The search for the ultimate single-metric has been the hunted unicorn since the early days of hockey analytics. Evaluating a player using a single metric seemed to understate that player’s contributions in such a free flowing game like hockey, seemingly missing attribution for factors like intangibles and character. Even context is missed at times with a single number representing an overall metric, but I find that it’s similar to getting a ‘B’ in school, where each day and each test, assignment and interaction is not taken into effect, only the final grade.
For single metrics, I think that the beginning is how scouting has evolved and where it is going in the future, integrated with an analytics strategy and as a stand-alone, albeit misunderstood art, usually devalued by some random comment cutting it’s way into the public sphere to publicly dump on and alienate the ability to break down a player’s skillset. With systems and skills so closely assimilated, I think that coaches may make the best pro scouts in the future, but that’s another topic for another day.
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The current crop of players entering the league are the most skilled and ready to contribute than any point in hockey history. Available skill across four lines has closed the gap between regular second line players to the fourth line. Second and third line players are sometimes interchangeable, where components can be shuffled between assignments as injury replacements, or to change things up due to a slump.
The interchangeability of the bottom two lines can also be replaced. These ‘replacement level’ players can be shuffled in and out of the lineup with minimal distraction to the overall crew. Interchangeable parts, to go along with the flexibility in interchangeable linemates.
Replacement level players are the benchmark to measure and evaluate players. This is the concept behind goals above replacement (GAR) and wins above replacement (WAR). How much does a player contribute to goals and wins above what a replacement level player would offer in that spot. We are going to explore this concept using a team that has recently fired both the head coach and general manager, the New Jersey Devils.
WAR and GAR and the New Jersey Devils
Before the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs the Devils players made up the WAR and GAR per 60 minutes rates as shown in the chart below.
Data provided by Evolving Hockey.
Now, Jesper Bratt is a very good hockey player, but should he be leading the New Jersey Devils in wins and goals above replacement? Is he performing that well to be leading the Devils? Nico Hischier, ranked second is posting a 58% less effective GAR/60 despite being the offensive force for the Devils and the face of the New Jersey offense.
The cluster of players in the range from zero (0) into the negatives, contains prominent names like Wayne Simmonds, and Taylor Hall. The former Flyers winger, Simmonds, with four goals hasn’t been the net presence nor an offensive catalyst based on preseason expectations coming off a difficult season in Philadelphia and hip surgery. Hall is earning a point on 85.7% of 5v5 on-ice goals with the Arizona Coyotes, tallying six points (all primary) in 13 games (2-4-6). He added three more points Tuesday night, in a 6-3 win over the hapless Sharks.
Pavel Zacha is essentially riding the level of replacement player. Disappointing to say the least.
Not likely to develop into an explosive offensive talent, to be effective in the lineup, he has to be performing better than a replacement level player. His single metric performance aside, he’s already matched the 14 points from last season at 5v5, in 38 less minutes overall, and only five points away of career high 19. As a secondary source, more offensive output from the pivot would fill a void within the Devils offensive structure.
Off season acquisition, P.K. Subban has struggled as much as the rest of the team, producing at career low rates at 5v5, except for a fairly robust goals/60, while earning points on 28.6% of on-ice goals – a career low. The same applies to special teams, with career low rates at 5v4 even if he did score a power play marker against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
The former Habs and Predators blueliner is going to be the answer to the question of how best to utilize his skills and asset value. Will he patrol the Devils blueline next season? Will he be moved to accommodate another team with a more immediate need of his skills on the road to a championship rather than on a rebuilding club, even with his cap hit?
I have some reservations about his overall value, and perceived future value. One of Subban’s greatest assets is a booming point shot, a skill that is slowly being relegated to secondary – even as he scored his 6th on the power play last night. His rushing and point presence aren’t what they used to be in his peak and as time moves on, the big shot may remain, but his impact will dwindle overall. To justify accepting the risk of his contract, the return may not be what the Devils are looking for, putting the questions on the forefront of how best to utilize this asset.
Face of the 'Power Kill'
The best story is the breakout season for Blake Coleman. The Devils winger should be the face of the “power kill”, epitomizing the killer offensive instinct and subtle skills required to be a dangerous penalty killer and serious offensive threat. He’s bounced between Pavel Zacha and Travis Zajac at 5v5 with decent overall results.
He scored his first career hat trick (a natural hat trick) against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first goal a nifty individual effort that epitomized a full gamut of physicality, toughness and skill, with the second on a burst to produce space before putting it behind Frederik Andersen. The third was the right frame of mind to get to the front of the net and plant a stake out front waiting for the puck for a quick redirect.
This tweet contains the video of each of the goals.
— Devils on MSG (@DevilsMSGN) January 15, 2020
His 15 goals at 5v5 have already established career highs and he’s only three points away from establishing career bests in points, while firing at a healthy 10.2% individual shooting percentage.
While the Devils are middling out and unable to sustain the expected momentum of the Subban trade, and subsequently trading away Taylor Hall, there are some pieces that give the Devils some hope for the future.
But with the exception of their established stars (and Hischier is definitely one of them), they’ve not produced very well in the single metrics goals above replacement. This doesn’t just measure the players, it’s a commentary on the issues plaguing them in 2019-20.