Fun with small samples: Brandon Pirri is currently leading the NHL in goals per 60 minutes played at 3.8, nearly a full goal ahead of Toronto’s Auston Matthews. Pirri is also the league leader in points per 60 minutes played at 5.4, just a hair above Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov.
Of course, Pirri has only played eight games this season. But his story is a remarkable one. In those eight games, he has seven goals and three assists, and is seemingly in on every dangerous Vegas scoring chance. Even a brief return to AHL Chicago – merely a paper transaction to protect the rest of the Vegas roster – didn’t slow him down as his return to NHL action ended with yet another goal against the New York Rangers.
Pirri has never had trouble scoring goals. His NHL career, now spanning 236 games with five different teams, has seen him average 23 goals and 40 points per 82 games. Those seem like reasonably impressive numbers – certainly the type of production that can see a player carve out a comfortable middle-six role for years.
But Pirri has always been mired in a fight for a roster spot. An ugly 2016-17 season with the Rangers probably didn’t help. It was the primary driver of him spending nearly two seasons with Vegas’ AHL affiliate. But it wasn’t just Vegas who may have underestimated his value. Every one of his contracts has effectively been signed at the league minimum, despite consistent offensive production.
Every team in the league had a shot at him in 2014-15 (he would sign a two-year deal at the league minimum with the Florida Panthers), and again in 2016-17 (he would sign a one-year deal with the Rangers at close to league minimum), and again in 2017-18 (again, a one-year deal with the Golden Knights at close to league minimum). Vegas didn’t win Pirri via the expansion draft, but rather routine free agency!
I think most franchises recognize Pirri as an offensive threat. The production has been there for some time and we know scoring rates tend to drive player values and contracts. But the common refrain with Pirri – stop me if you have heard this one before – is that his “compete level” and “commitment to defensive play” aren’t always up to par. At least said one NHL scout.
I’m not here to defend Pirri as a defensive specialist, but I do think it’s worth fact-checking this type of claim. After all, if Pirri was a defensive liability, we should expect to see his shot and goal rates stand as underwhelming relative to his individual offensive production.
But that doesn’t hold up well to test. Consider Pirri’s five ‘regular’ NHL seasons, really since the beginning of the 2013-14 calendar year, by three key performance measures (via NST):
So Pirri’s teams are roughly equal from a scoring chance perspective with Pirri on the ice versus off of the ice, marginally better from a shot advantage, and definitively better from a goal advantage.
I find the goal measure to be particularly compelling. His teams get about 54 per cent of the goals with him on the ice, which suggests one of two things: we are still understating his offensive impact or we are definitively overstating the negative impact he purportedly carries on the defensive side of the game. Perhaps both are true.
Regardless, the overarching point here is that Pirri’s teams have always been competitive with him on the ice. They certainly look better when he’s scoring – Vegas is something of a buzz saw right now any time he’s taking a shift. When he’s not scoring, performance drops. But that wouldn’t make Pirri any different from any other forward playing in the NHL right now.
At the end of the day, Pirri is adding goals and wins to his team. Some may not like the way he creates those goals and wins, but that’s a debate for another day.