December 10 2013 02:05PM
Chris Thorburn has spent three games in the Jets' top six, and garnered some contentious praise. On the surface, the idea is laughable. He's been among the Jets' worst players for three seasons, and has never risen above the third line of a horrid Atlanta team in all his career. He's the enforcer of a team that doesn't employ a nuclear option like a John Scott.
Yet his performance has slowly quieted critics, who are now left to grasp at bits of evidence while they wait in cover for their 'I told you so!' moment. Small sample size can disrupt almost any analytical framework, just as Chris Thorburn has gone bull-in-a-corsi-shop and defeated logic with his magical under-helmet flow.
I'm going to put my analysis to the test by predicting that the Chris Thorburn experiment ends early in the second period tonight. Let me tell you why.
Numbers Are Insufficient, but Easy to Write
There are numbers to suggest Thorburn will crash at some point, but we also have to acknowledge that he's a victim of poor fortune and bad linemates on the fourth line.
In his game on the 4th line against the Flyers, Thorburn was on for 10 shot attempts against and exactly 0 for. It's not an uncommon occurance with the Jets' fourth line to play without the puck entirely.
Three games in the top six saw him go 40 attempts for, 34 against. It's an improvement without a multiplier, because 0 times anything is zero (thanks grade 2 math!). Still, for being on the ice for 40 corsi attempts by the Jets through three games, he himself had just 2 shots.
If we expand that, of the 335 Jets shot attempts he's been on the ice for this season and last, Thorburn has attempted 44 of them. That's fewer than one attempt at the net per game (he's played 63 times), and it's considerably lower than even a 1/5th share of the attempts (at just 13%). It's unlikely he's being 'held back' all that much.
By The Power of Vision
But it's a hornet's nest in the math world, and it leads me to cheer against guys just to be right. I choose a fairly intensive eye witness framing and try to fill in the details with numbers.
Chris Thorburn is not used in the breakout on that line. It's a two forward breakout and Thorburn just skates away (by design). He's barely used in the neutral zone, and you can see the Jets give up opportunities to move they puck they might otherwise take just because Thorburn is on the other end of the pass. His work is exclusively in the offensive zone where he does one thing - create space.
He's a big guy with good straight ahead speed, no transition or lateral skating ability, cement-heavy first steps, and the edge work of an elephant. And while his hands are well behind a top-9 forward, they aren't Ben Eager bad, and the puck rarely just skitters away from him or dies because of poor execution. I think it might surprise people who don't watch him carefully, but his greatest asset is that he's not a stupid hockey player.
Where James Wright makes mental mistake after mental mistake and is constantly in some stage of chasing or recovering, Chris Thorburn just isn't an NHL athlete with regard to his body control.
When he plays with Jokinen and Setoguchi, he does everything right - he tramples to the end boards to create a turnover, he tramples to the net to create chaos, he throws picks and hits and collapses defensive triangles and annoys the goaltender. It has given Jokinen and Setoguchi much more room to play.
The problem is that it's going to end tonight. St Louis is large, physical, and structurally disciplined. Chris Thorburn will be going to the net when Jokinen is checked, and he'll be late in transition coming back. He will look confused and unaware, even though it's just his role. His role is not meaningful when it's not combined with other hockey skills in the Western Conference. Other teams have tried, from JF Jacques to Zach Kassian to pick your favourite example. If you're not Lucic or Backes or Chaison or someone with skills AND size, you can't play in a Western Conference top six and survive.
Why the Second Period?
The Jets will look a bit disorganized in the first, as they seem to against St Louis. The question, of course, is how much energy they will have. I trust Noel will give Thorburn his minutes to get his body on people and raise the energy level of the game.
I also trust that Ken Hitchcock will adjust in the second period to dominate that line like the Blues are on a powerplay, and Noel will be forced to sit him after a poor shift or two.
So Then What?
The experiment will end as it began - as a poor idea from a desperate coach with a paper thin roster.
Evander Kane may not be the best linemate for those two - certainly we have a lot of evidence now that Evander Kane plays better with everyone that isn't Olli Jokinen.
A more proactive management team might start looking for a big-bodied winger to take that role while trying Kane on the third line when he returns from injury. Viktor Stalberg is floundering in Nashville, and there is likely regret on both sides (though a large deal and term). Jesse Jonesu has had moments in Edmonton and has very little risk attached. How about Umberger from Columbus, or any of Stafford, Ott, or Luke Adam out of Buffalo?
Your mileage may vary on the specific target, but the Jets are going to have a sudden hole in the their lineup part way through tonight's contest, and we'll be back to watching a 1-line team.
There are lessons to learn from Thorburn's recent success, both good and bad. As always, it's a matter of whether the organization is open to change.