A large part of the St. Louis Blues’ success in the early part of the 2013-14 season can be attributed to the incredibly productive play of the team’s first line – or, more specifically, Alex Steen. Having amassed 31 points in the first 25 games of the season, Steen is well on his way to topping his career high of 51. His current pace, however, is far from sustainable. Let’s take a look at the evidence behind that, beginning with intuitive facts and comparisons and later moving on to some advanced statistics.
Alex Steen Has An Established Precedent
This is Steen’s 10th year as an NHL player. His point totals by season (least to most recent) are 45, 35, 42, 4, 24, 47, 51, 28, and 27. Adjusting these raw totals to points per 82 games yields 49, 35, 45, 16, 32, 57, 58, 53, and 55. The bolded numbers represent Steen’s per-82 output as a member of the St. Louis Blues. He has played approximately 19 minutes per game in the three seasons prior to this one.
Steen has never eclipsed a 60 points per-82 pace, although we should note that he has come somewhat close to doing so while playing first-line minutes in St. Louis in ’10-11, ’11-12, and ’12-13.
Nevertheless, it is patently ridiculous that a player with an established precedent of being no more and no less than a 50-55 point, slightly above average top-6 forward would suddenly vault to the lofty heights of being one of the league’s elite offensive players… in his 10th NHL season.
Disclaimer: Some may protest to this logic and bring up Jonathan Cheechoo’s career year. However, Cheechoo’s came in only his 3rd NHL season, and he had 28 and 37 goal years sandwiched around that. Further, I – and many others – would put forth that Cheechoo may well have continued to be a dominant player had it not been for extensive injury problems.
Cheechoo also had this guy passing him the puck (apologies for the video quality).
Uh, Look At the Other Top Scorers
Not the most intelligent-sounding argument, I know, but do it anyway.
Would you place Steen on or near the same level as Crosby, Malkin, Getzlaf, and Kane? These are players who have demonstrated their offensive prowess repeatedly with minimal inter-season variation sans a single down year here or there. Steen stands out like an eyesore among names like those. Again, I concede that player improvement is always a possibility – indeed, how else would the league ever get new great scorers to replace those in decline or retirement? – but this kind of improvement at the age of 29 and during one’s 10th season is unheard of.
Let’s get something straight about using shooting percentage (S%) as a metric: It’s only truly useful via comparison to past seasons of the player in question as well as those of other NHL players.
As I mentioned earlier, Steen has been receiving first-line minutes and opportunities in St. Louis for three seasons prior to 2013-14. His average shooting percentage over that period was 8.94%. If we extend this to encompass his entire career excluding 2013-14, the number increases marginally to 10.55%.
You probably know where this is going. There is one glaring outlier with Steen’s year-by-year shooting percentage, and it happens to be – you guessed it – this season. With 20 goals on 84 shots in 25 games in ’13-14, an almost stupidly high 23.8% of Steen’s shots are finding the back of the net. For perspective, Steven Stamkos’ S% generally hovers in the high teens, and Alex Ovechkin’s tends to stay between 12 and 15%.
To put it bluntly, Steen has not magically developed dominant goalscoring ability; rather, he has simply had a fortunate first 25 games, shooting with far more success than he ever has previously (no, a player’s shot does not get astronomically better in his tenth year). It is all but inevitable that Steen’s shooting percentage will fall – likely significantly so – during the rest of the ’13-14 season. Consequently, so will his goals and points per game.
If a player’s production matched his on-ice impact, one would assume that the highest-scoring players – especially those on good teams, like Steen is – would tend to have their possession numbers stand out above the pack. Corsi is a useful proxy for puck possession and scoring chances while a given player is on the ice. Steen has the second-highest on-ice Corsi among Blues players that are consistently in the lineup. However, it is not the ranking so much as it is the number itself that is important. Steen’s Corsi is comparable to that of multiple St. Louis players, including Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Pietrangelo, and Patrik Berglund. As far as this particular metric is concerned, Steen is simply one of many good Blues players. He doesn’t stand out.
When I look at this data in conjunction with his shooting percentage, two thoughts come to mind.
1. Steen has probably been getting pretty lucky this season.
2. If your first name is “Vladimir,” you’re guaranteed a spot on the St. Louis roster.
Going briefly off-topic here… Sobotka is awesome. Really underrated player and a lot more skilled than he’s given credit for.
On-Ice Shooting Percentage
When Alex Steen is on the ice, the Blues’ shooting percentage is 12.74%. I realize this overlaps some with Steen’s personal high number that I discussed earlier, but do bear in mind that the number of shots taken while Steen is on the ice is vastly greater than the number of shots he takes himself. 12.74% is quite high in light of the fact that the median save percentage for the top-30 goalies in terms of games played in the NHL this season is 91.65%. Steen’s on-ice S% numbers in his previous three seasons with St. Louis – all as a first-line player – were 7.68, 9.51, and 8.61. Once again, the numbers he has compiled in 25 games so far in 2013-14 are the outliers, and blatant ones at that.
Conclusion: Steen Will Have a Moderate-To-Large Statistical Regression During the Remainder of ’13-14
When taken together, all the above evidence convincingly indicates that Steen’s production has far exceeded his actual level of play. I have to note, though, that you should not make any mistake about it – Alex Steen is still playing the best hockey of his career, and I am in no way diminishing what he has accomplished so far this season. It is not an insult to suggest that Steen has been very lucky in the first 25 games of the year; rather, it is simply a reasonable conclusion drawn from career precedents, player comparison, and statistics.
Note: In light of this essentially unavoidable step back in his production pace, Steen and his agent would be wise to strike while the iron is hot and at least broach the subject of a contract extension with Blues management. However, that’s apparently not going to happen.
The Blues and their fans have a lot to be smiling about these days. Steen, David Backes, and a slew of other players on the roster are playing better than they ever have before, and have St. Louis off to its best start in franchise history.
Nothing wrong with admitting that there’s been some good fortune involved in that.
Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu
Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.