The early returns of the 2019-20 season have arrived, and as expected there’s some bright spots and some concerns. Generally, the story has been similar to last year. The Isles are getting outshot and out-attempted at five-on-five play fairly often, though this year their expected goals share ranks 30th in the league (44.52%) too. Once again, their 5-3-0 record outpaces their underlying numbers.
But, that’s the team as a whole. There are patterns emerging at the player level, and at the very least there’s some directional early takeaways that we can look at. So, let’s get to it.
Three Players Trending Up
1. Semyon Varlamov
KPIs: .941 5v5 Save%, .909 High Danger Save%
After a pretty rough start, Semyon Varlamov has turned it up over the past two weeks. He’s won his last two games and overall, his .941 even strength save percentage ranks 11th in the league, Additionally, his save percentage is higher than his expected save percentage based on the quality of shots taken against (weighted by coordinates on the ice where a shot is taken), which is a good sign. And, of goalies who have played more than 100 minutes, Varlamov ranks fifth in high danger save % at .909, meaning he’s been strong when his team needs him the most.
2. Adam Pelech
KPIs: 21:00 TOI, 50.07% xGF, 0.22 Game Score
The rise of Adam Pelech has continued into the 2019-20 season, where he undisputedly has the trust of Barry Trotz as a top pairing defenseman. Pelech is second on the team in ice time (behind his partner Ryan Pulock by 45 seconds) at 21 minutes per game. Of team regulars, he leads the entire team in score-adjusted expected goal share (50.07%), and ranks second among defensemen on the team in game score (0.22) behind Johnny Boychuk (0.23).
In terms of expected goal rates, Pelech has been the most consistent Isles’ defenseman. He’s the only player above 50% expected goal share on the entire team, so the time he is getting on the ice is for good reason. He only has one assist on the season, but if he continues to be a positive contributor without the puck, presumably more points could be on the way.
3. Mathew Barzal
KPIs: 19:00 TOI, 45.53% xGF, 0.79 Game Score
I was somewhat hesitant to include Barzal here because his overall play has oscillated early on. His last few games have been quite strong, however, which is why he is on this list. As expected, Barzal leads the team in game score (0.79). With 7 points in 8 games, he seems right in line with the expectations placed on him as the “franchise forward.”
Moreover, Barzal also has developed trust with Barry Trotz, who is playing him over a minute more than he did last season. Part of that is because of more attentive defensive play and buy-in to the system. But there’s also some additive elements to his game that are promising. Barzal is second on the team in shots on net (21), behind only Brock Nelson. It’s early so pacing doesn’t mean anything, but if he is able to keep shooting at this rate, Barzal would finish with 215 shots - over 35 more than last season (and a career high).
Three Players Trending Down
1. Derick Brassard
KPIs: 13:46 TOI, 42.95% xGF%, -0.28 Game Score
There has not been as much production success for Derick Brassard as there was for his predecessor, despite similar underlying metrics. With just one assist in his first 8 games, Brassard has been pretty invisible for the beginning of his Isles career. He has just 10 shots during those 8 games, which is a blunt indication that he’s not really doing much of anything offensively.
Bailey with Brassard is interesting, because I think he’s best with more of a two-way player (which I wrote about here ). Worked well with Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Mark Stone for example... so this could be a good thing for him. https://t.co/mFfM00m9NG— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) October 12, 2019
That’s not to say he hasn’t had opportunities. He’s playing the vast majority of his time with Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier. As The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman predicted, he’s actually played pretty well with Bailey — but as Bailey gets moved up and down the lineup, it’s hard to justify keeping an unproductive player who is only seeing underlying success with one teammate around long-term.
Brassard likely has a little more rope. He is a veteran and the Isles don’t have a ton of center depth, but if he does not start producing the Isles will have no choice but to start exploring other options for that third line center role.
2. Scott Mayfield
KPIs: 19:16 TOI, 39.89% xGF, -0.19 Game Score
This is probably the biggest mystery around the team right now: What’s happened to the Devon Toews/Scott Mayfield pairing? Perhaps a miscast archetype, Mayfield developed into a really solid right-handed defenseman last year. He was a big contributor on shot attempts, plays a “heavy” style, and had a positive expected goal share with Devon Toews, as they were the clear second pairing in last year’s playoffs. This year, the results have not been there.
Because Mayfield and Toews have played the vast majority of time together this year, it’s hard to see definitively which one is struggling more from an impact perspective. So, it comes down to production. Toews is still producing offensively — he has 5 points in 8 games, whereas Mayfield has just one assist on the season. That’s why he makes the list, but in the interest of fairness, there is a real possibility that Toews is struggling more. Either way, it could be time to test that theory and try the players with different partners.
3. Tom Kuhnhackl
KPIs: 13:15 TOI, 32.75% xGF, -0.40 Game Score
In a lot of ways, this is not fair. Kuhnhackl is not a top-line player, nor is he expected to produce at top-line levels. But, for whatever reason, he’s been stapled to Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee for practically the entirety of Jordan Eberle’s injury.
The results have been pretty much as expected. From Kuhnhackl’s perspective, he is having the most underlying success of the season playing with two very good players. But on the flip side, because linemates are so important and his ceiling is so limited , Barzal and Lee are limited with him on his line.
The good news? Barzal is doing a lot himself right now. But if/when that does run dry, the support on his line with Kuhnhackl there won’t be enough to compensate for that. And that lack of offensive support is the biggest issue with playing players in spots that are not suited for them.
From a production perspective, it has to be stated that he does not have a point on the season. And again, that isn’t really his expectation - but we’ve seen this regime hold other players to task for not producing in prominent roles. So, while there is no question that Kuhnhackl is a hard worker and a solid defensive player, his presence is kind of holding the team back from their offensive ceiling. It’s a bit of a nitpick because the team has won four in a row, but this is the situation he’s been placed in.
Chalk this up to a situational addition to the list more than the actual fault of the player. Going forward, Isles will simply need a better answer for that spot while Jordan Eberle remains out.
Goaltending metrics from Corsica.Hockey; Skater metrics from NaturalStatTrick.com
You can find all of these metrics in dashboard form on my Tableau page.