I must have kicked the hornet’s nest with Friday’s piece, because there was quite the response both in the comments and on Twitter.
Upon reflection, I’m a bit embarrassed my stream-of-consciousness writing was sloppy...not that there were errors, but I could stand to flesh out my arguments explaining why, yes, I am correct. Unfortunately I don’t get paid to write about hockey, and my actual job required some attention, so I had to rush through it.
I’m going to break down the two main points of contention in the original pieces: that injuries were not a legitimate excuse for the Wild’s failure and that the Minnesota Wild will be a below average team next year (and that can be proved with advanced statistics).
First, let me point out something I neglected to address in Friday’s article: I don’t expect the Wild to challenge for the Cup and made no boasts or guarantees about their success next season. I firmly believe in intangibles such as chemistry and luck. With hockey it’s incredibly difficult to predict the outcome of an 82-game season, let alone a best-of-seven playoff series. Especially a year in advance. So my expectations are that they will be much better offensively, somewhat better defensively, and likely grab a playoff spot (guessing 4-8 range). This isn’t a team that is going all in for next year, but will be better over the next several with the growth of prospects.
Now, a lot of fun was had at my expense with the “boo hoo, the injuries” argument, via Ryan Lambert’s Twitter account (@twolinepass):
@twolinepass basically the gist of the post is "yes but injuries" and "the advanced stats prove nothing" and "lemaire doesn't coach here" which, lol.
I’m not sure that these people will ever be convinced, but it seems pretty clear to me, that if you lose four of your top six forwards for a significant amount of time, and you have nobody to step in and fill that role adequately, it’s going to devastate the team.
I’ve written a lot of words about this subject, and it never seems to get through to people. Maybe a graphic will help.
I’ve plotted the team’s goal differential and win percentage (and a five-game moving average for a smoothed trend) through the season with injuries shown on top. You can see within a couple weeks of each other, the Wild lost Devin Setoguchi to a knee injury, Guillaume Latendresse to a concussion, Pierre-Marc Bouchard to a concussion, and Mikko Koivu to a leg injury. Lats and Butch both tried to play through the concussions but left for the season. Koivu tried to play through his shoulder injury but was shut down again in February, then came back in late March to prepare for the World Championships (which Finland was defending on home soil).
You can see the team’s goal differential and win percentage both tanked in mid-December, which is when they fell from first in the league to about 12th-13th in the conference (and low-to-mid 20’s in the league). They had a bit of success in early and late February, but were pretty much terrible until April, when they won a few games at the end of the season (and screwed up their draft position from about 3rd-4th to 7th).
Now is there a perfect correlation? Of course not. But you can see that, for much of the season, the Wild was missing three of its top six forwards, which had a trickle-down effect that I will cover later.
Here’s a comparison of the win percentage of the team with and without certain players (and the number of games they missed):
|Player||Win % With||Win % Without||Games Missed|
You can see these guys had a significant impact being in versus out of the lineup. Koivu is the team’s leader, playing big minutes, on the power play, penalty kill, matching up against top defenders. Bouchard is the team’s best playmaker, a big asset on the power play as well. Latendresse was the team’s best goal scorer, one of the few skilled players who also played a physical game. Setoguchi was one of the few skilled players with speed and scoring ability.
Who replaced these guys in the lineup? Players like:
Kyle Brodziak, a solid third line center, who did a great job of filling in at the #1 spot for stretches, but clearly not a high skilled player. He had some success playing with Dany Heatley with his aggressive forecheck and physical play.
Nick Johnson, who was picked up off waivers, a decent energy player who picked up some points playing with Heatley and Brodziak but wasn’t even qualified for a roster spot next year.
Cal Clutterbuck, a good energy and checking winger, but not a skilled player at all. He has a good wrist shot but fairly poor hands and playmaking ability.
Essentially the Wild shifted some third and fourth liners up into the top six and brought in some journeyman AHL’ers to fill out the bottom six of the lineup. This created a severe lack of skill and scoring up front, which is clearly evident in the goal differential graph.
Now Lambert mentioned Calgary and Pittsburgh as having suffered as many man games lost to injury as the Wild, yet having more success:
@twolinepass wild fans understand that calgary lost more man games to injury than minnesota last year and still finished nine points higher right?
