Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is currently part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Yost was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost.
One player making a name for himself at Sabres training camp? Tage Thompson.
Thompson, acquired as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade package on July 1, has been thrust into premium top-line minutes by head coach Phil Housley. For Thompson, it’s a huge vote of confidence. Expectations are that the pairing of Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel will create a dangerous first line for Buffalo – the type of first line that the Sabres haven’t had in some time. Consequently, there is going to be a ton of pressure on Thompson to produce right out of the gate.
In three preseason games, Thompson, 20, has delivered. He scored a highlight-reel goal against Toronto over the weekend and has consistently threatened in the offensive zone. He’s averaging about 20 shot attempts per 60 minutes, which would have placed him in the top 10 in the league last season. Take that with many, many doses of salt – it’s still preseason hockey, and most playing rosters are only half-reflections of actual NHL lineups.
But Thompson isn’t a total unknown either. Last season, Thompson split time between the St. Louis Blues and their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. With the Blues, Thompson saw 41 games, generally playing with Vladimir Sobotka, Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund at even-strength. Scoring was limited – he amassed just nine points (three goals and six assists), and was generally kept away from the power play.
There is no doubt that St. Louis was underwhelmed with Thompson’s production. Blues head coach Mike Yeo’s frustration peaked in March, when he had this to say about the state of Thompson’s game:
“The way I see it, you’ve got to bring more than potential. We know he has potential. We know he’s going to be a guy that scores a lot of goals in our league and is a real solid, effective NHL player for a long time. But you have to bring something to the table."
Thompson was sold during his draft year as a skilled power forward type, and with such middling point totals in his debut season, you can sort of understand where Yeo was coming from last March. That said, I thought Thompson’s rookie season was a fair bit better than what his counting numbers would suggest.
The chief issue with Thompson’s first year had a lot to do with unfavorable luck. Moving away from simple point totals for more context, you can see that Thompson was much more active offensively than his scoring rates would indicate. Consider shot rates for Blues forwards last year, with ‘quality shots’ identified herein as scoring chances:
Other than an all-world talent in Vladimir Tarasenko, no Blues forward generated a higher volume of shots than Thompson at 5-on-5. We know that shot volume is a very strong indicator of offensive talent and, moreover, is strongly correlated with point production. So this is a hugely encouraging data point. If you are inclined to focus on higher "quality" chances – think shots generated from the interior of the defense or the low slot, for quick examples – Thompson still grades out as sixth best. I think you can say with some degree of confidence that Thompson traded a little bit of quality for quantity last season, but either way both numbers indicate a guy who was active in the offensive third.
Let’s now move beyond Thompson and toward on-ice results. With Thompson on the ice last season, St. Louis managed to score just 1.2 goals per 60 minutes, which is dreadful. That said, we know the volume of the shots that line was taking and the quality of those shots based on components like shot angles and distances that are recorded in the NHL’s official play-by-play sheet. Corsica has done the grunt work to provide an "expected goal" value for every shot taken in the NHL last season, and from there, we can understand if "luck" had any role in suppressing Thompson’s productivity and point totals.
Here are actual versus expected goals for Blues’ forwards last season:
As you can see, Thompson (and Sundqvist and Paajari, too) were pretty unlucky last season. Based on the shots created, we should have expected Thompson and company to score about 1.9 goals per 60 minutes. Instead, they scored 1.2 goals per 60 minutes. That’s the difference between being in the NHL’s fourth percentile and the NHL’s 30th percentile, and with that comes plenty of opportunity for additional points. Another way of saying this: That’s the difference between fighting for an NHL job and entrenching yourself as a top-nine forward.
How do you manage to score just 1.2 goals per 60 minutes? Carry one of the lowest on-ice shooting percentages in the league. In the 400-plus minutes of 5-on-5 hockey they played last season, Thompson and company shot just 4 percent last year – mere decimal points ahead of Marcus Kruger, J.T. Brown and Josh Jooris for the lowest mark in the league. So it wasn’t just Thompson who couldn’t buy a goal. It was anyone who Thompson played with, too.
But again, the good news if you are a player in this bucket is that shooting percentages tend to heavily regress. It is the principal reason why teams and analysts pound their tables about the importance of shot volume and sustained attacks. The more opportunities to score, the more frequently the puck will find the back of the net. Thompson, in his rookie year, did an ample job of generating that type of volume. The goals didn’t come. Even if we graded Thompson and his teammates out as poor shooters, we still would expect them to score on about 6.8 percent of chances – much closer to league norms.
In summary: It certainly appears that the Sabres smartly bought low on Thompson. His ceiling is still unclear, but I suspect his rookie season appeared a lot worse on paper than it actually was. Add that to the fact that he’ll now be on the receiving end of work from Skinner and Eichel to start the year, and he has a great opportunity at a sophomore season redemption story.