What We Learned: Drew Doughty vs. Erik Karlsson debate

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(Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

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(Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

At this point if you believe Drew Doughty, or literally anyone else, deserves to win the Norris over Erik Karlsson you have to be doing it out of sheer boredom or contrarianism.

No one can look at the seasons these two defensemen are having and realistically say, “Doughty is better.” The mental gymnastics associated with such a statement, if actually being made in all seriousness, ought to win you gold in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

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The logical fallacy in all this is that anyone who backs Doughty knows they have little room to actually make the argument, so they have to get ultra-specific. “Well, sure, Karlsson is clearly more talented, but he's a better one-on-one defender. He's more physical. He's more complete.”

This argument pre-supposes that Karlsson is incapable of defending players one-on-one, or rather that his skill here is so dwarfed by Doughty's that it wipes out the absolutely gargantuan disparity in their offensive capabilities.

It is, of course, nonsense. In fact, it comes down to the kind of confirmation bias to which all players are subject.

For example, if Drew Doughty carries the puck out of his own zone and turns it over in the neutral zone — a rare occurrence, certainly — there is no rolling of eyes in the press box by media members offended that he tried to do too much. You accept this as the course of action; sometimes, everyone turns the puck over.

However, if Karlsson makes the exact same play, people practically break their fingers saying, “See what I mean about Karlsson?”

But you have to wonder, how many touches per 60 minutes does Karlsson get versus Doughty? I would venture to guess the answer is a lot more, and that he is also more heavily relied upon by his team to take the puck from his own zone to the other team's. Los Angeles certainly has more options for “reliable puck carrier” than does Ottawa.

Here's a fun stat for all you stat-heads out there who believe in this kind of thing (which by the way you shouldn't): Prior to Sunday afternoon's games, the NHL's site credits Doughty with eight more giveaways than Karlsson this season, in three fewer games. That's not good puck management, folks!

Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images
Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images

Again, we don't have data on the number of touches each player gets per game, but it's not going to be so many more that Karlsson somehow ends up turning the puck over more often on a per-possession basis than Doughty. Not that I'd trust NHL data farther than I can throw it, but certainly this is illustrative of the theory involved.

And to that end, the idea that Doughty is more complete is helped immensely by the fact that his team is — and has been — a whole hell of a lot better than Karlsson's for the last several years. Puck Daddy's own avowed Doughty-preferrer Josh Cooper noted earlier this week that the Senators when Karlsson is on the ice look like a dangerous team, and when he's off, they look like one of the worst teams in the league.

This is, obviously, not a secret. The Kings are good and the Senators are bad. Likewise, LA would be relatively okay without Doughty for a prolonged stretch. Without Karlsson, Ottawa might not win a game.

Indeed, Karlsson has the highest relative possession number in the league among defensemen with at least 500 minutes played at full strength (plus-8.42 score-adjusted CF% when he's on versus when he's off). And he leads by a mile. He also has the 16th-highest relative high-danger chance percentage (plus-6.57). And the highest relative shot share (plus-7.95). And the  27th-highest goal share (plus-7.27).

In those same categories, Doughty ranks 25th, 107thth, 38th, and 24th, respectively. And did I mention that Karlsson plays more difficult competition than Doughty? Because he does.

Just look at what Karlsson has to drag up and down the ice every game versus the absolute pleasure cruise on which Doughty sets sail on a nightly basis. The fact that he gets this club even gets this club close to a 50-50 split of possession sometimes is remarkable. Without him, they'd be last by a mile.

When people say Doughty is LA's most important player, it's a real head-scratcher to me. That No. 1 center, the one who just pulled $10 million a year, goes a long way toward making anyone look good. The interplay between an elite center and an elite defenseman is important in setting both apart from their peers. Without Jonathan Toews there is likely no Duncan Keith, and vice versa. Without Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara almost certainly isn't as dominant for almost a decade, and vice versa.

How, then, does Doughty somehow exist outside the reality of that interpersonal dynamic? Doesn't playing with a player of Anze Kopitar's quality necessarily make Doughty's job so much easier? Of course it does. Okay great, that's agreed. And who does Karlsson have filling that same role? Kyle Turris.

Despite the fact that Turris is pretty good, the drop-off is obvious and appreciable.

So one must shudder to think what Karlsson looks like if he plays behind Kopitar. The extent to which he would run the league is likely the stuff of opposing coaches' nightmares. That's also true of him playing in a Darryl Sutter system, rather than one run by Dave Cameron. There is some absurd idea floating around out there that Cameron lets Karlsson have the green light to do almost anything he wants because, well, whatever. The guy's not a great coach, but he knows a nuclear weapon when he sees one, and Sutter would too.

Anyone who would try to rein in Karlsson's tendency to get up and down the ice at full speed is the same kind of person who would buy a race car and drive it around the track at 55: Someone who is wasting something beautiful. If anything, a coach with a team as good as Sutter's would probably be wise to give Karlsson more of a green light, because he's not the only player on the ice who can make a difference at the other end as well.

