• Justin Schultz and Young Defencemen

    by  • March 26, 2014 • Hockey • 9 Comments

    I’ve touched on Justin Schultz a little bit recently, here and here. I think I’ve been pretty clear in saying that I’m not expressing any position on what he’ll ultimately and simply presenting the argument that he’s struggled at 5v5 to this point in his career.

    My view on defencemen is pretty simple: on the evidence that’s presently available, the vast majority of a defenceman’s influence at 5v5 is tied up in his ability to move the Corsi% needle. There’s substantial evidence that defencemen don’t affect the shooting percentage or save percentage when they’re on the ice (or, at least, that any impact they might have is swamped by other effects), so I’m interested in how defencemen change the mix of shot attempts. I want to add that I’m open to arguments that defencemen can have an impact on S% and SV% but we’d need much better evidence than that which is presently available. I’m open to these arguments in specific cases, although I’d want something more than “just look at him” which is generally what you get.

    Anyway, whenever I start poking around young players, I start to wonder about what other players might have done at a similar age. Schultz has two years in the NHL, his age 22 and most of his age 23 season. I did a search on hockey-reference.com and identified 62 defencemen who have played at least 83 games total in their age 22/23 seasons since 2007-08, when we start having Corsi data available. I then generated the Corsi data for those defencemen at those ages. Here’s the list that produces, sorted by their Corsi% relative to their teams and requiring a minimum of 15 minutes per game in 5v5 TOI.

    (Note: for players who played for multiple teams, I just created a weighted Corsi% for the purposes of calculating a relative Corsi%.)

    A couple of observations about this list as a whole. Keep in mind that I’ve tried to include just players who were playing a lot at 5v5 – I tried to cut out guys who were getting third pairing minutes. It’s striking to me that most of them are even with their team or better. I suspect that guys who weren’t able to achieve that were less likely to get the minutes as teams saw them as not being ready for prime time. If you look at the list, most of the names of guys who have gone to earn acclaim and Norris consideration are towards the top of the list. Good hockey data and the view of people in hockey line up more than you’d think.

    I’m kind of running the opposite of the Friendly Giant here, so look down, way down. As you head towards the bottom of the list, take note of the fact that a lot of the NHL’s star defencemen are located towards the top of the list – their teams were doing better when they were on the ice than when they weren’t at a young age.

    Starting from the bottom of the list and moving up, you can see right away the problem with not taking context into account. Niklas Hjalmarsson is a fine defenceman and he had a fine Corsi% – he just looks bad in comparison to what the Blackhawks did when he wasn’t on the ice, which generally involved two Canadian Olympians playing defence. Guys who are north of 50% but worse than their team as a whole don’t worry me too much.

    Then, amusingly, there’s Jack Johnson. It’s seemingly impossible to come up with any sort of data oriented list of defencemen that doesn’t have Jack Johnson at or near the bottom. If you sorted a list of defencemen alphabetically, “J” would be the last letter in the alphabet. Old friend Theo Peckham then pops into view – it’s been a long rebuild.

    It’s noteable to me that most of these guys have gone on to be top four defencemen but that the flameouts – Peckham, Jeff Schultz and Ryan Wilson catch my eye – are in the lower part of the list, along with some guys about whom there are big question marks like Jack Johnson, Luke Schenn and Luca Sbisa. If you look at the top part of the list, it’s guys who’ve either become stars or who play with stars – you can come up with some reasoned explanation for why they are where they are.

    Which brings me to Justin Schultz. He’s well down the list. There are two obvious explanations for this. The first is that the Oilers are terrible. That’s fine, as far as it goes but if the Oilers are terrible, doesn’t that make it easier for him to stand out relative to his team? That’s what we’re measuring here. I could understand Schultz having a bad Corsi% but it’s harder for me to explain why the team’s so much worse when he’s on the ice.

    The most hopeful explanation for Oiler fans is that Schultz has had some lousy partners. I’m certainly willing to accept that when it comes to Nick Schultz. I’m less sold on it when it comes to Andrew Ference – I know that some have been critical of him but he doesn’t seem to have been that bad to me. What’s more, Ference has done substantially better when paired with Petry than with Schultz. I was kind of excited last night to see the Schultz/Marincin pairing because it gives us a chance to see how a player who’s done quite well with Petry does with Schultz. If they close out the season together and do it well, it provides some further reason to think that Schultz has been done in by bad partners.

    In any event, I think it’s fair to say that Schultz hasn’t achieved what other guys who’ve become top pairing D have done at a similar age. There are arguments that can be made that might excuse him from some of the blame for that but, if I was the Oilers, I’d be uncomfortable making a big commitment to him. I’ve heard people cite guys like Subban as an example of bridge contracts gone wrong but Subban was just on another level in terms of performance. Schultz isn’t there yet.

