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  • Player Grades: The Top Forwards


    Minnesota Wild General Manager Bill Guerin has identified priority number one for this offseason: resigning RFA forwards Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Kevin Fiala. Kicking off our series in which we’re breaking down the play of each Wild player over the 2020-21 season, I’ll be grading their play first, not least because talks on their contracts are so hot in anticipation of moves that may be necessary ahead of the expansion draft.

    Joel Eriksson Ek

    Eriksson Ek was nothing short of stupendous this year. According to Evolving-Hockey’s WAR calculation, he was worth 1.5 wins above replacement, placing him 54th among NHL forwards in this catch-all metric and 17th among NHL centers. Players who also racked up this much WAR included John Tavares and Zach Hyman as they beat up on 2021’s Canadian teams, and perennial Selke favorite Ryan O’Reilly (1.6 WAR).

    He did this playing 17 minutes per night shutting down the best players in the Honda West Division , including the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Stone, Anze Kopitar, and Logan Couture. This probably explains why he was 47 percent in the faceoff dot, just below average but reasonably competitive while dealing with some of the best centers in the game. The rest of his 200-foot game more than makes up for a few lost draws, which is evident from any hockey man’s analysis from watching a game as well as in his analytics: he was the 39th best centerman in Defensive Goals Above Replacement, which is EH’s metric which measures a players overall defensive game. In fact, Eriksson Ek’s game is so complete that he grades out positively in every aspect of EH’s GAR statistics (Offense, Defense, Power Play, Taking Penalties, and Drawing Penalties) besides killing penalties.

    What really lit up Eriksson Ek this year, however, was his offensive improvement — out of his 8.3 GAR on EH, 5.4 comes from his offensive game. In the past, Eriksson Ek’s job has been to get the puck away from the best players in the world, and then keep it until those elite players were too tired to keep skating. Doing something productive with that puck has never been part of the equation, but this year he got to the net and slammed away on pucks in a new, gritty offensive style that we haven’t seen from him before. “Mr. September” has always been able to out-work players on the boards and in his own end, but he finally put those tree trunk legs to work at the offensive net-front this year and saw incredible results. He racked up so many “ugly” opportunities this year that I actually had to expand the y-axis of his RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, which is shown below:

    It does have to be mentioned that Eriksson Ek played with Marcus Foligno this year, who was even better defensively and in fact put up better WAR numbers. Their roles are very different, as Joel plays center and Foligno plays the wing, but overall Foligno appears to be so good defensively that it’s possible that Eriksson Ek wouldn’t have been so good without him this year. On the other hand, they play complimentary hockey in what is, at the end of the day, a team sport — it’s hard to fault Eriksson Ek for that. Another important consideration is that Jordan Greenway’s 5-on-5 numbers were actually well below-average and, in some cases, flat-out bad this year. So, I think you can give Eriksson Ek credit for everything you see in his analytics because he’s somewhat pulled down by one of his wingers and buoyed by the other.

    This year, Eriksson Ek did everything that was expected of him on a shutdown line, and even went above and beyond that in finding a new aspect of his game in the offensive zone. He graded out near the bottom of the 1C class in every major metric in spite of playing the toughest minutes on the team, and truly seemed to elevate the play of Foligno (albeit with help from the Wild’s elite D corps).

    Grade: A

    Kevin Fiala

    2021 was a year quite unkind to star winger Kevin Fiala. Among Wild forwards, Fiala generated only the eighth-most WAR on the team, tied with Zach Parise with 0.8 WAR. Fans who watched the games would be absolutely shocked that Fiala graded out as a fourth-liner in terms of this catch-all stat, and you have to provide some context and dig in deeper to understand how this happened.

    A breakdown of Wild forwards and their Evolving hockey GAR is shown below. Fiala’s main issues this season were that his power play numbers (purple bar) and defensive metrics (red bar going negative) betrayed him.

    The defensive issues aren’t shocking, as Fiala has been a below-average defender over the past few years of his career. He gives the puck away a bit too often, usually because he tries to make a play in the neutral zone that he has the skill to pull off, but not 100 percent of the time. Furthermore, playing on the top power play unit with Victor Rask and Nick Bonino, two defensive players with limited skill, definitely dragged Fiala’s power play numbers below what he’s capable of.

    Interestingly, luck also played a factor in Fiala’s statistical shortfalls. Switching from GAR to xGAR, which quantifies offensive and defensive impacts based on scoring chance quality rather than pure scoring results, Fiala shoots up the board among Wild forwards. He ranks fifth on the team in xGAR, mostly due to his offensive impact improving from 3.5 GAR to 8.1 xGAR. While his GAR is only in the 68th percentile league-wide (128th in the league among forwards, or a decent second-liner), his xGAR is in the 85th percentile (58th best in the league, or the third-best forward in an average lineup).

