Last season, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos seemed to make a change to his game. He came into the league as a goal scoring prodigy. Drafted first overall in 2008, he proceeded to score 23, 51, 45 and 60 goals in his first four seasons. That start to his career had many thinking he might be one of the best goal scorers of this generation. But since then, he’s only topped 40 goals once and last season, he had more than twice as many assists as goals.
The change in Stamkos’s scoring was abrupt. He’d never had more assists than goals in a season. To go from that to over double was quite a shift. Until last season, he wore the label of a pure sniper, both for good and for bad. For good, in that his level of shooting talent is one of the most rare commodities an NHL player can have and that made him a star. For bad, in that it earned him a label as one-dimensional and criticism for not contributing to the team in a more holistic way.
That narrative couldn’t survive last season. When a player is creating for others and driving play, he can’t be said to be one-dimensional anymore. He also didn’t fill a highlight reel with mind-bending shot as much as he has in the past.
The natural response when a player’s results change in that way is to guess why. Some speculated that it was due to injuries. He suffered a broken leg in 2013 and a torn lateral meniscus in his knee in 2016. In between, he dealt with a blood clot that caused him to miss most of the 2016 playoffs. Maybe the injuries forced him to change his game.
Some speculated that the change was due to new linemates. Last season was the first where he played with Nikita Kucherov full-time. Maybe having Kuch available to receive passes unlocked a part of his game that was always there but never able to fully bloom.
The only person who could answer that question would be Stamkos himself. And even he would likely not be able to explain it fully. Players with his elite skill level can’t always tell us why or how they do the things they do. The game comes to them in a different way than it does normal people.
Looking at the change in his assists to goals ratio made me curious about his overall profile as a passer. Earlier this summer, I presented at the Rochester Institute of Technology Sports Analytics Conference on how we can estimate shot assists for NHL players.
For several years, volunteers including Ryan Stimson and Cory Sznajder have been tracking shot assist data for the NHL. Using that data, we can come up with estimates for players’ shot assists going back to 2007-2008.
What we’re going to look at now is how often Steven Stamkos passes as opposed to shoots. Shot assists are defined as a pass that sets up a shot. Shot contributions are shot assists and shots in total. So, a simple stat we can use to look into Stamkos’s change is what percentage of his shot contributions were passes. We’ll call this “pass percentage” for the purposes of this article.
To start, let’s look at a line chart that shows Stamkos’s pass percentage over the qualifying seasons in his career. The blue line is Stamkos and the gray lines are all other qualified skaters.
The first thing that stands out is that he clearly made a change in his game to set up his teammates more often than he gets his own shot. But what’s even more interesting is that it didn’t start last season. It really started two seasons ago on this chart, which would be 2015-2016 because his 2016-2017 season didn’t qualify due to the injury. In fact, the change in 15-16 was bigger than the change this year.
That throws some cold water on all of the theories above. It definitely can’t be the knee injury. It could possibly be related to the broken leg but the change started over a year his return from that injury so that seems unlikely too. The teammate explanation was always a little iffy because he spent a ton of time with Marty St. Louis early in his career and Marty was perfectly capable of receiving a pass and taking a shot.
Looking at this trend, I don’t think we can confidently say why Stamkos is making this change. What we can say is that the trend is real. If we calculate the range of Stamkos’s passing percentage by subtracting the minimum from the maximum, we find that he has increased his passing percentage by over 12% in his career. That number puts him in the 84th percentile among qualifying forwards. So while it isn’t the most drastic change in the data set, the change is big enough to be noteworthy.
One important thing to keep in mind is that this change isn’t necessarily good or bad. In this case, different is just different. Not better or worse. To prove that, we can look at Stamkos’s Wins Above Replacement over this same time frame to get an overall picture of how much he has contributed overall to the Lightning.
Both Corsica and Evolving Hockey WAR agree that this playmaking-oriented Stamkos is just as valuable as the peak goal-scoring Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has remained among the best forwards in the game for his entire career. He’s just found a new way to do it over his two most recent healthy seasons.
At the highest level, value is value. The most important thing about a player’s on-ice performance is how many wins they add to the team. But when it comes to team building, the how of generating those wins matters. Given a choice, I usually prefer more versatile players to single-skill players. They allow for more lineup flexibility and give the coaching staff more freedom to make adjustments.
For reasons probably known only to him, Stamkos has made himself a more versatile player without sacrificing any of his overall value. He’s found a way to still be among the best players in the game without being entirely reliant on his super sonic shot.
And oh yeah, he still has that shot.