2014 UFA Class – Best & Worst Possession Players

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at this year’s unrestricted free agent class through the eyes of possession metrics, taking a look at some of the best and some of the worst signings of the off-season so far.

For this exercise, I have used Fenwick For Percentage (FF%) and Fenwick For Percentage Relative (FF% Rel).

Note: The former is the percentage of shot attempts (on net and missed) a player is on the ice for (50%+  indicates that there are more shots for than against when that player is on the ice), while the latter is how a player’s numbers compare to the team’s stats when he is not on the ice (positive good, negative bad).

It should of course be noted that Fenwick, Corsi etc. are not the be all and end all when it comes to evaluating players, but they are very useful tools to see which players positively influence the direction of play on the ice.

I will divide the lists up into forwards and defensemen, compiling a list of the 10 best and 10 worst at each position, ranked firstly by the raw Fenwick numbers, and then by the relative numbers.

Context is also vitally important.  A player on the LA Kings might have put up positive possession numbers, but still have a negative relative number thanks to the fact that the team is just that good. Conversely, a player might have awful raw possession numbers simply because they played for the Leafs, a team notorious for turning their noses up at the suggestion of playing a possession-based game – but that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad possession player.

A player might even have both poor raw and relative numbers, in which case it behooves us to look at where they were used in the ice – were they playing tough minutes with difficult zonestarts and against top competition?  For that reason, for each list I will include a Player Usage Chart (courtesy as per usual of Rob Vollman) displaying this information in a visual format.

I am not going to do a huge amount of analysis on these numbers, but will rather let the data do most of the talking.  If you have any thoughts or disagreements, as usual feel free to say so.

UFA Forwards – Best of Fenwick For %

UFA Fs - Top FF%

UFA Fs - Top FF% Usage

  • Some well known favourites of the advanced stats community here, such as Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen and Mike Santorelli.
  • Santorelli looks fantastic here, around 43% offensive zone-starts and facing the toughest opposition of the group, and puts up strong raw possession numbers, along with solid scoring numbers in an injury-shortened year. Toronto has just got a very nice player on a great deal.
  • Peter Regin is another forward who looks like a good, cheap-but-effective signing for Chicago’s 4th line – very strong possession numbers playing defensive minutes; doesn’t take on the most difficult opponents, and doesn’t score much, but can certainly play.
  • That top-right quadrant is filled with veteran NHL forwards, and they all performed well by this metric, but it is worth remembering they did so while receiving a significant zonestart push, and all played for strong possession teams. They did their jobs well, but playing in those situations and with those reputations that should be expected.
  • Roy and McCarthy were likely buoyed by playing on such strong teams and receiving buttersoft minutes.

UFA Forwards – Worst of Fenwick For %

UFA Fs - Bottom FF%

UFA Fs - Bottom FF% Usage

  • Aaaaand here’s why people like Nik Kulemin. He gets saddled with some of the toughest minutes Toronto has to offer, and hence does not traditionally “look good”. Hell, even his possession numbers aren’t good. But with the usage charts, we can see why they don’t look good, and that’s a big item. It’ll be really interesting to see how he does on Long Island.
  • Manny Malhotra is still receiving the extreme zonestarts that became his trademark under Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, Montreal has got a bargain for a guy who is the epitome of a tough-minutes defensive center.
  • Half this list is made up of now former Maple Leafs. It’s not that easy to judge how these players would look on a “regular” team, given how Toronto has completely eschewed the notion of possession hockey. Florida had better hope Bolland can live up to that deal.

UFA Forwards – Best of FF% (Relative)

UFA Fs - FF% Rel Top

UFA Fs - FF% Rel Top Usage Charts

  • Troy Bodie isn’t exactly a big name, but he did a nice job (in buttersoft minutes) on that awful (in terms of possession at least) Toronto team; if you’re going to have 4th liners who don’t do anything offensively, you at least want them to have possession numbers like his.
  • Stastny was paid in full by the Blues, but to put up numbers like he did on a team like Colorado (NOT a good possession team) and taking on tough competition bodes well for both him and St Louis moving forward.
  • Jim Nill made a major move for the second year in a row by bringing in Jason Spezza, and adding his former-Ottawa running-mate (well, for 20 games) Ales Hemsky is an inspired move. Hemsky has long been underrated for his ability to drive play while taking on tough minutes, something he learned from Coach Craig MacTavish during his early years as an Oiler. Love this move.
  • Speaking of the Oilers, the signing of Pouliot is no doubt a good one – he’s relatively skilled, big, physical and the possession numbers like him.  That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Oilers use him in a tough minutes role, something he didn’t do last year – is that wise? Over the years he has bounced around in terms of usage and almost always maintained a strong relative possession number, so perhaps it’s not a stretch.

