A Look at the 2013-2014 Toronto Maple Leaf Powerplay: Room For Improvement

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The Leafs’ power play interested me this year. The power play was by no means a downfall of the Leafs this season, ranking 6th in the league with a 19.8% success rate. That being said, every franchise should be looking to improve themselves in any way possible, and there is definite improvement to be made on the Leafs man advantage.

Much of the coaching staffs’ decision-making seemed odd to me this season regarding player usage. Carlyle seemed reluctant to split up the top line and deployed the Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel line as the top power play unit consistently for the majority of the season. He often kept the apparent second line together as well, deploying Kadri alongside Lupul and Raymond. The top defensive pairing seemed to consistently be Phaneuf and Franson, with Gardiner and Reilly managing the second pair duties. I’ve got a bit of a quarrel with Carlyle’s usage this season; it seems to me that the coaching staff has been favoring those on the power play based on how he plays them in regular minutes, deploying them based on even strength valuation, regardless of actual power play skill. But I’ll get into that later.

Let’s take a look at the efficiency of each player in terms of power play production

Power Play Production

                A couple of players stood out against the rest this year on the power play. Let’s take a look at the assist and shot production of all Toronto players this season that played significant power play minutes (100). The below graph shows shots per 60 and assists per 60, that is a time-on-ice adjusted statistic to remove minutes played bias from the analysis.

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Automatically, it can be seen that Rielly and Franson stand out on the blue line. Their assist production was best among all players and easily dwarfed the production of their counterparts Gardiner and Phaneuf. For a rookie season, Rielly’s production here is incredibly impressive. To put this in perspective, Rielly ranked 7th in assists per 60 league wide among defensemen; the potential on a young defensemen like Rielly producing at that rate is massive. As well, Rielly assisted on twice as many goals per 60 minutes as Dion Phaneuf and nearly twice as many as Gardiner as well. The knock on Rielly here is his shot production. It was low, in fact he creates shots on the power play at the smallest rate of any regular member of the power play.

As for the forwards, Kessel and Lupul stand out as the goal scorers on the power play. Kessel takes nearly 18 shots per 60 minutes. Lupul is just shy of that, generating just above 16 shots.

If you need any more reason to think trading Nazem Kadri is a bad idea, here’s one; Kadri is the most efficient power play player on the Leafs. Although it would be good to see his shot production increase, the assists are undeniably impressive. Numbers like these from a relatively young guy are very promising. I’m not sure I entirely understand the anti-Kadri sentiment in some of Leafs fandom.

On the flip side of the spectrum, Tyler Bozak and Dion Phaneuf are entirely underwhelming on the man advantage. As he is playing frequently alongside Kessel and Van Riemsdyk on the power play, it’s very worrisome to see Bozak’s assists per 60 sitting at 1.2. Phaneuf, meanwhile, was equally unimpressive, generating barely any shots and assists despite playing alongside Franson, who had a very successful 2013-2014 power play campaign.

Undeserved Usage on the Power Play

                As I mentioned before, I think the Leafs coaching staff hasn’t been doing a great job of identifying power play skill. Players who don’t deserve top ice time are receiving it while players that do aren’t. To prove this, let’s look at the points per 60 of all regulars on the power play compared to the percent of power play ice time that player is on for.

NOTE: For the latter stat of how much of their team’s power play ice time they were on for, the values on the Y-axis are multiplied by 10. For example Kessel’s value of 6 is not 6% but instead is 60% of power play ice time.

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It seems obvious from this that the coaching staff is not providing ice time to those who are most deserving. Phaneuf and Bozak are the ones that stand out particularly as over utilized. Phaneuf plays over 60% of the Buds power play minutes. Yet, his points per 60 is the lowest of any regular PP defensemen. Bozak is in the same boat, playing above 50% of power play time while having a points per 60 below 3 – the lowest of any PP forward.

Why is the coaching staff rewarding poor play on the power play? Phaneuf and his 2.64 points per 60 should not be playing significantly more minutes than Morgan Rielly, who more than doubles Phaneuf’s production as Rielly’s points per 60 is 5.71. I’m slightly more understanding towards the Bozak – Kadri situation as it could be argued that it is beneficial to be rolling out two efficient power play lines. Even though that is a reasonable proposition, that’s not a sufficient reason to justify playing Bozak over Kadri on the first power play unit. Simply put, your best power play players should be playing the most. Bozak should not be playing more than Kadri, as Kadri’s points per 60 is again nearly double Bozak’s. When the difference is as large as it is between these mentioned players, the coaching staff should be able to identify who has been playing better on the power play and reward that strong play as such.  

Swapping Bozak and Kadri would likely lead to improvements on the power play, just as increasing Rielly’s power play time would while decreasing Phaneuf’s. Here are what in my mind the ideal PP lines would look like:

Kessel – Kadri – Van Riemsdyk

Lupul – Bozak – Raymond

Rielly – Franson

Gardiner – Phaneuf

Ideally, the Kessel line and the Rielly-Franson d-pairing would be getting significantly more ice time. With these adjustments to get the more efficient players more ice time and with all else equal, one would expect a decent increase in goal production on the power play. I will be very disappointed if in the coming season Bozak remains as the 1C on the power play. His ineffectiveness is fairly evident and there is obvious evidence towards superior replacements being available in Kadri. The same can be said for the Phaneuf situation and with Rielly as a replacement.

The Leafs’ power play was by no means bad, but it could have been better with the current players available. These proposed adjustments may seem insignificant or nitpicky to a degree, but even the most minor of coaching decisions can be very consequential in the long term.

The bright spot of this analysis is that the two most efficient man advantage players are both at the beginning of their careers in Kadri and Rielly. For Rielly, its only his rookie season. The organisation can look forward to years of production from these two developing stars.

Potential Offseason Targets

For a combination of novelty and personal interest, I wanted to take a look at where the potential trade targets or free agents signings would fit in terms of power play production, specifically whether they would be an upgrade on the current roster. Here’s a look at some players that the Leafs are rumoured to be interested in or ones that seem relatively possible to acquire (although some on here might not make sense for the Leafs), showing their shot and assist production on the power play.

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I really like the look of O’Reilly this past season; his combination of shot and assist production is impressive. Cammalleri and Niskanen also stand out. Acquiring Niskanen would likely be very expensive, but if the Leafs can afford it somehow, it seems to make sense. He’s a skilled defensemen who has shown he’s able to perform well in big minutes and against tough competition in Pittsburgh, especially during times where Letang was injured. Additionally his power play results here are also an inviting addition to his play. Cammalleri is also decent here, providing a decent combination of shot and assist production. Stastny and Thornton both stand out as playmaker type centres who would look good in-between any of Kessel, Lupul or Van Riemsdyk. As long as it doesn’t cost Kadri, it seems like acquiring either of them would be a huge benefit to the Leafs from a power play perspective. Stastny, as the younger option, is obviously the favorable choice but potentially less viable.  

All the players mentioned here seem to be an improvement over some existing portion of the Leafs power play – except perhaps Ryan Kesler. Kesler is the only forward mentioned with a points per 60 lower than any of the existing forwards on the Leafs power play. That fact is likely due to converting on less than 8 percent of his shots on the power play this year, while Tyler Bozak converted 21 % of his shots. I would bet on Kesler to far outplay Bozak in seasons to come in terms of power play production, as those two conversion rates seem unsustainable to both the underachieving and overachieving extremes. That being said, Kesler’s production in terms of assists is also worrisome. His shot totals do make up for it to an extent; he would have produced the most shots per 60 on the power play of any regular Leafs forward.

Obviously this info is only a small snapshot of the value of these players, but it’s still a piece of the puzzle in terms of tangible benefit these potential targets could bring to the table were the Leafs to pursue them.

Follow me on Twitter @LukaRyder

Tracking Defensive Possessions, Turnovers and Zone Exits; Is There Analytical Value In This Information?

