The Eichel Effect
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
At this time last year, BU had just wrapped up a 10th-place finish in Hockey East and had a single game remaining in its season before being bounced from the conference tournament.
On Saturday, BU wrapped up a regular-season title, and a bye, and is basically a lock to make the NCAA tournament as well. A lot of this can be attributed to the contributions of a single player.
As you might have heard once or twice, this Jack Eichel kid from North Chelmsford, Mass., is a bit of a phenom, leading the nation in both points (55) and points per game (1.72) as the fourth-youngest player in the nation. He dominates on the power play, he kills penalties, he takes more draws than anyone on the team. People get sick of all the superlatives but there really aren't enough to give out. He's been that good at everything.
But it's unfair to say that he's the only reason BU went from second-worst to first in a single year, because they've gotten some good contributions from a few freshmen defensemen (most obviously Brandon Hickey), and a few players have also grown into new roles (most obviously converted defenseman Ahti Oksanen, who leads the team with 22 goals). Further, Matt O'Connor has greatly improved his play in net, perhaps due to the fact that he's the clear No. 1 instead of splitting time. All of that leads to a big turnaround.
But the big question for a lot of the year has been whether BU actually has much in the way of depth on the team. Oksanen got to 22 goals in large part because he played half the season with Jack Eichel, and knocked down 10 goals in those 17 games on 79 shots (12.7 percent shooting). Now, that also means he has 12 in his last 14, which is no joke, but that's on just 53 shots (26.4 percent). You watch these BU games — and I've seen 14 live this season — and you can't possibly say that Oksanen is getting better scoring chances now, but rather you'd have to agree the pucks have gone in for him where they didn't do so as much earlier in the season. He gets a lot of tap-ins, though, regardless.
There were points this year when coach David Quinn talked admirably about the ability of the team's depth to add goals to the collection for the Terriers, rather than just sending Eichel over the boards every few minutes and watching him pile up the points. And that, at certain points this year, has been true. Robbie Ballairgeon was often overwhelmed as the team's de facto No. 1 center last season, and he seems to fare a lot better now that Eichel's forced him down the depth chart. That shoves other players down as well, and in general rounds out a team's roster pretty convincingly.
In the last few weeks, the same old problems the Terriers faced last season — getting outshot a lot, not scoring enough, getting iffy goaltending — have started to crop up again. They get hemmed into their own zone with regularity, and in the hectic run-up to the Beanpot and beyond they conceded 32 goals in 10 games (3.2 per) after only allowing 46 in the first 21 (2.2).
And it's these recent turns of events, and most notably being pushed around in terms of possession by Northeastern in both the Beanpot final a week ago and again on Friday, that had me wondering just how much of an impact Eichel has on the team, and how much they're going to miss him when he goes (with the obvious answers to both being “big-time”).
First and foremost we have to examine the differences between 2013-14 BU and the current iteration. This year's team currently carries a CF% of 55 percent, up from 45 percent last season when they couldn't buy a win. A 10-point improvement is huge (and funnily enough I remember thinking before the season that BU couldn't possibly go from 10th of 11 to a top-three finish because no one player can have a 10-point impact on possession numbers; I underestimated Eichel, pretty clearly), and the numbers bear that out. Here are a few comparisons that show just how big a step forward the Terriers took overall:
As you can see, basically everything they do in both zones is more conducive to winning, including taking more shots and allowing fewer. And what's interesting is that score effects should come into play significantly; BU spent a lot of last year trailing the play, which is when teams take more shots. So they likely inflated their shot attempt numbers in desperate pursuit of results, while teams are now being forced to do the same against them. If we could adjust for score effects — and we'll hopefully get around to that one day — it seems likely that the gaps between this season and last were even wider. They've also shown that they can sustainably keep their shooting and save percentages higher, which likely indicates an increase in both shot quality for their own and better quality suppression for opponents.
You see the difference in the win column, and the Pairwise, and the trophy they took home Saturday night. So the question is simple: Just how much of that is the result of adding this one transformative player?
