Over the past two seasons, Chris Thorburn has spent more games played on one of the top-three lines in 5v5 TOI than the line with the fourth highest TOI. He’s rarely been a healthy scratch, yet all evidence points out to him being one of the weakest links on the team.
If someone were to ask me to quickly summarize the Winnipeg Jets’ chances of making the playoffs in 2017, it would not be too difficult: The Jets are a team that has the horses to make some noise, but it all depends on whether they actually choose the right ones.
The usage of Chris Thorburn is one of those choices that will shape the Jets’ season to come.
I’m not wanting to pick on Thorburn, because he seems like a good guy and tries his best with what he has, but rather point out the decisions Paul Maurice and company need to make. Thoburn is one of many examples of the decision making process that likely prevented the team from being as successful as the rosters could have been.
If the Jets are serious on making the playoffs this year, especially in one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL, Chris Thorburn cannot be a regular dressed for the team.
Visual courtesy of DTMAboutHeart (note: there is a full category above “Good” but did not fit on the graph)
Truthfully, Chris Thorburn is a severe negative impact to the Jets while he is on the ice. The above graph shows Thorburn’s overall impact on Wins in each of his last two seasons and his projected overall impact over the next five.
If the flatness of the line confuses you, it’s because players that have the on-ice impact of Thorburn tend to not play in the future. The slight uptick is actually because the model projects Thorburn retiring being a positive impact on the team. That’s some huge shade for a stats model to fling.
Some will argue that one player will not make or break a team, but it should be noted that three of the twenty largest negative impact on wins seasons for the Jets/Thrashers franchise were Chris Thorburn seasons.
Now, WAR should only be the starting point in player analysis, and some may truthfully point out that fourth line players are expected to be weaker links and relatively speaking poor players.
However, even when taking a deeper look or comparing Thorburn in the context of other fourth line players, the veteran winger negatively impacts the team in an exceptional manner.
Visual courtesy of Own The Puck.
HERO charts would be the next layer in analysis I’d suggest after WAR, looking at the past three seasons in the two primary manners a player promotes wins: scoring and out shooting.
The CorsiFor% and ExpGoalsFor% graphs shows Thorburn’s impact on his linemates, who for the most part are other bottom-six players in a similar role and usage. We see that, on average, Thorburn’s linemates to significantly worse with Thorburn (blue circle) than they do in the minutes away from Thorburn (orange circle).
While Thorburn has been an okay goal, his overall point production relative to his icetime is below average even for fourth line players. His actual impact on shot differentials though is off the charts, and not in a positive manner.
Diving deeper at each level, like other important statistics such as special team’s performance or penalty differentials, do not brighten the outlook any more. Most point him out being a player that should no longer be in the NHL. In fact, Thorburn’s impact on linemate Corsi% over the past three seasons combined is the eleventh worst of the 338 players to skate for at least 1500 minutes.
The truth of the matter is that Thorburn hurts the team in shots and goals.
Even relative to a fourth line player, Thorburn’s impact on the game in every way we can measure currently is extremely negative, and that costs wins.
The Human Effect Impact
I get it, Thorburn is a nice guy, who listens to his coach, earns the respect of young players, and improves the work environment for his teammates. We would be lying to ourselves if character has no impact on an organization.
One of my favourite books on this topic is “The Only Rule Is That It Has To Work” by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. The long story – short version, two sabremetric aficionados run a team strictly by the numbers. Everything starts off well, but things start to fall apart as they ignore the human element. In the end they come to the realization that statistical analysis is not about doing things by the numbers but rather testing hypotheses and theories.
What teams need to do is do what works, and statistical analysis is only about testing what you can measure. Not to ruin the ending, but they ended up doing right when they made this adjustment.
Chris Thorburn looks like a legitimately good guy.
I say that seriously and not in the passively thoughtless manner many do with the typical fourth-line player, just because he is willing to talk to media. He has always seemed honest, charismatic, and genuine in conversations to fans and media. He seems like the guy I would love to have a beer with and pick his brain about hockey, if it were not for the fact that he’d probably smash my cheekbone in… especially after this article.
The issue with the “human effect” is not on whether or not it exists. We know that leadership and a positive work environment is conductive to good results in the workplace. The issue with the human effect is in dressing and overusing the wrong players due to having character excuse poor results.
Thorburn may improve the room culture with his good nature and leadership skills, but his poor impact on the win column likely hurts the room as well, even if his teammates do not realize it.
Visual courtesy of hockeyviz.com
Ken Wiebe, of the Winnipeg Sun, today tweeted out the lines from training camp practice. While nothing is set in stone, these lines give us a look into the mind of Paul Maurice and the players that are likely to make the Jets’ roster by season’s start.
If one were to take the practice lines at face value, it looks like Thorburn makes the team with its current level of healthy players and is a strong candidate when Drew Stafford and Shawn Matthias come to full health. This could potentially be a problem.
Thorburn’s type of character is desirable and one that teams should hope their players try to emulate. He is not without skill either, putting up 203 points in 250 OHL games and 102 points in 211 AHL games. There was a time where Thorburn was a solid choice on a NHL team’s fourth line.
However, Thorburn has since declined significantly. He is a player where his on-ice results suggest he should not be dressed, despite playing more games on the Jets’ third line than on the fourth (see above graph).
There are no excuses available anymore. The organization now has the depth available for superior alternatives, thanks to General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. The Jets have an embarrassment of riches in NHL capable wingers. The time has come to make the right choices for the team.
Thorburn’s character may make him a great to have around the team but his performance makes him a poor option to have on the ice.
This makes Thorburn a prime candidate for the pressbox. In the pressbox, Thorburn’s strength with his good character and leadership skills still helps the team, without the negative impact of him being on the ice. Also, Thorburn’s good character makes him unlikely to turn into a locker room cancer after missing games and playing experience.
Again, we are not trying to beat on Thorburn, as he’s done admirably well with his career and his capabilities. Rather, this is a discussion on how and why the Jets’ should use him differently this season.
Thorburn is a great NHL player off the ice, so the Jets should use him like it.