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For a long time, I’ve been interested in seeing how efficient a player is defensively by tracking their overall possessions and combining that information with their turnovers and zone exits. I finally decided to act on it recently. For the New York Ranger vs Pittsburgh Penguins series, I tracked just this to see if any interesting results came of it. However, after four games of tracking this, I’ve found some interesting data, but none of it seems all that conclusive. Here is all the raw data below, including percentage rates for each team.

I’ll introduce why I’m skeptical afterwards — essentially, I’m wondering if anyone sees any practical use for this kind of information. Here’s the data below, prefaced by a glossary of what it all means. All the information presented is even strength.

 

Glossary:

 

Defensive Possession: each time the player has had possession in their own defensive zone. I defined possession as having the puck for at least a second or are in a position to have it for that long but instead pass it or make a play immediately.

 

Unforced Turnovers/Giveaways: A situation where a defensemen gives the puck away to an opponent in his own zone (or the defensive side of the neutral zone while no one is offside) without having any significant pressure on him, thus being an unforced error.

 

Forced Turnovers/Giveaways: A situation where the defensemen gives the puck away to an opponent in their own zone while having a significant level of pressure on them, thus being unable to make the favorable play.

 

Uncontrolled Zone Exits: any attempted zone exit that leads directly to a turnover; or, worded differently, any zone exit that does not lead to that defenseman’s team having possession.

 

Successful Zone Exit: A zone exit where the defensemen either carries it out himself or makes a pass that leads to a controlled exit within two seconds of the pass completing or makes a pass directly out of the zone that directly leads to his team having possession.

 

Note: I omitted J. Moore and R. Diaz from the info due to very small sample sizes.

 

NYR – Through 4 games vs. PIT Defensive Possessions Unforced Turnovers/giveaways Forced Turnovers/Giveaways Uncontrolled zone exits Successful Zone exits
5 – Girardi 94 3 8 18 23
6 – Stralman 76 4 3 7 27
8 – Klein 54 2 6 9 15
18 – Staal 89 6 11 11 17
27 – McDonagh 85 2 7 14 21
PIT – Through 4 games vs. NYR Defensive Possessions Unforced Turnovers (Giveaways Forced Turnovers Uncontrolled Zone Exits Successful Zone Exits
2- Niskanen 84 3 5 15 20
3 – Maatta 77 4 10 14 13
4 – Scuderi 78 4 6 13 8
7 – Martin 76 2 6 10 21
41 – Bortuzzo 49 3 3 11 13
58 – Letang 107 6 6 22 26
NYR – Through 4 games vs. PIT Turnover Rate (Per Possession) Successful Zone Exit % Per Possession Percent of Zone exits that are Successful (vs uncontrolled)
5- Girardi 11.7% 24.4% 56.1%
6 – Stralman 9.2% 35.5% 79.4%
8 – Klein 14.8% 27.7% 62.5%
18 – Staal 19.1% 19.1% 60.7%
27 – McDonagh 10.5% 24.7% 60
Overall 13.1% 27.4% 63.58
Pit – Through 4 games vs. NYR Turnover Rate (Per Possession) Successful Zone Exits Per Possession Percent of Zone exits that are Successful (vs uncontrolled)
2- Niskanen 9.5% 23.8% 57%
3 – Maatta 18.1% 16.8% 48.1%
4 – Scuderi 12.8% 10.2% 38%
7 – Martin 10.5% 26.9% 67.1%
41 – Bortuzzo 12.2% 26.5% 54.1%
58 – Letang 11.2% 24.2 % 54%
Overall: 12.3% 21.4 % 54.3%

 

Now, I found some of the data interesting in it’s own ways. However, I’m not sure it has much value analytically. The Penguins have been dominating this series, they only have one game with a corsi for percentage below 50%. Yet, they don’t seem to be faring noticeably better by these numbers than the defense of New York.

Overall, the Rangers have a higher rate of exiting the zone with possession, and only turn the puck over a marginal amount more in their own zone; yet, they have been getting absolutely dominated. If these stats have value, I would have assumed the Penguins would have been superior in them as they have been playing far better over all by most other measures.. Obviously there is a ton of factors that lead to success in hockey, but the lack of correlation in this sample size between the success of a team and the success of these stats leaves me skeptical.

It seems to me that the turnover information per defensive possession would provide valuable insight. As per the zone exit per possession, that part I find myself less sure of — there are so many other factors involved in it.

So, I am asking you, reader; do you see value in this? Is the sample size too small to give up on the idea entirely? Perhaps there is value in the turnover rates, but less so the exits per possession? What are your thoughts?

 

What (I think) We Can Learn

NYR:

Anton Stralman is very impressive at exiting his own zone. He very rarely just flipped the puck out and gave it to the opponent; instead, he seems to heavily favor exiting with control and does so very efficiently. He also has the lowest turnover rate of any of the mentioned defensemen. Seemed very impressive in his own zone to me.

McDonagh and Girardi take on massive responsibility in the defensive zone, shown by how many defensive possessions they have combined between the two, most of any pairing. McDonagh’s offensive success impresses me due to the large amount of defensive presence he has.

Likely due to the small sample size, Marc Staal was incredibly unimpressive. He had the lowest zone exit rates and the highest turnover rate on New York; not a great combination.

I’ve noticed while tracking all of this that New York forwards come farther back and deeper into their own zone to support their defenders. As well, Lundqvist plays the puck more aggressively than Fleury, often sending it straight to a forward. Both of these factors seem to lead to less overall possessions for New York defenders.

 

PIT:

Letang takes on an incredible amount of possessions defensively through these games, despite a lot of offensive responsibilities on top of it. He and McDonagh are comparable due to that; both are incredibly important to their clubs and both are effective, too. He’s also a very high-event player — he attempts zone exits very frequently when he has the puck, the opposite of Rob Scuderi who seems to slow the game down.

Paul Martin looked really good so far, as well. He has a great efficiency at exiting the zone and does so with possession 67% of the time in these four games. He also has a very low rate of turnovers.

Niskanen has been good so far, with the lowest turnover rates on the team and impressive zone exits. His defensive partner Maatta has been decent at exiting the zone but seems to be making many turnovers that likely come with being a young, rookie player.

Rob Scuderi has not seemed very good. He doesn’t exit the zone very well at all and turns it over a lot. I’ve also noticed he more often than not sends the puck to his partner to try a zone exit rather than attempt one himself leading to a high number of possessions with little events, which masks his ineffectiveness.

 

 

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Why Mark Giordano Deserves a Norris Nomination

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The nominees for the James Norris trophy were released this week. The Professional Hockey Writers association voted on the players they feel demonstrate the best all around ability at the position of defence. The three nominees are Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.

These three defensemen are phenomenal. They deserve recognition. However, a certain defender has been left off the list that is just as deserving as these mentioned players, in fact I would assert more deserving. Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames deserved a Norris nomination.

Giordano had a very impressive season. He set personal records in goals and points and had the most successful season of his career. He also led his Calgary Flames team in a season that surprised many by showing flashes of skill and success — despite finishing 27th in the league.

I’m going to make my case as to why I think he deserved a Norris nomination and potentially even deserved the win over all.

 

Tough Circumstances

 

Before I introduce how well each candidate has performed this year, I want to show the circumstances in which they had done so. To do that, it’s important to look at three main things; the competition they are facing, the team mates they are playing with and the frequency they are starting in the defensive or offensive zones.

Let’s start with team mates and competition. The quality of competition and teammate statistic from Extraskater.com demonstrates the skill of ones linemates or competition by measuring the amount ice time the team mates or opponents play. Then, they average that and express it as a percent of overall ice time. The higher the percent, the more the player is playing, and therefore the more skilled he likely is. The below graph shows all the quality of linemates and competition of the four aforementioned defensemen (NOTE: graph starts from 26.5%, only small variance between highest and lowest)

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What we see here is that Chara and Keith are playing with slightly worse teammates than Giordano and Weber. However, when we look a bit deeper into the specific players that they are each playing with, we see a different story.

