How Long Will Alexander Steen Remain Among NHL's Scoring Leaders?

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How Long Will Alexander Steen Remain Among NHL's Scoring Leaders?
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In one of the season's biggest surprises, Alexander Steen currently leads the NHL with 16 goals and 24 points after 17 games. The 29-year-old Blue is on pace for 77 goals and 116 points, despite previous single-season career highs of just 24 goals and 51 points. It's fair to say that Steen will eventually cool off, but by how much, and how soon?

The bottom line is that Steen's scoring has been fueled by a red-hot shooting percentage, one that rarely persists without some kind of explanation. These kinds of stretches do occur from time to time, even for Steen, who scored 20 points in 17 games back in 2010, a season where he finished with 48 points in 67 games.

This analysis will involve a deeper dive into the numbers, first to break down his game and figure out how he's generating all this offence, and then to search his career to see what he's been capable of in the past. That information can produce a best-case scenario, as well as more realistic expectations, which will help estimate at what point this season he'll slide back the league's scoring leaders.

Players can have big jumps in their scoring for a handful of different reasons, so the first step is determining which of them apply in Steen's situation.

 

How Is Steen Doing it?

In the case of established players, normally, a big jump in scoring is caused by more ice-time (especially on the power play), better linemates, preferential usage in the offensive zone and against weaker opponents, and/or some shooting luck. Which one is the case here?

Steen is averaging an extra minute and 43 seconds per game this season, with almost all of that boost being at even-strength. He has remained on a line with David Backes, but because of Andy McDonald's retirement, they've been joined by T.J. Oshie this year. Suffice it to say that while Backes and Oshie are skilled players, they don't exactly have Crosby-like reputations for boosting scoring.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin famously increased their scoring years ago when their playing conditions changed dramatically, and they got to play almost exclusively in the offensive zone and against more secondary competition. A quick look at St. Louis' player usage chart reveals that Ken Hitchcock isn't tilting the ice in a similar fashion and if anything is assigning Steen's line the toughest minutes possible.

Hockey Abstract

Steen's shooting rate hasn't changed either. His 60 shots (or 3.5 shots per game) isn't unusual for him at all. Last year, he averaged 3.2 shots per game, which is about what you'd expect when you factor in the change in ice-time.

The big difference is how many of those shots have gone in. Last year, it was eight goals in 129 shots; this year, it's 16 goals in 60 shots. That's twice as many goals in half as many shots. His 26.7 shooting percentage is up from 6.2 percent last year, his 9.1 percent career average and even his 12.7 percent single-season career high. How is he doing this, is it just some great puck luck?

While 26.7 percent is his career high over a 17-game stretch, he has been close before. In fact, this is the fifth time in his career that Steen has topped 20 percent over a 17 game stretch, with his previous record being 22.5 percent.

 

Steen's Career Best Stretches

Players go on hot and cold stretches all the time, and they're very hard to predict. Steen, for example, has scored anywhere from two to 20 points over any particular 17-game stretch, while averaging about nine or ten.

Obviously, the hot stretches that occur at the start of a season get a lot more attention, but a closer examination of the previous times Steen has gone on a tear like this will hopefully help predict how long this one can last.

Here is a list of Alexander Steen's best 17-game scoring stretches. While it is his career best, his 24 points recently is not completely out of place. He scored 20 points in a 17-game stretch in 2010, the year he finished with 48 points in 67 games.

Alexander Steen's Best 17-Game Stretches
Dates GP G A PTS +/- Shots
Oct 3 - Nov 14, 2013 17 16 8 24 +13 60
Feb 12 - Apr 1, 2010 17 10 10 20 +13 59
Jan 31 - Mar 24, 2013 17 6 11 17 +1 65
Dec 26 - Feb 6, 2012 17 4 13 17 +1 51
Dec 21 - Jan 23, 2010 17 9 8 17 +3 44

In terms of goals, his 16 up to this point in the season blows away his old 17-game record of 10 goals, which he achieved on two separate occasions. In contrast, there was one slump where he had no goals in 36 shots over 17 games and two stretches where he managed just two points.

In terms of assists, his record is 13, which he has also done on two separate occasions. In terms of plus/minus, he actually achieved a plus-14 over one particular stretch. He also had a stretch where he was minus-16.

The team can have a huge impact on these hot and cold stretches, too. For example, right now, Steen is in on 39.3 percent of St. Louis' scoring, but that's not even his highest. This past March, he had a 17-game stretch where he was in on 41.0 percent of the team's scoring, even though that was only 16 points. He also topped 35 percent on at least two other occasions.

The take away point here is that players have highs and lows, and this level of scoring isn't completely unprecedented, even for Steen. 

 

Best-Case Scenario

How long can Alexander Steen keep this up? Right now, he's scoring at a rate 20 percent higher than his hottest career stretch. If we're generous and assume that he has gotten 20 percent better, or that there is something about his playing conditions and/or the system in St. Louis that will legitimately and permanently boost his scoring by 20 percent, then we can use that to build a best-case scenario.

For example, Steen had 22 points over his best 20 game stretch, so an extra 20 percent would be 26 points in 20 games. That might be enough to stay even with Sidney Crosby for the league lead.

Steen's Best Case Scenario
GP PTS +Boost
20 22 26
35 33 40
50 45 54
82 66 80

Given these base case numbers, Steen might remain among the scoring leaders at the 35 game mark but would fall to the bottom of the top ten after that.

Last year, Pavel Datsyuk was 10th in scoring after a 48-game season with 49 points in 47 games, so 54 points would still have Steen at least as high as 10th. In 2011-12, the last full 82-game season, Patrik Elias was tenth in scoring with 78 points, so 80 points would likely have Steen at the bottom of the top ten this year too.

Of course, all of this makes the awfully flattering assumption that Steen can score at a rate 20 percent higher than his previous career best and for much longer stretches of time. While 80 points is possible, it is likely too high an estimate.

 

What's Realistic for Steen?

The more realistic expectation is for Steen to score closer to this career rate the rest of the way. That would either be 36 points or 43 points, if we retain the 20 percent boost. Add in his hot start, and that would give Steen between 60 and 67 points and cause him to slide off the top ten leaderboard around the trade deadline.

This may come as a shock to those hockey fans with a strong tendency to believe that whatever is currently happening will continue to happen, and whatever happened repeatedly in the past will never happen again.

That being said, players do legitimately increase their scoring sometimes, even as dramatically as Steen. But absent clear explanations as to why a player is suddenly scoring on three times as many of his shots as he normally does, it doesn't tend to last.

 

How Many Points Will Alexander Steen Score by Season's End?

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Closing Thoughts

Players go on hot and cold stretches all the time, and 24 points for Steen isn't crazy unusual. It's only a few points more than a stretch he had in 2010, a season in which he finished with 48 points in 67 games. The only reason it's getting so much attention is because it occurred from the start of the season.

If Steen resumes his previous career scoring pace, or even slightly above it, he may finish with 60-67 points this year. The best-case scenario where his newfound scoring touch is more permanent, where he continues to play at a pace well above his career best, results in a finish with up to 80 points and possibly a finish in the league's top ten.

 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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