2019-20 Season Review: Why hasn’t Antti Suomela earned any trust?

The Finnish forward represents a divide between playing well and playing the “right way.”

If you’re disappointed in Antti Suomela’s season, I can understand why.

Well, kind of. One goal and six assists over 20 games is hardly exciting, especially from a prospect who was known to show flashes of brilliance last year — even if his three goals and five assists over 27 games doesn’t look all too different on the outside.

It seems like a change in coaching hasn’t done much to earn Suomela any leeway, which is where the controversy (for lack of a better term) around Suomela seems to be centered.

For what it’s worth — and as I will explain when we get to his RAPM profile — I think Suomela is a good player, who has room to improve, but would flourish in a forward-thinking system that rewards players for taking risks. Unfortunately, I don’t think that system is in San Jose, and to be frank, it’s not going to be in much of the league, either.

Suomela is the player who, for me, represents the idea that it doesn’t matter how well you play or that the way you play can produce results, it’s that you have to play the right way, or only get certain kinds of results. He’s among some of the players that make me so frustrated about hockey as a sport lagging so far behind other leagues when it comes to adapting the sport and moving forward.

I’m not saying Antti Suomela is going to become Connor McDavid if you put him on the top line. But I am saying that players who continue to do the things that have been shown to lead to goal-scoring, if they have raw skills that are maybe out side of your system, they should be given a chance over players that frankly aren’t as good. Especially with a relatively young player like Suomela, who turn 26 last month and still has a decent amount of time left to be a bottom-six player.

Sometimes there are fundamental differences between what makes a player good and exciting and the way the organization insists on coaching. I’m not sure I see Suomela not being at odds with the system if he sticks around.

RAPM Chart (via Evolving-Hockey)

The graphic above illustrates a player’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), a measure created here by the twins behind Evolving-Hockey to attempt to “isolate a given player’s contribution while on the ice independent of all factors that we can account for.” For more on their process, see this explainer on Hockey Graphs.

I’m sure that’s not exactly the statistical profile you were expecting, given how passionate I seem to be about this one particular player. I say this because I want to show you his rookie season, which left an impression on me.

Last year, Suomela under-scored his shooting, while also being a defensive liability. Though his offense regressed a bit, his defensive play actually improved. You can see the Corsi Against bar is still rather tall, but his Expected Goals Against is in the positive, indicating that there aren’t necessarily quality chances getting through. I see clear improvement in these charts.

Career Summary (via HockeyViz)

The bottom chart shows that Pete Deboer started trusting Suomela with more minutes throughout last year before sending him down, while his minutes have been fairly consistent under Bob Boughner, though the circumstances of his being on the roster in both seasons were quite different. Perhaps coming into the lineup more organically, in a mostly idealized lineup as opposed to the scraping of the bottom of the barrel for players that the end of the season turned out to be — maybe that could result in something different.

One can only hope.

What Comes Next?

Suomela is on the final year of a one-year, $700,000 contract, his second with the Sharks. He actually took a pay cut to re-sign with the Sharks and likely won’t have much leveraging power when he is set to become a Restricted Free Agent this off-season. It should be noted that his first contract also included a much smaller minors salary than his current contract ($70,000 in 2018-19 versus $200,000 in 2019-20). I would imagine his next contract will be structured similarly.

The Evolving-Hockey twins created a contract projection model based on the history of similar contracts. Their model projects Suomela at one year, $844,800 (assuming an $84 million cap). I wouldn’t be surprised if the raised was more modest, given the likely case that the salary cap stays stagnant.