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 email@example.com