Building a Better Hockey Player: Applying Advanced Stats

corsi

(UPDATE: this started as an Advanced Stats article, and while it certainly is, it also turned into a Pittsburgh Penguins article by the end. That may or may not please you. You’re Welcome.)

“Are you the future, or are you the past?”

Powerman 5000, Supernova Goes Pop

The recent rage in the NHL, a topic that has overtaken even the Concussion epidemic, is the topic of Advanced Statistics. As you read this, there is a war being waged between Hockey’s old guard and the next generation of professional hockey executives, as the decision makers at Hockey’s highest levels strive to reconcile traditional player evaluation with progressive Shot-Based Metrics.

The game has evolved. Hockey has never been more sophisticated from a specialization standpoint. The NHL in particular, due to its implementation of a Salary Cap, has become a Value-Conscious Model. Economists will know what this means, but to casual readers, it means that every NHL team is trying to get the most bang for their buck from every roster spot.

For players fighting to break into the NHL, it means that they can no longer be deficient in critical areas of the game. For example, a stay-at-home defenseman can no longer be a substandard skater. If he is, the player in question poses a high risk of being replaced on the roster, as NHL executives are striving to squeeze as much Productivity and Versatility from every asset (i.e. player) as possible.

For people evaluating potential NHL talent, it means that teams can no longer take major risks on flawed or incomplete players.  To better gauge Asset Value – meaning the on-ice worth of a given player – teams have turned to Shot Metrics such as Corsi and Fenwick as a means of better evaluating players. This is a concept that has gained traction in other sports, most notably Baseball, where the economic landscape between the Have and Have Nots is greatly skewed.

Your head may be spinning, as you may just be a Hockey Player who wants to maximize her or his potential. In order for you to reach your ceiling as a player, it will aid you tremendously to understand how modern players are being evaluated. You do not have to like Advanced Statistics, but you should definitely know what they are, and how they are used to evaluate a given player’s effectiveness. Knowing the logic behind Advanced Hockey Statistics can make you a much-more effective player, if you apply Advaned Statistics principles properly.

Overview of Advanced Hockey Statistics

As with Bill James and Baseball Statistics (covered at length in both the book and the film Moneyball), much of the current Shot-Based and Possession-Based statistical work is attributed to a former NHL Goaltender and current Goaltender Coach named Jim Corsi. A great synopsis of Jim Corsi can be read in this article from The Hockey News, but the takeaway is that Jim Corsi’s name is most-frequently associated with the current grouping of Advanced Statistics in Hockey.

But unlike Baseball, in Hockey there are certain things that simply cannot be qualified or quantified, at least not yet. The statistical breakdown of Hockey is currently in it’s infancy, and we have yet to find a proper way to qualify intangibles such as Hockey Sense and Hustle, or to properly qualify the impact of a player who plays a physically-dominant game. What we know right now is how to qualify players who Drive Possession, which we we quantify through the use of statistics such as Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO.

Almost all players can agree that Possessing the Puck is a great thing. When your team has it, the other team is not scoring against you, and your team’s chances of scoring are rapidly rising. Not Possessing the Puck means that the other team has it, which means that your team’s chances of being scored against have risen dramatically. Thus, controlling the puck is much like being on Offense in Football, in that every second that your team dictates play is a second in which the other team has a very limited chance of scoring against you.

Several successful organizations – traditionally the Detroit Red Wings, and more recently the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks – have enjoyed outstanding Regular Season success by putting an emphasis on Possessing the Puck.

lidstrom

The Red Wings have traditionally been a Puck Possession machine largely because they had one the NHL’s All-Time Great Players, Nicklas Lidstrom, controlling the tempo of play for many years. To this day, the entire organization is filled with skilled players who help the team maintain possession rather than enforcers, grinders, and hitters. The term “Red Wings Model” is frequently used in NHL circles to describe the organization’s style of play.

This style has been emulated by many organizations, most notably Boston and San Jose. It starts with Centermen who are dominant in the Face-Off circle (Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Patrice Bergeron, Joe Pavelski, etc), progresses to Defensemen who excel at making Zone Exits and Zone Entries while maintaining Possession of the Puck, and includes Wingers who are typically Possession Drivers such as Hank Zetterberg, Brad Marchand, and Logan Couture.

