The Underrated Line from the 2019/2020 Season
For years there has been a debate as to who the most underrated players are in the league. Not too long ago, everyone would have said, “Aleksander Barkov is by far the most underrated player in the NHL,” and they would have been absolutely right, he was. He has been phenomenal since being drafted by the Florida Panthers and is now one of the best two-way forwards in the league. However, the thing about being underrated is that it can, and most likely does, change. Everyone can now see how good Barkov is captaining the Panthers, it is no secret anymore that he is one of the best around.
Rewind a few more years, to a time where one Loui Eriksson once held that same belief for a lot of people. During his days in Dallas, he had three straight 70+ point seasons, from 2009-2012, even his time in Boston wasn’t all that bad, collecting 63 points in 82 games in his final season with the black and yellow. It was when he signed that lucrative deal with the Vancouver Canucks did that opinion change for the worse as people then began to call him one of the most overrated players in the league. Funny how things change.
With all that being said, this perception of a player is rather subjective, you can look at all the stats and charts you want, but ultimately some will agree, and others will not. This article will therefore focus on who I believe to be the 5 most underrated players this past season. It will highlight 3 forwards, 2 defence, and 1 goaltender, to create the “Underrated Line,” it is not very creative, but it gets the point across. Let’s start with the goalie and work our way up to the top shall we;
Goalie: Corey Crawford
I need to emphasize one thing before we get started because I can already feel the heat. This lineup will focus on the players that may be perceived as underrated this season, disregarding past years and performances while focusing heavily on this past season. So, despite Crawford being a major part of Chicago’s last two Stanley cups, his play has seen a decline over the past couple years since then, in part due to injuries. Again though, that does not really matter, focus is on this year where he put up some spectacular numbers on a less than stellar Chicago team. Let’s start off with the basics, in 40 games played this past season, he was able to put up a respectable 2.77 goals against average and 0.917 save percentage, both well above league average (2.82 GAA and 0.910 SV%). For some context, the Vezina front-runner Tuukka Rask owns a 2.48 GAA and 0.929, but look at that team in front of him, quite different from the current Blackhawks squad.
The stat I really want to use for my defence is high danger save percentage, which is Crawford’s save percentage when faced with shots from, you guessed it, high danger areas, these areas include in-between the faceoff dots. In this category he owns a spectacular 0.849… again for reference, Jake Allen leads the league in this category with a 0.894 (with a minimum 1000min time on ice), granted, he only played 24 games this season. Crawford sits 5th on that list with a not so good defence core in front of him (sorry Hawks fans but it’s true). He was able to bail them out almost 85% of the time when facing those high danger shots. It is very impressive and that is why he got the nod here.
Honourable Mentions: Philipp Grubauer and Darcy Kuemper
Defence: Jacob Slavin
Now this is where we get deeper into advanced stats and analytics, so if you’re not a big stats person, I apologize but bear with me. This is one of Ian Tulloch’s, writer for the Athletic, favourite underrated players so if someone that smarts says it, then I will certainly believe him. I did however want to take a look at some of his advanced stats to get an understanding as to why Ian loves him so much. Here we go, down the rabbit hole. First thing I wanted to look at was his exit and entry stats, Slavin is in the 95th percentile at zone entry breakups per 60, so he is among some of the best in the league. He is in the 92nd percentile for possession exit percentage, so instead of dumbing it off the glass to clear the zone, when he has the puck in his own end, he is one the best skaters to exit his own end with team possession. Those sound-like pretty good feats for a defenceman, to take it one further, he is also in the 94th percentile for possession entry percentage. Need I say anymore? Well I will, hear me out…
Slavin is clearly an elite player when it comes to creating team possession in both entries and exits while being one of the best at zone entry breakups. But this is where it gets a little complicated, and even I needed some help to fully understand what it all meant in the grand scheme of things (thanks Mac)… Slavin’s expected goals percentage is 55.39%, meaning when Slavin is on the ice there is a 55.39% chance Carolina scores. He also sports a 56% in scoring chances and 55% high danger percent. So, with all of these factors coming into play plus the stats mentioned above, we can tell that Slavin is outstanding at breaking up opponent entries or limiting them to shooting from the perimeter. He is one of the best defencemen in his own end while being able to generate offence through his unbelievable transitional play.
Defence: Shea Theodore
For this one, it may be the easiest thing I have ever had to write because I am going to just copy and paste Mac’s analysis of Shea Theodore from our end of season awards, thanks Mac!
“Theodore was a horse this season for Vegas, playing plenty at 5 on 5 and on both special teams, while chipping in a tidy 46 points in 71 games. But his advanced statistics suggest that he was creating the most chances for his team on the ice but was mired by a low shooting percentage. Let’s start with CorsiFor%, which is the percentage of shot attempts that your team takes when you are on the ice. Theodore led all defencemen with a minimum of 500 minutes played with a 59%. This is reflected in ShotsFor% as well, which is the percentage of registered shots that your team has when you are on the ice. 58.36% in this category leaves him a hair out of first place, behind only Dougie Hamilton. But these next stats are the kicker.
