Friday, May 24, 2013

The Under-appreciated: Matt Greene

What better way to see the value of a punishing defensive-defenseman than Matt Greene in game 5 against the Sharks? There's been a certain sentiment that defensive d-men are going extinct in the post lockout NHL, but while it did weed out some of the defenseman with suspect hockey-sense, there still very much is a role for Matt Greene types. 

Matt Greene was plastering Sharks into the boards and over the ice all game long, setting a physical tone for the whole team to follow, San Jose's forecheck soon went MIA and they had trouble even with breakouts from their own zone as the Kings established their physical dominance. 

How do you quantify the value of that? You can't. Maybe the Oilers should pay attention the next time they deal players like Stoll and Greene away, the same type they now years later are looking for to supplement their kids with. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Elias Lindholm and the 2013 draft class

If you follow the news about the upcoming 2013 NHL draft, you might have seen that by now the general feeling is that there is a tier of difference between the likes of Barkov, Drouin, Nichuskin and sometimes others (Jones and MacKinnon figure as the top two in nearly every list there is) and the next tier. Rarely if ever do you see Elias Lindholm mentioned in the same tier, despite the fact that in my opinion he should be. Not only that I think Lindhom is going to end up being the better player, ahead of Barkov, Drouin and Nichuskin, aside from Jones and MacKinnon there is no other player I would consider ahead of Lindholm in this draft.

So why does he get consistently rated below others? Well the simple fact is, most of Lindholm's strengths aren't all that visible with the naked eye, he does not have a standout factor like many others do, his technical skills are good but not elite, physically he is good but not elite. So why think so highly of Lindholm, he doesn't have the size of Barkov, he doesn't have the hands of Drouin, he doesn't have the skill and size combination of Nichuskin, what is it then? Elias Lindholm possesses a very rare trait, one that is invaluable in the NHL and in small rinks in particular and that is his ability to put it into overdrive – the 6th gear and the ability to make plays in very tight spaces with very little time, his vision is as good as there is in this draft but coupled with his aggression and the ability to make plays out of nothing with limited space and time makes him a special player. The willingness to attack the dirty areas of the ice with agression and the elusiveness coupled with the elite vision and very good hands to capitalize on those situations brings back the memories of another Swede – Peter Forsberg. Though expecting Lindholm to reach that level is a bit optimistic, I fully expect him to wreak havoc on opposition in much the same way stylistically. The combination of the willingness to play in the dirty areas of the ice, the elite vision, and the ability to switch into overdrive should be enough to put Lindholm into the discussion with the top forwards in this draft, I would go as far as putting him directly behind MacKinnon among forwards in the 2013 NHL entry draft.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What's Next for Vancouver Canucks?

If you listened to Mike Gillis' press conference, you should get a pretty good idea at what's ahead for the Canucks. Gillis pointed out the trend towards big, physical, tough to play against teams as opposed to teams more focused on pure skill (though judging by his words he's not a fan of that trend at all).

The Canucks figure to get younger and probably bigger, the gameplan seems to be to surround their core with those type of players  that will hopefully be able to go against the bigger teams like LA, STL, SJ etc. This seems like a realistic path forward, however the thing that interests me is whether the Canucks will also change their player deployment. Mike Gillis did not talk about this at all nor was he ever questioned about it, however if you take a look at the teams Gillis was reffering to they all feature their top players drawing the toughest assignments all over the ice, often getting power-vs-power matchups equally in the defensive as well as offensive zone. The Canucks are actually a polar opposite of this with their role specialization (more on this here). Although that really can be argued is a coaching issue, and Gillis did say coaching will be evaluated like everything else.

