Enforcers… and David Clarkson

It’s worth pointing out that I screwed up a lot of things about yesterday’s Enforcers post surrounding the Marc Savard incident. I originally wrote that Matt Cooke never faced retribution, but other Penguins enforcers did (I mixed up my dates and missed the game where Cooke did fight Thornton, although Thornton took an extra ten minutes) and I’d also written than Savard never played a game afterwards, which is untrue. One of my favourite moments from the 2010 season was his overtime winner in the first game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

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If I do make gross factual errors like that, kindly point them out to me and I will fix them. I try to read every comment posted on this website because there honestly aren’t a lot just yet.

Another comment from that post wrote, and I [sic]: “You write for a site called “Theleafsnation” that covers a team that LED THE LEAGUE IN FIGHTING MAJORS last year and you write about how enforcers aren’t needed”.

Which brings me to David Clarkson, eventually:

One thing I’ve been interested in looking at lately is penalties drawn and taken. Behind the Net has a real cool section of the website that looks at minor penalties drawn and taken at five-on-five. To my knowledge, that’s the only website that compiles the data that’s available on every NHL box score:

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For some reason, the NHL only “officially” records the penalty minutes taken by a player. If you looked at only the NHL’s website a couple of days after the game after you forgot about Teddy Purcell’s penalty, you’d see a big “2” next to Nazem Kadri’s penalties taken, ignoring that he was a net even in minor penalty differential. I’d like to see PIMs drawn as an actual stat on the NHL website so that there’s a method of “officially” tracking this, but BTN will do. It’s easy to get to, and it’s easy to export the data into Excel so we can look at players over multiple years.

Gabe Desjardins, who maintains that website, wrote a lengthy screed about the importance of drawing penalties, how it’s a repeatable skill and how, yes, somebody *does* track it. I think some Leafs observers were drawn to the statistic this past year: Kyle Cicarella points out that Nazem Kadri  actually led the league in drawn penalties, and it’s probably the most important part of his game to this point. Anything between five and six penalties drawn is worth a goal, so last season’s +25 penalty differential for Kadri was worth anything between five and six goals… which is worth a win in the standings! Over 48 games, that’s a very valuable win. Keep in mind that the best players in baseball, worth about 6 wins in the standings over 162 games, would be worth 1.8 wins over 48 games. This one, hidden aspect of Kadri’s game could be worth that much.

Yesterday, in the wake of the David Clarkson suspension (which was made official last night. Phil Kessel has a hearing today and I’d expect him to miss some preseason games) I thought about digging into player penalty differential over the last three years. The problem with a 48-game sample size is that it’s a 48-game sample size, and I’d like generally about 200 recent games to be able to judge a player and more accurately predict the future.

Clarkson, after all, recorded 138 penalty minutes in his 30-goal, 46-point campaign. Just by eyeballing the numbers, he has taken 12, 24, and 14 penalties over the last three seasons. Is he a costly player? Well, I was actually quite surprised when I ran the numbers.

The way I did it was take all player’s 5-on-5 penalties drawn and taken and match it to BTN’s ice-time application and combined seasons together with Pivot Tables. To separate the contributions of forwards and defencemen, I looked at the average penalties drawn rate for each and took 70% of that to create a replacement level value. I took 130% of the taken rate to come up with an replacement-level value, and then looked at a player’s differential relative to the replacement value.

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Basically, a replacement forward would draw about 0.58 penalties per 60 minutes and take 0.95. A replacement defenceman would draw 0.26 and take 0.87. I then looked at all qualified players (999 minutes was my cut-off) to see who did the best over 60 minutes:

  Position Taken/60 Drawn/60 Rate vs. Replacement
Nazem Kadri F 0.66 2.5 2.2
Jeff Skinner F 0.73 2.36 1.99
Darren Helm F 0.52 2.03 1.88
Dustin Brown F 0.84 2.08 1.6
Taylor Hall F 0.68 1.86 1.54

I think it’s fascinating. Where my hypothetical replacement player would have had a penalty differential of minus-7.7 in the same minutes 1271 minutes that Kadri had played, Kadri’s differential was +39, for a net differential of +46.7 over this hypothetical player. The “replacement player” method is introduced so that even an average or below-average player has some value at the NHL-level. A player like Nik Kulemin contributes to wins versus one like Mike Brown or Zenon Konopka, and the question is how much, and I think separating the individual components of a player’s game to get a full picture of value is getting close.

