Jun 302010
 

As always, there is a lot of speculation as to what the Maple Leafs will do on July 1st when the NHL free agent season begins.  Some are suggesting they should go big or go home and do whatever it takes to sign Ilya Kovalchuk as the answer to their offensive woes while others believe Kovalchuk is going for the big long term contract to which Burke has said on numerous occasions he isn’t interested in doing.  After Kovalchuk though there aren’t any top tier forward free agents available to help solve the Leafs lack of scoring problems.

I am in the camp that I don’t believe that Kovalchuk will be a Maple Leaf.  He’ll end up signing a long term big dollar contract somewhere else.   Whether the Leafs will, or should, go after Kovalchuk depends a lot on what Burke believes he can acquire in a Tomas Kaberle trade.  If Burke believes he can land a scoring winger with size in a Kaberle trade then the need to go after a guy like Kovalchuk is minimized.

Historically teams that win the Stanley Cup have excellent defenses, solid goaltending and are strong down the middle.  Teams that have had elite level wingers but have lacked at center have generally not done well.  What has Kovalchuk won?  What about Jarome Iginla?  What about Rick Nash?  These are three of the best wingers in the game but haven’t achieved much, if any, playoff success.  Feel free to toss Ovechkin into the mix (for now anyway). The Leafs already have an offensive minded winger in Phil Kessel and I don’t believe they necessarily need another offense-first winger like Kovalchuk, at least not if the price tag is $9 million.

As it stands right now, the Leafs forward lines might look like this:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Tyler Bozak Phil Kessel
Mikhail Grabovski
Fredrik Sjostrom
Mike Brown Colton Orr

I have intentionally left a lot of blanks in there and have only listed the players I believe are fairly certain to fill those positions.  That leaves the two left wing slots on the first two lines open, the second and third line right wing positions and the third and fourth line center positions as well as a reserve position or two which Brown may get bumped to depending on how the roster unfolds.  Should Kulemin get re-signed he will fill in one of those open winger slots, probably either on the second or third line.  The Leafs also have Luca Caputi, Viktor Stalberg and Christain Hanson in the fold but while all have showed flashes of potential, I don’t believe any of them showed enough last year to make me believe they should be written in as a sure bet to make the club.  The same goes for John Mitchell who is set to become a UFA but who the Leafs have said they would like to bring back at the right price (read: close to league minimum or even a 2-way deal).  Caputi probably has the best opportunity to make the club because he plays a physical game and is probably more suited to a third line role than Stalberg though Stalberg showed he might be ready for a top 6 role late last season.  I haven’t mentioned Nazem Kadri yet but I should as it is likely he will fill one of the top six positions, possibly as a winger or as the second line center pushing Grabovski to wing where he may be better suited anyway (or he could be used as trade bait).  So as it stands now there are five or six forward slots up for grabs and I am certain that Brian Burke wants to bring in at least two, if not three additional forwards to really create battles for those open slots.

Now it is time for some speculation.  If Kovalchuk is out of the picture, as I believe he is, who will Burke go after.  There are three things that we know that can guide us into figuring out what Burke might do.  First, Burke has stated he wants to find a winger that can score, preferably one with some size.  Second he wants to add more toughness throughout the lineup.  Third, historically he has shown that he really likes to bring back players who have played for him before.  So where does that leave us.

There are no first line or even true second line wingers who can score and have size on the open market.  It seems to me that this is what he intends to acquire via a Tomas Kaberle trade.  That trade probably won’t happen for at least a few days after the early free agent frenzy settles so I won’t speculate on that here right now.

There are players that will address toughness further down the lineup though and who are young enough who can contribute to the Leafs for the next several years.  Two names that have been speculated upon are Colby Armstrong and Raffi Torres and both of these guys can fill that toughness role and they are both capable of scoring 15+ goals so in a pinch are capable of playing a second line role or second PP unit role.  I fully expect that Brian Burke to go after and sign one of these guys so long as the price tag is around $2.5-3M per year on a 3 or 4 year deal.

