Tough to Play Against

Travis Yost
August 20 2013 12:11AM

 

http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Joe+Thornton+San+Jose+Sharks+v+Colorado+Avalanche+PSExRPyyN7Ml.jpg

 

It's that time of the hockey year when every young forward who sits above league-average size bills himself as the next Milan Lucic. Derek Zona has already talked about this plenty. Over at LeafsNation, Cam Charron was forced to do the same.

What drives me absolutely batty about the obsession with developing and acquiring toughess is the tangentially-related obsession with hitting. For every David Backes and Scott Hartnell type, there are a litany of forwards who are more or less hitting because they're never in possession of the puck. We already know that at the team-level, teams win far more often when they're getting out-hit. Which, of course, makes looking at individual data fun!

There's a thousand ways to spin around the garbage RTSS-data provided by the league in a way to effortlessly poke holes into the hit-parade arguments trumpeted by Nick Kypreos and the lot. The latest: I decided to compile twenty-five of the league's best hitters on a per-season basis [08-12], then look at their Goal% and Corsi% [zone-adjusted] in that specific year. If the idea is that hitting is such a prominent and important part in winning hockey games, it stands to reason these players do well to keep teams from dominating the shot-clock and, more importantly, do well to keep teams from scoring.

And, on the other side of that coin, the comedic part: I compiled another twenty-five guys [08-12] who were most guilty of giving the puck to the other team on a per-season basis, then looked at their Goal% and Corsi% [zone-adjusted] in that specific year.

 

 

The hit squad is generally responsible for ensuring that goals stay out of their net. It seems .. ineffective. Again, unless you have a Milan Lucic, David Backes, or Dustin Brown at your disposal, you're basically shit out of luck. And signing Steve Ott or Matt Martin because he's hitting at a comparative rate to one of those guys doesn't fill the void. It just adds a crappy player to the lineup for the sake of physicality. Seems to me that the data suggests grown men aren't really scared of other grown men who make their living smacking bodies around. Funny, that.

Moving on to the turnover crew.:

 

 

No new ground being broken here, and this barely passes for any kind of actual statistical analysis. And yet, there's something particularly hilarious about guys who are going out of their way to give the puck to the other team performing significantly better as a unit than the grit/soul types who are laying their body on the line, looking for any reason to separate body from puck.

The reason, if it's not bloody obvious at this point: the list of giveaway leaders is generally synonymous with the league's best players, in that they'll turn the puck over from time-to-time because they always have it. When they're not turning the puck over, they're scoring goals.

And your hit squad, save a few ultra-rare breeds, is a run of bottom-six forwards [at best] who almost spend as much time retrieving the puck from their cage as they do locking in on the opposition for a center-ice kill shot.

Ergo: Perennial-repeat Cal Clutterbuck, not so tough to play against. Perennial-repeat Joe Thornton, a brutal-draw for even the best of hockey players.

Thing is, we never hear prospects bill themselves as the next Joe Thornton. Why? Who knows. Squaring off against him seems like one hell of a futile effort, though.

 

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Hockey and hoops. @TravisHeHateMe
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#1 Jesse
August 20 2013, 09:54AM
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Tony wrote:

How do you rationalize your results with what actual NHL players say in how the Clutterbucks of the NHL are tough to play against. Are these NHLers confused and wrong?

NHL players (especially North American players)are indoctrinated with the Traditional Narratives of old-timey hockey folks. When you're raised on Don Cherry's rants of being a "Good Canadian Kid" who hits and blocks shots you have your perception of the game shaped in a particular way that might not necessarily be congruent with reality. I think that's sort of the main point of all of the new analytics in hockey: when it comes to something like sports where we are so emotionally invested, it is important to understand what is *really* going on by looking at the data, or else we are simply relying on our perception of what is going on, which is quite obviously flawed.

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#2 garik16
August 20 2013, 01:32PM
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Travis, the problem here is that you're not squaring for team effects. For example, Clutterbuck's team has SUCKED during this time, and he's been right around the average on his team in possession (Relative Corsi over last three years: +1.7, -3.3, -1.8), despite having lousy zone starts (39.2%, 40.4%, 41.8%) on those times.

I'm not sure the shot at Clutterbuck is thus warranted.

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#3 Peachy
August 20 2013, 09:59AM
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@Tony

Yes.

...

Sorry, had to get my snark on. Seriously, it's really easy to get a skewed impression of what's going on, even for the best minds in the game. Look at the Leafs, effectively managing for PDO. For all of the criticism levelled at Nonis / Carlyle, they are not stupid and are in all likelihood incredibly knowledgeable about hockey.

Hitting feels like it should be effective. INTIMIDATE. PLAY WITH GRIT. FORCE TURNOVERS. It just doesn't actually work that way all but a few players.

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#4 Tony
August 20 2013, 08:33AM
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How do you rationalize your results with what actual NHL players say in how the Clutterbucks of the NHL are tough to play against. Are these NHLers confused and wrong?

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#5 Baalzamon
August 20 2013, 12:48PM
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Thornton is an absolute gem of a player, and he doesn't get anywhere near enough play pretty much anywhere for no apparent reason.

I actually remember someone came around FN not too long ago and tried to claim that Mats Sundin was a franchise player and Thornton (and Iginla and a few other baffling exceptions) weren't. I believe that person actually scoffed at my suggestion that they were completely nuts at excluding Thornton and including Sundin.

Not that that has much at all to do with this post. ahem.

*Queue the hit defenders flooding this thread below my comment.*

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#6 Duffman99
August 20 2013, 05:49PM
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If hockey was a one on one game, this analysis might be useful.

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#7 Puck Stops Here
August 20 2013, 07:36PM
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I agree with the concept of many of the players who are "tough to play against" as being hard-working grinders who are not good hockey players and are thus easier to play against than better players, I think you need to be careful here. Several of the players with poor Corsi %'s on your list have them because they play defensive roles with a large number of defensive zone starts against tough opposition and that is a situation were nobody could get a good Corsi. You need to be careful to separate a player's role from his puck possession results.

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#8 Dario
August 20 2013, 01:33PM
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Great article. Just out of curiosity I looked at the top takeaway leaders. That's a pretty elite group... Datsyuk, Toews, Hossa, Staal etc... then I saw Michael Frolik. 8th in the NHL with 42 takeaways and..... 6 giveaways, 6! A lot of this group are doing time on the PK in addition to their heavy ES time but an elite list nonetheless.

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#9 Bill
August 20 2013, 03:26PM
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I was just thinking the other day that hits are basically a team Corsi/possession stat. One that shows that your team didn't have possession of the puck. The checking leaders are always on the worst teams because they have more time to hit.

But maybe that means Clutterbuck had more opportunity because guys in the Top 6 were not pulling their weight. Clutterbuck isn't the meat of the team. He's the side dish. Guys like Gaborik and Koivu were the meat. Clutterbuck did his job. Gaborik and Koivu did not. Clutterbuck was tough to play against. The meat of Minnesota was not.

It's interesting that the players with the most turnovers were pretty damn good players, though. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Thornton, Malkin. However, those players are not known to be the most defensively responsible.

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#10 Reuben
August 25 2013, 12:05PM
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Seems to me that grit and compete level are how non-elite hockey players show fans, scouts and their coaches that they deserve ice time. I think this probably goes back to the way they were coached as teenagers.

Perhaps the fact that they spend so much of their time chasing the puck indicates otherwise.

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