Three bold predictions for the NHL season backed up by stats

Senators forward Brady Tkachuk and head coach DJ Smith discuss the identity that the team wants to become, but knows it's something that doesn't happen overnight, it needs to be established.

As part of Sportsnet’s early season coverage, I was asked to make some bold predictions about this upcoming season with some data to back them up.

Predictions are always tough and after going two for eight in my first round playoff predictions last spring, I can’t say that I’m on a roll of late. But bold predictions are about fun more than accuracy, so let’s get some conversations going!

Max Pacioretty bounces back big
There are two major reasons why the Vegas Golden Knights’ sniper is going to have a big year. First, he’s going to have Mark Stone feeding him passes all season long, but just as important, he’s been devastatingly unlucky.

Pacioretty has a long history of being one of the NHL’s best scorers and although he’s no longer in the prime of his career at age 30, he’s also never been in a situation as favourable as the one he’s in right now.

Last season Pacioretty led the Vegas Golden Knights in scoring chances, slot pass receptions, and cycle chances, but injuries to both him and his linemates kept his scoring down, even though his shooting percentage rebounded from an outlier year the previous season in Montreal.

This season he gets to be less of a play driver on his line, leaning more on Stone to fulfill that role while benefitting from Stone’s playmaking ability to get him the puck in dangerous areas even more often than last season. Just look how often his linemates hit the slot with passes in the table above.

Even if Pacioretty never hits the height of his prime in terms of his shooting efficiency, he will have more and better opportunities than ever on this stacked Vegas top line. If he’s able to stay healthy all season long, it wouldn’t be shocking for him to equal his past two seasons of goals combined (39).

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Brady Tkachuk scores 30 or more
A big emphasis of NHL coaches these days is getting shots off in tight – something we explored this week. The closer your shots are, the more likely you are to convert on them, and net-front guys have never been more valuable.

Unlike Pacioretty, Brady Tkachuk doesn’t have a particularly great situation surrounding him in terms of talent, but what he does have is an excellent foundation and all the opportunity in the world.

Often you hear pundits say that on bad teams, someone has to score. I don’t think that’s particularly true, but good players on bad teams can definitely benefit from being the focal point through which most of the scoring is generated.

Last season as a rookie Tkachuk managed to keep pace with John Tavares as the league leader in high danger chances per minute played, despite being on a team that didn’t generate near the offence the Toronto Maple Leafs did. And now with Stone and Matt Duchene both gone for the full season, Tkachuk will be the offensive catalyst for the entire team.

That means more ice time in general, but also more power play time. Considering Tkachuk already scored 22 goals last season despite missing 11 games, I don’t think it would be a surprise at all if he scored 30, and if he improves as a sophomore, 40 isn’t out of the question.

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Robin Lehner is going to struggle in Chicago
Not to kick a guy who had a revelatory season, but Lehner’s incredible save percentage in 2018-19 had a lot to do with the way the New York Islanders played in front of him.

The Islanders under Barry Trotz completely changed how they played, going from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to one of the best. Lehner faced relatively few dangerous shots compared to most goaltenders, and on the dangerous ones he was merely league average.

He was better than average on shots from the high slot, but the infrequency of difficult shots faced was a nice cushy situation for him. It was more the abundance of perimeter shots that he faced that inflated his save percentage than an extremely impressive performance.

Chicago, meanwhile, is a bit more hostile territory.

While the Islanders were one of the league’s best defensive teams, the Blackhawks were arguably the worst last season, allowing way more difficult chances much more often than the Islanders.

Scoring chances against the Blackhawks were far more likely to involve pre-shot movement and far more likely to be off the rush.

So when Lehner’s save percentage inevitably drops drastically from last season, don’t blame the goalie, because more than likely this won’t be on him.

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