<![CDATA[Milan Lucic appears to be gradually taking up that space near and dear to every Oilers fan's heart – next door to the rock and kitty-corner from the hard place.
His contract is ugly, no bones about it. But what about the player?
A decade ago this town got itself tied into knots over Shawn Horcoff because there was a sharp disconnect between his contract and his level of play. It made people a little crazy, to be honest, and sometimes they lost perspective because they would judge every little thing Horcoff did, good or bad, through the lens of a bad contract.
Now I’m something of a stubborn ass when it comes to playing Devil’s Advocate so when I see people piling on Lucic I’m wont to stand on the other side of the line and look back on the criticisms.
Without a doubt Milan Lucic is having a very poor season thus far. He knows it, too. But the question now is “where does this rank in his career and is it plausible to anticipate a reversion to his career standards?”
Before we begin though I think we need to unpack some emotional baggage here.
Milan Lucic is not Taylor Hall and if you are going to compare the two I’d recommend you stop reading now because unless we can agree to separate those two in our minds we’re really not going to get anywhere in this discussion.
That means we have to judge Lucic against himself.
Milan Lucic has played 710 NHL games at the time of this writing. He has averaged 0.6 point per game over the length of his career. Those numbers put him in some good company and he’s a solid NHL player with a proven track record.
But there’s also the Milan Lucic we’ve seen this year who struggles to stay onside on the rush, throws passes behind the player or loses the puck in his feet in the offensive zone.
How do we reconcile the two? I’d look at his past to inform us about his future rather than focusing too much on the present.
Now, I will warn you, this is going to be a little heavy on some numbers, though I’m including charts and graphs to try and visualize the information as best I can.
Let’s start by looking at Lucic’s offensive production, which is undeniably down this year.
Pictures and Numbers
Points per 60
Lucic has had a subtle trend downwards (pay attention to the vertical axis, he dropped .5pts/60 over six seasons and three of his later seasons are all at around 2.0 pts/game – a decline that minimal suggests a level of consistency rather than steady decline) and then this season hits and he drops off a cliff. More than any season in Boston or even his one season in Los Angeles.
Individual Primary Points per 60
Let’s compare that with his Individual Primary Points per 60 minutes. This is the number of points Lucic has gotten over his career, per game, that are either goals or first assists. It is a way of measuring his direct impact as an offensive player, rather than just being one of the guys who touched the puck before it went in.
The drop here is very similar to what we saw in the chart above. He’s down below 1ppg in either scoring or direct contribution after spending all of his career around or above 1.5ppg. He appeared to be a consistent contributing player until this season. Let’s keep moving on by broadening the scope of that last chart.
Individual Points per 60 as a Percentage of Total Team Offense
This is his IPP%, or the percentage of goals scored by his team while he’s on the ice and in which he registered a point, so basically the same as the last chart but including 2nd assists. This is represented as a percentage rather than a point-per-game basis, so the numbers are a little different, but it tells you how much offense flowed through Lucic’s stick as a team member (for comparison, during Draisaitl’s draft year he accounted for ~92% of his team’s total offense, and having watched him play you can probably understand why).
This line is a little more flat because of the change in the range on the vertical axis again, going from 10% to 90%. But overall you can see the same trend – more or less flat like the lone prairie until you reach this season where things drop suddenly. He is still at or around 50%, but he hasn’t been this low at any time in the last six seasons.
Thus far in Milan Lucic’s career, he hasn’t been the player where the play dies on his stick.
Zone Starts and Time on Ice
Something else to consider is whether Lucic is being used differently by McLellan. Perhaps he’s being hard-matched against tougher competition or given more difficult zone starts or more time on ice? Here are his zone starts going back six seasons as well as his average minutes per game.
So if Lucic was a good hockey player before he came to Edmonton, what went wrong here? Given that both Boston and Los Angeles have been championship teams in the past five years, it would be wise to look at his linemates to see if playing on a series of strong rosters inflated his performance.
With that in mind, let’s see how Lucic does pushing the proverbial river, in other words, does he drive play and is he a positive puck possession player?
Possession via Corsi For % and Corsi For Differential (WOWYs)
This chart shows Lucic’s Corsi For % (if he’s above 50% it means he helps push play) in time spent alongside his primary linemates in each of the last six seasons. Lucic is in red, his primary center in black, his primary winger in light blue. I’ve included his second and third most common linemates from both Los Angeles (Carter) and Edmonton (Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, respectively). He generally runs in place alongside his linemates in terms of possession numbers with the exception of 2014-2015 when David Pasternak blew the doors off and this season.
Now, compare that with the next chart which shows the same possession stat (CF%) for those same players when they are away from Lucic. The red line is what Lucic managed when he was playing away from his two most common linemates while the black line is what his principal center managed away from Lucic (Krejci, Kopitar, McDavid). The blue line represents what his most common winger managed away from him (Horton, Iginla, Pasternak, Toffoli, Eberle).
Over four seasons from 2010-11 through to 2013-14 Lucic kept at pace or outplayed his linemates in possession. He was in the thick of it in his last season with the Bruins and his one season with the Kings. Even this year, the only player who has done noticeably better without him than with is McDavid.
I think we can say that while Lucic may not have driven his line, he had the skill necessary to be as good or better than his linemates outside of this one season.
Now, we can say that Lucic was more than a complementary player but less than a push-the-river kind of player. Does that sound fair?
The next area we can look at is GF%, or the percentage of total goals scored by the team when that player or his linemates are on the ice. This is similar to the IPP numbers above, giving an indication of total team offense provided by a player.
Goals For Percentage With Lucic
The following chart shows the GF% of Lucic and his linemates during the previous six seasons. Keep in mind, this is as a percentage of the total team goals scored.
Lucic has never been below 50% of total team offense before this season and for most of his career has been a primary offensive weapon for both the Bruins and Kings. On top of that, his play in this regard doesn’t appear to even be trending down but holding steady prior to 2016-2017. This season appears to be an outlier by this metric, rather than an indication of things to come.
Goals For % Without Lucic
But let’s take a look at how well his most common linemates contributed when away from Lucic?
The bars here illustrate how much a player’s total team offense rose or sank when they played away from Lucic, and in Lucic’s case how much he rose or sank away from his usual linemates. If the bar points down, it means that player got worse results away from Lucic. If it goes up, they got better results away from him. There are four seasons where Lucic improved or held the line away from his usual linemates, and three where he struggled away from them.
This is a tricky graph to tease out, but here’s what I take from it: historically, when Lucic has struggled away from linemates he has struggled significantly (2010-11, 2013-14, and 2014-15) and in there are as many years where he has held his own as in which he has struggled. That there are no big increases isn’t surprising, after all if a player showed a phenomenal increase in scoring playing on a particular line, presumably the coach would keep them on that line and those players would become his dominant linemates thus making an entirely new chart.
In 2011-12 and 2013, specifically, Lucic’s absence from his linemates was quite noticeable. For comparison, last season with the Kings, Lucic and his linemates did nearly as well together as apart.
It is perhaps heartening to see that this season Lucic’s team offense has not dropped off when away from McDavid in so far as that what little offense he has shown does not appear to be entirely reliant on 97. That said, it is concerning how much better both Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins perform away from Lucic. The caveat there being that when Draisaitl is away from Lucic he is often playing alongside McDavid and those two have had phenomenal success this season, perhaps boosting the young German’s numbers.
I don’t believe that Lucic is done as an NHL player, nor do I believe we are witnessing a standard of play that we should necessarily expect from him from this point forward.
He is a very good NHL player with a long track record of performing at a fairly high level, albeit not elite, and his career performance is bolstered by a strong showing in various statistical measures suggesting that it is both earned and sustainable.
There are serious concerns about his results with Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl thus far as Maroon appears to be the better fit with McDavid and the Oilers cannot yet afford the luxury of tamping down McDavid’s potential offense to try and float a veteran winger’s results.
Lucic is 28 and his contract will see him well into his 30s and is, barring another emergency buyout exemption, nearly unmovable. While that is a serious concern for the team as they continue to develop, it has little bearing on what we’re examining here today, which is how well Lucic has performed elsewhere and what to reasonably expect from him in the present and immediate future.
I am left with the opinion that Lucic is a player with both strengths and limitations and that success for both he and the team will depend largely on having Todd McLellan discover how best to draw upon those strengths without unfairly exposing his limitations.
The statistics I’ve pulled and quoted above aren’t meant to exonerate Lucic from his results this season, they are only meant to demonstrate that the fundamentals of Lucic’s game are strong, consistent and have carried over well between organizations.
So while I hold out some hope for a rebound next season, I believe it will be contingent on a combination of Todd McLellan finding a spot in his overall coaching strategy for Lucic’s strengths and a few necessary changes to Lucic’s off-season training regimen that would be needed to meet those criteria.]]>