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March 25, 2010
Numbers On Ice
The Toughest Jobs In The NHL

by Tom Awad

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I recently ran across an article at ontheforecheck.com titled Ranking the NHL’s Least Valuable Players, which is an exercise that I find interesting if not necessarily kind to the players targeted. While reading the article, the first thing that came to mind was: “He hasn’t adjusted for anything!”. For those who won’t take the time to check out the article, Dirk Hoag, a blogger whom I very much enjoy, uses on-ice vs. off-ice goals-for and goals-against to rate players. I also have a relative plus-minus metric, which I find useful but would never use to anoint the NHL’s best and worst players. At the other end of the spectrum, Gabriel Desjardins ran an article on how to adjust Corsi numbers for QualComp (opponent strength) and Faceoff start position. This inspired me to figure out which NHL players actually have the toughest jobs; these will tend to be the players whose raw stats (Goals, Assists, Plus/Minus) would be least impressive versus the work they actually accomplish. In particular, I was curious to find out how Scott Niedermayer, who was ranked among the NHL’s least valuable players, would fare by this metric.

To do this, I simply ranked players by how their Delta was affected by Situation and Opponent Strength. Because of this choice of definition, most of the players on my list will be good defensive players, those that play against quality opponents and start many faceoffs in the defensive zone. As a note, because Delta adjustments of opponent strength are absolute, not relative, the list will tend to be dominated by players from the Central and Pacific divisions, the two toughest divisions (the Central would probably be the best division in the league if its teams received the same caliber of goaltending as the Pacific teams do). Also, because good teams are in the offensive zone often, their players will appear to have easier jobs.

Legend:

FO: Faceoff Zone Rating

Opp: Opponent Strength

Toughest jobs in the NHL    5-on-5   4-on-4    5-on-4	 4-on-5	  Combined
RK Player	     P Team FO  Opp  FO   Opp  FO   Opp  FO   Opp FO  Opp Total
1  BARRET JACKMAN    D STL  1.8 2.8 -0.1  0.3  0.4 -0.1  1.1  1.0 3.2 4.0   7.2
2  SCOTT NIEDERMAYER D ANA  1.0 3.4 -0.2 -0.5 -0.3 -0.4  1.1  2.1 1.6 4.6   6.2
3  STEPHANE ROBIDAS  D DAL  1.0 3.0  0.2 -0.3  0.3  0.4  1.3 -0.1 2.8 3.0   5.8
4  JAMES WISNIEWSKI  D ANA  0.6 2.3 -0.1 -0.3  0.8 -0.4  0.7  2.0 2.0 3.6   5.6
5  DAVID LEGWAND     C NSH  1.6 2.6  0.0  0.0  0.1  0.7  0.3  0.1 2.0 3.4   5.4
6  ROMAN POLAK	     D STL  2.5 2.5 -0.1  0.2  0.2  0.1 -0.1  0.1 2.5 2.9   5.4
7  RYAN SUTER	     D NSH  1.0 2.4  0.0  0.2  0.3  0.8  0.2  0.4 1.5 3.8   5.3
8  JOEL WARD	     R NSH  1.2 3.3  0.0 -0.1  0.2  0.1  0.4  0.1 1.8 3.4   5.2
9  TODD MARCHANT     C ANA  1.9 0.4 -0.2 -0.2  0.2  0.0  1.5  1.6 3.4 1.8   5.2
10 JAY MCCLEMENT     C STL  1.0 1.3  0.0  0.1  0.3 -0.1  1.2  1.3 2.5 2.6   5.1
11 SHAWN HORCOFF     C EDM  0.9 1.7  0.1  0.3  0.3 -0.4  1.3  0.9 2.6 2.5   5.1
12 MARC STAAL	     D NYR  0.5 2.6  0.0  0.2  0.6 -0.3  0.9  0.3 2.0 2.8   4.8
13 SCOTT HANNAN	     D COL  1.2 1.2  0.4  0.2  0.5  0.1  0.4  0.4 2.5 1.9   4.4
14 MICHAL HANDZUS    C LAK  0.6 1.2  0.0 -0.2  0.3  0.5  1.5  0.5 2.4 2.0   4.4
15 SHEA WEBER	     D NSH  1.1 1.6  0.0  0.0  0.5  0.7  0.2  0.2 1.8 2.5   4.3
16 GREG ZANON	     D MIN  1.1 2.5 -0.1  0.1  0.4  0.1 -0.3  0.4 1.1 3.1   4.2
17 JAN HEJDA	     D CBJ  0.5 2.4  0.2  0.3  0.0  0.1 -0.1  0.8 0.6 3.6   4.2
18 KEVIN KLEIN	     D NSH  1.3 2.5  0.0  0.1  0.3 -0.1  0.2 -0.2 1.8 2.3   4.1
19 ZBYNEK MICHALEK   D PHX -0.1 2.7 -0.2  0.0  0.5  0.3  0.0  0.9 0.2 3.9   4.1
20 CHRIS PHILLIPS    D OTT -0.1 1.6  0.1  0.3  0.3  0.3  1.0  0.6 1.3 2.8   4.1
21 ANTON VOLCHENKOV  D OTT  0.1 1.4  0.1  0.6  0.3  0.2  0.9  0.4 1.4 2.6   4.0
22 JOHN MADDEN	     C CHI  1.5 0.4  0.1  0.2  0.0  0.1  0.6  0.9 2.2 1.6   3.8
23 MARTIN ERAT	     R NSH  0.8 1.6  0.0  0.0  0.8  0.9 -0.3 -0.2 1.3 2.3   3.6
24 CHRIS DRURY	     C NYR  1.3 0.3  0.0  0.0  0.6  0.1  1.0  0.2 2.9 0.6   3.5
25 BRENDEN MORROW    L DAL  0.3 1.5  0.1  0.1  0.3  0.8  0.6 -0.2 1.3 2.2   3.5

