I think one of the most important things to consider when evaluating a player, which also happens to be why I like advanced statistics so much, is understanding the context around a player’s role. It’s not enough to just watch the games and then look at the box score to see a player’s point totals and plus/minus (yuck) and draw a conclusion. In recent years I think a lot of fans have at least started to look at time-on-ice and special teams time to give some semblance of context. I think advanced stats help take that a step further. With that said, I wanted to take a closer look at some of my (and many other’s) observations throughout this season, and dig a little deeper.
I love to take my observations from a game (or games) and then see if the numbers support that. For example, Sean Couturier and Matt Read are having very strong seasons by most everyone’s account. There was a long stretch of time in which there was no question that the Read-Couturier-Downie line was the Flyers’ best, and it wasn’t close. Similarly, it’s no secret that Luke Schenn has had a poor year. I also have not been particularly fond of Mark Streit’s play (although he’s really stepped up his offensive contributions of late). Let’s take a look at 1) what is being asked of these players and 2) where they stack up against other players in the league playing similar roles.
The key numbers to ascertaining a player’s role are as follows (all numbers are pulled from Extra Skater):
Offensive Zone Start Percentage – the percentage of the player’s shifts that are started in the offensive zone. It’s not a difficult concept. If you start most of your shifts in the offensive zone your coach is relying on you to play an offensive role; and you are simply just more likely to put up points than if you had to move the puck the length of the ice first.
Quality of Competition – the average total team percentage of even strength opponent’s ice time. So if I’m playing against Sidney Crosby all game this number will be high because Crosby plays a very large percentage of his team’s five-on-five minutes. This is also a simple concept in that there is a pretty significant difference between being asked to shut down Sidney Crosby and being asked to shut down John Scott. By looking at each player’s opponent’s ice time, it helps gauge the quality of that competition.
To illustrate this novel concept I have created two exceptional paint diagrams. In these two scenarios, who is more likely to score? Who is more likely to get scored on? Consider 1) where you are starting and 2) who are you playing against?
Once you have a better idea of the player’s role, thanks to the two statistics above, you can look at the following:
Time on ice – time on ice per 60 minutes. This is one everybody already understands and uses. I’m including it because I think it’s important to compare sample sizes of ice time. Whether you’re in a highly defensive or highly offensive role there’s a big difference between being placed in those positions for 20 minutes a night, versus 10 minutes a night. You have significantly more opportunities to fail or succeed with more ice time.
Corsi For Percentage – the percentage of shot attempts directed at the opponent’s net while a player is on the ice. A 100% number would indicate while on the ice, all shot attempts are in his favor and none are attempted at his own net. A 50% number would be an even split. Corsi is a strong reflection of puck possession and the best teams and players tend to have the better possession numbers.
Couturier and Read have some of the most difficult zone starts on the team at 42.9% and 44.2% respectively (third and fourth hardest on the team). They also have the fourth and second hardest competition on the team at 29.3% and 29.6% of total team percentage Quality of Competition. Unfavorable zone starts and difficult competition is not an easy task.
For example, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek play against comparable competition (Giroux ranks first on the team and Voracek third); but they have far more favorable zone starts. Voracek starts a hefty 58.1% of his shifts in the offensive zone and Giroux starts 54.4%.
So who else in the league is playing a role similar to Couturier and Read, and how do they compare?
Among all forwards playing 32 games or more, with offensive zone starts of less than 45% and quality of competition of greater than 29% there are only fifteen: Patrice Bergeron, Lee Stempniak, Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Stajan, Chris Higgins, Logan Couture, Marcel Goc, Kyle Turris, Sean Couturier, Antoine Vermette, Matt Read, Cody Hodgson, Tomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta.
Couturier ranks 10th in shot attempt differential (corsi for percentage) at 50% while Read ranks 12th with 49.5%. In fact, Couturier is the last of only 10 players in the whole league to play these highly challenging minutes and to have a corsi for percentage of 50% (again meaning he generates just as many shot attempts as he allows) or better.
It’s pretty clear that Couturier and Read are playing a highly specialized defensive role and performing quite admirably. Patrice Bergeron is the gold standard here putting up a crazy 60.6% corsi for percentage with almost the same difficult zone starts and competition. That guy is so good.
Kimmo Timonen, Mark Streit, and Luke Schenn play some of the more sheltered minutes on the team with 55%, 51.6%, and 53.9% offensive zone starts respectively. However, Timonen still sees very difficult competition (the second hardest on the team). In order, the most difficult competition goes to Coburn, Timonen, Grossmann, Streit, and then Schenn. So as we can see, Schenn plays in both favorable zone starts and favorable competition. He’s in a prime position to succeed.
Among all defenseman playing 32 games or more, with offensive zone starts of greater than 51%, quality of competition of less than 29%, and time on ice of more than 15 minutes there are 32 defenseman. It’s safe to say these 32 defenseman are playing sheltered minutes.
Luke Schenn ranks 26th (7th worst) with 50.3% corsi for percentage.
Mark Streit ranks 30th (3rd worst) with 49% corsi for percentage.
For reference, the top five are Jake Muzzin, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nick Leddy; ranging from 61.2% to 56.1%. The bottom five are Olli Maatta, Cory Sarich, Mark Streit, Ryan Murphy, and Nate Guenin; ranging from 45.6% to 49.8%.
Among all defenseman playing 32 games or more, with offensive zone starts of less than 50%, quality of competition of greater than 29%, and time on ice of more than 20 minutes there are 27 defenseman. These 27 defenseman are playing not just the most difficult minutes, but a lot of them.
Coburn is one of only 12 defenseman to post a corsi for percentage of greater than 50%. So despite his highly challenging minutes, Coburn still helps generate more shot attempts for than against. He ranks 10th with 51.2%. The list includes: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Andy Greene, Zdeno Chara, Justin Braun, Johnny Boychuk, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan McDonagh, Brenden Dillon, Braydon Coburn, Alex Goligoski, and Dan Girardi.
Among all defenseman playing 32 games or more, with offensive zone starts of less than or equal to 44%, and time on ice of 19 minutes or more, there are 16 defenseman. I wanted to look at some of the most heavily skewed zone starts. Playing that many minutes while starting in your own zone, cannot be easy.
Grossmann ranks fourth with a corsi for percentage of 46.7%. Only Justin Braun is a positive Corsi player in this role.
The list includes: Justin Braun, Erik Johnson, TJ Brodie, Nicklas Grossmann, Jack Johnson, Christian Ehrhoff, Mark Pysyk, Jake Gardiner, Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda, Tyler Myers, Josh Gorges, Cody Franson, Chris Butler, Dion Phaneuf, and Carl Gunnarsson.
This exercise also made me realize how badly the Maple Leafs abuse Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. There are only three defenseman total that have offensive zone starts of less than 40%: Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, and another Leaf, Cody Franson.
There are also only five defenseman with quality of competition of greater than 30%: Chara, Hjalmarsson, Oduya, Phaneuf, and Gunnarson.
No wonder Phaneuf and Gunnarson have terrible puck possession numbers. They are playing the toughest minutes in the entire league.