Welcome to the first installment of the analytics report that I will do throughout the season. It will be a comprehensive stat check around the league where I will dive into the analytics and will cover the biggest storylines throughout the league. This first edition covers Auston Matthews’s hot star, McDavid’s improvement defensively, Vasilevskiy’s rise, and much more.
This season has been very surprising, as there have been an array of surprises on a team and player basis. Let’s examine the biggest themes and storylines so far this season.
20 Stats: Matthews, McDavid, Vasilevskiy & More
1. Auston Matthews has been sensational so far this season and has brought his game to the very next level. He has really stood out from some of the other elite young centers across the league. The 23-year-old has 18 goals, 13 assists, and 31 points in 20 games. He has a 57.78 Corsi-for percentage and 62.34 expected goals-for percentage, meaning he has the higher shot share and expected goals while he’s on the ice.
Looking at his offensive underlying numbers, he ranks 2nd among all NHL forwards in on-ice goals for per hour at even strength. Even examining his impact on generating offense, he ranks 11th in expected goals for per hour at even strength. Matthews has been dominant offensively this season while being nearly average defensively. He has clearly separated himself from the pack, and he’s been the second-best center league-wide this season.
2. The Toronto Maple Leafs have had an incredible beginning to the season. This dominant start has displayed that this team is different than the one that has had early playoff exits season after season. Their 3.57 goals per game and 3.12 expected goals per game are 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
They have been one of the best teams in the league offensively this season, led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman, who have done the heavy-lifting at 5-on-5. It also helps having the most potent power play league-wide too. The Leafs 32.4 power play percentage ranks second in the league, albeit their actual and expected goals are far superior to the rest of the league.
For a team often criticized for their defensive play, they have been steady defensively. Their 2.25 expected goals against per game at 5-on-5 ranks 14th league-wide. This isn’t exactly shocking considering the job Leafs’ GM Kyle Dubas has done. He has transformed their defensive core into a respectable and dependable unit. The additions of Jake Muzzin in January two years ago was an underrated move. Likewise, the acquisition of T.J. Brodie was phenomenal and has effectively strengthened their defensive core. They also have Morgan Rielly, Justin Holl, and Travis Dermott. Kyle Dubas has arguably propelled himself to a top 5 general manager in the league, and he deserves more respect for how’s he effectively constructed the Leafs into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
While Jack Campbell has been a strong backup and deserves more starts, Frederik Andersen has been a below-average starter. He has a .905 save percentage and has a -2.32 goals saved above average, which takes into account the workload he has faced. Looking at the quality of shots he has faced, he has allowed 2.92 goals above expected, which ranks 48th league-wide. This is definitely something to watch and the weakness the Leafs have so far this season.
3. Connor McDavid is the best player in the world, and Leon Draisaitl is one of the best offensive players in the league. With that said, they have both been a liability defensively over the past several seasons. This has been an underlying issue for both of these strong offensive players, but their defensive game has vastly improved so far this season. While it is still early and a small sample size, it looks like these young stars have cleaned up their defensive game.
According to Natural Stat Trick, McDavid and Draisaitl have allowed 1.91 and 2.42 expected goals against per hour. In comparison, Barkov — a defensive stalwart — has allowed 2.08 expected goals against per hour. They truly have improved defensively, and they’re proving they can even provide more value than they have by playing a respectable two-way game.
4. Darnell Nurse is playing the best hockey he’s ever played. He is not only displaying his first-pairing value, but he’s a legitimate candidate for the Norris. While he hasn’t been strong defensively, his offensive value makes up for it and more. He leads the league in GF/60 and has also been well above average in xGF/60 too. He’s increasing the Oilers rate of scoring when he’s on the ice at a ridiculous rate. The 26-year-old defenseman has 6 goals, 10 assists, and 16 points in 23 games.
5. Blake Wheeler has not had a good start to the season, and one wonders if this is a small sample size or regression. If this is truly his decline, it doesn’t look good for the Winnipeg Jets, who have his lucrative contract on the books for three more seasons. The 34-year-old veteran has 6 goals, 14 assists, and 20 points in 20 games. He may be producing at a point-per-game pace, but his underlying numbers are suspect and can’t be ignored, just like his deployment.
He’s getting quality ice time in a significant role, so his teammates have a role in his point production. According to Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM, Wheeler’s expected goals against per hour is the worst rate in the NHL. It isn’t just his defensive numbers; his underlying offensive numbers have taken a fall too. He’s below-average league-wide in generating offense and scoring. While his game should be monitored, as it is still early in the season, it’s not looking good for him or the Jets.
6. The Winnipeg Jets acquired veteran center Paul Stastny in exchange for defenseman Carl Dahlstrom and a 2022 fourth-round pick. This trade has resulted in a bargain to say the least. The package sent to the Vegas Golden Knights was most definitely on the lighter side for the results Stastny has produced to date. The 34-year-old has 4 goals, 7 assists, and 11 points in 20 games. As displayed by his GF/60, Stastny has not only increased the Jets’ rate of scoring while he’s on the ice, but he has been above-average defensively too. Likewise, he leads the Jets in expected goals for per hour and is second in Corsi-for per hour. He’s been a strong play-driver and has been everything the Jets needed of him.