Duncan Keith played the most with forward Jonathan Toews and defenseman Brent Seabrook. Zdeno Chara played most commonly with David Krejci and Dougie Hamilton. Weber played most with Mike Fisher and Roman Josi. Mark Giordano played most with forward Mikael Backlund and defensemen T.J. Brodie.

Giordano may have played with some of the best linemates available on his team, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal to the teammates that Keith and Chara played with. No one in the world would argue that Backlund and Brodie are even on the same level as Toews or Seabrook, or even Krejci — that’s not a knock on those players, more just a point on how elite the others players are.

Giordano and — to a lesser extent — Weber’s line mates are far inferior to those of their peers in this comparison. This makes their results inherently more impressive.

Their competition, meanwhile, shows that all these candidates are playing against very difficult opponents. Chara is playing the hardest competition, while Weber and Giordano are playing slightly easier opponents. Keith, meanwhile, is playing considerably easier minutes than the others.

Additional to all this is where the defenders are starting most; the defensive, offensive or neutral zones. Here’s a chart that shows each players starting rates in each zone.

 

Start Rates

Giordano

Keith

Chara

Weber

Offensive  Zone

27.4%

35.8

30.8%

27.9%

Defensive Zone

36.2

26.7%

33.1%

34.7%

Neutral Zone

36.4

37.6%

36.1%

37.3%

 

Giordano starts the most in the defensive zone and the least in the offensive zone. He starts an average amount in the neutral. Below is a graph from extraskater.com that compares the quality of competition and zone start ratio (offensive divided by defensive zone starts) that visually demonstrates just how tough Giordano’s minutes have been this year.

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For reference: the more blue a circle is, the better his corsi for percentage is; the farther to the left a player is, the less he starts in the offensive zone; the higher he is, the tougher his competition is. Giordano is so far to the left that he can barely be seen.  He is starting the least in the offensive zone, his zone start ratio being 15% lower than Keith’s. When one starts so frequently in the defensive zone, it will hurt his overall point totals and possession statistics, not to mention how tough his competition has been; this is what makes the information I will get into shortly even more impressive.

 

Results

It’s no secret that Giordano had an amazing season. I’ve heard many say that his games lost to injury hurt his eligibility to be a norris candidate. Here I’ll show why I think his results are impressive enough to ignore his 18 games lost to injury.

I’ll look at his point results and his corsi results to show how impressive he has been throughout the 2013-2014 season.

Giordano was equally if not more efficient at creating goals this year than the Norris nominees.

 

 

Giordano

Keith

Weber

Chara

Overall Points

47

61

56

40

Points per game

0.73

0.77

0.7

0.52

Points per 60

1.16

1.48

0.96

0.87

The only player among the three that produced points at a better rate this season was Keith. Past him, Giordano was producing at rates better than Chara and Weber both on point-per-game and point per 60 minutes of ice time perspectives. The value of both of these is that it removes the games played or ice time bias from the point totals, revealing who is truly most valuable when they are on the ice.

Giordano’s point totals are undeniably impressive. They are superior to two of the three nominees. However, points aren’t everything. Another huge statistic — for defensemen especially is shot attempt percentages. How a player influences shot totals while they are on the ice is essential knowledge for analysis. For this I’ll look at on-ice shot attempt percents — or corsi for percent — as well as goals for percent for those who are less friendly towards shot metrics.

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The first bars demonstrate the shot attempts for or goals for percentage while that player is on the ice; the second is while they are not. This is meant to show how much of a true impact for their team that player has.

Both through shot attempts for and goals for the same conclusion can be drawn; Giordano had a tremendously positive impact on his team, more so than any of the other mentioned defensemen. His relative corsi of 10.3% is first in the league. Seemingly no other individual player has had such a huge impact on his teams shot totals than Giordano has had for the Flames in the entire league, let alone just these other three defenders.

One of a defenseman’s most prioritized responsibilities is reducing shots against and increasing shots for. Giordano accomplishes this incredibly well and when considered relative to his team, he does this best of any of the defender’s nominated. His benefit to the team is undeniable.

 

Conclusion

Giordano’s results are amazing. His point totals and shot attempt percentages are very impressive. Even more impressive is he has great results considering the quality of linemates and competition he has, not to mention how often he starts in the defensive zone as opposed to the offensive. The only one of the defenders to produce points more efficiently was Duncan Keith, but Keith started substantially more in the offensive zone and was playing alongside elite talent such as Jonathan Toews.

Although I understand the hesitation to nominate him due to injuries this season, his results are impressive enough in my opinion to offset 16 games lost to injury. Giordano has demonstrated the best all around ability of any defender in the league this year, both in reducing shots against and creating goals for, while doing so in very difficult minutes, with poor linemates and tough competition. Giordano was a top defensemen in the league this year and as such deserved to at the very least be nominated for the James Norris Memorial Trophy.

 

Follow me on Twitter, @LukaRyder

 

Possession Stats Success at Predicting Recent Playoff Results

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I love advanced stats and what they can reveal about Hockey. Possession stats specifically catch my attention; they really give a new perspective on what it is to be an effective hockey player or team at even strength. They can tell you a lot and are proven to be a very strong predictor of future success and goal differentials.

Something that I thought interesting when it comes to these statistics was the playoffs and how well they can predict post-season success. Playoffs are such a small sample size, which inherently means they are somewhat unpredictable. That being said, I would assume that due to teams with better possession stats being more likely to win in general, that this would reveal itself strongly in the long term results of several years of playoff outcomes — let’s see if that holds up.

I took playoff data from 2011 through 2013 and matched up the games played and wins to their regular season fenwick close percent.

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The first thing that stands out here is that the better possession teams have played more games. This is for two main reasons; one, the better the possession stats for a team are, the more likely they will make the playoffs and second, they are more likely to go deeper in the playoffs. Let’s take a look at this information another way, expressing winning percentages.

 

Games Played 2011-2013 playoffs Teams In Playoffs Winning %
Below 50% FenClose 100 9 48%
50-52.9% FenClose 191 19 47.12%
Above 53% FenClose 215 16 54.9%
Above 53% FenClose against below 53% Fenclose 131 13 (3 played other >53% FenClose teams in first round) 57.25%

The teams that considered very impressive possession wise — that is the ones above 53% fenwick close — have a winning percent just shy of 55%. That’s fairly impressive. Meanwhile, the teams in the “good” possession section between 50 and 52.9% actually have not fared any better than teams below the 50% possession mark; they have in fact done worse.

The fact that the teams below 50% FenClose have fared better than those in the 50–52.9% range over the past 3 playoffs surprises me. It may just be a matter of insufficient sample sizes, but still the result are not what I expected. The fact of the matter remains, however, that the great possession teams have done considerably better than others.

When the results of the 53% plus fenwick teams are separated from series’ where they played other 53% fenwick teams, the results are even more conclusive. Teams with a fenwick close above 53% have a winning percentage of 57% when facing teams below 53% FenClose.

The importance of possession is also evident in the Stanley Cup winners.

Over the past three seasons, the Stanley Cup winner has had an average regular season fenwick close of 53.46%. The runner up has averaged 53.04%. The lowest fenwick percent for a Stanley Cup winner over the last three years was Boston’s 50.6% in 2011. It’s evident, thus, that the best teams over the last three years have typically been very strong possession teams; not a particularly surprising assertion.