    There’s a bit of a danger in running a hockey team, I think, in that you group players together who actually aren’t that similar beyond some superficial characteristic. You see it a lot with teams that win the Stanley Cup – lots of guys get raises and then it turns out that some of them actually just got hot or weren’t contributing near as much as other players. I think that’s true of a rebuilding team too. There’s a temptation to look at all of your young players who are playing a lot and see them as part of the core.

    I’m convinced that that played a big role in Jordan Eberle getting the same money as Taylor Hall (and giving up fewer UFA years for it). Eberle’s a fine player, I think that you can win a Stanley Cup with him as your first line right winger, but he’s not on the same level. He had a year where everything went right and he got rolled into the Hall class by management.

    One of my favourite things to do when dealing with decision making in the presence of an unknown is to ask myself “What if I’m wrong?” The Oilers were a bit wrong with Eberle, I think, but it wasn’t a franchise crippling move or anything. If they treat Schultz like he’s on the Hall trajectory or even the Eberle trajectory and they’re wrong, the consequences could be a lot more painful.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com

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    9 Responses to Justin Schultz and Young Defencemen

    1. Aaron
      March 26, 2014 at

      A corsi related thought experiment. There are a lot of players like Shultz who are good at putting up points and bad at driving corsi. Has anyone looked at what happens if you put 5 of them on the ice together? Do their point productions plummet or do they struggle a bit, but also post a big on ice shooting %?

      Similarly what happens to a line of great corsi players who aren’t point producers?

    2. Jack
      March 26, 2014 at

      He is on a bad team. Results are skewed.

      • DearJack
        March 26, 2014 at

        You may want to read what’s being said before commenting…

        • May 6, 2014 at

          Mr. Gunner: Allow me to pass along some advice my wise old conpmay sergeant major passed along to me during my days with the PPCLI when I had to decide where I’d take my next posting. “No job or career is permanent. Eventually, it comes to an end, but your family is always gonna be with you, especially when the career is over.They’re your priority.” Those words of wisdom guided me toward making the right decision for myself and my family, and I believe those word apply in the Pronger case.He’s not putting his career at risk here. His wife isn’t forcing him to give up his career, only to continue his career somewhere else. That’s a big difference over asking him to choose between her or his hockey career.

    3. Tom Benjamin
      March 26, 2014 at

      I share some of your misgivings with Schultz, but I don’t think this is a fair comparison because he is a college player. Most of these guys had significant NHL experience before their 22nd and 23rd years, didn’t they? I’d compare him to more similar players.

      Still, Schultz hasn’t lived up to the hype and I’d think he would be further along the development curve. Chris Tanev was signed a year earlier and he is miles ahead of Schultz as a player.

    4. Nick
      March 26, 2014 at

      would be interesting to see how marincin stacks up in a year’s time.

    5. Woodguy
      March 26, 2014 at

      Did you have a look at the player’s CF% away from their most common partner(s)?

      The first thing I thought was “How do we know that a team’s CF% when X isn’t on the ice isn’t more due to his partner being off the ice (good or bad)”?

      Over a large enough sample with the partners mixing around the talent of the individual will come out, but are we sure it comes out for 1-2 years?

    6. Flips
      March 27, 2014 at

      How does quality of Competition factor in to this? On a good team Schultz would expect to play butter-soft minutes in the 3rd pairing and would have a much easier chance of posting a good Corsi. However, if he is playing the top lines, not only will he have a much harder time posting a good Corsi, but the other players will have an easier time, since they are, be default, not playing the other teams’ top lines.

      I wonder how much players being forced into roles they are unready for affects their placement on this list. Teddy Peckman played some stiff competition one of his years (not that he was that great anyways). Jack Johnson, for all his faults, posted what would be a pretty strong 47% Corsi on the Oilers and, with the perception he is a top defender, likely did it against top lines. His 47.4% also rates him higher than Spurgeon, Gardner, and Myers; two of which were likely playing the lesser lights.

      This is not to excuse all of their problems, but I wonder how much is lost by stripping the context.

    7. highgloveside
      March 29, 2014 at

      Great Post

      I think it would be important to also include how many total NHL games each player had played. Many of those players have played more than double the amount of NHL games by the time they were 23. Age itself is not a defining factor to a players development and total years of service needs some consideration. Spending time playing in college while developing as a hockey player between the ages of 18 – 22 is far different than doing so in the NHL or even in the AHL.

      Schultz has had an extremely high TOI per game in his first 2 seasons than most while many likely would have played less than 16 min per game early in their careers, Schultz averaged 21:26 and 23:26 in his first 2 seasons, potentially 400 to 600 more minutes more per full season. I beleive this could make the TOI listed misleading.

      I beleive we would see something else if games played were also listed which would account for college players or players who spent a couple additional years in junior or the AHL.

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