Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Whither (or Wither) Defensive Defensemen? On The Disappearence Of Your Least Favorite Player

Hockey is won in the trenches, everyone knows that.  The 'trenches' in hockey are the tough areas - at the blueline, along the boards, right out in front of the net.  You want a guy - forget that, you want a MAN - who can protect these areas and makes sure that any opposing forward who arrives in them pays a price.  So you get a defensive defenseman, a man who makes life hard on the other team for 19 or 20 minutes a night, a man who'll stop pucks with his face and handles the puck like he's handling it with his face.  Off the glass and out.  Along the way he'll take some penalties, and along the way he'll score a goal or two a season, maybe four or five if it's a lucky year, and his teammates will mob him with joyous and somewhat dubious smiles.

The stats community has come to the conclusion that this sort of defenseman, besides when he is exceptional, usually doesn't help a team.  In fact, if your team has one of these guys and you are reading this blog, he is probably the guy you can't stand.  His errors lead to goals, and his positive contributions are impossible to measure.  His Corsi is usually bad, perhaps the worst on the team, and you think to yourself, 'If we could only get rid of this guy, we'd have a better squad'.  Well, have no fear.  My contention is that the game is aging these sorts of players out.  It's happening slowly.  General managers still love them and sign them for way too many years, but that's going to have to come to an end soon, I think, because I'm not sure where these guys are going to come from in the future.  There's a lot of guys wandering around 3rd pairings with these sorts of skill sets, but I don't see how many of them make the jump.

To test this contention, I used hockey-reference's amazing Season Finder feature to look up these players' careers.  Now, I think it's quite difficult to pinpoint what these players are - it's sort of what Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it.  I used 4 criteria for my initial set of players:

A:  More than 500 NHL games played
B:  No greater than .25 points per game for his career
C:  Penalty Minutes .75 per game or above for his career
D:  Must've been a top 4 defenseman for multiple seasons (roughly 19-20 minutes per game)

Through an exhaustive search, I found these defensemen who fit those criteria above:

Bryan Allen, Mike Komisarek, Andrew Ference, Robyn Regehr, Willie Mitchell, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Hal Gill, Brooks Orpik, Barret Jackman, Cory Sarich, Ladislav Smid, Tim Gleason, Rostislav Klesla

These players collectively average .19 points per game (so approximately 16 points per 82 games) and .98 PIMs per season, or 80 penalty minutes.

I generated a second set of players for whom these things are mostly true and added a new criterion that could also be fuzzy, namely E:  Usually loathed by his Corsiati fanbase and generated these players who also fit the profile, although most of them either were too good early on or were always back-pairing D:

Chris Phillips, Doug Murray, Nicklas Grossmann, Matt Greene, Mark Stuart, Scott Hannan, Jan Hejda, Eric Brewer, John Erskine, Andrew Alberts, Brad Stuart

One thing the above list reveals is a staggering number of 1st round picks.  Allen, Komisarek, Regehr, Volchenkov, Orpik, Jackman, Gleason, and Klesla were all taken in the first round.  From our second list, Hannan, Brewer, Stuart, and Phillips were also first round selections.  Was this still the Lindros bogeyman hovering over the league?  If you recall, when Eric Lindros showed up in the league, every team was terrified of him and needed to get enormous defensemen who could handle defense against him and the huge forwards that would surely come after.  And indeed, most of these guys were drafted in the days when obstruction was still a perfectly cromulent form of defense, and cross-checking at the front of the net was expected.   Has that alteration in junior hockey changed the way some of these players might've developed?

I feel that these players fall into three categories - Degraded 'Two-Way' Defensemen, Eternal Defensive D, and The Rest.