So what should be the next step for the Canucks? As Gillis said, a bigger, tougher to play against look is in store, but it should be important not to forget about the fact that most of the teams that had success in the last few years also favor a more complete role for their top forwards than the Canucks do, the big question is how would the Sedins perform in such matchups not only in the offensive zone but the defensive zone (and possibly PK) as well, and it is something that Canucks should explore as they in Gillis' words hit the reset button. If it turns out the Sedins just can't handle that type of complete role bigger changes might be in store than just surrounding them with bigger, tougher support players.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Anatomy of a Budget Team

With the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators finally missing the playoffs for the first time in years (2008-2009 season to be exact), it might be time to look at how the two teams with relatively low payrolls managed to have a decent amount of success. Using Capgeek's archives we can see that Phoenix ranked 29th, 22nd and 22nd in spending from 2009-2010 to 2011-2012 season, while Nasville ranked 28th, 21nd and 23rd in the same time frame.

So how did those two teams make the playoffs year after year despite never getting much attention from various experts and the low payroll?

Both teams do not possess much of high-end skill up front as that is the most expensive thing in the market. Instead both teams focus on sound two-way players with the ability to win puck-battles and play sound defensive hockey. They have sound, tough to play against two-way centers like Hanzal, Fisher, Legwand who don't posses the salary  or skill of their more high end counterparts, but still provide the element needed to carry out the type of game Predators and Coyotes want to play. Both teams avoid sinking money into high end wingers instead opting for either for cheaper skill wingers like Ray Whitney (left as UFA), Sergei Kostitsyn, Radim Vrbata, or opt for wingers who provide a different game like Hornqvist and of course the big name in Phoenix – Shane Doan (more on this here),. Both teams however favor a strong and deep defense group – Yandle, OEL, Weber, Suter (left as UFA) and a plethora of other serviceable defensemen and high end prospects in both systems. Nashville also has an all-star goalie in Pekka Rinne, while Phoenix had Bryzgalov and Smith later on.

Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz are two excellent coaches who have provided their teams with a structure that lends itself to the type of players they have and can afford. Both teams place emphasis on sound, defensively aware hockey with a strong emphasis on winning puck battles which goes hand in hand with the roster both coaches have at disposal. This makes both teams hard to play against, this type of hockey tends to keep games close even when they're playing against teams that can boast a higher talent level, it is very rare that you will see either team have the kind of defensive meltdown that would put the game out of hand for them.

Drafting and development
Both teams, but especially the Predators have kept their system going with new prospects being brought in and developed. Both teams have had their defense flushed with projectable prospects. Nashville especially has been a gold mine of young defensemen over the past couple of years.

So how do the Predators and Coyotes do it?
The success of Phoenix and Nashville despite the low payrolls is a result of a well oiled machine that mixes sound roster decisions (the avodiance of high end skill and flash up front in favor of cheaper all around ability and strong defense), coaching (defensively sound teams focused on winning puck battles and outcompeting the opposition) and drafting and development (a steady intake of useful cheap young players to fill the holes) under one philosophy.

How close were/are they?
Both teams were likely a true #1 high end center away from being legitimate contenders or an overall deeper forward group. If you add more high end skill up front you arrive at the two teams who are the logical extension of the Phoenix/Nashville model – the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings who do a lot of the things the same way but with more high end skill up front. To conclude, both Phoenix and Nashville are two teams who clearly do things "the right way" but simply didn't have the financial muscle to go further than they did. If they did it wouldn't be unimaginable that you'd be looking at them the same way you look at the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings which is pretty much the same model Phoenix/Nashville uses brought to it's logical conclusion.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blinded by Flash

I figured I would elaborate a bit on this post. To repeat the message of it for a second, my belief is flashy goal scoring wingers are the most overpaid/overrated position in the NHL. Why does that happen? In short, their contracts get inflated for two reasons:
the positive part of their game is the most easily recognizable – be it stickhandling, shot, skating etc. and easily quantified by statistics, 

 the negative part or the part that is often lacking is however easily dismissed or overlooked – the lack of boardwork, lack of winning puck battles, poor defensive zone game, perimeter only positioning etc., none of that shows up in statistics (save for advanced stats but there is still progress to be made even there especially on the defensive side of game)

It is human nature to put excessive importance on point 1. It's far more breathtaking watching a succesful dangle rather than 5 board battles won. And then you have the fact that point 1 is far easier to quantify with traditional statistics.  

