The excitement exuding from Panthers fans following the 2011 NHL draft, in which they selected Jonathan Huberdeau with the third overall pick, was quickly tempered by the realization that they might have to wait to watch their new offensive whiz kid in action. And wait they did. After a brief appearance with the Panthers during the 2011 preseason, where he was probably the most talented Panther in camp, Florida sent their prized prospect back to his QMJHL team the Saint John Sea Dogs so he could fine tune his game and add some bulk.
It was not a surprise that the Panthers wanted Huberdeau to play one more season in juniors before making his NHL debut, they did the same thing with their 2010 third overall draft pick, defenseman Erik Gudbranson, however, the year long delay only served to metastasize fans anticipation for Huberdeau’s debut. Prior to the 2011 season, Huberdeau was a long shot to make the team but he had a roster spot all but locked up going into 2012. The only problem was, there was no NHL hockey being played last fall due to the NHL lockout. Huberdeau again returned to his junior team and the wait for Panther fans slogged onward.
When the season finally got underway in January the anticipation of Huberdeau’s debut had grown to a fever pitch. As a result of the extended wait time to see Huberdeau in a Panthers uniform, expectations had grown to ridiculous levels but if the expectations were high going into the season, his one goal, two assist performance in the season opener sent those expectations into orbit.
As the season progressed Jonathan Huberdeau met or exceeded expectations at every turn. His outstanding rookie season culminated in his winning of the Calder Memorial Trophy, becoming the first Panther to ever take home rookie of the year honors. His numbers (14 G, 17 A, 31 Pts) when projected over a full 82 game season would look like this: 24 goals, 29 assists, 53 points. As the conversation turns towards the future, the question that arises is, what will Jonathan Huberdeau do next?
This is a question I have been pondering a lot over the past few days, and I have decided that it can be answered one of two ways. The first way to answer this question is through conventional wisdom/the eye test, while the second way involves statistics and chewing on some cold hard numbers.
What can we expect from Jonathan Huberdeau’s sophomore season? The conventional wisdom/eye test answer is as follows: Barring any injuries, it is not irrational to expect a modest improvement in Jonathan Huberdeau’s numbers. Year two will give us a much better idea of what kind of player Huberdeau will develop into throughout his career. First year stats, (especially when the first year is a lockout shortened season) can be very fickle. Some players burst onto the scene in year one and are never able to match their early successes while other improve gradually with each year of added NHL experience.
Right now, Huberdeau is at a fork in the road of sorts, one road is the path to becoming a superstar of the ilk of the Crosby’s, Tavares’ and Ovechkin’s, while the other road is the way to become just a very very good player, think along the lines of a Mike Richards or a Ryan Callahan type. With the small sample of Hubereau in the NHL, we currently cannot really be sure of the type of player he will become but by the end of year two we should have a much clearer sense of his identity.
In his sophomore season, I think we will see a much more comfortable Jonathan Huberdeau. I think we will see a big increase in his assist numbers as he gains a better understanding of the NHL game and as the young players around him progress on offensive. If the Panthers as a team make steady improvements, Huberdeau may find that he is no longer the sole focal point of opponents defensive efforts. Players like Sasha Barkov and Nick Bjugstadcould take some pressure off Huberdeau which would allow his playmaking abilities to thrive.
Injuries remain a huge concern for the slight framed (6’1″ 177 lbs) Huberdeau. He is coming off hip surgery in the off-season and with the 82 game schedule looming, he will be undertaking a grueling schedule unlike anything he has experience to this point in his career. If he remains healthy, an 80 point season is not out of the question but a more mild expectation would be somewhere in the 60 point range.
Now, lets shift gears, put our geek pants on and look at some numbers. I think the best way to answer the question of how Huberdeau will play in his second season, is to look back through NHL history at the successes of other players in similar situations. In other words, what does history tell us is a reasonable amount of second year improvement/regression to expect from players coming off strong rookie campaigns?
To answer this question, I did the following: I created a player pool using the five most productive rookie forwards from each season going back to 1997-98. In addition to these forwards, I added the offensive Calder Trophy Winners dating all the way back to Joe Nieuwendyk in 87-88. My final player pool consisted of 76 players. These were all players whom I thought were historically similar to Huberdeau i.e. players who achieved a certain level of success in their rookie seasons either by winning the Calder Trophy or just producing at a high level.
I took each of the 76 players’ rookie season stats and then their stats from their sophomore seasons and then I looked at the differences between each players first and second year.
Here is what I found: on average, the players that I looked at scored at a rate of .297 goals per game during their rookie yearor in other words, 24.37 goals per season. In year two those same players averaged .321 goals per game (26.32 goals per season). This represents and increase of .024 goals a game from year one to year two, an 8% improvement. So in the past 15 or so years, the top rookies have improved their goal scoring rates by 8% in their second season.
Doing the same thing for assists, I found that in year one players averaged .395 assists per game (32.42 per season) and in year two those players averaged .438 assists per game (35.95 per season). So with assists, players from year one to year two saw an average increase of .043 assists per game, a 10.88% increase. You can do the same thing with points, which is really just adding the numbers from goals and assists, but nonetheless it is still instructive. In their rookie seasons, the players that I looked at scored .693 points per game (56.80 per season) and in year two those same players scored .760 points per game (62.28 per season) a 9.6% increase.
What do these numbers tell us? Well they give us an extremely broad tool to project the increase of production in players going from year one to year two. We can use these numbers to project Huberdeau’s statistical improvements for his sophomore season. First, since Huberdeau only played 48 games due to the lockout, we will take the 82 game extension of his rookie numbers and call those his year one stats. So had he played a full 82 game season continuing his scoring rate, his year one numbers would have looked like this: 24 G, 29 A, 53 Pts. Now from our number crunching we know that the average increase from year one to year two is 8% more goals, 10.88% more assist and 9.6% more points. So if Jonathan Huberdeau had an exactly average sophomore campaign his numbers would look like this: 26 G, 32 A, 58 Pts.
There are obviously some shortcomings in the math here the first being that I only looked at 76 players which is a very small sample size. Also it should be noted that most players were on the far ends of the spectrum of improvements or regression, meaning a lot of players saw large drop-offs in their production in their second year while others saw huge improvements, the culmination of those extremes is responsible for our “average improvement” numbers which say that the average player going into his second season will see modest increases across the board.
On a case by case basis, these “average improvement” numbers tend to fall apart but the point of this exercise is less about exactly projecting Huberdeau’s sophomore season than it is about satisfying a curiosity regarding how players have historically handled their second years’ in the NHL. So to answer the question, what does history tell us is a reasonable amount of second year improvement/regression to expect from players coming off strong rookie campaigns? We can say that in a void, history leads us to expect about a 10% improvement in production across the board.
We also now have a number that can serve as a standard for judging players’ improvements or lack there of in their second full season. For example if Huberdeau scores 80 points in his second season that would be about a 50% improvement from last year way way ahead of what we would expect from him. If he scores at the same rate as last year or even at a lesser rate then we could posit that he fell short of our reasonable expectations for his year two improvement.
How much do you think Huberdeau will improve in year two? Do you agree with our baseline measurement of a 10% improvement? Let us know in the comments section below.