Kadri hasn’t played as much as Jeff Skinner or Dustin Brown, so the overall wins generated over the time span isn’t as much (I have Skinner worth 2.8 wins purely based from his penalty differential and Brown at 2.7, while Kadri is 1.5 and 21st on my list, which is still huge).

Enough about that. What about Clarkson?

Clarkson, even with the number of penalties he’s taken, is surprisingly valuable. His penalties taken rate is the 48th highest in the league at 1.12 per 60 minutes over the last three seasons, but his penalties “drawn” rate is even higher, at 1.32. The difference works out to 0.56 versus a replacement player, making him worth about a third of a win per season off of penalties drawn. It’s not great, but consider the context: Clarkson was brought aboard to stir stuff up, fight, and provide the odd goal.

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Let’s compare Clarkson to the players on a list of “valuable enforcers” as provided by Greg Wyshynski:

  Position Taken/60 Drawn/60 Rate vs. Replacement
Jared Boll F 1.12 1.53 0.77
David Clarkson F 1.12 1.32 0.56
Brandon Prust F 0.92 0.89 0.33
Shawn Thornton F 0.92 0.67 0.11
Mike Rupp F 1.36 0.79 -0.22
Chris Neil F 1.62 1.01 -0.25

The guys at the bottom of the list, the Konopkas, Ben Eagers and Cody McCleods, are generally the enforcers that don’t really contribute much else. Like Wysh, I would point to the players above as “valuable muckrakers” that bring some other valuable talent to their club.

I mentioned yesterday that the guys in the 1970s generally scored a dozen goals a year or so. The only player on this list without a double-digit season in goal-scoring is Jared Boll, but he’s not exactly a hired gun. He’s played six full seasons in Columbus and is signed for four more, rather than bouncing around between teams to fill out pre-season rosters.

This discussion with Wyshynski popped up over him being upset about the way that John Scott is portrayed as the prototypical goon. Perhaps in a modern context, he is. Guys like Scott, McLeod and Colton Orr have little value elsewhere in the lineup. Orr, for instance, didn’t even make the minimum cut-off for ice-time (although I checked back and found that in the last three seasons, he’s worth -2.12 penalties versus a replacement player, which was cost the list 0.6 wins based on penalty differential alone).

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Steve MacIntyre, Patrick Bordeleau and Kris Newbury fit into that category as well. John Scott, since he’s listed as a defenceman, gets an added advantage because our replacement defenceman has a worse drawn-minus-taken ratio than our replacement forward, but Scott still comes in at -0.03 below replacement. He’d be -0.28 if listed as a forward.

Ultimately, I think there’s a case to be made that the Clarksons of the world do provide value because there provide some positive play in addition to their fighting. If everybody in the league that fought could also pot a goal every five or six games, fighting itself would be rarer, dedicated to certain events happening on the ice and not as dreadfully boring as Frazer McLaren taking off Trevor Gillies helmet before smacking him silly (I figure). The elimination of staged fighting in the Western Hockey League (fights happening right after a faceoff earns a suspension) hasn’t corrupted the emotion in that league or riddled the league with a disgusting amount of stickwork.

Like I said in the enforcers post, I’m not morally against fighting, I’m tactically against it. A guy like Clarkson on your third line beats having Orr there—he can simply do more, and he’s the direct cousin of the Tiger Williams and John Fergusons deployed in the 1970s and 1960s. The “goon” as we know it, is a relatively modern invention and reduces the concept of fighting to a sideshow.

Clarkson is not one of those guys. He brings value beyond fights, and I truly wonder, if we had a salary cap and free agency in the 70s, how those career enforcers would have had similar career arcs to somebody like Konopka or George Parros, who change teams each year, or Clarkson and Prust, who sign big free agency deals.

I could live without the fighting aspect, but I do recognize the toughness aspect and how it makes teams act and respond and behave irrationally and there’s value there to knocking a level coach off of his game plan. It’s the wasted roster spot that bugs me, and that’s not what you get with David Clarkson.

