There are two ways to form our perception of players on-ice performance. One is through data. The other is through our eyes.
The eye test is important to any analysis, but is also vulnerable to influence by player personality or placing importance on aspects of a players game that don’t actually help win hockey games. Big hits, high energy, shot blocking are all things that when used properly alter the outcome of games in a positive manner, but they also aren’t exclusive to strong play.
Data is also vulnerable to the same type of misinterpretation. Point production is reliant on usage, power-play minutes and deployment. Good analysis doesn’t rely on one to drive the other. Unexpected production tends to lead to trying to find an on-ice reason for the success, when in reality most times it is the player doing the same things and getting a percentage driven boost in a small sample. Same goes for lack of production.
Keith Yandle is a guy whose perception drives his reputation when the data doesn’t truly back this up. Instead of challenging our eye test or the data to create a better understanding, we tend to settle into our biases and exploit where we want the narrative to go. It is how we derive our scapegoats.
When the Rangers were winning, Chris Kreider’s scoring struggles were recognized, but they weren’t a focal point because winning feels good. As the Rangers stumbled to two wins in their last eight games, the perception scan looks for those responsible for the struggles and always finds a target.
Kreider is struggling to score. This isn’t a debate. What is up for debate is the how and why. When we have no answer for these struggles, we generate irrational reasons like “Kreider’s play is sloppy. He needs to play more physical. He isn’t hustling.” All things I have read over the last two-to-three days. The problem is perception.
This season, Kreider has four goals and eight assists through 29 games. Last season through 29 games, Kreider had five goals and 10 assists. Hockey is a game of streaks and it is why I prefer to look at weighted shots to look at expected goal totals. It allows me to identify the elite shooters who consistently out-perform their opportunities as well as the shooters who can’t.
Over two seasons, Kreider has produced an actual goal total of 36 goals versus an expected total of 36.89 (empty-net goals excluded). You don’t need to be an elite shooter to be an elite goal scorer, but to compensate you need to be elite at generating these opportunities. Looking at Kreider’s 2015-16 season, he is producing opportunities, but his shooting percentage on these chances is low. His expected goal total is 6.86 vs. his actual production of 4.
If Kreider had matched his average shooting from the previous two seasons, he would be on pace for 20 goals, essentially his pace from his first two NHL seasons. When I looked at his shooting percentages on low percentage straight-line opportunities, Kreider over three seasons is a 4% shooter. On high-leverage opportunities with pre-shot deception caused by slot-line passes, deflections and rebounds, Kreider is a 24% shooter, scoring once every four shots. During his early-season struggles, he is only scoring on 10% of these opportunities.
He is getting opportunities, but he just isn’t finishing. If we look at the above gif, we see two very similar opportunities: Kreider drives the net and is the recipient of a feed that crosses the slot line. Neither the Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier or the Coyotes’ Mike Smith have time to set depth or angle and Kreider re-directs the pass from the exact same position on the ice. One goal goes in and is a success; one does not. They are both high-quality opportunities generated. If we view the process, we understand that 3.5 out of 10 of these will go in and seven straight misses or three straight goals don’t mean the process wasn’t sound.
It is why large samples are preferred. The early-season sample might consist of the seven that he is going to miss while he may hit three in a row over a 10-game span. This is how hot and cold streaks work, but we spend too much time trying to associate individual traits to the struggle. The term “luck” is used for simplicity, but in reality it is probability. If Kreider continues to create these types of opportunities, he will score goals.
Even though he is creating slightly less high-quality chances this season (33% versus his career mark of 36%), his game isn’t really much different than it has been over his first 145 games. During his first two NHL seasons, he was producing between 20-25 rebound shots per season. He is on pace for only six in 2015-16, but that has been offset by his ability to utilize his speed for breakaways. He averaged about five per season in 2014 and 2015, but he already has four this season and is on pace for 12. If he had breakaway success, Kreider isn’t a discussion point.
Kreider has been a good player this season. At even strength, his line has out-scored the opposition, 14-8. His expected goal differential (weighted shots) is 51%, up slightly from his possession numbers which are around 48%. If he continues to follow the process, he will ride a hot streak which should carry him to numbers similar to the ones he has already established.
Kreider likely doesn’t need to change anything to match his career production, but matching his career production shouldn’t be his goal. He has elite speed. He gives defensemen all types of trouble with their gap control. When they get too aggressive he has been able to exploit it with breakaways, he needs to compliment this with the net drive he displayed in season one and two for hard working rebound opportunities. If he can combine these two, the Rangers will have a 25-30 goal scorer.