The stats aren't flattering. They are, perhaps, worrying.
Noah Juulsen production has fallen from 52 points last season to a mere 28 in 2015-16. He went from leading all Everett Silvertips defenders in scoring by 16 points to trailing Brycen Martin by nine points, and Cole MacDonald by eight.
But if you dig a little deeper, Juulsen's season has actually been fairly good. He continues to provide high-end, two-way play consistently, making him the number-one defender on arguably the WHL's best defensive team. So, despite this continuation of solid play, why has Juulsen's production cratered?
This article will first answer the question by providing environment and statistical context, followed by a breakdown of his overall play.
Everett's defence-first system
Everett's efficiency in their own zone is well known. Under head coach Kevin Constantine, the Silvertips have been in the top three for goals against in each of the past three years.
This year, they allowed the second-fewest (169), but also held the second-lowest goals-for total(182). They rank a mere 20th (out of 22 teams) in shots for, but also have allowed the fewest shots in the league.
The player turnover from last season clearly had an immense effect on the 'Tips' scoring prowess. Nikita Scherbak, who led the team in scoring, turned pro. Top-four scorers Ivan Nikolishin and Kohl Bauml did not return this season afer being traded and joininh the CIS Hockey ranks, respectively. This year, they have just two players in the top 100 in WHL scoring: Remi Laurencelle and Carson Stadnyk. Everett is the only team in the WHL without a point-per-game scorer; their closest is Laurencelle, who sits at a mere 0.84.
Everett is highly structured, especially for a major junior hockey team. They excel at controlled zone exits and limiting defensive zone time. They're also quite good at gaining the zone, but generally focus on cycling the puck. Relying on the strength of their forwards and smart positional play, they hope to wear down teams to mask their lack of dynamic offensive players. It's common to see them spend an extended period of time cycling the puck without ever getting a shot attempt, let alone a shot on goal. Turnovers are seldom made, but creative plays are even more seldom.
The defenders on the team do not activate much. This is evident in the juxtaposition of Brycen Martin's production, who recorded 24 points in 25 games before joining Everett, and the 13 in 41 games he's put up since. Everett relies on the defenders — particularly Juulsen — to break the puck out, but instances of leading the rush, or even joining it, are quite rare. When the puck arrives on a defender's stick in the offensive zone, they either shoot or fling it back into the corner.
The player turnover has also sunk the power play from third-best in the WHL to second-worst. This change is quite important to explain Juulsen's slow production, as he tallied exactly half of his production (26 points) on the man advantage last season. This year, Juulsen has just 13 power play points on Everett's floundering powerplay.
The stats behind the stats
Breaking down Juulsen's production by situation, and by primary points (goals + first assists), also sheds serious light on the issue. The importance of first assists is well known, however, our friends at Arctic Ice Hockey compiled a quick study that suggests secondary assist are a little more valuable for defenders than forwards, and that defenders rely more heavily on power-play time for production. Juulsen's secondary assists have taken a massive hit, tumbling from 11 to just two at even strength, which could be the result of a weaker supporting cast.
|G||1A||2A||P||PPG Pace||Primary Pts/GP|
|2014-15 @ ES||6||9||11||26||0.38||0.22|
|2015-16 @ ES||5||8||2||15||0.24||0.21|
|2014-15 @ PP||3||13||10||26||0.38||0.24|
|2015-16 @ PP||2||7||4||13||0.14||0.14|
(2015-16 numbers courtesy of Prospect Stats. 2014-15 numbers calculated by hand)
Juulsen's even-strength production this year has slipped from 26 points to 15. This can, in part, be explained by an increased role since Ben Betker turned professional. Juulsen had more offensive freedom last season. Furthermore, his even-strength primary production has remained relatively the same, shifting from 0.22 points per game to 0.21.
In summary, Everett's lack of both creativity and shot generation have caused overall team production to slip. The power play, which defenders relied upon to score their points, no longer features the same level of ability. Meanwhile, Juulsen's lack of even-strength production mostly stems from a lack of secondary assists, which can be explained by his weakened supporting cast, and that also partly explains his lower production overall.
Breaking down Juulsen's play
With context and a statistical breakdown complete, it's time look at Juulsen's overall play this season.
As mentioned previously, Juulsen has been thrust into a larger role, and is now the team's top defensive blue-liner, as well as the team's top offensive defenceman. He is routinely matched up against the WHL's best forwards in a division that contains Mathew Barzal, Kailer Yamamoto, and Parker Bowles.
Juulsen's excellent breakout pass ability stands out as the best and most consistent on a team that features quite a few defenders with quality vision. Seeing Juulsen fail to connect with a pass is even rarer than it was last season. Just like the rest of the 'Tips, Juulsen rarely dumps the puck out, heavily utilizes a pass to exit the zone, and will occasionally make a dazzling rush. And he does these better than any other defender on the team.
While Juulsen does possess a cannon for a shot, unfortunately he has some difficulties getting it on net. He could stand to use his smooth skating and quick hands to walk across the zone and pick better shooting lanes. With that said, his combination of vision and shooting ability make him a quality power-play quarterback, while his vision is what typically shines in even-strength situations.
In the defensive zone, Juulsen is as no-nonsense as they come. He's quite strong, using his strength to tie forwards up and effectively clear the crease. His excellent anticipation allows him to intercept passes and always keep his stick in passing and shooting lanes, an area that has noticeably improved. He shows no fear when blocking shots, and does an effective job sprawling out on the penalty kill. And, yes, he still hits hard, and his timing has gotten much better.
No reason to panic
Juulsen continues to be a fantastic defender. He has a knack for spending limited time in his own zone. His offensive tools are quite good, and are best shown in his puck-moving, rushing, and power-play abilities.
As is the case with most prospects, there is still plenty of room for Juulsen to improve: picking better shooting lanes, sounder decision-making while under pressure, and speeding up his pivots. However, all of these are relatively minor flaws. The simple fact is, Juulsen spends so little time in his own zone because he's so good at disrupting plays and orchestrating the breakout.
Admittedly, Juulsen hasn't made any significant progression since last year, but he has been steady, with flashes of brilliance. The WHL recognized his excellent play, as he was voted to the Western Conference Second All-Star Team. On another team, with greater offensive talent, perhaps these flashes would be more numerous, and the numbers would be better.
The Silvertips are off to the second round after sweeping the Portland Winterhawks. Everett is clearly a great hockey club, even if its style of play is not conducive to high offensive totals. Juulsen's secondary assists and lack of overall production can be explained, at least in part, by his environment.