First Category:  Degraded 'Two-Way' Defenseman

A player like Brad Stuart started out his career with offense.  He was supposed to be the next Scott Stevens when he was drafted.  He came into the league and put up 36 points in his first season.  He had .55 points per game in the 2005-06 season.  But if you look at Stuart's last five seasons, he's fallen under the .25 points per game threshold.  We see this with Eric Brewer and Chris Phillips too - they were once over the .25 points per game threshold but fell below it in recent seasons.  Paul Mara is another example of a guy whose offense simply died in his late 20s and he became a third pairing physical guy.  I lack the ability to sift through career arcs, but my suspicion would be that a lot of these guys had really good shots and weren't horrible with the puck in the offensive zone and so received PP time early in their careers, but that once their puck skills diminished or it was revealed they were no good at offense, they were taken out of any offensive role.

Players that fit in this category now:  Braydon Coburn, Kyle Quincey, with Dmitri Kulikov and Zach Bogosian being longshots.

Second Category:  Born Defensive D

These are players who were drafted high because they were supposed to be good on defense.  Their offense didn't develop yet.  Maybe it never will.

Players that fit this category now:  Erik Gudbranson, Luke Schenn, Jared Cowen, perhaps Dylan McIlrath, perhaps Griffin Reinhart, perhaps Matthew Dumba.

Third category:  The Rest

Here are the defensemen 28 or under who fit the criteria this year:  Brenden Dillon, Clayton Stoner, Mark Fraser, Robert Bortuzzo, Mike Weber, Roman Polak, Dmitri Kulikov, Eric Gryba, Nate Prosser, Zach Bogosian, Brett Bellemore, Dalton Prout.  Which of these players will become top 4 D?  Kulikov and Bogosian have had better offensive seasons, but they may become Degraded Two-Way guys.  Stoner, Bortuzzo, Fraser, Weber, Gryba, Prosser, Bellemore, and Prout are all 3rd pairing guys or 7th D at the moment, and it's hard to see any of them graduating to top 4 duty (although Buffalo is so atrocious that Weber could).  That leaves Polak, Dillon, and the aformentioned Ladislav Smid to carry the torch.  Maybe Gudbranson and Schenn will move into someone's top 4 - certainly Schenn's been there in years past, though it doesn't appear that he is improving at hockey.  It sure feels like teams just cannot find these players anymore, and that much like the enforcer who can play a regular shift in the late 90s, this player is slowly disappearing from the NHL - it's just difficult to find a player who is big, skates well, hits well, and is good enough at defensive coverage to play 20 minutes a night (and who doesn't provide offense).  His replacement is the Anton Stralman, Mark Fayne sort of player who doesn't hit and doesn't put up much offense but who can defend 1 on 1 without taking penalties and moves the puck adequately out of his own zone.  Regardless, just consider this when free agency rolls around the next few years and some of the guys on the first two lists are still being given chances and the non-hitter signs for well below what you'd expect - most of the general managers in the game developed their hockey intellects when obstruction and cross-checking was still du jour, and it's hard for them to wrap their minds around the notion that it's gone.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Real Problem With Big Goalie Contracts

Twitter - that bottomless reservoir of smug - always gets in a particularly joyous uproar when a team signs a goalie long-term.  Today's casualty was Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a 7 year extension for nearly $60M, a deal that will finish a few months after his 39th birthday.  Others have no doubt broken down what happens to goalies in their late 30s, even elite goalies, and most of them don't fare particularly well.  The problem, however, is not just their faring not well - it's their faring at all.  Allow me to explain.

