Alex DeBrincat will look to build on his productive 2021 season. | AP Photos
DeBrincat has already proved himself one of the NHL’s elite goal-scorers, but he hopes what he worked on this summer will improving his playmaking.
Any concerns about Alex DeBrincat’s scoring ability — borne out of his disappointing 2019-20 season — were quickly dismissed in 2021.
DeBrincat scored 32 goals in 52 games, good for third in the NHL. His shooting percentage, after dipping inexplicably from 15.5% in 2017-18 and 18.6% in 2018-19 to merely 8.7% in 2019-20, rocketed back up to a career-best 20.6%.
He’s one of only 14 players who have scored more than 100 goals with a shooting percentage above 15% over the past four seasons, and the other 13 represent some elite company.
But where can DeBrincat, who turns 24 in December, still improve?
One area is his playmaking. He tallied only 24 assists last season, unremarkably tied for 82nd in the NHL in that category. He’s one of just three players among the aforementioned elite 14 who have recorded fewer assists than goals over the last four years (the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Jets’ Kyle Connor are the others).
DeBrincat realizes that, but also realizes addressing that isn’t simply about becoming a better passer — he’s already pretty good at passing.
Instead, he worked this summer to become a stronger, more rooted skater, allowing himself to “fend off some defenders” and “handle the puck maybe that extra second” before making his pass (or taking his shot).
“It just allows guys to get in spots, so I’m not always just dishing it to them maybe in a bad spot,” he said. “If I can make that one extra move, hold onto it, and then they’re wide open, that’s really effective.
“You see [Patrick Kane] doing it a lot. It’s not always the first place he sees — he’s waiting for something else to open up. That’s what makes him so effective, and I think I can bring that into my game a little bit.”
That is easier said than done, though.
“You have to read the ‘D’ [and determine] where the ‘D’ is on you,” he added. “There’s a lot of things that go into it, but [primarily] it’s not panicking with the puck, it’s being more patient, it’s trusting your teammates to get open. If you can do that, it makes it a lot easier on everyone.”
During five-on-five play last season, DeBrincat averaged 11.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes, well above the league average of about 9.0 (per hockey analyst Corey Sznajder’s data). Yet he averaged only 7.2 primary shot assists — passes that lead directly to a teammate’s shot attempt — per 60 minutes, below the league average of about 8.0.
If he can be slightly more patient with his playmaking this season, it could make a difference in those numbers. And doing so next to Tyler Johnson, a natural finisher for playmaking wingers throughout his career, could prove especially valuable.
Another area in which DeBrincat started to improve last year, but can still get even better, is his defense.
He learned how to use his quick hands to steal the puck from opponents and how to use his speed to backcheck as much as he counterattacks. He tied for second on the Hawks with 31 takeaways and — out of nowhere — became a regular penalty-killer during the team’s last 11 games, a role Colliton expects him to retain moving forward. But the Hawks did still concede plenty of scoring chances during his ice time.
His strengthened skating will ideally help him defend opposing forwards even better this season.
“[Alex is] a fantastic shooter, he’s a fantastic offensive player, [but] you limit your opportunities if that’s all you do,” Colliton said. “One of the reasons why he’s had so much success is his work ethic away from the puck, his skating, his relentless mentality. He forces turnovers for himself and for his linemates… We’re hoping he’s going to pick up where he left off there.”