• Toughness v. Skill

    by  • April 6, 2014 • Hockey • 26 Comments

    There was a pretty interesting exchange in Dallas Eakins’ media availability today, talking about whether or not you need toughness on your defence.

    SPECTOR: In the past we would say “If he doesn’t want to play that mean game you’re talking about, he should have some partners or someone else on defence who can fill in that role.” Are we still, in 2014, in need of someone back on your defensive corps who plays that game that you described?

    EAKINS: What game did I describe?

    SPECTOR: Well, the “I’m scared of you” defenceman. Do we still need that guy or are we past him?

    EAKINS: Well, you know what? I’ve always loved having toughness on my teams. It’s the old school part of me. And the old school part of me is starting to get questions. When you look around the league now, the teams are changing their makeup. There’s teams that are playing a heavy game but not a lot of meanness. Just go, they check and they play high pace.

    So I don’t have the answer for you. I could easily stand here and argue that “Yes, we need that.” We’ve got a guy back there that’s more than willing to fill the role in Mark Fraser and one side of me says “Absolutely, we need the toughness, we need toughness up front, we need it in the back end and the I go right over, two days later, and go the other way, say “We need puck moving guys, we just need to play fast and that’s it.”

    And it goes back to, I just remember a conversation I had with Paul Maurice as an assistant coach. We were talking about defencemen, it was about half way during the year. He said “Go right now, I want to know how many hits Lidstrom has, right now.” And I went and I looked and then I thought it was wrong. It was like halfway during the year and the guy’s the best defenceman in the league, best defensive defenceman in the league and he had one hit. And I was like “That can’t be right. He’s had to have run into somebody else.”

    But you know Mark, that’s the god’s honest truth, I’m not trying to get out of the question. There’s one side of me that says “Yes, we need to old school it and we’ve got to have those guys” and there’s the other side of me that looks at how some other teams are building and…

    I’m not sure.

    I know that there are a lot of Oiler fans who aren’t particularly happy with Eakins as the coach. He’s made the Journal’s front page for the weekend promoting their survey on who the Oilers need to fire or trade.

    Aside: Taylor Hall? Really?

    For what it’s worth, I don’t entirely get why the knives are out for Eakins. I get that this has not been a good year, one of eight. You just have to listen to the guy talk though – he seems like a guy who thinks about things, is rational and pragmatic. I haven’t agreed with everything that the Oilers have done this year, or everything that he’s said (just in general terms, I think I was more skeptical that they were playing well in the 10-4-3 run than the Oilers seemed to be) but there has to be a certain degree of “Find a good pragmatic coach and give him some time” in all of this.

    Just on that 10-4-3 run…the table to the left sets out the Corsi% and PDO of players at 5v5 during the streak. I mean, it screams “Unsustainable.” There isn’t a team in the NHL that wouldn’t look great with a bunch of guys with PDOs of 103+. I’m actually more encouraged by the most recent three game road trip where they went 1-2-0 but managed to hang around Corsi% wise despite playing three in four nights than I am by the 10-4-3 run.

    ANYWAY – where was I? Oh yes, “toughness.” It’s interesting to me that Eakins brought that up for a number of reasons. First, I’ve long been skeptical of the need for toughness, in the way that people talk about it in the NHL. I’m a huge believer that you have to be tough to play hockey but I’d characterize guys like Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky as tough. They aren’t scared to go to hard places on the ice. They aren’t intimidated.

    Just in general, I think NHL players are probably less intimidated now than they’ve ever been. It’s a bit of a consequence of hockey’s crackdown on violence, I think. This hit from 1991 always stuck in my head:

    Keep in mind, the game had been cleaned up a lot since then. Today, Messier would get five games for that. The first time he did it. The fear of someone violently fouling you and injuring you has been greatly reduced. Guys like Hall and Hemsky can skate through the middle without the fear that a guy like Scott Stevens is going to turn the lights out.

    So what’s left? Guys who play rough hockey? Take Mark Fraser, the Oilers’ current provider of toughness. The coaches (quite properly) won’t play him against anybody good. I loved this shift chart from Anaheim, where the Ducks had last change.

