Who really makes the noise in the playoffs?
Hockey fans generally have thorough knowledge of the superstars in the National Hockey League. Names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and David Pastrnak come to mind. While these players are at the pinnacle of the sport, it is generally the unsung heroes placated on the bottom-six who make the difference between a Stanley Cup contender and a Stanley Cup winner.
Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby were unable to push their team to the Cup without the contributions of a young Evgeny Kuznetsov and relatively unknown Devante Smith-Pelly, who each reached twine seven times during the 2018 Cup run.
After a disappointing regular season that saw him muster a petite 11 goals and 36 points, St. Louis Blues winger Jaden Schwartz exploded in last year’s postseason, notching 12 goals and 20 points. It was Pat Maroon of all people who scored the Game 7 double-overtime winner to send St. Louis to the Conference Final.
Given that context, it is around trade deadline time when you start to look at the ring of hopefuls and gander at who could provide a spark. With injuries aplenty, the Pittsburgh Penguins have maintained a cohesive and disciplined style all season, a far throw from the 2018 squad. Even without superstars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for stretches, the team remained formidable. Who exactly was supplying that production?
Winger Jake Guentzel was electric and was having a career year (20 goals and 43 points in 39 games) prior to, you guessed it, going down with injury. Winger Bryan Rust has had a career year, punishing opponents with 22 goals and 45 points in 42 games. Yet, the name emblazoned on my mind is Czech import Dominik Simon.
Penguins Simon Shows in the Stats
Simon is likely unknown in most fanbases’ chat rooms, but is what we hockey guys like to call an “analytics darling.” Often times, what a player brings to the table can’t be summed up in general stats. Eventually, people realized there’s far more to hockey than goals, assists, and points, and as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Simon is not a goalscorer and likely never will be one in this league. This infuriates a lot of people, even notable radio hosts in the Pittsburgh market.
There’s plenty more to hockey than scoring and it’s one of the reasons players like Simon find a spot in this league. His versatility is irreplaceable. Rust is the king of moving up and down the roster (think he’s played near every wing spot in the lineup at this point) but Simon has begun to carve out a similar niche himself.
With the arrival of Jason Zucker, Simon was moved to the fourth line last Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It didn’t matter.
Near the end of the third period in a 1-1 stalemate, Simon made a beat on a pass intended for Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, outmuscled him for the puck and then went on a breakaway and was slashed before he had the opportunity to pull the trigger. The Pens found themselves on the power play thanks to the effort. Pittsburgh didn’t convert on the opportunity, but it’s also true that most fourth lines struggle to create offensive opportunities. Simon made it happen.
This season in 5-on-5 play, Simon carries a 52.59 Corsi-For percentage (CF%, measures shot differential, including blocked and missed shots). In this instance, when Simon is on the ice, the Penguins control 52.59% of the total shots. That may not seem like much, but every percentage point matters in hockey analytics. For the record, that 52.59 CF% is the same as Vancouver Canucks sniper Brock Boeser and is slightly higher than Florida Panthers ace Aleksander Barkov, Ovechkin and Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog.
Simon’s Numbers Are Consistent
In the last two years, Simon has finished with Corsi-For percentages of 55.15 and 56.79, numbers which would place him in the top-100 of the NHL among qualifiers. Last season, Simon’s Goals-For percentage (GF% is the percentage of goals scored for your team while you were on the ice) was a robust 60.53, better than every Penguin not named Crosby. He was top-60 in the league in that category as well, higher on the board than Chicago Blackhawks veteran Patrick Kane and former Columbus Blue Jacket Artemi Panarin.
Simon’s scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) last year was a 60.63% (21st) and his high danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) was a 64.29%. That was higher than everyone with the exception of Maroon (do not underestimate the role of the grinder).
Lastly, head coach Mike Sullivan’s usage of Simon can be seen in offensive zone start percentage (OZS%). Zone start percentage showcases how often a player’s shift begins in the offensive zone. It is a number decidedly attached to success in the faceoff circle but also illustrates how a coach is utilizing his assets. Simon’s OZS% is 69.83, top-100 in the league. Simon has played much of the year on Crosby’s wing, so this number isn’t shocking but it also demonstrates the confidence the coaching staff has in Simon’s vision and motor to get to the spots the scheme asks of him and to move the puck to the high danger areas.
Simon’s numbers have regressed from his career year in 2018 but still remain unflappable to the untrained eye. He may not put the puck in the net but he always seems to be on the ice when something good happens. Eventually, it’s not a coincidence. It’s just smart hockey.