Analytics Mailbag: What’s the best line Alexis Lafreniere could play on?

Sam Cosentino catches up with top draft prospect, Alexis Lafrenière, to discuss winning CHL Player of the Year for the 2nd straight season, to reflect back on his time in Rimouski, and how he’s been preparing to become NHL ready during the pandemic.

It’s Analytics Mailbag time again!

You know how it works by now, so let’s just get into it.

In case you all missed it, my good friend Steve Dangle and his lovely wife welcomed their son, Leo, into the world just over a week ago. Steve shared his joy, and the pain they went through in struggling to conceive, in a video on his YouTube channel.

It was a very brave and important thing to do, and it’s something we don’t talk about enough. It can be excruciating to struggle in starting a family, and it can become a very lonely, isolating experience.

So first off, congrats to the Dangle family! As for who would be the most heartbreaking team to draft Leo in 2038, the obvious answers are teams like the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens as division rivals, but I think we all know the real truth.

The worst would be if he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, Steve would be happy for a moment, but deep down he would know that means only sports pain while the Leafs continue to never win.

There are a few intriguing options for Lafreniere heading into next season. Based on the teams that could draft him, here are some plum situations for him to drop into.

While Alex Nylander and Dominik Kubalik had breakout years in Chicago, that second line left wing spot beside Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane looks up for grabs to me. Starting his career with offensive talents like that on a team that barely pays attention to defence could see some crazy offensive numbers.

It’s fair to say that everyone underestimated them this year, but the Columbus Blue Jackets could definitely use some talent on the left side. Strong players like Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Josh Anderson all work from the right side, so Lafreniere could take them to another level offensively.

The Edmonton Oilers desperately need scoring wingers to complement their superstar centres. Lafreniere would have the option of finding chemistry with McDavid or Draisaitl, who could ask for more?

The Montreal Canadiens have tons of depth on the wing, but lack star power. It might be tougher to muscle out Tomas Tatar or Jonathan Drouin for a top-six spot, but playing for his home team sound like a dream come true for both sides. He also could have the opportunity to grow as part of a true kids of the future line with Nick Suzuki or Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the pivot between himself and Cole Caufield.

Ultimately Lafreniere is likely going to be great no matter where he lands, but those are the real interesting ones to my eye.

For whatever reason, Mika Zibanejad doesn’t seem to get the recognition that he deserves as an excellent centre. Maybe it’s because he sort of bounced around a bit between centre and wing at the start of his career, but he’s a player that really figured it out and has been excelling without nearly enough fanfare.

One metric I look at for forwards is Sportlogiq’s offence created per 20 minutes stat, which is a combination of all contributing plays that directly lead to scoring chances. In 2019-20 Zibanejad finished 35th in the NHL in that metric at 5-vs-5, sandwiched between Taylor Hall and Johnny Gaudreau.

He did that while also performing transition plays as often as the top 10 per cent of all forwards, and it’s not like he’s a defensive liability.

Zibanejad is comfortably in the top-five per cent of all forwards in successful defensive plays per 20 minutes (removing possession from opponents), blocked passes, defensive zone loose puck recoveries, defensive zone rebound recoveries, and more.

The 41 goals in 57 games is unlikely to be repeated, and that’s what’s getting most of the attention, but the truth is Zibanejad has become an all-zones player, and if he’s not at an elite level, he’s close to it.

I can, and it’s actually not very tough to do. The Red Wings overall might have been a huge mess, but they’ve got one building block set: Their top line.

Dylan Larkin between Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha played 312 minutes together at even strength, and while they were on the ice the Red Wings held a 58.7 per cent expected goals ratio. To put that in context, the Red Wings as a whole held a 43.9 per cent expected goals ratio this season. That is a gargantuan difference between that line and the rest of the team, and one of the top expected goals marks of any regular line in the entire NHL.

Those three have something special for the Red Wings to build around, and I would wager that Steve Yzerman knows this.

Charlie McAvoy is a player I haven’t quite made my mind up on yet. He’s definitely a good player, and has made some serious strides since entering the league, but he’s still overshadowed in Boston by Torey Krug, and in some respects by Zdeno Chara.

Having the advantage of learning from Chara, McAvoy has really become a defensive force, protecting the slot area well and efficiently moving the puck when he gets the opportunity, but while he’s good at a lot of things, he doesn’t stand out in the way you expect from a Norris-level contributor. He has room to grow at his age, but strikes me as a top-20 per cent of his position player, whereas to earn a Norris you’ve got to be in the top-five per cent.

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