Sunday, Josh kicked off our Top 25 Under 25 Series with a look at Petr Mrzaek, and Corey took a look at Alexey Marchenko on Tuesday. Today we continue with a player whose stock took a tumble this season in some fans eyes, Teemu Pulkkinen.
In past years Teemu Pulkkinen would have been found much higher on this list. It wasn't that long ago that Wings fans eagerly anticipated the arrival of the small Finn with the big shot to the big leagues. He was everything we craved, a right-handed powerplay marksman with the ability to score in bunches. But times, they have changed, the 24 year old Pulkkinen has found himself a regular spot up in the Cleary Cabana watching more games than he plays. redwinger43 did a great writeup on Pulkkinen as part of the Player Grades Series and gave him a fair C+. So, is Tiny (5'11", 183 lb) Teemu destined to be no more than a shooting star unable to put up goals at the NHL level or is he an as yet untapped 20-30 goal scoring powerplay triggerman?
It doesn't take an NHL scout to see that those are eye popping numbers. Pulkkinen as a 22 year old was a 30 goal scorer at the AHL level. He then took it to another level and managed to light the lamp 34 times in only 46 games during the 2014-2015 season while shuttling between the Red Wings and the Griffins. Those 34 goals were good enough to lead the AHL despite his closest trailers playing in over 70 games each. Stop and think about that for a minute, this kid was scoring at will in the AHL and nobody else was even in the ball park of his production. 19 of his 65 goals across these 2 seasons were scored on the PP, something to keep in mind as we move along. At 23 he had clearly proven to Wings management he was ready for the big time, and quite possibly exactly what they needed.
Looking at Teemu's numbers from his NHL stints, there is a dramatic drop off from a player who could not be contained by the AHL. He has 11 goals and 20 points across 67 games over the last 2 seasons. That projects to a 13 goal, 24 point season. That would put him a shade under Riley Shehan and Darren Helm's underwhelming seasons. It could be worse, but not exactly what was hoped for. His shooting percentage comes out to 8.1%, less than half of the 16.7% clip he had going in the AHL. Another glaring number is the PP production, 2 goals, good for one per season from a man who made his living on the man advantage while with the Griffins. So what caused the boy with the blistering cannon to suddenly start firing duds? Most of it may be fairly simple to explain and more on that in a minute, but first, let's see what the advanced analytics have to say.
The advanced stats for Pulkkinen begin to paint a different picture. The obvious number that jumps out is his CF% of 57.8%. That number was good enough to lead the entire team. His CF% relative to the team was also a strong 6.4%. Not only did he lead in CF% he was at the top for GF% as well meaning those top notch possession numbers were translating to the scoreboard as well. And if you were thinking a leading cause was luck, guess again, his PDO was only 100.3. So that begs the question, with such overwhelming possession and goal differential numbers where were the point totals. A closer look at his advanced stats will tell you the Wings shot an abysmally low 5.11% with him on the ice, only ahead of Drew Miller. On the flip side the save percentage by the Wings goaltenders with him on the ice was an unsustainable 95.2%. Combining these two numbers adds up to next to no goals being scored for either team with Teemu on the ice. Now, all these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, Pulkkinen only played 36 games this year for a grand total of 337:52 minutes at 5 on 5 and a total average ice time in all situations of 11:34. These totals do not make for a very strong sample size. It should also be noted he was afforded the benefit of starting 43.61% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, 2nd highest on the team, so he was very sheltered.
So how does a guy with a shot like Teemu's end up with such pedestrian point totals and wearing a suit at puck drop?
There is likely several contributing factors, some more so than others. Let's break some of them down. One factor is Pulkinnen was stepping up from the AHL to the NHL and with that comes world class defencemen and goaltenders. There are very few players who can tee it up from long range and have the shot not deflected away or blocked, as well as beat the goaltender on a regular basis. The improvement in goaltending could explain the drop in Shooting percentage from 17% to a still respectable 8%.
But digging a little deeper, I believe you can find the root cause of his pedestrian goal totals. Looking at his iShots/iFenwick you will find Teemu hits the net about 60% of the time not including the shots that get blocked. Looking at the rest of the forwards on the team, the expectation is for forwards to shoot in the mid 70's. Even Brad Richards hit at about 75%. There is a similar correlation for iShots/iCorsi. I believe this correlates with what the eye test will tell you. Teemu is, at present, a bit of a one trick pony. He either comes down the wing and tries to shoot through the defenceman or when the Wings have possession in deep, powerplay or not, he wants to setup for the one timer in the left wing circle. The problem is everyone knows he can fire the puck, and they know where he likes to shoot from, NHL defencemen included.
Another factor that has to be considered was Blashill's usage of Pulkkinen when he did get in the lineup following his shoulder injury. This was touched on in the Player Grade article last month. Pulkkinen was largely used on the 4th line alongside Luke Glendening for long stretches. Putting Pulkkinen in this type of role with this type of player seemed counterintuitive to what he's built for. He needs to be in the offensive end firing off that shot as often as possible. Blashill also dropped Pulkkinen's powerplay time as the season progressed. The man advantage is Teemu's bread and butter as demonstrated during his time in the AHL. However, the reasoning for his dwindling time on the powerplay may have had some justification, due to some of his shot selections as discussed above.
All in all, I think Teemu Pulkkinen is not a player you should sleep on. His advanced stats say he's ready to break loose. In order to do that, he needs to adapt to the NHL game. In particular, he needs to mix up his attack and find ways to openings that allow him to get a clean shot. If he can do that, the goals should start to pile up. To do this he will also need linemates capable of holding onto the puck down low and distributing it to him when he finds that opening.
Teemu will likely never be stellar at both ends, but he can be serviceable enough in his own end and allow his offensive prowess and shot on the powerplay to build him a role. With proper linemates, and some time on the powerplay, I don't think there's any reason a 20-goal season is out of the realm of possibility next season.
However, two items point to him not being given these opportunities. The recent news of his shoulder surgery that could knock him out 4-6 months will likely carry into the season, putting him at a disadvantage to earning a spot in the lineup even when he returns to full health.
More importantly, with the free agent acquisitions by the team at the forward posiition, it appears Teemu will be bumped further down the lineup rather than moved up. In particular, Vanek may occupy the role of right handed shooter on one of the PP units that he would have fit into. If there's no space to put him on the ice with more offensive minded linemates or be given time on the PP, than it may be time to move Teemu. I believe there would be teams that would utilize him in this role and allow him to a fair chance to fulfill his potential.
Here's to hoping it's in Red and White.
Keep an eye out, as our Top 25 Under 25 series continues with Riley Sheahan.