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Behind The Numbers

Expectations for Matthews, Laine, Werenski in second NHL season

Numbers show offensive improvement by Calder Trophy finalists is modest at best

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) and finalists Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) each had a superb rookie season. But how much more can be expected in their second NHL season?

History shows expectations of offensive improvement for elite players in their second NHL season should be modest, and that Matthews might be the only one of the three who improves his scoring numbers.

 

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In general, significant improvements can be expected from players who are 19, like Laine, or 20, like Werenski and Matthews (who turns 20 on Sept. 17). Since the start of the 1967-68 season, among those who played in at least 50 games in back-to-back seasons, the average 19-year-old forward improved offensively by 22.4 percent (from 0.61 points per game to 0.74). The average 20-year-old forward improved by 17.0 percent (0.62 to 0.72), and the average 20-year-old defenseman improved by 16.5 percent (0.37 to 0.43).

Those numbers seem high but represent the natural rate of improvement for an average NHL player at age 19 or 20 because of increased ice time and continued development.

However, Laine, Matthews and Werenski are not average players. They are high-scoring players who already are playing big minutes. Laine, a forward, averaged 0.88 points per game in 2016-17, Matthews, a center, averaged 0.84, and Werenski, a defenseman, averaged 0.60. Those rates don't have as much room for improvement.

When limiting the comparison to just enough of the top players in each group to achieve the same number of points per game, the rate of improvement is far more modest than the average player. Laine's group improved by 4.5 percent, to 0.91 points per game, and Matthews' group improved by 9.6 percent, to 0.92. Werenski's group dropped by 2.5 percent, to 0.59.

Video: Auston Matthews lands at No. 4

These expectations become even more modest when considering only Calder Trophy winners and finalists. The 27 forwards who were Calder finalists from 2005-16 saw their average scoring rate drop by 2.2 percent (0.80 points per game to 0.78) in their second season, and the four defensemen dropped by 13.8 percent (0.60 to 0.52). In all, 13 of the 31 non-goalie Calder finalists improved their scoring rate the next season; the other 18 experienced a decline.

Why? Puck luck likely is one reason.

Calder finalists, by definition, had a strong season, one when their skill likely was aided by a few fortunate bounces. If their luck averages out during the following season, many see their scoring rate drop, some by more than their rate might be boosted by their natural development. Instead of having their scoring rate going up by around 20 percent, like the average player, these players may actually see it go down.

Based on shooting percentages, Laine is at the greatest risk of this kind of drop. He played 73 games, averaged 17:54 of ice time and scored on 17.6 percent of his shots on goal, the highest rate among all players who had at least 200 shots last season and 11th among those who had at least 50. The Jets scored on 12.6 percent of their shots with Laine on the ice at 5-on-5. Among all players who played at least 20 games, that ranked second to Stephen Gionta of the New York Islanders (13.2 percent in 26 games and at an average of 11:12 of ice time per game).

Unless Laine and the Jets can sustain these abnormally high percentages, his scoring rate may cool in 2017-18.

Video: Patrik Laine ranked as No. 8 on list of Top 20 Wings

One final technique is to search for players with similar scoring rates at a specific age, regardless of whether they were rookies, and base expectations on the average performance of that peer group in the following season. Because goal-scoring rates in the NHL have changed over the years, players' scoring totals are adjusted to the modern era by being divided by the League average for that season and then multiplied by the average in 2016-17.

In Laine's case, there aren't enough comparable players to base expectations. The closest match is Dale Hawerchuk, who went from the modern equivalent of 0.83 points per game at age 18 to 0.82 at age 19. Ilya Kovalchuk is the only other player whose adjusted scoring was within 10 percent of Laine's at age 18. It's not possible to do a peer group comparison for a player with so few peers.

However, this technique can be applied to Matthews; there were 14 forwards with an era-adjusted scoring rate within 10 percent of his at age 19. As a group, they improved by 4.5 percent, from 0.83 points per game to 0.87. Among active players, the group includes Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Jaromir Jagr, who remains an unrestricted free agent. The closest match is Kovalchuk, who improved from 0.84 to 1.13 at age 20.

Video: Zach Werenski takes the No. 13 spot

Werenski's closest match was Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, whose scoring rate dropped from a modern equivalent of 0.61 points per game at age 19 to 0.57 at age 20. As a group, the seven closest matches dropped from 0.59 to 0.54. Most recently, these matches include Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks, whose scoring rate dropped from 0.53 to 0.36 at age 20, and Tyler Myers, who won the Calder with the Buffalo Sabres in 2009-10 but had his scoring rate slip from 0.59 to 0.46.

There are a lot of factors that can influence a player's offensive numbers, including injury, ice time, zone deployment, linemates, opponents, on-ice shooting percentages and luck. But history suggests that these three players would do well to simply maintain their success from last season in 2017-18.

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