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Why Alex DeBrincat had goal-scoring slump during 2019-20 season

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One of the Blackhawks’ top goal scorers was notably absent everywhere but the power play. How do you explain that?

Chicago Blackhawks Training Camp
Alex DeBrincat of the Chicago Blackhawks participates in summer 2020 training camp
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Expectations were high for Alex DeBrincat entering his third season.

The Blackhawks winger scored 41 goals during the 2018-19 season, and signed a three-year, $19.2 million extension the day before the season opener that will start during the 2020-21 campaign.

But the goals didn’t come this past season. The 22-year-old only scored 18 goals in 70 games before the NHL was paused March 12 due to health concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Of those 18 goals, only seven were during five-on-five play.

A drop in shooting percentage explains only part of the reason why he was less productive. Part of it but not all of it.

DeBrincat had the lowest shooting percentage of his three-year career during the 2019-20 season, just 8.7 percent, which is 9.9 percent drop from 2018-19 (18.6 percent). Even including this season, it’s 5.6 percent below his career average, which goes from 14.3 percent to 17.2 percent when excluding this season.

A low PDO (1.002 altogether, which is around average, but .015 below last season’s mark) does account for a large chunk of it, as it’s not as if DeBrincat took fewer shots. Across all strengths this season, he took more shots per 60 than 2018-19, going from 9.09 (8.54 at even strength) to 10.14 (9.9) this season. That’s more than one shot more per game. If he didn’t have as awful luck, DeBrincat would likely have scored more goals, if anything.

That’s not the only category where DeBrincat improved.

Individual expected goals (across all strengths) per 60: .89 to .96
High-danger chances per 60: 3.1 to 3.23
High-danger chances on power play: 3.36 to 6.44
Primary assists at even strength: .46 to .92
Penalties drawn: .45 to .78
Giveaways: 2.07 to 1.81

Among his possession stats, DeBrincat’s expected goals percentage and high-danger percentage both went up (43.79 to 44.02; 42.8 to 45.11), although his offensive-zone usage also rose sharply (64.39 to 68.94).

DeBrincat’s expected defensive Goals Above Replacement (GAR) went up at even strength, (0 to 1.3), and he drew far more expected goals in penalties (minus-1.4 to .8). Those were his last stats to improve, however. In every other statistical category, DeBrincat declined.

That includes both GAR and Wins Above Replacement (WAR), where DeBrincat dropped from 17.1 to 4.6 in GAR and 3.2 to .8 in WAR.

Linemate issues

DeBrincat’s decline can also be attributed to who he was lined up with. The linemates he was most successful with at even strength this past season are surprising: Ryan Carpenter tops the list, followed by Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews. He played the most with Dach (396:13) out of the three, followed by Toews (173) and Carpenter (114).

The two players DeBrincat spent the most time with, Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane, are the two he was worst with out of his six most common linemates — a list that includes David Kampf (134:52 together).

The DeBrincat-Strome combination improved possession wise, but their goals for per 60 at even strength (4.87 to 3.21) and goals against (4.16 to 2.47).

For much of the season, DeBrincat wasn’t producing in terms of expected goals or actual goals. His toughest stretch came in November when he went a career-high 12 straight games without a goal. He then scored in three consecutive games, but went through an eight game drought again before another three-game goal streak.

Who DeBrincat should be linemates with

Weirdly, DeBrincat should play with Dach, Kampf and/or Toews, not with Kane and Strome like many have wanted to see. DeBrincat’s highest goals per 60 was with Strome, but his highest expected goals per 60 was with Toews, who he also produced the most shots per 60 with.

Toews’ stats here are better, because they are performance based. Toews and DeBrincat were able to get more chances from better places than Strome and DeBrincat were, and goals per 60 could be all luck based. In this situation it is as Strome and DeBrincat had the highest PDO this season (1.032) among DeBrincat’s most common duos, while Toews and DeBrincat had the lowest (.913).

DeBrincat played just 12 minutes with Dominik Kubalik, and they produced insane results, including a 76.47 shot share. Maybe a DeBrincat-Toews-Kubalik line is something to look into.

Creating a line like that could utilize an undervalued aspect of DeBrincat’s game — for his size, he’s not horrible defensively. Of the two players he played the most minutes with, Strome and Kane, he’s has the best defensive metrics (.3 even-strength defensive GAR vs. Strome’s -.8 and Kane’s -7.8). Putting DeBrincat with Kubalik and Toews or Dach and Kampf would allow DeBrincat to lean into that side and, if he did experience another dropoff in shooting percentage, to represent value in a different way.

But DeBrincat did see a visible decline this season, even accounting for luck and teammates. He dropped in takeaways (2.11 per 60 to 2.01), all power play points, including goals, assists, primary assists and points, and shots on the power play (11.65 per 60 to 11.4), and he deserves some fault for his Corsi, shot share, and goals share dropping despite a higher offensive zone start percentage (and PDO).

Stats like GAR, WAR, expected GAR and expected WAR, which do their best to remove linemates from the equation, weren’t kind to DeBrincat either. GAR and WAR weren’t the only dips, as he went from 19.9 xGAR to 5.1 and 3.7 xWAR to .9 (notable that those numbers were so close to his actual values of 4.6 and .8).

DeBrincat’s dive can be mostly credited to shooting percentage and linemates, which the Blackhawks could adjust for, but some of it was also on his play being subpar from previous seasons.

Stats from ChartingHockey.ca, Evolving-Hockey.com, Hockey-Reference.com, and NaturalStatTrick.com