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Photo Credit: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pilot’s Logbook: Chris Thorburn

The Winnipeg Jets’ 2016-2017 disappointing season finally ended. While the extent of disappointment may be subjective from individual-to-individual dependent on expectations, fans without a single franchise playoff win prefer their seasons to carry some post-season excitement.

So, what went wrong? What went well? How do the Jets measure up against their competition? Which areas actually require improvement relative to others?

If your car breaks down, you need to know what is wrong with it prior to dropping cash to fix it. With that in mind, we continue our in-depth investigation on the Jets’ performance breaking down the team player-by-player from worst-to-best according to statistical impact, with some adjustments made by my own, personal analysis.

Basic Statistics

GP G A P +/- PIM PPG PPP SHG SHP GWG OTG S S%
2016-2017 64 3 1 4 -7 95 0 0 1 1 0 0 36 8.3

Despite starting the season as a healthy scratch, Chris Thorburn dressed for the Jets for 64 games. While his number of games played was high, the pugilistic veteran only skated 446 minutes in total, 386 of those minutes at even strength.

With only three goals, one assist, and 36 shots on net, Thorburn definitely did not provide much help to the team offensively.

Despite being one of the lowest ice time skaters for the Jets, Thorburn carried the second highest total penalty minutes. The 13 majors skews his penalty minutes more than his 15 minors.

Goals Above Replacement

Goals Above Replacement data courtesy of @DTMAboutHeart.

Goals Above Replacement (GAR) combines multiple statistics in terms of one currency, allowing one to estimate a player’s overall impact. It is imperfect, as it combines many imperfect statistics, but it is also a severely useful tool.

According to the model, Chris Thorburn was bad… very bad. In fact, GAR suggests that Thorburn carried one of the NHL’s 20th worst impacts to a team. It goes further to suggest that if the Jets had randomly selected an AHL call-up player to take his minutes and role, the average expected outcome would be the team’s goal differential improving by about 2 goals, or just under one point in the standings.

Now, I fully understand that Thorburn has a lot of characteristics that lends himself to be a coach and locker room favourite. I’m not atheistic to the idea that players carry intangibles that can have a permeating impact to the remainder of the team. The human effect is real. However, these type of intangibles are unknown; their impact on the team is unknown. The purpose of statistics is to provide objective information, limiting the unknowns.

What is not unknown is the impact Thorburn had on ice in terms of how the Jets’ performed in shots, scoring chances, and goals with him skating on the ice.

Thorburn was a below replacement level forward. He was useful defensively, which is not atypical historically speaking… although this season looks to be a bit outlier-ish for extent of impact, so it may be overstating his influence there. His impact through offense and penalties nullifies any potential utility from his defensive contributions.

Advanced Metrics

TOI Corsi% Rel Corsi% xGF% Rel xGF% G/60 A/60 P/60
386.46 44.34 -5.56 43.33 -9.2 0.31 0.16 0.47

Thorburn on ice does not provide much value. He can hit, but overall the opposition controls most of the shots (Corsi) and the Jets do much worse in Corsi with him on the ice versus on the bench (rel Corsi). In addition, accounting for shot quality factors with expected goals only further adds evidence that Thorburn hurts the team significantly while playing.

The winger’s posted career lows in point production and point production pace. His point per hour pace sat just below the median production level of a fourth line player. In other words, the average fourth line player would typically produce twice the amount of points than Thorburn given similar deployment.

Microstatistics

Microstatistics provide a window into the actions that players take that create the results they do in the previous sections.

The game has evolved past Thorburn and other similar players. Thorburn does not carry the ability to process the play quickly or take the right action. We then see Thorburn often defaulting to “safe” plays that look harmless enough but end up hurting the team overall.

Only 29.6 per cent of Thorburn’s defensive touches contributed to defensive zone exits with possession and only 27.6 per cent of his zone entry attempts were with control of the puck. These both ranked lowest of the Jets regular forwards. While chipping the puck out is the preferred outcome over giving away the puck, the process of heavily defaulting to these plays ultimately leads to being the opposition gaining control of the play in the long run anyways.

Cluster playing style denotes Thorburn as a dependent: he does not provide much value in any area. He does not help transition the puck forward, he does not set up players with shot passes, and he does not generate shots himself. The only thing he ranks here as okay in is through dangerous shots, and most of those were from last season and Thorburn has never been much of a finisher to complete those dangerous shots.

Please support @ShutDownLine for his contributions in manually tracking microstatistics.

Final Thoughts

I said this before and I will say it again: all criticism of Thorburn is directed at the faulty managerial processes and decision making that places Thorburn in situations where he’s fighting far above his weight class.

The truth is that Thorburn was once a useful bottom-six forward. The unfortunate part is that time was prior to the Atlanta Thrashers displacement to the middle of Canada. The Jets should never have extended Thorburn. The NHL has moved past using bottom-six forwards that cannot garner the team with meaningful contributions aside from their pugilistic efforts. It’s sad that a small market team like the Winnipeg Jets has been one of the last to evolve here and has not been willing to take risks, push the status quo, and be the first to revolutionize how rosters are constructed.

Moneyball gets quoted sometimes as a story about the statistical revolution in baseball; hockey fans will often argue that the NHL is different and there is no On Base Percentage low-hanging fruit to go after. In actuality, Moneyball was about a small market team that understood that if they looked at constructing a team in the same way as their competition they would lose. The Oakland A’s never won a pennant, but they were ultimately far, far more successful than they ever would have been otherwise.

It saddens me that the Jets have not tried to be innovative in the same way. It is not enough to try and be the better draft and development team. The CBA, with long term team control and salary cap structure, does increase the marginal gains through draft and development, but Chris Thorburn (and others) end up being a microcosm of the Jets’ failure in ingenuity to be the first movers in dressing skill over unknown factors like grit, enforcers, and intangibles.

All numbers courtesy of Corsica.hockey, @ShutdownLine, or @DTMAboutHeart unless otherwise noted.


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