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Defending Gustav Nyquist - Again

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Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This piece was written prior to the 12/11 game against the Flyers. All stats are current through all games played on 12/10.

We're 28 games into the season and thus far, the Wings have disappointed. While their performance is not unexpected, it is frustrating nonetheless. As is common with disappointment, fans and reporters have sought out scapegoats. Increasingly, the finger has been pointed at Gustav Nyquist and his meager goal total. Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press penned an article a couple days ago detailing Nyquist's goal-scoring troubles. She's not wrong - Nyquist has one goal in his last 23 games and just four for the season. However, I'd argue that the biggest reason that Nyquist receives criticism is a disconnect between fan/team expectations and his true capabilities. It's time we appreciate Nyquist for what he is - a smooth-skating forward who produces points like an average first-line player.

Nyquist's Play at 5v5

During the offseason, head coach Jeff Blashill pledged to give Nyquist more ice time, recognizing that Nyquist produced points at a consistent rate, but wasn't afforded enough ice time for it to show in his raw totals. And it's true - last season, Nyquist produced 1.79 points/60 minutes at 5v5, up from 1.47 points/60 in 2014-2015. The difference was that Nyquist played a minute less per game at 5v5. So how does Nyquist look this season?

Season 5v5 TOI/GP 5v5 Goals/60 5v5 Assists/60 5v5 Points/60
2014-2015 12:27 0.65 0.82 1.47
2015-2016 11:27 0.51 1.28 1.79
2016-2017 12:51 0.67 1.50 2.17

data from Corsica.hockey

Coach Blashill has held up his end of the bargain, increasing Nyquist's ice time by 1:24 per game at 5v5. However, Nyquist has actually increased his 5v5 points/60 from last season and is now a full 0.70 points/60 higher than his 2014-2015 season. Looking at the league leaderboard, Nyquist is 44th in 5v5 points/60, tied with Auston Matthews among all forwards with >250 minutes played at 5v5

Player 5v5 TOI 5v5 Goals 5v5 Assists 5v5 Points 5v5 Points/60
Auston Matthews 359.55 11 2 13 2.17
Gustav Nyquist 359.60 4 9 13 2.17

data from Corsica.hockey

Which raises the question...if Nyquist's stat-line looked like Matthews', would the complaints about his scoring still persist?

A ranking of 44th is impressive. Remembering that there are three forwards per line, four lines per team, and 30 teams in the NHL, there are 360 NHL forwards. Forwards ranking in the top-90 could be considered "top-line", 91-180 "second-line", 181-270 "third-line", and 271-360 "fourth-line". Nyquist is 44th in 5v5 points/60. That's squarely in the middle of the top-line production bracket.

Misguided Expectations

I will start this section by stating that Nyquist's 2013-2014 season was the worst thing that could have happened to him. For those needing a refresher, Nyquist started the season in the AHL before being called up in early November. After his call-up, Nyquist scored a ridiculous 28 goals and 48 points in 57 games. However, his performance was never going to be sustainable.

That season, Nyquist converted 18.3% of his shots into goals. League average is closer to half of that. There are certain players, such as Steven Stamkos, that have been able to consistently shoot well above league average. However, when we look at the "quality" of chances generated by Nyquist, we see that he was a little lucky to score the number of goals he did.

Using DTMAboutHeart's expected goals model (more about here), we see that Nyquist vastly outperformed his 5v5 expected goals total.

data from @DTMAboutHeart

Remember that DTMAboutHeart's expected goals model takes into account shot distance, location, type, angle, rush/rebound, on/off-wing, and shooter talent to project the likelihood of a shot ending up a goal. Nyquist managed to outperform his expectations by 10 goals. This incredible season "set" the expectations for Nyquist moving forward. What we've seen since is a regression to the mean for Nyquist based on the quality of chances he's generated at 5v5.

data from @DTMAboutHeart

Revisiting the Powerplay

Last season, I wrote an article discussing this same topic and found that the biggest reason for the drop in Nyquist's goal-scoring was his drop in powerplay scoring and ice time. I postulated that the drop in powerplay goal scoring was due to Nyquist being shifted out of the slot and over to the half-boards on the Wings' 1-3-1 powerplay.

Instead of being positioned where the red "L" is, Nyquist was moved out to the wing last year to serve as a powerplay quarterback. While Nyquist is an exceptional passer, his strength is attacking the net and pouncing on rebounds. When Nyquist was moved out of the slot, we can see how the location of his powerplay shot attempts changed.

Visual from @DTMAboutHeart

This is a visual of Nyquist's shots and goals from the 2014-2015 season where he was positioned in the slot for most of the season. You can see that a majority of his attempts are clustered around the periphery of the crease.

Watch how Nyquist dives towards the net and pounces on a rebound from this 2014-2015 game against the Kings. Even with these types of chances, Nyquist still vastly outperformed his powerplay expected goals for the 2014-2015 season.

data from @DTMAboutHeart

As Nyquist was moved out of the slot for the 2015-2016 season, we saw a change in the location of Nyquist's shot attempts. Instead of being heavily clustered in the slot, they were spread out.

The Wings did make an attempt later in the season to get Nyquist back into the slot, but the experiment was short-lived. This season, the Wings have made more of an effort to get Nyquist into the slot, however that move has yet to pay off. If I were the Wings, I would make an attempt to get him more involved on the powerplay by feeding him the puck in the slot.

data from Corsica.hockey

Ultimately, I think Nyquist is most successful in the slot, but we may never see him approach the 14-15 powerplay goal totals.

Where Does That Leave Us?

What we have here is a player that vastly (and unsustainably) overachieved at 5v5 in 2013-2014, who then masked the return to normalcy at 5v5 in 2014-2015 by vastly overachieving on the powerplay, and has since then returned to Earth over the past two seasons. However, the return to "normalcy" is still pretty damn good. Nyquist is averaging 1.90 5v5 points/60 which is 66th among NHL forwards with >500 minutes played over the past season and a half. That's the best mark of any player on Detroit (>500 minutes played).

Player Games Played 5v5 Points/60 minutes
Gustav Nyquist 110 1.90
Dylan Larkin 108 1.86
Tomas Tatar 109 1.62
Darren Helm 94 1.40
Henrik Zetterberg 110 1.37
Justin Abdelkader 104 1.35
Pavel Datsyuk 66 1.34
Luke Glendening 109 1.14
Riley Sheahan 109 1.13
Brad Richards 68 0.84

data from Corsica.hockey

He positively impacts shot attempts, draws penalties at a high rate, and scores at the rate of an average 1st line player at 5v5.

data from hockeyviz.com

No, he's not the next Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, or Henrik Zetterberg. However, he's still an exceptionally talented player in his own right. Why don't we appreciate Nyquist for what he is - a highly cerebral, playmaking forward who scores like a first liner, positively impacts shot attempts, and is cost-controlled at $4.75 million for the next two seasons?