In my mind the Leafs can desperately use a veteran centerman, if not two, as Bozak and Kadri would form a pretty inexperienced top two.  If Burke is looking for a center under the age of 30 who can produce offensively you are pretty much limited to Matthew Lombardi, but I don’t see that as the route Burke will go because I don’t see Lombardi as the kind of ‘role player’ Burke wants on the third line.  That means you may have to go a little older and so I think he might consider going after a guy like Matt Cullen who is 32 years of age and a pretty good 2-way player versatile in that he can play a second or third line role and play at center or on the wing.  His price tag might get a little high for what Burke wants to spend on a third line player but he would be a nice veteran addition.

A similar player to Cullen who will cost somewhat less is Eric Belanger.  Belanger isn’t big, but he plays a gritty physical game and would look good in a third line role and has consistently gotten around 35 points throughout his career.

We know Brian Burke has liked Brendan Morrison in the past.  He had Morrison in Vancouver and signed him as a free agent in Anaheim.  The Anaheim experiment was a bit of a flop mostly because he paid him too much money for what he could contribute but last year in Washington he showed he could be a serviceable role player as a third or fourth line center.  I don’t know if Burke intends to go after Morrison but it wouldn’t surprise me if Burke signed Morrison so long as his contract short term (1 or 2 seasons) and no more than the $1.5M he made last year.

If Brian Burke is set on trading Kaberle for help up front he’ll probably want to pick up another defenseman but not one with a big salary.  There are a lot of defensemen to choose from in this UFA class so it is difficult to speculate who he might go after but I suspect he’ll wait until the first rush on defensemen passes and he’ll try to pick up someone at a bargain price a week or two down the road as players start to see job openings dwindling away and get concerned about if and where they might play come September more than they are about holding out for maximum dollars.

Update:  The Leafs have acquired Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks for Stalberg and prospects DiDominico and Paradis.  Versteeg will likely fill one of those second line winger roles.

Jun 092010
 

Behind the Net Blog recently used even strength when game is tied Corsi analysis to take a look at the divisional imbalance since the lockout and came up with an interesting conclusion.

The NW division is slightly better than the SE division against all shared opponents.  But SE division teams outshot NW teams in head-to-head games.  The difference between the two divisions is negligible, though the NW’s stronger showing against the pacific and central suggests that it’s just a little bit better than the SE.

What that essentially implies is that since the lockout the northwest division is only marginally better than the southeast division, which has generally been considered the worst division in hockey since the lockout.

This though is a perfect example of where Corsi analysis fails because that statement is proven downright untrue when you consider each divisions actual won-loss records.  Against the southeast division the northwest has combined for a dominating 64-31-12 and only twice has a northwest team had a losing record against the southeast (2009-10 Wild at 1-2-3 and 2008-09 Flames at 1-3-1).  The 64-31-12 record is the equivalent to a 107 point team over 82 games which is awfully good.  The southeasts record against the northwest is 43-49-15 which is equivalent to a 77 point team.  To put that in perspective, the NW is like Phoenix (107 points) and the SE is like Columbus (79 points) this past season.  That makes the northwest division more than ‘a little bit better’ than the southeast division.

In another analysis at Behind the Net blog they look at Corsi +/- for teams in games against teams in divisions other than their own.  For the northeast division they came up with:

Ottawa +200, Boston +134, Toronto +65, Buffalo -60, Montreal -266.

That would seem to indicate that Toronto has been a halfway decent team but they finished last in the northwest division in 3 of the 5 seasons and never finished better than 3rd.  Montreal finished ahead of the Leafs in 4 of the 5 seasons and accumulated 49 additional points in the standings despite having an outside division even strength when game is tied Corsi +/- a whopping 331 points below that of the Leafs.    The Minnesota Wild had a very dismal -419 Corsi +/- outside the division but had a respectable 134-106-26 record which is equivalent to a 91 point team.  Now a 91 point team is nothing special, but it is a far cry from what the 3rd worst outside division Corsi +/- would indicate their record ought to be.