Even in small sample sizes, the predictive value of possession statistics holds up but to a much smaller degree than the larger sample sizes of the regular season, but still enough to conclude it has obvious value — a conclusion that begs for a larger study. However, strong possession stats did not cause as high winning percentages over the past three years as I would have expected. There are just so many ingredients that are necessary to make a successful hockey team. Isolating possession as the only factor of winning cannot entirely predict success. Is possession important? Of course it is, but it is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very large piece..

Hockey has so many factors that it will always be impossible to predict perfectly who is going to win. The parity in this sport allows for constant excitement and insures that even inferior teams have legitimate chances in any individual game or series. One can always predict who is most likely to win, but never who is going to. At the end of the day, that’s why this sport is so captivating; it’s why I love this league, because anything can happen.

Follow me on Twitter, @LukaRyder

Jonathan Bernier — The Bright Point in a Disappointing Season

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The Maple Leafs season ended in disappointing fashion. That being said, there are few obvious bright spots that stand out from the Leafs squad — foremost being goaltending. The Leafs shot differentials were abysmal and consistently so. Per extraskater.com, their -8.6 shot differential per game is second last in the National Hockey League, only besting the Buffalo Sabres rate of -10.6. In many of these games, the only reason they had even the chance to squeeze out a win was through superb goaltending. Jonathan Bernier earned most of the starts for the club, appearing in 55 contests — he likely would have made it past the 60 game mark if not for a late season injury. He was a bright centrepoint in an otherwise disappointing season.

Bernier was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in june of 2013. In return, the Leafs sent them forward Matt Frattin, goaltender Ben Scrivens (since traded to Edmonton) and a second round pick.

In his first season since being acquired, Bernier has been a gigantic part of his new franchises success. He has impressed a fanbase and media that is often hypercritical, a task that can be difficult, especially for goaltenders — just ask often and unfairly criticized James Reimer.

Bernier has proven himself over the course of the year. Taking on the amount of shots against can be exhausting for a goalie, yet his results are extremely impressive. He’s shown the ability to be a top ten starter in this league at the age of 25. Due to all this, I want to look at Bernier’s impressive play by the numbers and examine where he stands league-wide.

 

Bernier accomplished a phenomenal 2013-2014 season. His save percentage of 92.3% ranks tied for 5th. Here are the top ten save percentages in the NHL this season.

 

Goalie Save Percentage (Min. 41 GP)
1. Tuukka Rask 93.0%
2. Semyon Varlamov 92.7%
3. Carey Price 92.7%
4. Ben Bishop 92.4%
5. Jonathan Bernier (TIE w/Bobrovksy) 92.3%
5. Sergei Bobrovsky (TIE) 92.3%
7. Henrik Lundqvist 92.1%
8. Jaroslav Halak 92.1%
9. Cory Schneider 92.1%
10. Kari Lehtonen 91.9%

 

 

As is obvious there, Bernier ranks up very well against other top-tier goalies in the 2013-2014 season. Of the 5 goalies that are ahead of him (or tied with him), one of them is a Vezina winner in Bobrovsky and the other four will likely be in this years vezina conversation. He is also ahead of big name goaltenders such as Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller and former teammate Jonathan Quick.

Bernier’s season this year was phenomenal. He was performing at a level comparable to any other starter in the league. His season should put him in the conversation for the Leafs MVP.

Bernier’s save percentage over the last three seasons combined is also very impressive. He holds up well compared to many other top-tier starters. I’ll look at a couple of star goaltenders to see how he compares. I’ll compare his three year results with goalies I consider to be stars in this league. Specifically; Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask and Henrik Lundqvist.

NOTE: I’m using even strength save percentage for this part due to EV SV% being more predictive of future success in larger sample sizes. Bernier’s sizes don’t quite reach a large sample size quota, but many the comparisons do — and there’s no harm in using even strength results in any rate. Here’s a post on that topic http://www.broadstreethockey.com/2012/1/25/2730816/goalie-save-percentage-projections-even-strength

But back to Bernier. Let’s look at his EV SV% up against the aforementioned star goaltenders in the National Hockey League. Bernier has not quite played 100 games over the last three seasons — he’s played 85 — so his sample size is relatively small compared to the other goalies, but his results are still incredibly impressive. Here’s Bernier’s 3-season even strength numbers compared to other top goalies.

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Bernier stacks up very well to the mentioned goalies that came to mind when I thought of the top-tier tenders in the league for the past couple of years. The only two here that are ahead of the leafs netminder are Rask and Lundqvist — not bad company to be beaten by, as both of those guys are considered top-3 goalies in the NHL. .

Additionally, Bernier is actually ahead of Quick, Price and Miller over the last three years — in a smaller sample size, sure, but still impressive results. Quick’s 92.5 is only marginally worse than Bernier’s 92.7, but it strikes me as strange that the Kings decided to trade Bernier when he seemed so impressive in his limited outings with the team.

As well, Bernier has done better than Carey Price over the last three seasons. Price is acknowledged as a very talented franchise goalie for the Habs, and the Leafs have someone performing at a similarly impressive rate — an idea that should excite any fan of the white and blue.

Bernier has been outperforming Ryan Miller in that time frame as well. Miller,alongside Steve Ott, was traded for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, a first and a third round pick as well as a prospect. Meanwhile, Bernier who is nearly ten years younger, was traded for a much more reasonable price, while outperforming Miller in the past couple years.

At any rate, Bernier’s results — in a somewhat small sample size — have been extremely impressive. The Leafs appear to have a franchise goaltender on their hands. In his time in Toronto, Bernier has looked phenomenal. Over the last three years, he has posted very impressive results that are in line with guys that are considered top starters. If we continue to see more of the same — which I would assert is fairly likely — Bernier could easily establish himself as a top goaltender in the coming years.

The numbers show it and anyone who is a regular watcher of Leaf games knows it; Bernier is an amazing goaltender. The Toronto Maple Leafs season may have ended poorly, but the biggest bright point that the fanbase can look to is that goaltender Jonathan Bernier has shown his skill and demonstrated the potential level of performance one can expect for the coming years — and that level of performance is a very impressive one that the worlds largest hockey fanbase will be delighted to enjoy in future seasons.

Follow me on twitter, @LukaRyder

 

Why the Leafs Core Is Not the Problem

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The Toronto Maple Leafs started the year in a promising fashion. Despite season long possession struggles, the buds managed to be in line for a second straight playoff appearances. However, an eight game losing streak crushed the hopes of the league’s biggest fanbase. After that, the fans and the media have been looking for scapegoats, the likes of which have switched from the teams captain, their back up goalie, the coach or even some shots at the core.

@Hope_Smoke tweeted out this quote from Dreger in regards to the reaction to the Leafs collapse.

Darren Dreger makes it clear here that he is talking about specifically the coach and potentially management, but it really worries me that the vague term of “significant changes” could extend to shaking up the core of this Toronto team.

Many articles online have been pointing the finger at the core of Toronto. This article from rantsports.com puts the bulk of the blame on the building blocks of the Leafs. Author Michael Roberts writes:

 

“However, the real issue for Toronto isn’t the coaching — it’s the Maple Leafs’ core group of players who are proving they aren’t mentally tough enough to endure playing in the hockey crazed market of Toronto.”

Article can be found here: http://www.rantsports.com/nhl/2014/04/01/firing-randy-carlyle-isnt-the-answer-for-the-toronto-maple-leafs/#BTy3jCWSEPrO7gaG.99

 

The author’s argument throughout the article is that the problem with the Leafs is not coaching but instead core players. I disagree with this assertion. The Leafs problems stem not from core players and their ability to be “mentally tough” but instead, I would assert, from poor coaching and to an extent the depth of the roster as well as player valuation leading to poor decisions on who to play in individual games as well as in the long term.

The core of the Toronto Maple Leafs are very talented hockey players. For the sake of this article, I will be defining the core of the Leafs as Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. I would include Morgan Rielly but I feel Rielly is still very young and doesn’t necessarily fall into the criticism mentioned as frequently as other building block players. These are the guys the Leafs are or will be building around for years to come. And I think that’s perfectly fine.

