For many casual hockey fans, Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson has made quite an impression recently, culminating in his hat trick in Tampa’s 6-2 victory Monday over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Johnson currently leads all players in goals and points during the playoffs. It’s the kind of résumé that could result in a Conn Smythe Trophy if the Lightning march into the Stanley Cup Final and beyond.
Johnson wasn’t exactly an unknown going into the postseason, mind you. He notched a solid 72 points (29 goals, 43 assists) to tie teammate Steven Stamkos for 14th among NHL players in scoring during the regular season, on the heels of a third-place finish — albeit a distant one — in the voting for last year’s Calder Trophy, which goes to the league’s top rookie. But in the playoffs, he’s jumped a couple of levels, a far cry from the undersized, undrafted player he was coming out of junior hockey.
Through the lens of advanced statistics, however, maybe this wasn’t as much of a surprise. That’s because, according to at least one commonly used value metric, Johnson’s regular season had already established him as arguably the best skater in the NHL.
Because of his combination of individual scoring and his team’s goal differential while he was on the ice (relative to off), Johnson led all non-goalies in Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) during the regular season. It’s a pretty exclusive honor. Setting aside ineligible players, only one seasonal GVT leader since 1950-51 — Eric Lindros — has not gone on to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even he might be enshrined eventually:
It should be noted that Johnson shined in a relatively down year for skaters; his league-leading GVT of 22.1 was the fifth-lowest by any NHL leader since 1950-51. It certainly wasn’t as impressive as Wayne Gretzky’s 43.8 in 1984-85 or even some recent season-leading efforts by Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.
Also, GVT is of course only one measurement of player value, and it’s one that Johnson is particularly suited to excel at, since it doesn’t fully capture defense. By contrast, metrics that focus on puck-possession, such as Stephen Burtch’s dCorsi and War-On-Ice.com’s wins above replacement, consider Johnson a good player who is strong offensively but below average defensively. It’s a criticism that makes some sense, given Johnson’s lack of size. Johnson’s coach might disagree, however: He’s been sending Johnson out against the kind of competition you’d expect from a defensively responsible two-way forward, not a one-dimensional cherry-picker.
In other words, as is often the case, the “right” answer about Johnson’s value (to the extent that such a thing even exists) is probably in between the assessments of GVT and shot-based metrics. But it’s also undeniable that Johnson’s most favorable numbers put him in elite company, an appraisal with which the Rangers would probably agree after Monday’s outburst.