For the longest time, National Hockey League scouts made their judgement based solely on the “eyeball test.”
They would watch guys play and look for the fastest skaters, the best danglers, the hardest shooters, the biggest hitters, the most creative passers. All this was based on years of experience in the game and a reliable set of eyeballs (and maybe a sturdy pair of thick glasses for some others).
These days, though, there’s a new player in the player evaluation game. Its name is debatable, as there as several types, but overall we’ll call it “analytics.” Gone are the days of banging the draft table and yelling about a player’s hockey sense – these days, the scouts (most of them, anyways) need to bring concrete data to the table, and prove that a particular player is a puck-possession demon with the ability to be a consistent offensive threat without also being a defensive liability.
For those unfamiliar with this new idea, here’s a quick introduction: perhaps the most notable and used advanced hockey statistic is called “Corsi,” which simply subtracts shot attempts against from shot attempts for. A percentage can then be derived from this – keep in mind, too, that shot attempts include shots on net, missed and blocked.
For example, if Sidney Crosby is on for 50 shots for and 30 against, his Corsi % would be 62.5% – which is fairly good. This assumes that 62.5% of that game, Crosby was in “attack mode.”
Fenwick is a similar stat that does not account for shots blocked by the opposing team, so it only takes into account shots that we’re directed at or near the net.
With an idea of what the two main analytical stats track, it’s time to introduce yourselves to the best “analytical” hockey players in the game today. They might not flash in the points columns, but they have data to prove their worth as important members of their teams.
*Statistics taken from stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Rankings based on individual Corsi (iCorsi) per game for players who’ve played over 2000 5-on-5 minutes over the past two seasons.
10. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Zdeno Chara has always been known as the monstrous Boston Bruins rearguard with the booming slapshot and lockdown defensive style. His 105mph slapshot is enough reason for him to shoot the puck a lot (he averaged 5.25 shots a game at full strength over this span), so while he may not be known as a pure offensive defenseman, his overall game has led to strong puck-possession numbers. This comes as no surprise considering his overall talent and the fact that he’s been playing on one of the best teams in the league over the past several seasons.
Many wonder if Chara began to show signs of aging during last year’s playoffs, but Bruins fans shouldn’t be too concerned – even if Chara is slowing down physically, he’s smart of enough to adapt, and still his a massive size advantage over the rest of the league. He’ll find a way to keep his puck possession numbers up.
9. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues
Kevin Shattenkirk would be a top-line defenseman (or at least viewed as a clear-cut number one) if he played for almost any other team in the league. His status is debated because he plays in a defensive corps that includes Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, but there’s no doubting Shattenkirk’s ability. He’s viewed as a puck-moving defenseman, and his individual Corsi over the last few seasons justifies the label, as he’s averaged an 11.227 iCorsi since the start of 2012. As Shattenkirk continues to grow as a defenseman and player overall, one can only wonder if he can one day surpass his highly-regarded teammate (who features later on in this piece).
8. Johnny Boychuk, New York Islanders
Obviously the majority of Boychuk’s stats come from his time in Boston, as he’s only played a handful of games with the Islanders so far this season. His “analytical” numbers in Boston were spectacular, and his trade probably upset a few “stat-geeks” who also happen to cheer for the Bruins. Even though he’s viewed as a more robust player with a rocket shot, Boychuk has averaged an 11.276 iCorsi since 2012, better than “higher regarded” defensemen like Duncan Keith and Shea Weber.
Boychuk will now be handed a lot more responsibility with the Isles, so it will be interesting to see whether he can keep up his impressive Corsi numbers, or if he was just a beneficiary of playing with great teammates.
7. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty is already considered one of the best – if not the clear-cut best – defenseman in the league, with or without advanced statistics. It doesn’t take a bunch of fancy statistics to see that Doughty controls hockey games with ease. His iCorsi (11.303) is almost gravy when it comes to arguing his status as the league’s top blueliner. Doughty is one of those players who is loved equally by believers and nonbelievers of advanced statistics in the National Hockey League. It’s funny, too, that he ends up on this list, even though he’s come out as a nonbeliever of advanced statistics.
6. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
It took a bit longer than anyone ever anticipated for Victor Hedman to emerge as a top-flight defenseman, but it appears he’s finally arrived. Not only did he break out offensively last season, he’s passed the eyeball test with flying colors in terms of playing a more sound defensive game. Of course, it helps when you also add an iCorsi of 11.450 over the past two seasons to his overall statistics. Hedman is slowly but surely establishing himself as a puck-possession king, which Steve Yzerman and the Lightning will certainly be happy to have.
5. Martin St. Louis, New York Rangers
Martin St. Louis has been defying all odds stacked against him since he started playing competitive hockey many years ago, and to this day he still finds a way to defy conventional wisdom. When he’s not busy stunning the hockey world by winning Art Ross trophies, he’s baffling advanced statistics whiz kids by being on of the top puck-possession in the league, with an average iCorsi per game of 11.530 since the start of 2012.
It’s impressive considering his small stature – but when has that ever stopped St. Louis? While common sense would suggest that St. Louis won’t be this high on this list for much longer, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s the wrong guy to bet against, no matter how unimposing he may be at first glance.
4. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Alex Pietrangelo is a yearly candidate to be in the running for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. He hasn’t won one yet, as the competition is stiff, but there’s no doubting Pietrangelo’s skill and all-around game. He’s managed to use his multitude of abilities to become one of the best puck possession defenseman in the game today, as shown by his 11.707 iCorsi average over the past couple of years. While some might make the argument that Pietrangelo benefits from playing on a stacked roster, but Pietrangelo is arguably the best player in the Blues roster.
3. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
Surprised? Maybe. Byfuglien comes off as more of a “productive plodder” considering his size and physical play. Byfuglien has been a puck-possession monster the past few seasons, even on a team that has struggled in Winnipeg (not that it was doing much better in Atlanta!). Byfuglien has averaged a 13.217 iCorsi per game since 2012, an impressive number on it’s own – let alone for a guy who’s had to carry the Jets offense at times (as a forward and defenseman, to boot). Byfuglien has a reputation as an inconsistent but dominant force, but his advanced statistics show that his value goes further than his versatility and physical style of play.
2. Keith Yandle, Arizona Coyotes
A few years ago Keith Yandle was widely considered one of the best offensive defenseman in the entire league, and he was supposedly only on the cusp of his potential greatness. While that talk has cooled around “traditional” hockey circles, Yandle has proven to be one of the best puck-possession players in the league since his breakout season a few years ago. With an impressive 13.217 iCorsi per game, Yandle has the advanced statistical data to further prove his value on the Arizona blueline – often times the rush, and in turn the team’s offence, starts and ends on his stick.
1. Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
While Phil Kessel will most likely never be compared to guys like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, he can take solace in the fact that he’s without a doubt one of the best “analytics” players in the NHL. Kessel is often the brunt of jokes around the hockey world, for various reasons, but no one can argue with his gamebreaking ability and his pure skill with the puck on his stick. He generates a ton of shot opportunities on his own, and a good chunk of those opportunities end up finding their way in the back of the net. Kessel boasts the highest iCorsi since 2012 (17.727) by a landslide. He also has the highest iFenwick (13.015) and shot attempts per game (9.51) at even strength over the same period.
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