Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Let's Give Erik Karlsson Some Norris Love

The 2013-2014 Norris Trophy finalists were announced yesterday, and they were, as you all know by now, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, and Shea Weber. While all three guys are undoubtedly elite defenders and deserving of the recognition, the discussion I saw over Twitter centred largely around who was omitted from this list rather than how great these three guys are (as is tradition). And most of that discussion seemed to come to the consensus that Mark Giordano should at the very least be a nominee over Weber.

I'm not going to argue that Giordano didn't have a fantastic year. He did. His fancystats were insanely good. He was a standout on an awful Calgary team and probably the only thing that kept them from being Sabres-level awful. Be deserves to be considered among the very best defensemen in the game, for this year at least.

But for my money, he wasn't the biggest omission from Norris voting this year. As you can tell by the title, I think Erik Karlsson should not have just been one of the three nominees, but should have won the award in a landslide. The season he had this year was not only good, but it was one of the single best seasons that any defensemen has ever had, yet no one's talking about it. I think it's time we put just how freaking insanely good Karlsson is into perspective.

First off, we'll look at some work done by Travis Yost. If you don't know who he is, a) why not, b) change this immediately, and c) he's an excellent Sens blogger that Eugine Melnyk has personally tried to have erased from the internet. That's not a joke by the way. Look it up. Anyways, he's been looking at individual shot attempts the last couple of days, and has basically determined that Karlsson is the Ottawa Senators' entire attack:

It goes further. Yost also wrote this post detailing how dominant offensively Karlsson is. If you're too lazy to click on the link, this graph is the main takeaway:

Essentially, Erik Karlsson breaks hockey. He has outperformed his peers by so much since 2011 that it's unbelievable, and this despite getting his achilles severed which theoretically understates his production.

This makes it more ridiculous when you put Karlsson's production relative to his peers in a historical context. He beat Duncan Keith for the defenseman scoring title by 13 points. The last D to finish more than 10 points ahead of second place was also Erik Karlsson in 2011-2012 when he beat the second best guy by 25(!) points, so he's done it in back-to-back 82-game seasons. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1991-1992 season to find a guy who's done it once. That was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who beat Phil Housley by 16 points.

The last guy to finish more than 10 points ahead of second in back-to-back 82-game seasons was Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who accomplished the feat on the 1988-89 and 1989-90 Pittsburgh Penguins. You'll notice that those teams also included a then 23 and 24 year old Mario Lemieux, who posted prorated 209 and 167 point seasons. Coffey was also the last guy to finish 25 or more points ahead of the 2nd highest scoring defenseman, and he accomplished this feat with the Oilers in 1985-86, during Wayne Gretzky's all-time record 215 point season (which may have actually been deflated by unlucky percentages).

And then there's this:
Add Leetch and Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque to that list, and you get every NHL defenseman who's ever scored more than 70 points in a season twice before they're 23. You'll notice that these guys Karlsson is equaling with his performance this season aren't just good, they're generationally good. Erik Karlsson is walking on hallowed ground.

The knock against Karlsson is that the Norris Trophy is for "all-around" ability and not just offence, and he's not good defensively. The thing is, Duncan Keith isn't good defensively either, but that largely doesn't matter because his offensive game is so, so much better than the average NHL D. In fact, it's pretty easy to make an argument that Karlsson shouldered a heavier two-way burden than Duncan Keith did this season:
Both defenders have a similarly strong possession numbers, but Duncan Keith is also backed by a much stronger supporting cast.

(As an aside, I'll note that I think using CorsiRel to compare performances across players is not a smart thing to do since it unfairly punishes guys for playing on great teams while it overstates the contributions of guys on awful teams. It's true that if you compare on the basis of raw Corsi, you're not taking into account the strength of team, but by comparing on the basis of CorsiRel, you're assuming equal strength of team. 

Mark Giordano's 53.3% Corsi on the year is more impressive given that he plays for Calgary, but let's not kid ourselves, he's not +10.3% better than his team on an average NHL team, and he certainly doesn't take Chicago to, say, nearly 65% Corsi if he played Duncan Keith's role. Part of the reason that his CorsiRel is so high is that the players that he never sees the ice with and have no material impact on him whatsoever like Shane O'Brien and Chris Butler probably aren't NHL-calibre players, and they get their teeth kicked in repeatedly. So while +10.3% CorsiRel looks gaudy, remember that Giordano has no control over the guys below him in the depth chart being insufferably awful.)

