After scoring 11 points in 11 games in October, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was named the NHL’s rookie of the month. The press release went on to name four other scoring forwards who were nominated for the award, showing what most people pay attention to. But here’s the thing: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might not even be the best 18-year-old in the NHL right now. Instead, that honour should likely belong to Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils.
Adam Larsson was in the running to be the first overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers, as people debated whether they would prefer a number-one center or a number-one defenceman. Doug Wilson, in a fantastic interview with Sharks blog Fear the Fin, opined that a number one defenceman is a rarer commodity. “Supply and demand will tell you there are very few defenseman, and maybe I’m biased because I’m an old defenseman,” he said, “but the amount of ice time, how they can impact a game, that is key. Supply and demand just illustrates to you that they’re not out there.”
Oilers blog The Copper & Blue recommended picking Adam Larsson first over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins not because number one defencemen are more rare, but because he was the best player available. The deficiencies in the Oilers’ depth on the blueline made Larsson even more tantalizing, but Steve Tambellini chose to instead pick the Canadian wunderkind. Larsson ended up slipping all the way to fourth overall, where the Devils ironically thanked every god they could think of and drafted him immediately.
Number one defencemen are rare; a player who can step into the role of a number one defenceman at the age of 18 is even more rare. Not only has Larsson remained with the Devils as an 18-year-old, but he is also leading all of their defencemen in icetime. The conventional wisdom is that defencemen take longer to develop than forwards, but the 6’3″ Swede seems set on proving conventional wisdom wrong. Devils coach Pete DeBoer seems to agree, saying “There have been a lot of nights when he’s been one of our best defensemen through the first 10 games.”
Larsson is currently averaging 23:38 in icetime per game, which leads all rookies by over two-and-a-half minutes per game. Conversely, Nugent-Hopkins is averaging 16:28 per game. Obviously, defencemen play more than forwards and Nugent-Hopkins is third amongst forwards in average icetime, but it’s also important to put those minutes in context. For that, we will use the hockey blogger’s best friend: Behindthenet.ca.
The first thing to notice is that 8 of the Oilers’ first 11 games have come at home. This has allowed Tom Renney to control the minutes of Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of the “Kid Line” and get them out against weaker competition. Nugent-Hopkins is 20th on the Oilers in Quality of Competition (followed closely by Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle) and 12th amongst forwards. Another sign of this sheltering is Zone Starts. Nugent-Hopkins has started 64% of his shifts in the offensive zone (not counting neutral zone starts), third only to Hall and Eberle on the Oilers.
Compare him to Shawn Horcoff and you quickly see a sharp distinction. Horcoff is getting absolutely buried in the defensive zone, starting in the offensive zone only 29.2% of the time against the toughest competition the opposition has to offer, enabling the Kid Line to play sheltered minutes in which, to their credit, they have succeeded. On the road, however, it’s a different story. In the three games the Oilers have played on the road, Nugent-Hopkins has no points, with a minus-1 rating, and just 5 shots.
Adam Larsson, on the other hand, is not being sheltered. He’s fourth on the Devils in Quality of Competition, first amongst defencemen. And while he’s receiving slightly favourable zone starts, starting in the offensive zone 55.7% of the time, it’s not as wide a gulf as compared to Nugent-Hopkins. Despite playing top minutes against tough competition, Larsson leads the Devils’ defencemen in both regular and relative Corsi, indicating that he’s moving the puck in the right direction. To do all of this at 18 is remarkable.
He’s not going to receive a lot of credit for these accomplishments, however, as he’s not scoring any points. Larsson has only 1 assist in 10 games and is a minus-6 over that stretch. Those are clearly not impressive numbers. However, his Corsi indicates that he is moving the puck in the right direction and he continues to earn the confidence of his coaches. So why aren’t the points coming, particularly since he is getting significant time on the powerplay?
The answer lies in the save percentage and shooting percentage of his team when he is on the ice, the combination of which is known as PDO. I covered PDO recently in looking at the NHL’s leading scorers. Essentially, the on-ice save percentage and shooting percentage add up to a number near 1000. If a player’s PDO is well above 1000, that means he is getting lucky: the bounces are going his way, either defensively, offensively, or both. If a player’s PDO is well below 1000, that means the opposite. A player’s PDO number trends towards 1000 over a full season. Arctic Ice Hockey named PDO the “simplest yet most-useful statistic” in hockey.
Nugent-Hopkins is currently riding a quite favourable PDO to a great start on the season. The shooting percentage of his team when he is on the ice is 8.7%, which is quite reasonable, but the on-ice save percentage is an unsustainably high .969. Combined, that makes his PDO 1056. The highest PDO of any Oilers last season was held by Ales Hemsky, at 1021. It would be reasonable to assume that Nugent-Hopkins won’t be able to sustain this number. The save-percentage, in particular, is likely to take a nose-dive, accompanied by a crashing plus/minus rating for Nugent-Hopkins.
Larsson, on the other hand, just isn’t catching any breaks. The shooting percentage of his team when he is on the ice is 6.74% and the save percentage is a brutal .880, making his PDO 948. His minus-6 rating is a result of that terrible save percentage, which is unsustainably low. Over time, that will increase, as will his plus/minus. Meanwhile, he’s going to start picking up points as his teammates start getting some bounces.
But it isn’t Larsson’s offensive contributions that make him the best 18-year-old in the NHL right now. It’s his ability to already be playing number one defencemen minutes without being sheltered. Nugent-Hopkins is obviously a fantastic player who will experience plenty of success in his career, but t seems clear to me that his early success this season will falter once the Oilers play a few more road games, while all indications are that Larsson’s first season in the NHL will only get better from here.