    There’s basically one way to hide a defensive pair when you’re on the road and that’s to put them out as soon as the line you’re ducking comes off the ice. This is pretty much a textbook case of that. What’s the point of toughness and intimidation if you’re scared to use them against anyone good? Who are they intimidating then? The other team’s depth players? Sort of? Who cares. Guys like Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf drive the bus and they intimidate coaches into playing good defencemen against them, not tough ones.

    Here’s another example of the dance that the Oilers do with Fraser, this time from the 5-2 loss at home to San Jose. San Jose’s a bit trickier because they’ve got multiple lines that can hurt you.

    Toughness that you won’t use against anyone decent (and where you’re giving up defensive/puckmoving skill for the toughness) seems pretty useless to me. Just as addendum to that, there’s been kind of an idea getting kicked around hockey analytics geek circles lately about the relative merits of soft puck moving defencemen. I tend to think that they’re undervalued unless they’re obvious stars. Petry’s been getting dumped on all year, despite being the guy who sees the best results when he’s on the ice and playing the other team’s best. It happened to Tom Gilbert. It happened to Tom Poti. Larry Murphy got chased out of Toronto. There is just an endless list of these guys.

    This has been an idea that’s kind of fascinated me for a long time. Given that we don’t think that defencemen have an impact on shooting percentage and save percentage when they’re on the ice, what’s left? Their impact on the rates of shots for and against. Just from a logic perspective, who do you think is going to have the biggest impact on shots for and against? For me, it’s guys who can move the puck.

    Along those lines, there’s a fascinating connection between the rate at which defencemen get assists on goals and their shot share. I gathered the data for the 188 defencemen who played at least 3000 5v5 minutes between 2007-13 and sorted them by the rate at which they get assists on goals. In other words, if you’re on the ice for 30 goals and get 10 assists, your rate is 33%. I then made ten groups of D, from best assist rate to worst. Here’s what the results showed.

    There’s a lot of interesting information there. Note that the S% and SV% are virtually identical for every group. That’s consistent with the idea that defencemen don’t have a lot of control over the S% and SV% when they’re on the ice. Then slide your eyes down the SF/60 column. Defencemen who get assists on a higher rate of goals tend to see their teams take more shots when they’re on the ice. I find this fascinating.

    Why might this be the case? My suspicion – which I don’t consider proven – is that defencemen who get more assists on goals aren’t getting them because they necessarily make the killer pass but because they can handle the puck and get it moving the right way. The skill underlying the higher shot rates when they’re on the ice would also underlie the rate at which they get assists on goals.

    To tie that back to what Eakins was saying, I think that there’s at least some reason to suspect that his new age side is right. It’s one of the better questions in hockey analytics these days. Everyone wants to figure out which players are undervalued by the market. My suspicion is that “soft puck movers” are pretty high on that list and that toughness and defensive defencemen are on the overvalued list.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com


    26 Responses to Toughness v. Skill

    1. April 6, 2014 at

      the weirdest part about a guy like Eakins is that his on-ice moves suggest he knows he has to hide Gazdic and Fraser.

      But… he still plays them. And he loves talking about their toughness and how he thinks it helps… all while demonstrating that he knows they don’t help.

      It looks like cognitive dissonance, but I think he’s just still fighting it out with himself.

      The funny thing about those old Messier clips on youtube of him just killing guys, is he was the hero of my 10 year old self and I loved every minute of that.

      I still love him beyond rational comprehension even his dirty side.

      But, there is no way I can get my head around that stuff from today’s me’s perspective. just nasty. If Hall did that today, I’d struggle to love him.

      • DrunkenKarnie
        April 7, 2014 at

        Eakins (like any coach that wants to keep his locker room, and thus, his job) isn’t going to throw anyone under the bus – at least, not publicly. He’s going to publicly highlight every players high points as much as he can, regardless of how much he feels the guy is useless. Would he be accurate in saying Gazdic/Fraser are useless on the ice? Probably, but to tell the assembled media that would piss off those players, who have friends in that locker room, not to mention it would make OTHER players think “well, am I the next one to be thrown to the wolves?” Doing that only makes the coach’s job harder, and if anyone intentionally does stuff to make their job harder, then they aren’t going to be doing that job for long.

