At first glance, the two players could not have less in common. Cory Conacher is undersized at 5’8″ and went undrafted. Vladimir Tarasenko was a highly-touted first round draft pick. Conacher is Canadian. Tarasenko is Russian. Conacher came up through the NCAA, and played a season in the AHL before earning an NHL contract. Tarasenko has been playing in the KHL since he was 16 and has known for years that he has an NHL future in St. Louis.
But the two now have one thing in common: they’re both early frontrunners for the 2013 Calder Trophy.
Conacher and Tarasenko sit one and two in rookie scoring to start the season and their similarities outweigh their differences. Conacher has 3 goals and 6 assists, while Tarasenko has 4 goals and 4 assists, but both have averaged around 14:30 in ice time, are an identical plus-5, have 6 minutes in penalties, and have a game-winning goal each.
While other players may overtake them in the Calder race – Justin Schultz is logging big minutes in Edmonton, Nail Yakupov has a knack for important goals, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher are providing hope in Montreal, Dougie Hamilton is getting hyped up to the gills in Boston, and Jonathan Huberdeau looks very comfortable in Florida – it’s worth taking a closer look at these two early studs and their underlying numbers, to see which of them is more likely to continue succeeding throughout the season.
Both players have a couple intangibles in their favour. Tarasenko has the benefit of already playing 5 seasons against men in the KHL, experience that should help him continue to adapt against tough opponents in the NHL. He also got to play with Ilya Kovalchuk during the lockout, an experience that may have helped him understand what it takes to be a star in the NHL.
Conacher, on the other hand, has the benefit of being teammates with Martin St. Louis, a player who went through a very similar journey to get to the NHL. Like Conacher, St. Louis was passed over in the NHL draft due to his size and went the college route. Also like Conacher, St. Louis didn’t get any NHL offers out of college and had to prove himself in the IHL first. St. Louis would have invaluable knowledge for Conacher on how to survive and thrive as an undersized player in the NHL. As for experience, Conacher is two years older than Tarasenko, a function of his longer path to the NHL.
Both also had the benefit of playing during the lockout, entering training camp already at game speed, which has likely helped both of them get off to their respective hot starts.
Looking at their underlying statistics, however, lays out some pretty stark differences between the two players and how they are used. Let’s start with just their basic numbers:
The first big red flag for Conacher is his shot total and shooting percentage. Clearly, Conacher isn’t going to keep scoring goals at his current pace unless he starts shooting a whole lot more. That shooting percentage isn’t the least bit sustainable. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Tarasenko. He is, however, leading all rookies in shots and is in the top-30 in the NHL. That’s a good sign that Tarasenko will continue scoring goals when his shooting percentage regresses.
That doesn’t say anything about how Conacher will fare when it comes to assists, however, and it’s worth looking at some other statistics to see how both players are used on their respective teams.
Conacher starts the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, which makes it a bit more impressive that he has had such offensive success. It’s important to note, however, that he’s not playing against tough competition. In fact, he’s second last on the team in Quality of Competition, ahead of only Pierre-Cedric Labrie. it’s evident, then, that Guy Boucher is making an effort to get Conacher out against weaker competition, though he doesn’t seem to mind him starting in the defensive zone.
While his Corsi isn’t stellar, it’s still good for 7th on the Lightning, 4th among forwards. The Lightning are not a particularly strong possession team, but Conacher does fairly well for himself.
Tarasenko, on the other hand, starts almost exclusively in the offensive zone, more than any other player on the Blues. Ken Hitchcock evidently cares more about zone starts than he does quality of competition, as Tarasenko plays against reasonably tough competition. His gaudy Corsi numbers are partly explained by his extremely high offensive zone start percentage, which is around Sedin-levels.
That said, Tarasenko’s Corsi is fantastic, indicating that he’s pushing puck possession in the right direction. If he continues to get such sheltered minutes in the offensive zone, he should be able to put up some solid numbers this season.
Cam Charron unpacked PDO recently and I’ve used it in the past to provide a reality check on players’ hot starts. Here, it shows that both Conacher and Tarasenko have benefited from the bounces to start the season. Conacher’s PDO of 1113 is particularly alarming, as both his team shooting percentage and save percentage are unsustainably high. One of the reasons for his current plus-5 rating is the superb .967 save percentage when he is on the ice, which is unlikely to continue.
The highest on-ice shooting percentage of any Lightning player last season belonged to Steven Stamkos at 12.93. Conacher’s will likely gravitate closer to Ryan Malone’s 10.43 over the course of the season. As that number regresses, Conacher’s point totals will normalise.
Tarasenko’s PDO is also unsustainably high, but not to as extreme a degree. His on-ice save percentage is actually fairly reasonable, particularly for the Blues, who have had some excellent goaltending that benefits from Hitchcock’s defensive systems. His on-ice shooting percentage, however, will drop over time.
The highest on-ice shooting percentage of any Blues player last season belonged to David Perron at 10.15. That was much higher than any of his teammates, however, and a number closer to Patrik Berglund’s 7.90 or T.J. Oshies’ 8.47 seems more likely.
Tarasenko appears to be better positioned to succeed offensively over the course of the season: he’s being used in a more offensive role, pushes possession more effectively into the offensive zone, and is benefiting less from the bounces than Conacher. For the Lightning to get this kind of production from an undrafted rookie, however, is a major bonus. He’ll be hard-pressed to keep that production going over the long-term, unfortunately, unless he begins shooting more or begins to be deployed more in the offensive zone.