Let's Check In On No. 1 Center Sam Steel

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

As a popular shirt suggests, Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have gone together like peanut butter and jelly. But as everyone knows, there’s a third, often overlooked, component to the classic sandwich: the bread. Without it, you’ve just got a bunch of fruit and nut pastes on a plate, and you’ll get a lot of horrified stares if you roll that lunch out in public.

The Wild have experimented with plenty of centers to be the bread in the PB&J mix. Victor Rask was a loaf of Wonder Bread, technically functional in a pinch but not adding much flavor. Joel Eriksson Ek was a garlic bread, great in its own right, but maybe better suited for a different sammy. Ryan Hartman was a loaf of homemade sourdough, great when fresh, but maybe didn’t have the shelf life most hoped for. Marco Rossi‘s a tasty baguette in the making but just a touch undercooked.

For the past six weeks, the Kaprizov/Zuccarello PB&J has been served up on a loaf of Sam Steel. His yeast never rose with the Anaheim Ducks, but Steel is taking a starring role in Minnesota’s signature dish after they snagged him off the day-old shelf this summer.

But until proven otherwise, any center between Kaprizov and Zuccarello will inspire questions about whether the Wild have found a winning recipe. So have they? Is Steel the right profile to complement those flavors?

Now that this trio has 20 games of playing together under their belt, we have enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions. They’ve played 234 5-on-5 minutes entering Saturday night’s game in Buffalo. Incredibly for a line that only got together on November 19, that’s the 24th-most of any line in hockey.

And from the looks of it, this trio will get a few more minutes together. Entering January 10’s action, 202 forward lines have played 60-plus 5-on-5 minutes together. Steel’s top line is 14th in the NHL in controlling shot attempts, with Minnesota owning 61.1% of them.

The scales may even out a bit when it comes to scoring chances — they control just 55.1% of those, a strong but not-as-dominant showing. But the thing to keep in mind is that pretty much anything coming off Kaprizov or Zuccarello’s sticks is a scoring chance.

The duo has scored 80 goals on 51.6 expected at 5-on-5 for the last three years. They don’t need to get a lot of looks close to the net to score. With Steel, though, they’re getting just that. Those kinds of opportunities haven’t come easily with any other center in the Wild organization.

Kaprizov has played with five centers for a significant period of time over his Wild career. Hartman (961 5-on-5 minutes) has the most, followed by Rask (460), Freddy Gaudreau (302), Eriksson Ek (284), and now Steel (277). Let’s first look at where the Wild got their shots when those four centers played with Kaprizov.

Courtesy of Hockey Viz

As you can see, Hartman’s had the most success, with Kaprizov and Co. owning the slot. But at the net? It’s below average. It’s even worse for Rask, Gaudreau, and Eriksson Ek. Big chunks of prime scoring areas are ceded, relying on Kaprizov and Zuccarello’s shooting to carry the day.

Now here’s Steel with Kaprizov:

Courtesy of Hockey Viz

Here’s Kaprizov when centered by anyone else (Gaudreau, 144 minutes; Hartman, 50; Eriksson Ek, 45; Matt Boldy, 44) this season:

Courtesy of Hockey Viz

Not only is Kaprizov getting a huge boost in expected goals alongside Steel, but the actual goals are coming, too. With Kaprizov and Steel together at 5-on-5, the Wild are scoring 3.63 goals per hour (3.81 when Zuccarello joins them, according to Hockey Viz).

That’s, by far, the most productive of any center he’s played with this year. The next best is Hartman, with 2.37 5-on-5 goals per hour.

To put it another way, when Kaprizov and Zuccarello are playing with Steel, they’re out-scoring high-octane lines like Brayden PointBrandon HagelNikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay, David PastrnakDavid KrejciPavel Zacha in Boston, and Jordan KyrouRobert ThomasPavel Buchnevich in St. Louis.

When they play with anyone else, they’re scoring like the Columbus Blue Jackets. The underlying numbers support both their success with Steel and their lack of it without.

Steel will have to keep things up to have that spot long-term, though. Marco Rossi, arguably the Wild’s best center prospect ever, is tearing up the AHL with 16 points in 15 games for a struggling Iowa team. But even if the Wild don’t see fit to recall Rossi, Hartman is at the ready, and the Wild could always make a trade to add a center.

Steel’s contract also expires this summer, opening up a ton of uncertainty past this year, even if (or perhaps, especially if) he continues to find success as a No. 1 center.

Those reasons, along with the lack of a long track record of success, has fans skeptical of him being much more than a warm body waiting to be displaced by Rossi or whoever the next big thing happens to be.

Don’t tell that to Boldy, though. When Kevin Falness of the Wild Radio Network asked about Steel’s contributions to the top line on January 6, noting that Steel is “more than a placeholder,” Boldy came out swinging for his teammate. “Whoever’s calling him a placeholder isn’t watching the games, that’s for sure,” Boldy replied.

Boldy then shoveled a long list of praise onto Steel. “He’s super talented. He’s so smart, he’s kind of got it all, he can skate, shoot, pass, protect pucks,” Boldy listed. “It’s honestly impressive to watch, and it’s not easy playing with Zuccy and Kirill with how much chemistry they have. It can be hard, you can get lost, you can not get your puck touches.”

That’s not a problem for Steel, Boldy says. “I think Sammy does an unreal job of demanding the puck,” he continued. “You watch, he has the puck just as much as those two do, and I think that’s a much harder thing than most people know. He’s not just giving them the puck whenever he gets it. He’s out there, he’s making plays, he’s shooting, he’s making the right decisions.”

It remains to be seen if Steel can keep up this great play. Maybe it’s right to be skeptical. But so far, the evidence is piling up that Peanut Butter and Jelly Time is best served with Steel tying those ingredients together. The Wild are embracing this new set of ingredients. Maybe it’s time that the State of Hockey follows suit.

All data from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.

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