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On Travis Konecny and good players on bad teams

Travis Konecny doesn’t look like he’s the superstar we maybe thought he was two years ago. But he is definitely good. What do we do with that?

Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Quick, off the top of your head. Can you name every forward that, in each of the last five NHL seasons (including, to date, the current one), played in at least half of his team’s games and did all of the following at 5-on-5:

  • play at least 12:30 per game,
  • collect 1.85 points per 60 minutes, and
  • collect 1.15 primary points per 60 minutes?

...

OK, that seemed like an unfair thing to ask. Here’s the list: Aleksander Barkov, Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, Auston Matthews, Brad Marchand, Brayden Point, Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Jonathan Huberdeau, Kyle Connor, Leon Draisaitl, Mark Stone, Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikolaj Ehlers, Sebastian Aho, and Travis Konecny.

Now, those are without question some very arbitrary endpoints chosen to make a point, but even so, if you’re trying to come up with criteria that spits out a list of some of the most consistent 5-on-5 point producers in the NHL, you could surely do worse. These are guys who have consistently helped put the puck in the net for their teams, year over year. It’s a list of good players.

Which brings us to the last guy on that list, who is only last because it was sorted in alphabetical order by first name, but that conveniently leads us into the initial point at hand here: Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyer, is good. It sucks that the last season and a half of miserable Flyers hockey have brought us to a point where there are people that earnestly question whether that’s the case or not, but Travis Konecny is a good NHL winger. Full stop.

And yet, when you have a player who’s good but for whom there are fair, legitimate questions about how good, on a team that has devolved into a smoldering waste fire of an NHL outfit, you find yourself making a lot of guesses.

With Konecny in particular, the conversation is difficult because we’ve seen the ceiling on his level of play, and it’s game-changing. In the second half of the 2017-18 season, while he couldn’t have asked for a much better pair of running mates in should-have-been-the-MVP Claude Giroux and finally-having-his-breakout-year Sean Couturier, he was a crucial cog on what was maybe the best line in hockey for half the year. (Side note: remember when Dave Hakstol just ... took him off of that line in Game 81 of the regular season and kept him off it through the playoffs? Godspeed, Seattle.) And in 2019-20, when his own scoring rates spiked and stayed high for the whole season, it looked like he, too, was finally having his true breakout.

The fact that those two high-water marks have turned out to be nothing more than those — one and a half seasons out of the five and a half that he’s played in the NHL — has allowed us to become disappointed when he just ends up being “good” rather than a guy whose name you would think really fits in with those in the list at the top of this article.

Even so, it feels tough to accept that this year’s version is the real him, because, again, he has reliably been at least good for a while now. His floor, unequivocally, is good. So why isn’t he better? Why isn’t he one of those guys? Why isn’t he just the player he is at his peak all the time?

Well, maybe that player just can’t show up all the time.

Travis Konecny 5-on-5 Goals and Shooting Percentage By Season

Season Goals Goals per 60 Shooting %
Season Goals Goals per 60 Shooting %
2016-17 6 0.42 5.3%
2017-18 21 1.19 14.1%
2018-19 18 1.00 11.6%
2019-20 18 1.23 16.2%
2020-21 7 0.63 9.0%
2021-22 6 0.55 6.4%

(All statistics in this article are through Friday, February 18, and are courtesy of Moneypuck.com unless otherwise noted.)

Take a look at that number on the far-right side of the table. If you’re unfamiliar with shooting percentage, it’s exactly what it sounds like: the percentage of shots a player takes that end up in the back of the net. This is, to a degree, a player skill — obviously, some players are better than others when it comes to the skills that would lead one to be good at this: generating chances from more dangerous areas, picking spots better on their shots, etc. But it’s also subject to a lot of randomness, even on a season-by-season basis.

In that vein, it should not come as much of a surprise that in Konecny’s two most prolific scoring seasons — 2017-18 and 2019-20 — his shooting percentages were higher (and in some cases significantly higher) than they were in his other four. Turns out it’s easier to score when your shots are more likely to go into the net. (This is the kind of analysis you can only get here on Broad Street Hockey dot com.)

And here’s what makes the above even more stark: the actual number of shots Konecny is sending towards the net? They’ve been pretty steady year-over-year.

Travis Konecny 5-on-5 Shot Rates (Per 60 Minutes)

Season Shots On Goal Shot Attempts (Goals, Shots, Missed Shots)
Season Shots On Goal Shot Attempts (Goals, Shots, Missed Shots)
2016-17 7.9 14.2
2017-18 8.5 13.4
2018-19 8.6 13.9
2019-20 7.6 12.3
2020-21 7.0 13.6
2021-22 8.6 14.7

Interestingly, Konecny’s best two seasons? Those are the two where he sent the fewest shots towards the net on a per-minute basis. And this year, when he’s produced goals at a rate worse than any since since his rookie year? He’s shot the puck as much as ever. They just ... aren’t going in the net.

So maybe that’s the story. Travis Konecny is a good NHL player who just happens to look really good when he’s on a shooting percentage bender. Simple enough, right?

