With the NHL recently passing the mid-way mark of the schedule, it is an appropriate time to identify the players who have offered up the best performances to this point.
While it would be easy to simply name Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Andrei Vasilevskiy to these teams, that’s to be expected, and does not make for much of an intriguing read.
Therefore, to be named to my All-NHL lists below, players must have never been named to an end-of-season All-NHL team, or have played in the All-Star Game, allowing us to shed some light on a few of the league’s best performances that may otherwise go unnoticed. I will also be using underlying metrics to parse out the field even further.
What is Goals Above Replacement?
I will be selecting this team according to Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model, which does not purely rely on traditional box score stats such as goals and assists to evaluate players, but rather quantifies and combines a player’s impact in all facets of the game into a catch-all metric, putting more value on things such as a player’s ability to consistently create scoring opportunities for their team, their ability to supress opponent chances, and accounting for how often a player benefits or hampers their team by drawing or taking penalties.
For those familiar with the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric in baseball, this all-encompassing value seeks to emulate the same thinking behind WAR, and apply it to hockey.
What statistical models attempt to accomplish is a dismantling of out-dated forms of player evaluation that are driven by common logical fallacies and the baked-in fallibility present in our confidence to accurately evaluate everything we are watching in real-time, often parroted by out-of-touch mainstream media members.
For a more in-depth explanation of advanced statistics, what is included in the model and the history surrounding the creation of such metrics in the hockey sphere, check out this three-part series written by the model’s creators.
Why You Should Look Beyond the Boxscore
This focus on the underlying metrics that are not necessarily tracked on the scoresheet is driven by the limitations of simply relying on points, which are often driven by usage (time-on-ice, role, and zone start deployment), special teams’ utilization, and the ability of one’s line-mates.
A player can make a career of juicing his point totals through constant allocation on the power-play and playing with his team’s top offensive stars. While they may be found near the top of the scoring leaderboard, their actual impact at even strength may be quite poor, ceding high-danger scoring chances when not propped up by the numerical and contextual advantages afforded by a power-play.
The GAR model does have its limitations, penalizing players who do not get as many special teams’ opportunities and being partially informed by actual goals which, over a small sample, can be influenced by unsustainable shooting that is driven more by luck than actual talent.
Yet, according to the GAR model, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl currently rank first and third respectively, in line with what the eye-test may suggest.
With that out of the way, here is my list of the unheralded players quietly putting together seasons worthy of greater league-wide recognition.
Chandler Stephenson – Vegas Golden Knights (2020-21: 8.3 GAR, NHL Rank: 16th)
While most fans will be familiar with Stephenson’s linemate Mark Stone, who is considered one of the top two-way wingers in the league, Stephenson is making a name for himself through his play on Vegas’ top line, matching previous career highs in goals and assists in almost half the number of games.
He has been making the most of his opportunity while playing an average of around 17 minutes a game, a sizeable increase from his final season in Washington (12:06) and even from last season (14:19), being trusted with increasingly more confidence from Vegas’ coaching staff.
Stephenson and Stone are most often flanked by Max Pacioretty, and the trio are running roughshod over their opposition, controlling play to the tune of a 60.2% in unblocked shot share, and capitalizing on this territorial advantage by outchancing their opposition with an 59% expected goals rate, the 6thand 7thbest marks in the league respectively among forward line combinations that have logged at least 200 minutes this season.
Although it might seem that Stephenson is succeeding simply because he is riding shotgun alongside Stone and Pacioretty, he more than holds his own when not skating with either of the two, possessing a 60% share in unblocked shots, and a 58% share of expected goals, albeit in a much smaller sample.
Stephenson also ranks 51stleaguewide in primary assists at five-on-five, demonstrating that he is more than the bottom-of-the-lineup filler that would be suggested given his ice-time in Washington, an outcome Vegas may not have imagined when they acquired Stephenson late in 2019 for only a 5thround pick, but welcome nonetheless.
Vegas’ ethos since their inception has been to take players who are buried on deep teams and give them an increased opportunity to produce. Stephenson is the latest breakout star in Sin City, inking a 4-year deal prior to the start of the season, re-affirming Vegas’ belief in his two-way play.
Conor Garland – Arizona Coyotes (2020-21: 6.0 GAR, NHL Rank: 56th)
Conor Garland is the latest in a long line of undersized forwards who have been overlooked and undervalued in their draft year, only to become offensive stars once they feature in the NHL. His 328 points in 206 Quebec major junior games should have been a sign of his immense talent, but he fell to Arizona in the 5th round of his second go-around in the draft, having gone undrafted in his first year of eligibility.