That core is one that can lead a playoff team; I truly believe that. It’s not the core that is the problem. The problem is the coaches and the depth of the rostr that needs to be reshaped, not the core.

However, these mentioned players are being held back by poor lineup decisions and a lack of depth leading to Toronto’s star players being played with team mates that are essentially acting as anchors. Each star player has these anchors across the league, however in Toronto they are especially prominent due to a large amount of responsibility given to them under Carlyle. Examining how well a player is performing based on his results with certain players compared to others can reveal a lot about the chemistry or make up of a team — it can also reveal who is carrying the possession play and who is holding it back.

 

Forwards

 

The forward core that Toronto seems to be building around consists of Kessel, Kadri and Van Riemsdyk. Although Kadri seems to be often criticized and centres like Bolland and Bozak have been getting much more positive media attention, it is logical to select Kadri as a part of the core over the other two as Kadri is both their best centre and the youngest.

For that reason, let’s start with Kadri. He has the most obvious “anchors” as I refer to them. Joffrey Lupul (who is not the anchor I am referring to) has been along Kadri’s wing all season, while the other winger slot has been in a near constant state of change. Among the most notable to fill that other winger role is David Clarkson. Clarkson has been criticized heavily by the Toronto fan base after signing a massive contract, only to play very poorly in his first season wearing the blue and white. Additional to Clarkson, Kadri has spent a lot of time with Mason Raymond.

Let’s take a look at Kadri’s results with and without these two players. The below graphs, and most in this article, are expressed as a shot attempt % or a corsi for %. These essentially mean that is the percent of shot attempts that are for that player’s team while they are on the ice. (The with or without analysis available at stats.hockeyanalysis.com)

As we can see, Kadri creates significantly more shots for his team when playing with Raymond over Clarkson. More interesting than that, however, is how poorly Clarkson makes Kadri play. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has stuck Kadri with Clarkson for 240 minutes on the season. Without the ten game suspension at the beginning of the season, this total would likely be much higher.

This shows that Clarkson is entirely acting as an anchor to Kadri’s possession statistics and therefore to part of his overall contribution to the Leafs team. Meanwhile, there are other options in Mason Raymond that are often being overlooked in favor of a “grittier” player such as Clarkson, even though Clarkson is detrimental to the play of Kadri.

Here we see two things; a core player, Kadri, is playing worse due to a lack of depth in the Leafs lineup, but is also playing worse because of coaching decisions. Again, I would assert that it is not the Leafs core that is at all the problem but instead depth and coaching decision.

Moving onto Kessel and Van Riemsdyk, these two have made for a dynamic duo on the top line alongside Tyler Bozak. However, although it is often advertised that Bozak and Kessel have great chemistry, Tyler Bozak is acting as an anchor for that top line — albeit less dramatically than with Kadri and Clarkson.

This demonstrates that Kessel without Bozak is only marginally worse than he is with him. Top line centres make their wingers significantly better, or at least they should. Bozak does not show this ability. Kadri, as well, performs much better with Kessel than Bozak does, a full 2 percent higher. The results are similar with Van Riemsdyk.

Again, the top line wingers are actually better with the second line centre than with their top line centre. When a first line centre is not making his wingers significantly better, there is a problem. Let’s look at some other top centre/winger combinations and see how they fare with and without each other.

I’ll use randomly selected centre/winger combinations. I’ll look at Mikko Koivu/Zach Parise, Kopitar/Carter and Voracek/Giroux.

We see that top line centres make their wingers incredibly better. This just isn’t present in the Leafs top line.

I am not trying to blame the individual players for struggles. It is not Bozak or Clarkson’s fault; I actually really like these players. My point is merely that they are playing roles that they are not quite good enough to play. Clarkson is not a second liner, at least not in this system. Bozak is not a first line centre. Due to poor coaching decisions and a lack of depth, core players have looked worse than they deserve.

It is not the core forwards fault this team is struggling. If anything, they are playing very well. Instead, there are anchors among their linemates that hold them back from their full potential. Given proper linemates and better coaching, this forward core can lead a playoff team, especially as the mentioned core is entering it’s prime and will only improve over the next couple years.

Defensemen

 

Let’s take a look at the defensive core in Toronto. I see that as Phaneuf and Gardiner — some may disagree and say Franson would be in there, but I am reluctant to include half of the Leafs Defenseman as the core, although I will mention him in my analysis of the other two.

Phaneuf is the captain of the Leafs and has received a lot of criticism for his play of late — which, aside from a few mistakes, I don’t agree with. Regardless, Phaneuf’s numbers are actually fairly impressive when you consider his zone start ratio. Phaneuf offensive/defensive zone start rate is 38%, meaning he starts in the defensive zone an incredible amount more than the offensive. Even so, his relative Corsi — percent of shot attempts for his team while he’s on the ice — is only -2.7%, an impressively small amount less than the rest of his team despite playing all the hardest minutes..

Per extraskater.com, Dion faces the hardest quality of competition and hardest zone deployment of any defensemen in the league. Any player who can lug around those types of minutes and not be devastating possession wise is a valuable player.

As well, Dion has been playing nearly all of his minutes with Carl Gunnarsson. Let’s take a look at how he fares with and without Gunnarsson.

CF% is corsi for percent. Elite teams typically have around 55%, while weak teams have around 45%.

I imagine that both Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are playing slightly easier minutes when not together, but that doesn’t overly harm the point I am making here. Phaneuf’s shot attempts for percent is 44.2 when he is apart from Gunnarsson. That’s roughly 2% higher than the team average. Meanwhile, without Phaneuf, Gunnarsson has a 41.4%.

In itself, that doesn’t prove a large amount due to a lack of context in the without section, but it does show that in the Phaneuf – Gunnarsson pairing, Phaneuf is carrying the possession play. Gunnarsson is holding Phaneuf back from a possession play standpoint.

Let’s see how Phaneuf fares with other teammates.

 

Again, we see Phaneuf having success with skilled linemates. With all mentioned but Gunnarsson, Phaneuf’s on-ice shot attempt percent is better than the team average. Again, he’s likely seeing easier assignments and easier deployment, but it doesn’t stop the fact that Phaneuf demonstrates the ability to be a very effective possession defensemen when given appropriate teammates. That’s not meant as a blow to Gunnarsson; I’m merely saying that while Gunnarsson seems fit for 5th defencemen type duty, he is holding Phaneuf back due to being slotted in alongside Toronto’s top defensemen.

Next let’s take a look at Gardiner’s totals with certain players.

Gardiner demonstrates the ability to be a very effective defensemen from a possession standpoint when paired with good linemates. Ranger is acting as an anchor. When Gardiner plays with Ranger, his possession stat are significantly worse. When he is not with Ranger, he sees nearly a 4 percent increase in possession rates. Again, a less skilled linemate forced into a position due to lack of depth is holding back skilled core players.

With Franson, Gardiner’s numbers are very impressive. With Rielly, their amazing — he demonstrates a 10% better possession percent than his teams totals, although he and Rielly are likely getting pretty sheltered starts and easy team mates. Still, Gardiner shows potential to be an extremely effective defensemen that can be a key part of a playoff team.

If this team retains the core defensemen of Phaneuf and Gardiner and builds around them — including building around Franson and Rielly — this team is in very good position.

 

Conclusion and identifying the real issue

 

The problem with the Leafs is not the core. These players mentioned are incredibly skilled and can lead a playoff team with appropriate additions around them. Priority for the Leafs should be adding either a top two or top four defensemen and adding forward depth. In time, Kadri will develop further and become even more useful, perhaps even filling that number one centre role. Long term, it cannot be Bozak in that role. He is not a top centre in this league and masquerading him as one is not beneficial for the team.

