Friday, September 12, 2008

Rates And Context

The other day, David Staples at The Cult of Hockey threw together a post that basically divided hockey fans into two camps - those who base their opinions of players on what they have seen on the ice and those who blindly trust numbers to tell them how good a player is or isn't. Now, I've never met anyone in the latter group, but the man with the biggest headshot of himself that I've ever seen in a blog banner says they exist, and therefore they must [disclosure: I actually dig most of Staples' work, so that cheapshot makes me a bad person]. One of my favorite bloggers out there - Matt at BoA - took Staples to task for his portrayal of the "debate," and a good discussion ensued in the comments thereto.

If you've been a reader in these parts for a while, you know that I'm probably a little more on the "stat guy" side of center ice than at the "traditionalist" end of the rink, but I'm definitely still in the neutral zone - I like to see statistics that corroborate what my eyes and gut tell me, and when the two disagree, I'm likely to reassess the value of the player (see Schultz, Jeff)... or the value of the stat (Tomas Fleischmann had third best takeaway-to-giveaway ratio on the team, behind only checking centers Boyd Gordon and David Steckel.).

All of this is just a set-up for an application of some loose guidelines that Matt offered up in a post yesterday. Go read the post - I'll wait (it's Friday, you ain't got no job, etc.).

Alright. To summarize, even strength points per sixty minutes of ice time (EVPts/60) tells you a hell of a lot about a players' offensive production and often allows for fairer evaluations and better comparisons than numbers that don't take into account time on ice (duh). So let's see if the benchmarks, applied to last year's Caps forwards, corroborate what our eyes and guts tell us, or if we need to reassess the value of some players or the utility of the statistic generally:

>3.00EVPts/60 = excellent, elite, fantastic.

Alex Ovechkin came in at 3.00 on the nose. I feel comfortable calling him excellent, elite and fantastic.

~2.00EVPts/60 = the mushy middle. No one in this range is embarrassing themselves, but there is a wide range in what we might call perceived player quality. A non-star player in this range who you know had mediocre linemates has done well to hit this mark; conversely, if you get much below 2.00 and you see a player who has the reputation of creating offense, it might be time to reconsider that reputation.

Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom clocked in at 2.19 and 2.18, respectively (not surprising, as they were Ovechkin's most frequent linemates five-on-five). Michael Nylander was next at 1.91, followed by Alex Semin (1.75), Sergei Fedorov (1.65), Brooks Laich (1.55), Chris Clark (1.51) and Fleischmann (1.42). Are we "much below 2.00" yet?

1.00EVPts/60 = Lowetide's Mendoza line for hockey players. If you are near, at, or below this level, you stink at creating offense. Unless you are outstanding defensively, or good at punching other guys in the head, your days of a regular NHL shift are numbered at this level.

Continuing our descent, Matt Bradley clocks in at 1.36, followed by Gordon (1.20), Quintin Laing (1.06), Steckel (1.03), Donald Brashear (0.78) and Eric Fehr (0.57).

Eric Fehr?! The sample on Fehr is incredibly small and he played with the lowest quality of linemates of any of the team's forwards 5-on-5, but this certainly isn't where you'd like to see your top forward prospect at any point (I still say give him a shot on the second line, though).

Any huge surprises so far?

Now on to power play points per sixty (PPPts/60), which we find loaded with caveats:

>6.00PPP/60 = WOW, >5.00PPP/60 = excellent, >4.00PPP/60 = capable
Here's where we need to make the obligatory note that common sense still needs to be applied. The PPTOI totals, and thus the sample size, are relatively small in a given season; small enough that a handful of lucky goals or heroic saves can produce a big swing in someone's rate. (Accordingly, rating a player's PP chops based on a single season's results is probably unwise.)

The Caps forwards' PPPts/60 (and this is just 5-on-4) shook out as follows:
  • Fehr (7.32)
  • Laich (5.39)
  • Nylander (5.22)
  • Backstrom (4.59)
  • Ovechkin (4.55)
  • Fleischmann (4.40)
  • Semin (4.05)
  • Clark (3.31)
  • Kozlov (3.01)
  • Fedorov (2.93)
Now, the "small sample" applies to Fehr again - he had just under 33 minutes of ice time on the power play all season and four power play points. And perhaps you can probably throw Fedorov's number away, as he was stuck on the League's fifth-worst extra-man unit for most of the year (though 3:54 of PP ice time per game is a healthy amount of opportunity). But this is probably the first time I've seen any assessment of Alex Ovechkin's 2007-08 season that would describe his production as "capable." Also worth noting is just how dominant a power-play producer Nylander is (and how good Backstrom was as a rookie); how much Laich took advantage of his limited PP time (and how surprisingly productive Flash was in his); and how little Kozlov chipped in man-up. But again, as Matt said, rating a player's PP chops based on a single season's results is probably unwise.

