearly exactly a full season’s worth of NHL games spanning the past two years, Vatrano has scored goals at five-on-five at the same rate as Logan Couture and Rick Nash, and put the puck on net more frequently than everyone but Evander Kane. In a time where it’s tough for players to routinely score goals and for teams to find players who can do so on the cheap, Vatrano seems like someone who could check those boxes.
However, the most intriguing of this bunch as soon as next season may very well be Washington’s Andre Burakovsky, who finds himself in a fascinating spot this summer.
Regardless of how the rest of the playoffs play out for the Capitals, at this point it looks like a given that TJ Oshie will walk and leave a void on their top line’s right wing. Assuming they don’t lure some other free agent with promises of the cushy gig, Burakovsky seems like the most logical next man up to fill that spot.
Where things really get interesting is that Burakovsky is up for a new contract this summer. If the Capitals do intend to promote him to a more prominent scoring role, they’d do well to take advantage of how the system favours teams over players by buying up some future years with a longer-term deal rather than going the bridge route in restricted free agency negotiations — especially since he looks like a prime candidate to explode offensively any moment now.
You wouldn’t know it just based on looking at his raw point totals from this past season, but he’s already proven himself to be a supremely effective player on a per-minute basis:
|James van Riemsdyk||2.42|
Bringing things full circle with the Nashville Predators, there’s one other notable player who just narrowly missed the cut here, but warrants mentioning: Kevin Fiala. His shot generation skills in his first real NHL season found him sandwiched between some fairly elite company (rounding out the remainder of the league’s top 50 this season):
|Player||5v5 Shot Attempts/Hour|
The fact he flashed during the times that he was able to stick in the Predators lineup wasn’t much of a surprise given that Fiala is the type of scintillating talent prospect enthusiasts have been drooling over for years now. He’s always been ahead of the curve. In his draft year he had the highest points-per-game of any U-18 player in the top Swedish league since Peter Forsberg, and as a 19-year old last season he led his AHL team in scoring despite the brief cup of coffee he had in the NHL.
On the playoff stage against the Chicago Blackhawks, Fiala has shown signs he’s ready to take the next step towards not just being a household name, but even being considered among the league’s next bright young stars.
In Game 2 Fiala scored the wicked goal shown above, which featured a little bit of everything that makes him great. In Game 3 he was arguably the most dangerous player on the ice, putting seven pucks on net and playing more than he ever has in a single game at this level before ultimately winning the game in overtime with another dazzling goal.
Through this series the Blackhawks have had no answer for the combination of Fiala, James Neal and Calle Jarnkrok – the Predators have controlled 60.3 per cent of the shot attempts and 72.1 per cent of the scoring chances whenever the three of them have been on the ice together during five-on-five play. The addition of a second dominant forward line to complement Arvidsson, Forsberg and Johansen is something the Blackhawks haven’t been able to account for and match.
Yet as good as Fiala has looked, he still needs to refine some things. His physical tools are off the charts, but sometimes they can also be a bit of a curse. He gets to his spot so quickly and plays with such pace, that he occasionally takes himself out of prime scoring regions just because he forgets he has the luxury of slowing down and making a better decision with the puck.
Considering his age and relative lack of experience, there’s no reason to believe Fiala won’t eventually figure out that part of the game. And when he does – look out.