Well ... let’s look at one more table here. Here’s TK’s Expected Goals [xG] production year over year, overall and per 60 minutes, and we’ll also include how much xG he’s producing on an average unblocked shot attempt. (If you need a refresher or crash course on what Expected Goals are, here’s a very good one.)

Travis Konecny 5-on-5 Expected Goals By Season

Season Total xG xG Per 60 xG Per Shot
Season Total xG xG Per 60 xG Per Shot
2016-17 9.95 0.693 0.049
2017-18 15.43 0.877 0.065
2018-19 15.3 0.852 0.061
2019-20 11.95 0.817 0.066
2020-21 7.66 0.692 0.051
2021-22 8.07 0.739 0.050

Well, that paints a different picture. TK’s overall xG production isn’t actually down that much from what it was in his peak production time between 2017-18 and 2019-20. But his average shot quality is down by a decent amount — going from .066 xG per shot in 2019-20 to .05 in 2021-22 may not sound like a ton, but it means that a shot of his, on average, is nearly 25% less likely to go in the net than it used to be. That will add up over time.

So after all of that, the answer to “why isn’t Travis Konecny as productive as he used to be” has a somewhat clean answer: his shots aren’t as likely to go into the net as they were at his peak. Cool, good talk.

...

But why not?

This does not feel like a skill that a player who was great at it in his age-20-to-22 seasons would suddenly lose in his age 23 and 24 seasons. Theoretically, that explanation is possible — he wouldn’t be the first player to look like a future star early on in his time in the league only to have trouble sustaining it.

Maybe it’s a different style of play from him; after all, we’ve gone this far without once mentioning that he’s on pace to set a single-season career best in primary assists, so maybe he’s just trying to create better chances for his teammates.

Maybe the increase in shot quality is mostly just a product of teammates — his two best stretches both featured extended time next to one or both of Giroux and Couturier, and xG’s lack of ability to trace the quality of passes prior to the shot is maybe its biggest blind spot as a metric.

Or — and this, admittedly without much additional proof, is my theory — maybe it is indeed a product of teammates, but in a less obvious way. Maybe TK firing away at the expense of shot quality is what he’s decided he needs to do. On a team that has increasingly, over the last season and a half, done a worse and worse job of putting the puck in the net, you wonder if Konecny looks around him, considers the situation, understands that he is one of the most (and only) dynamic offensive talents on the team, and manages to convince himself that he’s got to try and do it all himself. Which leads to him just ripping the puck, trying to make something happen ... quite possibly to his own detriment.

That’s speculative. I cannot look inside Travis Konecny’s head and tell you what he’s thinking. But it kind of fits, right? He’s had high-level success in this league before — not that long ago! — and when he knows he theoretically can get this team out of its slump, and when he also knows deep down that at least a third or so of his current teammates probably should not be in the NHL, he tries to go Superman, ends up trying too hard, and instead just slams his head on the phone booth.

Remember from that second table up there: TK’s two best offensive seasons came at a time when he was shooting the puck just slightly less. It almost seems like when he doesn’t think he needs to do too much, he ends up doing the right amount in the most efficient way possible. And when he’s convinced himself he’s got to do everything, you get what we’ve seen in the last year and a half.

It’s not entirely fair to hold Konecny’s good linemates from his peak Flyers times against him, but it seems reasonable to conclude, after all these years, that he is not a guy that you want to be the best player on his own line. And that’s fine! Because as he has consistently shown, over and over again, if you put him in a good situation he is going to produce and do things that will help your team win hockey games. We know that he is not going to be the guy he was in January 2018 or October 2019 without some help, but when the situation isn’t great and what you’ve got it still at worst a quality NHL winger who has a demonstrably high ceiling, you do everything you can to try and make that work.

So to come full circle here, let’s revisit the question: what you do with a good player on a bad team?

The implicit connection between Konecny’s peaks (those two seasons) and valleys (the other four) with those of the Flyers as a whole during his time here (those are, of course, the only two years the Flyers have made the playoffs in that time) are impossible to ignore. Maybe that’s how we ended up here — his level of play feels like a convenient stand-in for what this team is, which is how you have fans thinking right now that a reliable offensive winger isn’t even a good NHL player.

The conversation around him, then, is trickier than that of most of these other guys, partly for that reason and for the other reasons we’ve discussed here, but partly because his future with this very team could go in multiple different directions. It is not that hard to envision Konecny being a key member of the next good Flyers team, whether that’s next year or a bit further down the line. It also does not stretch the imagination much to suggest that he could get dealt this offseason as the team attempts to continue to find the right guys to make the group work.

Maybe that’s the right move, and obviously if the fit and the return is right you consider anything. But if you are the powers that be that run the Flyers, and you’ve got a guy who (as we know and have established) is good, and has always looked good when he’s on a good team and has looked less than good whenever he is on a less than good team, and if you have (as Chuck Fletcher and Dave Scott have told us) convinced yourself that you are going to be a good team again next year, and in spite of all of this you decide to deal Travis Konecny because you think you need more good players ... where exactly does that get you?