NCAA Hockey 101: Will Butcher's Hobey candidacy and the shortcomings of college stats

PROVIDENCE, RI – DECEMBER 30: Will Butcher #4 of the Denver Pioneers skates against the Providence College Friars during NCAA hockey at the Schneider Arena on December 30, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)
PROVIDENCE, RI – DECEMBER 30: Will Butcher #4 of the Denver Pioneers skates against the Providence College Friars during NCAA hockey at the Schneider Arena on December 30, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Spoiler alert: There’s basically no way Denver defenseman Will Butcher wins the Hobey Baker award on Friday.

But it’s not his fault.

Butcher has arguably been the best defenseman in college hockey over the past two seasons, compiling 68 points in 80 games (and counting) during that time as his Denver Pioneers went to two straight Frozen Fours. For any defenseman to end his career with more than 100 points is impressive enough, but for Butcher to also be perhaps one of the nation’s premier shutdown guys over that time speaks to his overall quality.

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So why won’t he win the Hobey? The argument for him in this hockey world that focuses increasingly on Tangibles is that his contributions are Not Tangible. That’s a bit different from saying they’re Intangible, but the shortcomings of college hockey stat-keeping will likely prevent defensemen from winning the Hobey any time soon unless they go on a Brent Burns/Erik Karlsson run where they post well over a point a game.

Look at the point totals for the guys in the Hobey Hat Tricks the last few years. Lots of numbers starting with “sixty-” or “seventy-” or even “eighty-” makes it hard to argue that a defenseman whose point total starts with a “thirty-” should really be in serious conversation for the award.

The highest-scoring defenseman of the year this season was Adam Fox, who posted 1.15 points per game. The year before that, Ethan Prow had 1.03. Mike Reilly and Joey LaLeggia both had 1.08 in 2014-15. The year before, Steve Weinstein’s 1.03 led the nation. And in 2012-13, George Hughes had 0.97 to pace all blueliners nationally. It’s hard to keep up that kind of high-end production (for blue liners) and say it should be in the same category as guys who have an extra 0.75 points per game above and beyond that.

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Butcher is the first defenseman to even make the Hobey Hat Trick since 2009, when Matt Gilroy won the award. That season, Gilroy only scored 0.82 points per game, a number that was weirdly just 13th among defensemen. In reality, Gilroy got more of a lifetime achievement award because he made a big fuss about sticking around to play his senior year — when he was about 24 years old, and he did it for a transparent reason: to get a UFA contract unburdened by rookie maximums — and anchored arguably the best D corps in recent college hockey history (every guy in their top six went on to play at least a handful of games in the NHL).

And before Gilroy, Denver’s Matt Carle and Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold (who both won the Hobey in 2006 and 2002, respectively) were the only other finalists from the blue line since 1995. Even as recently as 2009, hockey was, uh, viewed very differently than it is now, but you can see how difficult it is to get any defenseman even seriously considered.

Where this is an institutional failing of college hockey is pretty simple: There is no real way to track every single player’s 5-on-5 impact in terms of shots or attempts — all we have in terms of on-ice plus-minus is goals for and against. In addition, the vast majority of teams don’t make time on ice stats available, and plenty of coaches get cagey if you even ask about that sort of thing.

You can say things like, “Will Butcher obviously plays a ton of minutes against top competition,” and citing the eye test when it comes to things like getting the puck up the ice, limiting scoring chances, taking over games, and so on. But it’s not quantifiable in any real way. If you’re not a person like me whose job is to know this stuff and whose interest is deep enough that they’ll really dig into this, there would be only one way to know Butcher’s on-ice GF% at both 5-on-5 and in all situations, and that would be clicking on every box score and counting yourself. And hoping you didn’t make a mistake.

The best we can do, then, is look at scoring by game state and see how much of a difference-maker a certain player is. For instance, using College Hockey Inc.’s indispensable (but still not sufficient) stats engine, you can find out that only 16 of Butcher’s total points were scored at “full strength.” But even then you have to keep in mind that for some inexplicable reason, the stats system used across college hockey considers 6-on-5 and 5-on-6 situations as “full strength,” which it very much is not. So then you can throw out another three empty-net points Butcher collected.

If you go to College Hockey News, you can get a little deeper into things, and find out Butcher attempted 132 shots at 5-on-5 this season, and 225 overall. You can find out how many he got on net, how many were blocked, and so on. It’s helpful but it’s not as helpful as it could be.

Part of the problem is that college hockey teams simply can’t be like the NHL and have a small army of people whose sole job is to track plus-minus for every shot attempt in every situation all game long, for every game of the season. It’s just impossible.

So you get stuck saying things like, “Is Will Butcher the best defenseman in the country? I mean, probably, but I can’t be sure.” And it’s too bad because maybe, all things being equal, he’s not only the best defenseman in the country, but the best overall player in the country. That we’ve had just four defensemen considered one of the top two or three players in the country in 22 years tells you plenty about how hard it is to evaluate defensemen, but even now with all the strides we’ve made in evaluating the game, the college level lags seriously behind.

It’s a detriment to Butcher, who’s amazing and has been for a few years. It’s been a detriment to literally dozens of electrifying defensemen before him. It’ll continue to be a detriment to plenty of them who come after, unless the people behind the stats infrastructure in college hockey decide to change a few things.

And if they do, the good news is that the way games are tracked hasn’t been altered in a very long time. As such, a change to how today’s stats are kept and published will make all previous stats both more accurate and more telling.

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It’s too bad about Butcher, though. He’s certainly the best player on what has been the best team in the country for the vast majority of the season, but his big mistake in all this was to be a defenseman.

That’s not the best way to win the Hobey, Will! Come on!

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Harvard (idle)
2. Minnesota-Duluth (idle)
3. Denver (idle)
4. Notre Dame (idle)
5. UMass Lowell (idle)
6. Boston University (idle)
7. Penn State (idle)
8. Air Force (idle)
9. Minnesota (idle)
10. North Dakota (idle)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.