Kevin Hoffman–USA Today Sports

 

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:

*Extraskater.com

*Extraskater.com

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:

The Good:

  • 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.

The Bad:

  • 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.

(April 24, 2013 – Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

Brandon Sutter has been over-analyzed this summer, as the Penguins appear poised to commit to him as their long-term third line center. Most of the analysis has focused on his poor possession results during his time in Pittsburgh and his high on-ice SV% (which still didn’t help him maintain a respectable goals for percentage this year). I want to take a quick look at how his results changed (from a possession standpoint) when he came to Pittsburgh from Carolina, and if those changes are explained by contextual factors such as quality of teammates/competition, zone starts, etc. The idea for this came from Corey Sznajder (@Shutdownline) who pointed out to me a while ago that Sutter’s performance in Carolina was better than it has been in Pittsburgh.  The graph below shows Sutter’s Corsi QoT, Corsi QoC, TOI/60, Zone Start %, and Corsi On for each of the past six seasons (first four in Carolina, last 2 in Pittsburgh):

*Stats from behindthenet.ca

*Stats from behindthenet.ca

Looking at the trends Sutter’s QoC and QoT have remained fairly stable over the last three years, and his zone starts have actually gotten easier (albeit still brutal) since his last year in Carolina. However, his Corsi On fell off a cliff when he moved to Pittsburgh despite the slightly easier usage. If you look at Corsi For % (from extraskater.com) you see the same thing. Sutter went from 46.4% (not good, but not awful given his usage) in his final year with the Hurricanes to 42.4% (pretty awful) in his first year as a Penguin  and 42.9% in his second year with easier zone starts and comparable teammates/competition. The big drop in his possession numbers with Pittsburgh isn’t explained by his usage, so there is likely some other factor at play. It could be any number of things, but this is the type of situation where I’m inclined to think that it is driven by Sutter being asked to do different things by the Penguins coaching staff that didn’t play to his strengths. I have been a fairly strong supporter of Bylsma, but that doesn’t mean what he was doing worked for every player.

To that point there was a good article on zone entries written by Sean Gentille here discussing how Sutter has a high carry in success rate, but a low carry in attempt rate. This could be caused by a number of factors, including Sutter only attempting to carry the puck in if he is relatively certain he will succeed, but it could also be dictated by the coaching staff.  If it was a coaching decision, it could provide an explanation for Sutter’s Corsi numbers falling off a cliff upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Based on Sutter’s time in Carolina I still don’t think there is upside beyond an average third line center here, and I wouldn’t give him big money or term, but I feel like there is a decent chance he improves relative to the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. Maybe he wasn’t a fit with Bylsma’s system and the coaching change will help him, or maybe there is some other unexplained factor at play here, but based on his past results I don’t believe Sutter is as poor of a possession player as we’ve seen during his time in Pittsburgh.

John Russell/Nashville Predators

The big news from the draft was the Penguins decision to trade James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. The general consensus is that Hornquvist is a good player, but is a downgrade from Neal and only saves $750,000 against the cap, so Spaling is left making up the difference.  The question becomes: is Spaling any good? At first blush it doesn’t look like it–while he has put up okay point totals for a bottom six player his possession numbers are awful.  Adam Gretz (@AGretz) posted the following on twitter shortly after the trade:

Of the 365 Forwards that have played 1000 minutes since 2011, Spaling is No. 341 in CF%.

That’s bad. Not quite Glass/Adams/Vitale level bad, but it doesn’t suggest he will be a huge upgrade (especially if he plays on the third line as Rutherford has suggested). But then some people pointed out that he is coming from Nashville, a team renown for playing a restrictive defensive system under Barry Trotz. Might Spaling improve as a result of moving out of Trotz’s defensive system into the more aggressive, uptempo system preached my new Penguins coach Mike Johnston? My initial reaction is that Spaling (and Hornqvist) would likely see a small improvement from the style change, but that isn’t based on anything but gut feeling. So, is there any actual evidence that players improve when they leave Nashville? Let’s take a look:

I’m going to focus on possession numbers, because they are a stronger predictor of goal differential that previous point totals or goal differential. In addition, @LyleKossis already took a look at the impact of Nashville on point production HERE.

In order to explore how a player’s possession numbers were impacted by Nashville I took two consecutive seasons (or in the case of Brandon Yip two non-consecutive seasons because he played fewer than 30 games in his first season in Nashville) and simply took the difference between the player’s numbers with the other team and with Nashville (Other team numbers – Nashville numbers). The chart is color coded so that contextual changes (QoC, QoT, ZS%) that should cause an increase in Corsi On are green, and those that should cause a decrease in Corsi On are red (TOI/60 shouldn’t really have an impact on Corsi; however, I left it in for comparison’s sake).  The bottom of the chart displays the average change in each category.

