• Groucho Marx on Joe Thornton

    by  • April 25, 2011 • Post, Uncategorized • 11 Comments

    The Sharks enter game six with the Kings having scored just two PP goals in the series. In accordance with tradition, Joe Thornton is taking a bit of beating. I’ve never been entirely convinced by the “Thornton sucks in the playoffs” crew. To start with, he’s actually scored pretty well in the playoffs since moving to San Jose, considering that he plays in the adult conference, in which goals actually are scarce in the playoffs.

    Thornton’s name came up on Twitter, as Bruce Arthur defended his view that there’s something wrong with Luongo, either in the playoffs or versus the Blackhawks by saying “Sample size of regular season doesn’t mean much in playoffs. Joe Thornton.” After I pointed out that, broadly speaking, teams that do well in the regular season do well in the playoffs, Bruce responded “Not talking teams. Talking players. And if you want to defend Joe’s playoff work, go ahead.” He added “I’ve watched him closely in games that mattered. It’s not a coincidence.”

    I’m pretty big on the idea that I should be able to find tracks in the snow if something’s true. There’s a huge volume of numbers that the NHL collects; we should be able to sift through it and understand how, specifically, Thornton has struggled in the playoffs. Let’s start with the PP, which is Thornton’s forte. I’ve gone and gathered the on-ice data for the 69 forwards who’ve played at least 60 minutes of PPTOI in the playoffs over the course of the last four years, in order to see who has had trouble on the PP and why. I’ve then sorted my table by difference in GFON/60 in the playoffs versus GFON/60 in the regular season.


    I’m sure regular readers will know what caught my eye. Curiously, the Sharks haven’t a real problem with generating shots in the playoffs on the PP. They generate a ton of them, more than they have in the regular season. The shooting percentage has plunged through the floor though – most of them have an on-ice shooting percentage less than half of what they’ve put up in the regular season over that time.

    Keep in mind though, the samples are small. This is the amount of ice time that the Sharks under discussion would play in less than half of a season. If you read Behind the Net, you’ll have seen a post recently in which Gabe talked about power plays and predictive value. This is, for me, the critical thing to take away from that:

    Shooting percentage has very little predictive data as we might have expected, but surprisingly (or not surprisingly to those who follow the line of reasoning behind shot differential metrics), the rate at which teams shoot on the PP is a better indicator of their future power-play “efficiency” than their past power-play efficiency.

    If you buy into what Gabe’s saying, you wouldn’t hang the choker tag on Thornton on the basis of his PP performance. There’s a perfectly good alternative explanation here: the Sharks have had a miserable run of luck on the PP in the playoffs since 2007-08. The sample is small enough that it’s not unusual – someone has to get the raw end of randomness and Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Malone aren’t making what they do without getting some randomness at the right time.

    Remember though, Arthur says he’s watched Thornton in games that matter and it’s not a coincidence. As far as the PP goes, I’m at a loss to explain how these numbers support the theory that Thornton is a choking dog. Consider his role on the PP – he’s the playmaker on the San Jose team. I would expect his contribution to the Sharks PP to be almost directly measured by their shot rate. If he isn’t getting possession in the other team’s end on the PP or making good passes, it’s going to show up in the shot rates. Which have increased, despite the quality of competition in the playoffs being higher.

    It’s possible, I suppose that Thornton isn’t making passes to the tough spots on the ice because his teammates won’t pay the price to go there in the playoffs (although it’s hard to see how this would be his failing as opposed to that of his teammates), which has resulted in a reduction in the Sharks’ shooting percentage, rendering their PP toothless. Possible, but not, on the basis of everything Gabe’s talking about in his post, likely. Shooting percentage regresses like crazy. If there was a workable way to make the Sharks PP shoot 6 or 7% in the long run, teams would do it in the regular season. Nobody’s managed to shut them down there.

    The Sharks generate tons of PP shots in the playoffs. Their area of failing is an area that is known to regress heavily. To the extent that his failings on the PP form part of the basis of the “Thornton chokes” meme, it’s tough to give it much credence.


    11 Responses to Groucho Marx on Joe Thornton

    1. Saj
      April 25, 2011 at

      Another excellent topic, well done.

      One thing I would add though is that an analysis of just the PP wouldn’t be enough to detract from the argument of those who believe they observe a worse “playoff” Joe than “regular season” Joe.

    2. Tyler Dellow
      April 25, 2011 at

      All in good time sir. All in good time.

    3. April 25, 2011 at

      Thanks for this, Tyler.

      • May 7, 2014 at

        He is a good coach. He is not a great coach. Don’t let the nice win streak fool you. When the chips are down, cuncrh time, tight playoff game, he will struggle with effective play calling and clock management. He does it every single year. I like the guy and I will take the playoffs and tip my enormous hat to his success, but he will not ever bring a championship to this city. He just doesn’t have “it”. I try to step back and look at the body of work vs. the current set of data. Had they lost that game yesterday due to a horrendous 4th and inches call from their own 30 (yes pro teams should always be 100% on 4th and inches, but they sucked in that situation again) or lost the Skins game (which they should have) due to him handing a terrible team a 7-0 lead with a bonehead on sides kick call, are we all so excited at an 8-6 team? Maybe, but I dunno.Bumble

    4. Rubbertrout
      April 25, 2011 at

      A very interesting analysis. Shot percentage can certainly wag the dog and make different statistics mean different things.

    5. Ribs
      April 26, 2011 at

      No choking tonight for Big Joe!

    6. spOILer
      April 26, 2011 at

      Tyler does this actually prove anything?

      Wouldn’t Arthur just claim that your evidence proves that the SJS 1PP grips their sticks tighter in the playoffs? Or unable to find the lanes when shot blocking is at a premium?

      How do we separate bad luck from choke, good luck from clutch? Aren’t we inferring causes either way?

      And good on Joe for regressing last night, lol.

    7. NewAlgier
      May 3, 2011 at

      sarcasm/ Take a look at the players. Low shooting percent: Backstrom, Ovechkin, Kovalev. All known chokers, and Euroboys beside. High percent: Smyth, Kane, Bertuzzi. Guys who show up. Diggers. Players who don’t care about their fingernails breaking. /sarcasm

      Kinda sucks that a run of luck tags you as good/bad for your career, whether it’s sustainable or not. Offers an opportunity for a good GM (not the Oilers’, obv) to capitalize on reputational items that just don’t matter.

    8. CM
      May 5, 2011 at

      Not related but a great quote about professional sports franchises on TSN

      “Of course, any good economist could tell you that professional sports franchises do not create economic wealth, they merely redistribute disposable income, a lesson that would serve some of the city mothers and fathers in Glendale, Arizona, well about now.”


    9. May 10, 2011 at

      Heard Don Cherry say that the Capitals should get rid of sweethearts (his words) like Semin and Backstrom, and pick up guys like Bergenheim and Moore.

      Yeah, that was their problem. Having Semin and Backstrom. Fools!

    10. Ribs
      May 12, 2011 at

      Having Backstrom in my pool was a problem for me. What the hell.

      To be fair though, I thought he played decently. Trading him would be sort of crazy.

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