Pilot’s Logbook: Dustin Byfuglien

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.

Up next: Dustin Byfuglien.

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Basic Statistics

80 13 39 52 +10 117 1 14 0 2 1 0 241 5.4

Byfuglien provides a lot of offense, both in box score stats and otherwise. The big man was 6th in points despite shooting about two percentage points lower than those above him. He put up the league’s second highest shot totals. Byfuglien produced well on the power play, and also chipped in some offense short handed.

Goals Above Replacement

Goals Above Replacement data courtesy of @DTMAboutHeart.

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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.

Often detractors of statistical inference or analytics has suggested Byfuglien as an example of where these tools fall short. Their theory goes that numbers struggle to account for Byfuglien’s sometimes lackadaisical play in the defensive zone.

Not only do I feel they are wrong, but they have it backwards; Byfuglien is an example of analytics strength.

Numbers are a tool, just like the eye-test and traditional forms of scouting. Those trying to diminish the value of statistics may cite that often, but it still holds true. What they ignore, though, is that analytics being a tool has a dismissed connotation: analytics are designed for purposes and has its advantages and uses over other tools.

One of these is understanding defensive impact. In hockey, defensive impact is not just how a skater defends in the defensive zone. Gap control, positional soundness, boxing out, board battles, etc. are all things that factor into defensive impact but is not defensive impact. These are the moments we see and remember. I often call these things defensive plays, to create a separation in nomenclature. See, defensive impact is also the inclusion of all the things that never happened. Your eyes and memory is not designed to grasp the abstract of what never was.

Another is being able to compare two values. There are few fans, scouts, general managers, or coaches that would argue against Byfuglien being considered strong offensively and weak defensively. The issue is in the trade offs. How many goals for vs goals against is Byfuglien worth? That’s where the disconnection happens. Any expert, no matter how much experience, without analytics is merely making a semi-informed guess. They are trying to compare moments that will be fraught with heuristic bias in trying to weigh out different memories against each other.

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Back to our profile, Byfuglien was severely more dichotomous offensively versus defensively than even his own norm.

According to GAR, not one single defender in the NHL had more of a positive offensive impact in the entire NHL. That said, Byfuglien had a terrible defensive impact, below replacement level. While Byfuglien has never been a stalwart defender, the even strength defensive GAR the big man put up was far worse than any other point in his career.

Advanced Metrics

TOI CF% REL CF% G60 A60 P60
1627 50.2 +3.05 0.37 0.66 1.03

Byfuglien may not be the best defensively, but he helps the team more than he hurts. Most of the Jets’ skaters do better with Byfuglien than away. The only exception would be when the skater predominately plays with Trouba while away from Byfuglien.

A 1.03 5-on-5 point per hour pace places Byfuglien above the league average for first pairing defenders, although is a bit low than his historical norm. The previous three seasons Big Buff produced 1.18 points per hour. While he still is one of the best shot volume producers in the NHL, Byfuglien’s shots per hour rates have been dropping slowly over his time as a Jet.

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Visual is for minutes played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 combined.

Offensively speaking, Byfuglien is a shot volume defender, which comes as a surprise to no one. However, Big Buff is underrated for his playmaking abilities and producing primary shot assists and building up the play. The graph suggests Byfuglien does not produce much in terms of dangerous shots, but this is in terms of puck movement prior to shot, not location. Byfuglien generally improves shot quality through driving along the wall and producing more shots close to the net.

It may be surprising to some, but Byfuglien actually performs fairly well in defensive zone exits. While carrying a reputation for giving away the puck, Byfuglien actually has one of the highest number of defensive zone exits per puck possession, and is fairly average in terms of the percentage of these being with possession of the puck. His actual failure rate, most of which would be giveaways, is at team average, but he carries the largest number of defensive zone failures through sheer volume of ice time and number of puck possessions.

You carry the puck often enough and you will both do good and bad often.

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Byfuglien does well in producing zone entries relative to ice time and is one of the Jets best in making these entries be with the Jets possessing the puck. His number of entries producing a successful pass prior to a shot is a tad lower, as Byfuglien enjoys driving to the net and producing his own shots. The best anecdote though is Byfuglien successfully retrieving dump-ins on six separate occasions; the Jets’ own forechecking defender.

Please support Corey Sznajder (@ShutDownLine) for his contributions in manually tracking microstatistics. He has a Patreon page where you can make a donation for his tireless work supporting the community. Also, give Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp) a follow.

Final Thoughts

Byfuglien is a fairly rare specimen, both physically, stylistically, and statistically.

His offensive presence is among the best in the league. When needing a goal, there are very, very few in the league that perform as well or better than the big number 33. His defensive play and defensive impact are another matter. He will never be a stalwart defensive defender, but it is true that historically Byfuglien has been much better.

While age degeneration is a legitimate concern with such a large defender on the wrong side of thirty-years-of-age, I truly believe that we will see a bounce back with Byfuglien. I believe that circumstances played a huge role in the results we saw with Byfuglien this year.

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Byfuglien is a risk taker, and he takes these risks to produce offense, but there is a trade off. The Jets last season had absolutely no goaltending; Connor Hellebuyck played like Ondrej Pavelec, while Michael Hutchinson and Pavelec played even worse. This caused the team to trail often and trail early. Trailing incentivizes players to play in a particular manner. Often we find teams trailing produce higher shot volumes for but in turn increase their opponent’s expected shooting percentage… we call this “score effects” in hockey analytics lingo.

The Jets also had depth issues at defense. Jacob Trouba sat out at the start and Tyler Myers rarely played this season. While Paul Postma is a suitable replacement, the Jets’ coaches seemed to have no faith in his play despite consistently positive results year-after-year.

These factors combined ultimately to create a situation where Byfuglien played more than his fair share of minutes while also having higher offensive pressure relative to defensive pressure. Fatigue sets in and already Byfuglien would be playing risky. This is why I think that Byfuglien’s results should improve next year, as his playing style and incentives should change with better goaltending performance and better health for his teammates.

Last year, in terms of impact, the Jets essentially carried an elite #1 defender (Trouba), two #3 defenders (Morrissey and Byfuglien), two #5 defenders (Postma and Enstrom), a #6 (Chiarot), and a bunch of AHL fodder.

With no changes or additions, I already believe the Jets should see huge improvements in their impact from their defenders.

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Trouba should continue being himself, while Morrissey could develop into a true #2 in terms of impact as early as next season. Historically speaking we should expect around 10 goals above replacement from Byfuglien, which would place him 25th overall last season for defenders. Enstrom will likely bounce back by a far lesser extent than Byfuglien, but could be a decent number #4. Myers coming back would introduce a huge improvement as well, as he typically garners the same goals above replacement the Jets’ received from Enstrom this last season.

All numbers courtesy of Corsica.hockey, @ShutdownLine, or @DTMAboutHeart unless otherwise noted. Please follow them all.

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