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On Josh Norris and ceiling projections

Should we pay attention to the center’s successful World Junior Showcase?

Apr 5, 2018; St. Paul, MN, USA; Michigan forwards Josh Norris (9) and Notre Dame defenseman Andrew Peeke (22) chase the puck at center ice during the second period in the 2018 Frozen Four college hockey national semifinals at Xcel Energy Center Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Norris just finished a five-game Junior showcase. In those five games — two with the split squad USA White team and three with the full Team USA squad — he corralled five points, three of which were primary points. As exciting as a point-per-game pace in an international tournament looks, it would be unwise of us to assign too much value to five contests in the heat of summer.

That’s the funny thing: Norris’ raw numbers have never been his strongest attribute. It’s what we don’t see in his box scores that can tell us about what else we might expect from the rising center. But if Norris’ point totals keep climbing to match his more hidden qualities, does that mean we have a budding star on our hands?

Not quite.

Norris is unlikely to emerge from his prospect gauntlet an NHL phenom. Yet, there is reason to believe he reaches the ceilings that prospect models project for him. Despite finishing the mini-tournament near the top of his team’s scoring column, Norris took a backseat in the media to the Hughes brothers and other, more-well known in the world of hockey, names. That type of attention, or lack thereof, is something we’ve grown accustomed to with the young forward. It’d be easy to take away that Norris just isn’t very good. That’s not the case either. There is evidence to suggest that what the spotlight doesn’t shine so brightly on is what makes Norris potentially special.

Positive intangibles might mean Norris is headed for Best-Case Scenario

Draft-year scouting reports for Norris repeated a similar message: Norris is good in both ends, a hard worker, is easy to coach, is physical and intelligent but lacks the offensive fireworks to turn into a true top-six NHL center. Norris’ coaches trust him to play in all three situations, as was clear at the recent SportChek Showcase in Kamloops. Norris took the draw for the first power play unit’s first power play. He was later moved to the second unit, but he also spent time on the penalty kill. When Team USA needed a goal at the end of the game, Norris was out there for the face-off. Finally, Norris is an athlete. He was near or at the top of most combine drills during his draft year, and that strength and power shows itself on the ice in his skating.

These are positive intangibles. They tell of a player poised to make a leap on the scoresheet and are not the throwaway “toughness” and “grit” descriptors bestowed upon prospects and players who wouldn’t recognize the sight of a goal siren if it fell from the glass and hit them in the visor. Norris’ intangibles, like his boxcar stats, aren’t everything. We have a few seasons’ worth of information about Norris and ages and ages of comparable historical seasons that contextualize what Norris has accomplished so far.

Numbers highlight Norris’ progress so far and what it might mean for his future

To understand what ceiling it is Norris is attempting to reach, we’ll look at some comparable player seasons different models have developed. At Canucks Army, during Norris’ draft year, Jeremy Davis’ prospect cohort success model showed that 41 percent of comparable statistical profiles went on to make the NHL and projected him to have a ceiling of a 54-point, 82-game season. R.J. Umberger and Kyle Okposo showed very similar prospect profiles. Paul Stastny was also on Norris’ map, but further away from his profile.

Fast forward to his first NCAA season and things aren’t quite as exciting. Emmanuel Perry’s awesome new prospect success model believed that Norris’ ceiling took a bit of a hit even if he edged closer to NHL readiness. For his draft year (USHL and US National Development Program), Perry’s model gave Norris a 49 percent chance of making the NHL with a projected wins above replacement (WAR) per 82 games of 0.25. Using Norris’ first NCAA season as the input instead, Perry’s model gave the skater a 61 percent chance of making the NHL but just a projected WAR/82 of 0.07.

For context, 383 NHL forwards played at least 500 minutes last season (about 12 forwards per team). A WAR/82 of 0.25 would have ranked 235th and a WAR/82 of 0.07, 272nd. Those two figures represent bottom-6 material, but the fact both values remain positive is important. Using Norris’ NCAA debut, Perry’s model came up with some new comparable players:

You’ll notice that the only recognizable name on that list is Andrew Cogliano. Between Norris’ draft year and first year since his draft, the best NHL players with the closest statistically similar seasons to Norris are R.J. Umberger, Andrew Cogliano and Kyle Okposo. We should also consider that neither prospect model showed many other notable NHL players alongside those three (other than a Stastny appearance, but he’s not as close of a match). Together, those pieces of information likely tell us that the likes of Cogliano, Umberger and Okposo represent Norris’ ceiling as an NHL player and that Stastny is what might happen if Norris bucks statistical trends.

Three historical comparisons show us what Norris’ ceiling might look like

How did those three players — Umberger, Okposo and Cogliano — fare during their prime years (ages 23-27)?

