Fourth Lines, Third Pairs and The Extra 2%

Dom Luszczyszyn
November 24 2016 01:14PM

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Back in the summer of 2013, before hockey analytics really became a part of the mainstream lexicon, there was an article posted on Yahoo on Kyle Dubas. I'll never forget the lead to that article:

"One of the first things Kyle Dubas did when he became the general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds was buy everybody in the office a copy of Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%, a book that chronicles the overhaul by two Wall Street analysts of the Tampa Bay Rays, turning them from a laughingstock of baseball to a perennial contender in the American League East Division."

As it turns out, the guy who wrote the piece on the "not-so-secret" use of analytics by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds was a former TLN Managing Editor, a guy who's now employed by the Leafs: Cam Charron. Funny how that ends up working out.

I won't forget that lead for two reasons. 

The first reason is the sheer boldness of buying everyone the same book. It's basically saying "I'm the boss now, this is your homework, this is how we're going to do things now." It's an audacious power move for a movement that hadn't really taken full flight in hockey just yet. 

The second reason is simply because of the title: The Extra 2%. I haven't read the book, mostly because I don't read many books, but I've always wanted to give this one a read and haven't gotten around to it yet. But just the title alone is such a striking exposition of the analytics movement in just four words.

It's about gaining an edge on your competition, anywhere you can get an edge. It's such a competitive field that you can't expect huge leaps and bounds, but just that extra two percent at every margin and inefficiency available makes all the difference. When someone asks me why analytics matter this is what I think about. I think about finding an edge, an inefficiency, an improvement over the ways of traditional thinking. If you're not always trying to move forward, you'll be left behind. At it's very core, analytics is about questioning the way things are done, why they are done that way, and if there's a better way to do it. It's about finding the extra two percent.

That brings us to the Leafs. When Brendan Shanahan was brought in as President of the team, everything changed in Toronto and it's this exact philosophy that changed it. He tore everything down, he brought in smart people, leaders, people that will challenge the status quo. There's no doubt in my mind that every single person in the Leafs front office is doing what they can to find that extra two percent.

That's why it's so frustrating to see some things that are happening on the ice. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but there's times where it's hard to justify the personnel decisions being made based on the data we have. Maybe there's something unavailable to the public that justifies their value as it's likely the team has is far ahead of what's currently available, but while that's something we can rightly assume, we can't exactly throw up our hands and bow to their authority either. That's especially true when the decisions appear to harken back to traditional ways of thinking over something more progressive.

Here's what I mean. Traditionally speaking, we all know what role a fourth line and bottom pairing play. They don't usually do much and their job is basically "don't get scored on, we don't care about offence with you guys out there, just shut the other team down." And while they may be effective at slowing the game down, they're completely ineffective because they're only focusing on one area of the ice. The goal it to out-score the other team, both ends of the ice are valuable. To focus on one doesn't make much sense. You hear the complaint about offensive-minded players needing to find a "200 foot game" but rarely will you hear that about some fourth line pluggers or shutdown d-men.

In the Leafs case, their biggest problem this season has been their fourth line and bottom pairing. Specifically four players: Matt Martin, Ben Smith, Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick. I'm going to immediately throw Martin's name out of here because he's got term and $2.5 million per year so he's not going anywhere. On the surface, it's a terrible deal that isn't remotely paying off, but maybe they know something we don't about him so, again, benefit of the doubt. (To be honest, I just don't want to keep talking about Martin).

That leaves us with the other three, all of whom are below replacement level players. They provide negative overall value to the team, but because they fill some sort of traditional role they have a spot in the starting lineup. Now, if the Leafs had no one else to play I would understand, but that's not the case. 

Peter Holland is sitting in the press box for eternity while Ben Smith wins some faceoffs. That shouldn't be happening. Even if you hate Holland, there's a number of guys on the first place farm team that are much better than Smith.

On defence, Frank Corrado has played all of one game this season while Martin Marincin was recently scratched so that the Polak-Hunwick shutdown duo could both play. Both of them haven't been great this year, but the two combined have been an unmitigated disaster.

And yet, these three seem to get a very long leash to iron out their deficiencies while the other three get a very short one and get benched at their first mistake. Maybe it has something to do with effort level, but it's no wonder those three look like they're trying so hard; they're always chasing the game. That's not the case for the press box guys.

Naturally, anytime this is brought up, there's one main argument against it and it's basically something like this: "Those guys suck, they don't deserve to see the ice. Besides, it's just the fourth line, it doesn't matter." 

I get the sentiment, but it's missing the point. No one is arguing that Holland, Marincin, or Corrado are anything special. They're not great players. Everyone knows that. But they are serviceable players, and that's not something you can really say about Smith, Hunwick, or Polak. This isn't a call to arms because good players are getting scratched, it's because worse players are playing instead.

But the worst part of the argument isn't that one, it's the second part: the idea that fourth lines and bottom pairings don't matter and it goes back to the extra two percent. Every. Single. Lineup. Spot. Matters. It may be just ten minutes per night, but it's ten minutes where you can be better than you are right now and perhaps better than the other team.

With the Leafs current lineup – the one with Smith, Hunwick, Polak – their expected true talent (based on my model which I've talked about previously) win percentage is .484, an 89 point team. Sub in Holland, Marincin, and Corrado and the Leafs are a true talent .505 team, or a 93 point team.

Those guys are the difference between winning 48.4 percent of your games and 50.5 percent of your games. It's the extra two percent.

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Dom Luszczyszyn writes occasionally for The Hockey News and you can follow him on twitter dot com at @omgitsdomi.