It’s been a rough season for the Flames’ most dangerous player.
With 11 goals and 35 points in 49 games, Gaudreau is on track to put up his worst goal per game (0.22) and points per game (0.71) pace since entering the league. He has just two goals in his last 22 contests and was recently demoted the fourth line for a few periods after a poor turnover that led to a goal against. On top of all that, he’s an unsightly -18.
A lot of theories have cropped up to explain Gaudreau’s struggles. Eric Francis and Brian McGrattan suggested the team isn’t tough enough to protect Gaudreau, leading to less scoring. Many fans have pointed to Glen Gulutzan as the culprit, with the notion that the new bench boss’ systems are suppressing his stars’ scoring. I’ve also seen the theory that the league has “adapted” to Gaudreau and he has to find new ways to generate points or that the player suffers from off-ice issues.
Out of curiosity, I took a look at Gaudreau’s numbers to see what they could reveal. Have his coach or teammates somehow failed him, leading to fewer chances and shots? Has the league figured out how to keep Gaudreau away from the dangerous areas? Is he partying too much?
Spoiler alert: Probably not.
The assertion that Gaudreau hasn’t actually been worse this year is a bit shocking given his results. Even by eye, he seems less dangerous and more prone to error. Follow me through a few layers of numbers to understand why I think he’ll be okay in the long run.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Yup, Gaudreau’s even strength counting numbers are pretty bad this year relative to expectations. He is scoring just 1.59 even strength points/60 minutes, the lowest rate in his career to date. His GF%, or goals for and against ratio at 5on5, is just 37%, which explains that ugly plus/minus rating. Previous to this year, the Flames enjoyed positive goal ratios with Gaudreau on the ice (54% and 53%, respectively).
All of that seems pretty damning, but if we dig deeper, we find something surprising: almost all of the Gaudreau’s other underlying numbers have actually improved this season. I’ve broken the information up into three tables to give proper context. We’ll start with the shot attempts and expected goal rates:
(All numbers from Corsica Hockey)
I have included Gaudreau’s results from his rookie and sophomore seasons for comparison purposes. Skip the next two paragraphs if you are familiar with these stats.
This table contains corsi ratios, or all shot attempts at the net (CF%); fenwick ratios (FF%), which excludes all shots except blocked attempts; shots on net (SF%); as well as two scoring chances measures (scoring chances for per 60 minutes of ice and scoring chance ratio).
The metrics with an “X” in front of them are expected rates based on shot volume, type, location, etc. Meaning xGF60 is expected goals for per 60 minutes of ice according to this model. xGF% is expected goal ratio and xFSh% is expected fenwick shooting percentage.
As mentioned, almost all of Gaudreau’s underlying numbers are better this year. The team gets a higher ratio of shot attempts with him on the ice and a greater percentage of scoring chances as well. In terms of expected goals, the Flames are expected to be scoring more often with Gaudreau on the ice this year than they have previously (2.62 GF/60) and they have a higher expected fenwick SH% as well (6.32). The only measure that is slightly down is scoring chances per 60 at 8.21. But even then, that’s a higher rate than he managed as a rookie (7.80).
This seems almost unbelievable. By many of these measures, Gaudreau should be having his best NHL season to date, not his worst. What’s behind the poor results?
This table is simpler. It is Gaudreau’s on-ice shooting percentages and PDO (SH% + SV%) for each season so far.
The culprit behind Gaudreau’s bad half season becomes clear here. For his first two seasons in the league, the Flames scored on about 5.25% of the total shots they took on the net when Gaudreau was on the ice. This year? Less than 3%. That’s also true of fenwick SH% (3.97% versus over 7%) and typical shooting percentage (5.31% versus 10%).
Essentially, pucks are going in at about half the rate they have previously with Gaudreau on the ice at even strength. That’s despite the improved shot numbers and expected goals metrics we noted in the first table.
Which brings us to PDO and expected (xPDO). As you can see, Gaudreau’s PDO is a putrid 95.55 this year, way below the league average of 100 and his own PDO before this season (about 101). His expected PDO is pretty much right in line with league norms, but for whatever reason, the bounces haven’t gone his way this season.
Individual shot attempts
So far, we’ve looked at team/line based stats. I also wanted to include Gaudreau’s individual even strength metrics to see if there was any indication of poor play or problem areas.
This table contains individual shots/shot attempts, as well as expected goals. The final column includes his average shot distance for added context.
Once again, we see career average or better metrics almost across the board. Gaudreau is managing more total shot attempts (12.19/60), unblocked shot attempts (9.85/60) and individual shots on net (7.78/60) than ever has before. His expected individual goals per 60 is 0.66 this year, again the highest it has ever been. He’s also shooting from about three feet closer to the net than previous in his career.
The main problem area is, of course, a big drop in shooting percentage. Gaudreau was a better than 12% shooter at 5on5 up until this season. In 2016-17, he’s scoring on less than 8% of his shots.
The only other indication of a downward trend is individual scoring chances for per 60, with his own chance attempts falling to 1.90 from a previous norm of about 2.10. Given all the other data we have, that’s not nearly enough to be worried about.
Johnny Gaudreau’s performance metrics are uniformly in line with his career norms to date, except for shooting percentage. From shot rates to expected goal rates, Gaudreau’s numbers suggest he has been as good or better than ever before. Unfortunately, the puck is not going in for either himself or his linemates this season for whatever reason. The Flames have better shot ratios, better chance ratios, and better expected goals ratios than in Gaudreau’s previous two seasons, but his offensive output and goal differentials are lousy.
This is obviously frustrating, but it’s actually good news. We know that things like shooting percentage and PDO can vary randomly over shorter samples, meaning this dry spell is unlikely to last over the long term. If Gaudreau’s shot and chance metrics were also down there would be need for greater alarm and other explanations for his output to date (like bad coaching or poor off-ice habits). However, given that the only thing that’s down this year is the percentages, we can expect Gaudreau to rediscover his form as a matter of course at some point.
Some may wonder why Gaudreau also looks poor if many of his underlying numbers are improved or stable. The answer is that bad results and lousy percentages will make any player look bad because we both consciously and unconsciously evaluate guys by things like goals for and against. When the puck isn’t going in for a guy who is supposed to score, his faults become magnified and his strengths muted.
Once Gaudreau’s on-ice shooting percentage regresses to the mean, he’ll start to look like the player we’ve come to know and love in Calgary.