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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Kessel's Slow Start Not Unusual

January is now in the books and the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in 7th place (4W 3L 8Pts) in the Eastern Conference. There are many intriguing story lines: Reimer's continued emergence as a number one goalie, Kadri leading the club in points, and Phil Kessel's scoring drought, just to name a few. Understandably, Kessel has received the majority of the attention, including TSN's Jonas Siegel recent piece on Kessel's uncharacteristic slow "start". However, a concerted glance at history indicates that a slow January may be a seasonal part of Kessel's game.

With 4 points (0G 4A) in 7 games, Kessel's goal-scoring and point-production has certainly been underwhelming. Following 40 hard minutes of bullying from the Rangers last Saturday, a game which I attended, Leafs Nation and the Toronto media have really zeroed-in on Kessel's lack of scoring.

Phil Kessel doing his best Jordan Tootoo impression - Leafs v. Sabres (1/21/13)
Photo courtesy of MapleLeafs.com 
Some may attribute the lack of production to coach Carlyle's system, Lupul's absence, or just gripping the proverbial "stick" too tightly. Unfortunately, Kessel is known as a notoriously streaky scorer and his consistency often comes into question. As I pondered these allegations of inconsistency, my first instinct was to see if there was some sort of pattern to the purported variability in his game.

This led me to look into Kessel's goal/point-production and shot attempts per month, throughout his time as a Leaf.

The first chart presents Kessel's average goals-per-month (GPM) and goals-per-game (GPG) by month for the past three seasons. (Due to the small sample size of games during the month of April, results from that particular month should garner less consideration.)
  • January is typically the weakest GPM and GPG month - on average, January comes 6th, out of the 7-month season, in goal-scoring (4.00 GPM and 0.31 GPG)
  • February is typically a strong GPM and GPG month - on average, February comes 2nd, out of the 7-month season, in goal-scoring (5.67 GPM and 0.58 GPG)

The second chart presents Kessel's average points-per-game (PPG) and shots-per-game (SPG) by month for the past three seasons. (Once again, due to April's small sample size, results from that particular month should garner less consideration.)
  • On average, January is the least (7th) productive month (0.72 PPG) and the 2nd highest month in shot attempts (4.28 SPG)
  • On average, February is the 2nd most productive month (1.25 PPG) and the 3rd lowest month in shot attempts (3.89 SPG)

Now, there are numerous potential variables at play but the reason for the inclusion of shot totals into the analysis is because although Kessel hasn't scored as much, he is still shooting and generating chances. After Thursday night's win against Washington, no one can deny that he isn't getting his share of scoring opportunities. Subsequently, if we re-order the months from highest PPG to lowest PPG, an interesting relationship emerges.

In fact, the data produces a negative correlation of -0.53 between average SPG and average PPG by month. Although a -0.53 correlation may not be overly significant, what is does tell us is that Kessel is aware of his lack of production and in an attempt to change the tide, he shoots more! By shooting more, Kessel gets more chances and usually follows up a month of higher SPG with a month of higher PPG. In other words, SPG may somewhat serve as a (inverse) leading indicator of PPG. With Phil having shot at a 4.71 SPG clip for the month of January, he is well above his typical average of 4.28. He is also well below his typical PPG average of 0.72, having scored at a 0.57 PPG pace during January.

In short, a low-scoring and high-shooting January is nothing new for Kessel.

This lockout-shortened season brings with it added uncertainty and prior fast starts out of the gate may provide limited insight into what we can expect from players this season. In fact, one could argue that many things haven't turned out as predicted. However, given the inverse relationship between SPG and PPG, the historical productivity cycles, and with 15 games set for the following month, February may yet prove to be another productive period for Phil Kessel.

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