The bottom line is that you don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows and you don't need EVPts/60 or PPPts/60 to tell you that Alex Ovechkin is a better 5-on-5 producer than Tomas Fleischmann. But they help you to realize that Alex Semin was no more productive, individually, 5-on-5 than Maxime Talbot. Or that Nicklas Backstrom was more effective on the PP than Eric Staal or Vinny Lecavalier.

That's what the stats say, at least. Do your eyes and gut believe the numbers? If not, which are you more inclined to trust?


Ryan said...

I would think Ovie's PP numbers are skewed because he plays on the Point...he's not down low grinding, and at he's being set up a lot for one timers at the circle. He also pretty much plays for the ENTIRE PP, so its gonna give him a lot more time out there than most people.

As far as the whole "stats" thing goes, I know its cliche, but I just want the scoreboard with the Caps having the bigger number than t'other team at the end. There's certainly a healthy medium where you can rely on stats up to a point, but they can't be everything you evaluate a player on, because just like any other number, they can be skewed to serve whatever purpose the presenter is trying to make.

tg said...

With hockey stats, I find that it's really hard sometimes to compare players across teams. You have to control for their teammates, linemates, opponents on ice, etc. Bleh.

And let's not get into the discussions about second assists. (Look, the fact that a goalie stopping a puck behind the net can get an assist if no more than one other player touches the puck prior to a goal downgrades the importance of the second assist in my eyes. Is it deserved sometimes? Yup. But too often it seems that one's given because it's expected, not because it's deserved.)

So I guess I think stats can be useful, but they can't be the end-all be-all and I don't think you'll have a team take up a "Moneyball" view of hockey players anytime soon.

But then again, I thought the same thing about the NBA and I was proven wrong. So who knows.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting point you bring up, J.P., and one I've thought about over the Summer. I like stats, and while they rarely lie, to my eyes they seldom tell the whole story. Would Viktor Kozlov (as a subject of much debate amongst Cap fans) be that effective on a different line? How much does he bring to his line, or is he simply the beneficiary of extra defensive attention paid to Ovechkin? Numbers say he's valuable, but numbers also indicate that Dainius Zubrus had his best seasons with Ovechkin. Correlation? Coincidence?

That's where I think your point about going with what your eyes tell you kicks in.

When all is said and done, I'm probably heavy on the traditionalist side. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

You bring up some interesting questions.

- Empty

JP said...

I like when stats challenge our preconceived notions, but everything still has to pass the laugh test.

Tyler said...

First thought: Alex Semin doesn't shoot enough 5-on-5. He plays/waits for the perfect shot way too much. It hurts his numbers.

Anonymous said...

So are you publicly going to eat crow when Fleishman has a breakout year?

JP said...

@ Anon: I'd be happy to. If Flash clears 20 goals and 50 points, I'll buy a #14 Fleischmann jersey.

dstaples said...

That is a seemingly big head shot on my blog. But the sad truth for me is, that's the actual, real life size of my pinhead.

David Staples, The Cult of Hockey.

Shaggy said...

I like the even strength points assessment - combined with the plus/minus rating, I think that just about covers a player's on ice effectiveness - at even strength. After all, it's about he goals you don't allow as well - see Quint Laing.
You have to see a player live over many games to fully assess his ability - it is one thing to read Ovechkin stole the puck and scored the GW in Game 1 of the playoffs, but to be there to see him lift the D-man's stick, poke it away, skate around the hapless defender, and bury it behind the goalie who probably knew exactly what was coming and couldn't do a damn thing to stop it - all in a matter of 3-4 seconds, that is quite another. And it reflects the beauty and speed of hockey.

B19 said...

I'm telling you Flash is going to have a break-out year.

15 goals, 45 points

Anonymous said...

It should be against the law for anyone to bring up flash or fehr having breakout years. Stop it! If they both score 10 goals it will be a breakout year for them. Stop talking about their potential, it has been too long. They are disappointments that have proved nothing.

wittcap79 said...

An even MORE interesting technique would be to take the guys and seperate them by coach. I wonder what OV, Backs, Nyls, Semin et al. did under Boudreau as opposed to Hanlon. I think you'd get a pretty different set of stats (obviously), one that would more accurately reflect what you can expect this year.

Yoshie said...

It should be against the law for anyone to bring up flash or fehr having breakout years. Stop has been too long. They are disappointments that have proved nothing.

How do you define too long? Two years in the NHL? I guess you're not a big Laich fan then are you? His first 2 years combined he had 15G 24A. In less games than Laich's first two seasons Flash already has 14G and 26A. (Laich's first two seasons = 146 games played and Flash's first full season + two small samples = 118)

Scott said...

I like when stats tell me that the Caps kick ass and everyone else sucks. Those are the only worthwhile stats.

Kotton said...

tg said...

So I guess I think stats can be useful, but they can't be the end-all be-all and I don't think you'll have a team take up a "Moneyball" view of hockey players anytime soon.

There was an article or two about Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis leaning towards this type of player analysis