Stats from behindthenet.ca *Non-consecutive seasons due to GP constraint.

Stats from behindthenet.ca
*Non-consecutive seasons due to GP constraint.

Overall there is actually a slight decrease in possession numbers for players leaving Nashville, despite getting generally easier assignments and better teammates.  Most of the individual changes can be explained by cotextual factors (Stalberg was significantly better away from Nashville, but that is explained by vastly superior teammates and much easier zone starts).  In fact, the only player who’s change in possession doesn’t appear to be largely explained by a change in context is Joel Ward, and he was actually better in Nashville than he was in Washington.

I also wanted to take a specific look at David Legwand because he was traded mid-season from Nashville to Detroit this year, and got in over 20 games with both club. I’m using ExtraSkater.com’s stats here because Behindthenet.ca doesn’t break out partial seasons:

*ExtraSkater.com

*ExtraSkater.com

Legwand put up an almost identical CF% in Detroit as he did in Nashville, with very similar usage. It appears that the switch from Trotz’s system to Babcock’s had little to no effect on Legwand’s performance.

On the whole there does not appear to be any net effect, positive or negative, on a player’s possession numbers as a result of leaving Nashville’s system.  Instead any improvement comes from usage and quality of teammates. There is a real chance that Spaling or Hornqvist will put up better numbers this season, but that change is likely to be driven more by who they play with and against than by a systems change. While there is always a chance that a change in coaches helps a player perform better, there is no evidence to suggest that simply getting out of Nashville will suddenly transform either player.

 

 

 

Getty Images

 

The Penguins are set for a potential mass exodus via free agency, with only seven forwards and five defensemen who saw significant time at the NHL level under contract going into next season.  Fortunately for the Penguins, the majority of the holes are in the bottom six.  New general manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth during his introductory press conference, stating:

” …that our supporting cast has to be improved. I look at our fourth line players and some of those guys are in double-digit minuses. You can’t have that. You have to have energy on your fourth line, you have to have penalty killers, and you certainly have to have guys that are capable of playing defensively and not costing you that much on goals against.”

While plus/minus isn’t the best evaluation tool, no one will dispute the fact that the Penguins need to upgrade their bottom six.  This offseason offers a great opportunity to do that, offering a blank slate for the new front office to work with.  That being said, the front office will have to decide who, if any, of the pending free agents are worth keeping.

 

Forwards–7 UFA, 1 RFA

Brandon Sutter(RFA)–The Penguins only have one restricted free agent, but its a big one.  Sutter has been the team’s third line center for the past two seasons after coming over as one of the key pieces in the Jordan Staal trade. Predictably, Sutter has been a downgrade from Staal; however, the drop has been more dramatic than many Penguins fans had hoped:

*Data from ExtraSkater.com

*Data from ExtraSkater.com

Sutter has put up some pretty rough numbers both from a possession and goals perspective.  To be fair, he has been saddled with very difficult zone starts and some bad players (he spent more time with Tanner Glass than any other forward this year) but there isn’t much evidence, statistically or otherwise, that Sutter is anything more than an interchangeable third line center.  Sutter does have some things going for him, most notably strong skating ability and a good shot.  The problem with Sutter has been an inability to convert those tools into consistent production at either end of the ice, at least at even strength.  At 25, it isn’t unreasonable to expect some improvement as he enters his prime over the next two years, but that chance isn’t worth paying a premium for.  If the Penguins can resign Sutter for $3MM or less, and pair him with some better linemates, he could end up providing nice value at the third line center position.  If he wants much more than $3MM, the Penguins should explore trading his RFA rights and letting another team gamble on his improvement.

Jussi Jokinen–Jokinen performed extremely well this season after being elevated from a fourth line role (and healthy scratch) in last year’s playoffs to a top six spot this year.  Receiving very favorable zone starts–57.1%–and playing with Malkin for the majority of the year is a great situation, and Jokinen made the most of it, putting up a 54.8 CF% while posting the second highest point and goal totals of his career.  With (at least) one open spot in the top six, the Penguins should explore bringing Jokinen back for somewhere around the $3MM total he made last season.  Jokinen is an interesting case given the hiring of Jim Rutherford, who ate salary to trade him to the Penguins for a late round pick at last year’s deadline.  Will Rutherford be willing to consider bringing Jokinen back, or does he still carry whatever opinion of Jokinen led to last year’s trade?

Marcel Goc–When Goc was acquired at the trade deadline this season it was applauded as a strong depth move by the analytics community.  While he has never been a strong point producer, Goc has made a career out of taking tough zone starts and matchups while producing solid possession numbers.  While he battled injuries and struggled during his time with the Penguins this year (see this article), his past numbers and reputation are enough to warrant consideration as a bottom six option for next season.  In addition, at 30 years old Goc shouldn’t be a risk to decline substantially in the next few years.  If he is willing to take a similar deal to his last one (3 years at $1.7MM per) he could provide a solid alternative at the third line center spot if Sutter becomes too expensive.

