The things Phil Kessel can't be

Cam Charron
July 03 2012 11:26AM

What shocks me the most about living in Toronto is the way people view Phil Kessel. I've gone on about this topic before in this space. Basically, Kessel's portrayal in the Toronto media borders on unfair, but the reality of the situation is that Kessel isn't a play-driving, two-way winger and his line needs a centreman to improve its defensive play.

I've also wondered aloud on occasion as to whether a winger exists at the NHL-level that can score a high number of goals and be good enough defensively, to be the sort of player that Toronto fans expect. I found one after a search.

In the last four seasons, there have been 17 wingers who were Top Five among wingers in goal-scoring. I included ties. There are four who match this description multiple times: Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Gaborik, and Corey Perry.

Out of these 17 players spread across 23 player seasons, I went to Behind The Net and checked underlying numbers to measure their defensive play to determine there was such a thing as a consistently high-scoring, play-driving, defensively-oriented scoring winger:

Here's the big list. [This is the meat. Skip to the conclusion below the charts if numbers aren't your thing]

Player Year Goals Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC Ozone%
Ovechkin 10 50 19.7 0.143 55.6%
Parise 9 45 16.3 0.436 51.8%
Perry 12 37 15.9 0.905 48.6%
Ryan 11 34 14.2 0.451 53.7%
Grabner 11 34 13.5 0.527 44.3%
D. Sedin 11 41 13.3 0.174 74.5%
Ovechkin 9 56 12.3 -0.366 58.3%
Hartnell 12 37 9.6 0.502 52.2%
Hossa 9 40 9.2 0.931 51.2%
Perry 11 50 7.9 0.630 46.8%
Nash 9 40 5.9 0.436 51.4%
Semin 10 40 4.9 0.463 54.0%
Gaborik 10 42 4.6 0.976 58.6%
Kovalchuk 12 37 4.1 0.553 56.2%
Neal 12 40 3.9 0.349 64.4%
Kessel 12 37 3.2 0.337 54.3%
Kovalchuk 9 43 1.4 0.118 45.0%
Gaborik 12 41 1.3 0.495 63.0%
Vanek 9 40 0.8 -0.505 49.6%
Heatley 10 39 0.1 1.077 50.4%
Kovalchuk 10 41 -0.1 0.174 50.7%
Iginla 11 43 -1.4 0.787 52.9%
Ovechkin 12 38 -3.4 -0.360 52.7%

Kessel's 2012 season is below average in this group. He was tied for fifth among wingers in scoring, but his relative Corsi, a shot-differential metric, wasn't exceptionally high. A lot of scoring wingers, playing favourable offensive minutes with a high offensive zone start rate [Ozone%], generate very high Relative Corsi numbers.

There are some exceptions on the list. Using some discretion, I filtered out the players who I judged to be good defensively, based on a combination of their puck-possession metrics, quality of competition [Corsi Rel QoC] and offensive zone start rate.

Player Year Goals Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC Ozone%
Gaborik 10 42 4.6 0.976 58.6%
Grabner 11 34 13.5 0.527 44.3%
Hartnell 12 37 9.6 0.502 52.2%
Heatley 10 39 0.1 1.077 50.4%
Hossa 9 40 9.2 0.931 51.2%
Kovalchuk 9 43 1.4 0.118 45.0%
Ovechkin 10 50 19.7 0.143 55.6%
Parise 9 45 16.3 0.436 51.8%
Perry 12 37 15.9 0.905 48.6%
Perry 11 50 7.9 0.630 46.8%
Ryan 11 34 14.2 0.451 53.7%

From this angle, things look a bit neater. These players faced a little stronger defensive situations, and I filtered out those who did less than tread water. Kessel's 2012 season is removed. But so are a lot of other seasons.

Scott Hartnell and Corey Perry were the only two wingers that matched the description that people expect out of Kessel this year: high-scoring, and drove play in tough situations. A quick WOWY check showed that they were symbiont with their respective centremen, Claude Giroux and Ryan Getzlaf, rather than anchors or backpackers.

Perry is the only player who has done it consistently, however. Now that Ovechkin has tailored off, he's still elite, mind you, but his formerly dominant goal totals now merely great, is Corey Perry the new elite winger in the NHL? It appears that he's a cut above, eating some tough minutes in Anaheim and also managing to score 87 goals over the last two seasons.

And even then, Perry doesn't have an ability to lead his team to the playoffs every season. The Leafs tied the Ducks in points with 80, and won one more game.

I'm worried that the Toronto market expects too much out of Phil Kessel. No scoring winger is God, as it seems. My method is very quick and amateurish, I'll admit, but you can't clearly state that there are a whole pack of elite wingers who are consistently in a higher tier. Centremen, not wingers, have the major responsibility on a hockey team.

More importantly, the team is important. Teams make the playoffs and win Stanley Cups, not players. There are several terrific hockey players on bad teams, Perry being one of them, who are forced to sit out in the playoffs for many reasons. These Toronto Maple Leafs are a top centreman, top defenceman and top goaltender away from competing. Kessel can't do all these things at once. He did his job, scoring goals, last season. It's up to the rest of the team, whoever is on it, to do the rest.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Eric T.
July 03 2012, 11:43AM
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I'm a little confused at the final cut, to be honest.

Why is Hartnell (9.6 Corsi Rel, 0.50 comp, 52% OZ) in but Grabner (13.5, 0.53, 44%) out?

Parise and Ryan look similar too.

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#3 Eric T.
July 03 2012, 11:59AM
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@Cam Charron

"Scott Hartnell and Corey Perry were the only two wingers that matched the description that people expect out of Kessel each year: high-scoring, and drove play in tough situations. A quick WOWY check showed that they were symbiont with their respective centremen, Claude Giroux and Ryan Getzlaf, rather than anchors or backpackers."

My question is why Hartnell is in this sentence and Grabner (in particular, but also Parise and Ryan) isn't.

I think I figured it out though -- I think you mean that Hartnell and Perry are the only two who matched that description in 2012?

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#5 adrian
July 04 2012, 09:46AM
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Great article. Centermen certainly have more defensive responsibility than wingers - they're forced deeper into their own zone and generally have to battle in the tougher areas of the D-zone. We used to have a big strong center by the name of Mats Sundin - you know what most people complained about back then? Mats doing all the work for his line and then passing to Hoglund/Ponikarovsky/etc so that they could fire the puck into the goalie. You know what onerous responsibility wingers have? Score goals. Phil Kessel is dominant at that - don't forget it and don't underestimate its importance or level of difficulty.

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#6 ray
July 04 2012, 04:07PM
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I think you make a great point about Kessel. In a way we should be more than happy with his output, because he certainly had his best season last year.

That being said, I watched 90 percent of the leafs games last year and there just so many times when Kessel would be 10 feet away from his man when the team was rushing into our end and he would just doddle back with next to no hussle and let the man trail in and often score. I think in the defensive end when the attacking team has possession, the expectations can be lowered because he's playing the boards and the point. But for the times when he could have used his speed to come back and tie up the guy, he just floated. That's what upsets me about his defense.

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