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2011-12 Canadiens Review: First Line Forwards

Evaluating players is a tricky business, but today we have a lot more information at our disposal than we used to that can help us out. So just how did the Canadiens forwards compare league wide in 2011-12? Who are each player's peers?

Uh, Tomas, what are you doing here?
Uh, Tomas, what are you doing here?
Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE

I have a feeling that 2011-12 will be the most analyzed season in modern NHL history for a few years running. The wealth of statistical information we have at our disposal nowadays compared to years past, the amount of analysts out there and the desire amongst those in the statistical community to find some new, better way to evaluate player worth are driving factors. Oh yeah, and the late start to the 2012-13 season giving us extra time to look back on the last hockey season or any season in general has given us way too much time on our hands to try new things out.

So here I go with my best crack at it. One of the reasons I haven't finished the 2003 Re-Draft series is because I liked the concept of ranking players so much in comparison to the rest of the league that I decided to try a fairly extreme methodology in assessing player value in doing so. The scoring system I used in the 2003 Re-Draft simply stated that in every year, the value of a top line forward vs. a third line forward would change slightly, that simply looking at statistical totals you couldn't necessarily guess it. In 2011-12, 52 points placed you in the top 90 in NHL scoring, 51 points did the trick when you just focused on forwards. In a 30 team league, top 90 in scoring logically implies you were a top 3 forward in terms of point production. That figure was actually the same in 2007-08, for example, but I doubt many people consider 51 points as first line production in their head. And it's simply only one measure by which a player can be judged.

Given the amount of information that we have, I came up with a massive master list to judge the contribution of players and try and find an approximate rank for all of their contribution. It's not an all inclusive ranking like WAR is in baseball, as the difference between player 50 and player 130 might be much closer than the difference between player 2 and player 60 in actual fact. But it should give you a good idea of where a player fits into the picture.

I've only just started scratching the surface here, in total in the NHL last year there were 597 different forwards to judge so this takes a while, but I have some results that I thought might be of interest to share. Let's look at the two forwards that the Canadiens had last year that come out of this as first line level contributors, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. League rank (out of 597 forwards) in the category is shown:

ES Scoring Rankings - Forwards
Player ES Mins ES TOI/GP ESG/60 ESA/60 ESP/60 ESG ESA ESP Score
Max Pacioretty 60 72 16 132 30 4 66 21 6.0
Erik Cole 37 66 45 147 76 15 70 35 5.0

Based on scoring rates, Max Pacioretty's offensive production at even strength was amongst the 24 best in the entire NHL, which I judge to be an "All-Star" level contribution (2 teams of twelve forwards make up an All-Star squad) and hence an overall 6.0 score. Erik Cole's overall production was a bit below that but still in the top 90 range for forwards in the league, and hence he gets a 5.0 score for a first line contribution. This is a pretty simple ranking, essentially all I did was total each category together and the forwards were ranked from lowest to highest number, and then a score was assigned to them based on where they finished.

But those that follow this site know that simple scoring statistics aren't good enough for us, we always want context. So here we go with that end of the spectrum, which required judgments on my behalf to determine which was a more impressive contribution. I've shown both the league rank for the category out of the 597 forwards as well as the rank amongst players in the top 90 for minutes played at even strength for comparison (in brackets). For an explanations on the terms used here, you can refer to Andrew's handy glossary.

ES Advanced Stats Rankings - Forwards
Player Corsi Rel QOC Pen Diff ZS% PDO Corsi On Rel Corsi Goal Diff Avg On Rel GDA Fenwick On/60 Rel Fen Score Adv + Scoring Final Rank
Max Pacioretty 310 (86) 130 (24) 262 (26) 210 (41) 162 (41) 68 (19) 164 (43) 123 (28) 206 (47) 95 (22) 5.0 11.0 30th
Erik Cole 327 (88) 162 (31) 326 (37) 139 (24) 177 (46) 70 (20) 109 (28) 68 (12) 212 (49) 98 (23) 5.0 10.0 43rd

As always, these rankings require more subtlety. We see that despite being 37th and 60th in total minutes played at even strength and getting around 2nd and 3rd forward type minutes played per game in comparison to the league average (as shown in the first table), Pacioretty and Cole were used in a very exploitative role by the Canadiens opponents wise. Most players that play this much have to play against players that are better than what 67 and 72 faced, as they were both in the bottom five of the best quality of competition metric we have (Corsi Rel QOC). That said, they both fared quite nicely against the level of competition, and they faced tougher zone starts than the average first line forward as well (26th and 37th toughest). When you add in their strong tendency to draw more penalties than they took themselves (penalty differential), they look like they were able to meet the expectations of a first line forward. The level of competition partly explains their strong scoring rates (especially Pacioretty's top 24 level ranking), but in general this is a top forward contribution.

After a series of tiebreakers, I came up with a master overall ranking for forward contributions using these categories (as well as some of the categories that make these up). As you can see, Pacioretty came out as the 30th most valuable forward at even strength, while Cole came in 43rd. These were the only two Canadiens forwards to crack the top 90, and given the Canadiens placement in the standings, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that the Canadiens didn't have more than 2 top 90 forwards while top teams like Boston, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and San Jose had five each.

Comparables and Conclusions

So what does that exactly mean? Who do Pacioretty and Cole exactly compare to? Well, here's an idea:

The closest comparable to Pacioretty's contribution at even strength was former Canadiens winger Michael Ryder of the Dallas Stars. Both were given a score of 6 for their scoring and a 5 for their underlying numbers, and Ryder finished just one spot below Pacioretty in overall ES scoring in both points and goals. Ryder placed 31st in the league forward rankings in what was an excellent season for the journeyman winger. Sitting one spot ahead of Pacioretty was long time NHL star Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was given the same scores as Pacioretty but ended up with more points at even strength. Other players around Pacioretty in the rankings included Valterri Filppula, Marian Gaborik, David Krejci and Evander Kane.

For Erik Cole, he ended up in a much broader category of first line forwards with his 5+5 rating, and so comparables aren't an exact science at this point. There is no Ryder type that very closely matches the usage of Cole here, but contribution wise we can say that he was in the same range as veteran star Jarome Iginla (42nd), breakout Islanders winger P.A. Parenteau (40th), Bruins super-pest Brad Marchand (44th), and unheralded Sabres star Jason Pominville (46th). Devils forwards Zach Parise (41st) and Patrik Elias (45th) round out the comparable players.

Next up, we'll look at Canadiens forwards that ended up classified as second line forwards for 2011-12.

End Note: The goal of this exercise isn't necessarily to rank the players definitively, but give a better idea of what players were similar to each other while balancing the contribution over a full season with how good they were in the games they did play. When we add in special teams contribution, we should have a much clearer understanding of the relative value of players in any given year.