The Red Wings were one of the first teams to identify the value of Positive-Possession Players in the modern era. Whereas the traditional model was to fill the lower lines and 3rd defensive pairing with Enforcers, Grinders, and Shot Blockers, the Red Wings traditionally have dedicated almost all of their roster spots to possession-driving players.

rafalski

For example, they identified an undervalued possession-driver such as Brian Rafalski, who was regularly criticized for his lack of size and physicality in the defensive zone. Rafalski, despite his small stature, was a member of three Stanley Cup-Winning teams and a huge asset. When the Red Wings signed him in 2006, many in the NHL community were still reluctant to identify players by their ability to move and hold onto the puck, instead choosing to evaluate players by more-quantifiable markers like Height and Weight.

Prior to this, the Red Wings made great use of players such as Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, and Paul Coffey, all of whom were dismissed as too soft, too old, or too apathetic defensively. However, all of these players possess a great skill which we Hockey evaluators have come to recognize as the ability to acquire, move, and maintain possession of the puck.

The Red Wings were never alone in this regard, but they were at the forefront of the modern movement. The Sharks and Bruins have copied the model to a certain extent, but they are far from being the only NHL teams that recognize the value of players who can drive and maintain Puck Possession.

Corsi/Fenwick/PDO

The Advanced Statistic Corsi, as described in the article on Jim Corsi above, describes as “action” that a Goaltender must adjust to. Shots on Goals (SOG), Blocked Shots, and failed/missed Shot Attempts all qualify as Corsi Events. Over time, these events are predictive of a given player or team’s success, in that a skewed advantage or disadvantage in Corsi will lead to Goals For or Goals Against over a long-enough timeline.

The simplest way I can explain Corsi to the casual Hockey fan is to describe it as “Shot Attempts Plus/Minus.”

Meanwhile, the Advanced Stat Fenwick is a straight count of Shots on Goals for and against, omitting Blocked and Missed Shots. In calculating the Fenwick number, Blocked Shots are omitted because this is Shot Blocking is in many cases a refined skill, and adept Shot Blockers can impact the predictive nature of Possession-Based stats. Corsi has not been proven to be a superior predictor to Fenwick, but Corsi has seemed to gain a bit more prominence in the mainstream community.

Finally, PDO is the sum of even-strength Shooting Percentage and Save Percentage, either for an individual player or for a team. PDO does not really pertain to the other topics being discussed in this article, but if you are interested in Advanced Hockey Stats, it’s a figure you should be familiar with.

All three of these Advanced Stats fall under the umbrella of Puck Possession Statistics. Advanced Statistics such as these are used to evaluate players in the modern game along with more-traditional stats such as Goals and Assists.

The value of Advanced Statistics is that they are predictive in nature. This can allow a shrewd economist or evaluator to project where a given player’s production may be headed, the same way as a smart broker might grab an ascending stock before it reaches maturity. In a Salary Cap League, this can be a tremendous advantage in an otherwise leveled playing field.

Consider Sid Crosby, whom most consider to be the Best Player in Hockey. Here is a snapshot of Sid’s Corsi/Fenwick numbers:

1-Crosby

These numbers simply confirm the obvious, which is that Sid is a dominant, dominant player. They also indicate that Sid is going to remain a dominant NHL player even as his physical skills decline, because he is cerebral enough to dictate play and Drive Possession even when he at less than 100%. This was most obvious in the 2014 NHL playoffs, when Sid continued to Drive Possession on a greatly-flawed Pittsburgh Penguins team while playing with one hand.

When Sid Crosby is on the ice, the Penguins consistently out-shoot their opponents by a large margin. It doesn’t matter if Sid scores or if Geno Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, etc. score, as the Pittsburgh Penguins are scoring when Sid is out there, almost irrespective of who he plays with. All of his linemates see a major jump in Relative Corsi when they play with Sid.

And really, what does Sid Crosby do? He wins Face-Offs, passes the puck with extreme intelligence (when he has the full use of both hands), holds onto the puck when no passing options are available, maintains possession of the puck in the Offensive Zone with his body positioning and skating while generating Scoring Chances, and digs the puck out of his Defensive Zone when needed. He’s a wonderful player.

