I’m going to admit something up top: I was wrong in the pre-pandemic world on a few things, but probably nothing as much as I was on Alex DeBrincat. During his sophomore slump — largely influenced by an abysmal shooting percentage — I thought DeBrincat was done, toasted, caput.
I was, very clearly, wrong.
I say this because some of you may be saying the same thing about Philipp Kurashev after this year, and you’re also, very likely, wrong.
See, Phil the Thrill (because Kurashev at his best is far more thrilling than late-career Kessel and therefore deserves the nickname more) is one of, if not the forward most in need of good, consistent coaching who doesn’t want to scratch him every two games in favor of Reese or Tyler Johnson or another forward that no other team would dress to replace Kurashev in the lineup.
In a season when Kurashev was fully healthy but played just 67 games (#DerekKingHatestheKids), he played fewer minutes (dropping from 13:03 on average last year to 12:51 this season, 11:24 to 11:12 at even strength and 1:25 to 1:12 on the power play). He also saw his shooting percentage at even strength fall from a reasonable 11.54% to just 3.95%. That’s abysmal, and a factor likely outside his control.
That didn’t mean Kurashev stopped shooting, however. He actually shot more, going from 5.16 shots per 60 at 5-on-5 in 2021 to 6.07 in 2021-22. His expected goals remained about the same (0.54 versus 0.52) and about the same in high-danger chances per 60 (2.68 against 2.24).
Kurashev drew more penalties in 2021-22 (1.2 per 60 to 0.69 per 60 in 2021) and gave up the puck less (0.88 per 60 to 1.39). Kurashev, by multiple metrics, was a cleaner player in 2021-22 who just had bad luck and probably could have changed that if certain factors were different.
That doesn’t explain, however, the downsides of Kurashev. He ranks in just the 22nd percentile in the NHL in projected wins above replacement, or better than just 22% of the rest of NHL players over the past two years. His even strength offense is just 10%, according to JFresh Hockey, and his power play efforts — where Kurashev performed best in 2021-22 — is 5%.
Believe it or not, Kurashev’s RAPM above is not much worse than his RAPM chart from 2021. Kurashev does some things well, but he’s never really been on the fortunate end of puck luck (his PDO for both of his two NHL seasons are below 1.000) and he gets buried in possession stats.
In fact, while Kurashev improved in some possession metrics (his on-ice shot share at 5-on-5 went from 43.44 in 2021 to 46.05 in 2021-22, his expected goal share from 41.95 to 45.04) they remain well below 50%. While that’s more of a team thing — the Chicago Blackhawks were one of the worst possession teams in the league this season, continuing a recent trend — it doesn’t help to have one of your “young bright spots,” as Kurashev is supposed to be, unable to help drive possession.
However, there are bright spots from Kurashev’s year. The Blackhawks’ defense was better with Kurashev than when he was off the ice:
Less shot pressure came from the mid-range (as indicated by the blue in the chart, indicating pressure below league average) and pressure in general was relieved somewhat. That may be an indication of who Kurashev played with, as his defensive GAR was minus-1.6 at even strength, although it improved from minus-0.5 to minus-0.3 in terms of xGAR (again, because of Kurashev’s bad luck, perhaps more telling).
In fact, the thing Kurashev may be best at is drawing penalties. And on a team that didn’t capitalize on those that well in 2021-22, that’s not a hugely helpful feat (but it could be if the power play was a threat).
Still, was Kurashev great? No, but his usage continues to be a factor working against him. Kurashev’s most common linemate last season was Kirby Dach. That was, perhaps, a good thing, as each was better together in terms of expected goal share at 5-on-5 than they were apart (Kurashev going from a 44.03% with Dach to 43.41% without; Dach from a 44.03% to 43.13%).
However, there were linemates Kurashev was better with: especially Sam Lafferty. That duo had a 53.59 xGF% together (falling to 35.89% for Kurashev without Lafferty and 46.57% for Lafferty without Kurashev) and yet spent just 139:25 together. That duo could have been given more time, especially considering positive possession stats are hard to come by on this team and that 53.59 xGF% is noticeable.
Meanwhile, the duo of Dominik Kubalik and Kurashev, which helped result in some of Kurashev’s best stats last season (46.74 xGF% together) spent 208:10 together, with Kurashev going 495:49 without Kubalik. The duo had a 49.15 xGF% together at 5-on-5, similarly worse without each other, and could have spent more time with each other.
Kurashev did have trouble finishing last season, though, which is something that’s happened before in his career. Just before Kurashev made his NHL debut in 2021, he played in 13 games in the Swiss League and tallied nine points — all assists. When considering that, it’s easier to take it as a positive sign that there was in uptick in Kurashev’s assists per 60 rate (1.0) and primary assists per 60 rate (0.8).
Though Kurashev’s goal-scoring did fall off, that uptick in playmaking resulted in Kurashev racking up points at a higher rate this season (1.5 per 60 minutes this season versus 1.4 last season), which is, by definition, not regression. And Kurashev went from 1.0 primary points per 60 last season to 1.2 this past year.
There remains plenty of areas improvement for Kurashev, including his possession stats. At the same time, coming into the NHL under two coaches who either a) don’t want to play you or b) don’t use you effectively cannot be easy.
Under a competent head coach (Rocky Thompson just won another championship, y’all, and just joined the St. John Sea Dogs for the Memorial Cup as a special advisor) who wants to play and develop the kids, Kurashev could be in contention for most improved player.
He just needs to find his shot again. While he tried and tried, a negative bender like that is likely not repeatable.
Getting shots on net, however, is.