I guess that answers the Niedermayer question! The aforementioned biases show up in the list: only 1 of the top 19 players is from the Eastern Conference, and 6 of the top 25 are Nashville Predators! But the names on the list are probably a surprise to nobody: Barret Jackman, Marc Staal, Greg Zanon, Jan Hejda, Zybnek Michalek, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are known as solid defensive defensemen who can be trusted to shut down the opposition’s top line. Michal Handzus, John Madden, Brenden Morrow and Chris Drury have a well-earned reputation as solid defensive forwards. There have been about 500 articles on the Oilogosphere in the last 5 years indicating how solid Shawn Horcoff is defensively. Some of these players, like Jackman and Marchant, are played only in defensive situations because they lack offensive ability; others, like Weber and Niedermayer, excel in all situations but are trusted with the toughest matchups.

An aside on Barret Jackman. Although Mike Green is probably the most controversial defenseman in the NHL, Jackman is #2. I have had Blues fans write in to me to tell me how Jackman was overrated, that he shouldn’t get credit for the fact that his coach chooses to play him 23 minutes a night, etc. I won’t dispute that Jackman has very limited offensive ability, and as such can never be the same kind of #1 defenseman as Lidstrom, Weber or Drew Doughty. But Jackman plays tough minutes against good players and acquits himself quite well under the circumstances. His total DeltaSOT under the 4 manpower situations this season is +2.7, and last season was +3.9, indicating above-average play despite his long minutes.

Since I’m sure you want to know, even if you won’t admit it: the easiest jobs in the NHL.

Legend:

FO: Faceoff Zone Rating

Opp: Opponent Strength

Easiest jobs in the NHL	       5-on-5	 4-on-4	   5-on-4    4-on-5    Combined		
RK Player	       P Team  FO   Opp	 FO   Opp  FO	Opp  FO	  Opp  FO   Opp	Total
1  MATT CARKNER	       D OTT  -0.9 -3.1	 0.0  0.1  0.1	0.1 -0.5  0.0 -1.3 -2.9	 -4.2
2  BRIAN CAMPBELL      D CHI  -1.5 -1.8	-0.1  0.4 -0.7 -0.1 -0.1 -0.1 -2.4 -1.6	 -4.0
3  MATT NISKANEN       D DAL  -0.7 -2.3	-0.1 -0.1 -0.4	0.1  0.0  0.0 -1.2 -2.3	 -3.5
4  SHANE HNIDY	       D MIN  -0.3 -2.4	 0.0 -0.1  0.2 -0.7 -0.2  0.0 -0.3 -3.2	 -3.5
5  TOMAS KABERLE       D TOR  -1.4 -1.3	 0.0  0.3 -0.7 -0.4  0.1  0.0 -2.0 -1.4	 -3.4
6  PATRICK KANE	       R CHI  -2.5  0.8	-0.1  0.0 -1.2 -0.1 -0.2  0.0 -4.0  0.7	 -3.3
7  PATRICK SHARP       R CHI  -2.3 -0.3	-0.3  0.3 -0.4	0.1 -0.6  0.3 -3.6  0.4	 -3.2
8  ALES KOTALIK	       R NYR   0.1 -1.1	 0.0 -0.1 -0.4 -1.6  0.0 -0.1 -0.3 -2.9	 -3.2
9  ERIK JOHNSON	       D STL  -1.2 -0.3	 0.0 -0.2 -0.6	0.0 -0.4 -0.5 -2.2 -1.0	 -3.2
10 MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO   D NYR  -0.9 -0.7	-0.1  0.1 -0.7 -1.1  0.0  0.3 -1.7 -1.4	 -3.1
11 BRYAN MCCABE	       D FLA   0.7 -1.6	 0.0  0.1 -2.2 -0.1  0.0  0.1 -1.5 -1.5	 -3.0
12 ALEXANDRE PICARD    D OTT  -0.4 -1.6	 0.0  0.3 -0.2 -0.2 -0.3 -0.6 -0.9 -2.1	 -3.0
13 JONATHAN TOEWS      C CHI  -2.3  0.6	-0.1  0.0 -1.4 -0.1 -0.1  0.5 -3.9  1.0	 -2.9
14 AARON WARD	       D CAR   0.3 -0.9	 0.0 -0.3  0.1 -0.1 -0.8 -1.1 -0.4 -2.4	 -2.8
15 KRIS RUSSELL	       D CBJ  -0.5 -2.0	 0.0  0.1 -0.1 -0.3 -0.1  0.1 -0.7 -2.1	 -2.8
16 BEN EAGER	       L CHI  -0.8 -2.0	 0.0  0.0  0.0	0.0  0.0  0.0 -0.8 -2.0	 -2.8
17 TOMAS KOPECKY       R CHI  -0.2 -2.4	 0.0  0.0 -0.1 -0.1  0.0  0.0 -0.3 -2.5	 -2.8
18 MARC-ANDRE BERGERON D MON  -0.1 -0.8	 0.0 -0.2 -1.1 -0.3 -0.1 -0.2 -1.3 -1.5	 -2.8
19 ANDREW ALBERTS      D CAR  -0.2 -1.6	 0.1 -0.1  0.0	0.1 -0.2 -0.8 -0.3 -2.4	 -2.7
20 CHRIS CAMPOLI       D OTT  -0.9 -2.4	 0.1  0.0  0.4	0.3 -0.1 -0.1 -0.5 -2.2	 -2.7
21 DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN    R CHI  -0.2 -1.4	 0.0 -0.2 -0.8	0.0  0.0  0.0 -1.0 -1.6	 -2.6
22 SHAWN THORNTON      L BOS  -0.3 -2.4	 0.0  0.0  0.2 -0.1  0.0  0.0 -0.1 -2.5	 -2.6
23 MIKE GREEN	       D WSH  -1.2 -0.1	 0.1  0.4 -0.4 -1.0 -0.6  0.2 -2.1 -0.5	 -2.6
24 IAN WHITE	       D TOR  -2.0 -0.6	 0.0 -0.1  0.3	0.1 -0.2  0.0 -1.9 -0.6	 -2.5
25 ALEXANDER EDLER     D VAN  -1.3  0.2	 0.0 -0.1 -0.7 -0.3  0.1 -0.4 -1.9 -0.6	 -2.5

Again, some team bias is seen here. There are 7 Blackhawks on the list, mainly because the Hawks always control the puck and thus are always in the opponent’s zone. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane all make this list even though they play against above-average opposition. We see the limited confidence Cory Clouston has in Matt Carkner and Alexandre Picard. We also see offensive specialists like Brian Campbell, Tomas Kaberle and the ever-controversial Mike Green. While some will take this as an indictment of Green, I’m not as sure: why would you put Mike Green on for a defensive-zone faceoff when there are good odds an offensive rush is coming up and you can keep him fresh? Both Green’s and Campbell’s teams have used them successfully this season with spectacular results, but the fact remains they’re not trusted with the most dangerous tasks.

So the next time somebody points out to you that Scott Niedermayer’s team does better with him off the ice, or that Jan Hejda’s -14 means he’s “poor defensively”, just remember: not everybody is paid to do the same job.

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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