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Has Brayden Schenn really turned this corner this time?

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Since the calendar turned to 2016, Brayden Schenn has been one of the Philadelphia Flyers' most productive forwards. Is his leap in performance sustainable?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

For Brayden Schenn, it's been a tale of two seasons. For the first three months of the year, Schenn was one of the most disappointing forwards on the Philadelphia Flyers - a major contributor to their scoring struggles and a drag on the team at even strength. He was even scratched for a game in November by head coach Dave Hakstol in response to his underwhelming play.

When the ball dropped in New York City on New Years' Eve, Schenn was sitting on 15 points in 34 games, his worst scoring rate since his rookie season. Contract talks were looming in the offseason for the pending restricted free agent, and Schenn had done little to impress the Flyers' organization in 2015-16.

Then the calendar turned, and Schenn not only rebounded to match his production in previous seasons, he began to far surpass his historical statistics. He's scored 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in his past 26 games, and just put the exclamation point on his rebirth this week with a hat trick against the Calgary Flames. In fact, no Flyers player has scored more points in this calendar year than the 24-year old forward.

Schenn has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, most notably a monster February during the 2012-13 lockout season when he scored 16 points in 15 games. But every time Schenn appeared ready to become the impact top-line forward that Philadelphia hoped they were getting in the Mike Richards trade, his game always regressed back to career norms.

This recent stretch, however, has been the longest period of elite-level play from Brayden Schenn yet. Is he actually taking the leap and becoming more than the solid yet unspectacular middle-six forward that he's been through the majority of his Philadelphia career? Are his recent gains actually sustainable?

The bad news: Schenn's shooting percentages are unsustainably high

It may seem like common sense, but the easiest way for a hockey player to become a better scorer is to improve in terms of shot generation - in other words, take more shots on goal. Spikes in shooting percentage tend to be short-lived, and rarely do players become more efficient shooters even as they age into their prime scoring years.

As a result, the quickest way to tell if a player's scoring surge is sustainable is to look at their individual shot generation and shooting percentage metrics. If the player is taking more shots, the surge is more likely to be sustainable than if the run is fueled by sky-high shooting percentages.

Unfortunately, Brayden Schenn's 2016 goal production leans more towards the latter explanation. He's actually been shooting the puck less over the past two months than he did in 2015, as he's regressed back to his career averages. Schenn is simply finding the net more often, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play.

Metric October - December January - February Career Averages
5v5 Goals Per 60 0.4 1.3 0.64
5v5 Shooting Percentage 5.7% 21.2% 9.92%
5v5 Shots on Goal Per 60 7.49 6.28 6.46
Power Play Goals Per 60 1.8 3.6 1.97
Power Play Shooting Percentage 14.3% 33.3% 17.6%
Power Play Shots on Goal Per 60 12.46 10.76 11.19

At 5-on-5, Schenn has a whopping 21.2% shooting percentage over the past two months. For reference, only one NHL player since the 2004 lockout posted a higher 5v5 shooting percentage over a full season. That would be Alex Tanguay (he of the career 18.6% shooting percentage), who scored on 25.76% of his 5-on-5 shots in 2014-15. The chances of Schenn's true talent jumping to that level are infinitesimal. He's also scoring once out of every three shots on the power play, another crazy-high rate.

Schenn hasn't been taking significantly more high-quality shots in 2016, either. He's posted a slight increase in individual high-danger chances at 5-on-5 and a slight decline on the power play. In the end, Schenn averaged 5.34 high-danger chances per sixty minutes of total ice time from October through December, and has averaged 5.78 chances per sixty mintues in 2016.

Shot location doesn't appear to the explanation for the elevated shooting percentages. Schenn has simply executed on his shots more efficiently over the past two months, and he deserves credit for that. It's just not likely to be sustainable.

Let's apply the same principle to his surge in assists. If the Flyers are generating more overall shots with Schenn on the ice in 2016 than they were in 2015, then it's reasonable to expect that Schenn's assist totals will stay strong. Schenn could have improved in helping to drive more offense for his linemates, contributing to his points explosion.

Metric October - December January - February Career Averages
5v5 Assists Per 60 1.0 1.2 0.87
5v5 On-Ice Shooting Percentage 6.0% 10.4% 7.5%
5v5 On-Ice Shots For Per 60 30.7 31.2 28.72
Power Play Assists Per 60 0.6 3.6 2.46
Power Play On-Ice Shooting Percentage 11.3% 17.1% 15.15%
Power Play On-Ice Shots For Per 60 57.6 69.9 55.72

At even strength, it's the same story as it was for goals - the Flyers haven't increased their shot generation, they're just finishing more efficiently (likely driven by Schenn's own surge). The power play metrics are more interesting. With Schenn on the ice, Philadelphia is both shooting at a higher efficiency rate and blasting more pucks at opposing goaltenders.

