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June 19, 2011
Front Office Focus
Kings Could Get A Discount On Doughty And Simmonds

by Ryan Popilchak

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One of the hardest things to discern when evaluating hockey players is the difference between their performance and their true ability.

Cam Neely once scored 50 goals in 49 games, but he never had another season scoring at that rate. While we could define that as his peak goal-scoring season, Neely's true ability was more likely represented by his career total of 395 goals in 726 games. Even with his career numbers in front of us, it's hard to separate how many of those goals were due to Neely's goal-scoring prowess and how many were due to great passes by Adam Oates. Looking back at Neely's case, we can safely say we saw his true talent, because we saw him at his peak, at more sustainable levels and even playing with different teammates over long periods of time.

Unfortunately for NHL general managers, they are faced with evaluating the true worth of their players with much less information. By the time a player uses up his entry level contract (ELC), there are only three seasons to use as a reference and the player has typically faced the steepest learning curve in his career during that same time. This summer, Dean Lombardi of the Los Angeles Kings will face this sort of dilemma.

Both defenseman Drew Doughty and winger Wayne Simmonds had huge performance jumps from their rookie seasons to their sophomore years in the NHL. However, both players took a step backwards during the 2010-11 season. The agents of said players will angle that their second year performance was the most indicative of their client's talent, while Lombardi will need to decide whether his players peaked early in their careers or just had a down year this past season. That down year could be used to argue for a lower salary during negotiations. So let's take a look at each player individually to decide for ourselves.

Drew Doughty

Drew Doughty has looked like the next great NHL defenseman for the better part of his first few seasons. However, his point production dropped from 59 points two seasons ago to only 40 last year. Suddenly he doesn't look quite as dominant as we all made him out to be. So what happened?

Take a look at some of these stat progressions through Doughty's first three seasons in the league (from earliest to most recent):

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11
Shooting Percentage	4.8%	11.3%	7.9%
Goals			6	16	11

Doughty's shot volume was almost identical each of those three seasons, and his power play time was quite similar over the last two seasons. It's likely he rode some puck luck to his second year goal total. His true talent seems more likely to be similar to his 2010-11 season totals.

Outside of the standard counting stats, Doughty has faced top-pairing quality of competition every year he's been in the league, but look at the offensive zone split of his ice time:

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

Zone Start % 52.8% 56.2% 52.7%

This is yet another reason his sophomore year scoring totals were so high. He was gifted with more offensive ice time and he made the best of it.

So is Doughty more likely to be worth the 12.8 GVT he racked up last season than the 20.0 GVT he hung on the league in his second year? Probably. However, one reason for optimism is his steady improvement in possession statistics:

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

Corsi -1.1 4.9 9.3
Relative Corsi -3.6 5.5 9.1

So despite Doughty dropping his point totals a bit, he is becoming significantly more adept at controlling the flow of play. Given that he's playing top competition each and every game, this progression should be celebrated.

If Lombardi is on his game, he should be negotiating a RFA deal based on Doughty's offensive production dropping slightly, while gaining the benefit of a blue line general who is increasingly dominating the flow of play.

Truth be told, players like Zdeno Chara, Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber have typically had 12-15 GVT seasons of recent with only Keith (and of course Lidstrom) peaking up in the 20 GVT range. Doughty is right in line with those players and deserves a similar salary.

Wayne Simmonds

Wayne Simmonds is a little different situation than Doughty. Obviously, he's not considered an elite player at a young age like his teammate, but he also rode the puck luck a lot harder and hasn't progressed in the fundamentals the same way Doughty has.

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

Shooting Percentage 7.1 12.6 12.0
Goals 9 16 14

Simmonds goal-scoring appears to be exactly what we see. He's a 15-goal scorer who shoots at about a 12% clip. He'll fluctuate around this mark, and could rack up a few more if he ups his shot volume or time on the power play.

That said, how did his point totals drop from 40 to 30 and his plus-minus drop from a stellar +22 to a meager -2 over the last two seasons?

The answer is a massive change in puck luck:

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

PDO 989 1038 1008

For those that don't remember, PDO is the sum of on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage. It regresses heavily to the mean of 1000. Simmonds was nothing more than the beneficiary of some incredible shooting luck by the Kings: in 2009-10, the Kings shot 11.04% with Simmonds on the ice while in 2010-11, that number dropped to 7.66%.

In the same timeframe, his A1/60 (primary assist) rate went from 0.69 to 0.37. In simple English, Simmonds racked up a ton of assists because his teammates were shooting really well. And not only were they shooting well, but unsustainably well. Last season, that number merely came back down to earth.

There is even less explanation when looking at his situational stats:

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

Zone Start % 46.7 50.4 49.5
Corsi Rel QoC 1.3 0.4 -0.1

The quality of competition he has faced over three seasons has progressively gotten easier, although the amount of the difference isn't that high. The same goes for zone starts over the last two seasons, which doesn't show much of a difference:

Season			2008-09	2009-10	2010-11

Corsi -1.9 1.7 -4.0
Relative Corsi -4.2 -0.2 -9.6

From a possession standpoint, Simmonds was a disaster last year. At an age at which forwards are supposed to be making their biggest strides developmentally, he's been going the wrong way.

Dean Lombardi has a chance to save himself some money here. While Simmonds provides solid secondary scoring, he isn't the total package in regards to possession. Lombardi could either play hardball and get Simmonds signed to a low-cap contract or wait for someone else to sign him to an offer sheet and take the compensation for him.

Simmonds' speed can be eye-catching and his goal totals seem to hint that he has some upside in that respect, but the smart money says that letting him walk for a first round pick might be a better decision.

Conclusions

Two players who look to have suffered similar career slumps can have very different underlying reasons and very different projections. In this case they're on the same team, and their GM had better do his homework to make the right decisions.

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

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