Tobias Enstrom gets no respect around here

It’s not hard to find a lot of disdain on the Winnipeg Jets defenseman Tobias Enstrom.

Look no further than social media on game nights.Whether over Facebook or Twitter, one will find more than just contempt with many placing blame on loses solely on the defender. In reader’s poll for the Winnipeg Sun 68 per cent of those that responded wished for Enstrom to be cut from the Jets

Why the scorn? Is Enstrom really deserving of it?

The truth about fans

The truth about fans is they have the allowance to like or dislike any player of their choosing. There is no wrong with that.

The word fan after-all is short for fanatic.

A “just because” is evidence enough when it comes to needing reasoning like or dislike a player.

However, a players effectiveness and impact on the game is not quite the same. Someone may have any opinion on the matter, but not necessarily an informed opinion or one backed by evidence.

Tobi’s impact on the Jets

When we look at underlying metrics, we start to see the positive impact Enstrom has had on the Jets.

He has the best results of all the Jets left-handed shooting defenders:

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Numbers courtesy of WAR-on-ice.com

The Winnipeg Jets have controlled 51.68 per cent of 5v5 shot attempts with Enstrom on the ice since the move from Atlanta, after adjusting for score-situations. That percentage is 1.69 points higher than the 49.99 the Jets have controlled with Enstrom sitting on the bench. The Jets difference with Enstrom playing versus on the bench is larger than any Jet defender to play 500 minutes, with the exception of Dustin Byfuglien.

Enstrom has produced these results by being the Jets bonafide number one left-handed defender in ice time and match ups.

In fact, everyone does better with Enstrom than apart. On average, Enstrom’s linemates Corsi percentage improves by 1.7 points when with the defender (this is slightly different measure although similar results than relative Corsi).

In fact, every single defender who has played at least 150 mins with Enstrom does better with him than without.

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Numbers courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com, and Byfuglien minutes include both as forward and defender (which actually underrates the difference)

While Enstrom started off slow, he’s already the Jets second best in Corsi percentage (53.16), Corsi differential (+24), on-ice versus on-bench relative Corsi percentage (+2.30).

Goals versus Corsi

People often forget why we talk about and use Corsi.

It’s not because we care about shot attempts or possession more than goals, but that goal impact takes a long while to normalize and have the white noise of randomness wash out.

In other words, Corsi likely tells you what goal will look like in the long run.

Another way to look at it is that when goals and Corsi differ, Corsi will be right far more often than goals about a player’s true impact and talent level.

However, sometimes they do say the same thing.

Enstrom’s goal differential for 5v5 situations is +16 since 2011, with the next best Jet sitting at + 7. For all minutes which includes special teams, Enstrom’s +34 goal differential is second only to Byfuglien’s massive +54, with the next best Jet –Paul Postma– sitting at +5.

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Numbers courtesy of WAR-on-ice.com

Of course, part of the reason why Enstrom’s differential sits so high is due to playing a tonne of minutes. At 243, Enstrom has dressed for the third most games of any defender to don the polar night blue.

Still, the Jets have controlled 52.29 per cent of 5v5 goals with Enstrom on the ice, more than even his Corsi percentage. The Jets control 3.28 percentage points more with Enstrom on the ice than on the bench. So even accounting for TOI, his impact has been positive.

Contract value

One common concern with Enstrom is that he has been the Jets highest paid player.

Enstrom put up big points in Atlanta. He paced at about 44 point per 82 game pace as a Thrasher, twice topping 50 points. In Winnipeg Enstrom’s point high has been 33.

Part of that production drop though has been artificially deflated due to injuries and a lockout shortened season. Enstrom’s point production per 82 game has only fallen to 33 points.

One of the primary reasons for Enstrom’s point production drop is due to a decrease in power play ice time. The Thrashers leaned heavily on their first power play unit, while the Jets have been far more open to using their secondary unit with improved scoring depth. The Jets also have moved into using four-forward units as well, which is backed as the superior tactical move by statistics.