Indeed, to the extent that own-zone play is important, one must consider that Karlsson does far more of it than Doughty, and with greater success. To wit, it has been shown that score-adjusted CF% is mostly a fair and accurate representation of the percentage of your ice time you spend in the attacking zone. That is to say, if you play 100 minutes, and have a 55 percent CF%, you probably spent about 55 minutes in the offensive end of the ice.

With this in mind, you can take Karlsson and Doughty's CF% this year, and multiply it with their TOI, to approximate the number of minutes they spent in the attacking zone. Subtract that number from their total TOI and get their own-zone time. Pretty simple. And when you do that, you can start to get a good idea of each defender's ability to suppress shot attempts, high-danger chances, goals, and the rest, all on a per-60 basis.

You'll never guess what: They're basically the same player in their own end.

Obviously you don't want to spend as much time in your own zone as Karlsson does, but given the volume of minutes he actually plays, that number isn't actually all that bad. Since the NHL started keeping track of TOI, only 12 players have gotten more than 2,300 minutes in a season, and Karlsson is on pace for nearly 2,400.

Otherwise, though, the only particularly huge disparity here is in terms of one guy being appreciably worse off clearly in terms of goals allowed per 60. And the reason is LA goalies have a .931 save percentage with Doughty on the ice this year, versus just .909 with Karlsson on. And given that we know a) Karlsson allows very, very slightly more high-quality chances, and b) he plays with worse players pretty much across the board, I think we can safely call this a wash.

But most of all when we have this discussion, the argument boils down to the idea that defensemen shouldn't score as much as Karlsson do if they are to be taken seriously as defensemen. “Defense is right there in the name” and all that crap. But given that proactivity is often preferable to passivity in this sport — or, if you prefer, the best defense is a good offense — it must follow that it doesn't matter how you outscore your opponent, but whether you do, and by how much.

If Karlsson or Doughty were so good in their own zone that neither was scored-upon all season, then the guy who did the most to generate offense at the other end as well as be part of the defensive lockdown is clearly the better player, right? Well in all situations, Karlsson has a goal differential per 60 minutes that's about 50 percent better than Doughty's. Which is all that really ought to matter.

Oh, but the argument against this particular brand of logic, according to Kevin Allen, “[Doughty's] production would be higher if he played for a team that needed it.”

This is unfathomably misguided.

Do you imagine that Doughty has the capability to go out there and put up a 90-plus point pace, but that he says, “Nah, I'd rather block shots?” This is the same argument you hear with Toews vis a vis people preferring him to Sidney Crosby: “He could score 100 too, if he wanted.” He really couldn't, because if he could, he would.

The last time a defenseman did what Karlsson is on pace to do this year — clear 90 points in a single season — was Ray Bourque in 1994 (which is just coincidentally the last time Bourque won a Norris; after that everyone figured out scoring a lot is actually bad and they never gave him the award again). Bourque, though, did it in 72 games.

And that was when the average save percentage was .895; so far this year it's .916. That's the difference between playing someone a little worse than 2015-16 Jonathan Bernier, versus playing Tuukka Rask. Every night, all year.

A more reasonable argument in this respect — and still a fallacious one — is that the Kings' system necessarily seems to suppress shooting percentage in a way that those of other teams do not. Does that help explain why Doughty's assist numbers are pitiable in comparison with Karlsson's video-game totals?

Yes, a little. Does it get you anywhere close to the destination on that logic train? Obviously not.

People also like to point out that Karlsson does not kill penalties while Doughty does, as though either has any say in the matter. Don't you think Doughty would love the extra 1:50 of power play time per night that Karlsson gets because he's not out there trying to block shots and clear the zone so he can go off for a change? No, I'm sure he tells Sutter, “Make sure I'm getting close to three minutes on the PK every night. I love killing penalties. I would marry it if I could.”

Any smart coach deploys his players in the manner best suited to maximizing their skills. As outlined above, Karlsson has superior own-zone possession numbers and, when he is occasionally asked to kill penalties, he excels at that, too. This is not somehow the one area of the sport which escapes his superior understanding, it's just that his coach realizes that two extra minutes of Karlsson on the power play every night means more to his goal differential at the end of the year than two extra minutes of Karlsson killing penalties. The number of goals he creates on special teams is always going to be greater than the number he prevents. That's true both given his skillset, and just the way in which hockey works.

But because Doughty cannot carry Karlsson's jock offensively, let's instead examine the guys to whom their offensive outputs this season actually compare. And just to make it appear fair — it still won't be fair, but I'm going to try — we're going to rank Karlsson against everyone, including forwards, while only ranking Doughty against defensemen. It's tough to find comparable players for Karlsson when only looking at defenders, for obvious reasons.

