What can we expect from Timo Meier?

Timo Meier’s counting stats last year didn’t meet expectations, but he still offers a lot of promise.

It’s Timo Meier’s birthday. I’d like to celebrate one of the best young talents in the organization. Happy birthday! May you have goal songs from every NHL arena stuck in your head this season.

A glance at Timo Meier’s stat sheet from last year reveals meager point totals for the Shark’s winger’s rookie year. The 20-year-old winger scored three goals and added three assists to top out at six points in 34 games. His 23 points in 33 AHL games should translate roughly to somewhere between 10 and 11 points in 34 NHL games, so it appears the young forward is behind in his development. The inputs behind his score-sheet numbers suggests Meier handled his limited ice time more than capably.

Meier took about 12 shots on goal for every 60 minutes of 5v5 hockey he played. That number was well ahead of the rest of the team, including Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau — the Sharks’ three top goal scorers. That mark also ranked (per now-defunct stats.hockeyanalysis.com) 4th out of 402 forwards played at least 300 minutes at 5v5 last season. His 3.5 percent shooting percentage, however, ranked dead last among Sharks forwards and 375th out of those same 402 forwards. That kind of shot production paired with that shooting percentage reeks of bad luck. His teammates didn’t much, either: The Sharks as a team shot just 5.26 percent (per Corsica.Hockey) with Meier on the ice at 5v5 (adjusted for the score, venue and zone in which the skater starts his shifts) last season.

Is Shooting Just to Shoot Enough?

Sharks bench boss, Pete DeBoer, criticized Meier for not being selective enough with his shots last year.

“You don’t want to shoot [just] to shoot up here, or to just get shots on net. You’re not scoring on NHL goalies like you are on junior goalies from 30 or 40 feet out,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got to pick your spots. Sometimes you have to look for a better play than a shot.”

It’s a fair point to make, especially with all of the work the hockey stats community is doing on shot location and quality. Last season, those same 402 forwards, on average, took shots from about 26.6 feet away from the goal. Meier’s average on the year — 25.85 feet — was 166th on that list and in the neighborhood of guys named Mikael Granlund, Tyler Johnson, and Eric Staal.

On the Sharks, however, Meier’s average shot distance ranked 10th out of 13 forwards who played at least 300 minutes with the team. That put him a few feet closer to goal than Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton and about six inches farther away than Logan Couture’s average shot. Perhaps DeBoer’s comments reflect the fact that Meier’s shot selection, within the team’s system, is a bit loose. Still, it’s hard to agree with the coach’s comment, that “to just get shots on net” is a negative thing.

A visualization of Meier’s unblocked shots relative to league average provides a bit more evidence that Meier’s shot selection might not be so undisciplined (and that DeBoer’s comments might be off-base), after all:

Statistical models that attempt to explain how many goals a player is expected to score given his shot volume, type and location believe Meier should have scored closer to seven or eight goals this season instead of the three he tallied. If this year Meier’s shooting percentage regresses back toward the mean, we might see him shoot closer to six or seven percent. If Meier plays all 82 games during the current 2017-18 season, keeps the same 5v5 shot rate, and his shooting percentage regresses, he should score closer to 12 or 13 goals at even strength.

There is also reason to believe Meier’s shot rates won’t remain the same. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, 261 forwards played at least 2500 5v5 minutes through the end of the 2016-17 season. Just 12 of those players maintained a shooting rate of above 10 shots per 60 minutes of ice time the entire four seasons. While Meier’s shooting percentage is likely to regress in his favor, we might also expect that his shot rate falls, too. The outlook for this season, however, appears rosier than last year’s unlucky outing.

Meier Boosts Teammates’ Play

Meier’s box score stats were not impressive, and we’ll have to watch this year play out a bit to see how regression treats him in that department. In the meantime, we can look at other numbers to see whether his play supported his expected goal totals.

This is the top of the list of forwards who played at least 330 score, zone, and venue adjusted 5v5 minutes during the 2016-17 season. The list is sorted by individual expected goals per 60 minutes of ice time:

One might argue that is pretty solid company. Expected goals don’t tell the entire story, though. Guentzel and Hornqvist, while good players in their own right, were also two of Sidney Crosby’s most common linemates last season. That fact presents evidence that some players’ scoring numbers receive a boost from playing alongside one of the greatest players ever. The task now is to decipher whether Meier is getting a bump from his linemates or if he is driving play on his own.

This first image is the Sharks’ unblocked shot locations with Meier on the ice at even strength. Dark red indicates a high volume of unblocked shots compared to league average. Dark blue suggests a dearth of unblocked shots compared to league average. The second image is the Sharks’ unblocked shot locations without Meier on the ice.

Meier shifted the Sharks’ shots to the right of the goal. He also helped the Sharks move the bulk of their shots about 10 feet closer to the net.

With Meier on the ice, the Sharks controlled just over 58% of all shot attempts (per corsica.hockey) — that is good for 4th-best among all forwards who played at least 330 minutes last season. Without Meier on the ice, the Sharks controlled only 49% of all shot attempts. With Meier on the ice, the Sharks were expected to score 61 Percent of all goals — that figure is the third-best mark last season. Without Meier on the ice, the Sharks were expected to score just 51% of all goals. The effect with Meier’s most common linemates is similar:

This shows Meier similar effect on the team’s ability to control shots. He is up in the top-right quadrant, along with Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl.

This graphic shows that everyone Meier played had a harder time controlling shots without him than they did with him. Meier needs more playing time to see how shot differentials stabilize, but the early returns suggest he elevated the play of teammates he spent the most time with. Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen and Micheal Haley all fell back to average or below average players with regard to shot differential without Meier. Number 28 dragged the Sharks’ 4th line along with him whenever he played.

This year, Meier is off to a slow start. He and Hertl posted the team’s worst shot attempt differential during their home opener vs. the Flyers on Wednesday. However, it’s probably not wise to draw conclusions from just one evening of hockey. In his limited, mostly 4th-line minutes last season, Meier was very effective despite his low point total. With (hopefully) increased ice time comes more difficult assignments, as well as regression. It’s hard to say for sure what Meier is capable of, but if his 2016-17 season was any indication we have quite the young winger on our hands.