Nick Spaling is the “other” player from the Neal trade, meant to make up the difference in value between Neal and Hornqvist. However, despite putting up 24 even strength points (bolstered by a 12.5% shooting percentage) this past season, Spaling remained the same poor possession player he has been throughout his career:
This past season Spaling faced neutral zone starts, and had relatively strong QoT (his most common linemates were Smith, Legwand, and Stalberg), and still posted a weak 45% CF%. In addition, Steve Burtch’s (@SteveBurtch) dCorsi measure (found here) rated Spaling at -2.375 corsi relative to what would be expected based on his usage. Spaling has put up a negative dCorsi each of the past four seasons, and each of the past two he has been more than a standard deviation below the mean (which is very close to 0). I highly recommend reading up on the dCorsi measure, the goal is to take Corsi and adjust for the contextual factors in an objective manner.
The statistical case against Spaling is clear, but what about watching him play? Many in the analytics community, myself included, have said that stats alone aren’t enough, you need to combine video analysis with statistics to get the entire picture. This is especially true when scouting and stats disagree with each other. So after being told by one person on twitter that “Nashville fans have said Spaling can have more of an impact at even strength than Hornqvist” I decided to go back and watch Spaling to see what kind of even strength impact he has. Is he really an effective player that posts poor numbers for some reason outside of his control? Or is he what the numbers say, a weak bottom-six player?
To “scout” Spaling I selected five games from last season, mostly at random but with the goal of spreading them out throughout the season. I then went through and watched Spaling’s even strength shifts, focusing specifically on his play both on and away from the puck. I don’t have any scouting or video breakdown experience, so my observations are far from professional, but I believe it gives me a better idea of what Spaling does than someone who just watched Predators games without focusing on Spaling’s impact. I’ll start with the positives:
- Consistently in good position
- Doesn’t make big mistakes
- Strong wrist shot
The element of Spaling’s game that stuck out the most was his positioning away from the puck. He was consistently in good position defensively, and did a good job of rotating back to fill in for pinching defensemen in the offensive zone. His primary play in the offensive zone was to cut to the front of the net and provide a screen/deflect shots, a good strategy for a low skill bottom six winger. In addition, Spaling showed off a strong wrist shot in the (rare) instances that he had an opportunity to use it. I would expect his shooting percentage to come back toward league average after being well above the past two seasons, but he isn’t an Adams/Glass offensively, he has a legitimate NHL shot.
- Struggles to gain possession of the puck
- Doesn’t consistently put pressure on opponents
- Weak board play
- Lacks ability to make plays under pressure
- Limited hands/skill
While Spaling is consistently in good position, he doesn’t consistently or effectively challenge opponents with the puck. In the games I saw he would apply cursory pressure on the opponent before backing off into the shooting lane. He very rarely challenged a puck carrier and forced a decision, let alone a turnover. When he is in the area of a 50/50 puck Spaling rarely succeeds in getting possession of the puck, he frequently settles for tipping or slapping at the puck resulting in another 50/50 battle somewhere else in the zone. His board play was unimpressive, consistently losing wall battles and looking physically overpowered. Although Spaling was able to make crisp passes and carry the puck when he wasn’t pressured, even light pressure forced inaccurate passes and blind clears. He struggled to create offensive opportunities for himself or others, limiting the opportunities to use his strong shot. Spaling also struggled to settle down bouncing pucks or imperfect passes.
My main conclusion from watching Spaling is that he is a very low impact player at both ends of the ice. His great defensive positioning is wasted by the fact he fails to pressure the opponent into making a decision. He looks like a player who should be a solid defensive bottom six winger, but he doesn’t convert it into effectively play.
The disconnect between the stats and the eye-test are fairly evident from watching him play: Spaling has a reputation as a defensive forward, is always in good position, and doesn’t get directly beat for goals, so it is assumed that he is an effective defensive player. However, by not putting pressure on the opposition he is defending and failing to win 50/50 pucks and board battles, he allows the opponent to keep the puck in the offensive zone more often, indirectly contributing to more zone time/goals for the opponent. Spaling’s man may not be the guy cutting open to the net very often, but his failed clear or weak puck pressure allowed the play to get to that point.
With that being said, the basis for a solid defensive winger looks like it is there. If the Penguins coaching staff can convince Spaling to get more aggressive, particularly in the defensive zone, he might be able to convert his good defensive position into effective defensive play. While he still isn’t likely to be worth the $2MM or more he will get on his next contract, it would make him a useful player. If he remains as passive as he was last year in Nashville he isn’t likely to contribute much, if anything, to the Penguins bottom six.