NHL

How Alexander Steen Went from 50-Point Man to Art Ross Contender

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 1: Alexander Steen #20 of the St Louis Blues skates with the puck against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on November 1, 2013 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistNovember 22, 2013

The NHL’s list of scoring leaders at the start of action Friday looks almost exactly like anyone would have imagined going into the season. Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are all there; so too are duos like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

But one spot behind Sidney Crosby, just two points out of the scoring lead for the entire NHL, we find a surprise: Alexander Steen.

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 1: Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues skates prior to the game against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on November 1, 2013 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

It’s a surprise because Steen’s previous career high in points was a modest 51, set in 2010-11. Fifty points is a respectable plateau to crack at the NHL level. Something like 100 players do it every year, and being a top-100 scorer in the best league in the world is quite an accomplishment. But there’s a huge leap from “top-100 scorer” to “top scorer,” and somehow, Steen’s made the jump. How?   

That career-best 2010-11 performance is the only time in Steen’s career that he’s topped the 50-point mark. That statement undersells his career somewhat, because injuries and lockouts have cost him games played; we can see how many points those sorts of issues have cost Steen when we look at his average 82-game point pace over his career:

Alexander Steen's career NHL scoring
SeasonTeamGamesGoalsAssistsPointsPoints/82
05-06Toronto7518274550
06-07Toronto8215203535
07-08Toronto7615274245
08-09TOR/STL818202828
09-10St. Louis6824234757
10-11St. Louis7220315158
11-12St. Louis4315132854
12-13St. Louis408192755
NHL.com

Steen has consistently been a 50-60 point scorer in four seasons with the Blues if judged on an 82-game average, but he's missed time every year. That’s the first difference between this year’s version of Steen and previous editions: he hasn’t been plagued by the maladies of seasons past.

Health alone, however, is not enough to explain the gap.

It is instructive to compare Steen’s pace this year to his 82-game averages from previous seasons in St. Louis, as shown in this table:

Alexander Steen's 82-game scoring pace, 2009-present
SeasonGoals/82Assists/82Points/82
2009-10292857
2010-11233558
2011-12292554
2012-13163955
Average, 2009-13243256
2013-146635101
NHL.com

Steen has averaged 32 assists per 82 games in his time in St. Louis; this year that total is 35. If he had posted one fewer assist in his first 21 games, he would be on pace for 31 assists this year; the gap is so small that we can write it off as almost nonexistent.   

The big gap is goal scoring.

Goal scoring is a product of two things: shot volume and shooting percentage. The only way a player can increase his goal count is to A) get more shots or B) beat the goalie with a higher percentage of those shots he already fires.

Which is it in Steen’s case? Let’s have a look:

Alexander Steen's 82-game goal-scoring, 2009-present
SeasonShots/82Shooting PercentageGoals/82
2009-1022812.729
2010-112489.223
2011-1225611.229
2012-132646.216
Average, 2009-1324910.024
2013-1428523.366
NHL.com

Steen has managed to increase his shot totals by a nontrivial amount. He’s up 14 percent from his average the last four seasons, and up almost eight percent from his shot totals last season. That’s only a tiny part of his improvement, though; firing at his four-year average shooting percentage, we would expect 28-29 goals over a full year—a pace he has hit twice before.

The big jump is shooting percentage, up around 230 percent from his four-year average and nearly four times as good as his total from last season. If he fired at that rate last season, he would have scored at a 62-goal pace—only a touch worse than what he’s doing this year.

What to make of it all? There is nothing in Steen's career to suggest he is this good a shooter, and indeed there is no parallel in modern NHL history of a player suddenly blossoming as a shooter in this manner and maintaining it. 

Steen is a good NHL player. He scores between 50-60 points when he’s healthy (which he often isn’t). Pucks are just going in early this year. It’s fantastic for player and team alike—especially the player, a pending unrestricted free agent and an Olympic candidate—but at some point the clock will strike midnight and Steen will go back to being a good but not great NHL player.

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