If there was one criticism of last year’s Predators squad, it’s that there wasn’t a whole lot or scoring beyond the JOFA line. After the top line, the next four forwards in even strength ice time were James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wilson; together that foursome tallied just 132 points on the season. The lack of scoring with JOFA on the bench was addressed in October with the acquisition of Kyle Turris. His responsible two-way play gave way to the revitalization of Craig Smith and emergence of Kevin Fiala. With about five weeks left in the season this trio has notched 108 points between them. In addition, the off-season signing of Nick Bonino and the deadline acquisition of Ryan Hartman supplied Coach Laviolette with a third line that can play in the tough situations against the opponents top lines, while chipping in some offense, which is a luxury not all teams can claim.
In most corners of the hockey world, the Turris trade has been seen as a positive for the Predators. The team transformed into something more than a one line team early in October. The current that flows beneath the praise showered on Turris is the development of Kevin Fiala, enjoying something of a breakout campaign in his second full season in Nashville.
Making Sense of Offensive Contributions
We’re firmly in the period now where there is a wealth of cutting edge information on hockey analytics that has gone dark either by the way of proprietary information or the employment of these analysts by NHL teams. While possession metrics have been postulated for sometime, the public community is now producing expected goal models based on the probability of the collective total of shots being goals based on the distance of those shots and probability of shots becoming goals from each distance. There are limits to those models but until we get player tracking similar to what’s done in the NBA and MLB, it’s the best we have to work with. What happens before the shot is nearly as important as shot distance, which is the fundamental flaw of expected goal models. How do you account for that without the needed data?
Some of the work done to figure out why one team can score and the other can’t revolves around a few select topics, mostly what happens in the offensive zone before the shot takes place, and how a team enters or exits the zone or prevents the opponent from doing the same. The newest development comes from the people at Meta Hockey, who’ve created a tool called Tape to Tape Tracker. Some general conclusions that have been drawn to this point about goal generation are:
- It’s better to carry the puck into the zone than dump it in.
- It’s better to pass the puck before shooting it, especially if the pass makes the goalie move .
- Purposefully creating chemistry between linemates based on playing styles will maximize your team’s deployment.
With that in mind, what makes Kevin Fiala so damn good? He has 42 points in 62 games which is good enough I guess, but it still only puts him fifth on the team. What are we missing here, or what is he doing that isn’t showing up on the score sheet?
Let’s quantify his scoring first. He’s scoring 1.64 P1/60 at even strength, which are goals and first assists. His total is good enough for 62nd in the league, a mark better than offensive stalwarts like Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Sasha Barkov and Mitch Marner. The only Predator with a higher production rate than Fiala is Filip Forsberg.
A new Tableau extraordinaire, Bill Comeau, has developed some interesting visuals to compare players. Below is a breakdown of Nashville forwards, shown by percentile rank league wide among forwards in a range of key metrics. In this instance anything blue is good. Fiala is in the middle of the chart swimming in a sea of blue. His only red number is in secondary assists. In fact, a low total here is preferable to primary points due to the irregular and unstable distribution of the former.
Zone Entry Creation
What you’ll notice on the chart above in the very last row is offensive zone starts. The Turris line is among the league leaders in ratio of offensive zone starts, which makes Fiala’s zone entry rates (shown below) all the more impressive. You wouldn’t expect a player who’s among the league leaders in offensive zone starts to also be among the very best in the league in gaining the opponents blue line with possession.
Maybe what I’m most excited about player tracking, assuming it eventually comes to bear, is the information generated on zone entries and exits. In the meantime, Sznajder is doing yeoman’s work tabulating totals from the games he’s able to track manually. Shown as a percentile rank, Fiala’s “shot contributions” row shows that good things happen when Fiala has the puck. He’s either generating shots himself or contributing with the pass immediately preceding a shot. Fiala’s entry rates, from the next set of rows, put him in elite company.
Fiala is the team leader in entry passes per 60 and carry-ins per 60, and it’s not really even close. Fiala is generating about 16 controlled entries per 60 minutes, and Forsberg is closer to 12. In a league wide sense, Fiala is 18th in the league in controlled entry generation behind mostly established superstars and Hart Trophy candidates.
What Happens Next?
Where the magic happens for Fiala is once the puck is in the offensive zone. Controlled zone entries are a start, but what happens when the puck is in the zone separates teams that just throw the puck at the net and teams that generate quality scoring chances. This is among the next progressions in hockey analytics. Fiala’s passing profile shows that he generates royal-road passes (across the slot) and one-timer passes well above league average. Small sizes yes, but encouraging to see the numbers.
The NHL game may never have been faster than it is currently. With a crackdown on slashing, smaller skilled players are populating rosters league wide. Teams are becoming more creative, with many forsaking low quality shots from the point for shots from in tight after receiving a pass. Fiala’s WOWY results are impressive. The Predators dominate the shot counter, especially from the prime scoring areas in front of the net. When Fiala and company are off the ice, the blue blob of death engulfs the opponents net. Fiala’s CF% and xGF% all put him in first line territory league wide, even with nearly third line ice-time. You can chalk some of it up to quality of competition, but that’s just another added benefit of the offensive depth Nashville has amassed.
Entering the playoffs with two legitimate scoring lines will put the Predators in a better position than they faced last spring. Opponents won’t be able to load up their top defensive pairing against the JOFA line. If they do, the Turris line has enough scoring acumen to make opposing defenses pay. This gives opposing coaches matchup nightmares, putting stress on the top two defensive pairs, when one mistake could mean the end of the season.
Winning 16 games against the league’s best teams is a tough hill to climb. Playoff heroes can emerge from almost anywhere, and GMs often place too much weight and ensuing dollars on playoff performance. Matt Beleskey parlayed 8 goals in the 2015 playoffs to a contract from the Bruins that they were eager to get out from in the Rick Nash deal. Leon Draisaitl got paid $68 million dollars from Peter Chiarelli last spring after potting 16 points in 13 games, but if your sights are set on Lord Stanley’s Cup, every team needs their heroes.
Why can’t Fiala be the hero? He’s the driving force behind a second line that makes the Predators a favorite to win the Cup. He’s among the league’s elite in entering the offensive zone with possession, is tremendously productive in relation to his ice-time, and he makes a positive impact in the offensive zone, more so than any other player in the roster. He’s exactly the type of player teams need to lift the Cup at the end of an arduous playoff run. The Predators are battle tested and now ready to reach the summit. Fiala can be that hero.