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The Numbers Game: The Lucic Problem

Christian Petersen

At the half-way point of a full length season, 41 games in, and with an eminent scratch from tonight's game against the Penguins, It comes time to reevaluate Lucic. Just what do we have in this guy? Is he as bad as everyone thinks? I've previously defended Lucic in light of his off-season physique as among the league's power forward elite, but does he belong there going forward?

Straight away I'll confess that Lucic has underwhelmed me as well in arm-chair scouting. Attending the Devils game last week, he stuck out for all the wrong reasons. However, I'm willing to consider that such a small viewing probably isn't the whole story, and besides I was too busy being mesmerized by Jagr possessing the ever living fuck out of the puck in my first live sighting, so I can't say I had all eyes on Lucic. But I've joined the gripe chorus on more than one occasion. Was I justified?



First off, let's level the playing field and take his performance in context of his teammates. Lets not allow everyone off the hook and focus all our scrutiny on Lucic, as we're about to see he's far from the only struggling forward on this team. Below is a table of all players' points-per-game, production projection over 82 games, last years projection over 82 and the deviation between. I've included shooting percentage over both years as well.

Player P/G P/G*82 11/12 P/G*82 P/G*82 Deviation SH% 11/12 SH% SH% Deviation
Brad Marchand 0.85 69.83 59.34 10.04 21.1 16.8 4.3
Patrice Bergeron 0.86 70.61 64.79 5.82 10.1 11.5 -1.4
David Krejci 0.76 62.00 64.35 -2.35 10.8 15.9 -5.1
Tyler Seguin 0.69 56.62 67.83 -11.21 11.0 12.0 -1.0
Milan Lucic 0.59 48.00 61.75 -13.75 9.0 17.4 -8.4
Nathan Horton 0.52 42.95 57.04 -14.09 11.4 18.9 -7.5
Dan Paille 0.40 32.80 17.83 14.97 15.5 10.5 5.0
Rich Peverley 0.39 32.00 60.42 -28.42 5.8 9.8 -4.0
Greg Campbell 0.29 23.43 16.82 6.61 8.7 10.8 -2.1
Chris Kelly 0.29 23.43 39.00 -15.57 8.3 16.4 -8.1
Jaromir Jagr 1.00 66.00 60.66 5.34 16.1 11.2 4.9
Shawn Thornton 0.13 10.51 13.16 -2.65 6.5 4.4 2.1
Jordan Caron 0.18 14.47 25.63 -11.15 5.0 12.3 -7.3

We have precisely three forwards who should evade the microscope: Marchand, Paille and Bergeron - and Marchand only thanks to an obscenely high shooting percentage. These are the only forwards markedly outpacing their prior year's performance. Campbell should thank his lucky stars that Jagr showed up, as he was trending very poorly until his recent stint with the elder statesman. Krejci, while not trending up, should be commended for his consistency, falling only slightly to reach a projected 62 point total. The exact number of his past two seasons' final tally. Just change your jersey number to 62 already!

Outside of the three clear up-trenders and perhaps Krejci, take your pick of whipping boys. Lucic is indeed in a 14 point decline, as is Horton, whose fall represents a greater percentage of his lower expected overall production. Horton's 82 game number represents his worst since his rookie year. As I've harped on all year, Kelly and Peverley - collectively "the scoring depth" - are the most serious problem with this year's squad, as evidenced by their team leading drop and collective shed of 44 points over the course of an 82 game season. We knew their PDO was unsustainable last year, but this is an unexpectedly sharp correction. Meanwhile, Seguin has escaped scrutiny in spite of his 11 point drop in output. So Milan, you're clearly not alone, and while it's curious that others aren't on the hot seat among the fans, you do still have some 'splain to do.

