Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

WHL: Even put into context, Etem’s start is tough to matchIn case you wondered how good Emerson Etem's early-season goal-scoring tear is, yeah, it's really good.

It isn't exactly easy to put a junior hockey player's scoring stats into some kind of historic context nowadays. Most offensive records in all three Canadian major junior leagues just seem like science fiction to anyone not old enough to remember the high-scoring 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky put up 200-point seasons in the NHL and a big-league or junior team without a 50-goal scorer was practically the exception rather than the norm. Mario Lemieux had 133 goals and 282 points in his last season in the QMJHL?! That sort of thing While the Dead Puck Era is behind us, thankfully, the game has changed so much you wonder why the leagues bother to include single-season goal and point records in their media guides. Breaking down the records by era would probably be more illustrated, Not to make any more work for the hard-working media relations people in all three league offices.

So what to make of Etem, who has 22 goals in 16 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers? The Anaheim Ducks 2010 first-round choice has tickled the twine in all but one game he's played so far for the Tigers. He has eight more goals than any other player in the 22-team WHL. The Vancouver Giants' Brendan Gallagher is averaging more than a goal per game (14 in 13) and he's a distant second. So where does Etem's start rank in recent WHL history?

The question was prompted by a post at Coming Down The Pipe! that noted Etem's pace puts him in pretty rare company. The speedy wing has a shot, provided he stays healthy and teams don't start shadowing him, at being the WHL's first 60-goal scorer in 11 seasons. (Nationally, John Tavares was the last 70-goal man when he put in 72 for the 2006-07 Oshawa Generals.) He could also rival the '50-in-less-than-60' feat of current Edmonton Oilers right wing Jordan Eberle, who scored 50 goals in 57 games for the Regina Pats two seasons ago on his way to being the Canadian Hockey League player of the year. That's a good comparison, since Etem is set to play in his second world junior championship this winter, just like Eberle did two years ago.

That might not provide the whole picture, though. So just for fun, and to be a huge stat nerd, someone pored through 15 years of WHL game-by-game stats to look up how many other players had scored so prolifically through their first 16 games.

How many also had 22 or more goals after 22.2 per cent of the season? Try two players, who were both overages.

Coincidentally — and a tip of this Perrier-sipping Easterners's cap to Gregg Drinnan for the FYI — both happened in the same year, 2000-01. Present-day NHLer Mike Comrie had 25 goals in his first 16 games for the Kootenay Ice. But Comrie's glut of goals came under exceptional circumstances. Hilary Duff's future hubby had spent two seasons with the University of Michigan before leaving to sign with the Edmonton Oilers, so he was well past most juniors in seasoning. (Comrie actually hit the 30-goal mark by Game 18, and had 39 in 37 contests by the time the Oilers decided to bring him up to the NHL.)

That same winter, Layne Ulmer had 22 goals in the Swift Current Broncos' first 16 games on his way to scoring 63 goals (and 119 points) in 68 games. The rub is Ulmer was also a 20-year-old with an advantage over his peers in maturity and experience than the 19-year-old Etem ought to have.

How many others have even averaging better than a goal per game to the same point in the season? Try three players. Former Calgary Flames centre Dustin Boyd, now playing in the KHL, had 18 goals in his first 16 games with the 2005-06 Moose Jaw Warriors. Prior to Boyd and Bulmer's twine-bulging binges, one has to go back to the 1990s.

In '98-99, Pavel Brendl had 18 goals in his first 16 games with the Calgary Hitmen. That same season, the Seattle Thunderbirds' Brett DeCocco had 17 after the same number of games.

In other words, Etem is apparently one of only five players in the past 16 years to be averaging a goal per game this far into the season. Over this time, there has been only one other player with a similar total.

Here are some of the other best 16-game starts, goals-wise, in the WHL since 1996. (The method was simply to look at the top goal scorers each year, then check their game-by-game totals. We could be picnicking on Mars if this exercise meant checking every player.)

Other best 16-game starts, 1996-97-to date:

16 goals — Ryan Howse, 2010-11 Chilliwack Bruins; Jamie Benn, 2008-09 Kelowna Rockets; Jesse Schultz, 2002-03 Kelowna Rockets; Sergei Varlamov, 1997-98 Swift Current Broncos; Josh St. Louis, 1996-97 Broncos.

15 goals — Kyle Beach, 2009-10 Spokane Chiefs; Cody Eakin, 2009-10 Broncos; Jordan Eberle, 2009-10 Regina Pats; Eric Fehr, 2004-05 Brandon Wheat Kings; Byron Ritchie, 1996-97 Lethbridge Hurricanes; Shane Willis, 1996-97 Prince Albert Raiders.

14 goals Brett Connolly, 2010-11 Prince George Cougars; Jordan Eberle, 2007-08 Regina Pats; B.J. Young, Red Deer Rebels.

The average WHL game this year contains 6.50 goals. That makes it doubtful Etem is getting a boost from the environment he's playing in. Perhaps some will read this and point out that neither Brendl (78 career NHL games), Ulmer (one NHL game) nor DeCocco (who never skated in  The Show) became a big-league star.

The numbers a player puts up in his age-19 season don't have a lot of predictive power compared to what he did two years earlier. (Etem had 37 goals and 65 points in 72 games as a 17-year-old in Medicine Hat, which put him 31st in the inaugural Jeff Skinner Rankings. Another Tiger, left wing Hunter Shinkaruk, was 29th in last season's, impressive since he's not up for the NHL draft until 2013.)

However, this is not about predicting whether Emerson Etem is going to be a NHL star. If anything, it's meant to cajole people into making a bigger deal out of his start — it's been a while since someone who is still a teenager  filled nets at this rate in the Dub.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).

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