Lundqvist's cap hit of $8.5M won't be eclipsed by another goalie anytime soon - indeed, there's a dearth of elite goalies with long track records coming to market.  Still, with the salary cap going up, someone will break it, and it will continue to be broken as Lundqvist ages.  I could see a world where he's the 10th highest paid goalie in 2018.  Whatever the case, his cap hit isn't onerous if the salary cap rises as much as experts think it will.  What is onerous is the meaning of that cap hit - it means that Lundqvist is the de-facto starter for the next 7 years.  Is he playing poorly at some point, say in 2017?  Well, what about the ten years of experience he has previous to this where he played well?  The problem isn't just with potentially getting poor value out of the contract by Lundqvist failing to be merely elite over the course of this thing - teams make it worse when they are unable to cut bait with formerly successful players.  This isn't as large an issue with elite forwards and defensemen - we've seen guys like Mike Modano, Bryan Trottier, Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts, Chris Chelios, etc. who have ended their careers as role players.  Were they likely entrusted with too much responsibility because of their history?  Yeah, probably, but it's an issue of 15 minutes versus 11 minutes per game.  Chicken feed type stuff - one win at the most.  You can always give a skater less ice time and less responsibility, but the picture is murkier for netminders.  This is an issue of starting a goalie 60 games versus starting 20 games - issues that are enormous.  We should all know the numbers - the difference between a .920 goalie and a .905 goalie, assuming 30 shots on goal per game, is 25 goals.  That's roughly 5 wins, which could easily turn what should be a division leader into a fringe playoff team, or a fringe playoff team into finishing well out of the playoffs.  It's especially difficult to give a guy getting starter money backup minutes if he's not playing well, and just as hard to split his ice time.

I'm not saying Lundqvist will break down like this - he's clearly one of the game's best goalies and the elite have fared better later in their careers.  What I am saying is that if he does start to fade significantly, it will probably take the Rangers a year or two to figure it out, possibly more, during which time he will actively be hurting the team.  Normally I'd say this is an outlandish prediction, but there's nothing more certain in sports than management hoping the past can once again be the present - the longer the legacy, the more inescapable the vortex.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The New Type Of Trade

Martin Erat just publicly demanded a trade out of Washington.  Trouble for Martin Erat is that his contract is pretty large and so far his performance rather paltry - he's got a cap hit of $4.5M this season and next season.  While he's owed only $6M in this time, there aren't that many teams who can just stick that salary on their team.  There is, however, a way that Erat can be shipped out of town, the Caps can still be in the same cap trouble (by taking a contract back), and the Caps can pick up an asset along the way:  The dual Retained Salary Transaction.

We've seen the Retained Salary Transaction a few times since the new CBA was signed in January 2013 - Kris Versteeg, Matt Frattin, Jussi Jokinen, Thomas Vanek - all are currently on new teams who are not paying their entire contract.  What we haven't seen is a swap of retained salary transactions, and this disappoints me, because I think this could be quite a boon for a team.  An example - imagine a team with a player like Erat who has too high a cap hit and not enough production.  Let's say for the sake of argument that, unlike Marty Erat, this player lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause.  They find a team who has a similar player on a similar cap hit, let's say both guys are on deals that pay them $4M a season.  They swap players, each picking up half of the other team's contract.  Now not only have they shuffled some deck chairs, both teams have turned what was a potential liability into a potential asset.  They can keep this new player at his $2M salary, or if they don't like him, fob this new player off to someone else on half of his previous cap hit.  The key to this deal is that both teams have picked up potential assets by exchanging their problem with the other team, and in an NHL where few teams have cap room to spare, it opens up more potential for future exchanges.  I'm sure the union was in favor of Retained Salary Transactions - it enables some guys whose contracts would've been near-immobile to be sent elsewhere - but I think there'll be a few guys zipping around the league who aren't fans of having 3 separate teams holding parts of their contract.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Corsi Rates and Corsi +/-

Occasionally I feel the need to look for old data, back when Corsi and Fenwick were new and when timeonice.com was updated at the beginning of every season, without exception.  That brings me to the old version of timeonice.com, which expressed our favorite numbers as a whole number, not as a rate.  Jack Johnson wasn't at 43.9% in 2008-09 according to timeonice, he was at -131 - that was his Corsi +/-.  This quickly became non-standard, and so old timeonice numbers became a pain - you had to do tedious calculations to get at territorial percentage numbers, which is all everyone seems to care about now.  Still, I miss the whole numbers for three reasons:

A:  You can approximate a player's expected +/- based on a 1000 PDO.  I don't have average Fenwick and Corsi shooting percentages handy - I know they're floating around somewhere - but we know that on-ice even strength shooting percentages are around 8%, typically.  So if Jack Johnson is -81 in shots in 2008-09, we know that goals are scored on around one out of every 12.5 even strength shots, so he should be approximately -6 with average goaltending and average shooting.  Henrik Zetterberg was +332 shots in 2007-08, meaning he 'should've been' +26 at 5 on 5 hockey.  With rates, there's no way to estimate this except 'higher = good, lower = bad'.

