Is Phil Kessel a complementary (non core) player?

Before Leaf fans get all over me, let me say that there is nothing wrong with being a complementary player. Every team has and needs them and they can be valuable pieces of the puzzle. When I say complementary player I mean he is a player that needs others to help him get the most out of his game rather than someone who can elevate his game and those around him on his own. The complementary player isn’t as valuable as the guy who can elevate his game and the game of his line mates on his own (I call this a core player) but every good team needs a good cast of complementary players. Let me explain further with this chart of 2007-12 (5yr) even strength 5v5 data.

with Savard 13.9% 39:40
without Savard 8.9% 61:08
with Lupul 12.8% 46:34
without Lupul 9.1% 58:46
with Savard or Lupul 13.3% 43:07
without Savard or Lupul 7.7% 68:44

In my opinion, the two best (offensive) players that Kessel has played with over his career are Marc Savard and Joffrey Lupul so I focused on Kessel’s play with and without them. In the chart above, you can clearly see that Kessel has been substantially better when he is on the ice with either Savard or Lupul and in reality somewhat ordinary otherwise. When those two guys are on the ice Kessel’s shooting percentage, and thus goal production, sky rockets. Whatever Savard and Lupul are doing, they make Phil Kessel better. Does that make Savard and Lupul core players and Kessel a complementary player? ┬áMaybe. ┬áLet’s take a closer look at Lupul and see if his boost in Kessel’s performance extends to some of the other line mates he has had over the years (again, using 5 year 5v5 shooting percentages).

Linemate with Lupul without Lupul
Phil Kessel 12.8% 9.1%
Tyler Bozak 12.9% 13.4%
Scott Hartnell 12.1% 9.3%
Jeff Carter 12.4% 9.2%
Mike Richards 14.3% 9.0%

Aside from Tyler Bozak (and Kessel may be a factor as he has only played with Bozak when Kessel is also on the ice), he has improved the shooting percentage of each of his line mates over the past 5 seasons. This is fairly significant evidence that Lupul is in fact a core player that improves the performance of his line mates.

Every team needs core players, but there aren’t enough core players in the NHL to fill out your roster so every team also needs quality complementary players. From my perspective, Kessel is a good complementary player that guys like Lupul and Savard can elevate into very good very productive players, but because Kessel is also dependent on Lupul to be highly productive, Kessel isn’t worth the money that you would pay a core player. For this reason, if I were the Leafs management, I’d be very cautious about paying Kessel big money (i.e. in excess of $7M) on his next contract since, if something happens to Lupul (as is the case right now) he quickly becomes ordinary.

Now with that in mind, and the fact he is currently on a significant goal drought (12 games dating back to last season, mostly without Lupul) I think it is up to the Leaf coaching staff to mix up the lines and see if you can find another core player that can maximize Kessel’s production. Bozak and van Riemsdyk don’t seem to be the guys. Personally, I’d put him with Grabovski but it might also be interesting to see him with young energy players like Kadri and Frattin. The coaching staff has to do something but the current line is not working at all.

This article has 6 Comments

  1. As my stats teacher used to say there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. It stands to reason that most players would be more productive when paired with another high caliber player as it forces the defense to have to worry about more players. It is the same reason why baseball hitters do better when there are other good hitters around them as pitchers can’t pitch around them.

    How does Lupul do when he doesn’t have Kessel? I suspect having a 35 goal sniper on your wing kind of helps your production. How do the Leafs do overall offensively without Kessel in the line up?

    1. The point is Lupul consistently makes his line mates better and that has significant value, Kessel is dependent on his line mates to make him into a good player so that has to be taken into account when assigning a value to Kessel.

      Lupul with Kessel scores a goal every 56 minutes. Lupul without Kessel scores a goal every 55 minutes. Not much difference. I have written about this in the past. Lupul’s performance last season was not an anomaly, what was an anomaly was his ice time. He had never really been given first line minutes but in the minutes he was given, the production was there.

    2. Put it this way. The guys I want to build my team around are the guys who make their line mates better. Lupul is that kind of guy. I am not sure Kessel is. Kessel is the guy other players make better. That doesn’t mean I don’t want Kessel on my team (you need good players that the Lupul’s can make even better), but his salary has to be adjusted accordingly. I wouldn’t want to be paying Kessel $7M+ per year though I am sure that is probably where his next contract will have him.

  2. The fact that every team has been anywhere from outshot to horrifically destroyed in puck possession when Lupul is on the ice.. That’s irrelevant?

    Who cares about offensive production (especially when it’s a couple percentage points) when your team is basically running like a penalty kill unit with Lupul out there?

    Your post also doesn’t note how MANY shots Lupul was on the ice for with those players… Very relevant data when it’s particularly easy for people to make poor decisions based on fickle percentages. Considering Lupul has played with each team less than 100 games (except for 135 with Philadelphia) – is there enough shots to definitively say those patterns are repeatable? Is it not also possible that it’s shithouse luck?

    1. So lets see, he was lucky in 2007-08 when he was playing with Richards. He was lucky in 2008-09 when he was playing with Carter and Hartnell. He was lucky in 2010-11 when he was playing with Kessel. He was lucky in 2011-12 when he was again playing with Kessel. Yes, Lupul could be those most consistently lucky guy ever to play hockey, or maybe he just does something to help his team score goals.

      As for being out shot, who cares. Shouldn’t we be more interested in who out scored the opposition than who out shoots their opposition? Yes, I know all the arguments from the possession crowd but shooting percentages are a talent and are sustainable.

  3. Hi David,

    I don’t think Lupul is actually outscoring the opposition though. Over those 3 seasons (07-08, 08-09, and 11-12), by my count Lupul is +5 at even strength and -2 at 5v5 specifically.

    Of forwards with 40+ games from his team-seasons:

    2007-2008 he was 3rd of 12 in on-ice sh%, and 9th in on-ice sv%
    2008-2009 he was 6th of 11 in on-ice sh%, and 5th in on-ice sv%
    2011-2012 he was 1st of 12 in on-ice sh%, and 11th of 12 in on-ice sv%

    If his on-ice shooting percentage is sustainable, why does it almost perfectly mirror his on-ice save percentage? It seems Lupul is capable of “cheating” to create offense at the expense of goals against. I don’t doubt that players can influence their on-ice shooting percentage, but I do doubt that there are many players who can do so without losing traction defensively, and Lupul doesn’t seem to be one of them.

    Regardless, thanks for your input. Look forward to your next article, cheers.

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