Unfortunately, Brayden Schenn almost certainly is not driving the increase in power play shot generation. Shayne Gostisbehere deserves the lionshare of the credit, as he was not added to the top power play unit (which also includes Schenn) until the middle of November. That is likely the reason for Schenn's on-ice Shots For surge.

A rising tide lifts all ships, so Schenn will obviously have more opportunities to rack up power play assists now that Gostisbehere is in the NHL to stay. But Schenn hasn't taken a huge step forward in creating chances on the power play over the past two months. He's just taking full advantage of the extra shots due to the presence of Shayne Gostisbehere.

With the exception of Brayden Schenn's power play assist totals, however, his massive point production surge is primarily due to favorable and unsustainable shooting percentages. He hasn't miraculously become a point per game player, and expecting this run to last much longer is probably unfair to Schenn.

Now for the good news: Schenn's neutral zone play

By analyzing Brayden Schenn's individual and on-ice shooting percentages, it becomes obvious that this two-month stretch of point per game scoring is almost definitely not sustainable over the long term. Schenn was underperforming his career shooting percentages in the season's first three months, and has overperformed them recently. These fluctuations happen sometimes over the course of a long season - it's just been particularly extreme this year with Schenn.

But chalking up Schenn's improvement over the past two months merely to inflated shooting percentages does not fit with the eye test at all. The 24-year forward has simply looked better recently, in every area of his game. He's carrying the puck with more confidence, backchecking effectively, and creating space for his linemates with creative passes. Does that not show up in the statistics anywhere?

Actually, it does. Schenn's scoring explosion may be unsustainable, but his underlying puck possession metrics have also skyrocketed in 2016. Simply put, Brayden Schenn has went from a play-driving liability to one of the better possession forwards on the team.

Metric October - December January - February
Score-Adjusted Corsi For Percentage 46.7% 52.6%
Score-Adjusted Corsi Relative to Teammates -2.4% +3.5%

It's hard to expect that Schenn will continue to shoot 21.2% at 5-on-5, or 33.3% on the power play. An improvement in his on-ice shot differentials is far more promising for the future.

Still, it would help to know exactly what Schenn could be doing that has driven his recent Corsi improvement, and if he has personally made an adjustment to his game rather than simply drafting off of his linemates. Luckily, I've tracked individual entries and exits this season for the Philadelphia Flyers, which allows us to dive deeper into Schenn's performance and theorize what could be causing his gains.

It turns out that Brayden Schenn's play in the neutral zone has improved in almost every single way possible over the past two months. Schenn is generating more total offensive zone entries, and a higher percentage with control of the puck. Far from the passive player of 2015, Schenn is now taking an active role in driving play offensively, and the results are eye-opening.

Metric October - December January - February
5v5 Entries Per 60 17.09 21.13
5v5 Controlled Entries Per 60 8.62 11.42
5v5 Individual Controlled Entry Percentage 50.41% 54.05%
5v5 On-Ice Controlled Entry Percentage 44.89% 51.57%
5v5 Zone Entry For Percentage 48.03% 51.28%
Neutral Zone Score 47.36% 52.04%

Schenn is simply carrying the puck with more confidence, gaining the offensive zone with regularity and speed. Providing his linemates with another weapon when pushing through the neutral zone has sent Schenn's on-ice controlled entry percentage through the roof, and his Neutral Zone Score has jumped in turn.

Basically, Schenn was a total disaster in the neutral zone through the season's first three months. He was creating offensive zone entries at one of the lowest rates among Philadelphia forwards, and his linemates were getting throttled in the middle of the ice as a result. But starting in January, Schenn's game changed. Now, he's one of the primary puck carriers on his line, and the Flyers are generating more raw entries and more productive entries than their opponents when Schenn hits the ice.

The goal scoring surge may be driven by unsustainable percentages. But in the neutral zone, Brayden Schenn is the one driving his own statistical improvement.

Conclusion

Answering whether Brayden Schenn has truly taken his game to the next level is surprisingly complex. His fantastic run of 27 points in 26 games is more a product of sky-high shooting percentages than sustainable improvements to Schenn's game, so expecting the 24-year old to continue to perform like a top-line NHL scorer is unrealistic to say the least.

However, Schenn's scoring surge has overshadowed another exciting development in his play - one that seems more likely to last than his ridiculous recent shooting efficiency. After struggling mightily in the neutral zone over the first three months of the 2015-16 season, Brayden Schenn has been one of the team's best in that area of the ice in 2016.

Neutral zone metrics paint a picture of a player with newfound confidence in his puck carrying ability. Since January, Schenn has been more willing to be the one ultimately pushing the puck into the offensive zone, and he's succeeded in the difficult task of increasing his raw volume of entries while improving his rate of entries with possession. The result? A player who was a puck possession liability early in the year is now driving play with consistency.

Brayden Schenn may not keep scoring at a point per game rate. But so long as he keeps up his stellar performance in the middle of the ice, it will be fair to call 2015-16 the year when Schenn took his long-awaited leap forward.

All statistics gathered from War-On-Ice.com, Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.