In both of these posts the use of Corsi analysis has failed to accurately explain what really happened on the ice and it comes down to the fact that even strength when the game is tied Corsi numbers only tell a fraction of the story.  It doesn’t account for goaltending or power play or penalty kill or shooting ability or any number of other factors that influence who wins hockey games so using it as a tool for determining which teams or divisions are better is a pointless exercise because on the ice, all those other things matter.  The better tool to use in evaluating which teams or divisions are better is the much simpler and more universally understood statistic known as win-loss records.  Win-loss aren’t perfect, but they don’t try to tell me that the Leafs have been better than Montreal since the lockout or that the northwest division is only marginally better than the southeast division.

Jun 052010
 

This past season the Boston Bruins were the lowest scoring team in the NHL with just 196 goals for (the only team not to reach 200 goals) or about 2.34 goals per game and in the playoffs they were only slightly better scoring at a 2.58 goals per game pace.  So the question that needs to be answered is how will they go about improving their offensive output?  To answer that, lets start off by looking at their salary cap situation.  The Bruins have the following players under contract:

  • Forwards: Bergeron, Savard, Lucic, Ryder, Krejci, Sturm, Thornton
  • Defesnse: Chara, Wideman, Ference, Hunwick, Seidenberg
  • Goalies: Thomas, Rask

Total salary cap hit for those 14 players is approximately $50.5M including todays signing of Dennis Seidenberg at $3.5M a season for 4 years.  The best case scenario is that the salary cap rises about $2M so let’s assume the salary cap gets set at $58.5M.  That leaves $8M for 5-6 forwards and a couple defensemen.

The Bruins key restricted free agents include forwards Blake Wheeler, Daniel Paille, Vladimir Sobotka along with defenseman Mark Stuart.  On the unrestricted free agent front there is Mark Recchi, Miroslav Satan, Steve Begin, and Johnny Boychuk.

The Bruins could probably get Wheeler, Paille and Sabotka signed for $4M combined and there may be interest in bringing Recchi (who scored 18g, 43pts) back on a cheap contract and I expect they will try to sign one of Stuart or Boychuk for under $1.5M if possible but they will barely have $2M in salary cap room remaining and they have only rebuilt last year’s team.  They might like to bring Satan back who had an decent season since being signed (9g in 38 games) and an excellent playoff (5g, 10pts and team best +4) but his good play may have improved his market value beyond what the Bruins might be able to pay.

The Bruins do have the second overall pick which will likely be Tyler Seguin (assuming the Oilers take Taylor Hall) and I am sure they envision him being in their lineup next season to help their woeful offense.  The thing is, the cap hit, including bonuses, for Seguin will total approximately $3.75M and with the CBA ending after the 2010-11 season (unless the players choose to extend it for one additional season) there will be no bonus cushion so the full $3.75M will count against the cap, regardless of whether he is able to reach those bonuses or not.  There will be no carryover option.  The end result is the Bruins will have some real tough choices to make this off season.  Here are some options:

  1. Don’t sign Seguin and let him play another year of junior.  This is an extremely unlikely scenario since the Bruins desperately need Seguin’s offense and they wouldn’t want to give Seguin a bad view of the organization.
  2. Trade a high priced player.  There probably isn’t much of a market for Ryder or Sturm with their salaries unless the Bruins are willing to include their own first round pick or a top prospect.  There would be a market for Lucic or Krejci but those guys, particularly Lucic, would be very difficult for the Bruins to part with.  I am sure they would love to trade Tim Thomas but the success of cheap goalies this playoff season the market for older goalies with big contracts like Thomas is probably as low as it has ever been if it exists at all.  Thomas is still likely a capable goalie It is tough to imagine anyone wanting him at his salary though we should never underestimate an NHL GM’s ability to make stupid moves.  I don’t see them moving core players like Savard, Bergeron, Chara or Wideman so simply trading away a big contract is an unlikely scenario.
  3. Buy out the contracts of Michael Ryder and/or Marco Sturm.  Buying out Ryders contract would save them $2.66M in cap space and buying out Sturm would save them $2.33M in cap space.  Either or both are highly possible scenarios but they would lose Sturm’s 22 goals and Ryder’s 18 so it wouldn’t do anything to improve their offense.

