Mixing in toughness with skill.
The other day at Pension Plan Puppets there was a discussion about the merit so Steve Downie and whether the Leafs should go after him if Tampa made him available. In it I brought up the fact that when Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis or Vincent Lecavalier play with Downie their offensive numbers increase, sometimes dramatically. The following table shows each players goals for per 20 minutes of ice time in 5v5 zone-start adjusted situations with and without Steve Downie on the ice with them.
This year Downie has improved their offensive production between 20 and 25% and it isn’t because Downie is an elite offensive player relative to those three guys. He only has 12 goals and 28 points in 54 games this year and is Tampa’s 6th leading scorer behind the three listed above and Purcell and Malone. In his best season, 2009-10, he only had 22 goals and 46 points so he is far from an elite offensive player at the individual level and yet he does something that makes his skilled linemates better.
I have always been interesting in exploring the optimal way to build a team and so this prompted me to look a little deeper to see if mixing in some toughness in the form of a winger with good size (not a ‘goon’) but not necessarily elite offensive skill with more pure skill players makes the skill players better. So, here are a few more examples that I found interesting.
Save for a small number of player combo seasons the big strong wingers made their smaller skilled linemates (particularly the centermen) better offensive performers and while most of the players I looked at above are quality players no one will really call them elite offensive stars that can carry an offense. They are at best secondary top line players or second liners. Now it could be that when some these guys are not on the top line they are replaced with a third line player who brings down the production of the top line but there does seem something happening here that makes me think if you have a small, skilled center you should really look to pair him up with a big, strong, winger even if that winger is less talented.