        • Romulus' Apotheosis
          April 7, 2014 at

          He doesn’t have to rip them in public.

          The complaint over guys like Gazdic and Fraser isn’t that he needs to say shitty things about them. It’s that he needs to stop playing them.

          There are (and have been) alternatives to both players that are clear upgrades. Eakins has chosen to play both repeatedly despite all the available evidence suggesting this is a poor decision. He’s done so, in his own words, because “growl!”

    2. bishnu
      April 6, 2014 at

      In this vein, the two free agent defensemen who are going to be picked up by smart teams summer are Raphael Diaz and Anton Stralman.

    3. speeds
      April 6, 2014 at

      I liked a lot of what Eakins had to say there, and MacT’s oft repeated quote from last summer, ” If you have to ask the question, you know the answer.” came to mind.

      I think that Eakins “knows”*, or strongly suspects, that he doesn’t need a guy like Fraser anymore, but it goes against conventional wisdom which has been drummed into the head of most players/fans over the past 30 years. It can be challenging to get past longly held beliefs or conventional wisdom for anyone, even if you have evidence in front of you to the contrary.

      * I put “knows” in quotes because, like you say, what we think we know may not always be exactly the way things are, particularly right down to the decimal point.

    4. Tybalt
      April 6, 2014 at

      I absolutely loved that he was willing to show two-mindedness like that, and to address the question honestly and forthrightly, not shying away from his own uncertainty.

    5. PDO
      April 6, 2014 at

      I think you nailed it Tyler.

      Excuse the meandering here, but I have a few thoughts that are fairly related.

      There’s certainly a level of “I don’t want to go into the corner with that guy,” but the fact of the matter is once you get into the NHL, how many guys are actually “soft?” They’ve played hockey their entire life at elite levels while likely being the best player on their team since before they can remember (and this is true of pretty much every NHLer – just ask Zach Stortini)…. and then they get to the NHL and get scared?

      I don’t buy it.

      There are certainly some very talented assholes out there – Duncan Keith comes to mind – and I’d take Duncan Keith over the exact same defenseman who didn’t want to take off a Sedin’s head occasionally, but that’s such a minor detail that I think a lot fans, pundits, managers and coaches are too focused on that aspect.

      I have a theory on WHY this happens too.

      If you look at the NFL and the talking heads, look at who they are, they’re superstars. Troy Aikman, Cris Carter, Ray Lewis, etc.

      If you look at the NBA and the talking heads, again, they’re superstars. Charles Barkely and Shaq come to mind.

      Then look at the NHL. We get backup goalies and fighters.

      Guys who simply weren’t good enough and are holding onto every strand that legitimizes why they spent so much time in the league. So we get the “TRY HARDER” narrative.

      Why can’t CBC just get a Sakic and a Hull to talk about hockey?

      Every other sport can.

      • April 6, 2014 at

        Probably one reason why Ray Ferraro’s a breath of fresh air.

        • PDO
          April 6, 2014 at

          Ferraro is the best in the business in my mind. Loved him as a colour guy for the Oilers.

        • April 7, 2014 at

          Very much agreed here re: Ferraro.

      • PopsTwitTar
        April 6, 2014 at

        Few thoughts:

        1. Dead on about the sportscasters (especially on the national broadcasts). NHL promotes toughness as something that separates it from other sports. Hits…fights…guys playing through injury…the NHL thinks is needs these things to keep its sport popular. Of course the voices on its shows promote the same thing.

        2. Id be willing to bet that there’s a sociological analysis waiting to be performed about the NHL’s roots as a Canadian sport. Cowboys, tough guys, hard work, you know giving 110% one shift at a time, good-ol-aw-shucks-boys. Why are we surprised that “toughness” is a core value of this sport?

        3. Guys like you and Dellow and Mirtle and other guys who are actually *studying* the game, and what actual helps teams win games…you will do more to change the value of “toughness” than any color commentator. Those days cant come soon enough.