Lee Stempniak–The other trade deadline acquisition this season, Stempniak, was somewhat of a disappointment.  During the regular season he posted unusually poor possession numbers (45.4 CF%) while producing only 11 points in 21 games despite spending over 60 percent of his ice time with Crosby.  He played much better in the playoffs, posting strong possession numbers (54.5 CF%), but the points didn’t come due to a low on-ice shooting percentage.  Like Goc, Stempniak is a player with a history of being effective from a possession perspective without producing significant offense (that one outlier 27 goal season with St. Louis aside).  At 31 Stempniak wouldn’t be a bad option as a third line winger; however, the Penguins should only pick one of Goc and Stempniak given the team’s existing commitments to forwards in their mid 30s.

Brian Gibbons–Retaining Gibbons should be management’s easiest decision.  After being called up mid-season Gibbons was an effective emergency fill in on the top line before settling into a more fitting role as a third line winger.  Gibbons posted a 51 CF% and a 3.3 CF Rel% in 41 games, and while he benefited from a significant amount of time with Crosby this season, his most common linemate was Brandon Sutter.  Gibbons has shown enough to suggest that he can be an effective third line winger; however, his lack of offensive production and NHL experience should keep him affordable for the Penguins.  At 26 Gibbons should be an effective player for a number of years, offering management the ability to trade term for cap hit if he draws interest from other teams.  Unless Gibbons has a shockingly strong market there is no reason for him to play anywhere other than Pittsburgh next season.

Joe Vitale, Taylor Pyatt, Tanner Glass–I’m grouping these three together because they are essentially the same caliber of player.  Interchangeable, ineffective fourth liners.  Vitale was the best possession player of the group with an unimpressive 44.3 CF%.  If the Penguins front office feels a need to bring one of these guys back it should be Vitale–he is the youngest, fastest, and least awful–but ideally they upgrade the bottom of the roster in free agency.  Given how bad the fourth line was this season that shouldn’t be a difficult task.

 

Defensemen–1 RFA, 3 UFA

Simon Despres(RFA)–Despres had his NHL opportunity this season delayed by the emergence of Olli Maatta; however, a series of defensive injuries gave Despres a 34 game trial this season.  Despres performed the same way he has each of the past two seasons: strong possession numbers (51.9 CF%, 6.3 CF Rel%) while playing sheltered minutes.  He has been criticized for mental miscues and turnovers; however, they haven’t shown up in his possession or goal numbers to date.  Another disappointment for Despres was his lack of point production–only 5 assists in 34 games–despite displaying strong puck skills.  Overall Despres has played well enough in parts of three seasons in the NHL to deserve a spot on the blueline next season (he should have had Scuderi’s spot this year), and it would be shocking if the Penguins don’t resign him as an RFA.  At 22 years old Despres hasn’t reached his prime yet, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to improve over the next several seasons.

Matt Niskanen–I already addressed Niskanen in some detail here.  The short version is that while he is an effective player he is going to be one of, if not the most, sought after free agents on the market this year.  Chances are he will be priced well beyond what the Penguins will or should spend on him.

Brooks Orpik–Orpik has been a fan favorite during his career, known for big hits and strong work in his own zone.  However, Orpik’s play has slipped over the past few seasons:

*Data from ExtraSkater.com

*Data from ExtraSkater.com

The Penguins have been heavily outpossessed with Orpik on the ice over the last two seasons, despite spending a significant portion of his ice time with Paul Martin.  While frequently starting the defensive zone and tough competition play a role in Orpik’s poor results, looking at how players have performed with and without him on the ice shows that he has been holding the team back.  Of players who spent over 100 minutes with Orpik over the past two seasons only one, Robert Bortuzzo, has a better CF% with him than without.  While WOWY analysis has several faults, such as not accounting for QoC/QoT differences when the players are apart, sample size issues, etc., when the results across a team are this overwhelming skewed against a player it is a good indicator that they aren’t effective.  While there is a chance Orpik could still be a passable defenseman outside of a top pairing shutdown role, the Penguins should move on and see if a team that focuses on grit, such as Toronto, is interested in trading for his rights prior to free agency.

