A great use of statistical hockey analysis is to find underrated players, like Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly. While a certain portion of his undeniable talent can obviously be picked up by simply watching him play, the full extent of his highly-disciplined defensive talent and possession-driving playmaking abilities can be more fully grasped when studying the underlying numbers.
Chosen by Colorado early in the second round after two years on a weak Erie Otters OHL team as the team's best defensive player and top playmaker, O'Reilly surprisingly made the club out of training camp, earning a debut as the youngest player in Colorado/Quebec franchise history.
O'Reilly kicked off his NHL career with back-to-back 26-point seasons on Colorado's checking lines before vaulting to 55 points in 2011-12 on their top unit, earning him more total points than currently all but three players drafted in 2009, including the player the Avs selected ahead of him, Matt Duchene.
Not a fluke
When players make that kind of scoring jump, it's natural to wonder if it's temporary, but have no fear. Most youngsters O'Reilly's age (20) haven't even cracked an NHL lineup yet, and most players haven't even begun to peak for another three seasons.
Sudden improvements can sometimes be explained by favorable playing conditions or tremendous shooting luck ("riding the percentages") and can therefore ultimately prove temporary, but this really isn't the case with O'Reilly.
Was O'Reilly riding luck shooting percentages? No, his shooting percentage was actually down last season, from 10.9% to a modest 9.5%. His on-ice shooting percentage was also down, from 7.7% as a rookie to an almost miserable 6.6% these past two seasons.
Was O'Reilly enjoying favorable ice-time? No, he was being used against the toughest opponents, often in the defensive zone, and the only help he got was from a rookie (albeit a uniquely talented one in Gabriel Landeskog).
Some players have indeed fooled analysts and fans with sudden and dramatic increases in scoring, but it would be very surprising if such a young and well-rounded two-way playmaker turns out to be one of them.
Shutdown defensive play
Although it can be challenging to measure players defensively, all the statistical methods currently at our disposal indicate that O'Reilly is a top defensive talent.
O'Reilly started off as a defensive star in the OHL, being voted the conference's best penalty killer in his final season, and he went on to finish sixth among NHL forwards in penalty killing time the following seasonan amazing feat for an 18-year-old rookie.
Playing on the checking line alongside glorified thug Cody McLeod and the completely expended veteran Darcy Tucker, O'Reilly started only 43.0% of his shifts in the offensive zonesecond lowest on the team.
It would drop to an even lower 40.0% the following season, a year that was fortunately spent with a significantly upgraded linemate in Daniel Winnik. His team-leading takeaway rate of 3.0 per 60 minutes went up to an even higher 3.6, and would somehow continue to rise up to 3.8 last seasonall of which is especially amazing when compared to his stingy giveaway rates of 1.2 to 1.4 per 60 minutes.
To determine how well a team is performing with certain players on the ice, we like to use the Relative Corsi statistic, which is simply a player's shot-based plus/minus per minute relative to his teammates. This critical (albeit contextual) metric measures a player's possession-driving ability, and is truly the hockey breakthrough equivalent to on-base percentage in baseball.
In this important regard, O'Reilly gave the Avalanche an advantage of an amazing 11.1 shots per 60 minutes in 2010-11 playing with Winnik, followed by an amazing 12.4 last year with Landeskog.
While the percentage of shifts O'Reilly starts in the offensive zone rose from second lowest among the team's forwards in his two teenage years, his more balanced 50% last year was still sixth lowest. He also went from facing third line competition to being trusted with the second-toughest competition on the team.
In short, not only was O'Reilly the player to whom the team turned when top opponents like the Sedins were on the ice, but he absolutely dominated them possession-wise.
Intelligence and discipline
Many top defensive players require a highly physical game to shut down the league's top players, and consequently cost the team quite a few penalties in order to keep opposition scoring opportunities to a minimum, but like Pavel Datsyuk and Patrice Bergeron, O'Reilly is a highly intelligent player who knows how to play tough defense without getting the team into penalty trouble.
In the OHL, O'Reilly took only 20 minor penalties in his 129 games, was chosen as the team's most sportsmanlike player, and earned a nomination for the Bobby Smith trophy for his academic achievements.
In the NHL, he has been even better, taking just 23 minor penalties in 236 games. He has also consistently drawn 0.8 minor penalties per 60 minutes throughout his career, a true and undervalued 'Moneypuck' talent that translates into roughly 0.2 goals per additional power play opportunity.
Speaking of undervalued Moneypuck talent, O'Reilly took 31.3% of the team's faceoffs last year, winning 52.8% of them, up from 51.8% the year before. Each faceoff win keeps the puck out of the opponent's possession, and helps give Colorado the next opportunity to score. In general, every 76 additional faceoff wins is worth a goal (according to Michael Schuckers' latest study), or just 41 on special teams. Last year, O'Reilly had 81 extra faceoff wins, of which 21 were on special teams.
Top playmaking abilities
While his highly-disciplined defensive abilities at both even strength and killing penalties are potentially already well accepted, the same can't be said for his top-line playmaking abilities.
According to the refined version of our new statistic "passes", which is meant to estimate how many times a player has set up a shot on goal, O'Reilly was the league's 12th best playmaker in the league last season. He finished the season with 292 passes, or 3.6 passes per game, and 1.55 passes for every shot of his own, both roughly equivalent to Pavel Datsyukthat's the second time we've favorably compared the two!
The Avalanche really caught lightning in a bottle with O'Reilly and Landeskog, who was helped to the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. Though O'Reilly's penalty killing time was cut down, it was replaced with an extra three minutes per game at even strength and some power play time where he earned a solid 4.7 points per 60 minutes.
This burst of offense wasn't entirely unexpected. In the OHL, O'Reilly led the team in assists while tying for the team lead in points, up from his rookie season where he finished third in both categories. Not only was last year not a fluke, but his true playmaking potential might actually still remain untapped.
What to expect next
O'Reilly was playing with Magnitogorsk of the KHL with his older brother Cal during the lockout. As a restricted free agent at the time of the work stoppage, he actually signed a two-year deal, but fortunately one with an out clause. He got off to a great start in KHL, with six points in his first five games and a +4, while winning over 60% of faceoffs.
According to GVS (Goals Versus Salary, which measures a player's contributions relative to a comparably-priced player), O'Reilly is easily worth $4 million per season today, just like Colorado offered P.A. Parenteau and David Jones this summer, and could be a great theft target if he is offered any less.
Colorado has been enjoying O'Reilly's services for a cap hit of just $900,000 per year throughout his entry-level contract, which made him one of the league's best values according to GVS. In total, he provided an extra 13.5 goals of valueor a savings of $4.5 million if you prefer to look at it that wayover his three seasons.
Turning to history to help plot his career path, the list of the most statistically comparable players at his age actually include Mark Messier and Joe Thornton. The closest match is probably Troy Murray, a strong defensive-minded, penalty-killing, playmaking, faceoff-winning forward for the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the 1980s, who won the 1996 Stanley Cup with the Avs in the twilight of his career. Murray, who was far more physical and had a much better shot, won the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive player at age 23, something we wouldn't be surprised to see matched by O'Reilly.
As for scoring, both of the two most popular statistical projection systems (VUKOTA and Snepsts) have him down for an exact repeat of his 55 points, but with a potentially much higher long-term upside.
All the signs point up for Ryan O'Reilly so keep your eye on this youngster, who can be followed on twitter at @Ryan_OReilly90, or on his web site http://www.ryanoreilly.ca.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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