Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.
Hockey is a game of inches, where outcomes are regularly dictated by intangible forces. Luck, or lack thereof, can be the difference between a 25-game march to a Stanley Cup Final, or a 6-game first round exit that leaves you scratching your head. A player’s fortunes are in the hands of the hockey gods, whether it’s a snake bitten superstar that just can’t seem to get the monkey off his back or a fourth liner riding the hot stick to playoff hero.
Determining which player’s luck was good, bad or downright ugly last year can be done by comparing statistical averages and trends of shooting percentage. While not a perfect way to quantify an intangible such as luck, it can be telling of how sustainable a player’s recent play has been.
Let’s take a look at who had lady luck on their side last year and who drew the scorn of the hockey gods.
The Good – William Karlsson, VGK
William Karlsson helped lead the Las Vegas Golden Knights on a magical run to become the most successful expansion team ever. So many things went right for the team made up of NHL rejects. Erik Haula scored 29 goals with a career best of 15, and Panthers players Marchessault and Smith built off their success the years prior. Perron had his best points per game total ever and Karlsson finished third in league scoring with 42 goals. A career best by a sizable margin. But how sustainable was his growth?
In Karlsson’s first 183 games he only scored 18 goals, but after being let go by Columbus in the expansion draft his goal totals exploded. Was the sudden increase a result of more ice-time? Better linemates? Did it lead to more shots or scoring opportunities? It would be naive to suggest those weren’t all contributing factors in his new found success but when looking at his shooting percentage you can see an unsustainable anomaly.
Karlsson’s shooting percentage was 23.4% last season. His average prior to this season was 7.7% while never surpassing 8.3%. You may be thinking that number is extremely low and therefore unsustainable for someone of his skillset. Consider though that Evander Kane has 186 goals over 574 games, averaging 9.1% while never having a season over 11.3%. Nathan Mackinnon averaged 8.0% over his first four seasons scoring 16, 21, 14 and 24 goals before shooting 13.7% this season for 39 goals.
A shooting percentage of 23.4% is the highest shooting percentage in a single season since the 2005/06 season. The highest average over the last 5 years is 16.4% by Brad Marchand. After last season, Karlsson’s career shooting percentage sits at 14.6%, even if he maintains that shooting percentage he would have only scored 27 goals this season. A 15 goal decrease.
Statistically, it appears lady luck played a hand in Karlsson’s wonder season and thus, unlikely that he replicates those numbers again. This is bad news for the Golden Knights. After losing Neal and Perron they’ll need all the scoring help they can get if they want to be playing meaningful games in the spring.
The Bad – Milan Lucic, EDM
After signing his 7 year $42-million deal in 2016, expectations were high for Milan Lucic. His first year with the team saw the Oilers end their decade of darkness outside of the playoffs. The following season saw the Oilers miss the playoffs with Lucic becoming the fans unofficial whipping boy. The big power forward and the Oilers need to put that season behind them if they want to move forward and return to the promised land for the 2018/19 season.
Unfortunately, Lucic finished the season with 10 goals and 34 points, one of the worst season totals of his career. The consensus among most pundits is that Lucic doesn’t have the footspeed to keep up with the blistering pace today’s youngsters play at. Players of his ilk and size have a tendency to age quicker and their careers are shortened. The point has a lot of validity but when breaking down his stats it’s hard to argue that there may be some bad luck to blame and with that comes confidence issues.
This year saw Lucic finish with his lowest shooting percentage ever at 6.8%, less than half of what it was last year (13.1%). In fact, he’s shot over 12.5% in 8 of his first 10 seasons in the NHL. If he performed at his career average, he would have been good for 21 goals last year rather than the measly 10 he finished with.
I’ll take it one step further and point out that up until the first 41 games of the season he was on pace for one of his better seasons in the NHL. With 9 goals (27 points) and a shooting percentage of 11.25% he was on pace for 18 goals (56 points). The last 41 games saw him put up a measly 7 points, only ONE goal and ridiculously low shooting percentage of 1.49%. That sudden drop in production is not consistent with a slow downward trend of an aging player unable to keep up.
Many Oilers fans had been calling for Lucic to be traded but thankfully the Oilers brass didn’t heed their calls or they may have witnessed history repeat itself. Look no further than last summer when they traded Jordan Eberle after having his worst career season. He ended the season with 4 goals in his last 2 games to finish with 20 goals (51 points). His shooting percentage that year was 9.6% while his career average going into that season was 14.11%. The very next season his shooting percentage returned to normal and he had 25 goals and 59 points with the Islanders.
For whatever reason, be it personal issues or just plain bad luck, Milan Lucic had a dismal second half. The numbers are so shockingly low that it’s hard to fathom a scenario where he doesn’t improve on those numbers. All signs point to the hockey gods giving the big man some slack this upcoming year. This is great news for he Oilers as they were handcuffed by this contract this offseason and unable to bring in any high calibre players to help with their scoring woes, instead having to improve from within.
The Ugly – Chicago Blackhawks
You just knew luck wasn’t on the Blackhawks side before the season even started. Marian Hossa, their third highest scorer over the last 5 years, had to retire early after developing an allergy to his hockey gear. The person in fourth place had 47 goals less than Hossa. Then Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews had subpar seasons (by their standards) causing the Hawks to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. While many people point to the exodus of core players and limited cap space as confirmation that the team can no longer be competitive, there is some evidence that last year was just the perfect storm of bad luck.
While Kane’s 27 goals and 76 points would be a great season for most, it’s also his lowest goals per game since 2011-12. That season he scored 23 goals in 80 games with a shooting percentage of 9.1%, making this season his second worst shooting percentage of his career (9.5%). For perspective, if Kane was to shoot at his career average then he would have scored 36 goals this year rather than 27. A 25% increase.
Toews’ 20 goals last season is well below his career average which is 29.5 a season with an impressive shooting percentage that sat at 15.0% going into the 2016-17 season. Since then he’s had two below average (by his standards) seasons with his shooting percentage sitting at 10.6% in 2017 and 9.5% last year. Had he maintained his impressive shooting percentage he would have scored 32 goals last year and 30 the year before. His unbelievably consistent shooting percentage prior to 2016 suggest he’s capable of better.
The good news is that Chicago’s failures this season don’t solely lie on the shoulders of Kane and Toews. Had even just one of them played closer to their career averages they would have been a lot higher in the standings than where they landed. Both players having off years, coupled with the loss of Hossa, was a recipe for disaster. I expect at least one, if not both players to have higher points totals next year and with any luck their young core of Saad, DeBrincat, and Schmaltz will be able to fill the void of an absent Hossa.