It’s still early days in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with still another three rounds ahead of us.
Including the round robin games and the qualifying round, we have a bit more to work with this season when trying to figure out who have been the best players so far in the playoffs. Looking strictly at offensive performance, we can contrast each players’ individual expected goal output at 5-on-5 with the frequency of plays they make that create scoring opportunities for their team.
The margins are set at the average for each metric, which is skewed a little low because defencemen are included in this breakdown just in case someone ended up putting up incredible numbers in the short term.
Most of the players in the lower left portion of the chart are defencemen who, by the nature of their role, get less opportunity to create offence than forwards do. No defenceman has been a big enough outlier to end up out of the pack, though Miro Heiskanen and Victor Hedman are smack dab in the middle of the chart.
The players who have truly stood out as offensive weapons early in the playoffs fall into three categories:
• The playmakers like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who aren’t putting a ton of quality shots on the board themselves, but are creating an incredible amount of offence for their teammates. The fact that Bergeron and Marchand have been able to push the Bruins to a 3-1 series lead over the Hurricanes with their finisher in David Pastrnak missing games and playing hurt should scare every single team in the league. That line isn’t going away.
• The shooters like Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and unlabeled ones on the chart such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Anthony Beauvillier. It’s a little strange that so many of the top shooters are Islanders, but outside of their No. 1 centre they do play a very straightforward, North-South game that prioritizes simple plays to minimize defensive risk. So those players are getting shots but not making many plays. It’s worked so far.
• Part of the reason it’s worked is because Mathew Barzal fits into the last category: players who do it all. Alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Brayden Point, and Jonathan Marchessault, Barzal has been incredible from a shooting and passing perspective in these playoffs.
Despite all four of those players putting up similarly incredible offensive numbers, the way each of them accomplishes that task is very different.
Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t go to the net front much, but he owns the high slot and attacks more off the rush than any player in the league. He’s also completing more slot passes than the rest of his peer group, and connects on tons of East-West passes.
When you’re dealing with MacKinnon he’s going to come at you fast, and he’s going to move the puck across the middle either with his skating or playmaking. It makes him an extremely difficult player to shut down, especially when you factor in his underrated physicality.
It’s surprising how little MacKinnon gets in on the cycle from a shooting perspective, but it’s just his style of play to attack quickly instead of capitalize on extended offensive zone possessions. One interesting tidbit about MacKinnon is that despite his exceptional numbers off the rush, he doesn’t pass off the rush too often. He hasn’t missed a single attempted pass off the rush this post-season, but he likes to keep the puck himself.
I always find it interesting when a player as great as MacKinnon seemingly has different tendencies depending on the style of attack their team is engaging in. Off the rush, he’s not giving the puck up because he wants that shot. Off the cycle, he becomes an elite level puck distributor.
Brayden Point, meanwhile, is almost the opposite. He prefers to be the shooter off the cycle more than any of his peers, and sets up shop right in front of the net to grab juicy rebounds and get prime scoring chances as often as possible.
Off the rush, Point passes nearly as often as he shoots, and because of his positioning in the cycle, he has fewer opportunities to make plays to and through the slot. That doesn’t mean Point isn’t a great playmaker, but the role he plays doesn’t lend itself to making as many high-end passes.
Then there’s Jonathan Marchessault, who is good at pretty much everything. He gets to the front of the net, he gets tons of shots from the slot, he attacks off the rush, and he gets the puck to the slot for his teammates with regularity.
Like MacKinnon, Marchessault doesn’t pass off the rush very often, but unlike MacKinnon, he doesn’t make long passes through the middle very often. Marchessault is all about volume and high percentage plays. If he’s not confident he can make it through the middle he’s not going to attempt it.
Mat Barzal shoots less often than his peers here, and despite his skill in gaining the offensive zone with control, he doesn’t get an abundance of rush chances himself. Barzal’s shooting numbers aren’t bad at all, these other three are just exceptional and Barzal prefers to dish.
More than the rest, Barzal likes to gain the zone and find a teammate to get a scoring chance, and he also leads the group in those long East-West passes through the slot to find one-timer opportunities.
The way Barzal dictates play at 5-on-5 is almost similar to how most playmakers operate on power plays, which tells you how much influence his skating and playmaking has on opposing defences. He puts opponents on their heels and never really lets off the gas.