The real problem is not the core, it is the coach and systems. I have given countless examples of strange decisions by Carlyle so far in this post, such as giving gritty players that he values highly such as Clarkson or Ranger more ice time  than they perhaps deserve — although this could partly be attributed to a lack of depth. Tyler Dellow wrote a post that can be found here http://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=6818 that demonstrates that Carlyle’s system does not work at all for free agent signing David Clarkson. This could easily be unique to Clarkson, but it could also potentially be true for many Leafs players, but we simply do not know it because they have not played elsewhere.

Additionally, James Mirtle of the globe and mail tweeted this chart regarding Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle’s possession stats during his time coaching the Maple Leafs and the Ducks.

Even in a lineup riddled with skill in Anaheim, Carlyle and his systems struggled to put up impressive possession numbers. His possession is trending downward and has been for years. This is not an impressive chart for a coach that is apparently “defensively minded” and yet allows an incredible amount of shots against, all while coaching skilled teams.


I understand the disappointment from Leafs fans; I have my fair share of it, too. But don’t put your blame on our core players. We should be proud to call them ours — we have many up and coming stars as well as a current one in Kessel, a top player in this league. This core is one we can build around and one we should build around. Put your blame where it’s deserved.

 

 

And if you want to, follow me on twitter @LukaRyder

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Defensive Defensemen

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    I wrote a blog yesterday regarding why I think defensive defensemen are overvalued in the National Hockey League. After posting, I received a lot of constructive criticism on the nature of my analysis – and rightfully so. I left out too many factors for the analysis to be legitimate. I’d like to remedy that. Today, I’ll be expanding on yesterday’s post to attempt to create an analysis that is fairer and shows the full picture. I’ll be attempting to demonstrate how defensive defensemen are not as effective as their offensive counterparts at reducing shots against and goals against. Despite their reputation of being more effective than offensive defenseman at doing so, I’m not convinced this is necessarily true.

            Let’s start with changing the examples. In my last post I pitted stars against plugs. That’s not fair, as it shows bias in the analysis process. For this post, I’ll attempt to use more fair pairings of defensemen. Let’s take a look at the comparison between players such as Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner and Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. These players are closer in time on ice and salary equivalents than the players I used in my previous post.

Additionally, I’ll be looking only at five on five shot totals that are adjusted to their zone start ratios to remove the way their coaches deploy them from interfering with the analysis.

Let’s start with Gorges and Markov. Markov is a very offensive defencemen while Gorges has impressed the Canadiens organisation with an aptitude for defending. Both are valuable, but does Gorges style of play really accomplish what it is believed to, that is reducing shots against?

When one adjusts their deployment – that is, removing the bias of offensive or defensive zone starts from the data – the differences in shot attempts is evident between these two players. Per 20 minutes of ice time that Josh Gorges is on, the Canadiens allow 14.03 unblocked shot attempts against and generate 12.705 for. Meanwhile, per 20 minutes of ice time that Markov is on the ice, the Canadiens allow 14.685 unblocked shot attempts against and generate 14.483.

It is important additional to this to mention how difficult their competition is. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com — the same site in which I have received the information mentioned — Gorges and Markov have very similar competition. Based on the shot totals of their opposition, Markov has a fenwick quality of competition of -1.5 and Gorges has one of -1.7. Based on this, this information is unbiased in the competition they are facing and as it is zone start adjusted it is also unbiased based on the way their coach deploys them.

The rates tell an interesting story. When zone starts are adjusted, Markov allows 0.68 unblocked shot attempts against more per 20 minutes than Gorges does, but creates 1.7 shot attempts more. This means that Markov, per 20 minutes of ice time, creates a positive unblocked shot attempt differential of 1 when compared to Gorges rates. Gorges, however, does create marginally smaller unblocked shot attempts against with a 0.65 attempt differential. The unblocked shot differential individually comes to roughly -1.3 for Gorges and -0.2 for Markov.

Gorges is making 3.9 million this season and receiving 21 minutes of ice time including 57% of shorthanded minutes for the Canadiens; Markov is making 5.75 million and playing 24.5 minutes a night, including 74% of power play time. Salary information received from Capgeek.com, minute information from extraskater.com.

Let’s see if these results are consistent with some other examples across the league.

The next set of defensemen I will look at are from the Maple Leafs; Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarsson. Again, I will be using zone start adjusted stats provided from stats.hockeyanalysis.com to avoid the bias of starting too frequently in the defensive or offensive zone. Gardiner has a fenwick for — fenwick being unblocked shot attempts — per 20 of 13.552 and a fenwick against of 16.945. Gunnarson, meanwhile, has a fenwick for per 20 of 12.793 and a fenwick against per 20 of 17.321. Let’s take a look at that visually.

This case is much more telling than the previous. Gardiner generates approximately 0.8 unblocked shot attempts per 20 minutes of ice time more for his team that Gunnarsson. Meanwhile. he actually limits shots against more effectively than Gunnarsson; specifically, Gardiner allows roughly 0.4 unblocked shot attempts less against his team that Gunnarsson. Gardiners style of play is obvious to any that watch; while Gunnarsson is much more of a stay at home defensemen — not that he has not shown the ability to be a very effective puck mover — Gardiner is often pinching and looking to turn the play into an offensive one. For this reason, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle looks to defensive minded players like Gunnarsson in situations where he feels he needs defense first, despite this information demonstrating that offensive minded defenseman such as Gardiner can be equally if not more effective at defending as they have the ability to create more plays in the opponent’s zone. You can’t get scored on while you have the puck, after all.

Gardiner creates an on-ice unblocked shot differential per 20 minutes of ice time of -3.393 and Gunnarson creates one of -4.528. Gardiner and Gunnarson have very similar quality of teammates and competition as well. Stats.hockeyanalysis.com has Gunnarson’s teammates at a Fenwick adjusted rating of -31.8 and a competition of  fenwick adjusted -1. Gardiner, meanwhile, has a teammate rating of -34 and a competition rating of -1. Gardiner is playing with worse linemates but against easier competition than Gunnarsson. These differences are not very significant and should not dilute the information provided in any way.

Gunnarsson is playing 19.5 minutes a night, including 54% of the leafs shorthanded time on ice and bringing in a salary of 3.45 million. Gardiner is playing 20.4 minutes a night including 42% of the Leafs power play ice time and making 1.2 million on an entry level contract, so essentially making the max that he can be at this age.

I’ve decided to take a look at a couple of Pittsburgh defenders next in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Orpik has a reputation as a shutdown player, a reputation strong enough to earn him a spot on the U.S. olympic team. Meanwhile, Niskanen is a solid two way player who has become known more for his offense after enjoying a breakout year this season. Ask the average Penguins fan who is more effective at reducing goals against and I’m sure the answer would be Orpik; this is further demonstrated by the fact that Bylsma has such a love for the aging defender. Let’s see how this belief holds up in the shot attempt against data.
Orpik has a fenwick for per 20 minutes of 13.325 and a fenwick against per 20 of 13.840. Niskanen has a fenwick for per 20 of 14.624 and a fenwick against of 12.611.

From this we can see that Niskanen is superior in both creating shots for and reducing shots against. No one should be surprised by the former statement, but the fact that he is more effective than Brooks Orpik  at reducing shots against will be surprising to many hockey fans. The reality of the situation is that Orpik’s playing style of being very stay at home is not necessarily as effective at reducing goals against as many believe, including coach Dan Bylsma.

The total differentials are substantial. Per 20 minutes of ice time, Niskanen creates a differential of roughly 2 additional shot attempts for the Penguins; Orpik has a differential of negative 0.5.

Niskanen plays 21 minutes of ice time per game including 51% of power play time and makes a salary of 2.5 mil. Orpik also plays an identical 21 minutes and is payed 3.75 million.

