Just when you thought the advanced stats horse was beaten dead, we bust out the Tommy gun one more time and give it the Sonny Corleone treatment.
It’s common to predict breakout candidates before every season, but the Great Analytics Boom of 2014 lets us do so through a new lens. Will advanced stats change our prognostications? Here’s a look at 10 players who will bust out if the fancy numbers tell us anything. Team stats come from progressivehockey.com. References to individual Corsi Close numbers come from the THN Ultimate Fantasy Guide.
10. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils
On one hand, advanced statistics, at least the popular ones like Corsi and Fenwick, tell us little about goaltenders. On the other hand, those stats are much better indicators of team success than of individual success. We know (a) Cory Schneider is already great, having posted a 1.97 goals-against average and .921 save percentage last season; (b) he has the No. 1 gig to himself for the first time in his career after the Devils and Martin Brodeur parted ways; and (c) the Devils are the hidden darlings of advanced statistics. They were a top-four Corsi team last season. A great goalie with an expanded role on a team that does a great job limiting scoring chances? Looks like a recipe for eye-popping numbers, especially in wins and GAA.
9. Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
Murray posted the third-best Corsi Close mark on the rapidly improving Jackets in 2013-14. He’ll be just 21 on opening night, and he enters the season as healthy as he’s been in his young NHL career. He’s maturing into a workhorse two-way defenseman in the mold of Ryan Suter, and as long as he keeps tilting the ice positively in the possession game, his minutes will continue to climb. It’s only a matter of time before he’s talked up among the game’s best young blueliners, and that time will be this season if Columbus keeps rising.
8. Paul Stastny, St. Louis Blues
A breakout for a 28-year-old earning $7 million annually? What? Here’s where we really have to trust the analytics to believe the prediction. In truth, I don’t expect a career year from Stastny, as he’ll be more of a cog in a deep St. Louis machine. That said, we know Corsi and Fenwick represent team play well, and Stastny goes from Colorado, a bad possession team, to St. Louis, a strong possession team. If Stastny simply has the puck more often thanks to the help around him, maybe he scores more.
7. Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars
There’s just so much to like about the hulking Russian right winger. He’s slated to play with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin or, at worst, on a line “only” centered by Jason Spezza. He ranked near the top of the Stars in Corsi Close, and while Benn and Seguin largely influenced that number, he showed he belonged on a top scoring line as a teenager. Nichushkin also didn’t shoot enough as a rookie, and he’ll almost certainly improve in that regard in Year 2, meaning he’ll have a bigger impact on possession. A leap from 14 goals to 25 wouldn’t surprise anyone.
6. Carl Gunnarsson, St. Louis Blues
Strong possession numbers can predict breakouts, but what about horrible possession numbers coupled with a trade to a new team and a reduced role? Carl Gunnarsson ranked near the bottom of the league in Corsi and Fenwick on a maligned pairing with Dion Phaneuf in Toronto. Those two, however, also faced the highest quality of competition among any defensemen in the league and had a strong Corsi rating relative to who they matched up against. Now Gunnarsson will play behind Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester and likely Kevin Shattenkirk and Barret Jackman. He won’t face nearly as many top lines. He’ll go from overmatched to a major asset as a third-pairing contributor on a powerhouse team.
5. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings
Tatar enjoyed a mini-breakout in 2013-14, becoming a full-time NHLer for the first time and sniping 19 goals. He also led Detroit in Corsi Close, meaning he had the strongest impact on shots directed at opposing teams’ nets, including those that were blocked and missed the goal. Any player who influences possession that much has a strong chance to duplicate his scoring chances. Nothing about Tatar seems fluky.
4. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
Like pretty much every King, Toffoli posted elite possession stats in the regular season. The Kings’ dominant puck control yielded an offensive explosion in the playoffs, and Toffoli was a big part of that, potting seven goals along the way. He’s locked into a great line with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson, and there’s no reason for Darryl Sutter to break the trio up. Toffoli is a natural goal scorer and he has the opportunity necessary to top the 20-goal mark easily.
3. Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The $4.5 million the Bolts will pay Stralman suggests they already viewed him as a breakout star, and with good reason. He posted elite possession numbers two straight seasons with the Rangers, emerging as one of the league’s most underrated lockdown defensemen. The money suggests Tampa will depend on him a lot more than the Rangers did with the likes of Ryan McDonagh and Daniel Girardi ahead of him on the depth chart. Stralman could be more exposed in a bigger role, but Tampa was already a good possession team, so he’s more likely to flourish.
2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
Another Blue! It’s only a matter of time before Tarasenko becomes an elite NHL goal scorer. He’s shown flashes of his raw ability before. Especially intriguing: not only was his Corsi rating tops on the Blues last season, it was among the league’s best relative to the rest of his team. Tarasenko has the talent to battle other highly talented players, and he’s entering his third NHL season, which means more trust and ice time from coach Ken HItchcock.
1. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
Jake Muzzin broke out last season playing alongside Drew Doughty and ruled NHL blueliners in possession numbers, but Muzzin ranked among the league leaders the year before, too. Saad has also spent two seasons near the top of the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick. He’s a big, strong forward on a dominant possession team, and he’s worked his way into a permanent role as one of Chicago’s top two left wingers. He suffered no sophomore slump, racking up 47 points, and 16 points in 19 playoff games suggests he’s just getting started. By next summer, we’ll talk up Saad as one of the sport’s premier power wingers.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin