Last, week, two pieces were posted that talked about a player’s “playmaking” ability. I put it in quotes because it’s a term that gets tossed around a lot and sometimes isn’t defined by those using it. For example, in this piece from Andrew Berkshire (using data from SportLogiq), it is never clearly defined despite being in the title of the piece. Passes are categorized based on direction (north, south, east-west), zone (offensive zone, neutral zone), or some other qualifiers (to the slot, off the rush), but nowhere are they tied to shots. Passes are charted based on “successful pass volume” per twenty minutes. One can assume these are pass completions per twenty minutes. However, with hundreds of passes completed each game, many of them are simply woven into the noise of the game. We’re interested in what leads to events, specifically exits, entries, shots, and goals. Berkshire includes exit and entry passes, so at least those are present. Nevertheless, despite zero detail on what matters most – creating shots for teammates – Berkshire concludes that “we may be witnessing the beginning of the best playmaker of the next generation of NHL stars in Barkov.”
The other piece I referred to was this by Travis Yost on Joe Thornton. He clearly explains what he means by playmaker”: “To me, a playmaker in the NHL is the guy who routinely creates opportunity for his linemates.” Thornton is without a doubt a 1st ballot Hall-of-Famer and one of the best setup men in the league. It’s only natural to think of the man that once made Jonathan Cheechoo lead the league in goals as one of the greatest playmakers we’ve seen over the last decade. Yost’s definition of creating opportunities for teammates is one I would agree with.
If only there was a publicly available set of data that including passing and shot assist numbers for Barkov and Thornton. Oh, wait… All data is at 5v5 because no one cares about special teams except for Arik Parnass.
Using the data we collected from last season (500 games), we can quickly see where Thornton ranks among setup men from last season.
Barkov is nowhere to be found. In fact, you have to scroll down to the 86th best forward, of those we tracked at least 200 5v5 minutes for, to find him. Here are the players just ahead of and behind him.
Now, 86th is still a top-line player (three forwards on thirty teams = ninety first-liners, technically) and he was only nineteen years old last season. Barkov also had a big event on February 26th last season that likely accelerated the conversation around him. That was the day the Florida Panthers acquired Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils for
Kyle Palmieri the draft picks the Devils would then flip to the Anaheim Ducks for Kyle Palmieri. Precisely what impact did that have on young Barkov? Since we have the entire season for the Panthers from 2014 – 2015, we can look at his rates before and after the Jagr trade.
Wow. It appears that elite players have positive effects on their line mates, right? Let’s look at another center who saw his shot assist rates spike with Jagr and have now come down significantly: Travis Zajac of the Devils. Zajac was a staple on the Devils’ top line in 2013 -2014 with Jagr, playing over 900 5v5 minutes together. Last season, due to lineup changes and the Devils trading Jagr away, the duo played only 311 5v5 minutes together. What did that do to Zajac’s production? Have a look.
Almost the same boost as when Jagr joined alongside Barkov. It’s more than fair to say that Barkov’s “playmaking” according to Berkshire, has just as much to do with Jagr on his wing as his own development.
I wonder what other playmakers have done this before? Well, Yost mentioned Joe Thornton, so let’s have a look at what happened when he was traded to the Sharks and placed alongside the aforementioned Jonathan Cheechoo.
But He’s Only Twenty, Ryan!
Right. So last season, Barkov was nineteen years old. To be fair to him, let’s have a look at forwards age nineteen who we tracked for at least 200 minutes. Full disclosure, we had 175 minutes for Jonathan Drouin, but I thought his rank was interesting so I included him.
Now with his peers, we see Barkov nestled between Nathan Mackinnon and Sean Monahan. We can also look at the young players (ages 19 – 21) on the six teams we tracked for all of last season (Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals) and see where he stood compared to his peers across a full season.
Barkov and Burakovsky were the only nineteen-year olds to make this list. Teuvo Teravainen and Tom Wilson were both twenty last season. The rest of the players are twenty-one.
Look, Barkov is an exciting young talent and has massive potential. He’s twenty years old and his recent extension will likely be one of the best bargains in the league towards the end of it. This isn’t a piece to slam Barkov, but to simply warn against sweeping declarations made from a partial season of data in Berkshire’s piece that undoubtedly was a data dump in reaction to news of his extension. Not to mention the fact that if the best neutral zone passers in the league include two pairs of teammates (Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Barkov and Jagr of the Panthers), is it possible that there’s a system/role element influencing these numbers? If these numbers are from the entire league, I find this strange. Ignoring the context of playing with an elite-level talent in Thornton and Jagr can sometimes lead to people proclaiming someone as the next big thing.
After all, after the 2006 season, in Cheechoo’s case, people were writing things like this.
Now, Sportlogiq may not be interested in looking deeper into the numbers to see what truly matters, at least publicly. We can do that for them. They have proprietary data that they want to keep secret in order to make money off of various clients and I wish them all the best in doing that. However, pieces like Berkshire’s on Barkov won’t be given a pass because of that fact either.
Barkov will likely continue to grow into a dominant player, but Jagr is a significant reason for his rapid ascendance. Let’s not forget that. He fits in among his age group in terms of playmaking, but hasn’t set himself apart. He is only twenty, though, so let’s see a little more before declaring him the best of his generation.