I'd like to focus now a bit now on concrete examples. First let's take a look at some of the highest cap hits among forwards and identify the type of wingers I wrote about, for the lack of a better term let's just call it the "flashy winger" position. There can be some debate on who qualifies or not for that, but I will try to to name some players I think most people would agree fit the bill.
Cap hit rank among forwards
Cap hit amount
Dany Heatley
Marian Gaborik
Alexander Semin
Ilya Kovalchuk
Mike Cammalleri

Of course there are other potential candidates to point out with similar cap hits in excess of 6 million, for example some would argue Patrick Kane is another "flashy winger", but I did not include him for the reason that I feel he provides an additional dimension in being both a playmaker as well as possessing an excellent shot.

Now consider the following metrics:
First to spare you an enormous table, you would have to go all the way back to 1995 to find a winger winning the Conn Smythe trophy, and that winger was quite different from the type we're talking about here, it was Claude Lemieux. You would have to go futher back to 1982 to find another one in Mike Bossy.

Now let's take a look at the way coaches shell out ice time to their forwards (we know goalies and defensemen play more due to the nature of the position so that would be rather unfair to compare). We're going to take a look at some Stanley Cup champions' playoff statistics and analyze them.

2012 – Los Angeles Kings
The most noticeable winger on that squad was Dustin Brown, who is far from the protoypical flashy winger and whose cap hit is only $3,175,000. He was tied for first in points (PTS) on the team with Anze Kopitar, and was second among forwards in time on ice (TOI). Jonathan Quick was the Conn Smythe winner.

2011 – Boston Bruins
Another team like the Kings notorious for not spending on that type of winger, the closest was Phil Kessel whom they traded to Toronto. The most noticeable winger was Brad Marchand, another winger far from the prototypical flashy winger, another small cap hit. He was 3rd in PTS, Milan Lucic received the most TOI among wingers and ranked 3rd among forwards. Tim Thomas was the Conn Smythe winner.

2010 – Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago is the first team with a somewhat of a fit in Patrick Kane. Kane was 2nd in PTS, 2nd among forwards in TOI, Jonathan Toews was the Conn Smythe winner.

2009 – Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh is another team who didn't invest in a flashy goal scoring winger. I don't think there is any need to further look into Pittsburgh when Bill Guerin received the most TOI among wingers and we know the team boasted Crosby, Malkin, Staal down the middle. Conn Smythe to Malkin.

2008 – Detroit Red Wings
Another team without a flashy goal scoring winger, their most noticeable winger was Johan Franzen – a power forward with skill, lower cap hit, 3rd in PTS among forwards, 3rd in TOI among forwards. Conn Smythe to Zetterberg.

I'm going to stop here because as you can see this excerise goes on for a long time without much of a change. While these metrics are not perfect, they do tend to give you the general idea that highly skilled wingers just aren't that important, so it makes me curious why year after year we see the obscene contracts (the latest being Semin) handed out to them. 

I can think of three ways to better allocate funds rather than engage in seemingly endless stupidity of reckless spending on flashy wingers:

Option A: If you really feel like you need that highly skilled winger, I suggest going for a slightly less statistically impressive options and have more money to allocate to C/D/G. Bobby Ryan has a cap hit of 5.1 million, Jeff Carter 5.27 million, Tanguay 3.5 million, Parenteau 4 million, Whitney 4.5 million, S. Kostitsyn 3 million, Vrbata 3 million, Havlat 5 million, C. Stewart 3 million, then there's J. Lupul at 4.25 million etc. Now some of those of course are more attractive than others, but there's really no need to spend 7.5 million on Gaborik or Heatley (heck who wouldn't take Bobby Ryan at 5.1 million over them).

