2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 27 LW Milan Lucic
When the Edmonton Oilers signed Milan Lucic, many believed that they had found Connor McDavid’s partner for years to come. In defiance of Lucic’s career norms, their collaboration worked brilliantly on the power play, where he had the best season he’s ever had at the NHL level. Also in defiance of career norms, Lucic had a miserable year at 5-on-5, his worst as an established major-leaguer.
Let’s start with what went well.
On the power play, Lucic scored 12 goals. In nine previous NHL seasons, he had scored a grand total of 22, meaning that this year represents more than one-third of his career power play goal totals. It’s also more than the seven he scored over his four previous seasons in the league.
Lucic’s assist totals were less impressive, but he still picked up 13 power play assists, which is more than the 12 he scored over the last two seasons combined.
This wasn’t a function of just getting more ice-time, either. Lucic has played power play minutes his entire career. He hasn’t scored more than 4.0 points/hour since his sophomore campaign; this season he topped 7.0.
It was an incredible year, and it covered up for his anemic scoring pace at even-strength.
At even-strength, Lucic scored just 11 goals and 14 assists. The last time he played in more than 50 games and scored so few even-strength goals he was a rookie; the same is true for assists. At 5-on-5, this was the most disappointing season that Lucic has ever had.
Given that he spent a bunch of the year with McDavid, Lucic’s objectively terrible offensive season at 5-on-5 is a little shocking. And he was considerably worse playing apart from McDavid than he was on the superstar centre’s line:
|5 Year Avg.||0.82||1.26||2.08||5.98||12.03||14.00|
|2016-17 w/ 97||0.80||0.66||1.46||7.70||14.08||10.39|
|2016-17 w/o 97||0.35||0.70||1.05||5.35||9.93||6.54|
That may come across as a wall of numbers, but it’s really pretty straightforward. In order: Goals, assists, points, shots, shot attempts and shooting percentage at even-strength; all except the final number are per hour.
The formula for goals is shots multiplied by shooting percentage. With McDavid, Lucic got more shots, but his shooting percentage was well off his five-year average. As a result, his goal totals stayed flat. Away from McDavid, Lucic’s shooting percentage imploded, and his shot rates fell well below his five-year average.
All else being equal, we’d expect Lucic’s shooting percentage to rebound. He’s one of several Oilers – Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Benoit Pouliot are all part of this club – who had their shooting percentage fall off this year. I’ll confess that I’m not sure why at this point; given how widespread the pattern is, I’m a little suspicious it’s at least somewhat a result of tactical changes in the offensive zone. Digging into it means going through a ton of video, something I hope to do this summer but haven’t had time for in these write-ups.
The shot rates are more troubling. If Lucic gets another look with McDavid, things might be just fine. But Lucic is taking fewer shot attempts than he has in previous years, and away from McDavid the numbers are really ugly.
Lucic’s assist totals imploded, too, and was equally bad whether he was on Edmonton’s top line or not.
All of this continued into the postseason. Lucic had just six points in 13 games, but managed to duck much of the playoff criticism that Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle got because he managed to pot two goals. Both of those goals were on the power play. At 5-on-5, Lucic was just as impotent as his goalless linemates.
Both the good and the bad trends might be too extreme to continue into next season.
Lucic has been a mediocre power play option for the entirety of his career, and even the magic of McDavid probably isn’t enough to turn him into the league’s sixth-most efficient scorer over the long term. This was a year where absolutely everything went right on the man advantage, and while I expect Lucic to continue to outperform his career power play numbers, it was just too good not to regress to some degree.
At the same time, Lucic’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage was absurdly low by his standards. He’s proven himself to be a legitimately skilled even-strength offensive weapon over his career, and the idea that his scoring touch and playmaking ability have gone away entirely before his 30th birthday seems too ridiculous to be true.
The question, in both cases, is one of degree.
If the power play numbers cool off only slightly, and the even-strength totals rebound, it’s possible that we’ll look back on 2016-17 as a one-off as Lucic adjusted to playing in Edmonton. In this case we’ll see him come almost all the way back to being the player he was in Boston and Los Angeles (minus the very gradual erosion most players his age undergo).
On the other hand, there’s the example of Dustin Brown. Brown was Lucic’s age in 2012-13 when he had his last good season – a season marked by miserable even-strength totals and career-best numbers on the power play. Like Lucic, Brown was well-known for his physical style of play, something that may have caused him to wear down earlier than the typical NHL winger. The collapse of his game has made his contract perhaps the worst in the NHL.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s more likely that 2016-17 was an aberration than the start of a new trend. But in Peter Chiarelli’s shoes, I’d be acutely conscious of the six remaining years on Lucic’s deal, as well as the fact that the contract structure makes a buyout virtually impossible. A strong start to next season would be immensely reassuring.
Bottom line: Lucic was expected to bring both a scoring touch and deterrent value to Connor McDavid’s wing. Instead, he ended up losing a top line job and playing the role of physical presence and power play specialist. It was an unsettling Edmonton debut, but a player with his impressive track record deserves some benefit of the doubt.