Is Jonathan Drouin’s Success Due to the Play of Nathan MacKinnon?


On Sunday at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning opted not to go with the consensus top defenseman, Seth Jones, and instead selected dynamic winger Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads from the QMJHL at 3rd overall. With the addition of the most prolific, statistically, draft-eligible forward to come out of the “Q” since Sidney Crosby, the Lightning’s very deep and talented stable of young forwards, which was already an embarrassment of riches, got even better.

There isn’t necessarily an abundance of criticism pertaining to the young winger but it does exist in the form of knocks about Drouin’s size (he is listed at 5-11 and 175 pounds) as well as skepticism as to whether his game will translate to the pros. Some even go so far as to suggest he was largely dependent on the play of fellow linemate Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall selection by the Colorado Avalanche. Here a few choice examples:





Perhaps it’s only natural to wonder, when two draft-eligible players as supremely talented as Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon are not only teammates but also linemates, whether one or the other is the straw that actually stirs the drink. Fortunately, we have access to some data and prior analysis that helps, I believe, settle the issue.

I was unsure if measures of player performance in relation to linemates were available until Gus Katsaros, pro scouting director for McKeen’s Hockey, pointed out their newly-launched CHL data repository (which, it’s worth noting, is a historic undertaking and is expected to grow) has just such a script. Using it, here’s a screen grab of Drouin’s draft season:


What this scoring data allows for is very rudimentary “WOWY” (with or without you) analysis, which has typically been done (here’s an example) with possession numbers (i.e. Corsi, Fenwick figures) to help determine which players are truly driving play and which are along for the ride, or, that is, benefiting from the work done by their linemates. We have to keep in mind that there are far fewer goals than other shot events and, as Katsaros explains, this table is even absent a piece of the puzzle:

Linemates is a primitive bastardization of a WOWY, containing the WITH YOU, missing the WITHOUT YOU. The table is a distribution of points for the player with other teammates, broken down by first and second assist.

So we have a chunk of the overall picture, but it’s a start. What we can glean from this table is that when Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin were together, MacKinnon had 14 assists on goals scored by Drouin and Drouin recorded 13 assists on goals by MacKinnon. That breaks down to just 34% of goals where MacKinnon assisted Drouin. On the other hand, Drouin assisted on over 40% of MacKinnon’s goals — though with the caveat that just 23% of Drouin’s assists on MacKinnon’s goals were primary assists while over 70% of MacKinnon’s assists on Drouin’s goals were primary assists.

Beyond the incomplete W(OWY) data, we also have a period of time during the CHL regular season worth investigating as Nathan MacKinnon missed a period of games, leaving Drouin to carry the offensive load without his star center. This period of time can be used as a proxy for the missing “without you” data (though the sample is admittedly small).

Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune had this to say in an interview with The Fabulous Sports Babe on local radio regarding Drouin’s performance in the QMJHL without MacKinnon:

“Here’s an interesting thing about Jonathan, and, this is one of the things that’s been brought up a lot…He missed about two and a half, three weeks with a minor knee injury during the season. Johnathan Drouin’s numbers went up when Nathan MacKinnon was not on his line, and that tells you about the ability for a guy to raise his level of play, and make those around him better when a guy like Nathan MacKinnon isn’t in the lineup.”

Can we gauge how accurate this “Drouin improved his game without MacKinnon” narrative is?

MacKinnon went down with an injury to the MCL in his knee on February 8 in a game against the Moncton Wildcats. He returned on March 13 against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, which adds up to an absence of 14 games and 33 days.

What exactly did Drouin do during that 14-game, 33-day period? Well, for starters, this:

So, yeah, all Drouin did in his first game without MacKinnon was score a hat trick (including a shorthanded, power play, and even strength goal) to lead the Mooseheads to a 7-0 rout of the Prince Edward Island Rocket.

In total, Drouin notched 10 goals and 16 assists during MacKinnon’s absence for a very healthy 1.86 points-per-game average.

We also have additional context from the work of Cam Charron, who took a look at both Drouin and MacKinnon prior to this year’s Memorial Cup, when he noted there’s been ongoing speculation over as to which player was “better”, as well as after the tournament, during which he tracked zone entries and scoring chances for Team Canada. Here are his findings:

drouin_entries drouin_chances_taken-setup

When Charron says that Drouin was “driving the bus”, we can see why pretty clearly. That’s not a knock on MacKinnon, who’s a fantastic player in his own right and whose primary values lies in his finishing, and Charron was careful to point out that MacKinnon manages a high percentage of controlled entries, too, which allowed him to generate a number of scoring chances on his own.

In conjunction with his data and observations, Charron was left with the following conclusion:

“Drouin makes plays, though. He’s impatient in the neutral zone and patient in the offensive zone. Corey Pronman at Hockey Prospectus, who emphasizes puck possession and wrote at no small amount about Drouin’s puck skills, ranked Drouin No. 1 in his final 2013 rankings. I’ve entered that camp as well, because what I’ve seen at the Memorial Cup with Drouin’s ability on the puck matches what impressed me at the IIHF U-20s in December.

Of course, results from a single tournament presents the dilemma of small sample size and the availability and scope of juniors hockey statistics has only just undergone a major growth spurt but the information that is accessible paints a stands in stark contrast to suggestions that Drouin might be–or outright claims that he was–riding shotgun alongside MacKinnon.

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