Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Forecasting Joffrey Lupul: A Look At Luck, Health and Tough Matchups

When it comes to uncertainty, the Leafs' roster is King; it's nearly impossible to guess at who will be the team's first line center, trying to get a handle on Nikolai Kulemin's point projections for next season are an exercise in futility, and when I think of what kind of goaltending we should expect from James Reimer my predictions range from 'very good' to 'I hope Nathan MacKinnon is as good as they say'.

What to expect from Joffrey Lupul has been something of a head scratcher this offseason too.  With a previous career high of 53 points and some very strange peaks and valleys in his production, Lupul came to Toronto, spent a full season skating with Phil Kessel, and put up 67 points in 66 games.  Should we be expecting more of the same now that he has a little stability or is his history of inconsistency a reflection of Lupul himself rather than any variation in circumstance?

Part of the trouble with using a statistic as basic as points is that there are a lot of other circumstances that feed those numbers.  For example, Lupul is a career 11% shooter and last season he managed to convert on 13% of his shots.  The end result is the difference between the 25 goals Lupul ended up with and 21 goals which would have been his expected output based on his historical numbers.  When you consider that Kessel also experienced a 2% jump from his career average shooting percentage, it certainly looks like Lupul's point totals were helped by some good luck last season.  According to Behind The Net, Lupul had an On-Ice Shooting % of 10.77% which was the highest such number of any player on the team who played more than 40 games. 

Moreover, it's pretty clear that Lupul's production will be tied to his linemates.  Lupul's most frequent linemate, unsurprisingly, was Kessel and if we're to expect anything approaching last season's production out of Lupul, this will need to be the case this year as well.  I certainly expect that Lupul will play with Kessel but it's important to keep in mind that it's rare for a pair to spend as little time apart (when healthy) as Kessel and Lupul did last year.  Lineups often get shaken up when a team or a unit struggle and the fact that the Leafs have a new coach in Randy Carlyle may mean more shakeups than usual as he tries to find a chemistry that works within his own scheme.  Also, let's not forget that the Leafs recently added James Van Riemsdyk whose size and offensive flair will provide a tempting option to skate on Kessel's opposite wing.

While Lupul certainly seems to have been the beneficiary of some good luck and favourable circumstances, not everything went Lupul's way last year.  Eric T at NHL Numbers did some great work in sub-dividing forward competition from defense competition when looking at the calibre of opposition that players faced.  The results of his piece show that while on the surface, it looks like Lupul faced only slightly tougher than average competition, in fact he ran up against the toughest defensemen in the league when compared to every other forward in the NHL. As long as he's skating with Kessel, I certainly expect that he'll continue to see some tough competition from defensemen but I can't imagine that this season will be as tough as last year was for Lupul.  

As far as projecting Lupul's production goes, we'd be remiss if we didn't make some mention of his injury history.  Lupul hasn't played over 75 games since 2008-09 and has missed significant time in 4 of the past 5 seasons.  Granted, two of those years were the result of a single injury and an infection which resulted from the surgery which that injury necessitated but the trend is troubling nonetheless.  Trying to project the number of games that a player will play is something of a fool's errand but when considering what Lupul will bring to the 2012-13 Maple Leafs, I would certainly caution fans not to forget that Lupul isn't exactly hockey's iron man.  

As a sum of these circumstances, I would probably expect Lupul to put up roughly 65 points in a fully healthy season (and fully healthy isn't what I'd be betting on).  It isn't the precipitous drop that many are expecting, but I do think that last year's point-per-game season was an aberration, even if he does spend the majority of his time with Kessel moving forward.  

Ultimately, last year was a nearly perfect storm for Lupul.  He's certainly a productive player in the lineup and I do expect that to continue but bounces do have a way of evening out over time and players rarely put up back-to-back career best seasons at the age of 29.

When it comes to Lupul we should hope for the best but be glad that we've added JVR as first line winger insurance.

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