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Behind The Numbers

Statistics reveal players with breakout potential

Kane, Rieder, Ceci among those who should improve this season

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

After scoring 41, 39 and 44 points in the three prior seasons, forward Mikael Granlund led with the Minnesota Wild with an NHL career high of 69 points (23 goals, 43 assists) in 81 games last season. Using an example like this as a template, can underlying numbers identify who might be next for a breakout season?

Some of the indicators are obvious, like joining a new team, getting a new coach, being paired with a talented new linemate, and being in that ideal 23-25 age range. However, some require a deeper dive, like an unusually low on-ice shooting percentage and power-play opportunities relative to shot volumes and even-strength scoring rates.

Based on metrics like these, here are five players who might break out this season:


Evander Kane, LW, Buffalo Sabres

With the unfulfilled promise that followed a number of short-lived breakouts over his eight-season NHL career, it's easy to be skeptical of Kane's breakout potential. However, he is in his prime at age 26; wants to prove himself to new, offense-minded coach Phil Housley before becoming a free agent; and has the right statistical indicators for a great season.

The most compelling argument for Kane is the Sabres' unusually low shooting percentage when he's on the ice. At 5-on-5, they scored on 5.9 percent of their shots with Kane on the ice the past two seasons.

For forwards, on-ice shooting percentages are related to a player's position on the depth chart, which can be estimated by his average ice time. That is, the higher on the depth chart, the more ice-time he will receive, the more skilled his linemates will be at shooting, and the higher that shooting percentage will be. 

The NHL-average on-ice shooting percentage for a top-six forward with Kane's average ice time is 9.2 percent, according to my calculations. That means Kane's scoring could increase by more than 50 percent with a little more shooting luck from him and potential linemates Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.


Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche

Selected No. 1 in the 2013 NHL Draft, MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy in 2013-14 with 63 points (24 goals, 39 assists) in 82 games. Since then, he has scored 143 points (51 goals, 92 points) in 218 games, an average of 53.8 points per 82 games.

A boost in shooting percentage is the key to unlocking MacKinnon's potential of 70 points and beyond. Over the past three seasons, he has scored on 7.4 percent of his 688 shots, which is tied for 138th among the 145 NHL forwards to take at least 400 shots in that time.

Given his on-ice shot volumes, a breakout season would only require a little more shooting luck for MacKinnon and teammates Carl Soderberg (4.7 percent last season) and Nail Yakupov (8.6 percent with the St. Louis Blues last season).

Video: ANA@COL: MacKinnon scores impressive breakaway goal


Tobias Rieder, RW, Arizona Coyotes

In 2016-17, Radim Vrbata had a bounce-back season for the Arizona Coyotes, leading them with 55 points (20 goals, 35 assists) in 81 games. Vrbata signed with the Florida Panthers as a free agent this offseason, so there's a top-six opening on right wing for Rieder to reach a similar scoring level.

Rieder has scored 92 points (43 goals, 49 assists) in 234 NHL games, an average of 32.2 points per 82 games. His scoring has been limited by a lack of opportunities in the offensive zone, with top linemates, and with the man-advantage.

If given the right opportunities under new coach Rick Tocchet, there are quite a few numbers which are bound to improve from Rieder's NHL averages, including the Coyotes' 6.1 percent shooting with Rieder on the ice 5-on-5, his 47.95 zone-start percent, and his average of 1:37 power-play time per game. If so, Rieder could replace Vrbata's scoring.


Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa Senators

Ceci has scored 73 points (20 goals, 53 assists) in 284 NHL games, seven with the man-advantage. Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson may get most of the power-play opportunities, but Ceci wouldn't need many more to significantly improve on his single-season NHL high of 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) last season.

Ceci's even-strength scoring rate justifies more than his NHL career average of 0:56 per game on the power play. According to Xtra Hockey Stats, Ceci averaged 0.75 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is a high scoring rate for a defenseman who isn't on a primary power-play unit. Among the 10 Ottawa defensemen who played at least 50 games in his three seasons, it ranks second to Karlsson (1.37).

Turning 24 on Dec. 21, Ceci is at the prime age for a breakout season, especially with the incentive of being on the final season of his contract.


Calvin de Haan, D, New York Islanders

With six defensemen in an NHL lineup, even a minor role change can lead to a breakout season. On June 24, the Islanders traded Travis Hamonic to the Calgary Flames, which opened the door for de Haan to move up New York's depth chart in a significant way.

Under former coach Jack Capuano, de Haan was used primarily as a shot-blocking defensive specialist and scored 56 points (eight goals, 45 assists) in 231 games.

That started to change when Doug Weight took over as Islanders coach on Jan. 17. De Haan's power-play ice time increased from an average of 0:13 per game to 1:02, and his 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) in 40 games ranked second among Islanders defenseman to Nick Leddy (25 points; four goals, 21 assists) and was tied for 37th among NHL defensemen.

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