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Behind The Numbers

Points regression projected for three Norris finalists

Statistical analysis suggests Burns, Hedman, Karlsson won't reach 70 again

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Three defensemen scored more than 70 points last season, the first time that's happened in the NHL since 1995-96.

Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks had 76 points (29 goals, 47 assists) in 82 games, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning had 72 points (16 goals, 56 assists) in 79 games, and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators had 71 points (17 goals, 54 assists) in 77 games. Burns won the Norris Trophy, and Karlsson and Hedman finished second and third.

Which of these three players will get to 70 again in 2017-18? A look at history and the underlying numbers reveals several risk factors, and suggests none will get there this season.

In hockey analytics, there's a standard, four-step process to project a player's production. First, calculate a weighted average of the past several seasons. Second, regress that result toward the League average to remove the calculated impact of random variation. Third, account for the player's age, and finally, make manual adjustments for known factors, such as injuries or new linemates.

Following this process, Burns is expected to score 66.1 points, assuming he plays 82 games. Hedman's projection is 65.0 points in 82 games, and Karlsson's is 62.6 points in 70 games, assuming he misses 12 games recovering from June 14 foot surgery.

Video: EDM@SJS: Burns buries long-range shot through traffic

Analysts can arrive at slightly different results depending on the precise details of the implementation, such as the number of past seasons that are used in the projection, how they are weighted, how much the result is regressed toward the League average, and the version of a natural aging curve that is used. However, the end results should be roughly the same.

It seems overly pessimistic to predict that Burns will score 66.1 points after back-to-back seasons of 75 and 76. Also, his 320 shots on goal last season made him the second player other than Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals to lead the NHL in shots since 2005-06; Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin is the other (339 in 2011-12). On the surface, that doesn't appear to be a player whose scoring will suddenly drop by 10 points.

Digging deeper into the numbers, this more modest projection is a result of the natural decline expected at his age, 32, his more modest scoring totals prior to 2015-16, and San Jose's unexpectedly high shooting percent when Burns was on the ice at 5-on-5, which increased from an average of 7.8 percent from 2011-16 to 9.0 percent in 2016-17.

To get a second perspective, I searched NHL history back to the 1967-68 season to find the 10 defensemen with the most similar era-adjusted scoring statistics at a similar age, and wound up with an even more modest scoring projection of 60 points.

The closest historical comparable is Rob Blake, who won the Norris Trophy in 1997-98, was a finalist in 1999-00 and 2001-02, and was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014. At age 32, his scoring declined from a three-year weighted average of 0.78 points per game to 0.60 - a reduction of 27.0 percent.

Regardless of age, it's not that surprising to project a scoring downturn for a Norris Trophy winner. By definition, that's because players are having their best seasons when they are in the mix for the Norris, and they often have no direction to go but down.

Video: ARI@TBL: Hedman hustles to net breakaway chance

The average scoring for the 33 Norris finalists (three per season from 2005-16) was 58.9 points (15.1 goals, 43.8 assists) in 75.2 games, which is 0.78 points per game. That drops to 0.66 points per game in the following season, based on 46.4 points (11.4 goals, 35.0 assists) in 69.9 games.

That's about the same kind of decrease expected of Hedman, who is projected to drop by seven points after breaking out from a previous NHL career high of 55 in 2013-14 to 72 in 2016-17.

A lot of Hedman's breakout was based on his 56 assists, 29 of which came on the power play, which was a big increase from his previous NHL career high of 11. This season, Hedman's ability to score 70 points may depend on whether Tampa Bay can again lead the NHL with 62 power-play goals, or more.

Video: OTT@NYR, Gm6: Karlsson buries Ryan's slick dish

As for Karlsson, he could be expected to score at least 70 points for the fifth time in seven seasons under normal circumstances, but he is recovering from surgery to repair tendons in his left foot and is likely to miss at least the first two weeks of the season. Upon his return, he will need time to regain peak form, and to jell with a new blue line partner, given that Marc Methot was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft and subsequently traded to the Dallas Stars.

There may be an NHL defenseman who scores 70 points this season, but the underlying numbers suggest it won't be Burns, Karlsson or Hedman.

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