Geno Malkin is very similar to Sid in this regard, although Geno still remains brutal in the Face-Off circle. He makes up for this because he has Beast Mode. To say Geno “drives possession” is a great understatement. The Penguins’ current third-line Center draws my ire for the opposite reasons, which I will explain in detail below.

In short, if a player or a team is possessing and shooting the puck, the other team is not. Over time, possessing the puck is a tremendous predictor of success, under the notion that “a Best Defense is a Good Offense.” As I will discuss below, many in the modern Hockey community are coming to understand that traditional Defense – i.e. committed or structured play within a team’s Defensive Zone – is a terrible strategy. As Hockey Scientists are coming to accept, the best defense involves keeping the puck 200 Feet away from your own goal, ideally while forcing the opposing Goaltender to make as many Saves as possible.

Interpreting Advanced Stats

A Shot on Goal (SOG) is basically a lottery ticket. When you think about it, how many factors have to happen for a Shot to get past a competent Goaltender? Putting aside all other on-rink factors (checking, getting into the Offensive Zone, sticks, unintentional traffic, and many more), you are putting the puck into the 5% or less of the net that the modern goaltender does not cover with sheer body volume.

There is a reason that Goal/Non-Goal Events are so greatly skewed in favor of Save Percentage compared to Shooting Percentage, and that is because the odds are stacked statistically in favor of Goaltenders. All the more reason to look up to Mario Lemieux.

So working under the theory that a Goal is almost an event of luck, the best way to increase Goal Production is buy more Lotto Tickets, meaning to get more Shots on Goal. As you likely know, the likelihood of a Shot on Goal actually going into the net greatly increased dependent upon where the Shot is taken from, so it behooves any goal-scorer to not only get into shooting areas, but to get into primes ones such as the House, i.e. the area between the dots right in front of the goaltender in the Offensive Zone.

So we agree that a Shot on Goal is a good thing, right? At worst, it forces the opposing Goaltender to make a save. It can also lead to a rebound (i.e. another opportunity for a SOG), or best-case scenario, it goes in.

If during a shift your line generates five Shots on Goal and you allow one Shot on Goal again, your line is dominant in Puck Possession. Over time, just by statistical happenstance, you are going to start generating Goals at a rate somewhere between 1-25% if you continue to dominate in Shots on Goals in this fashion.

If you are consistently out-shooting your opposition, you are like a very strong Possession player. Your Relative Corsi, or your Shots on Goal +/- compared to other players, is likely high. This makes you a major asset to your team, speaking in strict terms of Statistics.

Strategic Implications in the Modern Game

What the fascination with Corsi/Fenwick/PDO has done is change how shrewd evaluators gauge players. Strong underlying statistics may point toward an uptick in production, and in a Salary Cap League such as the NHL, finding undervalued assets is endemic to winning.

Most people with a reasonable understanding of the sport can appreciate the value of Corsi and other Advanced Statistics. What many people, and veterans of the sport in particular, have a hard time digesting is that time-honored components of the game such as Shot-Blocking and Hitting could in fact be Low-Value Metrics.

Put another way, here’s a story I heard about Mario Lemieux. It has a ring of truth to it, so I’ll repeat it:

Years ago, one of the Penguins’ players was in the locker room after a game bragging about the number of Hits he had, either in a single game or his Hits total for the season. Overhearing this, Mario, in his typical deadpan, asked his teammate how many of his Hits showed up on the scoreboard. The teammate got the message and promptly closed his mouth.

The story could be real or make believe, but the lesson is the same: Hits do not show on the scoreboard. More problematic with Hitting as a strategy is that it means that you are not Possessing the Puck, which is ideal for all the reasons described above.

This is not to say that Hitting is not important. I love Hitting. But Hitting for the sake of Hitting is not a good strategy for winning Hockey games.

Hits that lead to Turnovers are ideal. Hitting is simply a means to an end: separating the puck from an opposing player. If a player can take the puck away from another player without Hitting him, that’s fine, too. Pavel Datsyuk is the master of this. His nickname is “Magic” and he owns three Stanley Cup Rings.

Hitting as a strategy is like trying to win at Darts by simply throwing them harder. It’s excessive work, and most of the time, it’s channeled improperly.

