Fire, Brimstone and Milan Lucic

Jonathan Willis
February 15 2017 10:30AM

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The lack of secondary scoring from the Edmonton Oilers has been a story all season, one with many authors. Old standbys Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have earned scorn. Benoit Pouliot appears to be utterly lost. Big-name free agent acquisition Milan Lucic has been a disappointment.

Of the four of them, there isn’t any question as to which player’s poor season should be the most terrifying for the Oilers. It’s that of Lucic, who seems to be imploding at 5-on-5 just as he enters the first year of a buyout-proof forever contract.

This hasn’t gotten nearly as much coverage as it deserves, and for obvious reasons. Lucic has 31 points in 57 games, which is a perfectly reasonable number mostly in-line with his career norms. As long as that holds up, the criticism will be muted, regardless of how lethargic he looks at 5-on-5.

It isn’t news that Lucic has been essentially a power play specialist all season, or that this is out of character for him. His numbers this year are way out of whack with his career averages:

Lucic production

The blue line shows power play scoring. Most forwards fall between 2.0 and 6.0 points/hour, and as a general rule a guy scoring 4.0 points/hour is doing a good job. Lucic has never been all that good on the power play, but this year he’s having a monster season, easily the best of his career.

How good is it? In five of nine seasons prior to this one, Lucic’s scoring rate was less than half what he’s managed this year.

The orange line shorts even-strength scoring. Most forwards fall between 1.0 and 2.5 points/hour, and as a general rule a guy who can crack 2.0 points/hour is a force to be reckoned with. Lucic has long been an excellent 5-on-5 guy, topping 2.0 points/hour in five of the last six seasons. This year he’s having an awful season, easily the worst of his career.

How bad is it? In five of six seasons prior to this one, Lucic’s scoring rate was more than double what he’s managed this year.

In a nutshell: Lucic is scoring twice as much as he normally does on the power play, and half as much at even-strength. That’s exactly what happened to Dustin Brown at the same age, incidentally: His 5-on-5 scoring collapsed and his power play scoring spiked. Since then, his power play scoring has returned to previous levels while his even-strength numbers have stayed bad, turning his contract with L.A. into one of the worst in the NHL.

Still, that’s a sample of one, and should be viewed with some skepticism. Far more troubling is the way that Connor McDavid has obscured the total collapse of Lucic’s game.

I came across this tweet last night, during the intermission in the Edmonton/Arizona game. At first I shrugged; I’d seen Lucic’s lousy point totals with and without McDavid and while they were terrible I’d known that for a while. It’s been more than two months since Lucic has picked up a 5-on-5 goal and he’s mostly played on other lines, so of course the figures would be bad.

What I hadn’t realized was how badly his shot rates have deteriorated away from the Oilers’ franchise centre. It’s hard to over-stress how bad 3.3 shots/hour is.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time on shots/hour, so some context is helpful. Of the 438 forwards to get at least 200 minutes in the NHL last year, these are the five worst by shots per hour:

  • Brandon Prust: 2.45
  • Eric Nystrom: 2.78
  • Jarret Stoll: 3.21
  • Scott Gomez: 3.38
  • Paul Byron: 3.40

Lucic’s non-McDavid total is worse than 435 of the 438 forwards to spend any real time in the NHL last year. The four worst guys on that list are all out of the league now, though on a happier note Byron is having a really nice season in Montreal.

Take away McDavid, and Lucic is one of the worst shot generators in the NHL, something which hasn’t been true in the past and which speaks to not just reluctance to shoot but an inability to get into dangerous areas with the puck on his stick.

Even when Lucic does shoot, it’s from far away. Among Oilers forwards, Lucic’s average shot distance is from further out than any regular other than Pouliot, who a) has been a trainwreck this season and b) hasn’t had the luxury of having Connor McDavid boost his shot totals. Lucic’s shots are coming from 10 feet further out than McDavid’s and from three feet further out than they were a year ago in L.A.

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The Pouliot comparison is a helpful one to go back to, just because of how bad Pouliot has been this year. He has two seasons left at an average value of $4.0 million and at this point it’s not crazy to talk about a buyout. He’s been utterly ineffective offensively.

And yet, even separated from Connor McDavid, Pouliot’s lousy 0.98 points/hour and 4.2 shots/hour are fair-sized improvements on Lucic’s numbers.

Playing with McDavid a lot at 5-on-5 and posting career numbers with McDavid on the power play have concealed the extent to which Lucic’s game has crumbled from previously formidable heights this season. They won’t do it forever, and if Lucic can’t find a road back to his previous levels the next six years of his buyout-proof contract are going to be exceedingly difficult. 

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.