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The Curious Case of Alex DeBrincat

Can we explain his “struggles”?

NHL: New York Rangers at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the question of whether Alex DeBrincat is struggling might seem a bit silly; one of the Ottawa Senators’ biggest off-season acquisitions is, after all, on pace for 66 points. A 70 point pace, almost exactly his career average, would be just one more than his current 20 in 25 games. He’s tied for 84th among all forwards in scoring (interestingly enough with his old line-mate Patrick Kane) — pretty much exactly the type of output you’d expect from a first line player. The top line numbers are there, even if we’d all rather he be scoring a few more goals.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and you’ll see that a lot of that production is coming via power-play assists. Of DeBrincat’s 20 points, only 8 have come at 5v5. A point is a point, as they say, but the Sens are a top-heavy team whose success depends on their top two lines dominating at 5v5. The third and fourth lines simply do not create sufficient offense. For his role on this team, it’s not enough to simply rack up power-play apples —and in this way DeBrincat’s struggles, such as they are, mirror the Sens’ as a whole.

By any shot or expected goal metric, the Sens are are firmly in the top half of the league but have failed to convert on as many of their chances as one might hope:

hockeyviz.com

The above chart tells us that if the Sens were simply burying their chances at a league average rate, we would expect them to have on the order of 11 or 12 more goals at 5v5. Erasing that differential wouldn’t turn them into Stanley Cup contenders, but it very likely would have the squad in the thick of the play-off picture. To head off the obvious question about the quality of the Sens’ chances, that doesn’t seem to be the issue:

hockeyviz.com

Compare the team’s overall results to Alex DeBrincat’s and you’ll notice some startling parallels:

hockeyviz.com
hockeyviz.com

Note that DeBrincat’s finishing chart is for all-situations instead of 5v5 because that’s what’s available but the story remains the same: DeBrincat’s offensive profile at 5v5, the quality of offense generated, and the overall finishing mirror almost exactly the team’s profile. It’s kind of uncanny, actually. If you want to understand what’s happening with the Sens, you need to explain DeBrincat.

The first obvious thing, that no one wants to hear but must be said, is that DeBrincat is getting at least a little bit unlucky. A career 14.8% shooter, he’s scored on only 6.8% of his shots this year. When we’re confronted with a big variation in a player’s short-term finishing, barring an obvious physical explanation, the main cause is almost certainly random variance. I’m not aware of any reporting that DeBrincat has suffered any injuries that he’s playing through, and he’s 25 later this month so it’s very unlikely to be an age-related decline. To my mostly untrained eye, he looks like he’s getting plenty of zip on the puck, too. At some point he’s going to score a few in rapid succession just from having the bounces go his way.

The other, less often discussed issue is his partnership with Shane Pinto. I’ve written about Pinto’s struggles at 5v5 previously, but what I haven’t seen discussed anywhere before is the dynamic between Pinto and DeBrincat (and also Batherson). Simply put, the combination has been disastrous for offensive creation:

hockeyviz.com

Compare and contrast that with DeBrincat’s offensive profile when he’s playing at 5v5 without Pinto:

hockeyviz.com

DeBrincat with Pinto produces anemic offense, the kind of output you’d expect from a checking third or fourth line. But DeBrincat sans Pinto is absolutely explosive offensively. All of the usual caveats about small samples apply, as ever, but the difference is stark.

The point here isn’t to assign blame to Pinto, who is being put in a very difficult situation where he’s been asked to create offense at a top six level in what is effectively his rookie season. In fact, both Pinto and DeBrincat have better on-ice numbers away from the other. I do think there is a stylistic mismatch, though: Pinto’s biggest strength offensively is his shot, and he has struggled when asked to create more offensively, or when the situation demands that he carry the puck through traffic in the neutral zone. In a perfect world, Pinto would help get the puck back in the defensive end, give it up, then find a soft spot in the defense to camp out for a one-timer. DeBrincat, on the other hand, thrives when he can play catch with his line-mates, picking at defensive weaknesses with pinpoint passing until the high quality chance reveals it itself. For lack of a better term, Pinto is a North-South player, and DeBrincat is an East-West player. You need both types on any good team, but right now they’re not working well together. DeBrincat’s getting unlucky when it comes to his own finishing, but the Sens are also having a hard time creating offense at 5v5 at all when he’s with Pinto.

The issue facing the Senators is that there don’t seem to be too many good line-up options afforded DJ Smith. As long as Norris is injured, Pinto will be the best choice for the second line— and Smith is understandably apprehensive about breaking up the Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, and Tim Stützle trio that has been absolutely rampaging through the league.

Still these struggles aren’t intractable. There have been flashes from the DeBrincat, Pinto, Batherson line, and some of the underperformance is absolutely bad puck luck. Since there’s no way out other than through, Smith is probably going to keep them together. It says here they’ll find ways to work better, even if the fit isn’t as natural as one might hope.

Am I worried about Alex DeBrincat? Not really, as strident as that may sound, but he seems healthy, he’s creating a lot of chances overall, and when everyone is healthy he’ll be playing with a centre who is a better fit for his skills. If I was a betting man, which I perhaps somewhat miraculously am not despite the constant bombardment of sports gambling ads during Sens games, I’d be pretty willing to wager that a DeBrincat breakout is coming soon — particularly if Josh Norris is returning to the line-up sooner than later.