There's no denying that Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad had a quality season. His 24 goals led the team, and he set a new career high with 43 points in 72 games. The big bodied 22-year-old had a knack for finding tiny holes in opposing goaltenders, and firing the puck into the net (usually from absurd angles). His prowess for scoring, in fact, had many pundits and fans considering him to be the team's top pivot ahead of Aleksander Barkov for most of the season.
Though Barkov's late resurgence while playing alongside Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau at the end of the season certainly helped elevate his standing among those who follow the team, there still are some that consider Barkov and Bjugstad to be a 1A and 1B punch down the middle.
If that's true, then the Panthers have 1A, 1B, and 1C down the middle, as Vincent Trocheck has been just as good as Nick Bjugstad, especially at even strength.
For some reason, Trocheck seems to fly under the radar of most people, probably for his unconventional (yet effective) way of playing hockey. Oddities such as his affinity for pushing the puck forward on offensive zone face-offs, as well as his tendency to hold onto the puck while coming out of his own zone result in him not looking as good as a conventional top-six center, even though his numbers show that he is capable of succeeding in a top-six role at the NHL level.
Let's look at some direct comparisons between Bjugstad and Trocheck. First up is a simple statistical comparison between Player A and Player B. Which one is Trocheck, and which is Bjugstad?
(Statistics taken from war-on-ice.com during 5 on 5 score adjusted situations, unless specified otherwise.)
For those of you who have seen these types of comparisons before, you'll have guessed Trocheck as Player A, and Bjugstad as Player B. That would be correct, as G.I. Tro is Player A, and Big Nick Bjugstad is Player B.
These are just the raw statistics, however, and don't necessarily account for usage. So, we'll look at delta (d)Corsi instead, to help up get some context on how the two players were used. We'll use a great couple of visuals from nullhypothesishockey.com to do so.
(The black bar indicates the expected value for the player, while the colored bars indicate how a player performed. In Corsi For, if the player’s bar is above the black bar, the player exceeded expectations, while in Corsi Against, if the player’s bar is below the black bar, the player exceeded expectations. Green is good, and red is bad. Statistics taken from players who played at least 50 games on the season.)
In the Corsi For Graph, Trocheck and Bjugstad are second and third from the left, meaning that they had some of the most offensive oriented minutes on the team. As we can see, their expected values are incredibly similar; their performance on the year, or their actual values, are not. Trocheck outperforms Bjugstad by a considerable margin offensively, even if Bjugstad did lead the team in goals.
Again, the two are sheltered, with Trocheck having the lowest expected value and Bjugstad having the 3rd lowest. And again, the expected values are almost identical, while Trocheck out performs Bjugstad when it comes to the actual results.
A final comparison for the two would be looking at shot quality, as there could be an argument made that Nick Bjugstad creates more dangerous shots than Trocheck does, even if Trocheck is better at possessing the puck. For that, we'll look at War On Ice's Hextally app, and compare the quality of chances created/conceded by the two centers.
Bjugstad may create more high quality chances on offense, but his defensive lapses can't be ignored; what he creates in front of the opposition net, he gives away in front of his own net. Trocheck, on the other hand, has been good at limiting chances in front of his own goalie, and creating opportunities in the high slot while in the offensive zone.
Trocheck and Bjugstad are both good players. Putting one ahead of the other, whether it be to boxcar stats, or underlying numbers, doesn't make sense. Bjugstad had an impressive season lighting the lamp; Trocheck had an impressive season possessing the puck. Don't be surprised when both of them impress us again next season.