Most interviews with hockey players, and really all pro athletes in North America, are immediately forgettable. The player says little of substance, usually throws in a cliché or two, and the whole things is over relatively quickly, and wiped from my memory shortly thereafter. There are exceptions to this obviously, but nine times out of ten, hell, 99 times out 100, absolutely nothing of substance gets said. I’d love to hear more from players and be offered even a glimpse of what they really think, but given that any player who dares to show even a hint of personality tends to get ripped apart on social media, it is completely understandable that this is what we get.
But even though I find most interviews to be of little value I will listen or watch an interview from time to time. Sometimes I do it just to kill time, but, more often than not, because I need a fix of something Oilers related. Times like early September, for example, when nothing of substance has happened in months and I’m just dying for something, anything hockey related. This was the case last Wednesday when I came across this interview with Milan Lucic.
If you’re looking for clichés, training camp interviews are an absolute gold mine. Player X is in the best shape of his career, or Player Y is looking build off last season, or Player Z is just hopeful that he can find a way to contribute and help make the team better. And while there’s a little of that in this interview, Lucic also gets asked a question about his 5-on-5 play to which he provided a very interesting answer. The question gets asked around the 4:30 mark.
That was one of the things, looking back at last season, where I felt that I really need to improve on going this year is getting back to having that 5-on-5 success, where it’s been the strongest point of my game, always, up until last season, so I’ve got to find a way to not be so reliant on the power play to get goals and to get points so just getting back to being a really good, effective 5-on-5 player is definitely a big point of my game heading into this year.
That’s a good answer and one that shows a pretty strong awareness of what’s made him successful as a player in this league.
Finishing last season with 23 goals and 27 assists it would be easy to look at the totals and conclude that Lucic had a season that, while certainly not one of his best, wasn’t far off his career average. In fact, I’ve had many fine folks on Twitter do exactly this, and the numbers do make it appear that way. In the six season before joining the Oilers, five with Boston and one with Los Angeles, Lucic averaged 23 goals and 33 assists, just six more points than he scored last season.
The difference between last season and the six before is Lucic’s production on the power play. With the man advantage, last season Lucic scored 12 goals and added 13 assists for a total of 25 points. That total was good enough to place Lucic into a tie for eighth place league wide last season. It’s also a total that’s nearly double his previous career high of 13 power play points which he recorded during the 2010/11 campaign. If you strip those numbers away and look just at his production at 5-on-5 the results are not nearly what we would have expected from him.
You can see from the graph above that last season (numbers courtesy of naturalstattrick.com) the rates at which Lucic recorded points and that the team scored with him on the ice were lowest they’ve been over the last seven seasons. In the previous six seasons Lucic’s team scored 3.14 goals per 60 minutes, last season the Oilers scored at just three-quarters of that rate, 2.33 goals per 60. For those doing the math at home that’s a difference of 15 goals over the course of the season. That Lucic spent 450 of his 1,125 even strength minutes riding shotgun with Connor McDavid makes those results even more surprising. The graph isn’t all bad news though, at least the goals against didn’t go up while goals for dried up.
When the Oilers decided last summer to sign Lucic to a deal worth $36M over six years (actually seven years and $42M as pointed out in the comments below) I was, well let’s just say, I was skeptical. Lucic was already 28 years of age and it seemed very unlikely to me that he’d be able to cover the bet of this deal for the full six years, at best I thought might be able to do so for four years. And given the impending cap crunch that was going to result from McDavid’s second contract, I would have preferred to avoid having a deal like this on the books through the 2021/22 season. Looking at the deal now, there’s trouble ahead, trouble behind, and we’re just one-year into that six-year (seven) contract.
His play last season may not have been what the Oilers were expecting but I don’t think there is a need to read too much into those results at this point. We’ve seen it many times where a player reaches a point in their career and effectively falls off a cliff, but, even for a player like Lucic who has played a physical game for his entire career, I wouldn’t bet on that happening just yet. If I’m projecting Lucic’s next season I would absolutely consider those results but I wouldn’t assume that that’s his new normal. Realistically, I don’t see any reason (or perhaps don’t want to see) why he can’t do exactly what he said he needed to do which was to get back to being a really good, effective 5-on-5 player.
Given expectations, he probably got off a little easy last season. His production on the power play helped overshadow the results elsewhere in his game, as did the fact that Patrick Maroon found instant chemistry alongside McDavid and perfectly filled the role that Lucic was supposed to fill, and that the Oilers were winning games for the first in a decade. That cover is unlikely to continue forever though. For starters, Maroon will likely price himself out of Edmonton after this season after which all eyes will be on Lucic. And the team will need to take a step towards being a true contender to match the new expectations set by fans, something that will be much harder to do if Milan Lucic can’t come close to being worth the money that he’s being paid.
Lucic clearly understands that his 5-on-5 play was lacking last season. It makes it easy to correct a problem if you know you’ve got a problem, so here’s to hoping that he knows how to get his game back on track. If not, we might see his answers to questions like this become more cliché and a lot less interesting.