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Tampa Bay Lightning 2016-2017 player evaluations: Forwards, part 1

With the season over, it’s time to review each player’s individual performance. This piece looks at the top half of the Lightning’s forward group.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Introduction

Writing player evaluations after last season (my first at Raw Charge) was fun. Almost every word was positive. The Lightning had incredible forward depth where every player seemed to have a defined role in which they excelled. The defense seemed competent and capable of doing enough to allow the forwards to carry the team.

This years’ evaluations will have a different tone. Phrases like, “underperformed expectations,” “struggled to find consistency,” and “injury issues,” will appear frequently. But that’s how it goes.

I will be splitting the evaluations into three parts. This piece, Part 1, will cover the top half of the forward group from this season, as I have analyzed it. Part 2 will focus on the bottom half of the forward group and players who didn’t play much either due to injuries or late season recalls. Part 3 will cover the defense in full. I’ve modified last year’s graph to include some improvements in the metrics displayed.

Before we dive in, the following is a brief description of the metrics.

Most metrics are relative to team performance. They show how the team performs in that metric when the player is on the ice compared to when they are not. For example, relative shots per 60 minutes is shots per 60 when the player is on the ice minus shots per 60 when the player is off the ice. All data is 5v5 only and adjusted for score, venue, and zone starts via Corsica. Numbers are presented as percentiles comparing each player to others at the same positions. For forwards, this includes the top 390 players in ice time in 2016-2017.

Metrics Used

Game Score (GS): Dom Luszczyszyn’s stat that assesses player performance on an individual game basis.
(P1/60): goals and primary assists per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.ShF/60: Relative shots for per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.xSh%: Relative expected shooting percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.
Rel.xGF/60: Relative expected goals for per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.ShA/60: Relative shots against per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.xSv%: Relative expected save percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.
Rel.xGA/60: Relative expected goals against per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.Sh.Share: Relative shot share
Rel.xG.Share: Relative expected goal share

With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the numbers.

Player Evaluations

Although many of the players around him struggled, Nikita Kucherov continued to be one of the best players in the league, and deservedly found himself in the discussion for the Hart Trophy. He is an elite player by just about every available metric. He makes his team better in every aspect when he’s on the ice.

His offensive impact is among the best in the league particularly in terms of expected goals. His defensive impact isn’t as strong but that’s to be expected from a player who’s primary role is to score. Even without a strong defensive impact, his overall impact on shot and expected goal share is still at the very top of the league.

Kucherov did everything the team could possibly ask of him. If he continues to play at this level all the way through his prime, he will go down as one of the best players of this generation and likely collect some impressive hardware along the way.

Ondrej Palat is a relative bright spot for the Lightning in a tough year. He had above-average impacts on shot and expected goal share. His offensive impacts were in the top third of the league but he didn’t quite live up to his perception as an excellent defensive forward.

One possible explanation for that is that he felt more pressure to pick up the scoring load due to injuries and that had a negative impact on his defensive results. One of the storylines for the team heading into next year is whether Palat can return to form defensively with a more stable lineup.

DON’T FREAK OUT. Ok. I know this probably isn’t what you expected to see on this chart but let’s walk through it together and I promise it will make more sense at the end. First, Brayden Point is 19 years old and he wasn’t even supposed to be in Tampa at all this season. Injuries forced him into a bigger role out of camp and that continued all year. In that context, performing like a second liner in game score and scoring like a high end third liner is pretty impressive.

But there’s even more context here. Point was not playing particularly well during the first part of the season. He was holding his own but he had trouble scoring and was a break-even possession player. After coming back from his injury in the spring, Point took his game to another level. In particular, he seemed to figure out how to score at the NHL level. He was great around the net and seemed to just be finding full confidence in his shot as the season ended.

The challenge for Point next season will be to grow into more of a play driver. If he does that, he has the potential to be a top end number two center and maybe even a low-end number one. Part of the key to that will be finding a consistent set of linemates. He looked dynamic at the end of the year centering Kucherov and Palat. While Kucherov will almost certainly return to playing with Stamkos next season, Point might be able to keep playing with Palat and I think that would be an ideal combination for him.

I’m not sure what to make of Jonathan Drouin. He obviously has high-end playmaking and creative ability. He made several of the biggest highlight reel plays of the season. But even in his third year in the league, he still hasn’t shown any consistent ability to drive play at 5v5.

Finding reasons (excuses?) for that isn’t difficult. Drouin hasn’t been used the way one would expect someone with his skill set to be used. He has frequently found himself on the third line and all of the injuries this season have meant that even second line minutes found him playing with players who don’t see the game the way he does.

I’d still like to see him play a solid 25 games in a row with skilled linemates and see what happens. It seems impossible that a player with his talent won’t figure out how to tilt the ice at 5v5. But if it doesn’t happen next year, we may have to consider that he’s a dangerous power play weapon and a scorer at 5v5 but not a player who’s capable of driving a line.

Tyler Johnson had another tough year with injuries that make it difficult to fully assess his play. His scoring dropped from where it has been in the past but was still in the bottom of what would be expected from a second line player. The more concerning stats are his impact on shot and expected goal share.

Much like Drouin this year, Johnson did not show an ability to drive play at 5v5. In the past, he has been better in that area. He’s in the bottom quarter of the league in relative shot share. For a player who is in his prime and was expected to be a second line center, that’s a concerning number. The team struggled as a unit this year so it’s not wholly surprising to see his numbers this low but it might give the Lightning something to consider as they work on his contract extension this summer.

One of the main scapegoats for the Lightning’s struggles this season was Alex Killorn. It’s not hard to see why when looking at his numbers. Like Johnson, he still scored fairly well. His point numbers are mostly in line with his previous seasons. He set a career high in goals but his assist numbers dropped a bit. That probably has to do with playing with less skilled players this season due to injuries.

In the past, Killorn has been more of a play driver than he showed this season. The justification for his contract was that he scored at an average rate for a second line winger and that he was a positive possession player. If he returns to that production, he’ll provide fine value. But if the Lightning have any concerns that this year was indicative of his future, they might consider exposing him in the summer’s expansion draft.

I’ve intentionally saved Vladislav Namestnikov for the end of this article so that we can finish on a positive note. Amidst all of the other struggling players, Vladdy continued to drive play at 5v5. He’s in the 89th percentile for relative expected goal share. That’s a first-line impact. He made an elite offensive impact and an above average defensive impact. He also has a game score that indicates a low end second line player.

The only area where Vladdy doesn’t look like a first line player is in his scoring. He struggled to finish this year. Some of that was likely poor shooting luck. If he continues to drive play like this and scores at a little bit better pace next year, he’ll grade out as a high end second liner or low end first liner. He thrived on the left wing next to Stamkos and Kucherov early in the year and I hope the coaches will go back to that line when the season starts in the fall.

Vladdy has been one of the players discussed as someone the Lightning might expose in the expansion draft. Considering that he is likely to sign an affordable extension this summer, I think that would a mistake. It’s not easy to find players who drive play the way he does and I think he has the potential to score at a rate that would make him a real value for the next few seasons.

Final Thoughts

In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at the rest of the forwards. That will include Cedric Paquette and JT Brown who are the last remaining forwards who saw significant minutes for the entire season. After that, we’ll see what we can learn about the shortened seasons of Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan as well as some of the mid-season call-ups including the small-sample-size wonder known as Yanni Gourde.

The Lightning have a lot of decisions to make this summer, and understanding how each player performed in context should give us a glimpse into what to expect over the next few months.