Erik Karlsson probably isn't an elite defensive defenseman. Ottawa hemorrhages shot attempts against like few other teams do, and having Karlsson on the ice improves them only marginally in that regard. At the same time, Duncan Keith will probably win the Norris this year and he actively and demonstrably makes his team worse defensively when he's on the ice. But, and I can't stress this enough, this doesn't matter. Keith, like Karlsson, is nitrous oxide to his team's attack and his offensive ability has by far a greater net benefit than any defensive deficiencies in his game.

The point of all this is that Erik Karlsson is a special talent that continues to do what no other NHL defenseman can: generate offense at a super-elite level. He did it in his last full season, earning a Norris trophy, and he did it again this year. He does have his defensive issues, but the point of hockey is to outscore the opposition, not to hold a 0-0 tie the longest. He proved once again in 2013-2014 that he's the only NHL D to have no equal in any critical aspect of the game, and for that he deserves recognition as one of the NHL's top-3 defensemen, if not the best in the world today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Quick Hits: Shanahan Is Full Of Crap

I'm sure that most of these are going to start like this, but I was reading tonight's Provies when something caught my eye. It was this quote, from Brendan Shanahan, new overlord of the Toronto Maple Leafs:
I think it’s a complete cop-out that you can’t learn or be taught how to score at the NHL level. I hear coaches say all the time that you can teach defence, but you can’t teach offence. I don’t buy that. I’m an example of the opposite.
I bolded the important bit. This stuck out to me because I have this running theory (you know the one if you've read anything I've written about any Canucks prospect ever) that guys that turn into NHL scorers, in general, dominate their junior leagues. Shanahan scored nearly 1400 NHL points, so to hear him say "I had to be taught how to score" with the implication that he didn't know how to before hand is a bit curious. So I went to HockeyDB and looked at how a draft-year Brendan Shanahan performed in the OHL relative to his fellow 17 year olds. Here's how he did:

That is a list of every 17-year old forward who played at least 20 OHL games in Shanahan's draft year. As you can see, he wrecked them. He's on an entirely different level from the rest of those guys. So it's not as if Shanahan was a talentless hack coming in to the NHL. He dominated the OHL, so he dominated the NHL. For him to say that he had to be taught how to be a scorer is a crock of shit. He was always just way more talented than everyone else. The power was in you all along, Brendan!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Quick Hits: The Boston Model

Jason Botchford wrote a bonus episode of the Provies tonight, and I tweeted some things about it. I'd like to elaborate on these things a bit, but first here's what I said:

And now, in the style of Elliotte Friedman, here are 12 Thoughts:

  1. I like toughness. I really do. Despite fawning over Jamie Benn over Twitter, my favourite NHL player is Milan Lucic. I saw him lead the Vancouver Giants to the 2006-07 Memorial Cup, and my lasting memory from that run was this shift in which he flattened two Medicine Hat Tigers and facepunched a third. At the same time, his toughness kinda distracts people from what makes him an effective hockey player. He moves the puck extremely effectively, sees the ice well, makes smart passes, and is able to possess the puck in the attacking zone. There are plenty of other guys that can punch faces in the NHL and minor leagues, and there are plenty of guys who can blow people up with hits. The thing that separates Milan Lucic is that he's really good at hockey.
  2. Full disclosure: the moment that Jamie Benn entered my heart as a hockey fan was when he fought Jarome Iginla in 2010 and split Iginla open pretty good. Hockey fights are fun, but they're not necessary for success.
  3. Back to the Bruins. When the "Boston model" is differentiated with the "Detroit model," it's pretty safe to assume that people are contrasting on the basis of perceived team identity. Detroit has the perception of a small, skillful team, whereas Boston is seen as a bit of a Broad Street Bullies throwback. The reality, however, is that both teams are/were remarkably similar in their heydays. When Detroit was at it's post-lockout peak, they had a generational talent on defense who had the puck all the time, one of the best 1-2 punches at centre in the league, and were able to fill in the gaps with exceptional drafting that allowed them to win in the margins. What's really important is that first and foremost, both teams were really good at hockey.
  4. It's funny to me that Patrice Bergeron is brought up as an example of a player that analytics doesn't really appreciate enough, because I think the reality is that analytics appreciate both him and David Krejci as hockey players a whole hell of a lot more than the MSM seems to.
  5. To me, singling out the "Boston model" indicates that ownership isn't looking at the "really good at hockey" part of the Bruins though. This is what worries me. If they were intent on building a strong feeder system for the Canucks, re-vamping the draft process, and becoming a team that was really good at hockey, it wouldn't matter if they followed the "Detroit model" or the "Boston model" since both are essentially the same in terms of stuff that matters. 
  6. I see Botch's comments (particularly the "from bullied to bully" one) as hinting that ownership wants a "big and tough" team. Well, Toronto wanted to get tougher over the offseason so they went out and got Bolland and Clarkson. Buffalo didn't want to be bullied anymore so they traded for Steve Ott and signed John Scott. Washington thought they needed to play a more grinding-type game so they made Bruce Boudreau play the trap before firing him.
  7. San Jose, conversely, has stuck to their guns and are a cup contender once again. Yeah they haven't won the cup, but the others are a steaming pile of garbage and bottom feeders in a worse conference. I'd rather be a contender than just suck. "Let's go get TOUGHER" has yet to work.
  8. I'm not sure what to think of the Bruins. On the one hand, you can't argue with a Stanley Cup. On the other, you totally can. They have managed to trade away Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel, and Tyler Seguin all in the past decade and remain one of the top-3 highest scoring teams at 5v5 for the last 3 full seasons and 4 of the last 5. Basically since David Krejci became a 1C, Patrice Bergeron fully recovered from his concussion issues, and Claude Julien became the coach. Those guys they traded are two top-5 NHL scorers and another guy who would still lead their team in points this season. How many other teams could have withstood that?
  9. Offensive talent is the hardest thing to acquire in this NHL. This is why guys who score a lot get the biggest contracts. I don't think you ever "win" a deal in which you give up a star, and the Bruins have done that three times (although only twice under Chiarelli). In that sense, they're incredibly fortunate to be where they are, and also incredibly fortunate that guys like Bergeron, Lucic, Krejci, and Marchand have all over-performed their draft position. With the benefit of hindsight, those guys all should have been top-10 or top-15 draft picks in their years.
  10. I'm hesitant to call this "good scouting" or "good drafting" though because after Marchand in 2006, the Bruins scouts have yet to find a single legitimate NHLer outside of the first round, and only Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton have made the NHL at all. They dug up 5 core pieces between '03 and '06, and found nothing in the 5 years before or the 7 since. On the whole, that's not a stellar record.
  11. I've tossed around the idea of GM PDO a few times on Twitter, and it may apply to Boston. Have the Bruins figured out exactly the right thing to value in a hockey player, or did they get lucky because a small handful of guys with stuff they valued turned out to be really good at hockey too? I mean, Milan Lucic had 19 points in his draft year and could hardly skate at a CHL level. I honestly doubt that the Bruins really foresaw him turning into a legitimate NHL 1st line power forward.
  12. If this is the case, is it even possible to model your franchise after the Bruins? Many of the teams who have set out in search of toughness have failed spectacularly in becoming good. What made the Bruins different? Well, they signed the best defenseman post-Lidstrom and Pronger and got hit on a handful of mid-round draft picks in quick succession. I'm not sure that this is really a viable long-term strategy.
I'm not saying that Bruins management are just lucky and not smart (they have made some very shrewd pickups), but they are where they are because they have found good hockey players, not ones that are just tough and rugged and big. Emulating just toughness is just setting yourself up for failure. Vancouver's emphasis should be on finding good hockey players, regardless of size, facepunching ability, or perceived character flaws, and ss long as the Canucks' focus is not on getting really good at hockey, I fear for the direction of this franchise.

Quick Hits: First Impressions on the Second Linden Era

As much as I've panned hiring Trevor Linden as the president of hockey operations on Twitter, I think it's important to distinguish between criticism of Linden and criticism of the hiring. The fact of the matter is that Trevor Linden has no experience making hockey decisions at any level, and we don't know if he's going to be anything more than a well-informed figurehead. This means that no one can accurately say whether or not he's capable of fulfilling this role if he is making decisions on the hockey ops. side of things. The important thing that I heard in today's presser, and really the only bit of stuff worth chewing on, is that Linden seems to understand the need to surround himself with quality support staff and an excellent team of decision makers.

He brought up the example of Steve Yzerman when asked about his lack of experience, but the big difference is that Yzerman spent 4 years as an assistant GM under Ken Holland, Jim Nill, and the Detroit Red Wings, before moving on to Tampa Bay. There, he's surrounded himself with quality people like Julien BriseBois and Pat Verbeek, and a full-time statistical analyst among other support staff. Even though Linden doesn't have the experience of Yzerman, he can still make this work by building a team that does have experience in making hockey decisions. He can probably make this work quite well. We'll see.