So given the ideas that Karlsson turns the puck over less often than Doughty, is just as good at suppressing pretty much everything when he's actually in his own zone, and scores more than Nathan MacKinnon (Karlsson gets 0.07 more points per 60) instead of less than Ron Hainsey (by 0.04 points per 60), and that he does it all on a much worse team, we can safely conclude three things:

1) Karlsson is a better three-zone defender than Doughty, and

2) Karlsson is therefore the only Norris candidate worth considering.

3) Karlsson is arguably the league's MVP.

At this point, all the data effectively brooks no argument.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks will perpetually have at least one player on the shelf with a long-term, serious injury. Of this I have become convinced.

Arizona Coyotes: This is one of those accomplishments where you're like, “Wait, Shane Doan didn't have the franchise scoring lead already?” Doan has the same career points per game as Glen Murray!

Boston Bruins: Just pay Brad Marchand whatever he wants. He's so, so good.

Buffalo Sabres: Ah jeez, okay, if you're gonna run Stamkos-Eichel-O'Reilly up the middle for the next seven years you might want to just start engraving the Cups now.

Calgary Flames: Good teams draw more penalties against bad teams and therefore win. This all checks out for me.

Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward was hurt in Saturday's game, and it is currently unclear how bad the injury is. This is, by the way, a contract year for him.

Chicago: Niklas Hjalmarsson might be the best No. 2 defenseman in the league by a decent margin, which is a big reason Chicago tends to be so dominant.

Colorado Avalanche: Avs get outshot 45-21, win 3-2 in a shootout. This all makes sense. Perfect sense. The team is good. Sorry everyone they're good every night and shot quality exists and is real and definitely is why they keep winning.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Joonas Korpisalo is 8-1-2 in his last 11 starts? Good lord. Doesn't he know this team is trying to get Auston Matthews?

Dallas Stars: Tyler Seguin got cut by a skate late in Saturday's impressive win over Washington. He's probably fine but also what if he isn't?

Detroit Red Wings: Ooooo, a Wings/Leafs outdoor game. Should be really original and cool.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers lost to the freakin' Jets in a shootout at home, but that wasn't Laurent Brossoit's fault. He was really, really good.

Florida Panthers: Quinton Howden just about got his head taken off by Anthony Bitetto and left Saturday's game early. One thing the Panthers definitely need is more injuries right now.

Los Angeles Kings: Speaking of injuries, the loss of Marian Gaborik might be really troubling for the Kings. Not that it really matters because the rest of the season is a two-month runway to the playoffs.

Minnesota Wild: Did you know the Wild have the same shooting percentage since the start of December as the Canadiens? But yeah it's the coach's fault and not related to roster construction.

Montreal Canadiens: Well, yes. Bad luck. But also, that really ought to be expected at this point.

Nashville Predators: Anyone have a good reason Carter Hutton shouldn't be the starter for Nashville down the stretch?

New Jersey Devils: The Devils are just now realizing that getting an extra point for winning in overtime is helpful? Didn't a lot of these guys go to college?

New York Islanders: Tough to get run out of the building like that against Carolina, but at least John Tavares is scoring again, right?

New York Rangers: It's Antti Raanta's fault the Rangers a) aren't good, and b) played arguably the best team in the league? Okay. Sure.

Ottawa Senators: This team is so bad it gave up 39 shots to Columbus. Yeesh.

Philadelphia Flyers: Michael Del Zotto is out for a while, so the Flyers recalled Andrew MacDonald. Wow, Andrew MacDonald! A real blast from the past.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Hey is the NHL gonna start calling the shootout a “tiebreaker?” Because of how much we all hate the shootout?

San Jose Sharks: Expect most games in the Pacific to go this way for the rest of the year: Kings/Ducks/Sharks score a lot against the other four bad teams in the division and win with ease far more often than not. Those three teams are now in the right form and looking more or less untouchable.

St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott entered Sunday with a .944 save percentage in his previous 13 appearances. Which is a big reason the Blues are basically guaranteed third place in the Central. Of course, third place gets you either Dallas or Chicago, but y'know.

Tampa Bay Lightning: I still think it would be insane for this team to lose Stamkos for nothing.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Morgan Reilly and his cool dog Maggie get all my blessings this week. They are great.

Vancouver Canucks: This isn't from the weekend, but combining the Canucks' effort against a half-AHL Maple Leafs club with Jim Benning's assertion on Thursday that this team is a buyer is just about the funniest thing I can imagine.

Washington Capitals: This is cool. Very cool.

Winnipeg Jets: Rommel didn't tank this hard.

Play of the Weekend

For me this Mitch Marner goal was decent.

Gold Star Award

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

That Anze Kopitar hat trick on Friday was really impressive. He should get a long-term, big-money deal in my opinion.

Minus of the Weekend

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

So nice to be the GM who built a mediocre team and be able to fire the coach before facing any accountability yourself.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “alpine4life” may be a Sens fan.

To Edmonton:

Cody Ceci

2016 2nd

To Ottawa:

Taylor Hall

Signoff

Geech gone to heaven, Mr. Terwilliger. 

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)

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