Much like Hitting as a strategy is a poor idea, Shot Blocking as a strategy has become ineffective in the modern game. While teams like the 2012 Washington Capitals and 2012 New York Rangers were able to ride Shot Blocking to moderate success under Dale Hunter and John Tortorella, respectively, consider the repercussions of an NHL Coach using Shot Blocking strategically rather than as an odd play:

1) NHL Players are shooting at your players. Over time, this will leads to a litany of injuries. Are you really winning if you lose one of your best defensemen for two months due to a broken ankle via a P.K. Subban slapper?

This is a lesson John Tortorella has been slow to learn, which led to his immolation in Vancouver. Maybe taking a 100+ point team full of possession-drivers like the Sedins and Ryan Kesler and forcing the Sedins to kill penalties and block shots wasn’t the best idea, in retrospect. But I digress.

2) By definition, when you are Blocking Shots, the other team is shooting toward your goal. This means the puck is likely in your zone, which means that the chances of your team being scored on have astronomically risen while the odds of your team scoring have dramatically dropped. This is not conducive to having a higher score than the other team.

Just so you all know that I’m not only picking on John Tortorella, consider Dale Hunter, who took another 100+ point team in the Washington Capitals and made some of the NHL’s most-skilled players hide in their own zone and dump the puck in. A Goal is literally the best play you can make in Hockey, and Dale Hunter took the League’s best goal-scorer and tried turning him into Mike Ramsay. Similar fates befell Alex Semin and Mike Green, two other Possession Drivers who thrived under Bruce Boudreau but have wilted since.

Shot Blocking as a strategy is a ticking time-bomb. Irrespective of your team’s commitment to Blocking Shots, the other team is going to eventually score if you do not try to achieve possession of the puck in your own zone. Again, this ignores the likelihood that your players are going to start getting seriously hurt if you keep trying to deploy six Goaltenders, five of them without the proper protective gear.

I am not saying that Hits and Shot Blocks are bad plays. They certainly aren’t, most of the time. But using Hitting or Shot Blocking as a Strategy is poor logic. You need this kind of grit to win Hockey games, but better than relying on grit is relying on the odds. Possessing the Puck stacks the odds in your team’s favor.

The True Value of Possessing the Puck

Green-1

Meanwhile, Hockey Statisticians have made less-analytical types reconsider how valuable players who can maintain possession are.

Consider much-maligned Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who remains as renowned for his “inability to defend” as he is for his point-production. Things have gotten pretty bad if I, a black-and-gold bleeding Pittsburgh Penguins fan, am defending a Washington Captial, but hear me out:

I am somewhat sympathetic to Green’s plight because the criticisms levied on Mike Green are very similar to those levied on one of my all-time favorite players, Paul Coffey.

What Paul Coffey and Mike Green have in common is that when they are allowed to play to their mutual strengths – i.e. their ability to maintain Puck Possession with their skating and skill – rather than being grilled for their deficiencies in Defensive Zone Coverage, both have shown that they can help their teams pile up wins. I have to frequently remind people that Paul Coffey has appeared in seven – seven (!) – Stanley Cup Finals, and been a member of four Cup-Winning teams, to say nothing of his regular season accomplishments.

Green is no Paul Coffey, but to his credit he helped his Washington Capitals to a series of 100+ point seasons when he was healthy and permitted to play his game. Since firing Bruce Boudreau (who of course has gone on to success with the Anaheim Ducks), the Captials are now on their third coach in four seasons, while their success has been inconsistent. Green has mostly languished, as Bruce Boudreau’s successors have been more interested in what Green apparently cannot do well (defend in his own zone, clear the front of the net) rather than what he can do well (exit his own zone with Puck Possession, keep the puck from the other team, produce points).

The Capitals and their fans have repeatedly singled out Green as a trade-target, rather than a core member of their hockey club. I guess the team and its fans would rather have Green blocking shots with his face than generating goals, but when they eventually cut him loose, some other team is going to be the benefactor.

As the announcer mentions in the clip of Mike Green blocking a shot with his head, old-time Hockey guys love “guts” and “courage” and “doing whatever it takes in the Playoffs”. I’m a Hockey guy, and I love those things as well. But I also understand that statistical success in Hockey revolves around Driving Possession and Possessing the Puck. Grousers can talk about Eddie Shore and old-time Hockey all they want, but the truth is that Shot Blocking and Hitting are Beta Skills. Blocks and Hits don’t show up on the scoreboard because they are less important than Goals and Assists.

