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Exploring the Lightning through the lens of dangerous passing

Last week, I wrote a piece for NHL Numbers that attempted to quantify dangerous passing sequences and which players participate in those sequences most often. The data for that piece comes from the passing project headed by Ryan Stimson.

While reading last weeks’ piece is recommended, the following is a brief summary for those who don’t want to dive that deeply into the math. In the passing project, volunteers track a number of different types of passes. Two particular types of passes that occur in the offensive zone appear to lead to more dangerous shots based on the data thus far. The first type are passes from behind the net. The second type are passes that cross the “royal road,” which is an imaginary line that goes from the middle of the goal back to the midpoint between the two faceoff circles.

The result of that investigation was the creation of a simple metric called dangerous primary shot contributions, which is comprised of passes from behind the net, royal road passes and the shots following those two types of passes. The idea behind the metric is that players who make more of those passes and take more of those shots are more likely to be dangerous offensive players.

As a Lightning fan, I was naturally curious about how Lightning players would look by this measure as well as how this measure would compare to other accepted offensive statistics. And as I always do when I’m curious, I made a graph. The graph below shows the percentile rankings in four metrics for each Lightning forward with at least 120 minutes tracked in all situations in the data set. Primary shot contributions (PSC) includes all shots and primary shot assists in the passing project data set, dangerous primary shot contributions (DPSC) include just the dangerous shots and passes as described above. iCF is the amount of shots taken by the player without shot assists included and iXG is the amount expected goals scored by the player as calculated by Emmanuel Perry on his site corsica.hockey.

The players on the graph are sorted by PSC/60. By just about any measure, Nikita Kucherov is the best offensive player on the Lightning. His skill makes an immediate impression on fans and his creative play stands out from other players. The next most potent offensive weapon for the Lightning is Steven Stamkos. By PSC and DPSC, the Lightning captain is basically even with Kucherov, which should make fans feel even better about the long term extension Stamkos signed this offseason.

Many of the players match what would be expected based on previous analysis but two players are of particular note to me. Despite being relatively average in iCF and iXG, Ondrej Palat is in the 76th percentile among forwards in DPSC. That suggests that while his quantity of shots and primary assists isn’t as high as a player like Tyler Johnson, he contributes to more of the dangerous shots than Johnson does. A player who shows the opposite trend is Jonathan Marchessault. The former Lightning winger who always looks underrated based on his shot metrics appears a little more average in his ability to contribute to dangerous scoring plays. While Marchessault still looks like a more than capable NHL forward, this does raise the question of whether he will ever score at a rate that his shot numbers suggest he can.

These measures are clearly offensive minded and thus, not the best way to measure defenders. However, we can learn something about the offensive contribution of Lightning defenders by looking at them.

As usual, Victor Hedman shows up near the top of the chart among defenders. His ability to transition from defense to offense is one of the most powerful reasons the Lightning are successful. His defensive partner Anton Stralman does not stand out as much by these measures and that’s to be expected. Stralman’s primary skills are related to defensive positioning, anticipation and starting the breakout for the Lightning. But by far the most interesting player by these numbers is Nikita Nesterov. By the end of last season, he seemed to have completely lost the trust of the Lightning coaching staff and was a scratch for most of the playoffs. He seems most likely to lose his spot to Slater Koekkoek in the preseason and find himself as at best the seventh defender. But based on offense alone, he still showed some potential last year. If he can find a way to sure up his game in his own zone, he has shown the ability to contribute offensively as a puck mover.

New metrics like DPSC are interesting when they differ from other metrics. While shot based statistics will likely always be the foundation of assessing players, micro stat analyses like these can help fill in some of the gaps and provide a bit more context. And for fringe players like Jonathan Marchessault or Nikita Nesterov, that can make a big difference in their evaluations.

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