    This implies that he was setting up quality chances which his linemates couldn’t finish. I think most fans that watched more than ten games this season would agree that Fiala, usually playing with a combination of Hartman, Rask, and Johansson, set up countless chances which went awry and left Wild fans shaking their heads or holding it in their hands. This conclusion certainly passes the sniff test (eye test).

    There are criticisms that can be leveled at Fiala based on the system in which he plays. Fiala’s defensive impact was that of a replacement-level forward, and on a team without stellar defensemen it could have burned him much worse. The Wild also allow their wingers to fly the zone when they take the puck away in the defensive zone, which fits Fiala’s jet-speed skating perfectly. While his linemates didn’t always do him favors, the Wild’s defensive systems compliment him quite well.

    Fiala’s blazing speed and silky hands make him truly elite in transition - some consider him to be among the 10 to 20 best players in the world at this. His blistering shot also makes him a Dumba-like asset on the power play with even better vision to find his teammates. His defensive game leaves plenty to be desired, although he’s shown marginal improvement in recent years. His defensive game likely needs to be addressed by adding a safe linemate, but it’s difficult to find centers that can cover for their teammates mistakes and support them in transition at the same time. While Fiala needs better help, he bears some responsibility for his defensive shortcomings and needs to be better at identifying opportunities to make a move without turning the puck over.

    Grade: B+

    Kirill Kaprizov

    This one’s obviously going to be an A+. Hopes were high for the rookie this year no matter how hard we all tried to temper them, and oh boy did he deliver. My highest hopes for him this year were for him to finish the year with a similar performance to Fiala from 2019, and he outstripped even that - Kirill racked up 1.7 WAR this year in 55 games, while Fiala racked up the same number in 64 games (although, Kirill actually played 1006 minutes in those games, while Fiala played 985 minutes in 2019 in spite of playing more games).

    Rather than justifying the grade I give Kirill, I want to review the unique traits that Kirill possesses.

    Kirill is another elite transition player like Fiala, but he generates these chances very differently. While both players take advantage of their elite skating and handling skills, Kirill generates some of his own opportunities by stealing pucks from his opponents and turning up ice quickly.

    Another unique trait of Kaprizov’s is that the way he generates offense is somewhat confusing when analyzed statistically. Most analytics utilize expected goals (xG) to quantify the volume and quality of scoring chances when a player is on the ice. This statistic is based on the location from which a shot is taken, as well as the time between that shot and the last event (usually a pass or rebound, so faster play or more chaos increases the value of a scoring chance). Kaprizov performs surprisingly poorly in this statistic, barely above-average at generating xG for himself and teammates at even strength.

    This doesn’t square at all with the eye test, and for good reason: Kaprizov generates excellent looks with lots of movement, and can score from distance or set up teammates. This generally comes through as a “finishing” statistic (shooting % or goals scored above expected), and these are very high for Kaprizov. When he plays with other players or passes them the puck, their finishing metrics also improve. This is an incredibly unique skillset that few players possess: Kaprizov can generate opportunities for himself and for teammates that don’t need to be close to the net, which is normally the only way players think to create offense. It speaks to his speed, hands, creativity, and hockey IQ. For more on this, the following thread from HockeyViz.com’s creator examined this closely in the following twitter thread.

    At 5-on-4, Kaprizov switches his style. While his goals-for drop off because he plays on the cursed Minnesota Wild PP (or is it that he’s playing on a PP unit with Rask and Bonino? Who’s to say), he’s one of the best at generating scoring chances close to the net - he generates xG at an extremely high rate. In xGAR (expected goals above replacement, similar to WAR but based on scoring), Kaprizov generated a whopping 4.6 this year. If that translates to PP GAR, Kirill would be among the top 20 power play forwards on earth.

    This actually bodes extremely well for the Wild PP going forward - Kaprizov is a spark plug that puts the advantage in man-advantage. He exploits the extra skater to create exceptionally dangerous chances for himself and others, and over time he should see his shooting impacts at 5-on-5 translate to the power play.

    Kaprizov left very little to be desired last year. He rekindled the flames of Mats Zuccarello’s burning offensive prowess which laid dormant last season, played well in all 200 feet of the rink, and created chances on the power play for a club which seems to have little to no organizational knowledge on how to succeed at 5-on-4. I can’t wait to see him put up a full season of work next year, and I hope that we can sign him long-term to keep that sexy Russian putting in work for this club for the next decade.

    Grade: A+

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