7. The Boston Bruins lost Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug this offseason. Those two departures, plus the fact that Matt Grzelcyk has been injured for the majority of the season so far, would lead to an expected disaster. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bruins have actually been one of the best defensive teams in the league to begin the season. The Bruins’ 2.38 expected goals against per hour ranks 2nd in the NHL behind the Minnesota Wild. They have allowed 376 scoring chances and 189 high-danger chances, which rank 9th and 8th, respectively. It truly is unbelievable how good they have been when taking into account their departures and injuries.
8. Carey Price has lived off his reputation and continues to do so. He is singlehandedly keeping the Canadiens back and has been for the past several seasons. Since the 2017-18 campaign, he has allowed 41.02 goals more than expected based on the quality of the shots he has faced. Even looking at his workload, he has a -12.1 goals saved above average. After a phenomenal vintage-like Price in the bubble, he wasn’t able to maintain that so far this season. This season alone, he already has a -7.24 GSAA and a -8.81 GSAx; the latter is the fourth-worst mark in the NHL.
The Canadiens have had a very encouraging start to the season but have been struggling as of late. Montreal has been the best 5-on-5 team this season, which is very disappointing that goaltending is the aspect holding them back. The Canadiens’ 2.93 goals for per game and 2.59 expected goals per game rank second and third, respectively. While they have been a top offensive team in any way looked upon, their defensive prowess has stood out. They rank 1st league-wide in expected goals against per game. This displays how strong they have been defensively without it taking into account goaltending.
Tyler Toffoli was a massive acquisition and has been one of the key factors that have propelled the Canadiens to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender if they figure out their goaltending situation and start Jake Allen more. Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin, Josh Anderson, and Phillip Danault have anchored the Canadiens elite offense this season.
9. One of the reasons behind Calgary’s poor start is the lack of production from the top of the lineup. In 22 games, they have 26 combined goals from Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm. They rank 24th in GF/60, 11th in xGF/60, and 13th in xGA/60. Two of the biggest issues are the lack of finishing on their offensive opportunities, as they are scoring at a rate much lower than expected and below-average goaltending. Jacob Markstrom — their big free-agent acquisition — hasn’t been playing at the elite level he was last season. He has a .909 save percentage and has allowed 2.11 goals more than expected based on the quality of shots he faced.
10. The Vancouver Canucks are 8-14-2 and are struggling. The one element the Canucks have excelled in this season is their offensive game. Their 2.63 GF/60 and xGF/60 rank 9th and 1st, respectively. They are generating offense at a higher rate than any other team in the NHL but aren’t finishing any more than expected. While Holtby has been below-average, the Canucks have been the worst defensive team in the NHL. Their 2.91 xGA/60 and 57.95 CA/60 rank last and second to last. They aren’t just allowing a high volume of shots. But a good portion of them have been high-danger, having allowed a league-worst 232 high-danger chances.
11. The Ottawa Senators are a league-worst 7-15-1, but they are 5-2 in their past seven games and are starting to heat up. They are getting strong play from their youngsters, including Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk and even Tim Stutzle, despite his poor underlying numbers. Despite being last in the league, the Senators haven’t been the worst team offensively. Their 2.54 GF/60 and 2.72 xGF/60 rank 25th and 17th, respectively. Chabot, Tkachuk, and Batherson have been the driving forces behind Ottawa’s ability to generate offense.
Similar to the Canucks, defense and goaltending are the two facets of their games that are dragging them down. Defensively is where the Senators are getting caught; their 2.94 xGA/60 ranks 26th league-wide. Matt Murray has really struggled this season after signing a four-year contract with the Senators. He’s allowed 14.64 goals more than expected, which is second to last in the NHL behind only Thomas Greiss.
12. Even without Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning have remained a top team in the league, which is a testament to their extensive depth and talent. One of the biggest storylines this season has been Andrei Vasilevskiy. While he has been widely regarded as the best goaltender in the NHL by the hockey world, there have always been critics who have pointed out his average to below-average underlying numbers in his career.
He is playing the best hockey he’s ever played in his career, and there is a good chance this is just the beginning. Not only does he have a .938 save percentage, but his 12.95 GSAA and 12.92 GSAx rank both first among all NHL goalies. He truly has been dominant this season and has been one of the driving forces behind the Lightning’s success without their best forward.
13. The Florida Panthers are off to their best start in franchise history and are displaying they are a legitimate contender. Through 20 games, they are 13-4-3 with 29 points, but their biggest issue is their 5-on-5 play. They are very dependent on their power play, which isn’t the best recipe for success. Their 2.4 GF/60 and 2.25 xGF/60 rank 15th and 17th, respectively, at 5-on-5. This could be concerning because being average at 5-on-5 doesn’t scream contender status, but that isn’t to detract from how dominant they have been this season.
Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled for three seasons now, and it is more than concerning at this point. Once regarded as an elite goalie, he is now a below-average starter. Looking at his workload, he has a -3 GSAA. He has allowed 7.84 goals more than expected based on the quality of shots he has faced. Chris Driedger, on the other hand, has been excellent and should no doubt be getting more starts.
One of the driving forces behind the fantastic start is Aleksander Barkov, who has been unbelievable this season. While his reputation includes being one of the best two-way centers in the league, he hasn’t been elite defensively the past several seasons. He has reclaimed the elite two-way status this season and has been the Panthers’ best forward. He ranks 14th in expected goals against per hour at even-strength and is cementing himself as one of the best centers in the league and one of the most underrated players in the league.
14. The Chicago Blackhawks might be the most surprising team this season. They are 12-7-4 with 28 points, which ranks third in the Central division. The reason why this is so shocking is that Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews are out with injuries. But Patrick Kane, Alex Debrincat and Dominik Kubalik have been the anchors of their offense in their absence.
The Blackhawks’ youth have really been the difference-maker this season. Pius Suter, Brandon Hagel, and Phillip Kurashev have been really good. Their rookie forwards have really injected life into this team, but the best rookie so far for the Blackhawks has been Kevin Lankinen, who is on pace to be a Calder Trophy finalist. The rookie goaltender has a .924 save percentage, 8.51 GSAA, and a 4.5 GSAx, the latter being the 9th-best mark in the league. He has been exceptional and is the biggest reason why the Blackhawks have been so successful.
15. The Carolina Hurricanes have had a respectable start to the season. They are 4th in the Central Division with 27 points and a record of 13-6-1. Beyond Aho, the trio of Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, and Andrei Svechnikov have been excellent. All three of them have been fantastic at generating offense and are a big reason why the Hurricanes rank 8th in GF/60 and 2nd in xGF/60.
16. The Columbus Blue Jackets are struggling this season in both ends of the ice. They are 8-10-5 with 21 points and rank 5th in the Central Division. Seth Jones is often regarded as an elite defenseman, yet his underlying numbers have always been average. This is likely due to his elite transition play and flashiness, which makes his play through the eye-test very deceiving. However, there is no denying how poor he has been this season. He has a 45.20 CF% and a 41.96 xGF% and has been below-average league-wide offensively and defensively. The trade that sent Pierre Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic hasn’t exactly given them a boost either.
17. Kirill Kaprizov finally made his NHL debut this season, and he has had an incredible start to his NHL career. The rookie winger leads rookie scoring with 6 goals, 11 assists, and 17 points in 18 games. A majority of his assists are primary as a result of his incredible vision, speed, and playmaking. He has been one of the Wild’s best forwards this season, and the budding star has had no growing pains.
The 23-year-old has a 58.42 CF% and a 58.87 xGF%. Furthermore, he ranks 4th among all NHL forwards in on-ice GF/60. He increases the Wild’s rate of scoring at a ridiculous rate while he’s on the ice and appears to be running away with the Calder Trophy too.
18. Joel Eriksson Ek has been one of the biggest surprises this season. He has been an elite defensive center over the past several seasons, but he’s never been a strong offensive player until the Wild witnessed him break out with 8 goals, 4 assists, and 12 points in 18 games. But even beyond point production, he ranks 14th in GF/60 and 4th in xGF/60 league-wide. He has been an elite two-way force this season and is proving he can be a first-line center. Furthermore, he has a 52.29 CF% and a 58.93 xGF%.
19. Cal Peterson has been phenomenal this season for the Los Angeles Kings and is a huge contributor to their unexpected success. His 7.89 GSAA and 5.68 GSAx rank 4th and 2nd, respectively. The 26-year-old goaltender has a .928 save percentage too. It appears it has also benefited Jonathan Quick, who has had a smaller workload and has been relatively average this season, which is better than the below-average starter he has been the past two seasons.
20. The Sharks have the worst goaltending tandem in the league, and it’s not very close either. For some reason, they decided to acquire Devan Dubnyk from the Wild, and that has backfired as expected. Both goaltenders have combined for a .880 save percentage through 18 games. Likewise, they have a combined -13.82 GSAA and -17.01 GSAx based on the workload and quality of shots.
Bonus: One of the most underrated players so far this season has been James Van Riemsdyk. The veteran forward has 10 goals, 15 assists, and 25 points in just 18 games. He has a strong shot and expected goal share to begin the season — in 18 games, he has a 58.75 CF% and 66.51 xGF%. The 31-year-old has been the Flyers’ best forward and one of the best forwards this season league-wide too. He ranks behind just Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in on-ice GF/60, which is a representation of how impactful he has been for the Flyers’ offense.
All Data as of March 1st
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)
Aaron Heckmann covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.