Dustin Byfuglien: He's Always Been This Good

Jonathan Willis
March 13 2012 11:18AM

Dustin Byfuglien has had his share of problems this season. A poor start to the year prompted suggestions that he could be moved up front. An off-season incident raised questions about his maturity level and physical conditioning.

Amid all that, he’s quietly moved past that poor start and had a superb season.

It’s here that I should point out that Byfuglien’s much-publicized poor start was nothing of the sort.

I had a long, detailed take on this fact earlier in the year, and basically narrowed down Byfuglien’s poor plus/minus to a short list of factors:

  • Byfuglien was getting a lot of defensive zone work
  • Byfuglien was routinely playing top opposition
  • Byfuglien had terrible on-ice percentages – numbers that typically normalize over time.

I took another look at things, 20 games into the season.  Already, the narrative about Byfuglien being a defensive liability was starting to crack as his on-ice percentages started to improve.

What about now? Byfuglien’s defensive zone work has eased a little, though he’s still playing frequent minutes against the best opponents. The real shift, however, has been the obvious, predictable return to form of his on-ice percentages. Let’s take a look at that:

Segment GF GA Goal Diff. SF SA Shot Diff. On Ice SV% On Ice SH%
First 10 GP 7 12 -5 103 88 +15 0.864 6.8
Last 43 GP 38 35 +3 470 426 +44 0.918 8.1

Gary Lawless, in his take on Byfuglien’s dominant play, suggests that Claude Noel found a way to reach the player, through positive reinforcement and encouragement to make the safe play. It’s a nice story, because it explains the improvement in an easy to understand way that harmonizes with conventional hockey wisdom. It’s also a story that doesn’t harmonize especially well with the statistics.

The statistics tell us something else. They tell us that when Dustin Byfuglien is on the ice, the Jets have been very good at creating a positive shot differential, which over time leads to a positive goal differential. They tell us that Byfuglien’s “improvement” isn’t so much a result of shifts in his play as it is the percentages normalizing to usual levels.

In other words, the performance of Byfuglien hasn’t shifted; it’s only the perception of that performance that has. He was a good defenseman for those first 10 games, despite the testimony of plus/minus, and he’s been a good defenseman since.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Jeremy
March 13 2012, 02:22PM
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Great post. What I don't understand is why don't MSM use some of this type of information to support there arguments. It doesn't have to be nerdy or too technical, but I really think this type of analysis is much more fair to a player than simply trying to form an opinion based on emotion or small sample sizes.

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#2 Alex Hemsky
March 14 2012, 11:53AM
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Good article.

Something else I just noticed with Dustin's stats: He seems to have High shooting percentages at both ends of the ice. This year he's dead last on the team in on ice SV% and 6th highest in on ice shooting. Last year he's 6th lowest in on ice SV% and 5th highest in on ice shooting.

Would this be are a result of the style he plays? Lots of 5 bell chances at both ends of the ice?

Of course the high percentages could just be caused by only having 2 years worth of data. Time will tell I guess.

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