Hype is a funny thing.
At first, it’s a sort of happy delirium, like a narcotic that smooths the rough edges of reality and suggests a future of boundless optimism and success. When it recedes, however, and the truth is rendered in cruel relief against those impossibly raised expectations, the hang-over can be…unpleasant.
Which brings us to the topic at hand. Sean Monahan has started his NHL career with a bang. Three goals and five points in just four games. He is outscoring much more celebrated offensive talents from his draft season, including Nate MacKinnon, Valery Nichushkin, Aleksandr Barkov and Elias Lindholm. In fact, amongst NHL rookies so far this year, only Tomas Hertl – he of the four goal game – has more points than Calgary’s 6th overall pick.
It’s been a very long time in Calgary since a forward prospect burst through the doors and established himself as an elite NHLer. The last guy to do it was Jarome Iginla. With him gone and the rebuild in full swing, we’re desperate for a new saviour to arrive in Flamestown. Monahan’s draft pedigree and his early success have some fashioning hero’s garb for the youngster already.
Monahan may actually become that player at some point. But the journey to there from here is a long one with many twists and bumps in the road. His early success is fun and it’s encouraging, but it’s not necessarily indicative of anything just yet. Like Sven Baertschi’s introductory three goal outburst as a 19-year old, Monahan’s team leading five points is, at best, a teaser to a much longer film. At worst, it’s a run of fortune that will cause Jay Feaster to lament the effect of impossibly raised expectations a year from now.
Four games is a tiny sample size. And weird things happen in small numbers. Monahan’s personal shooting percentage right now is 25%, or about double what you’d expect a competent goal scorer in the NHL to manage. His one-ice SH% (that rate at which all pucks have gone in the net) at even strength this year is a mind-boggling 22% – about 300% higher than the league average (8%) and about 100% higher than Sidney Crosby or a competent PP would manage.
Which is to say, the puck has bounced right (very right) for Monahan in his first four games. As it did for Sven in those first three games. That’s not to say the players didn’t "deserve" their points in each instance – none of the markers in question were random bounces off of legs or empty-netters. But the NHL is a difficult league and scoring is notoriously fickle. Remember, on-ice SH% almost always regresses towards the mean (8%) on a long-enough time line – which means Monahan isn’t going to continue to score at will. Heck, even if he’s Sidney Crosby’s offensive equal (he’s not), Monahan’s ES goal frequency is still bound to be cut in half.
That’s an easy to point to understand conceptually, but an important truth I’ve learned in writing critically about hockey is that performance almost always equals perception in the general fanship’s minds eye. With "offensive results" almost always being a proxy for "performance" (unless a guy is a role player who gets a pass for working hard and trying to hurt the opposition).
Unfortunately, performance does not always equal true talent, since factors like luck and circumstances have a non-trivial effect on outcomes in the league. Results jump up and down around the mean with the bounces, and often, so too do the general sentiments of a player’s abilities and value.
There’s lots and lots to like about Monahan’s game as teenager in this league. He’s already poised, methodical and thoughtful, which are hurdles many kids never clear on their way to the show. He’s big, strong and looks like he’ll be able to play in all areas of the ice. There are reasons to be excited about the player.
But the team and the fans need to proceed with caution. Monahan’s output has been goosed by a spike in percentages that is not going to persist. Our evaluation of his talents have therefore been similarly skewed. Very soon, the organization will need to make a decision about whether to send Monahan down to junior or burn a year of his entry-level deal in the show this season. Right now, it seems like a no-brainer to keep him, but the decision makers need to recognize the transient nature of his current output ri and try to project how they would view him if only one puck had gone in for him so far. Or How they’ll like the decision to keep him if the kid goes pointless for a 10-game stretch mid-season, which is entirely possible.
I’d suggest Flames fans also need to temper their expectations a bit, because the kid isn’t going to score 102 points as a 19 year old rookie and there are going to be rough patches at some point, be it this year if he stays up, or next year when he makes the team full time for sure. Sven Baertschi, who is probably the best pure offensive talent in the Flames pro ranks currently, is now enduring some of the unpleasant consequences of the hype that an early hot streak can cause.
As a fan, I’m enjoying Monahan’s impressive run, but also steeling myself for the inevitable downturn. He remains one of the club’s most important prospects and is likely a key contributor in the near future, but he still has a long way to go before he truly becomes that guy.