Small sample sizes are properly ridiculed whenever someone tries to extrapolate broad themes out of them. Or predictions.
So I’ll try anyway.
Through the first five games, Dallas’ forward group has combined for 7 goals. At least two from Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Mattias Janmark. Plus one empty netter from Martin Hanzal.
On one hand it’s nice to see the usual suspects on that list. On the other hand, it should be concerning to see no one else on that list.
It’s extra concerning that Dallas’ forwards have just three even strength goals through five games.
It’s even more concerning that only one NHL team has less even strength goals than Dallas (Carolina).
Five games may be a small sample size. But patterns either grow or dissipate out of them. Dallas is getting shots on net. But they’re not getting goals. What accounts for this?
Defining shot quality
The concept of shot quality is something I’ve discussed before, but not in depth. So it’s worth revisiting. Shot quality is critical to defining expected goals (the “xG” stats).
A shot with a higher probability of becoming a goal should have more components than usual. And those components include:
...shot type (wrist shot, slap shot, deflection, etc.), shot distance (adjusted for distance from net), shot angle (angle in absolute degrees from the central line normal to the goal line), rebounds, rush shots, and strength state (whether or not the shot was taken on the powerplay).
There is some discussion about defining high danger areas through raw proximity. After all, if this is defined as the red zone (or high danger area), then we’re missing a key ingredient if we ignore the actual position of the players. If five players are on the perimeter of the homeplate area, then “danger” is not only relative, but inaccurate.
I don’t want to get bogged down in too many details though. The math itself might be rough, but the concept is not - a shot becomes a goal under more favorable conditions.
The eye test matches this; goalies are mostly just European dudes wearing robot jox. It’s harder to stop a shot that requires movement, reaction and resets while wearing Sigourney Weaver’s cargo loader.
With that in mind, the 2017-2018 league average for the amount of individual expected goals for per hour is .65. How does Dallas stack up to that?
Why secondary scoring could remain a problem
Dallas is underperforming in terms of results. They’re shooting 5.9 percent as a team, well below the current league average (9.5), so getting better is guaranteed. But to what degree?
It was only a few seasons ago when teams like the Buffalo Sabres, and the Arizona Coyotes shot under 7 percent for their respective season. Those were bad teams, which Dallas is not. But Dallas is having a hard time finding help.
As mentioned, .65 is the average for individual expected goals for per hour, or ixGF/60 for short.
Below are all of Dallas’ forwards, with the ixGF/60 column on the far right per Corsica.
Seven forwards are above league average in expected goals per hour. Which is fine.
Well, sort of. For one, no one is breaking the average with a cheat code (look at Toronto if you want to see what that looks like). Gemel Smith is a healthy scratch, and his rates don’t tell as too much in any case given his icetime. As a result, Dallas is merely league average in expected goals per hour at 15th. Expect Dallas to score more, but maybe not that much more. For better and for worse, this isn’t the 2015-2016 squad. They might have less problems to outscore, but the lack of scoring will just magnify the problems they do have.
The other concern is more peripheral, though relevant.
The common narrative has been that Dallas has young wingers ready to take the next step. “They’re only gonna get better”, they say in the booth. Without going nuclear, I think it’s fair to ask - “wait...will they?”
By now, many are familiar with aging curves. Players, especially forwards, are simply more productive when they’re younger. Their overall production sparks around 20 (as Auston Matthews can attest to), and they maintain that peak plateau until the age of 24 (as Auston Matthews will attest to). The same is true for their shots on goal, shooting percentage, and both primary as well as overall assist rate.
Dallas’ wingers are either past that initial age 20 spark (Remi Elie, 22), directly at that peak plateau (Smith and Devin Shore, 23), near (Brett Ritchie, 24) or beyond that plateau (Mattias Janmark, Tyler Pitlick, Antoine Roussel, etc).
Let’s not confuse the implication. The argument is not that these players will magically decline as soon as they slice a piece of their next birthday cake. Or that they should cry if they want to knowing their last birthday cake was an omen.
Power play production, for example, seems stable by comparison all the way through age 30. Shore and Janmark, in particular, will get opportunities that were otherwise limited in their careers until now. In addition, while it’s true that assist rates decline, the drop in overall assist rate is less rapid compared to other areas.
But anyone expecting secondary scoring to break out at any moment should proceed with caution. Dallas’ wingers are young, but their peak production windows are not.
The toughest part is that there is no easy solution in a cap world. The draft typically solves this problem. Jim Nill can boast about Jason Dickinson, Valeri Nichushkin, and Riley Tufte all scoring at solid clips (Denis Gurianov hasn’t produced much through 4 AHL games, but he looks good, and PK’s even better). Problem is, none of them are in the NHL right now.
Nill uses a nice metaphor about prospects as ready fruit upon hitting the ground. But he might be rethinking that metaphor watching this good, but flawed Stars team. Maybe rather than wait for those apples to fall on the ground, perhaps Nill should start plucking them at their highest.