Johnny Gaudreau, the 2011 4th round choice of the Flames, has been having something of a rookie year. He sits at 53 points in 69 games, becoming the highest scoring Flames rookie since 1996-97, nearly two full decades, when Jarome Iginla registered 50 in 82 game. He’s electric, shifty and one of the most exciting players in the league with his ability to turn a game on its head with one play. How does he compare to the Flames all time best rookie seasons?
Joe Nieuwendyk, Theo Fleury and Jarome Iginla had some of the most remarkable rookie seasons in Calgary Flames history, are also acknowledged as three of the greatest Calgary Flames of all time and, in time, will all be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Joe Nieuwendyk, a 2nd round pick, served his official rookie season in 1987-88, after two dominating years and Cornell University, where he tallied 51 goals, 46 assists and 92 points, winning the Calder and the Lady Byng in the process.
Theo Fleury, an undersized mighty skilled might, like Gaudreau, was just barely drafted in the 7th round despite a spectacular point filled junior career. He played 36 games and playoffs in the Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup team but his official rookie year came the year after in 1989-90 where he amassed 31 goals, 35 assists and 66 points in 80 games.
Jarome Iginla, a 11th overall selection of Dallas Stars, traded to Calgary for one Joe Nieuwendyk, is an icon in Calgary. His rookie season in 1996-97 featured 21 goals, 29 assists and 50 points. He went on to become the all-time leader in nearly every offensive category for the Flames and will probably hold those titles for a good while, maybe forever.
But each of these players played in eras vastly different from Gaudreau’s. The ’80s were high flying, crazy goal scoring days. Goalies were less than stellar and let in just short of 12% of their shots. The ’90s were more focused on “defense.” Clutching, grabbing, water skiing behind opponents breaking down the ice was all fair game so powerplays fell to record lows. As a result goals were much reduced in this era. Goalies also got much better and only let in 9% of their shots now. Today, still few powerplays are called and goalies have gotten even a little bit better, letting in 8.7% of their shots. So the problem when trying to make comparisons of players of today with players of different decades is that not all things are equal across decades. It was easier to score in the 80’s and there were more goals so it’s hard to tell how Gaudreau’s pace of 63 points compares to Nieuwendyk’s 92 points. To get around this issue we are going to look at all four players’ rookie seasons in the context of Nieuwendyk’s 1987-88 rookie season.
Methodology: If you’re looking at the data thinking Nieuwendyk didn’t score 101 points, he had 92… you would be correct. In the ’80s, they only played 80 games and Nieuwendyk only played 75 of them. To make everything equal I’ve standardized all of seasons to assume the player played 82 games. With Gaudreau, I’m assuming he’s going to keep the same scoring pace, sh %, pp points/total ratio, etc.
I then used Nieuwendyk’s season as the benchmark to compare against Fleury, Iginla and Gaudreau’s rookie seasons. To get their total goals, I first determined by what percent each player was shooting over the league average shooting % of their actual seasons. I multiplied that by the league average shooting % of 1987-88 (11.8) and multiplied that by each players goals. Similarly, for assists, I determined what the ratio was for the player’s total assists/team’s total goals ratio and then multiplied again by the team’s total goals/league average’s total goals ratio. I do this because if I don’t factor in if the player’s team scored above or below the league average it skews their point totals. For instance, if I just used league average goals, Fleury’s points would come down while Iginla’s would come up. I then summed the two stats together to get the adjusted point total.
By following this method, we find that Nieuwendyk still comes out as having the best Calgary Flames rookie season in terms of points. But we see that if we place Gaudreau’s rookie season in the context of 1987-88, he would improve by 22 points and be over a point per game player, scoring approximately 85 points. Conversely, Fleury did score in the high 60’s and Iginla would have been close behind his scoring total in 1987-88. Gaudreau’s having an incredible year rookie season. One of the best ever.
Let’s look a little deeper at the totals though. Every one of the player’s shooting % was well above the league average. However, Nieuwendyk’s was more than double the league average (24.10% compared to 11.8%). A reason for this abnormality could be Nieuwendyk’s ES/PP point splits. Generally, elite players score 30-40% of their points on the powerplay. Fleury, Iginla and Gaudreau all followed this path. When we look at Nieuwendyk’s numbers he scored 49% of his points on the powerplay. In fact, he scored 31!!! goals on the powerplay and scored 28% of all of the Flames powerplay goals that year. Not to mention, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with MacInnis and Suter on the point and a whack of talent up front, the Flames had a top 2 powerplay for 5 years straight. Nieuwendyk never again scored 49% of his points on the powerplay. His pp point ratio was generally in the high 30% for the rest of his career. Even if Nieuwendyk had an abnormal pp point ratio in his rookie year but not massive outlier year like this, maybe he scores 40% of his goals on the powerplay, this would bring his point total down around the low to mid 80’s.
Context is everything and when we put Gaudreau’s season into the context of Nieuwendyk’s era his rookie season shines through as one of the best ever. In the ’80s, Gaudreau would probably be over a point per game player. Moreover, when we look at the data a little bit deeper and find the huge abnormalities in Nieuwendyk’s rookie year, we could argue that Gaudreau could be having the best rookie season of them all.