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December 29, 2010
Howe and Why
Crosby, Malkin and Letang

by Robert Vollman

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Recently, we've used the Snepsts system to look at some of the league's top snipers, like Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Alexander Semin, Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos and Eric Staal. Since it's a such a fun way to peer into the NHL's vast vault of history and gain insight into what to expect from today's players, today and tomorrow we'll prepare for the Winter Classic by finding comparables for the stars of the Penguins and Capitals.

The Snepsts System

There are many ways to search history to find players with comparable statistics. What particularly defines the Snepsts system is that it searches all of NHL's history, normalizes data to the modern era, rules out players over 2 years older or younger, and weights current, previous and past seasons at a 4/2/1 ratio. A more detailed explanation of the methodology is here.

As a reminder, these are not similar players, but rather players with similar statistics. Looking at how the future unfolded for them can be an entertaining way to give us insight into what to expect from our target players.

Sidney Crosby, 23

In the unlikely event that you're not already aware of how dominant Sidney Crosby is already, I'll refer you to the most recent Player Power Rankings, Tom Awad's recently article declaring the Crosby vs Ovechkin debate officially over and Kent Wilson's recent recap of Sidney Crosby's Historic Season.

It's understandably hard to find comparables for Sid the Kid, but there's one match that's particularly tight—Mario Lemieux. Take Lemieux at one year younger than Crosby, normalize his scoring to modern day levels, and look how close it is:

                     Mario Sidney
Last Year G/GP       0.66   0.63
Last Year A/GP       0.66   0.72
Year Before G/GP     0.42   0.42
Year Before A/GP     0.85   0.88
Career Previous G/GP 0.42   0.44
Career Previous A/GP 0.57   0.87

Now that's some high praise! If Crosby continued to follow Mario's course, he'd be good for 52 goals and 76 assists for 128 points in 77 games this season. Though I doubt Snepsts can possibly improve on this projection, let's see what we can find:

Age Closest Comparable        GP  G  A PTS
22  Mario Lemieux     1986-87 77 52 76 128
25  Gordie Drillon    1938-39 40 20 19  39
22  Evgeni Malkin     2008-09 82 34 75 109
23  Jaromir Jagr      1995-96 82 55 79 134
25  Alexei Zhamnov    1995-96 58 19 34  53
24  Jari Kurri        1984-85 73 51 47  98
25  Sergei Samsonov   2003-04 58 18 25  43
24  Stan Mikita       1964-65 70 27 60  87
24  Syl Apps          1938-39 44 16 30  46
23  Gordie Howe       1951-52 70 50 48  98
 
Worst (Samsonov)              80 25 35  60
Best (Lemieux)                80 54 79 133
Average                       80 40 58  98
VUKOTA (over 80 GP)           80 45 66 111

Sidney Crosby is currently on pace for 69 goals and 71 assists for 140 points if he plays all 82 games, which would beat even Mario. In fact, he'd become the first player since the Magnificent One to score the era-normalized equivalent of 140 points in a season, something Mario did twice—the only player other than Gretzky (six times) to do so. I honestly don't see how it's possible for anyone to keep up this pace for an entire season, but if anyone can do it, Crosby can.

Evgeni Malkin, 24

Malkin's career started off with a bang, winning the Calder at age 20, and the Art Ross and Conn Smythe at age 22. From ages 21 to 22, he scored 219 points, more than both Crosby (212 points) and Alexander Ovechkin (204 points). Unfortunately, Malkin has cooled down a little since then. Let's see if any of his historical comparables did the same.

Using a simpler system, the best matches include Stan Mikita, Bryan Trottier and Jason Spezza, who would average 29 goals and 54 assists for 83 points in 77 games (assuming Malkin plays all remaining games this season). Based on Eddie Shore's big year, Snepsts predicts he can do a little better than those three.

