If you have yet to read Kent Wilson’s excellent “Content over style” post from last week over at Flames Nation, go and do so. Kent explains the vital importance of avoiding stylistic traps when evaluating a hockey player, instead focusing on the big picture: does the player do things that helps the team win games?
One area I think where the focus on player qualities over player outcomes can muddle things is in team building, specifically when it comes to player categorization, ie; “roles” on a club. For example, NHL teams primarily employ bigger, tougher players in their bottom six forward rotation, especially when it comes to the the 4th unit. This is often an area where folks stop asking pertinent questions (can this guy outplay his opponents? Does he drive goal differential?) are instead start focusing on particular qualities (is he big? Is he mean? Can he fight?). This is how a person decides, for instance, to buy out Nigel Dawes after a 15-goal season only to to sign Raitis Ivanans.
We know that Brian Burke wants to add size to his top six, but what he really needs to do is add a guy who can drive play. Phil Kessel needs a guy next to him who can do that, and here’s why:
Kessel is a skilled scoring winger who has more goals (99) over the last three seasons than all but nine players: Steven Stamkos (156) Alex Ovechkin (120) Corey Perry (114) Patrick Marleau (111) Ilya Kovalchuk (109) Jarome Iginla (107) Marian Gaborik (105) Bobby Ryan (100) and Daniel Sedin (100).
Does this matter? Indubitably, yes. But goal-scoring is only one attribute of a hockey player, and it’s particularly empty if you consider that the Leafs may be giving up as many goals at the other end of the ice that Kessel helps the get on offence.
In the three years that Kessel has been a Leaf, the team has gone from 8th (51.6%) to 26th (46.4%) to 28th (46.7%) in Fenwick Close, and shot-differential rate that indicates team quality and can predict the teams’ success.
The team has fallen every year under Kessel and they had a very promising 2009 and 2010. The problem is that management made the wrong moves, eliminating the promising Viktor Stalberg and surprisingly effective low minutes players Jamie Lundmark, John Mitchell and Garnet Exelby. Lee Stempniak as well was a surprising talent with a Corsi per 60 of 12.8 in 2010 and hasn’t wavered too much, putting up a 4.62 in 2012 with Calgary.
In 2011, Burke got rid of two play drivers, François Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle. Mike Komisarek got bad, and the trade for Dion Phaneuf couldn’t mitigate all these losses. While skilled, the Toronto Maple Leafs now only had a few players who could really drive play. At the end of the 2010 season, 9 of 13 Leafs with 50 games played were plus Corsi players. After 2011, that number had slipped to just 3 of 14.
So where does this put Kessel? He isn’t exactly synonymous with the 2010-2011 in Team Corsi, but here’s how he’s looked in his NHL career:
|Corsi Rel||Corsi ON||QoC||Ozone|
Kessel’s best years for puck movement were obviously his two seasons in Boston when he saw a lot of minutes with Marc Savard as his centre and Zdeno Chara behind him. Without those guys in the lineup, Kessel’s finding it more difficult to move the puck forward.
However his Rel Corsi number in 2012 is actually somewhat promising. He was very nearly a plus player overall and may have finished in the black had the team not gone into their tail-spin at the end of the season.
Obviously, there’s potential here, but Leafs forwards who saw more time with Kessel tended to have worse zone-adjusted Corsi rates with Kessel as opposed to without him. Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul are the two major exceptions:
|With Kessel||Without Kessel|
Kessel at this point isn’t defensively responsible enough so that we can be sure that his explosive goal total at one end of the ice doesn’t totally mirror the number of goals that he gives up at the other end.
He is a skilled player that has a lot of good things going for him. Unfortunately, play-driving isn’t one of them and this year, the team having so few valid defensive options hurt them. Clearly, him and Tyler Bozak just aren’t getting it done.
Option A for the Leafs is to pair Kessel with Grabovski at centre, which stacks one line, but it’s a pretty good line with an elite goal-scorer and an elite play-driver working together. You could put Nik Kulemin on the opposite wing in hopes he regains his scoring touch.
Option B is Dave Steckel. He isn’t flashy at all and would probably cost Kessel a few goals, but he’s defensively responsible enough to keep the Leafs top line in the black.
Option C is the one I like, which is selling Joffrey Lupul’s stock at a high and bringing back a quality NHL player. There are some teams that could use a scoring winger, but the Leafs need puck movers, not goal scorers. Pilfering resources from Florida is an old favourite of Canucks GM Mike Gillis, and Mike Santorelli or Marcel Goc could be attractive options. Colorado’s Matt Duchene is also a popular choice, but I’m not sure if the Avalanche would be interested in the few trade pieces the Leafs have to give up.
There’s something here. Kessel likes to score a lot off the rush so naturally, there will be opportunities against his line. However, he needs to play with a guy who can end opposition possessions early and maximize the number of times he comes out of the zone with the puck every shift. Visually, his line did get hemmed in the zone an awful lot, but with the right guy on his line, those minus shifts can be limited.