Editor’s note: It’s been a crazy last few weeks over here at On The Forecheck. As the Predators have been making this incredible run to the SCF, we’ve been trying to bring you the best content possible. Speaking candidly, I think we have some of the best hockey writers in the world at this site. And I know we have the best commenters.
Which brings me to this post. Recently, I reached out to several of our more prolific commenters about contributing some writing to the site. Kate is a frequent commenter and I reached out to her to put together a piece on Colton Sissons. I think it turned out very, very well, so I thought it best to share it with you all.
Do you think you have what it takes to contribute to this community? You are in luck! Soon after the end of the season, we will be posting a want ad for staff writers, part-time or full-time. These positions will be asked to help contribute real, unfiltered analysis on the Predators, but also help out with some of the other tasks associated with the site: daily links, game previews and recaps, etc.
Details on how to submit your name into the pool of applicants will be forthcoming. In the meantime, enjoy Kate’s work!
The Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history on a series-winning hat trick by Colton Sissons. This is a guy who went from a healthy scratch a few months ago to filling in as the first-line center after injuries to Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher.
This time last year we were hoping that Peter Laviolette might be willing to use Sissons as the 4C over Paul Gaustad. Now? With that hat trick Sissons has more goals this postseason (5) than Johansen (3).
Sissons also has five assists (all primary) to Johansen’s ten, but he’s had significantly less ice-time. His 1.31 primary assists per sixty minutes (at all strengths) this postseason would put him in fairly elite company among forwards this season; his 1.19 primary assists per sixty minutes at 5v5 puts him right between Evgeni Malkin and Johnny Gaudreau. When Colton Sissons steps on the ice, we’re seeing him make very good things happen for the people around him, and we’re seeing it often.
The question isn’t whether we can call this Sissons’s postseason debut (we can) or whether it’s a good one (conference final. clinching. hat trick). The question is what this means going forward, as well as what it should mean.
Viktor Arvidsson’s season-saving OT goal last year was a fantastic story because he was finally, dramatically, getting rewarded for the work he was doing. The great thing about Arvidsson is that he puts shots on goal with the best in the league. That’s under his control in a way that his production isn’t. He was due for a breakout, not because he works hard in a nebulous, character-like sense, but because he works hard in a specific sense very directly linked to scoring goals—a thing he was already doing in his rookie season before he started scoring. Arvidsson was the surest bet among all the young players going into this season, assuming he could keep up that kind of shot generation. He did.
It’s a lot harder to predict whether someone has the ability to consistently be a top-nine center from individual stats than it is to predict whether someone will be a consistent goal scorer. Sissons is producing, but that only tells us what’s happening, not how or why.
Is he actually the 2C or 3C this franchise needs? Do we need to worry about losing him in the expansion draft?
First off: even if he is the 1C that Vegas needs, he’s not the 1C Vegas is going to take. Sissons has played 109 career regular-season NHL games and has 20 career regular-season NHL points. That’s not very productive. NHL GMs in general are notoriously risk-averse and have a tendency to award contracts based on past performance instead of future potential. McPhee likely won’t take that risk. For Poile, seeing what happens with Sissons costs nothing; for McPhee, seeing what happens with Sissons means passing on a known quantity.
The question of what Sissons can do for the Predators going forward is a trickier one. Although 23 isn’t young for a professional hockey player, we’ve seen very little of Sissons in the NHL, and even less of him getting to play on anything other than a grinding line. It’s a tense time to be considering centers in the Predators’ system. The knowledge that we will lose at least one asset in the expansion draft adds a sense of urgency. The fact that team captain Mike Fisher, who was playing third-line center minutes before his injury, is a UFA this summer adds some complications.
Fisher is a bit of an enigma at this point in his career. He plays a good defensive game and a surprisingly strong offensive one. On the other hand, he is 36. His possession numbers dropped this year to the extent that the Predators were unambiguously worse at puck possession with him on the ice than without him, which hasn’t been usual for him. It may be his age. It may also be his unflinchingly physical style of play beginning to catch up to him. In 2015-2016, it was his production, not his puck possession, that dropped—that rebounded this year. It’s certainly not impossible that Fisher will recover again next season, but he will be 37. Limiting his ice-time and giving him favorable usage (less time on the penalty kill, for example) is the best way to extend an aging player’s utility; giving a bottom-six role to a player as capable of performing well with good linemates as Fisher still is a questionable move.
I don’t imagine Sissons’s performance this postseason pushes Fisher out of a middle-six role yet, but if Sissons can sustain it into next season that might begin to put Fisher in an awkward position, especially if he is beginning to decline.
Might Sissons be able to fill in for Fisher, or as an effective middle-six center, in the long term?
Things like possession stats don’t always predict someone’s ability to be the kind of forward who drives play himself; individual shot attempts might predict goal scoring, but not anything else. What we need is the ability to look at what Sissons has been doing at the NHL level and compare it to what other people are doing at the NHL level. I don’t mean his production: scoring a goal is dependent on the opponent goalie as well as on the player; getting an assist is dependent on the player’s teammate and the opponent goalie as well as on the player.
Thankfully, this data is already being tracked. Hockey Graphs has an article determining player “types” using data from the Passing Project, but instead of lingering on the Preds’ roster as a whole, I’ll cut to the chase:
Colton Sissons hasn’t consistently played well. He’s barely above the 50th percentile in one category, primary shot assists. He’s below average in everything else.
This isn’t because he’s been the best person on his line and his linemates are preventing him from being effective, either. The forward he’s spent the most 5v5 time with over the last two years (the time covered in the data collected for this graph) has been Austin Watson, distantly followed by Calle Järnkrok.
The only area in which Sissons has a history of outperforming either of them is in passes that directly lead to a shot, and even then Järnkrok is close.
Since Sissons is frequently compared to Fisher, here’s how their offensive play over the last two seasons compares as well:
The difference in their transition and build-up games is particularly striking—Fisher has top-line quality of play there, while Sissons emphatically does not. My instinct is that those are the two metrics most likely to be affected by linemates, though, and Fisher has been working on a much more solid line than Sissons, so it may not be as dire as it looks.
There’s also the sample size issue.
The Passing Project as a whole currently still comes with a sample size alert. We’re looking at relatively little time for Sissons. The TOI is described as a “median,” not a sum, and I’m not sure what set it’s the median of, but Sissons has a third as much time as Järnkrok and a fifth as much time as Johansen—more data are involved for them than for him.
We should also consider that some players perform better with better players, not only in terms of complicated transition plays, but even in simpler things like receiving a pass and taking the shot. Sissons might be fine on a line with Forsberg and Åberg in a way that he isn’t with Järnkrok and Watson, because Forsberg’s play opens up more options.
Still, I don’t feel as confident in Sissons having a breakout 2017-2018 season as I did in Arvidsson having a breakout 2016-2017. It gets worse when I look at where the Predators shoot from when Sissons is on the ice (courtesy of HockeyViz.com)
That would be great…if it were in the Predators’ defensive zone, instead of the offensive zone. Again, his linemates could be playing a role in this, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.
None of this means that Sissons can’t continue to play well in the Cup Finals or even that he can’t play better going forward. The benefit of stats is that they can help predict future play, but they don’t guarantee it. Sissons hasn’t gotten enough of a chance yet for us to say this is all he has in the tank. He won’t be another Arvidsson, but who is? He could develop into a serviceable middle-six center for the Predators next year, and if he continues to play well this postseason I expect Laviolette to give him a chance to try.