Let’s start this with Phil Kessel. Or Eric Staal. Or somebody with a less impressive name, such as Jim Slater or Cory Stillman or Gregory Campbell. These players have a lot more in common than you might think. But we’ll use Kessel as an example because he’s the star player in the world’s largest hockey market and a frequent earner of criticism and praise from all ranges.
In a January game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings, late in the first period, with the score tied 0-0, on a faceoff deep in the Toronto zone, the draw is won back to King defenseman Rob Scuderi. Kessel, coming to cover his man, cheats towards Drew Doughty, possibly anticipating a pass and looking to capitalize on a turnover and create a rush.
No such play occurs, unfortunately, and instead Scuderi dumps the puck down to Wayne Simmonds, who outworks Dion Phaneuf. Simmonds drags the puck to the front of the net and scores, giving Los Angeles a 1-0 lead.
Phaneuf, being outworked, takes the blame on the goal, victim of a shot that may not have occured had Kessel played his man straight. This is not meant to be an indictment of Phil Kessel’s defensive abilities. Far from it—Kessel’s offensive instincts generated the Leafs a lot of shots last season, just under eight per game, and when Brian Burke traded for a player who could contribute a lot of shots, he knew he was getting back a player who took a few chances to generate chances.
Kessel is not a two-way hockey player, a player who is at a better-than-average shot differential at both ends of the ice most nights. Later in this same game, Kessel’s offensive instincts came to fruition, when he gambled that teammate Darryl Boyce would win a puck battle against Stoll in the Kings end. He found himself an open area of ice towards the front of the net as his man, also making the gamble, started to skate up ice. Boyce’s pass came across the ice and Kessel had little more to beat than his nerves to give Toronto a 2-1 lead in the game.
In another game, perhaps Kessel intercepts that puck at the blueline and scores on a breakaway. Perhaps Boyce doesn’t win that puck battle and get the pass across. When you stumble across a player who has a negative shot differential such as Phil Kessel, the trade-off is that you earn a player whose offensive instincts and shooting ability can hopefully make up for the difference and, over the course of a season, lead to a positive goal differential when he’s on the ice versus when he’s off the ice.
You can separate “plus players” and “minus players” even further, by looking at where there’s room for improvement. Certain players have a positive shot or goal differential, but are clearly better in one category. We can therefore distinguish six major player types:
Two-way player: A plus player who is above average in both offense and defense.
Defensive player: A plus player who is below average offensively, but makes up the difference on defense.
Offensive player: A plus player who is below average defensively, but makes up the difference on offense.
Defensive liability: A player who is above average offensively, but becomes a minus player when you factor in his defense.
Offensive liability: A player who is above average defensively, but becomes a minus player when you factor in his offense.
No-way player: May possess attributes such as “crash” or “spunk”. Many goons fit into this category which encompasses players who are below average in both offense and defense.
You then get into “high event” and “low event” type players among each of the major player types. Compare the “high event, two-way player” Henrik Zetterberg to “low event, two-way player” Adam Hall and you see the gap. Standardizing minutes per game to a similar number seen in lower-tiered first line players, there’s a five shot gap between Zetterberg and Hall per game at both ends, but the two are separated in plus/minus by a small margin.
In September, our last month before hockey season, I will explore how different player types can help us pick apart each team’s strengths and weaknesses, but for now I’ll leave you with the 15 highest and the 15 lowest event forwards and defensemen who played a minimum of 30 games in 2010/2011. This is simply calculating shots for and against, per game, and were taken from Behind The Net. Rather than using a “per 60” measuring stick, I have standardized the time values to note for how much time players from each position play on the ice: 14.65 minutes per game for a forward and 17.5 minutes for a defenseman.
These charts do not at all show player quality, but give us a general idea of the pace of the game when each player was on the ice. Kessel is not on this chart, but he is a relatively “high events” player at 15.73 events.
HIGHEST EVENT FORWARDS:
HIGHEST EVENT DEFENSEMEN:
LOWEST EVENT FORWARDS:
LOWEST EVENT DEFENSEMEN: