Jake Voracek obviously had the best year of his career this year, by a long shot. But the question remains: does this strong season herald the emergence of a new NHL star, or is this a one-year blip from a guy who got hot in a shortened season?
Let's dig a little deeper and see if we can tell what we should expect from him going forwards.
There are two components to a projection: looking back at his past to see what his career averages are, and looking at typical aging trends for similar players to estimate where he's going from here. Obviously, different players follow different paths, but here's what the average forward's career path looks like:
- Their shooting percentage goes up just the tiniest bit from age 18 to 26, then starts a gradual decline
- Their shot rate increases a bit more steeply from age 18 to 23, then starts a very slow decline
- Their even strength ice time increases even more steeply from age 18 to 29, but their power play time maxes out at about age 24
- Overall, their scoring (in terms of points per game) peaks at about age 25.
The other layer to this is how much each component tends to vary from year to year. Ice time and shot rate fluctuate a bit, but nowhere near as much as shooting percentages do. So seeing someone get more ice time and get off more shots is encouraging. But when we see someone have the best shooting percentage of his career, we tend to predict that he just ran hot for a while and it'll fall back. It's possible that he's made enormous strides in his shooting, but history tells us that this is exceedingly rare and that a random blip is a much more likely explanation.
So with that viewpoint in mind, let's take a look at some of Voracek's numbers and think about what we might expect going forwards:
|5v5 stats||TOI/G||His sh%||His SOG/60||Teammate sh%||Assist rate|
|5v4 stats||TOI/G||His sh%||His SOG/60||Teammate sh%||Assist rate|
Notes: stats calculated from Behind the Net's numbers; teammate sh% is for their shots taken with Voracek on the ice; 60% assist rate means he got an assist on 60% of the goals his teammates scored with him on the ice
That's a lot of information, and I'll walk you through what impact it might have on our projections. Our starting point will be to assume next year is exactly like this year, but with 82 games. That would give Voracek 38 goals and 41 assists, and we'll see how that projection changes as we account for expected changes to each of the above factors.
His ice time trend over the years is pretty typical, increasing gradually at 5v5 and more sharply at 5v4. There's room for him to get a bit more 5v5 time going forwards and get the resulting boost in his point totals, but the 5v4 time has probably more or less peaked.
The overall impact will depend on his usage, but let's go ahead and assume that he'll get another minute per game next year, which would lead to a projection of something like 40 goals and 43 assists in 82 games.
His shooting percentage spiked in a way that I don't expect him to sustain. His career numbers suggest he's something like a 10.5% shooter at 5v5, which would mean that his hot 15.9% shooting this year landed him roughly four more even strength goals than we'd expect.
His 5v4 shooting is even funnier; he had almost twice as many 5v4 goals this year (9) as in the previous four combined (5). It's hard to know exactly what to predict for him there. League-wide, defensemen shoot about 7% at 5v4, so even if he's on the point all the time, his career 3.8% entering the year was unreasonably low. But as long as he's on the point a lot, he won't shoot 17% in the long run either, so he clearly ran several goals above expectation on his 5v4 shooting.
There's a ton of variability here, so we can't make exact predictions for any given year. But if we assume his long-run talent is something like 10.5% at 5v5 and 7.5% on the point at 5v4, that would take a huge bite out of his goal-scoring, lowering our projection to 23 goals and 43 assists.
Next, let's look at shot rates. At 5v5, his shot rate actually dropped below his career average, and well below what he'd done the two previous years. He ought to be at about the peak of his ability to get shots off, so I think it's more likely than not that he'll see a rebound in shot rate going forwards. If he's back up to something like 7.5 shots per 60 next year, that'd mean an extra 1-2 goals.
On the other hand, his 5v4 shot rate this year was nearly twice what it's been in recent years, so if that comes back down, it makes up for the increased 5v5 shots. On balance, the net impact on our projections is virtually no change.
The ability of a player to impact the shooting percentage of his teammates is pretty modest. A premier playmaker can provide a little bit of a bump, but the dominant factors in teammate shooting percentage are who you play with and variance.
Voracek has been playing with high-percentage shooters, and he's clearly an above-average playmaker. So while variance will be a big factor here, it's probably fair to guess that his teammates' shooting will remain above average.
The question is what average is, and how far above average we should expect him to be. Let's start by taking a look at what the average top line sees. I'll use "top 90 in ice time per game" as my identifier for a top-line forward; across those 90 guys, the average person's teammates shoot about 8.5% with them on the ice.
Voracek's a very good playmaker, and the Flyers have some high-percentage shooters, so maybe we expect a little better if he's on the top line next year. But it's not a given that he'll be on the top line all year, so I'll stick with 8.5% as the estimate.
That gives his 5v5 assist total a small bump from this year (when his teammates shot 8.3%). However, at 5v4 his teammates ran hot. On balance, again they roughly cancel out.
Teammate shooting percentage isn't quite enough information by itself. I can play with teammates who shoot 12% and still have a terrible assist total if their goals all come on someone else's passes. And just like with teammate shooting percentages, assist rate is often out of the player's control, a place where there is a little bit of talent and a lot of variance.
Voracek's career numbers seem to point to him getting an assist on about 60% of his teammates' goals at even strength. Last year, that number spiked to 71% -- even though his teammates' shooting percentage wasn't high overall, their goals happened to come off of his passes and not someone else's.
If he drops back down to his career rate, that'd reduce his assist total a bit, leaving us with a projection of 22 goals and 39 assists.
We land on a projection of about 60 points. That'd be clearly the second-best of his career, mostly driven by our assumption of increased playing time and a rebound in his shot rate. But it'd be a significant drop-off from this year's near-point-per-game pace which was fueled heavily by having a very high shooting percentage.
One common objection I get when I do an analysis like this is that I'm not allowing for growth; I'm just looking back at their past and saying things will stay the same. That's not the case; it's more that I'm only allowing for growth in places where year-to-year improvements tend to be sustained.
Given what we know about shooting percentage variance, a guy who enters the season as a 9.1% shooter and shoots 17.1% -- nearly tripling his career power play goal production -- probably hasn't suddenly become a premier sniper.
The real question is where his power play production will be. He's always been a solid even strength producer, but he's averaged just 9 power play points per season before this year -- and had 17 in a shortened season this year. If he's legitimately found a niche in the Flyers' system that works for him, maybe he'll really be a 70 point guy going forwards even when the shooting percentage comes down a bit.
But if this year's outstanding power play production was just a blip, something like 60 points is a better bet going forwards.