Option B: Go after all around wingers with slightly worse numbers, these guys are cheaper and you'll find a boatload of them playing a prominent role on recent Stanley Cup champions. Again more cash to spend on C/D/G. Some names: Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Johan Franzen, Jason Pominville, Loui Eriksson etc. Some guys mentioned here could also be in option A and the other way around, again this is a bit of a gray area (B. Ryan, J. Carter, Pominville and Eriksson could really go either way for example) but I'm trying to give a general idea behind it.

Option C: If you really want to pay a winger make sure that not only is he highly skilled but that he boasts a full all around game as well. Examples: Rick Nash, Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Thomas Vanek etc.

Now any combination of these three options is fine, but it' still somewhat interesting seeing GMs shell out money to players like Semin, Gaborik, Heatley etc. year after year despite there being no track record of that ever working. It is far more prudent to spend less on wingers in general and spend your money on C/D/G, but this holds especially true for the flashy wingers with attractive traditional statistics, best avoided as their market value seems to be significantly out of whack with their overall contribution to a winning team.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vancouver Canucks: Unlucky or Not Good Enough?

The Vancouver Canucks are one of the best regular season teams in the past couple of years if not the best one, they also went to the finals in the 2010-2011 season and came within a game of winning it all, eventually losing to the Boston Bruins in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks are far from a poorly managed team, that said we will still try to take a look at why the Stanley Cup has eluded them despite being a very successful team.

The first thing that should be mentioned is that it is entirely possible that they just weren't lucky enough, in hockey as in any other sport but possibly even more so games tend to sometimes come down to bounces and puck luck, over the long-term that luck tends to even out, however when you're in a short format competition in the style of NHL playoffs a couple of bounces or injuries going your way or the other can make a world of difference. The other thing that should be mentioned - in the salary cap era it is near impossible to stack teams the way you could when spending wasn't limited (think of the pre-lockout Detroit and Colorado teams) and even then, luck always played a role. It is safe to say it is impossible in the present day to build a Stanley Cup winner, you can only build a Stanley Cup contender and hope that the team goes all the way in one (or more) of the years.

While it is entirely possible the Canucks just didn't have the bounces go their way, we are going to play a bit of a devil's advocate here and discuss the option B – the team just wasn't/isn't good enough. With that said let me introduce you to the player usage chart:

To give you a quick explanation of what it means – the higher the player is on the y axis the tougher competition he plays against, the further right on the x axis the more of his shifts start in the offensive zone. Now I want you to pay attention to where the Sedins and Malhotra are on the chart. What you will notice is that the Sedins didn't quite get the toughest minutes on the team in the form of quality of competition, but what's especially interesting is the fact that the Sedins started nearly 80% of their shifts in the offensive zone while Malhotra took barely any at all. In 2011-2012 season there was no other team with such extreme zone-specific player deployment (if you want to check out other teams' charts, they are all available in the link posted below the chart). In fact this has been a staple of the Canucks for years.

Under the chart we have Scott Cullen's take:
"That doesn’t mean they are incapable of starting in the defensive zone or facing more difficult competition, but head coach Alain Vigneault is putting them in the best position to be successful and there is little evidence that it would be better for the Canucks to have the Sedins doing more heavy lifting while giving Malhotra, Lapierre or Pahlsson more offensive zone starts." (source:

I have bolded the part that I find particularly interesting. While that kind of player usage has clearly worked for the Canucks in the regular season, the bolded makes me question whether it is the Sedins that can't handle a more all-around role or is it the supporting cast in question that can't handle anything more than a shutdown role? To elaborate, if we believe the Canucks regular season record is indicative of their talent level as one of the best if not the best teams in the league, then why are they afraid of playing power vs power matchups all over the ice instead of using this kind of specialization? Surely the better team would come out ahead in such a match-up? 

