Putting points on the board and filling box scores is all well and good, but when it comes to evaluating the NHL's truly great players, you have to consider their production in a deeper context -- you must account for the degree of difficulty.
In truth, the NHL's most impressive players are those who are assigned the most difficult playing time and yet somehow find ways to make big contributions. That's why we are using player usage charts (see below), which graphically portray how players are being utilized and producing on the ice, to choose the 10 most impressive skaters to start this season.
Player usage charts measure three critical factors:
The percentage of shifts they're starting in the offensive zone (the horizontal axis).
The competition they're facing during those shifts (the vertical axis).
How they are producing during those shifts (the size of the circle around a player's name).
Though each of these impressive-early players is primarily starting in the defensive zone against top-line competition, they are giving their teams a huge shot-based advantage relative to everyone else (the bubbles are sized according to the extent of those advantages). In making evaluations on certain high-performing lines -- for example the San Jose Shark's top trio -- we chose the key member of the line or pairing.
Based on playing conditions, here are the 10 players off to the most impressive starts this season.
1. Thomas Vanek, LW, Buffalo Sabres
One of the bright spots on an otherwise disappointing team is Buffalo's top line of Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson, all of whom have been among the league's leading scorers despite starting many shifts in their own zone against top opposing lines.
Vanek, the brightest star among them, has a league-leading 11 goals and 23 points and is also a team-leading plus-5 with 46 shots, all reminiscent of the Austrian's fantastic 2006-07 season in which he scored 43 goals, piled up 84 points and led the league with a plus-47.
2. Saku Koivu, C, Anaheim Ducks
Turning an area of weakness into one of strength, one of the keys to Anaheim's success this season has been the creation of one of the league's best shutdown lines featuring 38-year-old Koivu alongside Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik. The inspirational Finn has 13 points, second on the team to countryman Teemu Selanne, and has a league-leading plus-11 for the Ducks.
3. Patrick Marleau, C, San Jose Sharks
Effectively using a power-versus-power matchup, the Sharks have been riding high on the backs of their top line of Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.
While the team may be slumping, its top line continues to hum along at full speed -- Marleau currently leads the team with 10 goals, 15 points and 43 shots.
4. Colin Wilson, C, Nashville Predators
Drafted seventh overall in 2008, Wilson is coming off 34- and 35-point seasons and was therefore an unlikely candidate to lead Nashville in scoring with seven points. Wilson has been playing without regular linemates in minutes just as tough as David Legwand, and he is absolutely killing it. Individual overachievement has always been critical for the Predators' success and well-kept secrets like Wilson and defensemen Kevin Klein are the reason they have remained competitive so far in 2013.
5. Matt Duchene, C, Colorado Avalanche
After scoring 55 points as a teenage rookie and then leading the Avalanche with 67 points in 2009-10, Duchene stumbled to just 28 points last season, finishing with a minus-11. Fortunately, the third-overall selection in 2009 has turned things around alongside free-agent signing P.A. Parenteau and currently leads the team with 10 points (along with a plus-5).
6. Tomas Plekanec, LW, Montreal Canadiens
After tearing up the Czech league with 46 points in 32 games alongside Jaromir Jagr, Plekanec is leading the Canadiens with 10 points and 34 shots. While the Habs thankfully have guys like Lars Eller, Travis Moen and Colby Armstrong handling the truly horrid minutes, Plekanec deserves quite a bit of credit for facing the top lines and making top-six forwards once again out of linemates Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta.
7. Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers
While a lot of the early-season Calder Trophy buzz has gone to Cory Conacher and Vladimir Tarasenko, Schultz, who has achieved almost as much despite not having soft ice time, deserves a closer look. Playing alongside veteran Nick Schultz, the 22-year-old has 4 power-play goals, 7 points and 32 shots. While his offensive success was somewhat expected, it's unusual that it could come without consequences defensively. While everyone playing in Edmonton is getting badly outshot so far this season, Justin and Nick Shultz (no relation) are almost at the break-even mark despite sharing the team's toughest ice time with Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid.
8. T. J. Oshie, C, St. Louis Blues
Oshie is a classic do-it-all player who is starting to achieve his full potential this season while forming one of the league's top two-way lines with the David Backes and David Perron. Playing for the Blues, a dominant team made beatable by weak goaltending, Oshie has 9 points and, unlike his highly-penalized linemates, is drawing five times as many penalties as he's taking.
9. Francois Beauchemin, D, Anaheim Ducks
Speaking of unsung heroes, how about those veteran defensemen who throw hits, kill penalties and line up against the league's best players? Beauchemin, 32, has found great chemistry with free-agent addition Sheldon Souray, leading to 5 points and a plus-9, which is the highest of his career as a result of logging tough minutes so others could shine.
10. Benoit Pouliot, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
High-scoring superstars like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Conacher can light the red lamp because other players are tackling the tough minutes for them. Though not something we've come to expect from Pouliot based on his usage on previous teams, the fourth-overall selection in the 2005 draft could finally be coming into his own in Tampa Bay. Pouliot, who barely beat out similarly-styled Joel Ward to make our list, has 6 points in 13 games, is drawing almost twice as many penalties as he's taking and would look even better if not for the poor .881 save percentage behind him.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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