For those who followed the Belleville Senators closely this season, it wasn’t a surprise when the AHL announced Josh Norris as the recipient of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award for the leagues top rookie. After compiling 30 goals and 31 assists in just 56 games, Norris led the AHL’s rookies in almost every category. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic but it really is true.
Inspired by a Twitter conversation between NKB and SensProspects, I wanted to investigate just how good Norris’ season was relative to the previous forwards who’ve won the award. As we know, the AHL is a development league and winning awards at this level doesn’t always guarantee success on the big stage. Previous recipients of the AHL’s Rookie of the Year (ROTY) award include NHLers like Mikko Rantanen and Frank Vatrano, while simultaneously including players who struggled to find long term success at the NHL level like Cory Conacher and Darren Haydar.
The B-Sens were lucky enough to have a second rookie on their roster this season who was, at the very least, part of the ROTY discussion, so I’ve included Alex Formenton’s statistical accomplishments in this analysis as well.
For areas like points per game, we can take a look at pretty much any AHL player in the history of the league. To give more substance to this analysis, I took things one step further thanks to Pick224.com and dug into each player’s ability to produce at even strength during their respective rookie campaigns. Unfortunately this data isn’t readily available before 2013, so I wasn’t able to perfectly compare. But using the past eight seasons of data still gives us a good idea of how both Norris and Formenton performed at even strength relative to this particular group.
Quality of Team
Before we get to the player comparisons, I want to take a quick peek at the teams for which each player played. The reason behind this is to get an understanding of the environment in which each player was developed. For example, when you look at the seasons of Norris and Formenton, they played for a strong Belleville team. But you have to wonder, how many of these winners played for good teams and how many had to do all the work themselves?
Of all of the former ROTY recipients, the only player to not play for a playoff calibre team was Mikko Rantanen. In fact, 13 of the 16 teams with ROTY winning forwards had a point percentage of higher than 0.600. This list includes eight teams who won at least one playoff round, two conference finalists and two championship teams. Just like Norris (and Formenton), the majority of the ROTY recipients suited up for quality AHL clubs, which definitely doesn’t put a player in a bad place to win an award like this.
Points Per Game
Let’s take a look at the easiest and most common comparable statistic for forwards. In reviewing each player’s points per game (P/GP) during their award winning season, there are a few things to point out.
It cannot be overlooked just how incredible Vatrano’s rookie season was with the Providence Bruins. Playing in only 36 games, Vatrano compiled 36 goals (!) and 19 assists. Over the past two seasons, Vatrano has averaged 20 goals for the Florida Panthers, even after only playing 69 games this season. Needless to say, the fact Vatrano has turned into a solid contributor at the NHL level isn’t a surprise. With that kind of AHL production, the real surprise is that he’s not a 30 goal scorer... yet.
Norris’ 1.09 points per game is up there with an elite star in Rantanen, just behind a steady career NHLer in Teddy Purcell, and ahead of NHL regulars like Tyler Ennis, Tyler Toffoli and René Bourque. These are all players of varying skillsets and abilities at the NHL level but it’s reassuring to see where Norris ranks amongst his ROTY peers. Formenton’s production in this category relative to these players isn’t as impressive, but if you were to ask me if I’d be okay with Formenton turning into a Toffoli-level producer at the NHL level, I’d be happy with that kind of outcome for a second round pick.
Just looking at point per game production, there are also names here who produced at the same level as Norris and Formenton and have gone on to accomplish next to nothing at the NHL level. That’s why it’s important to dig deeper into each player’s production to better understand what we have here. After all, I think Sens fans and management would be pretty disappointed if Norris turned into a Luke Adam when he produced more like a Rantanen in his rookie year.
Even Strength Production
As such, I pulled even strength production for the players for which the information is available thanks to the amazing resource Pick224.com. I included two metrics to get a good picture of each player’s even strength production.
First, the blue bars are the players’ even strength primary points per game. This is to illustrate the players’ effectiveness at directly contributing to offence at even strength — by taking out the secondary assists we’re able to get a bit of a better picture of the direct impact. Second, the red bars are the players’ even strength goals per game.
Once again, I’d just like to throw a real quick “hey how are ya” to Mr. Vatrano. What a rookie season!
The exciting thing, as I’m sure you can tell, is where both Formenton and Norris rank here. Formenton outperformed Norris in the category of even strength primary points by a very slim margin, thanks to 15 of his 16 even strength assists being primary assists.
Norris managed to score a very impressive 0.38 even strength goals per game, which is good for second amongst the ROTY winners. To put this into context, had the remainder of the AHL season not been cancelled, Norris was on pace to score 28.9 goals without any help from powerplay or shorthanded markers. In total, with 13 games left to play, Norris was on pace for 38 total goals in his rookie year.
You love to see it.
I put a lot of weight on even strength production, especially for prospects. Anyone who’s played the game, in real life or on their console of choice, knows it’s easier to score when you have more players on the ice than your opponent. Further, if Norris and Formenton are able to score at this rate at even strength, it indicates that they’re likely to be good contributors at the NHL level even if they aren’t good enough to garner an abundance of powerplay time.
The Kids Are Alright
It was really great to see Norris and Formenton right at the top of the rookie scoring race for the better part of the final month of the season. It’s even more reassuring to uncheck the “rookie” box on the AHL’s skater stats page and still see both players in the top seven of AHL scoring.
When diving further into even strength and primary point production, we’re looking at two first year pros who dominated at the AHL level offensively while gaining the trust of their coach to play in all situations — both players were in the top three forwards for Belleville in ice time.
Compared to the list of past ROTY recipients, the B-Sens were fortunate enough to have two star rookies suit up for them this season. While player development is tricky to predict, the production of both Norris and Formenton, particularly at even strength, should give Sens fans hope for the future. What we have here are two players who, as a worst case scenario, will be NHL players. The best case scenario? Stars.
The big question is: will they become a Rantanen, an Adam, or somewhere in between?