Maybe the most important position in hockey is center, certainly more important than wing and probably more important than defense or goaltending. Even more important is having a real good two-way center capable of playing big minutes at both ends of the rink. Think about the recent Stanley Cup winners. In Chicago you have Jonathan Toews. In Los Angeles you have Anze Kopitar. In Boston you have Patrice Bergeron. Going further back you have Datsyuk in Detroit. These four guys are maybe the best two-way centermen in the league but I wanted to take a more analytical approach to answering that question.
Let me first come out and say that evaluating defensive play is something hockey analytics is still pretty poor at doing and I have said several times that the toughest question to answer in hockey analytics right now is how to separate the defender from the goalie. It is just a really difficult problem with the data we have access to today. It may not just be hockey analytics that struggles with answering this question. I have even questioned whether NHL coaches are capable of identifying their best defensive players. With that said, I am going to try and answer the question anyway.
In order to not miss any important players earlier in the week I asked my twitter followers to nominate two-way centers for which I should include in my analysis. I had lots of good responses, and even a few that I hadn’t thought of. A few people even suggested Sidney Crosby and Henrik Sedin both of whom I consider more offensive oriented players but I figured I’d throw them in the study as well. A few people even suggested Tyler Bozak which I can only assume was in jest but I am going to include him for fun, and as a test for my metrics. By testing metrics when evaluating individual players any metric must rate Crosby as the best offensive player in the NHL (no exceptions, he is by far the best) and must not rate Bozak very highly overall (because he just isn’t very good). Failure to meet these two standards indicated the metric in question is flawed. In selecting centers for this study I also wanted to select players with a long track record to make for easier, more reliable evaluation. For this reason I restricted myself to players with at least a 5-year track record and mostly looked at 5-year stats in my study.
With all that said, here are the list of 25 centers I have chosen to look at. I apologize if I missed anyone but I think I got the most important two-way centers as well as a few extras.
|ANZE KOPITAR||JORDAN STAAL||PAVEL DATSYUK|
|BRYAN LITTLE||KYLE TURRIS||RYAN GETZLAF|
|DAVID BACKES||LOGAN COUTURE||RYAN KESLER|
|DEREK STEPAN||MIKAEL BACKLUND||RYAN O_REILLY|
|ERIC STAAL||MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI||SIDNEY CROSBY|
|HENRIK SEDIN||MIKKO KOIVU||TOMAS PLEKANEC|
|JOE PAVELSKI||NICKLAS BACKSTROM||TRAVIS ZAJAC|
|JOE THORNTON||PATRICE BERGERON||TYLER BOZAK|
The primary metric(s) I am using for this study are my RelTM statistics which can be found at puckalytics.com or stats.hockeyanalysis.com. RelTM statistics are like a combined WOWY and is an indication of the effect the player has on his teammates – i.e. whether they play better or worse with him than apart from him. I won’t go into the details but I feel these are a better reflection of the player than the typical ‘Rel’ statistics which is an On-ice minus Off-ice comparision. Also, with 5 years of data we should be getting fairly stable statistics so I think we should find some value here.
Let me first look at Corsi RelTM statistics in 5v5close (last 5 seasons) situations to minimize score effects.
The good news is Bozak rates poorly but the bad news is Crosby isn’t the top offensive center when it comes to CF60 RelTM. That is a knock against this statistic and one of the reasons why I am not a fan of Corsi, particularly when evaluating individual players offensive performance.
Here negative is better as it means fewer shots against. There is probably more basis for using Corsi to evaluate defensive play but I am still not sold on it, especially when dealing with elite level players. There are some guys, such as Logan Couture, David Backes and Derek Stepan, that I would certainly rate higher in terms of defensive play. CA60 RelTM did pass the Tyler Bozak test though.
CF% RelTM ranks Patrice Bergeron as the best two-way center in the league which on the surface clearly passes the smell test. It also has Tyler Bozak easily the worst in this group so it passes the Bozak test as well. Crosby being middle of the pack doesn’t though, simply because offensively he is so far superior to everyone else that should overcome any defensive liabilities he may have. There is no way Backlund or Grabovski is a better two-way player than Crosby.
This is why I prefer using long-term goal based statistics – Crosby is far and away better than anyone else which is the way it should be. Bozak isn’t last but is well down the list as well which is good though I am surprised Plekanec has such a negative impact on his teammates offensively.
Tyler Bozak is terrible defensively. Check. David Backes is the best defensive foward in this group. Maybe a bit surprising but I can accept it (the Blues have been a solid defensive team for a number of years now). Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom being middle of the pack as more offensive oriented players, makes sense. Maybe a bit surprised Bergeron isn’t higher but for the most part I think this all passes the smell test.
Who is the best two-way forward? None other than David Backes according to GF% RelTM. The good news is Crosby ranks much higher here behind only Backes, Kopitar and Sedin and just ahead of Toews and Bozak ranks last so we pass the Bozak test.
The last statistic I want to look at is a combination of GF60 RelTM and CA60RelTM. When I combined these two I came up with this:
Now this is getting interesting. Would anyone argue with the best centers in the league over the past 5 seasons being Crosby-Datsyuk-Toews-Kopitar-Sedin-Bergeron-Thornton? I haven’t looked at GF and CA statistics combined very often but I think it may be a worth while statistic to pay more attention to when evaluating a players overall performance.
The final thing I want to look at with these 25 players is defensive usage. Here I am going to look at two statistics: 1. The percentage of a teams 4v5 PK ice time that the player gets assigned (when healthy and in the line up) and 2. The percentage of a teams 5v5 when leading ice time (when healthy and in the line up).
This is why I don’t consider Crosby or Sedin defensive players – they just aren’t given any ice time killing penalties. I am surprised Datsyuk wasn’t relied on more on the PK.
Ok, I am shocked that Bergeron has the smallest percentage of his teams 5v5 ice time when they are protecting a lead and kind of surprised Getzlaf and Crosby are getting the most. I guess the Penguins and Ducks have been a ‘go for the kill’ team rather than a ‘protect a lead’ team.
That is a lot of data for you to digest and I am not sure I really answered the question of who is the best two-way center in the NHL. If you forced me to give you an answer I would probably eliminate guys like Crosby and Sedin who are primarily offensive players and say the best true two-way center in the NHL the past five seasons has been Toews (over Datsyuk because he gets so much more PK ice time). Datsyuk, Kopitar and Bergeron are pretty close behind though. So, I guess in the end we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know.