@twolinepass another fun fact is pittsburgh lost the same number of man-games to injury as minnesota.
I added up the top six forwards (points per game) and top four defensemen (average time on ice) for the teams:
When you look at actual impact players being lost, Minnesota did suffer significantly more than the others. Granted, the Wild didn’t lose Sidney Crosby for much of the year, but they also didn’t have Evgeni Malkin to step up. It’s a little easier to bear losing the #1 player in the world when the #2 can step in. Malkin’s no Kyle Brodziak...
But what about the highly touted prospects? Couldn’t they step in? No. Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson, and Jonas Brodin were playing in Europe. Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, and Brett Bulmer were playing in the CHL. Jason Zucker and Erik Haula were playing in college. Literally all the Wild’s top prospects were not available to play this year, but all of them (except Haula) could be playing in the Wild organization next year.
So the Wild had injuries in the top six, no skilled players in the bottom six to step up, and no skilled prospects in the minor leagues that could be called up to the big team. Adding Parise and Granlund to the top six, as well as multiple high end prospects to the minor league team, will provide some insurance against injuries next year. Which is a major reason the Wild should be greatly improved.
The other point I’d like to address in greater detail is the concept of Moneyball (or advanced statistics) as it applies to hockey. Frankly, it does not work nearly as simply as some would lead us to believe.
Moneyball type statistical analysis works fairly well in baseball, but does not work with hockey. The reason is that baseball outcomes are fairly easy to track. There are hits, runs, errors, strikes, balls, outs. Clearly defined. In addition, competition is relatively static in baseball. The batters face the same pitchers and fielders. You can compare a #1 hitter with a #6 hitter easily, as they are the only offensive players on the field.
Hockey is a mushy and dynamic sport in contrast. Likely the best indicator of skill and success, puck possession, is incredibly difficult to track and define. Possession is measured indirectly through Corsi, but is muddled with changing defenders AND changing line mates.
With Desjardin’s article, he appears to make the assumption that the Wild are simply adding Parise and Suter to the lineup. There’s no mention of the players who would be replaced in the lineup, who are journeyman AHL’ers (not even mediocre NHL’ers, or good AHL’ers, just mediocre AHL’ers). Replacing a player who clearly struggles against NHL competition with a player who has proven to succeed in the NHL is a big deal, and will have bigger ramifications than just the player’s contribution superimposed on the team.
BUT, there’s another omission made by Desjardin: the trickle-down effect of making improvements at the top of the depth chart.
Parise and Suter won’t simply plug in where say Warren Peters and Justin Falk played. They will be matched up against the top competition. And unlike a player like Devin Setoguchi, who faced secondary competition with San Jose, they have already faced and succeeded against top defenders. These players are much more of a “sure thing.”
And by inserting them at the top of the depth chart, other players and pushed down into roles they can be more successful. In statistical terms, their quality of competition will decrease. In layman’s terms, they will have an easier time playing hockey. Skill is not an independent variable; it depends on the level of competition.
Using a personal example, when I play with my winter hockey team, I score a lot of goals. We play at a lower level men’s league, and I’m able to skate and shoot better than my opponents. I had 26 points in 20 games last year. This summer, I’ve got one point in six games so far (wish me luck tonight). My skill level is relative to the opposition.
Back to the NHL (quite a ways away from my league), players like Clutterbuck and Brodziak won’t be matched up against the Charas and Webers. They will face secondary defenders, and have a relatively easier time playing hockey. Their Corsi relative to the competition will increase because the competition is focused on other players. And this trickles down throughout the lineup, improving the Relative Corsi of the bottom six or even bottom nine forwards. That is why a high end player is so valuable; improving a bottom six player improves that position, but improving a top line player improves EVERYONE’S position.
The Wild adding Parise and Suter doesn’t merely improve the top line and the top pairing; it improves the entire lineup because everyone will face slightly easier competition. Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon become the second pairing instead of the top pairing. Their skill level didn’t decrease, but their competition will.
So until the advanced stats guys can tell me where they made all the substitutions and adjustments to account for all the changes in the lineup, I don’t see why we should take these claims seriously at all.
As always, we enjoy your feedback, be it here in the comments, on Twitter (@FRBHockey), or on HFBoards.com where many of us are members.