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.
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:
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:
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:
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.