While his 22 goals in 2019-20 may be considered a breakout, the diminutive winger has hit a new gear in 2021, emerging as one of the league’s best in creating scoring chances both individually and for his teammates, ranking 39thin individual expected goals at five-on-five, ahead of established stars such as John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, and Taylor Hall, and 9thin terms of primary assists per 60 minutes among players with 200 minutes played.
Garland also utilizes his speed very effectively, ranking third in the league in penalties drawn, consistently putting his team on the power-play, although Arizona has not been able to capitalize this season, ranking in the league’s bottom third for power-play efficiency.
His strong play is made all the more sweeter by the fact that his current contract is providing the greatest return on investment, with Garland posting the league’s highest points per dollar owed this season, something that will soon no longer be the case with Garland likely eyeing a substantial raise for next year.
With Arizona perhaps being unwilling to give Garland an extension for cap reasons, he could be an underrated addition for a contender at the trade deadline, giving Garland an opportunity to thrive alongside more talented line-mates.
Oliver Bjorkstrand – Columbus Blue Jackets (2020-21: 6.7 GAR, NHL Rank: 43rd)
The 25-year-old Danish winger has been one of the league’s most underrated forwards since his first full season in 2017-18, quietly producing for a franchise that has never been considered a bastion of offensive skill.
Bjorkstrand is a very efficient scorer at five-on-five, ranking 7thleague-wide in goals per 60 minutes, and 25thin points per 60 minutes since 2018, finding himself in the company of such offensive superstars as Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, and David Pastrnak, making his obscurity around the league all the more puzzling.
This season, Bjorkstrand has taken on most of the responsibility for generating offence through his playmaking, with his 8 primary assists at 5-on-5 putting him 14thleague-wide, and is also tied for 7thin 5-on-5 points (22). In a team that is starved for offensive stars, Bjorkstrand has established himself as one of the league’s premier wingers at even strength, and one can only wonder how much more he would produce if he was prioritized on the power-play.
For all of his offensive chops, his prowess defensively should not go unmentioned, with Bjorkstrand just outside the top-20 in takeaways per 60 this season and while he is usually strong at preventing shots and chances against, Bjorkstrand has played most of his even-strength minutes with Patrik Laine and Max Domi this season, two forwards who are historically very poor defensively, and can be difficult to shelter at 5-on-5.
With Bjorkstrand in his prime, look for him to take another step offensively, and become more of a household name.
Samuel Girard – Colorado Avalanche (2020-21: 12.9 GAR, NHL Rank: 2nd)
With Colorado’s star defencemen Cale Makar missing half of the year due to injury, the Avalanche were hoping that another member of their dynamic rearguard battalion would take on a greater role in transporting the puck and in running the top powerplay unit.
Samuel Girard has done that, and then some, proving that Joe Sakic and the rest of the Avalanche management were correct in awarding him an extension well in advance of the expiration of his entry-level contract, a sizeable five-year deal that began this season.
Although Girard has not had to orchestrate Colorado’s attack to this extent prior to this season, he has always been one of the league’s best and transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone, mostly due to his unshakeable poise while carrying the puck in high-danger situations, and his patented spin-move.
Girard has also added a new offensive dimension to his game this season, ranking 4thin goals and 11thin primary assists among defensemen at five-on-five, and 6thin primary assists on the power-play.
Yet, what is most impressive is Girard’s ability to keep possession of the puck, and in turn, preventing other teams from shooting and accumulating high-quality scoring chances, while seeing the 11thmost ice-time at five-on-five and facing the opposition’s top lines.
His unblocked shots against per 60 (4th among defensemen at five-on-five), expected goals against per 60 (9th), and scoring chances against per 60 (3rd), are all evidence of a defensemen who is not only driving his team’s offence, but actively frustrating the opposition in his own zone.
Just to further drive home his relative dominance, the top two defence pairs in the NHL (with at least fifty minutes played) in terms of their share of expected goals both feature Girard, and are collectively responsible for an absurd 71 percent of said total while on the ice.
With Colorado’s lineup finally approaching full-strength and their depth delivering in more high-leverage minutes, the Avalanche look poised to dominate in the second half of the season.
