There’s a well-known media trope that any headline posed as a question can typically be answered with a “no”.
That trope holds in this case.
No, Troy Brouwer is not a likely bounce back candidate in 2017-18. That seems to be a popular refrain in some corners this offseason, but in reality, there aren’t any signals that point to an imminent improvement in Brouwer’s play next year.
Sometimes players have a down season for reasons mostly beyond their control: poor usage, bad linemates, injury, or bad luck. None of those things really apply to Brouwer’s first season in Calgary.
The five rebound factors
Let’s formalize the list somewhat. There are five main signs you can look for in a player’s results that suggest he might be in line for a bounce-back season.
1.) Poor Usage
Sometimes a player gets put into circumstances he has troubles overcoming: a strict, defense-first role, for instance; or a coach who just doesn’t like him can have an impact on a guy’s results. Related to this is…
2.) Tied to boat anchors
Similar to poor usage is getting played frequently with underwhelming linemates. While we often concentrate a lot on quality of competition, quality of linemates actually tends to have a bigger influence on a skater’s performance. The reason for that is obvious when you think about it – a guy might spend tens of minutes against opposing players each season, but he’ll spend an order of magnitude more than with his most common linemates.
Some superstars are good enough that they can drag almost anyone around, but for everyone else, a bad linemate or two can irredeemably sink his season.
This one is obvious. Skating around with a bum knee, bad shoulder, or broken hand can have a deleterious effect on any player’s performance. If a guy spends a lot of time on the IR but can be expected to come back healthy, then it’s fair to expect an improvement.
4.) Bad on-ice percentages
Every single year, lady luck gives a handful of NHL skaters the stink eye – by which I mean their on-ice shooting and save percentages take a dive off a cliff simultaneously, often in defiance of anything the player is actually doing. If a guy happens to land on the left-hand tail of the standard distribution curve, we can usually expect that he’ll regress back up to normal the next year. Which brings us to…
5.) Bad personal shooting percentage
Similarly, sometimes a guy will have a season where the puck just doesn’t go in for whatever reason. Usually, you can take a look at a player’s career average shooting percentage and see if the rate has significantly fallen. Absent any other explanation (like a drastic change in role, rapidly advancing age, or an injury), you can probably expect him to bounce back up to normal.
Brouwer the unafflicted
As mentioned, none of these things really apply to Brouwer. He did miss almost 10 games with a broken hand, but there were no indications that he was playing through a lingering injury afterward (also – Brouwer was bad before he hurt his hand).
Furthermore, Brouwer wasn’t saddled with bad linemates, challenging usage, or bad luck last year. His most common linemates in 2016-17 were Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Matt Stajan. Not a terrible list of guys.
Next, amongst forwards, Brouwer finished in the top six in terms of average ice time per game last season (16:13) and top four in terms of average PP ice time per game (2:24). Nor was Brouwer saddled with overly difficult competition or zone starts. As we all know, that role was more or less restricted to the 3M line, a unit Brouwer spent zero time skating with. In fact, Brouwer was one of the few forwards to get more offensive than defensive zone starts (52%).
On top of all that, his PDO (on-ice SH% and SV%) and personal shooting percentage were a completely reasonable 100.9 and 15.1% respectively. In fact, both were slightly higher than would be expected.
On the other hand, almost all of the more predictive metrics we have were consistently poor for Brouwer in 2016-17. His possession and chance rates were amongst the worst on the team, hovering around the rates managed by Garnet Hathaway and the recently bought out Lance Bouma.
He also had a consistently negative impact on his linemates’ shot and chance rates, even sinking some of the team’s best players’ possession rate by 5-10 points each:
In addition, Brouwer’s per game shot rate fell to just 1.2 and he managed a measly seven primary points at even strength in 74 games.
It’s certainly not impossible that Brouwer’s performance will improve next year. Maybe he simply never felt comfortable in his first season in Calgary. Maybe he was playing through a secret injury. Maybe he just couldn’t find a linemate to mesh with. Or maybe he’ll get on a big, percentage-fuelled run next year.
That said, there are no clear, overt signs that Brouwer was afflicted by the common external factors that typically lead to rebound seasons. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 and drifting inexorably away from his prime. All of this suggests Brouwer is actually a bad bet to suddenly improve next season.