This is obviously difficult to quantify, but I think we have enough data to at least begin to show just how impactful he is, even if it's by no means scientific or definitive For one thing, there's my own in-person viewings, during which time I calculated his on- and off-ice shot attempts at even strength. Here's that data:
Now, we can't suppose that this is his CF% for the whole season when he's on the ice, but it does account for about 44 percent of the games he's played. It's not a good sample size but it's probably the best we've got. I think it's safe to assume that 60-65 percent is a good ballpark for his CF%; more games are likely to look like those against Colgate or UNH than Lowell (but boy, how about that River Hawk shot suppression relative to the rest of his opponents?). And in those games he's on the ice for about 42 percent of BU's shot attempts overall, so let's say he might be right around 40 percent for the season.
We know that BU has the second-largest shot attempt total in the nation at 1,783 (52.4 per game). But he missed one game (against lowly Union, during which BU attempted 53) so in reality the number of corsi events in games Jack Eichel played is 1,730. Assuming that 40 percent number is reasonable, that gets you to about 692 attempts when Eichel is on the ice, and thus about 1,038 when he's off.
(Now we're really getting into estimates, but bear with me.)
And I know from watching and tracking his time on ice that Eichel plays roughly one-third of BU's minutes overall, and 5-on-5 as well. So we're looking at about 32 minutes of even-strength time during which Eichel isn't on the ice. That gives us an on-ice CF/60 for Eichel of about 83 (based on approximately 690 shot attempts in 480 minutes). That is, for every 60 minutes of even-strength ice time Eichel has, BU attempts 83 shots.
The rest of BU, meanwhile, took 1,038 in the other 32 minutes or per game so he's off the ice. In 32 games, that's about 1,025 minutes. Meaning that BU takes about 60.8 shots per 60 minutes when Eichel is off. Still a respectable number, I guess.
Now we have to do the math for shot suppression, as well. I have Eichel as being on for only about 28 percent of the shot attempts BU allowed in the 14 games I saw (167 of 582). Let's call that 30 percent for the season and be done with it. If BU concedes 70 percent of its shot attempts against when Eichel is off, that's about 992 of the 1,417 total. So it's 992 in about 1,025 minutes, or 58.1 per 60 minutes. Meanwhile, when Eichel on they're giving up 425 in 500 minutes or so, and thus we ballpark that to about 0.86 per minute, or 51.4 per 60.
Again, this isn't wholly accurate — the percentages don't add up to 100 as I actually seem to be shorting Eichel by about 3 percent on each side, but it's mostly because no one publishes TOI data or even publicly tracks CF on every shot attempt — but it gives you a rough estimate of just how much better Eichel makes BU when he's on the ice, and that's also reflected in the goalscoring for and against. We actually have a much better idea of this, of course, because plus-minus is recorded for every goal scored all year long.
Here too we can use that data to figure out just how substantial an impact he has. These numbers are approximate, and unlike the shots for seem to actually favor Eichel a bit more:
And so if we take all this information, and exclude Eichel, we can perhaps start to compare the BU team of today to last year's, although obviously this doesn't take into account quality of competition for the rest of the team getting a little easier to handle.
Overall they stack up pretty favorably. There are improvements in possession numbers (to 51.1 percent from 45 percent), and goal rates (to 48.4 percent from 43.3 percent).
That's not a terrible team, of course. Maybe you even say they're a bit unlucky to not have as many goals — though the shooting percentage remains low, so that's a good explainer — but it's certainly not one that finishes 10th in the conference. When Eichel leaves this summer (assuming he does, which seems like the safest bet imaginable), there are once again going to be a lot of questions about the Terriers even as they continue to bring in high-quality kids.
Quinn is doing a very good job rebuilding that program, but there's no replacing Eichel. As such, they'll almost certainly take a step back, especially if O'Connor bolts as well. But based on this data I'm not as pessimistic about their chances to be competitive in 2015-16 as others might be. And the good news is there's at least another month-plus of Eichel running other teams out of the building.