As for their competition and team mates, Orpik has a fenwick quality of teammates rating of 2.4 — very good teammates — and a competition rating of -2. Niskanen has a teammate rating of 1.3 and a competition rating of -1.5. From these we gain that both are playing with very good teammates, with Orpik having better teammates. On the competition side, both are very even with Niskanen playing slightly harder competition. Again, these facts do not heavily change the data, but if they did it would be slightly in Niskanen’s favor.

I think it would be interesting to look at the shot totals of all of the Penguins regular defencemen. Dan Bylsma really loves defensive defensemen, so it will be interesting to see how effective they are compared to the offensive ones employed by the Pittsburgh organisation. For defensive defensemen I have slotted in Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin — I was reluctant to include Martin in that bin as he is not the typical defensive defensemen as he is incredible two-way but had to include him for symmetry as well as simply that his reputation and use in the Penguins franchise seems to be defense first, as demonstrated by the fact he starts 55% of the time in the defensive zone via extraskater.com. Their average fenwick for per 20 minutes 13.013 is and their fenwick against per 20 is 13.812. For the the offensive defensemen I will use Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen. Their combined fenwick for per 20 is 14.41 and their fenwick against per 20 is 13.461. Again, this is all zone start adjusted information from stats.hockeyanalysis.com, so it is not influenced by Bylsma’s use of these players. Let’s look at that graphically.

The defensemen with more offensive reputations come up on top in both accounts, but the surprising part is the shots against. It’s telling that these defensive defencemen in Orpik, Martin and Scuderi — all of whom have very good reputations for reducing shots and therefore goals against — are not as effective at doing so as the offensive counterparts on their team. The three defensive examples have a combined fenwick rated quality of teammates of 5.317 and a combined quality of competition of -6.9. Their offensive counterparts have a combined fenwick rated quality of teammates of 5.8 and a combined quality of competition of -6.4. From this we see that the defensive players are playing with slightly worse teammates but also playing slightly worse competition by nearly the same margin, so it shouldn’t change the findings.

Let’s take a look at the combined salaries and ice time of these players. The defensive players mentioned are bringing in 12.5 mil in salary and playing an average of 21.3 minutes a night. The offensive defencemen are making a total of 6.7 mil. However, these numbers are very unfair as Letang’s large contract does not kick in until next season and Maatta is on an entry level deal; they are both worth much more than that. They are getting an average ice time of 21.

It is not unreasonable to assert based on this evidence that the offensive defencemen on Pittsburgh are doing a better job of reducing goals against than their defensive counterparts and are doing a significantly better job of creating shots for, the latter of which is not surprising, but the former is. Additionally, they are doing so while apparently being valued equally based on ice time by Bylsma.

Based on these results and the results of the entire case study, I would assert that the reputation that many defense-oriented d-men hold as having abilities to reduce shots and therefore goals against more effectively than offensively talented defensemen seems to be false. Although this is a relatively small case study, it is still telling. More work can be done in this topic and I hope to in the future; however, as for evaluating the effectiveness of the average defensive defensemen, this information leads me to believe that they are viewed as preventing more shots and goals than they in fact do. Just because someone is defense oriented does not necessarily mean they are actually going to prevent more shots against a offensively oriented one. Fans and analysts often look at a defense-first d-men and assume that he keeps shots against down better than an offensive defense because of the nature of their play, even when this may not be true. It doesn’t matter the manner that a player is preventing shots against; it only matters whether they do.  For this reason, I assert that many defensive defensemen are not actually more effective than offensive ones at reducing shots and goals against, even though they may hold that reputation.

All zone start adjusted and fenwick based quality of competition and teammates received from stats.hockeyanalysis.com. All other stats received from extraskater.com. Salary information retrieved from CapGeek.com.

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @LukaRyder

The Over Valuation of Defensive Defensemen in the NHL

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I often hear hockey broadcast commentators singing praises for the gritty, stay at home defensemen on whichever team happens to be playing. Every time Gleason drops a knee to get in front of a shot, the Leafs fan base explodes with comments of “that’s why we traded for him!” or “that’s the type of playoff commitment we need from the rest of the roster!” I’m not entirely convinced the stay at home defensemen have any significant value at 5v5 to the club they play for when compared to offensive minded counterparts. There seems to be a culture around defensive defensemen that they help the team win by preventing goals against. For this reason, they are often played over puck moving and skilled defensemen. However, I would assert that these defensive defensemen do very little in ways of helping the team compared to their skilled counterparts.

The argument I hear in favor of purely defensive d-men is that they prevent goals. What this boils down to is preventing shots – or as some would argue, improving their goalies by giving up less quality scoring chances. Let’s take a look at the former.

I’ve collected some data and put together a few charts to show why I think the claim that purely defensive defencemen are better at preventing shots against than offensive defencemen is false. Below we see examples of defencemen that are skilled in the offensive zone but often criticized for their defensive zone play compared to ones who are criticized in the opposite fashion. First is a comparison of Tim Gleason and Jake Gardiner on the Maple Leafs.

 

Gardiner allows two less shots against per 60 minutes of play than his counterpart Gleason, who allows roughly two thirds of a shot against more than his team average.

Douglas Murray is often criticized for being incredibly slow and not really good at hockey, yet he remains employed by NHL teams because of his reputation as an effective stay at home defensemen who will throw the body around and get in the way of shots. Yet, while he is on the ice, the opponents generate an average of 3 shot attempts more than when P.K. Subban is one the ice – Subban who is oft criticized for thinking offense first at the expense of defensive positioning. While Murray is on the ice, the Canadiens allow .6 more shots against per 60 minutes than their team average.

The Flyers average 30 shots against per game. With Nicklas Grossman on the ice, they average 32. Meanwhile, aging but offensively talented Kimmo Timmonen averages 28 shots against per 60 minutes, 4 shots less than defensive-minded Nicklas Grossman.

The three defensive-defensemen I have singled out all have one thing in common; their valued for their size, grit and ability block shots and hit hard. However, the evidence shows that while they may have these qualities, said qualities are not leading to a decrease in shots against. Meanwhile, the offensive minded defensemen – all of whom have been criticized for poor defensive play — are actually faring better in reducing shots against. The explanation for this is not necessarily that they are doing a better job of defending. Instead, it could be asserted that these offensive minded players are better at creating offense and as a result spend less time in their own defensive zone. It’s not that they aren’t necessarily liabilities in their own zone, more so that they make up for it with their play everywhere else.

The question is then raised that if defensive minded D-men don’t reduce shots against, why are they valuable? Why not employ purely offensive defencemen? The argument against this is one that I again disagree with; that argument is that defensive defensemen give up less quality chances. If this were true, then their goalies save percentages would be better with them on the ice. Let’s see if this holds true using the same sample players as above.

Right off the bat, we see that the assertion that defensive defensemen reduce quality scoring chances against is likely untrue. Anyone who watches Jake Gardiner knows that he often thinks offense-first and allows odd man rushes as a result, yet his on-ice save percentage is considerably higher than Gleason’s. This would imply that Tim Gleason does not in fact reduce quality scoring chances against his team. If he did, it would lead to a higher save percentage than the team average – and yet it does not.

Again, we see that the defensive defensemen’s on ice save percentage is not significantly higher than the team rate and in this instance is actually significantly lower. Subban’s is considerably higher than Murray’s, despite being often criticized for lackluster defensive play.

Once again we see the defensive defensemen does not improve the performance of his goaltender, as Grossman’s on-ice save percentage is considerably lower than the average for his team and even lower than Timmonen’s. There is little to no evidence that any defensemen in the NHL has the ability improve his goaltender, so these results are not particularly surprising. Regardless, this small sample size of players points to a larger conclusion; defensemen, or any player for that matter, has little to no impact on the performance of his goaltender. On-ice save percentages deviate very randomly as well, making it even harder to draw meaningful conclusions from nearly any sample size.