Derek Engelland–Engelland has been adequate in his role as a 6th/7th defenseman with the flexibility to occasionally play forward, but he shouldn’t be mistaken for an effective regular defenseman.  Despite seeing easy zone starts and competition in 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 Engelland posted negative 3.4 and negative 1.8 CF Rel%, respectively.  This season he saw significantly tougher zone starts, and predictably his numbers took a nosedive to a 43.8 CF%, good for a negative 5.2 CF Rel%.  While his versatility is useful, the Penguins have no reason to retain Engelland for the upcoming season.  Engelland is 32 and the Penguins have plenty of young depth options in WIlkes-Barre if they need a third paring fill in.  I would expect Engelland to leave for a team willing to give him a regular spot (Edmonton has been rumored to be interested) and the Penguins will go in another direction, either promoting a prospect from within or signing a more effective bottom pairing option.

Photo Credit: KDKA Pittsburgh

Due to the late firing of Ray Shero and subsequent hiring of Jim Rutherford as general manager, the Penguins have a reduced timeline to handle their offseason preparation.  Here are my three key (non-coach related) issues that face Rutherford before the start of free agency.

1)      Deal with Matt Niskanen

Niskanen was a very good second pairing defenseman for the Penguins last season, likely leading to his departure from the team. After putting up two years of good numbers (albeit with sheltered zone starts in 2011-2012) Niskanen saw both his possession numbers and point total take off in 2013-2014:

*CF%, CF% Rel, PDO, and ZS% are 5v5. Data courtesy of ExtraSkater.com

Most years retaining Niskanen would be a top offseason priority for the Penguins.  However, the circumstances this offseason will make that difficult, if not impossible.  Due to a weak free agent class, Niskanen is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, free agent defenseman available.  He ranks first in points and fourth in average time on ice among unrestricted free agents at the position, in addition to posting strong possession numbers.  He is a prime candidate to be overpaid by a team looking to fill a top pairing spot, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he gets $5.5-$6.5 million.  Given his age and consistently good numbers the Penguins could afford to go up to $4 million, or maybe even stretch it to $4.5 on a shorter term, but it is doubtful that he takes that big of a discount.Niskanen’s huge jump in points can be attributed to a combination of factors: a high PDO driven by a 10.2% on-ice shooting percentage, significantly more powerplay time than in previous seasons, and a slight uptick in overall ice time. However, the increase in Niskanen’s corsi relative was also substantial, suggesting that he did elevate his game this year.  While his scoring totals are likely to drop next year, it is reasonable to expect that he will remain a good to very good second pairing defenseman for the next several years.

Rutherford should be able to find out quickly if Niskanen is willing to take a big enough discount to stay with the Penguins. If he isn’t, the first priority should be to trade his negotiating rights.  There have already been two unrestricted free agents traded this offseason, Halak for a fourth round pick and Boyle for a fifth round pick, giving an idea what Niskanen may be worth.  Niskanen will be a more sought after commodity than Halak or Boyle, so the Penguins could realistically expect a third or fourth round pick in exchange for his rights.  A trade like this would help to mitigate the impact of the draft picks traded away at the deadline in recent years.

2)      Prepare for the draft

Considering the Penguins kept most of the hockey operations staff that was working on the draft in place this shouldn’t be a problem.  The drafting issues from the first few years of the Shero era have limited the number of cheap depth players available on entry level contracts, hampering the team’s ability to build inexpensive depth.  While the jury is still out on the last few drafts, the front office needs to inject talent into a prospect group that is sorely lacking at the forward position.  Adding picks by trading the UFA rights of Niskanen, and possibly Orpik if there is a willing partner, would help bolster the chances of getting an eventual NHL contributor.

3)      Determine what to do with Rob Scuderi

Scuderi is not a good NHL defenseman anymore; however, he is scheduled to cost the Penguins $3,375,000 for each of the next three years. Lyle Kossis (@LyleKossis, GoPens! on Pensburgh) has already done good supporting work on Scuderi’s value (or lack thereof) here. One of Rutherford’s top priorities should be to get this albatross of a contract off the books. Ideally he can find another team that is interested in acquiring Scuderi. The front office may need to get creative to get someone to take the contract, potentially by offering an asset, such as a mid-round draft pick, with Scuderi in return for freeing up the cap space. If a trade can’t be worked out the Penguins should strongly consider buying out Scuderi.

Rob Scuderi buyout from CapGeek.com

o   2014-15: $430,556

o   2015-16: $1,430,556

o   2016-17: $1,930,556

o   2017-18: $1,055,556

o   2018-19: $1,055,556

o   2019-20: $1,055,556

While it is never ideal to pay a player to not play for your team, the cap space saved could help the team by allowing Rutherford to replace Scuderi with a better defenseman in free agency.  The cap savings this season would amount to almost $3,000,000, easily enough to add one, if not two, third pairing defensemen who would be at worst Scuderi’s equal.  The loss of Niskanen, Orpik, and Scuderi would test the Penguins’ depth, but the cap savings here are too big to pass up.

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