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Etem's fresh start

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
Statistically speaking, the most important thing you need to know about new Canucks forward Emerson Etem is that his production at the AHL level suggests that he may yet have enough offensive ability to play a top-six role in the NHL.

Etem has played about 120 games in the American League, and has managed to produce points at a rate of .77 points per game. Generally speaking when we’re projecting players as having top-six potential, the .7 point per game mark is the significant barrier. That Etem’s production rates fall north of that, then, would suggest that he still has a chance to be an impactful offensive piece.

On the negative side of the ledger, we should note that generally speaking players who manage to develop into consistent top-six scoring forwards have established themselves as productive NHL players by the time they turn 23-years-old.

There are a few exceptions, of course, as players development for elite hockey players isn’t always linear. Generally speaking though, the players with a similar statistical profile to Etem – players like Brooks Laich, Kyle Brodziak, Antoine Vermette - who have managed to make an impact at the NHL level are able to do things beyond producing offense.

The scoring wingers who most closely match Etem’s accomplishments to date, who went on to have careers of note, are players like Anson Carter and Tomas Fleischmann. If Etem hits, history suggests that that’s the sort of impact he’s likely to have.

Turning back to Etem’s days in the American League, what really stands out is his sky-high shot rate. Even as a rookie professional, Etem was able to generate nearly three shots per game in the American League. That’s what you’d like to see from a speedy winger, generally speaking.

That elite AHL shot rate hasn’t really translated at the NHL level, for a variety of reasons. In only one of Etem’s four NHL seasons has he managed a first-line shot rate, in the 2014-15 season, and in 19 games with the New York Rangers this season, Etem’s shot rate fell to the lowest point in his career.

Part of Etem’s precipitous declining shot rate can be attributed to his deployment. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault generally likes to bury his fourth line territorially speaking, something that was particularly pronounced earlier in the year when he iced a fourth line featuring two faceoff aces in Jarret Stoll and Dominic Moore (Etem’s most frequent line mates this season).

While Etem’s deployment probably serves to explain a good deal of his declining personal shot rate, what’s promising from a Canucks perspective is that he maintained the gains he made as a play-driving winger in 2014-15.

With the advent of the butterfly goaltender, percentages at the NHL level have become relatively fixed. The goaltenders are just too good, and only the very best offensive players in hockey are bona fide shooting percentage drivers.

It’s the reality of a league in which fixed percentages reign that has given rise to the use of shot-based metrics like Corsi, also called shot-attempt differential, as a prominent player evaluation tool. The logic is pretty simple: if the percentages are fixed, and if the vast majority of players are unable to meaningfully and sustainably drive shooting percentage, then what’s most important is for a player to help tilt the ice.

In theory, players that are able to “drive play” are essentially able to do the little things that contribute to an environment in which their team is more likely than not to outscore their opponents at 5-on-5 over a large sample of ice time. In his first two seasons in the show, Etem was a negative puck possession player, but he seemed to find his game in 2014-15. It’s not uncommon for a very young forward to struggle with their two-way game, the NHL is a league that eats its young, after all.

What we can see in Etem’s performance with the Rangers this season is that, even when his deployment became extreme, he still managed to have a positive impact by the shot-based metrics relative to his club’s performance:

Overall, there is a lot to like about how Etem profiles. The AHL production is there, as is the size, speed and pedigree. If Etem can continue to drive play and can retrieve his 2014-15 form with more regular deployment in Vancouver, there is still a slim chance that he can develop into more than just a replacement level forward. He may yet have a chance to development into a meaningful offensive contributor.

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