Age Closest Comparable        GP  G  A PTS
24  Bryan Trottier    1980-81 73 22 55  77
26  Eddie Shore       1928-29 39 23 38  61
26  Stan Mikita       1966-67 70 32 60  92
22  Sidney Crosby     2009-10 81 51 58 109
26  Gilbert Perreault 1976-77 80 32 49  81
25  Syl Apps          1939-40 27 14 22  36
26  Andy Bathgate     1958-59 70 38 48  86
25  Dale Hawerchuk    1988-89 75 30 42  72
26  Mark Recchi       1994-95 49 15 31  46
24  Tom Cook          1931-32 48 13 24  37
 
Worst (Cook)                  77 21 38  59
Best (Shore)                  77 45 76 121
Average                       77 34 55  89
VUKOTA (over 77 GP)           77 37 60  97

Malkin is on pace for 30 goals and 44 assists for 74 points in 77 games, which is more like fellow Calder Trophy winner Dale Hawerchuk. Hawerchuk was unfortunately just coming out of his high scoring prime, which featured a streak of five consecutive 100 point seasons (not adjusted for era), a level he'd never reach again—though he'd certainly come close right up until age 30.

The other close comparable is Gilbert Perreault, also a Calder Trophy winner, who was coming out of two monster seasons, but remained very productive until age 34. In the short run, the bad news could mean that Malkin's dominant offensive years are winding down, but I'm sure no one would complain if he scored at a such a solid level for another decade.

Kris Letang, 23

Kris Letang has played three NHL seasons, topping up at 10 goals and 33 points two seasons ago, just one point more than his total so far this season—it's fair to say he's riding the Crosby wave.

Let's say he played 75 games—which would be a career high—Letang’s current pace would put him at 12 goals and 51 assists for 63 points. That's far more than our VUKOTA projection of 10 goals and 28 assists for 38 points. Let's see if there's a historical comparable that can help us establish Letang's high water mark.

Age Closest Comparable        GP  G  A PTS
25  Derian Hatcher    1997-98 70  6 27  33
25  Eric Weinrich     1991-92 76  6 20  26
24  Patrice Brisebois 1994-95 35  4  8  12
23  Dave Pichette     1983-84 46  1 13  14
24  Martin Skoula     2003-04 79  4 23  27
24  Andrej Meszaros   2009-10 81  6 11  17
23  Paul Boutilier    1986-87 62  5 10  15
25  Tom Poti          2002-03 80 11 39  50
25  Gus Mortson       1949-50 58  3 17  20
24  Mike Robitaille   1972-73 65  3 15  18
 
Worst (Meszaros)              75  6 10  16
Best (Poti)                   75 11 36  47
Average                       75  6 20  26
VUKOTA (over 75 GP)           75 10 28  38

If you relied upon either VUKOTA or the Snepsts system, you'd never have seen Letang's season coming. He's already outscored all but two, Darien Hatcher and Tom Poti.

Poti's career season is that much more surprising given that he really had no one to feed the puck to like Letang does in Pittsburgh. The Rangers featured only one 20 goal scorer, their leading point-getter Petr Nedved. Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Mark Messier were well past their prime scoring seasons, Alex Kovalev was acquired late in the year, and Brian Leetch was injured. Poti would peak again three years later, but generally stuck to Letang's previous level under 30 points the rest of his career.

Along the same line of thought is Dave Pichette, who followed up the lackluster season shown above with a whopping 57 points in 71 games for the New Jersey Devils in 1984-85, playing with absolutely no one of note (Mel Bridgman is no Crosby). Within a year, Pichette would find himself unable to score even in the AHL.

Though it's unwise to read too much into an exercise like this, given Letang's modest QMJHL scoring levels, his low NHL totals to date, the lack of more successful historical counterparts, and obvious advantage of sharing the ice with Sidney Crosby, it's probably fair to expect his scoring totals to float down closer to projections if they are broken up.

Wrapping Up

How far can Sidney Crosby take the Pittsburgh Penguins? If he continues to generate offense like no one since Mario Lemieux, there's really no limit. Kris Letang should try to keep his cart hitched to that horse for as long as possible, but Malkin might have to toil away in the shadows of generational greatness—just like Dale Hawerchuk in the Gretzky era.

Speaking of generational talents, stay tuned tomorrow for the Washington Capitals comparables, where we'll look at Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. And if you find these studies interesting, please take advantage of either the comment section or the email link to request analyses of other players, using either the Snepsts system, or a requested alternative.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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Numbers On Ice (12/29)
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Howe and Why (12/24)
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Pucks From The Past (12/30)

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