At even strength, Enstrom has dropped in production, but still producing like a top pair defender:

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Numbers courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Secondary assists are primary luck driven and can vary greatly. When we look at goals plus primary assists, we see that Enstrom produces per minute of TOI the rate we’d expect for a top pair defender. Although, there are signs of Enstrom aging.

While point production tends to be what garners contracts, it is not the best measure for a players true value in contributions.

Currently the best standard we have for this is the statistic Goals Above Replacement. GAR combines multiple contributions –such as impact on shot differentials, penalty differentials, and finishing talent– and places them into one currency, the estimated impact on the team’s goal differential.

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Numbers courtesy of WAR-on-ice.com

Enstrom was the Jets highest paid defender, and he was also the Jets best defender in impact. Although, it should be noted that Byfuglien would probably have far better numbers than Enstrom had he not been moved to forward.

Why the disconnect

A good example of the eye-test failing is a recent article on The Hockey Writers (which I only link to because of copy right reasoning).

…sometimes, Enstrom shows his veteran side and makes a clever play that allows the Jets to exit the zone easily. At other times (most times), to be blunt, Enstrom is an unmitigated disaster. He gets outmuscled all over the ice, times his pinches poorly, is seemingly incapable of making a tape-to-tape pass, and, due in no small part to his overly long hockey stick, is unable to quickly get a shot away. On the rare occasions when he does shoot, his shots are often easily blocked.

I know Enstrom has his supporters. His underlying numbers and advanced stats are generally considered to be among the Jets strongest, and he is often credited with bringing out the best in Byfuglien, allowing the big man to feel more comfortable playing his game by giving him a safety net. In spite of that, Enstrom is a turnover machine who cannot effectively contain opposing players and is not the same man who could once be counted on for 40 or more points. In short, he is an offensive defenseman who produces no offence.

There are a few reasons why the common layman observation differs from the results.

The largest comes from a focus on the wrong places.

Jack Han, video and analytical coordinator of the McGill Martlet’s hockey team, touched on this subject at Hockey-Graphs. Fans tend to focus on hits, crease clearing, blocked shots, big slap shots, defensive zone coverage, and scoring.

These all play part of the game but the single largest impact that dwarfs all the others is missing: transitional play.

Despite some beliefs, Enstrom is one of the Jets most exceptional transitional defenders. Enstrom consistently has been one of the Jets most effective defender for breakouts, zone entries, and denial of opposition in both of these matters.

But the quote above does touch on some of these, calling Enstrom a turnover machine and incapable of making tape-to-tape passes.

This brings us to our second largest source of issues with the layman’s eye-test: the eye-test recognizes total events, not rates.

Enstrom is noted as a turnover machine, and I bet the person thinks the same as Dustin Byfuglien. Now, both of these defenders do indeed lose the puck often. They also play the most and the Jets have the puck often with them too.

One thing people forget is that good players illicit more opportunities to turnover the puck just by inherently being good players who control the play. This is why the leaders in the NHL for turnovers are usually high-end to super-star players.

To account for this, we can look at how often a player loses possession of the puck in the defensive zone relative to how often they control the puck:

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Numbers courtesy of Corey Sznajder’s All-Three Zones Project covering the 2013-14 season

Despite Enstrom being a “turnover machine”, Enstrom is actually the Jets safest player with the puck on his stick, and also is the most successful in exiting the defensive zone. The often noted “safe” defender Mark Stuart turns out to be the most dangerous.

The third largest source of disconnect comes from the inability to recognize events that never happen.

THW’s author calls Enstrom an offensive defenseman,

While Enstrom has been an effective point scorer, his biggest impact in the game is his defensive impact. Earlier we discussed Enstrom’s impact on his linemates. What we didn’t mention is that his impact is almost purely in defensive impact.

On average, Enstrom’s linemates improve in generating shots by about 0.5 attempts per sixty minutes. In suppression though Enstrom improves his linemates by decreasing shots against by a full 3 attempts per sixty minutes.

This defensive impact is actually one of the greatest in the NHL, ranking 34th of the 177 defenders to play 1500+ 5v5 minutes between 2011-2015. Enstrom sits above players like Zdeno Chara, Paul Martin, and Victor Hedman.

