I heard something on the Buffalo Sabres’ broadcast during a game between the Sabres and Washington Capitals that caught my ear. Buffalo’s ever-entertaining color analyst Rob Ray had a tidbit about the Caps’ head coach Barry Trotz and analytics.
The story went that Trotz had been approached by Nashville’s numbers guy during the previous season about cutting back Shea Weber’s ice time. Ray chuckled at the notion and mentioned Trotz did the same. Then there was something about the eye test.
Here’s the thing: The eye test is pretty definitive on Shea Weber. He’s awesome.
Weber is everything you dream a No. 1 defenseman will be. He’s huge, can skate, is intimidating and has a shot that nobody on earth wants to step in front of.
But his Corsi number stinks.
This season, when Weber is on the ice, the Predators are taking 50.1% of the total shot attempts. When he’s off the ice, 54.5%. With a brutal -4.4% Relative Corsi, it is easy to understand why a numbers person might raise his hand and ask if someone else should be taking the No. 1 minutes.
After hearing Ray’s anecdote, I decided to dig into his Corsi number.
Evaluating a player based on his Corsi rating is like trying to find your cell phone by having a friend call it. At first, you hear it, but still don’t see it. You don’t usually find the phone until you’ve thrown all the pillows off the couch.
With most players, we know which pillows our phone often falls underneath. We lift them up one at a time: What is his ice time? How often does he start in the offensive zone? What is his quality of competition? Who is he paired or on a line with?
By that time, you’ve usually found it. You can draw a decent conclusion about how a coach feels about his player by those four numbers. Say Player X plays 24 minutes per game, starts in the offensive zone 50% of the time, faces top competition and is paired with another good player. Hazaa, he’s a top pair defenseman.
Now – if his Corsi is good, we figure he’s a star, if it’s bad, he’s not a true top pair defenseman.
The formula generally points us toward the ringing phone.
However, we have to go a little farther to find out why Weber’s numbers don’t match up with his Corsi.
Weber plays a ridiculous amount of minutes with Paul Gaustad, who has a 10.9% Offensive Zone Start percentage. Consider that most fourth line “shutdown” forwards/defensive zone faceoff specialists are somewhere in the 40% range.
Most of these fourth line faceoff men also face mediocre competition at best. Gaustad, however, takes on the opponents’ top centermen pretty often. The only forwards (who aren’t Gaustad’s linemates) on the Predators with higher Quality of Competition (TOI) are James Neal, Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro. And those fellas all start in the Offensive Zone at rates above 64%.
Guess who else faces the toughest competition? You guessed it: Shea Weber.
As you can see, it isn’t close. Weber and partner Roman Josi get the hardest assignments by far.
Quality of Competition shouldn’t be the thing that drops Weber’s Corsi. For most of the elite defenseman in the league, what makes them elite is their ability to continue to tilt the ice despite getting those difficult assignments.
But the difference is those Offensive Zone Starts and who Weber is taking them with: Gaustad.
Having to face top lines in the Dzone so often alongside a fourth liner has an effect on the Predators’ ace defenseman’s Corsi. In fact, when he plays with anyone else, his Corsi is terrific.
Surprise, Surprise, he gets way more offensive zone time with those other players, too.
Starting in the defensive zone as often as he does means it is more difficult to get pucks to the other end of the ice to create shots. What makes that also difficult is that Gaustad is not an offensively skilled player. If you take a defensive zone faceoff and get the puck to Sidney Crosby, he will likely carry it into the other end and get a shot. Weber’s centerman (and other fourth line mates as well) have the assignment to simply get the puck out of the defensive zone and allow the Preds to change. That has a huge effect on Corsi For Per 60 Minutes
Your next question should be: Is this any different from any of the other top defenseman in the NHL?
Looking at a few of the NHL’s top Corsi defenseman, and likely Norris Trophy candidates, Drew Doughty, Johnny Boychuk and Kris Letang, the answer is yes.
Those three don’t have anything even close to a Gaustad to drag their Corsi % into the depths of the Earth.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that Gaustad’s overall Corsi % is a shade higher without Weber than with. The explanation for that seems pretty simple: Weber is always out vs. top competition. If Gaustad is away from Weber, that probably means he’s facing off with a lower line, making it easier to suppress shots and get them.
Notice that before Gaustad’s arrival, Weber still was out for mostly defensive minutes, but had better possession stats.
In 2011-12, his best season, the defensive zone starts were spread over the four centers almost equally. Compare that to his usage this year with Gaustad
Corsi is a tricky bird sometimes. When something doesn’t make sense compared to a player’s reputation, it doesn’t always mean the coach/broadcaster is wrong. It might mean there are abnormal factors at play that are throwing off the numbers.
Is it a sure thing that the Dzone faceoffs with Gaustad are 100 percent of the answer to the Shea Weber Corsi Problem? No. But considering Weber’s past success with Corsi, it seems likely that it isn’t a Weber problem, it’s a usage problem.
Photo via Wiki Commons