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Off the Charts: Using NHLe to evaluate development of Sharks forward prospects

Emmanuel Perry just released a new version of NHL equivalency scoring rates that can tell us a bit about where the Sharks’ prospect pool stands.

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HERNING, DENMARK - MAY 08: Rudofs Balcers #21 of Latvia fails to score the 6th goal during the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship group stage game between Korea and Latvia at Jyske Bank Boxen on May 8, 2018 in Herning, Denmark.
Rudolfs Balcers is pretty good at hockey
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

NHL equivalency (NHLe) scoring rates have been around for a while and have morphed and changed as more data becomes available. NHLe is a system that looks at how much scoring a player retains from various leagues when he moves to the NHL the following year. It’s not meant to be a definitive evaluation by any means, but it helps tell us two things:

  1. It gives us a basic hierarchy of feeder league difficulty. By virtue of NHLe, we can say things like “the KHL is a stronger league than Liiga.” That helps us establish, at a glance, how difficult a given player’s competition has been in a non-NHL league.
  2. It gives us a rough idea how a prospect is performing and may be progressing.

Recently, Emmanuel Perry decided to look not just at the main NHL feeder leagues, but every single league on the Elite Prospects “leagues” page. His approach differs from those of previous NHLe calculations. Perry’s approach takes a different tact (as explained to Ryan Stimson of The Athletic, here), attempting to broaden the prospect sample size and understand how all leagues, not just the immediate major junior, college, and pro leagues churn out NHL players. Using his new calculations, we can take a peek at the players in the Sharks prospect pipeline.

San Jose Sharks prospects 2018
The San Jose Sharks Forward prospects 2018 NHLe

Here are the all of the Sharks’ forwards who have some chance of eventually making the NHL. Perry released a more in-depth prospect success model based on his NHLe adjusted scoring rates, here, for further reading.

This table shows each forward prospect’s age as of July 15, 2018. It lists his points-per-game rate in his current league (including playoffs), his league, and his NHLe were he to take his current scoring rate to the NHL over an 82-game season.

Three players — Ivan Chekhovich, Sasha Chmelevski and Linus Karlsson — played games in two different leagues last season. Those players have two rows, one with the NHLe scoring rate for each league he played in. They’re added up in the “total” column, though thinking about that now it doesn’t make much sense. Rather than add the two league totals, the column should have reflected the percentage of 2017-18 season the player spent in each league then estimated for that percentage of an 82-game season. Instead, take a look at the rates for each individual league as an indication of how well he performed in that league.

Up and Coming

Linus Karlsson

The good news about Karlsson’s low NHLe scoring rates is that we already know there is more to him than just his points-per-game rate. Perry’s model believes Karlsson will be an impactful contributor relative to his draftmates, should he make the NHL. The Canucks Army prospect model counts Jakob Silfverberg, William Karlsson, Jesper Fast, Gustav Nyquist, and Carl Hagelin among players with historically similar statistical profiles to Linus.

Karlsson also ranked ninth among all SuperElit (Swedish juniors) skaters in terms of his impact on his team’s all-situations scoring network. Finally, Karlsson played 14 total games in the SHL, the Swedish professional league, which is always an encouraging development for a draft-year skater. In short, Karlsson’s raw scoring rate isn’t terribly exciting at the moment, but there is plenty to be optimistic about for this young skater.

Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich:

Chekhovich had the better draft year, but took a step back this past season, while Chmelevski did the reverse. Both of them put up impressive numbers in brief AHL appearances at the end of last season and the playoffs. Though their AHL equivalency scores are positive, we must temper our expectations somewhat. Ten AHL games is still a very small sample size, and their high-scoring escapades are likely shrouded in part by good luck.

Perry’s draft model shows there are 86 forwards drafted in 2017 who are currently younger than 20 years old and still have not become NHL players. Chmelevski projects to have the 30th-highest wins above replacement (WAR) per 82 games of those forwards, and Chekhovich the 50th-highest. The model gives Chmelevski a 39 percent chance of making the NHL and Chekhovich a 36.8 percent chance.

Jake McGrew, Joshua Norris, Scott Reedy:

Of those same 86 forwards, Jake McGrew ranks 75th in terms of WAR value and has a 21.3 percent chance of making the NHL. Norris ranks 77th, with a 60.96 percent chance of making it (the definition of a “safe” pick), and Scott Reedy ranks 78th, with just a 24.5 percent chance of making the big leagues. Norris’ athleticism and scoring network impact might make him more likely to reach his peak value than these numbers give him credit for, but the early returns are not terribly exciting. Perry’s model, which is based on these NHLe conversion factors and how close a player’s statistical profile is to historical players, shows just one well known NHL player who has a profile similar to Norris’: Andrew Cogliano. If we take that to be about Norris’ ceiling, we’re looking at a solid second-line center at his peak.

