Sam Steel, come on down! You’re the newest No. 1 Center in St. Paul! The Minnesota Wild plucked Steel from relative obscurity in free agency, signing the 2016 first-rounder to a one-year deal. He stayed in obscurity through mid-November, where he had two goals and an assist through 17 games while getting under 11 minutes a night.
That is until Minnesota put him in that primetime spot between Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. Since his first game on the top line (Nov. 19), Steel has three goals and an assist, and the Wild have won five of six games. Because there are few things Dean Evason believes in more than don’t change a winning lineup, we can expect Steel is there to stay, at least for now.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a center ride a wave of success with Kaprizov. The Ur example of this is Victor Rask, of course. Rask was Kaprizov and Zuccarello’s first center and got off to the hottest start imaginable. Remember, he scored only 16 points in his first 66 games with the Wild. He put up half that total in his first seven games as Minnesota’s de facto No. 1 Center.
Rask eventually lost that gig. But he had to compile eight points (three at even strength) over his next 30 games to do so, opening the door for someone else to fill that role.
On Sunday, Steel became the fourth center to get 100 (okay, 99, but close enough) 5-on-5 minutes with Kaprizov since then. He joins Ryan Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Freddy Gaudreau in that club. Hartman is the most successful of this Center By Committee group. He first teamed up with Kaprizov the day after Thanksgiving. In the 63 games that followed, Hartman scored 24 goals and 51 points.
A disappointing playoff and rough start defensively bumped Hartman from that spot early this season, and the Wild have reeled to find a replacement. Luckily, Kaprizov remained as hot as ever (seven goals, 18 points in his last 11 games), but fans crave for a pivot who can give him stability and chemistry.
So does Evason. With his lineup healthy (sans Hartman) and his security blanket “GEEF” line back together, don’t expect to see the line blender anytime soon. So if Steel’s there for now, let’s ask: Where will Steel fall on a 1-5 scale? Is he a Rask, or is he a Hartman?
For this, let’s see how their scoring numbers in their main stints with Kaprizov and Zuccarello stack up. For Rask, we’ll go from Jan. 31, 2021, to April 23, 2021. Hartman’s time there will be from Nov. 26, 2021 to the end of the season. We’ll use Steel’s last seven games, which is a small sample size, but that is all we’ve got to go on.
Anyway, here’s how the scoring stacks up at 5-on-5:
Right away, we can see why Hartman held that spot for so long. His goals and points per hour ranked 16th and 30th among 316 forwards, with 500-plus 5-on-5 minutes during that time. Not only that, but the Wild were a scoring machine with him centering Kaprizov. Was much of this to do with a Kaprizov? A lot. But it’s clear that no one else has matched Hartman’s success.
And that includes Steel, at least so far. In terms of point production, he’s been a decided 1.0 on the Rask-to-Hartman Scale. Getting that production via goals is good, but it also hasn’t translated to a ton of scoring for Kaprizov’s line at 5-on-5. Even when Rask wasn’t scoring, Kaprizov and Zuccarello picked up points in 2021.
But scoring, especially over a seven-game stretch, can be a bit misleading sometimes. So let’s take a bit of a deeper look. What kind of chances is Steel generating? Is his line generating more offense than they’re scoring?
And the answer is yes. Steel may not be getting assists, but his scoring has all been earned. He’s notching 1.27 expected goals per hour from his shots, which lines up almost exactly with his actual goals. It’s only a small stretch, of course, but it’s a pretty good sign.
It also has him among the league’s top shot-generators over the last two weeks or so. Looking at the 356 forwards who have more than 50 5-on-5 minutes since Nov. 19, he ranks 61st in shots per hour and 22nd in individual expected goals.
That means as much as he’s shooting, and it’s quite a bit, he’s getting quality looks on those shots. Here’s his shot chart for the year, with dots on every shot he’s taken since Nov. 19. (Note: for visibility, goals and shots from the point are marked with red, the rest with white.)
While Hartman lived in the slot last season, Steel is taking more of an Eriksson Ek approach. He’s only attempted four shots from more than 25 feet out, and all but six attempts were within 20 feet. This is tailor-made for creating rebounds. While Kaprizov and Zuccarello haven’t cashed in on them yet (or he’d have some assists), how long do you think that will last?
Probably not much longer if this trio’s offense generation is for real. Steel has propelled Kaprizov and Zuccarello to heights they didn’t even see with Hartman. The Steel-Kaprizov-Zuccarello line generates 3.23 expected goals per hour this season, the best line on the Wild. Just for a visual, here’s how the Steel line stacks up with the Hartman line.
We’re gonna have to give Steel, like, 5.5 on the Rask-to-Hartman scale here so far.
While Rask, and Hartman to a smaller degree, relied on shooting talent and wide-open looks created by Kaprizov to score, even average shooting luck should yield a bunch of goals. Of 119 lines with 60-plus minutes this year, Steel’s top line ranks 36th in generating chances.
That might sound low-ish but look at some of the lines in their neighborhood. Pavel Buchnevich–Robert Thomas (the one who’s not featured on “Smooth” by Santana)-Vladimir Tarasenko (3.31). Nathan MacKinnon–Mikko Rantanen–Artturi Lehkonen (3.24). Auston Matthews–William Nylander–Michael Bunting (3.21). They’re doing just fine.
Especially with that defense. Among those 119 lines, Steel’s line ranks 27th in allowing expected goals, surrendering just 2.02 per hour. They may not be elite in either category, but they should score over a goal per hour more than their opponents, which is elite. They’re controlling the expected goals share about as well as Connor McDavid–Leon Draisaitl–Zach Hyman (61.5%), Sidney Crosby–Jake Guentzel–Rickard Rakell (61.1%), or Jason Robertson–Roope Hintz–Joe Pavelski (59.9%).
Now, can they keep this up? That’s going to be the big question here. It’s just been seven games, and it’s easy to go on a short dominant run before regressing to the mean a little bit. But the early returns are optimistic, even if the scoring hasn’t come yet. Whether they can translate the expected goals into actual ones is a question until Steel starts producing, but we’ll give him a 3.5 on the Rask-to-Hartman scale until we get more information.
All data from Evolving Hockey unless noted otherwise.