UFA Forwards – Worst of FF% (Relative)

UFA Fs - FF% Rel Bottom

UFA Fs - FF% Rel Bottom Usage Charts

  • That is one ugly list…  we can safely say that all of Brown, Janssen and Thornton are pretty much a waste of space. They do have the excuse of playing on strong possession teams, so their relative numbers likely would look worse, but even their raw numbers are awful, while playing easy minutes. At least the Devils didn’t overpay for their dead-weight.
  • This will likely temper the enthusiasm for some of Tampa’s signing of Brian Boyle. He took on very tough zonestarts, granted, but his QoC wasn’t exactly top notch.
  • Heatley is an interesting one.  It’s basically a zero-risk move for Anaheim, and while he doesn’t look good by these numbers, players of his type often don’t (see Thomas Vanek). He has finishing skill (or at least had), and if the Ducks don’t overplay him at 5v5 he could be an OK asset, rather utilising him on the powerplay.
  • Manny Malhotra is a nice story, given his recovery from a career-threatening eye injury, and he continues to be used in a purely defensive role. That said, his QoC is nowhere near as high as it usually is and his numbers are still not good.

UFA Defense – Best of FF%

UFA Ds - Raw Fenwick Top

UFA Ds - FF% Top Usage Chart

  • Mark Fayne was, perhaps surprisingly for some, one of the big prizes in this year’s free agent class, and the Oilers got their man. He’s likely not a true top pairing player, but he has quietly been a very good shutdown guy for a while now; his numbers apart from regular partner Andy Greene are encouraging too.
  • Many criticised Washington signing Niskanen for so much when “he’d only had one good season” but in truth he’s been pretty good for a few years. He’s probably not a tough-minutes killer, but he did a nice job against reasonably difficult competition last year. Likewise for Anton Stralman.

UFA Defense – Worst of FF%

UFA Ds - Raw Fenwick Bottom

UFA Ds - FF% Worst Usage Chart

  • Will the Flyers never learn? Andrew MacDonald gets a $5M contract, oy! He takes on pretty difficult competition, but at 49% offensive zonestarts he’s not exactly the Manny Malhotra of the blueline world.
  • Two well-regarded names on this list, Markov & Ehrhoff, are the only two with positive relative numbers on this list, hence their large contracts are somewhat justified – their teams were far better with them on the ice than without. Both took on reasonable competition, too.
  • Gleason is not exactly a killer, but unlike MacDonald he IS used in an extreme defensive manner, played for an awful possession team, and has cost his new team practically nothing.
  • Calgary and Anaheim. Oh my.

UFA Defense – Best of FF% (Relative)

UFA Ds - FF% Rel Top

UFA Ds - FF% Rel Worst Usage Chart

  • Markov and Ehrhoff appear again, this time in a good light! Markov may be old, but he still gets the job done – much like Kimmo Timonen – and Ehrhoff was good on a historically awful Buffalo team. Pittsburgh signed him to a nice value deal, although if he enjoys a successful year he will likely command big money next year.
  • Mark Fayne appears again, he was a truly nice pickup for Edmonton and didn’t cost the Earth either.
  • Adam Pardy can’t score a lick, but he formed an effective soft (VERY soft) minutes pairing with Keaton Ellerby.
  • Niskanen and Stralman both experienced breakout years, at least in terms of becoming widely known entities; compared to some of their peers they weren’t used in the most trying of circumstances on the ice, but nonetheless were fantastic at doing the jobs they were handed.

UFA Defense – Worst of FF% (Relative)

UFA Ds - Bottom FF% (Rel)

UFA Ds - Bottom FF% Rel Usage

  •  Calgary, Philadelphia and Anaheim really knocking it out the park here.
  • Half the players on this list made signed deals worth $4M or over. Woops.
  • I just can’t stop looking at Andrew MacDonald. Paul LOLmgren strikes again!

There you have it, the UFA stars and the duds of possession numbers.  One particularly interesting thing I took from compiling these stats (many thanks to Extra Skater and Hockey Abstract for the data), was the differences in average salaries between the top and bottom of each category:

FF Top FF Bottom % Diff
FWDs $2.7M $2.2M 20.41%
DEF $2.9M $3.7M 24.24%
FF Rel Top FF Rel Bottom % Diff
FWDs $3.7M $1.2M 102.04%
DEF $3.5M $3.3M 5.88%

These numbers illustrate, to me, that the waters are somewhat muddied in terms of advanced stats when it comes to defenders. The worth of possession numbers when it comes to d-men are oft-debated, and it’s clear that NHL GMs feel the same, paying the bottom ranked defenders in raw Fenwick For significantly more than their more successful counterparts, and paying only ~6% more to the top performers in relative FF% than the worst performers.

The difference with the forwards is far more pronounced, the top performers both by the raw numbers and the relative numbers earning more money, in the latter case by a huge amount.

Thoughts?

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5 comments

  • Because coaching systems can affect a player’s advanced stats, would it not have been better to have normalized the numbers and then done the assessment? Toronto’s archaic dump and change system most definitely affects possession metrics.

    • If I had the time I might have, though to be honest I haven’t seen anyone else normalizing possession numbers across the league – not saying it’s a bad idea, but for me I find it interesting seeing the differences between teams and systems, and how players played in those situations. Might think about it for the future however.

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  • I’m not sure why but this blog is loading extremely slow for me.
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