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October 27, 2010
Numbers On Ice
What Makes Good Players Good, Part Four

by Tom Awad

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In parts 1 to 3 of this series (which can be found here, here and here, I analyzed how top line forwards, defined as those who get the most even-strength ice time, differ from their peers. We saw in particular that they tend to have better puck control metrics (Corsi and Delta), better finishing ability (on-ice shooting percentage), and much more power-play ice time. Today I will perform the same analysis with defensemen, and we will understand in what ways the selection criteria for good defensemen differ from those for forwards.

As always, data used in this article can be found on Google Docs here.

1. The Data

My philosophy when analyzing data is simple: one player may be a blip, but several players represent a trend. It is often extremely hard to figure out if a player has a particular skill, be it shooting, drawing penalties, or stopping shots at 4v5, because we donít have sufficient data. Therefore, I decided I would look at Good Players (henceforth GPs) as a group. If I aggregate the data of all GPs, Iíll be able to see what characteristics distinguish them from their peers.

To distinguish GPs, I decided to use even-strength ice time. I chose to use even-strength ice time specifically because I want to be able to look for a correlation between special teams ice time and even-strength, and if I sort by total ice time I wonít be able to do that; by definition, players with high total ice time are more likely to have both high even-strength ice time and special teams ice time.

I counted 366 defensemen who played at least one NHL game in the last two seasons. I then sorted them by their even-strength ice time in 2009-10, from Joni Pitkanenís 1184 seconds per game (s/GP) to Maxim Noreauís 203 s/GP (Noreau only played 1 game; in case youíre curious, the ďregularĒ with the lowest ice time was Tim Conboy, who averaged 261 s/GP in 12 games for Carolina). I then summed them into 3 tiers: the 1st tier contained 33% of ice time played by the 62 players with the highest ice time, the 2nd tier contained the next 33% of ice time (75 players), and the 3rd tier contained the last 167 players. I then aggregated the results of all of these players.

2. On-Ice goals and shots for and against

First, letís go with the basic events that happened while they were on the ice:

2009-10 aggregate results

	 GP    TOI (min) GF	GA    EGF   EGA	  Corsi	+/-  Delta  Exp +/- (Corsi)
1st tier 4497  77776	 3166	3040  3045  2986  842	126  59	    67
2nd tier 4695  74550	 2896	2929  2861  2879 -397	-33 -18	   -32
3rd tier 5900  78188	 2895	3058  2902  2991 -964  -163 -88	   -77

2009-10 per-60 min results

	  TOI (s) GF    GA    EGF   EGA	 Corsi	+/-   Delta   Exp +/- (Corsi)
1st tier 1038	  2.44	2.35  2.35  2.30  0.65	0.10  0.05    0.05
2nd tier  953	  2.33	2.36  2.30  2.32 -0.32 -0.03 -0.01   -0.03
3rd tier  795	  2.22	2.35  2.23  2.30 -0.74 -0.13 -0.07   -0.06

The most striking thing about these results is how closely packed they are. The difference between 1st tier and 3rd tier defensemen was only 4 minutes per game, from 13 to 17 minutes, an increase of 30%; by contrast, 1st tier forwards averaged 60% more even-strength ice time than the depth guys. 1st tier defensemen were collectively +126, which is much better than the -163 put up by the 3rd tier guys; however, by contrast, 1st tier forwards were +578 last year!

What does this mean? Is there no difference in skill between defensemen? There certainly is, but there is less spread than among forwards, at least in terms of influencing results at even-strength. Generally speaking, defensemen donít drive the results at even-strength; forwards do, especially, as we saw, top forwards. Other online hockey writers have also arrived at this conclusion (see Vic Ferrari here).

We can see that the results were very similar in 2008-09 as well:

2008-09 aggregate results

	   GP	TOI (min) GF   GA   EGF  EGA  Corsi +/- DeltaExp +/- (Corsi)
1st tier   4301	70834	  2860 2716 2843 2750 1736  144  94	 139
2nd tier   4057	62095	  2449 2444 2390 2421 -994    5 -31	 -80
3rd tier   5071	69764	  2561 2691 2617 2683 -713 -130 -63	 -57
Didn't 
play
in 2009-10 1683	21393	   741  836  787  835 -521  -95 -48	 -42

2008-09 per-60 min results

	   TOI (s) GF	 GA    EGF   EGA   Corsi +/-   Delta  Exp +/- (Corsi)
1st tier   988	   2.42	 2.30  2.41  2.33  1.47	 0.12  0.08   0.12
2nd tier   918	   2.37	 2.36  2.31  2.34 -0.96	 0.00 -0.03  -0.08
3rd tier   825	   2.20	 2.31  2.25  2.31 -0.61	-0.11 -0.05  -0.05
Didn't
play
in 2009-10 763	   2.08	 2.34  2.21  2.34 -1.46	-0.27 -0.13  -0.12

The aggregate +/- and Delta numbers are similar; interestingly, the aggregate Corsi for GPs was much better in 2008-09.

Itís also interesting to see that the players who didnít make it back to the NHL the following year averaged less than 13 minutes a game and had a +/- of -0.27/60 min, both worse than the average 3rd tier defenseman. If youíre dressing for less than 12 minutes a game, getting smoked, and youíre not 19 years old, chances are your NHL career is in danger.

3. Situation, Opponents and Teammates

There are other ways in which GPs differ from their peers, and that is in the caliber of opponents they face.

2009-10 Delta results

			
		DeltaDS	DeltaDO	DeltaDT	 Total
1st tier	7	69	-26	  51
2nd tier	8	21	  4	  33
3rd tier      -15      -94	  8     -101

We can see in the above table that zone starts donít vary much by caliber of defenseman, while GPs tend to play against much stronger opponents, and with somewhat stronger teammates. This is what we expect.

It is at this point that I figured out that something is amiss. Even-strength ice time alone was not an optimal filter of defenseman skill. I decided to try other combinations, and eventually settled on even-strength + short-handed ice time. The results were the following:

2009-10 Delta results

				
		DeltaDS	DeltaDO	DeltaDT	Total1st tier	10       85	-23	72
2nd tier	 5	 16	-16	 5
3rd tier       -15     -105	 26    -94

While this doesnít seem like a big change, the spread in Difficulty of Opposition has gotten 20% wider. We see less spread, but similar trends, in the previous year:

2008-09 Delta results

			
		DeltaDS	DeltaDO	DeltaDT	Total
1st tier       -1	58	-23	34
2nd tier	6	29	-17	18
3rd tier       -5      -56	  9    -51

Thatís the end for now. Next time I will look at Special Teams Ice time, as well as Goals and Assists, and give you my conclusions.

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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