Assessing a goal-scorer by the amount of goals scored seems like an intuitive way to evaluate. Players who score goals seem more valuable than players who don’t. This is evident when we view large samples because the players who put themselves in the best positions to succeed the most will produce the most goals.
Where it becomes tricky is when we evaluate and judge in-season. Chris Kreider became a scapegoat for the Rangers early in the season when high end opportunities weren’t finding the net and Mats Zuccarello is having a career season when low end ones are finding the net.
In reality, judging a player by goals scored in small samples is not an ideal way to assess their play.
This isn’t the 1980s and goals do not flow in a consistent manner. Kreider’s 2016 season ebbs and flows. He has consistently produced opportunities of a high end scorer. But, like most players, he hasn’t produced goals in the same manner. His season has been defined by scoring streaks. On the other hand, Zuccarello has produced goals at a level way above his expected opportunities.
Zuccarello is having the best shooting season of his career, but it isn’t wise to make the assumption that he will consistently produce goals this far above the opportunities he generates.
These type of fluctuations play out team wide, and generally are responsible for winning and losing streaks. It is no different than assessing goaltenders in regards to short term results.
At the end of the day, all players have a baseline talent and the key to good assessment is identifying what that baseline is and proceeding from there, regardless of short term fluctuation. The problem is that there are variables that go into this evaluation. Linemates, quality of competition, coaching systems, playing time and special teams opportunities, all create noise around these evaluations. When you add in short term shooting streaks, it creates an environment where coaches can misidentify the means to success constructed on result based analysis.
This is one reason why I attempt to represent all of the data that I collect as an expected goal total. It provides an easily digestible stat to identify the players who shoot from the best positions on the ice, the ones who create secondary opportunities, and those that force goaltenders into difficult positions for them to succeed through forced lateral movement.
It helps as an indicator for players like Oscar Lindberg, who may line up for future goal-scoring success if he remains committed to the process.
The Rangers have done a nice job of placing Lindberg in a position to succeed during his rookie season. They have utilized his skillset well by complimenting his ability to find open space with players like Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, who excel in completing feeds across the slot line. Easing him in with third line usage has also placed him in a situation to succeed immediately and this shows as he has been able to produce a positive expected goal differential of 51.3%.
Lindberg has produced 12 goals this season, consistent with the 12.3 goals his opportunities suggest. While still among the highest numbers on the Rangers, his production becomes even more impressive when we adjust it to reflect minutes played. When the Rangers up his usage rates, he could easily approach the 20-goal plateau with even average shooting. Should he capitalize on a one-year Zuccarello/Derek Brassard type run, he could easily push past 25.
It took Lindberg about 25 games to level out from an early expected shooting percentage of 18% to the 11% where it settled. Looking at his expected goal totals against his actual results, we can see that Lindberg continues to produce offensive opportunities though his finishing has evened out over the second half of the season.
If we judge him based on goal-scoring alone, he may be perceived as reaching his full potential based on early inflated expectation fueled by a quick start. As the season wore on, we began to see his baseline talent level out and that baseline bodes well for the Rangers and their future.