What I think we can criticize is the fact that Francesco Aquilini hired someone like Linden though. From the outside, it looks like ownership's priorities lay more with corporate gladhanding and pandering to the fans still enthralled with the '94 run, rather than conducting an exhaustive search for the guy best suited to putting an effective hockey team on the ice. As Taj so lovingly transcribed for us, Elliotte Friedman suspects that this is a pretty transparent PR move more than anything. I'm of the mind that you get fans back by putting an entertaining and successful product on the ice rather than distracting them with shiny objects. Rather than looking for a guy who's determined to play an entertaining and successful style of hockey, ownership went and got a shiny object. "Look! It's Trevor! Go buy tickets! Do it for Trevor!"

I mean, I think Harrison Mooney pretty well nails it here:
Maybe it's because I'm admittedly a younger fan so '94 and by extension Trevor Linden the person don't resonate with me, but I don't see this as a move that will lead Vancouver to the promise land. Whether this move is successful really depends on who Linden (and ownership) pick to form the hockey operations team that will surely make the bulk of decisions, because leaning on Linden seems like a losing proposition.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Quick Hits: Crowdsourcing An NHL Team

Note: I often have things I want to say that I usually just tweet, but aren't really conducive to a medium that limits thoughts to a series of 140-character fragments. I figure I have this old blog so why the hell not use it. "Quick Hits" will just be my various thoughts and musings that aren't really Canucks-related, but I figure I should write about anyways. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to call me an asshole over on Twitter if you disagree: @Thats_Offside.

I've said this before, and I'm quite confident that it's still true: I really think that there is enough appropriate talent and brainpower floating around in the public that if we were to get together and form a front office, I really think that we could run a legitimately above-average to good NHL franchise. I say this for a couple of reasons: first of all, I'm confident in the quality of work that's done on the internet and I'm confident in the abilities of the people that do it, and second of all, I don't think that there's really a mystical innate understanding of the game of hockey that "hockey guys" are blessed with.

I'll tweeted about this first thing earlier:
The validity of our current best available measures of hockey have been criticized in large part to the fact that they aren't things developed by either reputable academics or, more importantly, "hockey people." You've all heard the tired "basement bloggers" thrown around, I'm sure. What's largely discounted is that stuff developed in the eye of the public is subject to ridiculously intense peer review. Every day, people who believe in fancystats are forced to read commentary from people critical of their insights, defend their arguments, and consistently refine their viewpoints as more and more other smart people challenge the current paradigm.

What's resulted is a way of thinking about and analyzing hockey that is as accurate as anything out there, and much more significantly, works and is successful. The very best coaches in the NHL, guys who have very recently won Jack Adams trophies and Stanley Cups, seem to believe in the very same things that Corsi and Fenwick tell us is true. Hell, I wrote an article for Shnarped Hockey on Monday that shows this. Whether or not the NHL has quietly been at the forefront of this great learning, the fact still remains that "basement bloggers" have found the very same "magic formula" (even though there is no magic formula) to building a successful hockey team as successful hockey teams have.

This brings me to my second point: I don't really think that being a "hockey guy" equates to a unique understanding of the game that the general public can never hope to achieve. I'm a believer in "deep practice,' meaning that anyone can become good at a specific skill, given enough time and effort. Give the people I interact with on Twitter enough games to watch and specific stuff to watch for, and I don't think that most would do worse than an average NHL scout.

This is even more applicable to the "leading voices" of the online analytics community. They're smart people. Eric Tulsky has a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Harvard. Tyler Dellow has a J.D., a B.A. in poli sci, and a B.Comm. There are many others on hockey Twitter that are really bright, well-educated people too, so it's not as if the "basement bloggers" stereotype is applicable or even appropriate. Given that these people have a track record of being able to think critically and solve problems, I don't believe for a second that not a single one of these guys is incapable of seeing the same thing as some guy who has a high school diploma but is a "hockey lifer" can.

Of course, there's a ton more that an NHL front office has to handle than just player acquisition, but I still don't believe it's as if no one that's a part of hockey Twitter that can't be found to handle each role. The hockey fans whose work I read and who I interact with are a diverse and intelligent bunch, and I'm confident that a good number of them would be an asset to any front office, even if they were just to be a part of an organizational think tank and challenge what established hockey minds think.

If all else fails, we'll just appoint Kyle Dubas as our head. He still counts as hockey Twitter, right?