These three case studies are consistent with league wide trends and what I would have assumed the results would be. Defensive defensemen typically allow more shots against than offensive minded ones across the league and this is shown in these three case studies. Seeing as players have no effect on their goalies save percentage – there is no solid evidence that players can have this ability – it shows that the only thing a defensemen can change for their team’s goals against is reducing shots against. As the offensive defensemen mentioned actually limit shots against more effectively than their defensive counterparts and as this is consistent with league wide trends, it shows that defensive defensemen are not as effective at reducing goals against as seems to be perceived. Defensemen who play only defensive-minded games are simply not as valuable as offensive defensemen no matter which way you look at it, even when one is only considering limiting goals against. Being offensive seems to in fact be a good defense – being in the opponents zone constantly is an effective way to reduce shots and goals against. National Hockey League General Managers value defensive defensemen as they believe the qualities they possess limit goals against. It seems obvious, however, that these qualities may be good in the defensive zone but do not create good hockey players over all or even at reducing shots and therefore goals against overall. For this reason, General Managers over value defensive defensemen on the grand scale and would likely have more success by employing a higher proportion of offensive, puck moving defensemen than large, big bodied ones such as Tim Gleason, Douglas Murray or Nicklas Grossmann. I’ve come to this conclusion only by looking at shot against totals; when one looks at the shots for numbers, the totals are staggeringly in favor of the offensive minded defensemen, which almost goes without saying. Puck moving defensemen are significantly more valuable than their defensive minded counterparts, even when it comes to reducing goals against and as such one dimensional defensive defensemen should not be valued nearly as highly in the NHL trade market or overall.

Creating High Shooting Percentages and Why GMs Need To Be Careful With Short Term Results

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Prolific playmakers have the reputation of making their teammates better. This is a widely accepted claim, and one that I think is worth looking into. Essentially, the general idea is that certain players are able to generate high shooting percentages for their teammates, and more importantly sustain these rates. Let’s take a look at the on-ice shooting percentages of certain players when compared to the league average:

What this makes evident is that certain highly skilled players can create high on-ice shooting percentages, just as a good goal scorer can create good personal shooting percentages. This reinforces the common belief that play makers make their teammates better. In fact, play makers have a much more comprehensive overall impact. Where a good goal scorer raises his own shooting percents, a play maker raises all of his teammates; this is more valuable as this would lead to higher team-wide shooting rates.However, the large majority of players seem to have no ability to raise their on-ice shooting percentages, or at least not sustain those rates. There is also very little evidence if any at all that a player can decrease opponents shooting percentages, but that is a whole different study. At any rate, a normal players on-ice shooting percentage seems out of his control; It will fluctuate randomly, pivoting around the average, around 7.6%. For a player who has shown sustainable ability to increase their shooting percentage, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fluctuate randomly. It merely means that this fluctuation will now pivot around an average higher than 7.6 For example, Taylor Hall’s on-ice shooting percentage would seem to fluctuate around the percent of 9.4. The ability to raise shooting percentages of those around should be very highly valued.

Combined with possession stats such as corsi or fenwick, shooting percentages can reveal a lot about a players overall effectiveness. If we look at Taylor Hall — a player often criticised for his bad possession play, specifically so far in the 2013-2014 season — there is more to meets the eye than only his corsi or relative corsi %. Obviously the corsi percents are important, as they demonstrate ability to reduce shots against just as much as producing shots for, but from a purely offensive standpoint there is more to look at than only his differential. While Hall has been on the ice at 5on5 this season, his team has created 354 shots for, while they have given up 438 shots against — a -84 differential that is frankly abysmal. Regardless, Hall does have the advantage on his side of being one of few players that can sustain high shooting percentages. If we assume that his opponents are shooting at league average 7.6%, his opponents would have scored 33.28 goals against, which I’ll round down to 33. Meanwhile, while Hall is on the ice at 5 on 5, his team has generated 354 shots. If we assume that his teammates are scoring at his on-ice shooting percent average over the last 3 years — 9.4% — then his team will generate 33.276 goals for. This is essentially identical to his goals against if his opponents were scoring at league average shooting percentage.

I find this to be very interesting. Possession stats are so important; they are one of the most crucial stats in existence for analysing hockey. That being said, it’s also undeniable that the ability to generate and sustain high shooting percentages are incredibly important. Despite the Oilers having a team wide 43.8% fenwick percent and Hall’s personal possession numbers being awful, the on-ice shooting percentage he generates makes up for some of this lackluster play. Were he to be a good two way player and generate positive possession numbers, we would see a truly dominate force in the NHL, as we see with all-star players like Sidney Crosby.

Often, General Managers make decisions based on short-term on-ice shooting percentages. Dave Nonis, GM for the Toronto Maple Leafs, defended Leafs acquisition David Clarkson when he said “”We’re not penciling David Clarkson in for 30 goals, but anybody that has put up 30 at any time in his career has got a bit of a touch.” Here we can see some wishful thinking from Nonis. He claims, essentially, that because Clarkson had a 47 point season, it justifies expecting signing him to a 7-year 5.5 million dollar contract as he has a touch and is expected to do so again. Even if Nonis says that they don’t expect anything of Clarkson, it is obvious by his next comment that he expects Clarkson to return to the form he had in 2011-2012 and to a lesser extent 2012-2013. In Clarkson’s case, it is not his on-ice shooting percentage that has dropped, but instead his personal shooting percentage. In his only 30 goal season in 2011-2012, his shooting percentage was 13.2%. Over the previous three years, including playoffs, Clarkson’s shooting percentage is an average of 10.07%. The outlier for these seasons is his 30 goal campaign in 2011-2012, where his save percentage was an impressive 13.2%. The problem is that Leafs management seems to see this campaign as likely to be repeated, instead of the outlier in the career of an otherwise average third line goal scorer. The 5.5mil contract handed out to Clarkson is a testament of this belief.

General Managers simply must not look into outlying short term shooting or on ice-shooting %’s, as for the average player these are based more in statistical unlikelihood than they are in repeatable skill. Let’s take a look at some average players and how their shooting %’s, on ice or personal, deviate from season to season:

The league average here is hard to see, as it is surrounded by other lines, but it is essentially in the middle of the major clump. What we can tell from here is that average players, even good players, have little impact on their on-ice shooting percentages, at least not sustainably. Frazer Mclaren, for example, had an on-ice shooting percentage of 10.5% in 2012-2013, but that dipped to 0% in 2013-2014. For most players, on-ice shooting %’s have very little correlation from one year to the next. Certain players as I mentioned can sustain high shooting percentages, but to assume that an average player that has a high on-ice shooting % one year has the ability to sustain that rate is a flawed way to look at it. David Backes is having a very good year this year, with an on-ice shooting % that is hovering just below 10, but that does not mean that his GM should expect that moving forward. More likely, a GM should expect Backes to sustain closer to league average on-ice shooting %, as that is closer to his career average, and for his production moving forward to be lower than his current pace. If GMs judge players on their high water marks — which I would argue the Toronto Maple Leafs in particular do — they will find themselves overpaying players due to results in one year that they are not likely to repeat, at least not sustainably. Investing in players with good possession results is a more reliable strategy, as this is a much more consistent and sustainable ability. That being said, a mixture of players who have good career on-ice shooting percentages and good possession numbers would be a deadly combination — a combination that is rare, as players with high career on-ice shooting percentages are very scarce, especially those who raise it by significant margins.

                In conclusion, players who sustainably raise on-ice shooting percentages are incredibly valuable, and the ability to do so often inflates their possession rates more than the rate itself can express. However, an average player has very little ability to change this rate consistently — as we see with Frazer Maclaren, who has had a nearly 14% decrease in his on-ice shooting percent from last year. For this reason, although this skill is very valuable, GMs need to be careful as to which players they identify that actually have this ability. .

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