Predicting NHL's breakout and bounce-back candidates for 2019-20

One of the things that got discussed a lot around the James Neal/Milan Lucic trade is that both could bounce back and enjoy better seasons with a change of scenery.

The broad acknowledgement, though, is that Neal is a far more likely candidate. Not only because, well, the track record is “20 goals without fail” and “he’ll probably play with McDavid” but also because “Lucic looks washed” and “Calgary’s bottom six is only a little better than Edmonton’s.”

As mentioned before, Neal scored seven goals last season and it was seen as a major failure. He had a low shooting percentage, too. By expected goals, he “should have” scored 13 or so in his 63 games, which is still rather low by comparison with what he typically puts up, and this is as a high-skill guy who typically outperforms his xG. When he was on the ice, the Flames scored only four more goals than expected, so they offset his lack of production a bit.

The idea that he would bounce back with a full season alongside Connor McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and even pot 20-plus goals is easy to see, then.

Lucic, though, has been in this rut for two-plus years. In 79 games, he was only “supposed to” score 9.7 goals by xG, and scored six. That’s underperformance, but even if he were exactly where he should have been, that’s still a 10-goal season for a guy now costing Calgary $5.25 million against the cap. Moreover, unlike Neal, the entire team underperformed around Lucic when he was on the ice, too. They generated more than 45 expected goals, and scored just 41.

And that’s not a new thing: In 2017-18, Lucic was on the ice for almost 78 xG, but Edmonton scored just 63. Even accounting for his personal shortfall of about nine goals below expected (10 actual vs. 19.2 xG), the team was still short about six goals. Simply put, the guy’s a black hole for goal scoring. He’s where offense goes to die.

Edmonton Oilers' Milan Lucic (27) reacts to a call from the referee while playing against the Boston Bruins during third period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday February 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
The Flames will hope for a bounce-back season from Lucic. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

As you might imagine, these aren’t the only guys who underperformed personally or with their teammates.

For instance, while the Carolina Hurricanes made the Eastern Conference Final last season, a bunch of their guys are at or near the top of the charts for differences between expected and actual goals.

Teenager Andrei Svechnikov was on the ice for a whopping 82 expected goals in all situations, but Carolina — with its famous struggles to score before acquiring Nino Niederreiter — only scored 62 when he was on the ice. And by expected goals, he should have netted nearly 25, but “only” had 20. The idea that he takes a considerable step next season is certainly not farfetched. Jordan Staal and Jordan Martinook, as well as Lucas Wallmark and Warren Foegele also ranked highly in these categories, so you have to be more confident that the offensive output for Carolina as a whole improves next season.

Another notable player in this realm is Max Pacioretty, because for all Vegas’s success last season, he didn’t come along for the ride at all. He scored 22 goals versus 18.5 expected across just 66 games, and it was his second straight injury-riddled season. As with Neal, this is a skilled goalscorer who tends to outperform his xG, so to even fall a little bit short is actually more disappointing.

But you can argue the results should have been better here because while he outperformed his personal expected output by 3.5 goals, the Golden Knights fell almost 10 goals short of expectations when he was on the ice. Are we talking about him in glowing terms if those 10 extra goals go in, or if the defense tightened up? Probably. Expected goals say Pacioretty should have been plus-20 in all situations last season; instead, he was plus-2. That’s a big difference.

Pacioretty's first season in Vegas was considered a disappointment. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
Pacioretty's first season in Vegas was considered a disappointment. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

A couple other guys on this list are Islanders. The team was 12 short of its expected-goal total with Mathew Barzal on the ice, and 10 short with Jordan Eberle on. Surely there’s overlap there, but both players personally did about what you’d expect by xG: Barzal (18 goals) just missed his 19.24 expected, Eberle (19) barely exceeded his 18.46 expected. So the fact that they fell so far short of offensive expectations largely seems a function of their lower-quality teammates, which wasn’t really sorted out this summer. And with Robin Lehner departing, the Isles better hope like hell the other guys can start hitting their expected-goal totals.

Two last guys who strikes me as very intriguing here are Wayne Simmonds and Corey Perry, who missed their on-ice xG numbers by more than 11 and seven, respectively. Both had awful years (Perry’s being the latest of two straight) and signed short-term, middling-money “prove-it” contracts.

I’ve seen a little bit about whether they can bounce back, but Perry scored six goals on close to 5.9 expected last year, right where he should have been in an injury-shortened campaign. I can see the argument that with a little bit more health he could be a 20ish goal guy, but I wouldn’t be confident in that bet. Simmonds, though, had 17 on 22.4, which indicates he might be able to score a little more if he’s put in the right situation. It’s worth noting, however, that he only generated 2.4 expected goals on his own in 17 games for the Predators. That’s a bad number and one that shouldn’t exactly fill New Jersey with hope that last season was an aberration.

In both cases, I think those guys probably need a little more help than the players surrounding them on the Stars and Devils rosters can reasonably provide.

These are, of course, just kind of guesses. It’s impossible to accurately predict things like health and luck, roster changes and so on. But these are basically all players that will be heavily relied upon by their teams to earn their keep and then some. Generally speaking, top players outperform their xG numbers pretty consistently since xG is a league-average measure.

If they continue to fall short of lofty expectations, based on their own play, let alone an average player’s output, that could be a big problem for the teams that employ them. Just something to watch as the season progresses.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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