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April 7, 2011
Numbers On Ice
The Year of the Two-Way Player

by Tom Awad

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Every era has its dominant paradigm. The 1990's were the era of the elite goaltender, as Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur won 6 of 9 Stanley Cups and provided an unbeatable advantage to their teams. In recent years, with the flattening of the goaltending curve, the focus has been on forwards, especially given the elite play of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk. Last season, the focus was on elite defensemen, like Chris Pronger, Duncan Keith. If the 2010-11 season should be remembered as anything, it should be as the year of the two-way player.

It wasn't shaping up that way three months ago, as it looked to be the "Year of the Crosby", with Sid piling points at a rate not seen in fifteen years and making the MVP race a foregone conclusion. But Crosby's concussion opened the race. MVP voters have historically shown a distinct lack in sophistication, often simply voting for the player with the most points, and this year is no different as Daniel Sedin has established himself as many pundits' favorite. This is silly: while Sedin is an excellent player, his point totals benefit from the purely offensive role he has played, while leaving the defensive cleanup to Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra. If you eliminate goalies from contention because their results are too volatile, then the top MVP candidates this season are the two-way players who have been key to their teams' success: Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Claude Giroux, Pavel Datsyuk, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter and Kesler.

Why do I think these players have been more valuable than Daniel Sedin or Steven Stamkos? Because in an era where no player (other than Ovechkin and Crosby at their best) is head and shoulders above his peers in talent, the ability to excel at multiple facets of the game and to contribute in all situations adds flexibility to a roster. I will use several different advanced statistics to explain why I think these two-way players should be the primary candidates for MVP.

First of all, puck control. We can see that the raw results (Delta) of the Sedins and Martin St. Louis are excellent, but once you factor in Zone Starts, Opponents and Teammates, they are barely above average. Meanwhile, players like Ovechkin, Carter, Kopitar, Datsyuk and Kesler have earned their results.

Second, flexibility. Players are more valuable if they can play on both special teams, unless they are so essential to their team's power-play that they cannot be spared, like Brad Richards. But we see that the Sedins and Stamkos get much less total special teams time than two-way masters Toews, Giroux, Kopitar and the best of them all, Ryan Kesler:

Net penalties is another underappreciated statistic. Once again, Giroux, Ovechkin, Toews and Kopitar shine, although Martin St. Louis has the best numbers of all. The Sedins, once again, fall behind:

And finally, the category that everybody loves, points. To normalize everything as well as I could, I used goals created instead of points; this eliminates the bias in favor of second assists, as people assume that the Sedins' cycling game is favored in collecting second assists. Second, I normalized by ice time, multiplying 5-on-4 ice time by 2.7 given the higher rate of goal scoring with the man advantage. Despite leveling the playing field, Daniel Sedin still shines using this metric, with a league-high 1.08 goals created per 60 minutes. Amazingly, Alexander Ovechkin arrives last out of our elite players by this measure, possibly the only time in his career that a points-based metric has worked to Ovechkin's disadvantage:

So what's the bottom line? I believe the value of Daniel Sedin has been overrated this season by shallow observers who only understand points and team wins, and even by my own GVT metric which currently ranks him first among skaters. Sedin has benefited from an excellent linemate and a cushy role as a purely offensive force, and his contribution in other areas of the game—penalties, penalty killing, faceoffs—has not been as great as other top players. My MVP finalists are Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Claude Giroux, with Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler not far behind. If you force me to pick just one, my vote goes to Toews.

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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