Post-season narratives are fascinating. Teams don’t win because they’re better than their opponents or even more lucky; they win because they “want it more.” If a goaltender goes on a hot streak in the playoffs, it’s not actually a hot streak; instead, he’s “clutch.” And forwards who go on a scoring tear in the playoffs are said to have an “extra gear” and tend to be highly coveted in free agency (just look at Ville Leino and Joel Ward in recent years).
There are a few players who seem to have stepped up their game in the playoffs this year. Derrick Brassard has a career-high of 47 points, though he scored at a higher rate this season, but now has 10 points in 10 playoff games. Kyle Turris has underwhelmed so far in his career, but 5 goals in 9 playoff games will certainly catch your attention. And Pascal Dupuis certainly scored a lot of goals this season, but 7 in 10 playoff games is something else entirely.
But then there are three players who, unexpectedly, have no goals in the playoffs. Tyler Seguin, Jonathan Toews, and Jaromir Jagr are all very talented players at different stages of their careers. They combined for 55 goals during the regular season, but have yet to find the back of the net in the post-season. Clearly, they must be choke artists who can’t handle the pressure of the playoffs.
Are some players capable of finding another gear when it comes to the playoffs? Possibly. There’s even an argument for saying that some players’ style of play is better suited for the rough and tumble world of the playoffs when the whistles tend to get pocketed. But a lot of what we see at this time of year is a result of taking small sample sizes and blowing them up into grand, over-arching narratives.
A stretch of games that amounts to less than a quarter of a regular season results in players being branded “proven playoff performers” or “folds under pressure” for the rest of their careers.
These small sample sizes writ large define players until they can be dispelled by another small sample size if they produce in a subsequent post-season. Or, consider Roberto Luongo, who shook free of the “choke artist” label thanks to an incredibly small sample size: the single elimination tournament of the 2010 Olympics, as he stepped in for Martin Brodeur and won gold. Then he re-earned the label in a 4-game sample size in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, allowing 18 goals in 4 losses. Still, he allowed just 2 goals in the other 3 games, with 2 shutouts, getting the Canucks to a seventh game that their offensive output likely didn’t deserve.
Which small sample size do you pay attention to? Likely, you pay attention to whichever one supports your chosen narrative. If you want to call Luongo a choke artist, there’s a sizeable hunk of evidence in your favour. If you want to argue he’s not, there’s a nice little chunk of evidence supporting your case as well.
Is Tyler Seguin a clutch post-season performer? While his career is still young, Seguin stepped into the Bruins’ lineup during their Stanley Cup run in 2011 and scored a thoroughly respectable 7 points in 13 games. Most of that scoring came in just the second playoff game of his career, when he put up 4 points, including an assist on the gamewinning goal, in a 6-5 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Since then, however, he’s struggled to find the net and has no goals and just 1 assist in 10 playoff games this year. Seguin’s at risk of earning an unfortunate label at a young age and his one Stanley Cup ring can only plug one ear.
Is Jonathan Toews a clutch post-season performer? He’s got a Conn Smythe Trophy, won on the back of 29 points in 22 games during the 2010 playoffs. But he has no goals and just 3 assists in 8 post-season games so far this year. CBC put up a graphic during Monday’s game pointing out that Toews has 11 points in 21 playoff games since his Conn Smythe run.
Heck, even in 2011, he had no goals in the Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. Looks like Captain Serious is seriously overrated when it comes to the post-season.
Is Jaromir Jagr a clutch post-season performer? Before this season, Jagr had 78 goals and 111 assists for 189 points in 180 post-season games. He’s currently 6th all-time in playoff scoring and is 8th all-time in game-winning goals in the playoffs. And yet, he’s got zero goals in 10 playoff games this year. He never won a Conn Smythe Trophy and never won a Stanley Cup apart from Mario Lemieux.
Let’s face it: these three players just can’t get it done in the playoffs. Clearly, their previous playoff successes were just masking their inability to handle the pressure of the post-season. Now we can see that the Emperor has no clothes and call them out for what they really are: choke artists.
I’m being facetious, of course. Saying that these three players can’t perform in the playoffs is absurd. But we accept this type of argument so easily when it comes to other players, even if it is sometimes based on similarly small sample sizes.
As for Seguin, Toews, and Jagr, the goals will come eventually.
Seguin has 39 shots in the playoffs to lead the Bruins, meaning he’s averaging just short of 4 shots per game. His Corsi of 20.99 indicates that when he’s on the ice he’s dominating puck possession. It’s not even that he’s taking all of his shots from the outside: heading into game 7 of the first round, Cam Charron had Seguin’s scoring chances at 12 just at even strength, meaning he’s getting his shots from dangerous areas.
Toronto’s game 7 collapse potentially saved him from the “choker” label, as he now has a chance for the bounces to start going his way in subsequent rounds. Since the Bruins’ shooting percentage when he is on the ice is a paltry 2.11%, it seems likely that things will turn around for Seguin over time.
Jagr has 29 shots and a 29.04 Corsi, behind only Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron on the Bruins. Should we start questioning Jagr’s finishing touch now, considering he is one of the greatest goalscorers in the history of the game? He’s been absolutely robbed a few times through the playoffs and his luck is bound to change at some point.
Jagr and Seguin have both particularly tilted the ice on the powerplay, leading the team in shot differential with the man advantage, but have just one powerplay assist between the two of them.
As for Toews, the CBC showed highlights of Toews being cross-checked repeatedly in front of the net as some sort of proof that Toews was being shutdown. And yet, Toews is second on the Blackhawks in shots with 28 and leads the team in Corsi with an absurd 34.7 ratio. He’s still creating scoring chances and tilting the ice severely in the Blackhawks favour when he’s on it.
The Blackhawks are getting shots on goal at a rate of 42.8 shots for every 60 minutes that Toews is on the ice. That means the Blackhawks are basically averaging a shot on goal every minute and a half that Toews is on the ice. In case you can’t tell, that’s ridiculous. The only player in the playoffs with higher rate? Tyler Seguin.
Not surprisingly, the Blackhawks have a shooting percentage of 2.15% when Toews is on the ice, something which is extremely unlikely to continue. So no, Toews is not being shutdown. He’s getting unlucky. He’s absolutely dominating his opposition, but, for one reason or another, the puck won’t go into the net.
The same is true of Seguin and Jagr. Given enough time, the bounces are likely to start going their way again and all of their hard work will pay off with some goals. Of course, since it’s the playoffs, time is not a luxury that they’ll necessarily have on their side.