Time is Running Out

According to research by Namita Nandakumar, an analyst for the Philadelphia Eagles, the median prospect makes the league (plays their first season of 40+ games) four years after their draft date. Most players hit that mark in their first or second year by the time they’re 23 years old. While there are exceptions, we can be fairly certain a player isn’t going to crack the NHL if he doesn’t appear in NHL games before either of these milestones.

NHL players time to break into league
Players who played 50+ games their first or second year in the league and the age during which they played those games, between 2006-07 and 2016-17 seasons

Rourke Chartier:

Chartier is about to enter his D+4 season, or the fourth season after his draft year. He will turn 23 before the upcoming season. His NHLe production in the AHL last season was solid, but Perry’s model thinks his chances of making the NHL are diminishing. The more simplistic measurements — age and years elapsed since draft day without any NHL games — suggest the same. Chartier will need to do some serious head turning this season with the Barracuda if he wants to take the next step.

Maxim Letunov:

What? The guy hasn’t even played one AHL season and already his clock is ticking? Letunov’s NCAA scoring rate wasn’t overly impressive last season, and this upcoming season will be his fifth season removed from his draft year. Now, the fact he hasn’t been in the Sharks’ system that entire time and the fact he went the college hockey route might allow us some leniency as far as his timeline is concerned. But Letunov will be 23 before the season is up, and he will have to impress quickly if he is to buck trends.

Question Marks

Antti Suomela, Vincent Praplan, Filip Sandberg:

These players are question marks because they are not following traditional prospect timelines. They are also all older than those whom we typically consider prospects. Suomela is likely the closest to seeing NHL action, with some penciling him in as the fourth-line center or extra forward to begin the season. His scoring rate led the Finnish Liiga, and he was arguably one of the league’s best players, period. He’s in his athletic prime, and the Sharks’ best-case scenario is that Suomela hits his 37-point NHLe above (as Donskoi did in a similar position before him) and continues driving play as he does in Finland.

Praplan’s scoring rate in the Swiss pro league (NLA) wasn’t as impressive as Suomela’s in Finland. However, Perry’s NHLe calculations show that NHL teams might underrate the quality of the NLA. Also working in Praplan’s favor is that he is also at the beginning of his prime years and that the Barracuda don’t currently possess any game-breakers that might keep Praplan from important minutes if his success overseas translates to the the balmy rinks of North America.

Finally, the hope for Filip Sandberg was that he would morph into a Viktor Arvidsson, or at least a Viktor Arvidsson Lite. Unfortunately, injuries hampered his first AHL season, and his raw scoring rate was unimpressive. Despite these unsightly signs, Sandberg had one of the better positive impacts on the team’s scoring network last season, suggesting that a healthy year might yield more enticing results.

Alexander True:

True just signed an entry-level contract, suggesting the Sharks organization has faith in his recent 28-point (over 68 games) AHL season. His NHLe scoring rate isn’t compelling in and of itself, but his relative youth and the fact he’s showing growth without drawing much NHL interest before this season might be signs he’s just a late bloomer. What makes True a question mark are his impacts on the ‘Cuda scoring network. True helped his teammates produce on the power play, but at 5-on-5, he was reliant on his teammates to notch points. The question the organization must answer this season is whether True took steps forward last season or whether he was just paired with the right teammate(s).

Hello, Big Leagues

Rudolfs Balcers:

Balcers, Balcers, Balcers. There isn’t much left to say about Balcers. As the Barracuda’s best player last season, he’ll almost undoubtedly see some NHL games this year. Using Perry’s NHLe and adjusting for peak age (25 years old), one projection method suggests Balcers might be a 51-point forward in his prime.

This list of players shows Balcers had the 10th-highest age-adjusted NHLe among AHL forwards last season. Fifty-one points is still within the range of average forward production in the NHL, but it’s at the higher end of average.

The chart below shows the scoring distribution of every forward season with at least 20 games played in a given season since 2013-14:

Rudolfs Balcers san jose sharks hockey
82-game points pace for individual forward seasons, 2014-2018, minimum 20 games played in a single season

The average 82-game point pace was 36 points. One standard deviation from that is 56 points, so a 51-point Balcers would be just shy of the one deviation threshold. If Balcers continues along the trajectory his numbers say he’s on, we will be witnessing the birth of a decent bottom-six NHL forward, which is about all San Jose can ask for from a fifth-round pick.

While a handful of prospects have shown promising signs in their progression, it’s important we temper our expectations. Few players drafted outside the early rounds of the draft (rounds 1-3) go on to become NHL players. The future in San Jose still appears as a dim light at the end of a long tunnel, but there is at least a light there. The Sharks must hope their current group of forward prospects can buck some age- and scoring-rate trends if they are to build their team from within.