Truth By Numbers: Mika Zibanejad’s hot start and early-season sleepers

Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson spoke with Mika Zibanejad after he scored a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators.

The NHL season is still extremely young, but we’ve played enough games that it’s time to bring back the weekly Truth by Numbers column.

The beginning of every season brings completely wild numbers. This actually happens in small samples throughout the season, but when we see these at the beginning of the season, there’s no bigger sample size to hide it.

The craziest start to the season by anyone is the main focus this week.

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SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

With big changes all around the New York Rangers over the past two seasons as they’ve gone into rebuild mode, Mika Zibanejad has seen more and more responsibility heaped on him. The biggest change for him was likely the trade of Derek Stepan, which made Zibanejad the de facto No. 1 centre. And then this past summer the Rangers brought in Artemi Panarin to play alongside him.

How has Zibanejad responded? Eight points in two games while playing 20 minutes a night is a…pretty good start.

Obviously, that level of production is never going to last, and a good part of it is going to be good fortune, but usually when a player has that much success they’re doing something right.

In Zibanejad’s case, this holds true.

It’s pretty much impossible for Zibanejad to keep up this pace, but he is absolutely crushing it so far this season. He isn’t just getting lucky bounces or playing with shooters who are putting everything in the net — he’s been brilliant.

Zibanejad currently leads the Rangers (by miles) in high danger chances, passes to the slot, and scoring chances created for his teammates. The craziest part of all of this is that so far this season, Panarin has not been the driver of the line.

Panarin is a phenomenal player, but his start hasn’t been that great. He’s second on the team behind Zibanejad in completed passes to the slot, but he has yet to record a scoring chance at 5-on-5, and he’s been creating just 4.44 scoring chances for his teammates every 20 minutes, which pales in comparison to Zibanejad’s 11.

Even more surprising: Zibanejad has been driving the bus from a transition point, with Panarin completing only 16.5 plays every 20 minutes to move the puck up the ice, while Zibanejad is completing a team-high 24.

This is just a two-game sample, though, so the differences are going to be absolutely wild and they’ll even out over time. But Zibanejad has been full value.

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THE QUESTION

Like last season, every week Sportsnet contributor, YouTuber, and “That Ice Surfing Guy” Steve Dangle gets to ask a question for me to dig into the data for and attempt to answer.

Steve is keeping it simple to start the season, asking…

“Which players are early-season sleepers, the guys who are playing great that no one is really talking about?”

We’re too early to draw serious conclusions, but let’s dig into the data to see if any names pop up that are performing well despite little fanfare.

Raise your hand if you thought Phillip Danault was the league leader at involvement in 5-on-5 scoring chances every 20 minutes. Nobody? That’s to be expected. For a long time now Danault has been an extremely solid defensive centre who doesn’t drag down the offence of his linemates, but last season he really started to flex his playmaking muscles.

So far this season he’s pushing things even further, with his passing and aggressive forechecking leading to involvement in a league-high 15.2 scoring chances every 20 minutes of ice time. That’s definitely not going to last — he won’t be outpacing the Connor McDavids and Nathan MacKinnons of the world for long — but what a start for Danault.

Kyle Turris has had the start he needed last season and is looking more like the player the Predators acquired in that three-way trade for Matt Duchene a couple years ago. I guess the secret ingredient was also getting Duchene.

Speaking of rebounds, Clayton Keller is coming off of an awful year in Arizona, and while he only has one point so far this season, the offence he’s creating is stellar. He’s above league average in every category here, creating offence in a myriad of ways. Don’t be surprised if the points start piling up for him.

More limited in style but not in substance, Nazem Kadri has fit in really nicely with the Colorado Avalanche, getting the puck into the slot either with a great pass or shooting for a rebound continually, and he’s not been shy to drive the net himself.

Maybe the quietest name of all is Travis Konecny, who was a bit of a forgotten man among this summer’s high profile restricted free agent negotiations. But now he’s rewarding the Flyers’ faith in him after signing that long-term contract. So far he’s right there with Sean Couturier for the team lead in scoring chance involvement, and he’s all about the slot. Konecny hasn’t put a single shot on net from the perimeter this season — he’s either getting the puck in there for someone else or firing it from slot himself.

All of these players should have more opportunity to put up points this season, and the early returns suggest they want to take advantage of it.

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BUY OR SELL

• Remember when the Carolina Hurricanes dominated possession but couldn’t generate quality scoring chances to save their lives? Well they’re leading the league in shots on net from the inner slot at 5-on-5 this season with 9.95 every 20 minutes. The downside is they’re also giving up the second-most from that area, so they’ll need the goaltending to stay strong unless they tighten up a bit. They are 4-0-0 and highly entertaining — there might not be a more fun team to watch right now.

• Everyone knew the Columbus Blue Jackets would be in a tough situation after losing Sergei Bobrovsky and having no legitimate replacement, but so far the offence is the real problem. Three games into the season they’ve only managed five shots on net from the inner slot at 5-on-5, a league-low on a per-minute basis.

• Two seasons ago the Winnipeg Jets were one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. Things started to fall apart last season, then their defence was completely gutted over the summer. So far this season no one is giving up more high danger chances than the Jets, and only the Devils are allowing more passes to the slot. Connor Hellebuyck has been getting some heat for his .913 save percentage, but this isn’t on him.

• Earlier I wrote about the rising goal totals in the NHL in recent years, and how teams attack differently. One thing I noted was that forechecking was less responsible for offence than it has been. Don’t tell that to Pennsylvania. The average team this season is getting just over 2.5 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 through forechecking, while the Flyers are getting 7.5, and the Penguins are at 7.4. No one else is even close.

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