B:  High-event players get privileged over low-event players, which may be correct - Imagine a thought experiment - one player is on the ice for 90 shots/60 for his team and 60 shots/60 against.  Another is on the ice for 30 shots/60 and 20 shots against.  They have the same shots rate - 60% - but Player A is going to be putting up +30 shots/60 whereas Player B will only be doing +10.  Indeed, we can find real world examples of this - Jonathan Cheechoo and Alexei Ponikarovsky played about the same amount of ice time in 2007-08.  They put up similar shot %s - 57.5% for Ponikarovsky, 56.7% for Cheechoo.  Cheechoo even had a little more ice time than Ponikarovsky.  And yet, Ponikarovsky is +121 in Shots, Cheechoo +104, because Ponikarovsky's lines shot the puck more than Cheechoo's but also gave up more shots.  It's not much, but Ponikarovsky should've had an extra goal (and a half).  When we go by rates, we miss out on the extra value that higher event players may provide*.

C:  It's closer to a WAR-type thing.  Yes, we have to adjust for Zone Start.  Yes, we have to adjust for Quality of Teammates.  We may even have to adjust for Quality of Competition.  But we have a better sense of how many goals this player is adding to or subtracting from their team.  4th line players get dinged for having fewer total events.  Injured players get dinged for having been injured.  One and two game callups no longer look like superstars or complete disasters - they just look like exactly what they are: guys who might've had a good night, bad night, or an inbetween one.

I know that territorial metrics can't come close to approximating a player's actual value, but when we go by rates, we're missing a larger element - ultimately, it's not rates that win games, but shots.  We should be talking about rates for teams and more about whole numbers for individual players.

* - High event players may not be better than low event players because of the NHL's point structure - the OT point implicitly rewards low event teams, as games with fewer events should have fewer goals and games with fewer goals are more likely to be tied at the end of 60 minutes.  Still, were this not the case, high event players with the same shot % would be better than low event players.

Monday, October 7, 2013

On the Firing of Peter Laviolette

When Pete Rose was banned for life from the game of baseball in 1989, the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti described the ordeal as "a sad end to a sorry episode." Though the gambling connotations were absent (unless you booked action on the odds-on favorite most likely coach to lose his job first), Giamatti's infamous quote can also be applied to Philadelphia's firing of Peter Laviolette this morning.

Often the case when a coach of Laviolette's stature is released (see: having won a Stanley Cup), just about everything written about this move will include the footnote that he'll find another job shortly. Many articles today made mention of this, and for good reason; Laviolette is set to serve on Dan Bylsma's staff for Team USA during the upcoming Sochi Olympics. With common sentiment leaning towards Laviolette coaching an NHL team sooner rather than later, it demands further inquiry why a coveted coach found himself on the chopping block just three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Without using too many brain cells, the answer points in one direction: the Flyers' front office.

Having foreseen the team's current situation far too long ago, this blogger remained skeptical that GM Paul Holmgren's returns in trade for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, along with the subsequent addition of Ilya Bryzgalov, would result in a net positive for Philadelphia. In hindsight, Jakub Voracek has proven to be who we thought he was, Sean Couturier is becoming an elite defensive talent, and Brayden Schenn still projects to be a top-six forward. However, the cap crunch created by the Bryzgalov contract ultimately meant that the team could not re-sign useful players (e.g. Matt Carle), and more importantly, set a dangerous precent of overreacting to poor results in short stretches.

We've seen this time and again with Philadelphia. Specifically, whether it was benching Sergei Bobrovsky after one bad period during the 2011 playoffs, trading him after a poor streak in the second half of 2012, signing James van Riemsdyk to a six-year deal after 11 impressive playoff games, trading him after a mere 43 games of 'underperformance,' extending Scott Hartnell following a career year, or losing out on re-signing Jaromir Jagr to woo Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the message remains clear. If you're not helping the Flyers now, they'll ship you out of town for someone who will. Lost upon Holmgren & Co. has been the fact that adding new players does not guarantee success; it can only improve (or in this case, lessen) one's chances.