Artem Zub – Ottawa Senators (2020-21: 8.3 GAR, NHL Rank: 15th)
I know what you’re thinking, how on earth could a defenseman for the bottom-feeder Ottawa Senators be anywhere near this list. Astonishingly, the rookie rearguard has more than held his own, controlling play at five-on-five, and keeping opposing teams from getting scoring chances while he is on the ice.
Last season, Zub was a top-pairing defenseman for St. Petersburg SKA, one of the best teams in the KHL. What often happens when such players make the transition to the NHL is that they can find the period of adjustment to be too turbulent, and struggle to find their footing. In addition, getting plopped into an Ottawa team that has been among the worst in preventing shots and chances in recent seasons probably would not be to the benefit of any rookie defenseman.
However, among defense pairings with at least 150 minutes played, the Zub-Mike Reilly pairing is first in the NHL in terms of the number of expected goals they allow per 60 minutes, and 7th in unblocked shot attempts against per 60, both rates at five-on-five.
While the pair works well playing off of each other, Zub is more than competent on his own, with the 30th best expected goals against rate per 60 minutes at five-on-five. His 53 percent share of unblocked shots is also impressive considering he starts only 42 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone (161st out of 202 defensemen with at least 200 minutes played at five-on-five, and 19th out of 20 rookie defencemen) and is mostly tasked with moving the puck from the defensive zone and out of danger. His hands in tight aren’t too bad either.
That Zub has been entrusted with more responsibility and has not been sheltered with the offensive zone starts that are commonly reserved for young or defensively deficient defensemen, is a testament to his ability and the speed at which he has adjusted to the NHL, all the while playing for a rebuilding franchise that is not particularly interested in competing for a playoff berth at this point in time.
Calvin Petersen – Los Angeles Kings (2020-21: 16.7 GAR, NHL Goalie Rank: 3rd)
In my last article, I identified Petersen as a potential target for the Leafs who would be able to thrive in their high-tempo system and hold the fort for a team that is still relatively poor defensively.
He was given an opportunity for more starts due to Jonathan Quick’s injury troubles and has provided a steadying presence for the Kings who have surprisingly found themselves on the fringes of the playoff race, mostly due to their emphasis on speed and skill.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Petersen is among the top 10 in goals saved above average and Moneypuck has him recording the 8th most goals above expected in the NHL at five-on-five, outperforming not only his partner in the crease, but several of the league’s biggest names.
What should also be kept in mind is that those totals are in spite of the fact that Petersen has only played the 23rd most games this season and does not have the level of a defense corps in front of him that can rival those of Western conference contenders such as Colorado or Vegas, with Los Angeles in the bottom-third of the league when it comes to preventing scoring chances.
Petersen has paid his dues in the AHL, appearing in 116 games since 2017, and performing well as a backup at the NHL level, posting a .923 save percentage in 19 games in the two seasons prior to this one. It is not inconceivable to say he deserve a greater share of starts for the Kings, even when Quick is fully healthy.
With Quick’s inconsistent health and overall decline in play, Petersen may be given the reins in anticipation of leading the Kings into their next era and if his performances this season are any indication, it should be a successful one.
F. Jared McCann – Pittsburgh Penguins (21GP/ 7G / 6A / 13PTS)
F. Nick Paul – Ottawa Senators (36GP/ 3G/ 9A / 12PTS)
F. Joel Eriksson Ek – Minnesota Wild (32GP/ 11G/ 5A/ 16PTS)
D. Adam Pelech – New York Islanders (34GP/ 2G/ 8A/ 10PTS)
D. Devon Toews – Colorado Avalanche (29GP/ 5G/ 13A/ 18PTS)
G. Alex Nedeljkovic – Carolina Hurricanes (12GP/ 2.05GAA/ .929SV%)
What I hope this article has accomplished beyond anything is to have given you some tools to evaluate the players you watch every night, and become more effective in gauging who is actually having a positive impact on results.
While points and save percentage can be a useful shorthand for identifying which players may be producing in a given season, these statistics can often miss important contexts, and lead to fans and executives overlooking talented players who may have the misfortune of playing on a poor team, or in a city that is not considered a hot-bed of the sport.
Whether you adhere to the models tenets or not, it can be an interesting exercise to identify who may be flying under the radar.
Statistics are from Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck, and Evolving-Hockey and are accurate as of March 26th; Contract Information is from CapFriendly.
Header image of Chandler Stephenson from NHL.com.