But do keep in mind that nobody on this team is a PPG player - they're fairly rare in this league at the moment. There were only 8 last year who got in more than half a season. We'd all love to have one but they shouldn't be the baseline for high-salaried comparison. The Bruins have topped out in the high 60s since Savard went down. The cause: a powerplay. Were we to have a potent powerplay again, you might see any one of Marchand, Lucic, Bergeron, Krejci or Seguin breach 70. But without the man advantage, we can have a league leader in ES production like Marchand (presently 8th) not even reach that mark. Lucic, in an evident down year, ranks 63rd overall, placing him firmly among 1st line producers league-wide at evens this year.

To quickly compare Lucic against his linemates in more detail, lets yet again turn to David Johnson's WOWY charts. This year has seen Lucic play away from Krejci and Horton too infrequently to make too much of the data, amounting to about five games-played apart. What it seems to show in a small sample is that positive goal differential for Krejci and Horton is strongly correlated with Lucic being on the ice with them, particularly on the scoring-for side of the equation. Adding two prior seasons to the data set, we can see this correlation borne out. Last year, Lucic had a marked impact on Goals For on his line, with Krejci dropping off a cliff away and Horton modestly impacted. Lucic maintained their pace together without them. The prior season depicts him as benefitting from Horton's arrival, but again shows that he needs Krejci to score less than Krejci needs his wingman. Three season's data shows Lucic is vital to his unit's production, whether his remarkable 2x multiplier on their output this year is inflated or not.



Glancing back to the shooting percentages on the table, Marchand is getting all the puck luck that he could dream of. Lucic is suffering the inverse, carrying the dubious honor of the sharpest shooting percentage drop on the team. That Lucic has three season above 17% indicates that his current 9% - his career low - is very likely a serious outlier. Even so, the truth is somewhere between. Players of comparable ilk who've played out their careers tended to shoot in the 13-16% range, with Recchi's 15% and Knuble's 14% for examples. Lucic is probably not going to flirt with Neely's godlike 18.4%, but something in the range of Knuble is quite within reach given his historical output.

During Lucic's last goal drought running 9 games from March 27th to April 11th, he registered 16 officially recorded shots on goal. A career 14% shooter should pot two goals firing that much rubber, but shooting percentage don't work like that, directly translating to that figure every game. Otherwise this would be a damned predictable and boring thing to watch, this hockey.

So how do percentages play out over a small window of games? Fortunately for us, Phil Kessel provides a shining example, having had quite the worrying slump earlier in the year that had many in the media questioning his value to the team. You might note that they've shut up about that lately. Pension Plan Puppets' Van Ryn's Neurologist (aptly named for today's topic) examines just why that is:

The assumption that a player who doesn't score is playing poorly is based on faulty logic. In reality, it's not THAT surprising that Phil Kessel has yet to score any goals this season [six games in]. Not because he's a lazy American without any talent but because that's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

A mid-teen shooter is not going to continue to shoot at 9% forever barring extenuating forces, like injury or deployment change. As the article goes on to examine through a simulation of a Phil-comparable 4 shot-per-game shooting, 10% converting forward over one million six game spans:
About 8.5 % of the time, he scores 5 or more goals in the 6 game stretch.
Which is clearly outpacing "Phil's" typical shooting percentage. His average should result in 2.4 goals in the same span, which is where most of the distribution lands in the simulations.

Now we're talking about his hot start, and how great he's been playing, and about how he's carrying the team and how we need to lock him up for $10M/year. But the chances of him scoring 5 or more goals in 6 games is about the same as him scoring 0 goals (8%). ZERO GOALS! OH NO KESSEL'S A BUM! WHY ISN'T HE SCORING! etc. etc.

What we're seeing presently is a player getting the latter luck. His assumed 14% rate came through 0% of the time during that drought stretch. In his first 8 games of the season, he converted at exactly 14%. The next segment, only 11 shots and he hit 19%. Then he slumped. Any shooter's accuracy fluctuates over the course of small segments of games which collectively comprise his shooting percentage. There is no need to panic, over the course of a full season you should see a correction over one stretch to compensate for a bad stretch like early April. Year to year there'll be overall variation based on many factors, but a player with a fairly consistent track record, as with Lucic, should hit in the same ballpark without some external force at play. Given the short season almost at an end, it seems unlikely there's enough runway for Lucic's shooting to take back off on a hot streak of percentage busting, but a mid-season slump is all this appears to be from the perspective of his career conversion rate - even the conservative projection I've given him. He underwent two similar slumps to this year's prolonged dry spells last year that just happened to be hidden among the team's November and December resurgence.

Even in the rare case of elite snipers, of which Phil Kessel is arguably one, there is no such thing as a consistent scorer. There's just the probability of consistency. Lucic is hitting the less probable tail of his distribution curve, which he's done on occasion before without being picked up on the fan radar.

Meanwhile, factoring in assists, Lucic's worst stretch of pointless games lasted four, and only one other stretch of three appeared during the year. You know who is going through a comparable drought right this very moment? Perfect Patrice, pointless in four. It's very easy to view a bad game of a player reportedly in a slump and see him as a bad player. But have you been looking at Patrice's output and bemoaning his struggles lately? Didn't think so. How about during his 2011/12 13 game goalless streak?



To go back to luck, Lucic is partially to blame for creating his own. Once again I find myself in the camp of the much maligned "SHOOT" dude sitting in the nosebleeds. Right you are again sir, why do I ever doubt you? Presently Lucic is on pace for 134 shots, his lowest since 09-10's injury hampered season - both in total and 82-game projected - when he at least had the reasonable (for him) conversion rate of 12.5%.Too many times we've seen Lucic defer to Horton as the trigger man when he's had clear opportunities, and the decline in his per-game shot rate and his teammates' coincident rise reflects this observation. Were Lucic to shoot the same amount Horton is this year without seeing any uptick in shooting percentage from his present 9%, he would immediately be tied with Seguin and be exactly in parity with old pal Bobby Ryan, who sits just a tick ahead of Lucic at ES with a touch better puck luck. Any coincident rise in conversion rate, which is probable, would see him on Marchand's tail. To put it in very simple mathematical perspective, at 200 shots, a five percent SH% variance is the difference between an 20 goal season and a 30 goal season. Both sides of that equation are entirely within Lucic's abilities.

- another side note, poor Rich Peverley has his guns blazing sitting just behind Bergeron in total shots in spite of much less TOI but just can't bury it. He's shooting at half his career rate. Count on his pendulum to land in the middle soon.



While Bergeron suffers a comparable drought to Lucic, you may question whether the latter brings anything to the table when he's run dry. Certainly he's not going to be the two way player Patrice is, but it appears he has other facets that contribute to his team when it's not clicking on the score sheet.

While we shouldn't read too much into Corsi ON as a cross-team stat, you can divine from the outliers in the rankings that a player's either real good or real bad at driving play. Lucic happens to be one such outlier, coming in at #22 league wide. It's not worth comparing within the ranks of the good, but Looch is up there. On his team, as oft-repeated a very good possession team, he comes in a statistical tie for fourth with evidently blameless liney Horton, and is just as close to Marchand and Seguin ahead of them as Krejci is trailing.

But with Horton in lockstep and Krejci not too shabby himself, how much can we attribute to Lucic alone? Lets go back to the WOWY chart. Krejci alone sees his Corsi For% drop by 13% and Horton's declines by 9%. Once again, small sample so glancing back a year we see Krejci dropping 9% and a statistically insignificant drop of 1% for Horton - of note, Krejci's time away is higher and a more valuable sample in the 11/12 season. One more year back and Horton again suffers only slightly, Krejci seeing another sharp drop. Essentially, when Krejci doesn't have Lucic on his wing, he's not able to keep the puck going his way. This seems to bear out the common perception that Lucic's board work and overall physical play gives his centerman the room to work and ability to obtain and retain the puck. This has not changed this year.