His GoalsFor%, the percentage of goals that his team has when he is on the ice, sat at a respectable 54.64%. His ExpectedGoalsFor%, which accounts for all the shots and their probabilities of going in, leads the league with 64.35%. This huge discrepancy largely led to his pedestrian point total despite his elite play. This is further cemented by his league leading ScoringChancesFor%, at 59%. But he has an OnIceShooting% of 6.78%, which is significantly lower than the average of 9%. This also contributes to his PDO - which is simply his luck - which is well below the average of 1 at 0.989. Simply put, Theodore drove play, limited defensive zone time, and put Vegas in a position to score more than any other defenceman (including Carlson). That is why I was honoured to vote for Shea Theodore to win the Norris Trophy.” (Mac) – You can read the rest of our picks here.
Forward: Max Pacioretty
We have our second Golden Knight here and I honestly kind of forgot about Pacioretty, maybe it’s because he is now in an American market as opposed to being in the spotlight in Montreal? Regardless, we are not hearing as much about him, or again at least in Canada anyway, and boy has he had an unreal season wow. Let’s start with the basics, he has 66 points in 71 games this year, which is good, not spectacular but it is definitely above average. This is where it gets interesting though, his advanced stats are spectacular and he ranks in the top 5 for most of these categories, so let’s take a closer look.
Since Mac was kind enough to explain what some of the categories mean so once again that makes my life much easier, he is so considerate. Pacioretty’s CorsiFor% is 58.33, which ranks fourth in the league among players with minimum 500 minutes played, he sits behind, surprisingly enough, 3 Montreal forwards, what? Anyways, that is super impressive and for comparison's sake Auston Matthews owns a 54.11 CF% which is good for 55th in the league, which is still very impressive, but also goes to show how much Pacioretty drove play this year. For ExpectedGoalsFor% (xGF%), which again accounts for all shots and the possibility of them going in, he is the best in the league with 62.15%... elite goal scorer Alex Ovechkin sits 240th in league at 58.74% and at first you may think, well Ovechkin probably shoots more which lowers his percentage, he only has 4 more shots than Pacioretty. Needless to say, Pacioretty was having an unbelievable season before it was put on hold and nobody was talking about it.
Forward: Travis Konecny
I am hoping my biases don’t come out for this pick because I have loved Konecny ever since he came into the league, and I was very upset when the Leafs traded down with the Flyers and missed out on him. Granted, the Leafs ended up getting Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco, that is certainly not a bad consolation prize, but Konecny is everything the Leafs need and is a perfect fit for the Flyers. Anyways… in my opinion Konency has been one of the most underrated players in the league for a while now, but once again, I will be focusing on his play this season alone.
Konency was able to produce 61 points in 66 games played this year and was a huge part of the Flyers newfound success this season. His high-flying energy and pesky attitude not only frustrate other teams, but he is able to capitalize on these opportunities. Certainly not the flashiest player, and quite frankly according to advanced stats he could be replaced on this list, but it is everything else he brings to the table that convinced me he deserves to be here. It is the classic eye-test vs analytics debate and although I tend to use a lot of advanced stats, I think the eye-test also holds a lot of merit. There should be a healthy balance between the two philosophies when properly analyzing players, and I was able to watch a lot of Flyers games this season and every time Konecny hit the ice, he made stuff happen, even if it isn’t directly reflected in his advanced stats. So, I guess what I am saying here is, you just have to trust me, or go ask some Flyers fans how they feel about him.
Forward: Brendan Gallagher
Last, but surely not least, we have Gallagher who has been considered underrated for quite some time now, and Andrew Berkshire of Sportsnet has been on this train for a while now. Although people are starting to catch on, in part because of Berkshire, he still does not receive the recognition he deserves (and that is with his TikToks aside). He has had an absolutely outstanding season and ranks in the top 3 in almost every category among the best in the league. You thought Pacioretty’s ranks were impressive? Just you wait.
43 points in 59 games? Ya, that is solid, nothing out of this world so why am I hyping him so much? Well, here are his rankings among all players with a minimum of 500 minutes played…
CF% = 59.94 good for 2nd (only behind teammate Tomas Tatar who owns in an incredible 60.14)
xGF% = 60.84 sits 3rd (behind Pacioretty and Mark Stone, the once underrated king)
SCF% = 60.24 good for 3rd (once again behind Pacioretty and Stone)
HDCF% = 63.98 ranking 1st among all players
Lastly, I know I said the focus would be on isolating each player’s stats from this season alone and disregarding the past, but I just have to break my own rule here and include this graphic:
Like come on… honestly, enough said.
Between Gallagher and Pacioretty, they make up the top 3 in almost every relevant category and is why I could not possibly leave either off this list. Had the top 3 consisted of players like Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov, I would have had to dig deeper because they are certainly not underrated players. The fact these players top the league in such stats while not being talked about made it extremely easy for me to argue that these players make up my underrated lineup for the 2019/20 season.
Honourable Mentions: Kyle Connor, Tomas Tatar, Sean Couturier, and Ryan Ellis (D)
Stats and charts courtesy of http://www.naturalstattrick.com/, https://public.tableau.com/profile/christopher.turtoro#!/vizhome/2-yearA3ZPlayerComps/ComparisonDashboard, and https://www.hockeydb.com/