To succeed in and truly understand Hockey, you need to accept this, even if you don’t like it.

Where Corsi/Fenwick Fails

The problem with Corsi, Fenwick, and the like is that there are so many things a Hockey Player can do that cannot be quantified or qualified

Take these two NHL players for example: current Penguins forward Nick Spaling, and former Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy.

Penguins’ fans are very divided about Tyler Kennedy, as some absolutely detest his game, while others point to his above-average Shot Metrics during his time with the team.

460KennedyOlivierMorinGetty

No one benefited more from the possession-driving of Jordan Staal (see below) and Dan Bylsma’s aggressive forecheck than TK. The low-zone cycle that Kennedy, Jordan Staal, and Matt Cooke used to help the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup also helped TK to rock-solid Corsi/Fenwick numbers during most of his tenure in Pittsburgh, to say nothing of an outlier 21-goal season in 2010-11.

He was an import piece on both the 2008 Cup Finalists and the 2009 Cup Champions, so TK certainly has value at the NHL level. But his on-ice struggles in the last several years show a disparity with his robust Shot Metrics numbers from 2008-2012.

The problem is that while Tyler Kennedy – and he’s a guy I view with rose-colored glasses – is that he seemed to hurt the team in a number of other areas despite consistently out-shooting the competition. TK liked to gun the puck from low-percentage areas, and while they say that no Shot on Goal is a bad play, TK was frequently criticized for his marginal shot selection. By choosing to shoot with such frequency and indiscretion, he regularly took more-opportune Scoring Chances from his more-talented linemates (primarily Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke). I could argue that playing with Tyler Kennedy dragged down Jordan Staal’s offensive production fairly significantly during their four years together.

Additionally – and not to hammer him, because I like Tyler Kennedy – but TK was not especially good in his own zone and was not used on the Penalty Kill with any regularity. He is generally tenacious on the forecheck, but his lack of NHL size limited how much damage he could do physically. He is gritty, but he was not putting a physical pounding on opposing defensemen most of the time.

Tyler Kennedy did not bring tremendous value because he was not a very Diversified Asset. It seems that he needed to be placed in a very specific situation to succeed. Despite his solid Corsi/Fenwick numbers, he was basically shoe-horned into the 3rd line Right Wing slot. Attempts to move him up the lineup or away from Jordan Staal were largely unsuccessful, and the evidence (particularly his struggles after Staal was traded) seem to indicate that his strong Possession Numbers were largely due to being picked up by Staal being a Possession monster.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, as noted in this article by Pensburgh, is newly-signed Penguin Nick Spaling:

spaling

Spaling is the opposite of Kennedy in that he looks far less impressive when viewed solely from the Advanced Statistics perspective. In fact, Spaling may be the poster boy for the new “Undervalued Assets” in the NHL market, as NHL Managers are starting to pay players with mediocre point totals who are Possession-Drivers.

This is the book on Nick Spaling: Plays all three forward positions. Hustles, hits. Smart Penalty Killing instincts. Playable in a complementary Top-6 role. Good skater, good hands, gradually worked his way up the lineup in Nashville. Greatly improved in the Face-Off Circle. Grit. Character.

Unlike Tyler Kennedy, who it seems needs optimal circumstances to succeed at the NHL level, Nick Spaling seems to be an NHL Swiss-army knife. Based on all reports, he is extremely versatile, and the definition of a Diversified Asset. This is his 2013-14 Season Review from On the Forecheck, a Nashville Predators blog. Despite mediocre Advanced Stats, the On the Forecheck guys gushed about him because he does a lot of things that help Hockey Teams win games.

These things that cannot currently be qualified or quantified – good instincts, two-way responsibility, versatility – have become the new undervalued asset. As more Advanced Stats people enter NHL front offices – such as Kyle Dubas in Toronto or my favorite, Tyler Dellow in Edmonton – players who Drive Possession or who possess strong Shot Metrics are going to start getting paid more. Meanwhile, the market may undervalue players who, like Spaling, thrive on an atypically high Shot Percentage, but also do a great number of intangible things that benefit his hockey club.

Corsi/Fenwick fail because NHL Hockey is not Strat-O-Matic. Advanced Hockey Statistics are useful and certainly shouldn’t be neglected, but they do paint an incomplete picture.

The Practical Application of Advanced Statistics

sutterstaal

(UPDATE: Literally as I finished typing this article, Brandon Sutter re-signed with the Penguins for two years at $3.3 million per year. It’s a slight overpay, but it’s not the obnoxious overpay I was anticipating. Maybe Mike Johnston and better linemates can extract a little more on-ice value out of Sutter.)

At the potential risk of having him get mad at me on Twitter again, I am going to use Pittsburgh Penguins Center Brandon Sutter as my illustration of the value of Advanced Statistics.

As I write this, Brandon Sutter is in the middle of a contract negotiation with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is a Restricted Free Agent, which means that the team controls his contractual rights. In situations such as this, players have traditionally accepted team-friendly contracts

The current negotiation seems to be tricky because of the disparity between Sutter’s perceived value and his actual on-ice value at the National Hockey League level. While his reputation and the eyeball test seem to indicate that Brandon Sutter is a critical part of the team moving forward, the hard data seems to indicate otherwise.

People tend to disagree with me about Brandon Sutter’s value at the NHL level. I do not think he is a bad player – in fact, I think he’s a sure-fire NHL Top-9 Forward – but I also take issue with some of the figures that were being thrown around prior to Sutter signing his two-year deal at $3.3 million per year. Even at the AAV of $3,3 million, I think Sutter is overpaid relative to what he provides as the Penguins 3rd-line center.

My main issue is that Brandon Sutter compares pretty directly to someone like Mark Letestu, who the Penguins once traded for a low-round draft pick. Brandon Sutter was brought into Pittsburgh with the expectation that he would help keep pressure off of Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin, ideally by taking a healthy portion of the Defensive Zone starts and turning the possession tide in a fashion similar to Jordan Staal.

This never came to pass, as Sutter and his linemates repeatedly got trapped in their own zone over the course of the 2013 and 2013/14 seasons. This led to Dan Bylsma, in desperation, deploying Sid Crosby as a de-facto checking line center in many situations. Everyone else seems to have forgotten, but at one point Sutter was demoted to the Penguins 4th line due to ineffectiveness.

Sutter’s difficulties in Driving Possession were covered in an article called, “Brandon Sutter is Not Very Good,” and I came to many of the same conclusions independently. It’s not that he’s a bad player, but is he the right player for Pittsburgh under the Crosby-Malkin model?

I suspect Ray Shero would not have tried so hard to trade Sutter as part of a package for Ryan Kesler if he thought Sutter was giving the Penguins what they needed to be successful. Alas, Jim Rutherford is now Penguins’ GM, Ryan Kesler was traded to Anaheim, and Sutter now has a two-year deal, so this line of thought irrelevant.

Again, I have nothing personal against Brandon Sutter. In fact, I bet he’s a swell guy. But Sutter was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with the expectation that he would provide a reasonable facsimile of Jordan Staal, whom the team was basically forced to trade to Carolina after he rejected a 10-Year, $58 Million-Dollar extension from the team. Not only has he compared poorly to Jordan Staal, but statistically he’s compared marginally to other NHL third-line centers throughout the League.

The reality is that Brandon Sutter is seemingly not able to approximate what Jordan Staal provides at the NHL level. Jordan Staal is a possession monster, who in a checking-line role was able to elevate borderline NHL players such as Tyler Kennedy by driving possession out of the Penguins’ defensive zone and maintaining possession in the opponent’s offensive zone. Much of the Penguins success from 2008-2012 is directly attributable to what Jordan Staal provided. Since trading Staal, the team has receded from “Elite” to “Top Quartile“.

In 2013, then-Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma tried to deploy Brandon Sutter in a similar fashion to Jordan Staal, which meant tons of starts in the Penguins’ defensive zone. This method allowed Bylsma to give Penguins Center Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin much more-favorable Zone Starts, leading to better Scoring Chances/Possession for the Penguins as a whole. Unfortunately, and I say this with no personal malice toward him, Brandon Sutter seemingly cannot do what Jordan Staal can do, which is make Chicken Salad out of Chicken Shit.

This post from Pensburgh touches upon all of the points I would make. I like this excerpt in particular:

The Penguins percentages are skewed a bit by how good Crosby and Malkin are. When anyone but those two are on the ice, the numbers are bound to drop. While putting this all together and discussing with Sean Gentille of The Sporting News, he was quick and accurate to point that out to me, but nonetheless, it’s almost comical how bad the Penguins percentage is.

A combined percentage of -25.9% for Sutter, Pyatt, and Glass practically forces Crosby and Malkin to carry the game, especially considering that the Penguins 4th line is nearly as bad.

Exactly. What Jordan Staal did, aside from being a freaking possession monster in his own right, was allow Sid and Geno to receive favorable Zone Starts. He single-handily took a ton of pressure off the Crosby/Malkin lines. Because Brandon Sutter seemingly cannot approximate what Jordan Staal can at the NHL level, poor Dan Bylsma was forced to bury Sid Crosby – World’s Finest Hockey Player – in the Defensive Zone to compensate. Making Sid Crosby do Defensive Zone Face-Off work is the epitome of misusing a Player Asset.

You probably think I hate Brandon Sutter and have some huge man-crush on Jordan Staal. Untrue. What’s true is that the Penguins repeatedly dangled Sutter’s name in an attempt to find a possession-driving Center for the 3rd Line, most notably Ryan Kesler. What’s also true is that in 2013 and 2014, Brandon Sutter got hammered if he started in the Defensive Zone. He could not dig the team out of trouble, which is what the Penguins desperately needed from the lower lines under the Bylsma model.

But don’t take my assessment of Sutter as Gospel. Here’s an article from The Oilrig breaking down Sutter. The money quote:

Possession wise, he isn’t much better. He posted a 42.9% Corsi For this past season, and posted a 42.4% mark in 2013. That’s not very good, and he was playing on one of the best team’s in the NHL. Now, circumstance does play a role here, as Sutter was playing a shut-down role to a degree and was playing with some pretty bad teammates. Still, this is not a pretty picture.

We all agree Brandon Sutter was saddled with weak or inconsistent linemates (such as the abominable Tanner Glass) for most of 2013-14, but as I write this he is holding the team up over contractual demands. If he is incapable of consistently driving possession or elevating weaker teammates, why is the team blowing up their salary structure to accommodate him?

(UPDATE: At $3.3, the team did not blow up it’s Cap Salary structure. I was anticipating some obnoxious contract in the $4.5-$5 million-dollar range. Grim Rutherford’s pimp hand remains strong.)

It’s clear that Jordan Staal is more of an NHL difference-maker than Brandon Sutter. I am not crucifying Brandon Sutter because he’s not Jordan Staal. I am stating the Pittsburgh Penguins were so successful from 2008-2012 because they had three Centers who not only drove possession, but did so dominantly. Brandon Sutter may be much more successful when he has possession-driving wingers, but he clearly needs much more support than Jordan Staal did. This is a major consideration on a Cap-Crunched team such as Pittsburgh.

While I always note that I have utmost respect for almost all NHL players, I had to use someone as an example to illustrate my point. The Penguins and their fans were pulling their collective hair out because they seemingly couldn’t find the Salary Cap dollars to re-sign Brandon Sutter. Meanwhile, I am wondering what all the fuss is about.

My take is that Sutter had 26 points in 81 games for a top-10 NHL team last year, and posted poor Advanced Stats. Honestly, I think that Marcel Goc is a much more-viable, cost-effective option for the Penguins as the 3rd line Centerman, but what do I know. I’m just some stats guy that doesn’t understand the game and has never, ever, ever, ever led a league in scoring.

This is a case in which Advanced Statistics play a large role. In the cases of both Jordan Staal and Brandon Sutter, their primary statistics (Goals, Points, etc) are muted because as 3rd Line Centers, they receive or received unfavorable Zone Starts and limited playing time. The value of lower-line players is that they can optimize the production of higher-line players. This is something I strongly believe Jordan Staal did that Brandon Sutter has not, to date. Advanced Statistics in many ways confirm this.

Conclusion

You don’t need to be a statistical analyst like I am to be good at Hockey, but understanding the value of Advanced Metrics certainly won’t hurt you. If you want to be an outstanding player, you need to appreciate that we are learning more about the game every day, and that modern hockey evaluators have come to appreciate how valuable players who can drive and maintain Puck Possession are.

Jack

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s