Umberger’s first season in the NHL was his age-23 season, so it appears he was a bit of a late bloomer. During his age 23-27 seasons, he averaged a 45.5-point, 82-game pace. At 5-on-5 during his age 25-27 years (we don’t have shot data from before his age-25 season), Umberger scored at about the rate of a second-line forward. He was not very good in his own end, but he generally had a positive impact on his team’s offense (the rate of shots they took with him on the ice). Because of Umberger’s poor defense, his shot differential relative to his teammates was a net minus, and his expected goals differential relative to his teammates was slightly positive. During the years for which we have 5-on-5 shot data, we can see that Umberger received first-line all-situations minutes. Umberger struggled in a first-line role and would have likely served his team better in a middle-6 slot.

Okposo played second-line minutes during his age-23 and 24 seasons and first-line minutes thereafter. During his prime seasons, he averaged a nearly 61-point, 82-game pace. At 5-on-5, he scored at a first-line rate every season except for one. He had a positive impact in the shot- and expected goal-differential departments relative to his teammates while playing with the Islanders’ best forwards (read: John Tavares). During Okposo’s prime, he was a first-line winger whose offensive contributions made up for whatever defensive deficiencies he possessed.

Andrew Cogliano averaged a 34-point, 82-game pace during his prime years. As a 23- and 24-year-old, he played second- and third-line minutes and scored at a third-line pace at 5-on-5. As a 25- and 26-year-old, Cogliano continued playing third-line minutes but exploded into a first-line scoring rate. In his age-27 season, Cogliano’s 5-on-5 scoring subsided a bit, and he returned to a borderline second/third-line scorer. During those prime years, Cogliano averaged out to a positive shot- and expected goal-differential relative to his teammates, while playing with mostly middle-sixers.

Of those three players, Okposo represents the most exciting ceiling for Norris. Unfortunately, Okposo also plays a different position. Hockey Reference lists both Cogliano and Umberger as winger and center, but Okposo is firmly a winger. Cogliano and Umberger average out to a solid second-line center. Umberger was in over his head playing first-line minutes, and Cogliano likely would have been fine in second-line minutes. As Norris’ ceiling, that sounds about right: someone who’s not good enough for top-line duty and who is likely better than a third-line center, if not by much.

Norris’ impact on scoring network suggests there’s more than meets the eye

If you remember immediately after the draft, we graded the Sharks’ draft process. In that article we introduced the idea of “betweenness” or how reliant a given player is on his teammates to score, as developed by Evan Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer made available data for the three CHL leagues, the USHL and the AHL, dating as far back as 20 years ago. For part of his data, he created an averaged metric. For this metric, he calculated an adjusted scoring rate based on a prospect’s age and league and then averaged that with their betweenness score to come up with a number that represents the combination of a player’s individual scoring and his contribution to his team’s scoring network. The idea is that this metric might help us understand which players are contributing more than their box scores suggest. In Norris’ case, it might help tell us whether or not his so-so counting stats are a problem or nothing to worry about too much.

That metric at both all situations and 5-on-5 includes some heady company, especially in the 95th percentile and above. Norris is well within that 95th percentile among all first-year eligible (age 17-18 season) forwards in Oppenheimer’s sample of 5,000+ forwards. In fact, Norris ranks 162 out of all 5,000+ forwards on that list. The averaged scoring rate and betweenness metric isn’t available for NCAA seasons yet, but Oppenheimer has tweeted out a few NCAA teams’ recent seasons. Here is Norris’ University of Michigan team from the 2017-18 season:

Despite being one of the youngest players on the team, Norris was the third-most important member of the team’s scoring network at 5-on-5 last season and the fourth-most important member in all situations. He was a the catalyst of the power play, along with Quinn Hughes. Cooper Marody, the only forward above Norris on this list, has turned pro with the Oilers organization. Others on the team ahead of Norris on the scoring lists, Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone, have graduated and/or turned pro. The only forward remaining who scored more points than Norris did last year is Jake Slaker, though Slaker scored just four more points than Norris in three more games. The forward corps is Norris’ to lead this season.

Projecting prospects is difficult. We can glean only so much from scouting reports and statistical analyses. What those two items tell is is what Norris’ ceiling might be and how likely he is to reach it. For two seasons in a row, Norris has had one of the biggest impacts on his team’s scoring network. This coming season, he’ll have all the chances in the world to make the box score his.

If we want to see Norris hit his ceiling, we want to see him go pro after this coming NCAA season. If Norris decides that finishing his degree is the path forward, we’ll want to hear about how the Sharks were ready to sign him had he wanted to leave school early. We’ll want to see his scoring rate explode past the one point-per-game threshold. Norris seems to have all the tools necessary to reach the upper limits of his potential, and this coming season will go a long way toward showing us how close he’ll get.