Why not try the old hockey cliche of outplaying the guy on the other team, meaning let Henrik Sedin outplay Kopitar/Toews/Datsyuk/etc. on the whole ice, and so on down throughout the lineup line-by-line. Surely that is a reasonable proposition if you have confidence in the Canucks being the best team in the league as their regular season record suggested over the last couple of years? Unless you're trying to hide something behind the specialization? Maybe Henrik Sedin isn't as good of an all around player as a guy like Kopitar or Toews is? Or maybe the Canucks supporting cast isn't as good as the supporting cast of Chicago or LA? If that's the reason, then it might be time to re-evaluate whether the Canucks truly are the best of the West and what to do to fix it. Certainly abandoning their specialization approach for a power vs power approach would if nothing else help illuminate any deficiencies, and just maybe if there aren't any the Canucks go on and win the Cup. Why not give Henrik Sedin the opportunity to match up against the West's best centers on the whole ice without being sheltered, and so on down throughout the lineup? I can hardly think of a better motivational tool than the idea of outplaying the guy playing the same role on the other team in every facet of the game. If the Canucks are truly as good as their record indicated in the last couple of years, they should come out ahead more often than not. If they aren't, this approach will at least expose the holes instead of hiding them behind specialization.

To be fair to the Canucks while they still employ the same type of player usage this year, their numbers seem to have normalized a little bit. Henrik Sedin now starts 69% percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and Maxim Lapierre took over the Malhotra role with only 25% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone. The Sedins also rank a bit higher relative to the team in the quality of competition they are facing than they did in past years. That said the approach is still the same if a bit more mild. The Canucks also added Derek Roy, with Sedin/Kesler (if healthy)/Roy down the middle that should make them even more comfortable in taking the power vs power approach if they so desire.

To finish it off, while it is entirely possible the Canucks simply didn't have enough bounces go their way to win the Cup so far (it is hard after all to criticize a team that came within a game of winning it all as recently as the Canucks did), a different approach might help illuminate the issues if there are any or maybe even prove fruitful enough to finally win that Cup.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Case for Defensive Defensemen

Here’s a controversial opinion, turns out Willie Mitchell might be just as valuable to a team as Ilya Kovalchuk, however since what he does isn't pretty or manifests itself in statistics it is a sacrilege to suggest this. You can expand this in general to wingers with little impact on the game when they're not scoring (there are worse examples than Kovalchuk) vs shutdown defensemen who can make a first pass and aren't boneheaded with the puck on their stick but don't put a lot of points on board. 

Since the part of the game that these type of wingers are really good at often manifests itself in either pretty dangles and points it is human nature to assume they have a bigger impact on the game as whole than they really do. A successful dangle or a quick look at statistics is very easy to notice, dangling when you have a better option open or not using your linemates as well as you could, not engaging or losing puck battles, poor positioning or lazy backchecking are often very subtle and forgiveable in human eyes when you just went through 2 guys (even if the end result is a turnover, a poor or a blocked shot or something else). This often leads to inflated contracts for these type of forwards. 

The defensive defenseman is basically the opposite of this. The part of the game they are good at doesn't really manifests itself well in statistics nor is the game they play pretty to watch or marvel at the technical skills like stickhandling, obscene shots etc.. I believe in general their contracts represent their value more accurately (though I wouldn't lose any sleep if a guy like Mitchell made 5 million instead of 3.5 which is probably below his actual value), however I think there is still some room for improvement in establishing who the best defensive D-men are when comparing them between eachother. 

It's pretty easy to say a statement like - this guy is a 30 goal scorer and justify 6 million per year without having to worry about being crucified despite the lack of his overall game (even if he bombs later), but there is nothing to hide behind when you're shelling out the money for a defensive-defenseman, it's only your opinion as to what he contributes to a team, no stats (although there has been progress in the advanced stats community) to base the value on, I do believe the GMs are much more conservative in handing out the money to the defensive D-men for this reason compared to goal scoring wingers.. For that reason I think defensive-defensemen on average receive contracts closer to their value than the goal-scoring type of wingers mentioned above do (Heatley, Kovalchuk, Semin, Kessel etc. well the Kessel contract isn't that bad).