Usually when I’m starting a Truth by Numbers column and we’re looking at the Spotlight Performer, it’s about a player who has been tearing the league to shreds for the past week or two and we examine what’s driving that performance and whether it’s sustainable. But this week we’re going to do something a little different.
Last season was a breakout by all measures for Max Domi. He fit seamlessly into his new position as a centre with the Montreal Canadiens and seemed tailor made for the system Claude Julien had built. However, it’s fair to say that a lot of people don’t expect him to repeat that level of production.
Based on early returns, though, Domi isn’t one of those people.
Two of the most important qualities of Julien’s system in Montreal are speed and making plays with the puck to move it forward. The goal is to be on the attack as soon as you gain possession as opposed to a puck pursuit system, which can create more mistakes for opponents with an aggressive forecheck, but also wastes more energy.
Julien’s system puts more focus on attacking off the rush, keeping the puck under team control the whole way through, giving offensive players the freedom to attempt riskier plays to gain the offensive zone and creating dangerous chances.
Right away it’s easy to see why Domi fits into that system better than he ever did in the more conservative Arizona Coyotes system. But last season didn’t just see Domi better his strengths, he added a newfound goal scoring touch, more than tripling his previous season’s total while posting a team-leading 72 points.
In speaking with Eric Engels before the season began, Domi guessed that one of the reasons he excelled at centre was the nature of the position was to always be skating, which is one of his best skills, instead of often being stagnant on the walls in battles on the wing.
It was the perfect situation offensively for Domi, but he struggled on the defensive side, especially while paired with Jonathan Drouin. To start this season, the two are on different lines and both thriving, tied for the team lead in points with Brendan Gallagher with seven in seven games.
Last season I was surprised to see where Domi ranked in the NHL with his involvement in creating scoring chances for his teammates on a per minute basis at 5-on-5 — all the way up at 15th. So far this season he’s even more dynamic. In 2019-20 he’s ranked ninth in the league, sandwiched between Sebastian Aho and David Pastrnak. That’s some good company.
The resurgence of the Canadiens’ power play should also go a long way towards helping him keep his point totals up if his shooting percentage regresses from a career high, but the biggest change for him has been defensive play.
Despite being a stellar offensive performer last season, when Domi was on the ice the Canadiens were actually worse off than when he was between shifts. Part of the issue there is simply that Phil Danault, Brendan Gallagher, and Tomas Tatar were one of the best even strength lines in the entire league last year, while Jesperi Kotkaniemi took on sheltered minutes and put up a defensive performance worthy of a Selke nomination. But there could be no denying that while Domi was on the ice, the puck was in his zone a lot.
So far this season he’s been absurdly dominant in shots from the high danger area, which is a small sample size — and we should view these stats with that in mind — but he’s also flipped his shot attempts from below team average to above, and improved marginally in controlling shots on net.
The main area of concern is controlling passes to the slot, which is something that’s haunted the Canadiens for a long while now; they have been terrible at closing dangerous passing lanes for multiple seasons now.
This is an area Domi will have to continue to work on going forward, specifically with a commitment to positioning himself lower in the defensive zone so he can be more disruptive to attempted passes and close lanes better. Domi is a player who always has offence on his mind, so he can be guilty of cheating a little bit to catch opponents off guard, and in turn getting caught himself.
Overall, though, the slot passes are also a relatively small sample. And all things considered it sure looks like Domi is improving defensively while his offensive performance continues to elevate.
Steve Dangle went in a different direction this week. Instead of asking me about a team or player and looking at their stats, he asked me about stats themselves.
“A growing story in the sport is the spotty accuracy of publicly available stats and how much NHL teams are relying on internal analytics. What has surprised you the most about public stats since joining the private sector?”
This is a tricky one because from the outset I have a bias in that I get to use private data. We have to differentiate public data itself from analytics, because what some smart people have been able to squeeze out of the NHL’s public data is incredible, but anything that’s built off data scraped from the NHL carries with it the possibility of being wildly inaccurate.
At the team level it’s mostly okay, but in smaller sample sizes it can be way off. That’s not on the analytics providers, but in the NHL’s system of gathering data itself. For example, when you look at some websites’ scoring chances on a team level this season, some are bang on and some are as much as 13 percentage points off of what the private data says.
But the biggest problem of all is ice time. The NHL’s ice time and shift starts and stops are wildly inaccurate, which can lead to a lot of public data not being accurate for individual players. There just isn’t a way for the NHL’s current stat counting infrastructure to accurately record all the data they provide on their website. It’s why you see different definitions for turnovers in different rinks — it’s too decentralized.
None of this means public data is useless — far from it. It only means that as the methods used to collect and quality check data by companies with the resources to do so becomes more public, our information will get more accurate.
BUY OR SELL
• Six games isn’t enough to throw in the towel, but this season has not started well for Shea Weber. Among Canadiens defencemen he’s been on the ice for the most inner slot shots and passes to the slot against per minute played, which are areas he usually dominates. His skating looks very rough whenever he has to stop and start. I’ve been assured he’s not hurt either, which is very worrying for the Habs.
• Speaking of Weber, you know who else has had a horrible start to the season? P.K. Subban. Subban has less support around him than Weber, but like Weber he’s been team-worst in both high danger chances and passes to the slot against, and by the eye test things aren’t much better. It will be interesting to see which one or if either of them dig themselves out of this early hole as the season goes on.
• Last season the Buffalo Sabres had a 10-game winning streak in November that had a lot of people believing they had finally taken a substantial step, despite their underlying numbers being horrible during that stretch. Of course, things fell apart and the Sabres missed the playoffs, but their start this year has been very different. The Sabres have been shockingly good at even strength, and that’s despite Rasmus Dahlin getting off to a slow start. They might be ready to compete for a playoff spot this year — really.
• The biggest surprise for the Sabres isn’t even one of their young players standing out, but all of a sudden Kyle Okposo looks like an impact player again. Okposo leads the Sabres in scoring chances and scoring chances created at 5-on-5, which is found money for Buffalo. Whether he can stay healthy and sustain that is a huge question, but it’s good news right now.