      • DrunkenKarnie
        April 7, 2014 at

        I can’t remember if it was Justin Bourne, or Sean McCindoe (sp?) who recently wrote about what being “Hockey Tough” actually means. Not so much being the guy that’s going to destroy an opponent with a check like Scott Stevens, but being able to make the play and get the puck moving in the right direction with minimal time to think about what needs to be done. I’m certain J. Mirtle, Dellow, Lozo, Bourne/McKindoe (again, sp?) have all read it, but this seems, to me, to be a more analytically phrased statement to the same effect.

      • Ian
        April 7, 2014 at

        Great post, on all counts.

        Having this discussion with friends, my number one comment is “You can’t intimidate RNH with goons. The other teams biggest and best have been trying to do that since he was 7″. You don’t make the NHL if you’re scared. Period. Lowetide had a great story a few years back about a ref overhearing some fans watching NHL players unload from a plane (?), and the fans discussing who was tough and who was “soft”. I believe the money quote from the ref was “they’re all tough from where you’re standing”.

        Also saw/read someone talking about hockey media, and how backup goalies and goons are always great guys….because otherwise they’d be out of the league. No one holds onto a backup goalie or marginal player if they’re an asshole, they just replace them with someone equally marginal at NHL hockey but less of an asshole. So their key competency appears to be that they are good teammates, which apparently is enough to get you a job at CBC. They also have a lot of time on the bench to consider their post playing career, I guess.

    6. Dan
      April 6, 2014 at

      If only every d-man could be tough, skilled, and both offensively and defensively competent…

      • PDO
        April 6, 2014 at

        Hey, there’s Weber, PK, OEL, Keith, Piet, Chara and…


        Well I’m sure there’s someone else.

        How many defenseman play in the NHL again?

        Also – what is with the disease of media/fans picking on the best players on bad teams like they’re the problem?

    7. Pat McLean
      April 6, 2014 at

      Hockey stars either go into management or hit the golf course it seems.

      But Roenick, well he was a star and he’s terrible too. I think its the hockey narrative. Everything is about character, everybody is a good guy, etc. Like Eakins its drilled in their heads from day one (thanks Don Cherry!) and so we have people suggesting Shawn Thornton was a huge reason that the Bruins won the Cup or that the Hawks aren’t tough enough because Orpik hit Toews.

    8. April 6, 2014 at

      I like this line of thinking.
      I wrote a blog ( http://nhlstatsandopinions.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/evaluating-the-effectiveness-of-defensive-defensemen/ ) about how defensive defensemen are often assumed to reduce shots against when this is not always the case. The reason I mention it — other than the shameless plug — is because there is a trend in the NHL in which teams/analysts, whomever, evaluate players based on the qualities they possess and not the results that those qualities yield. For example, say a defensemen often lays huge hits and blocks a lot of shots or is generally thought of as gritty, it is then assumed that those qualities are valuable and therefore the player is valuable — even when this is not the case. That player possesses qualities that are believed to lead to good results and is given ice time accordingly even though those qualities do not necessarily achieve what they are believed to.
      I don’t think the gritty players necessarily yield better results defensively or otherwise than skilled counterparts, and yet people assume they do for stereotypical reasons, mostly — so I agree with you and really love this post for that reason. I think that this line of thinking is catching on rapidly and grows more and more everyday.

    9. Dan
      April 6, 2014 at

      This is why I can’t stand Spector he keeps going back to references of toughness when the issue is really effectiveness. That’s what it really comes down to, are the players in proper position? Are the players able to retrieve the puck successfully either breaking the cycle, or forcing a turnover? Are the players making good decisions with the puck in the defensive zone? Are the players providing adequate support to make zone exits easier?

      That’s what made/makes Lidstrom, Chara, Keith, Doughty and Weber all great despite the level of physicality in their game, the answers to the above questions are more often than not yes.

      That’s why you can appreciate analytics like corsi and Fenwick, as it ignores play styles and determines if you are getting the job done defensively. There might be mitigating factors like zone starts but it identifies the players that need attention and if the deficiencies can’t be corrected, either by coaching, or sheltering younger players till they mature physically, those players need to be replaced.

