Last week we discussed how stay-at-home defensemen were a key ingredient in a championship team, but of course the fate of a team arguably rests most significantly in the hands of their top-6 forwards. Because they're given the most ice-time, used in the toughest situations and expected to generate the most offense, top-6 forwards are among the most important and high-profile skaters on most any given team.
In Part 1 this week we're going to reveal a simple statistic that can be helpful in identifying top-6 forwards and how successfully they're generating offense. Using this measurement, we'll look at this season's best top-6 forwards, and see how well rookies can play on the top lines. I'll wrap up this week's session with a short story about how this study was inspired by one of Jamie Lundmark's curious fans.
Identifying Top-6 Forwards
Top-6 forwards come in many different types. For example, you can categorize them as playmakers, or goal scorers. You also have power forwards, power play specialists, and tough two-way skaters who could either be hot new rookies or grizzled veterans. Regardless of the exact sub-type, the one thing that almost all top-6 forwards have in common is that they score at least 1.7 even-strength points per 60 minutes.
We all understand the significance of someone scoring at a point-a-game pace, or topping 100 points, but studying players on the basis of even-strength points per 60 minutes isn't common enough for us to understand the significance of 1.7. In truth, there's nothing particularly magical about 1.7, through observation it's simply the level of scoring that the vast majority of players assigned to the two lines with the most ice-time generate, and the level at which most of the remaining players don't.
For a breakdown of the different even-strength scoring levels and which players are typical of each level, check out the unfiltered section. Summarizing the post briefly:
- 3.3+ Rare
- 2.7 Elite, like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Gaborik and Ilya Kovalchuk
- 2.1 Standard, like Jason Arnott, Marc Savard, Ales Hemsky and Scott Gomez
- 1.7 Supporting Cast, like Niklas Hagman, Raffi Torres, Trent Hunter and Stephen Weiss
This Season's Best
Below is a list of this year's top even-strength scorers over the opening third of the 2009-10 season. Alexander Ovechkin tops the list and would have the best post-lockout season if he can keep it up. Sidney Crosby, Marian Gaborik and Ilya Kovalchuk are familiar names on this list, and Henrik Sedin and Zach Parise are both having much better seasons than usual. Even with the small sample size I wouldn't have made a preseason prediction that Wojtek Wolski, Mike Knuble, James Neal or James van Riemsdyk would be anywhere on this list at the one-third mark.
ESP: Even-Strength Points per 60 minutes
Forward Team ESP
Alexander Ovechkin Washington 3.7
Henrik Sedin Vancouver 3.6
Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh 3.4
Marian Gaborik NY Rangers 3.4
Wojtek Wolski Colorado 3.0
Mike Knuble Washington 3.0
James Neal Dallas 3.0
Zach Parise New Jersey 2.9
James van Riemsdyk Philadelphia 2.9
Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta 2.9
(Minimum 240 even-strength minutes)
Other notables include the NHL's leading scorer Joe Thornton, who comes in at 2.7, and his linemates Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley coming in at 2.8 and 2.2, respectively. High-scoring Duck Corey Perry is just off the list at 2.8 with Ryan Getzlaf at 2.6. Other top scorers like Anze Kopitar and Brad Richards are currently clicking away at 2.4 and 2.7.
The biggest surprise on this list is rookie James van Riemsdyk, because typically players don't perform well in a top-6 role until their 2nd or 3rd seasons. Van Riemsdyk is 1 of only 8 rookies who are scoring at the 1.7 level or higher, joined on the list by Scott Parse, Evander Kane, Artem Anisimov and pairs of rookies from Colorado and Dallas.
Rookie Forward Team ESP
James van Riemsdyk Philadelphia 3.0
Scott Parse Los Angeles 2.7
Ryan O'Reilly Colorado 2.6
Evander Kane Atlanta 2.1
Artem Anisimov NY Rangers 2.1
T.J. Galiardi Colorado 1.8
Jamie Benn Dallas 1.7
Tom Wandell Dallas 1.7
Other first-year talents like the Isles' Jon Tavares, New Jersey's Niclas Bergfors and Colorado's Matt Duchene are all in the 1.4-1.6 range or below.
This study on the different styles of hockey players was inspired by a recent discussion with a Flames fan about understanding why certain players are used, and why others aren't. Jamie Lundmark recently looked good scoring 3 points in 6 games with the Calgary Flames while filling in for the injured Rene Bourque, after having scored 16 points in 27 games last season. At 2.5 even-strength points per 60 minutes, he's clearly a better scorer than many of the Flames regulars, so now that Bourque is back, why not just push Lundmark down to the third line and send someone like Dustin Boyd to Abbotsford?
Of course, these decisions are made more complex by the other factors at play, but basically Lundmark was sent to the AHL for much the same reason that Theoren Fleury was cut despite scoring 4 points in 4 exhibition games. Their styles have been identified as being top-6, so it doesn't make sense for them to take the spot and the responsibilities of someone on a checking line. They're not competing with Boyd for spots, they're competing with players like Bourque, against whom they currently don't measure up. The answer for Lundmark is either to change styles, or to improve how well he plays his current role.
In Part 2 next week we'll explain the success of Wojtek Wolski, Mike Knuble, James Neal and some of this year's other most surprising top-6 forwards, and we'll also reveal this year's biggest disappointments. Finally, we'll conclude our discussion on top-6 forwards with a look at how many forwards are at the 1.7 mark for each team, using both last season's totals and this season's totals.
Next year we'll introduce some statistics to help us examine some of the other styles of players, like shut-down forwards and puck-moving defensemen. See you then!
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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