By: Adam Gretz
Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at which top rookies are playing some of the toughest (and easiest) assignments in the NHL.
Most NHL teams are going to put their rookies into favorable situations on the ice.
They are usually not going to be asked to play the toughest minutes on their team, against the best opponents and in defensive situations, and instead are going to be put into low pressure situations where they have the best opportunity to succeed. There are, of course, always exceptions, and some youngsters are asked to take on larger (and more important) roles, whether it be out of necessity, or because the player has shown that he's capable of taking on such an assignment at a young age.
This year's rookie class has had some pretty impressive performances so far, including that of top overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (currently the NHL's leading rookie scorer) in Edmonton, Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson with the Devils and, of course, Philadelphia's young forwards Sean Couturier (pictured) and Matt Read, who have not only flashed some offensive ability, but have also proven themselves to be more than capabale penalty killers.
But which of the NHL's top rookies are being asked to play the toughest minutes this season?
Well, that's what the scatterplot picture below helps us figure out. We're using Relative Corsi Quality of Competition (the level of competition the player is playing against -- the higher the number, the tougher the opponent, and vice versa) and Offensive Zone starts (both via Behind The Net) during 5-on-5 play to determine which rookies are being asked to play in the toughest situations by their respective teams.
The closer a player is to the top left of the chart, the harder the assignments he's being given (playing against better players and starting fewer shifts in the offensive zone), while the closer a player is to the bottom right, the easier the assignment (playing against weaker competition and starting more shifts in the offensive zone).
The players included: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), Adam Henrique (Devils), Nick Johnson (Wild), Luke Adam (Sabres), Cody Hodgson (Canucks), Jared Cowen (Senators), Adam Larsson (Devils), Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche), Sean Couturier (Flyers), Matt Read (Flyers), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), Raphael Diaz (Canadiens), Craig Smith (Predators), Colin Greening (Senators) and Kaspars Daugavins (Senators).
A few thoughts:
1) When it comes to the NHL's rookie of the year debate the two most common names are, naturally, Nugent-Hopkins and Henrique. They are, after all, the top two scoring rookies in the league, and before Nugent-Hopkins went out with his injury they were neck-and-neck in that scoring race. Now that Henrique is running unopposed for the foreseeable future, he's going to take over that scoring lead (barring an injury of his own, of course) and will probably become the front-runner for the award by seasons end.
Both players have arguments working in their favor.
When we did our mid-season award picks I went with Henrique based on the fact he and Nugent-Hopkins were nearly identical offensively, while Henrique was being asked to play in tougher situations (as the chart above illustrates). Along with that, he is also one of the top penalty killing forwards on the best penalty killing team in the league, and has proven himself to be a threat offensively even when his team is down shorthanded, currently tied for the league in shorthanded points. Conversely, Nugent-Hopkins is getting some of the easiest minutes in the league among the top rookies, and has played just a total of one minute and 16 seconds of shorthanded ice time this season.
That said, it can't be ignored that Henrique is already 21 years old while Nugent-Hopkins is one of the youngest players in the league at the age of 18. Actually, he's the second-youngest player to have skated in an NHL game this season, having been born just six days after Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad, who appeared in nine games for the Senators.
He may not be asked to play in tough situations, but his performance is still darn impressive given his age.
2) Don't overlook the rookie duo in Philadelphia. The Flyers completely re-tooled their roster over the summer, and halfway through the 2011-12 season they haven't missed a beat as far as being a contender in the Eastern Conference is concerned.
Losing Mike Richards and Jeff Carter looked like it was going to be a major blow to their forward depth, and while they are definitely a different team from a year ago, they're still boasting an impressive group of forwards, including their two prized rookies Couturier (selected with the draft pick that came from Columbus in exchange for Carter) and Read. Both are among the Flyers' top penalty killing forwards, and among Flyers forwards that have played at least 20 games this season Read is currently facing the fourth-toughest competition on the team.
3) Mike Yeo, head coach of the Minnesota Wild, appears to have a lot of faith in Nick Johnson, a player the team picked up on waivers before the season. Not only is he playing, by far, the toughest minutes of any of the top rookies in the NHL (he's currently 11th among rookie scorers) his Qual Comp is the highest of any forward on the Wild roster. Perhaps that faith shouldn't be much of a surprise given the connections both have to the Pittsburgh organization (Johnson was drafted by the Penguins, while Yeo was a former assistant).
Of course, age once again needs to be taken into account. While Johnson is playing tougher minutes than all of these other rookies, he's also by far the oldest player on the chart having already turned 26 back in December. A 26-year-old rookie and an 18-year-old rookie aren't exactly the same thing.
Taking into account performance, assignments and age I'd still choose Henrique as the top rookie in the NHL this season (so far), with Nugent-Hopkins, Read and Craig Smith coming in just behind.
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