Under any of the above scenarios it is difficult to believe that the Bruins offense will be significantly improved through player movement.  For the Bruins to improve their offense it will come down to keeping both Bergeron and Savard healthy and having guys like Krejci, Wheeler and Lucic improve their player closer to their 2008-09 levels.  That said, the Bruins will likely be a team relying on great defense and goaltending once again in 2010-11.

Jun 032010
 

I am planning that over the course of the summer and into next season I will get back into analyzing hockey statistics more in depth again.  Over the past couple of seasons Corsi numbers have become much more prevalent so I thought I would start off by discussing what they are and my thoughts on them.

Corsi numbers were originally created by former NHL goalie and now Buffalo Sabre goalie coach Jim Corsi.  David Staples recently had a good interview with Corsi which goes into his thought process behind developing Corsi numbers.  The interview is definitely worth a read but let me summarize.

In his role as the Sabre’s goalie coach, Corsi was attempting to evaluate the work load his goalies had in a game of play and found that simply shots against were not sufficient.  The goalie can relax whenever the puck is in the oppositions end, but whenever the play is in his own end he can’t relax, regardless of whether a shot was taken or not.  To get a better idea of his goalies workload he summed up shots, missed shots and blocked shots which should give a much better indication of a goalies overall work load.  A goalie needs a certain skill level to successfully save the majority of shots on goal, but a goalie also needs a certain fitness level (both mental and physical) to be able to play under a certain workload level within a single game and over the course of an 82 game season and this is why Corsi invented the Corsi numbers.

More recently others in the hockey community have extended Corsi numbers to evaluate a teams ability to control the play of a game (i.e. does a team play more in the oppositions zone vs their own) and evaluate individual players by looking at their Corsi numbers for and against while they are on the ice and comparing that to their teammates Corsi numbers.  Most notable are Gabe Desjardins of behindthenet.ca and Gabe and everyone else at the Behind the Net blog but there are others too.  Some people, most notably Matt Fenwick of the Battle of Alberta blog only use shots and missed shots and do not include blocked shots as Jim Corsi does resulting in what is typically called Fenwick numbers.  When used in this context Corsi and Fenwick numbers are calculated just as +/- is calculated which is to take the shots+missed shots+ blocked shots for his team and subtracting the shots+missed shots+ blocked shots numbers by the opposition while he is on the ice.

One of the benefits that many people believe that Corsi numbers provide is that since Corsi numbers include more events (i.e. shots+missed shots+blocked shots vs just shots or even just goals as in +/-) the statistical analysis will be far more accurate due to the larger ‘sample size.’

So what do I think of all this?  I do agree with Jim Corsi that using Corsi numbers as a way to evaluate a goalies workload is probably far more valuable than just using shots on goal.  Beyond that, I am pretty sure that Corsi numbers will give a pretty solid indication of a teams control of the play, for whatever that is worth.  I say for whatever that is worth because some teams, when they have the lead, will choose to play in a defensive shell allowing a lot of shots from the point, but not giving up all that many high quality, in close, shots or worse yet, shots on rebounds. Corsi numbers when the game is close (tied, or within one goal with significant time to play such that the team with the lead has not yet gone into ‘protect the lead’ mode) may give us a better indication of a teams capability to control the play, when they want to but even that may be flawed.  Also, a team with a strong set of forwards but a weak defense and goalie may control the play more than a team with a strong defense and top tier goalie but is that team really any better at winning games?

Much of the same arguments can be made when evaluating players.  Defensive minded players are not necessarily on the ice to control the play, they are on the ice to not allow goals against most typically by the oppositions top offensive forwards.  As mentioned above, one way to accomplish this is to go into a defensive shell and just not give up any quality scoring chances against.  A player can have a sub-par Corsi number, but be doing his job perfectly well.

I do believe that Corsi numbers have a use in evaluating a goalies work load and even in showing which teams are controlling the play, but in my opinion using it anywhere beyond that we are making too many assumptions about how important Corsi numbers are with respect to winning games.  Just ask the Washington Capitals how almost completely controlling the play worked for them against Montreal in round two of the playoffs. In the past I have used mostly goals for/against and shot quality (using shot type and distance as a proxy for quality) to evaluate players and while that has its own inherent flaws as well I will most likely continue to do so in the future.