We’re almost through the 2019-20 NHL regular season, which means we’re dealing with significant sample sizes in most cases when we evaluate players, but even with lots of information to draw from, there are still some persistent narratives that might not be true.
That means it’s time for another edition of Fact or Fiction, where we’re going to look at three different cases around the league and get to the truth of the matter.
Playing fewer games this season while splitting starts with Juuse Saros was supposed to result in a more rested and more effective Pekka Rinne, but thus far he’s posted the worst save percentage of his career, and has been vastly outplayed by his countryman in Saros. So is this the end of the road for Rinne as a starting goaltender?
At 37 years old, Rinne has already defied doubters (including myself) once with his incredible resurgence that started in 2016-17 and ended up in a Vezina Trophy win the following year. That’s not likely to happen again, but the takeaway here should be that Rinne has already given the Predators way more value than should be expected over the last three seasons through his mid-30s.
The drop off looks drastic on the surface, but how does it look in detail?
Looking at things at 5-vs-5, Rinne is definitely falling off this season, with the high slot being the area with the most linear decline over the last three seasons, but he’s still above league average from that area by a hair, and he’s well above league average from the inner slot despite a big drop off from last season.
In fact, at even strength Rinne doesn’t look done at all, he’s been a well above average goaltender in the game state that holds the most predictive value, while he’s been pummeled into oblivion while the Predators are short-handed.
Rinne’s 55.6 per cent save percentage from the inner slot while down a man is the league’s worst mark, and his 78.4 per cent save percentage from the high slot isn’t great either, but those results for a goaltender with fewer than 40 starts and under 200 minutes played short-handed just aren’t something I would bet on.
At the age of 37, it’s entirely reasonable to believe that Rinne will decline further and swiftly, but that murdering of his save percentage while short-handed has been the result of a combined 73 shots from the inner and high slot, which just isn’t a lot.
Rinne is certainly in decline, but is he finished? I say that’s a fiction.
Everything has gone wrong for the New Jersey Devils this year. Internally, it sure looks like they assumed they would be a lot better, and a lot of external evaluators thought they would be too, but almost every new addition has disappointed.
P.K. Subban is probably the biggest disappointment, but the breath of fresh air that Jack Hughes was supposed to bring to the organization hasn’t arrived, and it has some asking if he was either put into the league too soon, or maybe isn’t as good as what was first prognosticated.
It’s not a complete view of a player, but looking at how a team performs while a player is on the ice compared to when they’re not gives us a rough idea of whether or not they belong at this level. So, how does Hughes look?
The season has been disappointing from an offensive perspective, and I completely understand why some would not be able to see past that with the way the Devils’ 2019-20 has gone, but the underlying numbers for Hughes as an 18-year-old rookie are surprisingly good.
His impact on shot-based metrics has been modest, pushing the team a bit above average from the inner slot and in shot attempts overall, while below average in actual shots on goal, but it’s the passing where he makes a huge impact.
The Devils have struggled to a great degree this season at controlling slot passes, especially on the defensive side, but Hughes has been a big positive force offensively and defensively, particularly the former.
It’s rare for a teenager to have a big impact at the NHL level anyway, but Hughes’ point total doesn’t tell the real story. The only Devil who is involved in more scoring chances per 20 minutes at 5-vs-5 than Hughes is Nico Hischier.
Am I worried by this rookie season from Jack Hughes? Not at all. the point totals are disappointing, but the idea that he’s a bust is pure fiction.
Across the state border, the New York Rangers have been the complete opposite of the Devils. They also acquired a marquee addition to their roster in the off-season in Artemi Panarin via unrestricted free agency, and featured a highly touted young prospect in Kaapo Kakko. Despite that, no one really gave the Rangers the time of day, but they’re not far from a playoff spot with a month left in the season and their big addition has been Hart Trophy calibre.
And yet, regardless of all that positive news, the same questions being lobbed at Hughes are being sent Kaapo Kakko’s way as well. So, how well are things going for him in his rookie year?
Unlike Hughes, things don’t look so rosy for Kakko by the underlying numbers, but the good news is that he was even worse in the first half of the season, so there has been significant improvement.
Unfortunately, the areas where Kakko has had the biggest negative impacts on his team are in the shot-quality areas, with the Rangers controlling over 10 per cent less of the inner-slot shots and slot passes while Kakko is on the ice.
Kakko has slowly started bringing more offence to the table, but to date, his contributions at even strength are about on par with a strong third liner.
I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to write off a player who makes it into the NHL as a teenager, since most of them do struggle to be high impact players even in sheltered roles. We can sometimes forget that this is a very difficult league to find success in, and once the season gets going it’s very difficult to find your feet if you start off balance.
Kakko is improving over time, but is this start to his career a little bit worrying and a huge disappointment? That’s a fact.