When the Flames traded Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust for Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins, the principles of the deal seemed to the Kotlik and Jokinen. Thanks to nominal counting stats and an expiring contract, Higgins seemed like a "throw-in" in the deal. And, indeed, his fortunes haven’t changed much in Flames colors. Through six games for Calgary, Higgins is the only new-comer without a point.
However, despite the lack of production, there are some statistical arrows pointing in the right direction for the former Ranger. Since his arrival, Higgins has mostly played with Langkow and Kotalik on the Flames "second line", a unit that has been given a lot of tougher assignments by coach Brent Sutter. Against the Ducks, for example, Higgins and company spent more about half of their even strength ice time playing against Saku Koivu, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. In addition, Higgins has only seen 23 offensive zone face-offs (out of 72 total) since coming to Calgary. His O-zone, D-zone split has been 50% thus far (23/23), but given the fact that Calgary has enjoyed 21 more offensive draws over that period (92-71), one can conclude he’s been given some of the relatively "less forgiving" zone starts.
Those are the contextual factors we need to consider. Now here’s the good news: Higgins’ possession and outshooting rates are stellar in Flames colors. He’s garnered 14 ES shots in the last six games – only Jarome Iginla had more (16). The difference between shots for/against with Higgins on the ice at 5on5 is +36 -17 and his overall corsi ratio is 60.9%. Considering his circumstance detailed above, that’s an outstanding number. To put it in further context, in terms of raw rate Higgins is +24 through 6 games, or about 84 ES minutes played. That translates to a +17.14/60 corsi rate. The current Flames (regular skating) leader in that category is Rene Bourque at +9.79/60.
What this all means is that Higgins is playing against very good players, but the puck spends a lot of time travelling north with him on the ice anyways. That’s helpful to the team for a variety of reasons (more o-zone time, more shifts ending at the right end of the ice, less time spent in the defensive end). A strong corsi number, particular in forwards, is usually an idication of one of two things: a player that is highly sheltered or a player that is rather dominant. Higgins hasn’t been the former for Calgary.
Observations of his play match the numbers. Higgins has frequently looked like one of the strongest players on the ice during his time here – winning board battles, making smart reads and consistently executing fundamental plays. His work on the PK has been similarly good.
Of course, the actual results in terms of goals and assists haven’t been there for Higgins given his goose-egg in the points column. However, if he continues to drive possession to the degree he has recently, the bounces will inevitably begin to turn in his favor. His on-ice SH% in Flames colors this far is a putrid 2.8% – that’s unsustainably low and bound to rebound at some point.
Of course, I must append the usual caveat here – six games is a very small sample size and the results may not be all that inidicative or predictive. They are, however, highly encouraging at the very least, and suggest that Sutter has a keeper in the "Rene Bourque" mold on his hands. And if there’s good news about Higgins’ terrible counting stats this year, it’s that they’ll make him relatively cheap and easy to re-sign in the summer.