Last week on our own Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast, Jim Nill did a thing that got everyone good and riled up: He compared the two dynamic superstars on his team to the unassailable Good Winner Boys from his division.
The allegedly inflammatory quote in question:
“We’re not there but we think we’re on pace with where our players are at. The Benns and Seguins remind me of Toews and Kane when they were 22, 23, 24 years of age. I think we’re trying to get there.”
This in some ways is a general manager blowing smoke for His Guys. He was asked against which team he measures the Stars' progress, and he obviously said Chicago because it's hard not to measure yourself against the club that won three Stanley Cups in six years. That's a pretty good way of defining success; it's not as though they fluked their way to one Cup win five years ago. They've clearly built something that allows them to stay competitive despite a hell of a lot of roster turnover, which is something that Nill knows all about because he's gone so far out of his way to acquire former Chicago Cup winners this summer.
But in other ways, he's probably right.
After all, we're talking about high-test players, and the reason people (over)rate Toews and Kane so highly is not only because they are, like, alarmingly good at hockey, but because they have an unbelievable team around them, and basically have ever since Marian Hossa came aboard and filled in that one last gap at a time when everyone came of age. Chicago's success is based on repeatable skill, but a team with this much of a championship pedigree also has to get awful lucky to pull a Toews and a Kane and a Keith and a Seabrook and a Sharp and a Hossa and a Byfuglien and a Sharp and a Ladd and a Hjalmarsson and an Oduya and a Saad and a Shaw and a Crawford together at one time or another over a six-year period in a cap league.
Dallas has not been so lucky. Only in the last two seasons have they successfully put together these two dynamic players on the first line, and haven't really had the benefit of also getting good defense and goaltending and depth-forward support at the same time. Chicago does that because Stan Bowman somehow coalesced all that talent into one place repeatedly, while Dallas, well.. had Joe Nieuwendyk up until last April.
To say that Toews and Kane are Better Players straightaway because they have the rings to prove it is a little silly, because there are plenty of excellent players who wait years to win a Cup (like Kimmo Timonen), and some never do it at all despite being one of the best players in the league for a very, very long time (poor Jarome Iginla). It's hard to win Cups, yes, but doing so — even repeatedly — doesn't validate one player's credentials as an individual contributor over another. The people who would take Toews over Crosby because the former “knows how to win” are lunatics; Crosby on those Chicago teams instead of Toews would probably have the same number of Cups, if not more, because he is a better hockey player, while Toews has benefited from better teammates.
Thus, we have to look at things as independent from team factors as possible. In hockey, this isn't easy to do because everything is so team-dependent, but the good folks at War on Ice have come up with a single Wins Above Replacement (thus “WAR on Ice”) statistic that, while not yet totally nailed down, certainly serves to give a pretty good idea of player value relative to others, based on several factors (faceoffs, penalties drawn and committed, shooting quality, shooting rates, and so on). And when examining that statistic, which pulls many others under one umbrella, we can see that hey, in the last two years, Benn and Seguin have individually been better than Toews and Kane.
With the acknowledgement that Kane and Toews have combined to miss 41 games over the last two years, versus just 12 for Seguin and Benn, we can still see where the impact the two Stars have had has outstripped even the quite-impressive numbers of their Chicago counterparts. (Although I will say this about the disparity in games-played: Durability has value as well, that's why these stats are called “above replacement.”)
As you might expect, all four of these guys currently deliver a lot of wins above what the average call-up would across a number of statistical categories. These are some of the biggest numbers in the NHL. This past season, Seguin's was fourth among skaters, Benn's 17th, Toews's 30th, and Kane's 47th despite him missing a good chunk of the season. And as you see above, this was actually something of a down year for Seguin.
Not that you need numbers like this to say the four guys in question here are very good, but you can plainly see that in the last two years — i.e. when Seguin moved to Dallas and started to be treated like the high-end offensive talent he clearly is and was — the combined win totals contributed by those two significantly exceeds that of Toews and Kane. It's 15.64 for Benn/Seguin and 10.7 for Toews/Kane, and while a little fewer than five extra wins over the course of two seasons doesn't seem like that much, it is about 50 percent better, so that's quite telling.
But then, those numbers don't account for age.
Toews just turned 27 at the end of April. Kane is about half a year younger than him, as he'll turn 27 in mid-November. Benn, meanwhile, just turned 26 a few days ago, and Seguin won't even be 24 until the end of January. So in that respect, there is a little wiggle room to say they're a young Toews and Kane. In that they are indeed younger. (On the other hand, Benn was drafted in the 2007 entry draft, same as Kane, but took two extra years to get to the NHL because sometimes you just need a little more time in the oven.)
And the crux of Nill's argument is that Benn and Seguin are as good now as Kane and Toews were in the years right before they hit their primes around 25 or 26. And again, the fact that Benn is roughly a year younger than Toews and eight months younger than Kane skews things a bit. But if we're comparing by age, let's do it:
So yeah, you can kind of see where Benn is roughly on Kane's level in some respects (but again, they're effectively the same age so it's not like he's a “Young Patrick Kane” and Seguin is more valuable to his team in terms of producing wins — The Ultimate Statistic! — than Toews was at his age. And you can probably make a case that the first three seasons of his career would have proved better if Claude Julien didn't punish him for being too good at hockey to deserve to play on Chris Kelly's line.
With Seguin not even being 24 yet, he's probably still got a few more years of improvement in him. That's not necessarily the case for Kane, Toews, and Benn. Not to say they're all going to turn into bums in the next three seasons, but Seguin at least still has the upswing going for him.
On that front at least, you'd therefore have to think Dallas gets more out of its two best players than Chicago will.
Dallas is clearly building something, and who knows if it ever amounts to anything even coming close to what Bowman's done over the last six years. But that won't be Benn or Seguin's fault; they've done more or less everything that could be asked of them. As for everyone else in Dallas, well, plenty to be desired. Not so for Chicago, which is why you see all that winning and so forth.
Supporting cast performance matters a lot more than star performance, on the whole. Especially when Chicago's supporting cast has been this good and Dallas's hasn't. But the point is: Nill's not crazy here. Benn and Seguin are just as good as Toews and Kane in their primes.
Mostly because Seguin is one of the best players in the league.
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