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By the way, here’s a list of qualified Leafs. I’ve been in favour of keeping Liles around since before the summer started, and while I’d have rather bought him out than Mikhail Grabovski, I don’t think it was necessary. He has some good attributes:

  Position Taken/60 Drawn/60 Rate vs. Replacement
Nazem Kadri F 0.66 2.50 2.20
John-Michael Liles D 0.31 0.64 0.94
Joffrey Lupul F 0.71 1.25 0.91
Mason Raymond F 0.50 1.00 0.86
Phil Kessel F 0.32 0.68 0.72
Jake Gardiner D 0.24 0.32 0.69
Tyler Bozak F 0.35 0.68 0.69
Carl Gunnarsson D 0.42 0.42 0.61
Nik Kulemin F 0.50 0.70 0.56
David Clarkson F 1.12 1.32 0.56
Dion Phaneuf D 0.67 0.52 0.46
James van Riemsdyk F 0.82 0.82 0.36
Cody Franson D 0.60 0.34 0.35
Mark Fraser D 0.98 0.64 0.26
Jay McClement F 0.71 0.49 0.14
David Bolland F 1.00 0.64 0.00

Further Reading

On Fighting [1967s, via Pension Plan Puppets]

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  • Alright listen up Cam, I didn’t read your article ’cause I like fighting and I’m dismissive of folks I don’t agree with and c’mon but seriously what’s with the picture I thought all TLN pictures were going to be of the Bernier-Miller fight like what is actually going on here?

  • Axel Fant-Eldh

    Interesting stuff Cam.

    I’ve recently been thinking about taking/drawing penalties and how it is an underrated part of the game.

    I’ve been on a bit of a crusade trying to shed light on just how much Dan Girardi has been carried by Staal and especially McDonagh when it was pointed out to me that even if he has been carried, he has been logging extremely difficult minutes while taking extremely few penalties. It was something I hadn’t thought of, and I have to agree that it is an important aspect.

    I still want McDonagh paired with Strålman, but Girardi may not have been as much dead weight as I initially thought.

  • I really enjoy your analysis Cam, and I am a fan of all attempts to bring order to chaos via statistical analysis. Yes, there is a “but” coming…

    But, I have an issue with some of the ways that I see statistical concepts in baseball, such as WAR, carelessly appropriated for use in hockey. The example of Kadri’s penalty drawing ability is illustrative. I am not aware of any version of WAR that exists for use in hockey. WAR, of course, is a relative stat that depends on the value you can expect from one player, as opposed to a “replacement level player” in the same position. The determination of what constitutes “replacement level” is governed by a complex model that provides an idea of what that level is (see Wikipedia, or Baseball Reference for an explanation). How can you determine that Kadri, by virtue of his penalty drawing ability, is worth 1.8 wins above a replacement player, when you don’t know how to measure what a replacement level player is?

    If the answer is that you are talking about an average NHLer, not a replacement level player, then the reference to WAR makes no sense, as generally an average player would have a positive WAR (if we knew yet how to measure it, and we don’t for hockey). My basic issue is that using these concepts in this fashion makes this kind of puckhead statistical analysis seem more precise than can be credibly claimed.

    I mean this as constructive criticism. I enjoy this blog.

    • In baseball I’ve seen a lot of models that have a replacement player worth ~70% of an average player.

      Since we’re dealing with pretty small numbers in penalty-differential, that’s what I went with.

      Criticism is noted, but there needs to be a way to show how useful an “average” player is. You can’t measure everything against the average, because not half the players in the NHL are worthless.

  • SmellOfVictory

    Would it be particularly difficult to determine the distribution of these stats for skaters in the top 600 for minutes played and just peg “replacement level” as someone roughly at the top end of the the 5-10th percentile? I think it’s fair to say that there are probably ~1-2 guys per team, on average, who are about replacement level.

    • So in your world, it is better to completely avoid reading whole articles and yet act like you know the value of everything that they said?

      I personally thought that Cam’s exposition in the latter half of this article on settling the conflict in Syria by distributing Breaking Bad DVD’s and complimentary apple pies to be of extreme value.

      It’s a shame you refuse to read it. It’s life changing, it is.

  • MaxPower417

    I love the articles here but 75% of the comments make my eyes bleed.

    I had the same criticism as DCM, in that I believe the calculation of replacement level was a little clunky but I completely agree with the topic. Looking at penalty drawn/taken ratio instead of straight PIMs was something I did on July 1st to help talk myself down from the ledge.

  • Pedantic grammar comment: “off of” should not be used. Just write “off.” Sorry, I saw it twice, so I had to comment.

    WRT the article itself: I’m interested in how you decided to create your “replacement player.” It is normal to pick an arbitrary number to assign to replacement? Isn’t there a way to use the average or something? Or maybe you can explain why 70%?