    10. Nicholas
      April 6, 2014 at

      This is the first presser I have really liked from shows he is willing to adjust and grow to suit the NHL and his club. I think Dallas is a very smart coach and if he can figure out in the off season a strategy that will work for his team and in the NHL he will be a very good coach. The fact that he did not want to play like the Avs either means he has looked at other clubs for inspiration. I would love to be able to play a Chicago like game I am not sure we have the players to execute it though.

    11. Tom Benjamin
      April 7, 2014 at

      Great thread. I don’t understand why Eakins didn’t state the obvious – he’ll take the best defenceman. That’s what coaches always do in the end. I was immediately reminded of Pat Quinn answering the same question during an end of the year press conference in the early 90′s. I remember it clearly because it influenced my view of team building.

      “Suppose I go out and get the tough defenseman you think we need. So, we’ve got a tough defenseman. Then what? What we really need is better defensemen. The only way to make a better hockey team is to get better players or to get the players you have to consistently play better.

      Size and toughness are assetsas long as a guy can play.One of the reasons Kevin Bieksais a good player is that a Ryan Getzlaff can’t run over him. He can beat him but it is not a physical mismatch. That Bieksa will also fight is irrelevant. It gains nothing.

      • May 6, 2014 at

        Christmas is getting neerar and neerar, while people are busy preparing gifts for this big day, or some might have already had everything ready, I am still confused with what kind of gift I am going to buy. But there is one thing can be sure, small accessories like iPhone case, coin purse and classic bags like Celine Luggage Tote and Trapeze Bag should be considered on gift list. People like sending small yet practical gifts like the above small accessories that I mentioned. When preparing for Christmas gift, we should take practicality and actual value of the gift into consideration. So today I am writing to share these little items with you in order to give some advices to the people who haven’t had any idea yet.

    12. Tom Benjamin
      April 8, 2014 at

      To continue after accidentally posting the comment before finishing…

      Toughness is an asset, but I think it is the least valuable of all the rest.Chris Tanev is tough only in the sense that he is regularly pasted just after he’s slipped a perfect pass through a seam. Otherwise he hardly ever hits anybody, hardly ever takes penalties, and he has the upper body strength of a Wayne Gretzky. Yet most of his value right now is displayed in his own end . He’s a “defensive defenseman”. (But I think he will turn out to be the best defenseman the Canucks have ever produced. Not a great deal of competition, I admit.)

      I think teams tend to favour the marginal tough d-man over the marginal puck mover because the marginal puck mover has, almost by definition, problems in his own end. If he did not he would not be marginal. The thinking goes “Puck mover won’t get the ice time to really help the offense. Tough guy can keep third and fourth liners boxed out of the slot and in a pinch, handle a corner of the box on the pk.”

      Also because many bad teams choose to get tougher to sell seats. It is hard to get better but it is easy to get tougher. If the team can’t win games the GM declares the team is not truculent enough, and dials up the gratuitous violence.

    13. Bruce Peter
      April 8, 2014 at

      Rafael Diaz is this year’s most undervalued soft puckmover for sure. Went from top 4 in Montreal to traded for a 4th liner than traded again for even less and barely sees the ice in New York. The Rangers have a deeper blueline than the Habs, but man is he misunderstood. Even though he absolutely wasn’t in Montreal in terms of usage: he kept shots against down playings some of the most difficult situations on the team. What did it get him? A spot in the press box.

      Meanwhile, Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon provide that kind of unique grit that makes everyone give up more shots against.

    14. Sublime33
      April 8, 2014 at

      I think your assessment is spot on. Look at Torey Krug and Nick Leddy as further examples. Or how Johnny Oduya became useful in a Chicago after being under appreciated in New Jersey and Atlanta

      • Triumph
        April 12, 2014 at

        Johnny Oduya was not underappreciated in New Jersey, he played 21 minutes a night the last two years he played there. He just had a not great start to his year, his regular D partner got hurt, and they traded him in the Kovalchuk deal.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *