Prior to the Bruins 2015-16 season, I had never seen Frank Vatrano play hockey. Heading to a preseason game at the garden, I asked a friend who had seen him plenty at UMass what I should expect to see. My friend simply said “Oh, you’ll see.” A few minutes into the game, Vatrano collected a pass at the top of the right circle and unleashed a bullet that made the Garden crowd gasp and the opposing goalie buckle as it hit him in the shoulder. We all immediately understood that Frankie was a “snipah.”
Two-plus seasons later, the 23 year-old Vatrano has been on a roller coaster: He dominated the AHL, scoring 36 goals in 36 games, forced his way onto Boston’s top-six, got bumped to the third line, and 17 games into his 2017 season, seems to be barely holding onto a roster spot. So far this year, he’s scored just two goals and has zero assists. He’s been a healthy scratch five times.
So what exactly is the deal here? He’s still got that shot. But is that all he’s got? Is he so one-dimensional, so predictable, as to render him practically useless at the NHL level? Let’s dig into some numbers (credit: Corsica) and get an idea.
Let’s start with that shot. If you feel like Vatrano uses it at every chance, congratulations, you’re right. In his three seasons, he leads the team in 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 at 18.22. Of forwards with more than a thousand minutes in that time frame, he ranks ninth overall in the league.
You may notice that most of the players on that list are at least pretty good at scoring goals, and that goes along with the simplest argument in Vatrano’s favor: Shooting is good. The best scorers in the NHL tend to get their shots off frequently. There’s a Wayne Gretzky quote that applies here, you should research it.
So if Vatrano shoots so much, why has he been so unproductive? Maybe he’s not such a good shooter after all. He could be so predictable that goalies have figured him out. If so, we would see that in his shooting percentages. His career raw shooting percentage is 8.2%, pretty close to league average. This year, he’s just a touch lower, at 7.14%. It’s not a big factor.
He also doesn’t miss the net very much: Of his 332 career 5-on-5 shot attempts, 62.34% have hit the goalie or the back of the net. That’s a better rate than every qualifying Bruin in that period except Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, and (believe it or not) Jimmy Hayes.
Okay, so Vatrano shoots a lot, does so at a reasonable percentage, and doesn’t miss the net often. So why does he not have more goals? Easy answer: He just doesn’t play much. His career average TOI is only 12:17. This season (even when he hasn’t been scratched) it’s dropped to 10:06. He’s played in 100 NHL games and has gone over 16 minutes twice. All those rates we just talked about don’t translate to raw volume without more minutes. Clearly, he doesn’t have a lot of trust from his coaches.
You would think that would have to do with his lack of a defensive game. But Vatrano’s shot suppression numbers are actually quite good. His career average of 49.17 shot attempts against per 60 is second best of all Bruins forwards, only to Bergeron. You might not notice him stealing pucks and breaking up plays, but to say he’s a liability would be a huge stretch. He boasts consistently positive shot metrics across the board, and his negative goal differential can be attributed to a staggeringly low career PDO of 96.53. That comes mostly from a terrible on-ice save percentage, which is typically a sign of flat out bad luck. The caveat here is that he starts a huge number of shifts in the offensive zone (over 40%) and very few in the defensive zone (21.5%). Those are some seriously sheltered minutes, and it’s hard to say how he’d manage with the more even spread that would come with a larger role.
The eye test will tell you plenty about Vatrano, and much of it is true: He’s predictable. He’s not creative with the puck. He’s inconsistent. But his numbers do tell a more favorable story. Even if he doesn’t score in the bunches we once imagined he could, a winger who gets the puck to the net with regularity is a net positive.
As a bottom-six player, that’s just fine.