It's worth noting that Horton has had a comparable positive impact on Lucic this year in an even smaller sampling, but prior years don't corroborate this impact. Indications are they have a marginal positive impact on each other, but no significant pull as with their individual and collective effect on Krejci.



I'll sticktap SCoC's resident Masshole BobbyOrrsBastard for dropping truth nuggets in yesterday's post-game thread, pointing out the fallacy of the notion that Lucic's scoring drought coincides with a decline in physical play. For the third year running he's leading the hit count for the team, with an 82 game pace of 244 hits. Last year he was 26th in the NHL, this year 17th.

Curiously, he's one of few that high up the list who keeps the body banging coming while hanging onto the puck the majority of the time he's on ice - contrary to what a high hit count usually implies. You tend not to get many hits when you have the puck, as exemplified by those "wimpy" Detroit Red Wings squads. Players who do are often on the wrong side of play, which is the reason i for one look at "hits" skeptically as a positive indicator of defensive prowess. Lucic throws the body while maintaining overwhelmingly positive possession numbers. Only Chris Neil, Dustin Brown, Luke Schenn and Evander Kane ahead of Lucic on the list keep their heads above the water line in Corsi Rel for their teams, and only Brown is a comparable as a clear play-driving influence, with a Corsi ON of 23.35 and Rel of 13.1, to Lucic's 17.24 and 10.3. All others are single digits ON; Schenn's minus.



While he's producing slightly less than we've seen before, he's keeping play moving among the best in the league and dishing out the hurt like he's famous for, likely contributing favorably to possession. The real issue for fans with Lucic is the fact that his cap hit next year is six million. But we're not there yet, folks. In a year where he only costs slightly above 4, he's outproducing his present pay grade while mired in a down year in terms of both shot count and percentage. Optimists among you, take heed! His historical production indicates that his true level is not what we're seeing this year - it's not a matter of his effort or will, it's a matter of sheer percentages.

He's presently a four million dollar player putting up around 50 points. But in the cap era, the hit changes your perception of a player, and for many he's already slotted in that top paid forward role in their minds. Is there cause for concern over his ability to earn his pay next year? I say nay based on the fact that a slight regression to mean will put him back at 60-65 points - with a tiny assist from an itchier trigger finger. Now whether you believe 60-65 points is worthy of six million dollars - to a team where the leading scorer will not contribute more than 70 - is up for you to decide. My personal opinion is that Chiarelli failed to extract value out of an RFA negotiation and wound up overpaying by approximately $1m. Should he manage to offset this and other mistakes with shrewd deals like Soderberg and Marchand, then color me happy with a player providing legitimate first line scoring earning 100 grand per point. We have four doing exactly this in actuality now while not facing nearly the criticism that Lucic does over a speculative future campaign. Horton, Peverley, Kelly and Thornton are all on pace to land in the 100-grand club, with Kelly vastly underperforming even this questionable benchmark.

Does Lucic look like the game-breaking bull in a china shop force we've seen in the past? Presently no, I'm not blind, but he's contributing and is positively impacting his linemates more than they him. He's providing scoring above that which is commonly expected of his salary. Does Horton, undergoing a steeper decline, get a pass because of goal total, concussion recovery, or that we've already written him off as no longer part of the team next year? What of Kelly? Does he get a mulligan with the knowledge that worse comes to worst we have a buyout in our pockets?

In taking a seven figure deal with a six in the front, Lucic has set himself up to be the next top player the Globe tries to run out of town. At least until Bergeron's re-up corrects the contractual depiction of Lucic as top-dog forward, he can do no right. But remember that he's a legitimate first line forward in all metrics, and you're not getting one of them for much cheaper unless you luck into developing one and riding their ELC. Should Lucic perform comparable to this year next season, you're welcome to pull this article up and give me the Nelson Muntz, but probability says his slumps will even out closer to his averages. If you want him to be Cam, sorry I can't help you, but accept Milan Lucic for what he is: a productive, play driving, hard hitting cornerstone of our young offense.