We now return to Laviolette. Keeping in mind Holmgren's (and Chairman Ed Snider's) role(s) in this saga, the easy answer to our question looks to be that Lavy could not escape the fate of these players before him. 51 games of underperformance since the beginning of 2013 is simply too long to survive in mediocrity within the crucible that is Flyers hockey. This holds especially true with the aging Al Davis Snider looking for one final championship.

It would, however, be remiss to label Laviolette a mere victim of overreaction and bad luck. His lineup decisions were often suspect (e.g., scratching Erik Gustafsson most of the past two seasons), he mismanaged goaltending (e.g., Bobrovsky/Boucher/Leighton, playing Bryzgalov every back-to-back), and he refused to adapt from his up-tempo style of play when it was clear the team's personnel on defense could not handle the assignment. On the flip side, Laviolette also had his strengths. Looking at Philadelphia's zone start discrepancies and quality of competition, he was a coach that seemed to understand matchups and was not afraid to deploy players he trusted in the roles he trusted them with. Couple this with his style of play, and we see a coach that likes to create more shots on goal, giving his best players the best opportunities to do so.

We can go back and forth on Laviolette's advantages and shortcomings all day; the fact of the matter remains that Holmgren & Co. knew what they were getting from their coach on opening day of the 2013 season. At that point in time, the Flyers were depleted on defense, devoid of scoring depth, and gave the coach no reasonable option to spell their starting goaltender. Though it is unclear whether Laviolette held any say in the moves that sent the Flyers from Stanley Cup contenders to mere playoff hopefuls, at the end of the day, responsibility lies upon the general manager to acquire the best players available for his club. While it remains undeniable that Laviolette's recent poor performance ultimately resulted in his firing, the depreciating talent on the Flyers' roster and the friction between these players and their coach's system cannot be ignored. Ultimately, these trends point not to the Flyers firing their ineffective coach, but instead continuing to employ incompetent general management.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Driving Play's 2013-14 NHL Season Preview Podcast

Good afternoon friends. Before you take this post as a sign of the zombie apocalypse, please be assured that no witchcraft was used in the making and revival of the Driving Play Podcast. Joined once again by our friend Alex Pocrnick, we are grateful for his perspective which uses surprisingly few spreadsheets to analyze and interpret the game of hockey. In this episode, we are excited to preview the 2013-14 NHL season, touching upon topics of realignment, roster change in the offseason, and teams to watch out for.

Here is a link to our podcast RSS feed, with options to stream or download the podcast below.

Thanks for listening, and enjoy!

Download (Right Click, Save As)

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Paradox Of The Bridge Deal

Adam Henrique signed a $24 million, 6 year deal today with New Jersey.  This deal piqued my interest because it involved my favorite team and not one of your dumb teams that you somehow follow.  It's also interesting because it reveals one of the stranger parts of the way NHL teams operate these days with their RFAs coming off entry-level contracts.

We're seeing more and more of these sorts of contracts for players coming off ELCs - indeed, it's getting rarer for top players not to get one.  Evander Kane, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Jamie Benn, the list goes on - teams are betting on their young stars.  They are no longer trying to squeeze every dime out of them before they become UFA age.  The list of 'star' players coming off ELCs who haven't gotten long contracts includes PK Subban, and will likely include Derek Stepan and Nazem Kadri.  Indeed, most of these 'bridge' deals are signed by teams who stay at or near the salary cap.  The paradox of the bridge deal is this:  a cap team figures to be very good, and a very good team tends to lift all boats.  This makes the player on the bridge deal more expensive in the future, exacerbating that team's cap situation.  Likewise, a team in the Devils' situation able to sign Henrique long-term like this without any pending cap issues may not be a very good team, making his deal look worse than it otherwise might be on a cap team.