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Five small-sample-size stats that already matter in 2020-21

Less than a week into the season, most stats don't carry much weight yet. But a few exceptions carry instantly important implications.
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Calm down. Too early. Tiny sample size.

That’s probably the correct interpretation right now for 95 percent of the statistics in the 2020-21 NHL season, which is not even a week old. But a few numbers fall into a different category. Some are ‘Confirmation Bias Numbers’. If we were already predicting X to happen, and the early stats reflect X, are we already onto something with that particular hypothesis? Other early-season stats might reflect something important about a player’s status, particularly when it comes to his health.

Here’s a handful of early-season numbers which feel like more than anomalies – or at least represent noteworthy observations.

1. Detroit Red Wings: 35.38 expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5

The Red Wings are being CAVED IN. At 5-on-5 so far, in two games, they’ve been outshot 61-29 and outchanced 53-32. They sit dead last in 5-on-5 expected goals for percentage after ranking second last the season prior, during which they posted the lowest points percentage since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers.

Yes, it’s only two games, but the data are so extreme that they tell us this Wings team, coming off the worst season of any NHL team in 20 years, doesn’t look remotely competitive to open 2020-21. It should put to rest the idea that the numerous yet minor signings made by Steve Yzerman were designed to keep the team competitive. No, the one-year deals like Bobby Ryan’s and Jon Merrill’s are in place to be flipped as trade-deadline rentals. The two-year additions like Vladislav Namestnikov and Thomas Greiss serve as expansion-draft bait. Peppering the team with veterans also allowed Detroit keep marinating prospects Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno in Europe. This team is absolutely tanking again, and the tilted early-season possession numbers support that theory.

2. Erik Karlsson: 29:41 of average ice time

Karlsson has logged 32:12 and 27:10 of ice time in his first two games. The 32:10 is about two-and-a-half minutes longer than he logged in any game last season – and the most he’s ever logged in a regular season game for the Sharks since debuting for them in 2018-19. It’s significant to see Karlsson, 30, still capable of logging such monster minutes, as his health has become a constant question mark. He had part of his ankle bone removed for a surgery before the 2017-18 season with the Ottawa Senators, and his first two seasons with the Sharks were abbreviated by injury. A groin problem took him out in 2018-19, and a broken thumb ended his 2019-20 early. Karlsson has missed 28.2 percent of San Jose’s regular-season games since joining them.

So if he’s logging literally the most ice time he ever has as a Shark in the regular season, especially this early, we should assume Karlsson is the healthiest he’s been in a while. On a Sharks team with significant question marks in net and among its bottom-six forward group, the veteran defense trio of Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic must recapture their play of a few years ago. Otherwise, the playoffs will be a long shot.

3. Connor McDavid: 16 shots on goal in three games

“McDavid good” isn’t new. He’s the best player on Earth or, if you’re in the Nathan MacKinnon camp, the second best at worse. But “McDavid getting better” would be something, wouldn’t it? At 24, McDavid nears the end of what, historically, should be his offensive peak if we compare him to other all-time greats. Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin – they all had their best seasons in the 21 to 24 range. So if we’re going to get, statistically, the most dominant McDavid ever, it could happen this season.

Seeing him blitz goaltenders with 16 shots in three games is exciting. Perhaps he has the ability to flick a switch and become an elite goal-scorer seemingly whenever he feels like it, like Crosby has done during a pair of Rocket Richard Trophy seasons. Maybe McDavid is simply on a mission to reclaim individual hardware after his teammate Leon Draisaitl captured the Hart and Art Ross Trophies during McDavid’s injury-shortened 2019-20 campaign. Whatever the spark is: would anyone be surprised if McDavid ripped off 100 points in 56 games?

4. Steven Stamkos: five points in two games

With all due respect to his phenomenal talent, “We need Steven Stamkos to stay healthy” has to be a terrifying proposition in Tampa Bay. He’s been as snake bitten as any NHLer over the past five or six years when it comes to health. From a freak broken leg to a blood clot to a torn abdomen, you name it and it’s happened to Stamkos. But with star right winger Nikita Kucherov out for the entire regular season after hip surgery, the Bolts need Stamkos to be the team’s primo scorer for the first time in many years. Five points in two games doesn’t always mean much, but it does in Stamkos’ case. He made it through camp without restrictions and is healthy enough to share the NHL scoring lead after two games. Given his physical maladies only allowed him to play 2:47 in one game during Tampa’s 2019-20 Stanley Cup run, it’s extremely encouraging to see ‘Stammer’ light it up.

5. Boston Bruins: zero goals at 5-on-5

Don’t overreact to the header. The Bruins are obviously going to score some 5-on-5 goals soon. But Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak accounted for 34.1 percent of Boston’s even-strength goals in 2018-19, and the share jumped to 41.8 percent last season. The team’s scoring has become alarmingly top-heavy, and the problem is obviously more glaring with Pastrnak still out after his off-season hip surgery, not to mention fellow right winger Ondrej Kase being banged up.

Considering the Bruins also lost their top offensive defenseman, Torey Krug, to unrestricted free agency in the off-season, it’s time to wonder if this team will be above average offensively. It needs to be if it still fashions itself a championship threat. The scoring depth is a problem.

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