One can always see how a player impacts chances against by how they react to the opponents attempts in the defensive zone, but no one can see the chances that never existed due to not playing in the defensive zone.

There is also biases created by preconceived notions.

Enstrom is small, so he does not fit in the prototypical defender frameset.

Some will consider him too small for the playoffs, and thought the Anaheim Ducks took advantage of him. This is despite the fact that the Jets controlled more of the scoring chances and shot attempts with Enstrom on the ice than on the bench. While Enstrom was below 50 per cent in these metrics and performed worse than his norm, many of the other Jets were even worse.

Some think that teams take advantage of Enstrom’s size by trying to dump the puck in the defensive zone, while the numbers and video shows it is because Enstrom is effective in preventing carries against (which ultimately leads to Enstrom’s strong repression of possession and chances against).

Final Thoughts

The truth is that not everyone eye-test says the same thing.

While many will argue that the eye-test differs than the results with Enstrom, the opinions seem contingent in which part of the game you are looking at.

While Enstrom has a tonne of detractors, there are also many fans of the defender who know what the Swede provides. There also many who fear a Jets defensive core carrying one of Adam Pardy, Ben Chiarot, and Mark Stuart at all times.

Both Paul Maurice and Claude Noel has kept Enstrom on the Jets top pair, while the right shot defender has rotated. The well respected Mike Babcock praised Enstrom as an underrated and elite defender (note: paywall).

Everyone has their biases. Some of these are due to personal preferences and we may weigh events and non-events improperly in trying to gauge a true overall value for a player. This is why the results are important when evaluating a player.

The results do not create opinion but should inform one. If the results differ from opinion, one should ask “why” and investigate further.

While Enstrom is getting long in the tooth, and may not be as effective as he once was, he is still one of the Jets best defenders and deserves more respect than he receives.

  • Great article. It get’s so tiring listening to people complain about Enstrom or suggest trading him. I wish he shot a little more in the offensive zone but thats about it.

    Enstrom takes hits to make a great breakout play in the defensive zone all the time. When he is defending in his zone his stick work and positioning almost always makes up for his lack of size. As well, when he does take the body he almost always seperates the man from the puck as well, sure he doesnt knock them off their feet but we usually gain possession of the puck and isn’t that the point of hitting? We watch Stu run all over the ice to make hits all constantly and the puck ends up in our net.

    Next time someone cries about Toby i’ll simply send them to this post.

    • I don’t want to be an Enstrom hater, but I am. Pure and simple you have to watch his play. Starting with the St Louis game, I’ve been shocked at how bad his awareness is on the ice. Case in point the Fontaine goal from the Minnesota game. Enstrom does not even look around to see if there is a man behind him This is unacceptable in beer league. watch the Coburn goal in St. Louis game. Enstrom has no idea he is standing there. Enstrom simply skates to a “x” on the ice and sticks his stick out hoping to deflect a puck. On the Fleischmann goal in Montreal he stopped skating at center ice. The list goes on and on. He is terrible, but you have to watch him and not the puck to notice.

      So why do people think he’s good? It is similar to Chara. The other d-man does everything. But Chara brings other things to the table. Enstrom brings nothing.

      People can argue with me,but I will say this, “wait for the end of the story to judge Enstrom”. The proof will be in the pudding, just like it was with Jim Slater. When enstrom’s contract is up, he will “retire” and spare himself the embarrassment of not being picked up by another team.

      People think his signing a long term contract suggests his commitment to the team. The reality is, he knows he should not be in the NHL and was more than happy to take advantage of Atlanta.

  • Cfan in Vic

    Great article. Just had this debate with a friend yesterday. He’s so underrated by so many.

    Where are Buff, Trouba, Myers and Chiarot on the zone exit charts? Curious to see how they compare.

  • I find these articles very informative and a refreshing change from predictable msm narratives that are laced thick with over used metaphor.

    I am curious to know though how Toby does defending against one on one rushes…