I’m poking around in some Rangers data at the moment. I’ve become intrigued by Anton Stralman, their second pairing defenceman. He’s a guy who doesn’t really put points on the board but has put up some ridiculous Corsi numbers over the past two years while playing a top four role. If there’s a class of players that I think NHL teams undervalue, this is it.
I say that these players are undervalued because if I run a team, I don’t care in the slightest who is credited with the points so long as my team puts up lot of goals. Players with statistics like Stralman tend to see their team get a lot of the goals when they’re on the ice and, indeed, the Rangers have scored 55.8% of the goals with Stralman on the ice at 5v5 over the last three seasons, compared to 55% with the much more famous Ryan McDonagh.
Stralman suffered the indignity of being traded twice in 2009, moving from the Leafs to the Flames and then from the Flames to the Blue Jackets. He left Columbus as a free agent in 2011, something that looks more to me like Columbus giving up on him than anything else – his PDO in Columbus was a terrible 97.0. Funny thing though: he had a 51.6% Corsi in Columbus, with the team putting up a 48.6% when he wasn’t on the ice. That looks to have been mostly as a third pairing guy though and I’m always skeptical of Corsis from third pairing guys, just due to concerns about their quality of competition.
So he goes to New Jersey on a tryout. According to this, they couldn’t make room for him, he got an offer from the Rangers and he decided to sign there. After a pedestrian first season, he’s put up back to back monster Corsi% seasons – a 57.3% in 2012-13 (CorsiRel: +7.6%) and a 56.5% this year (CorsiRel: +6.0%). Woof. He compares pretty favourably to McDonagh, who people can’t stop praising: 54.0% in 2012-13 (CorsiRel +3.4%) and 51.1% in 2013-14 (CorsiRel: -2.0%). More importantly, he’s been playing a top four role, which makes the comparison a bit more apt.
One way to dig into that and make things a little more apples to apples is to look at how guys did against a specific set of players. I did that with Stralman and McDonagh for 2013-14, checking to see how they did against 23 star forwards: E. Staal, Malkin, Bergeron, Kessel, Crosby, Ovechkin, D. Sedin, Hall, Giroux, Pacioretty, Toews, J. Thornton, Kopitar, Toews, St. Louis, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Tavares, Parise, Backes, Seguin, Ladd, Getzlaf and Doan. These are star calibre guys that a coaching staff would presumably try and match against.
Let’s look first at the TOI, which is set out in the table at left. It looks as we’d expect: McDonagh plays more against star forwards and the effect is particularly pronounced at home, where Alain Vigneault has the last change. It’s different – but it’s not massively different. It’s undeniable that the minutes McDonagh plays are more difficult but he’s still got a lot of minutes against lesser players.
I decided to go a step further and see what the results were, in terms of Corsi, home and away, with a star forward on the ice. It’s illuminating, I think.
It’s interesting to me that, both home and away, the Rangers did better with Stralman on the ice than they did with McDonagh on the ice. It wasn’t by a little either – it was by a lot. I was curious about the spread between the home results and the away results, so I went and looked at the forwards they tended to be on the ice with against star forwards, home and away. (Click to embiggen.)
That is, I think, unsurprising: at home, where they both did substantially better, they played much more with Nash, Kreider and Stepan. You can see that Vigneault kind of avoided putting guys like Brassard, Pouliot, Richards, Pyatt and Moore out against the opposition’s best at home (at least when he had the McDonagh/Stralman pairings on the ice, although presumably he wasn’t running those guys out with his third pairing). On the road, he has to kind of water things down a bit in terms of the opposition’s best. When you don’t have last change, you run the risk of getting the other team’s best out against your bottom lines and bottom pairing if you keep your best pairing with your best line.
In the big picture though, this is pretty fascinating stuff. Even when you make an apples to apples comparison like this, Stralman still looks great in comparison to McDonagh, who’s widely recognized as one of the best defencemen in the NHL. It kind of leads to an obvious question: why? What happens when Stralman’s out there that makes things work so well?
Some of it is probably faceoff location. McDonagh had slightly more difficult zone starts overall and presumably Vigneault focused on this on the road. The gap is too big to be just that though. If I was an NHL team in need of defencemen (as most are), I’d have my pro scouts looking at video of Stralman, trying to figure out what’s going on here. This is the second year in a row that he’s absolutely crushed it. If you’re looking for value in the free agency market, Stralman’s a very potential source of it.
Update: I don’t have an easy way to add images in the comments, so I’m just sticking a chart here in response to a question about whether Stralman is just a beneficiary of Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello and Derrick Brassard shooting the puck a lot. They all have better Corsis with Stralman than they do with McDonagh, so it’s hard for me to think that they’re driving Stralman’s numbers. It’s important to remember that shot attempts don’t happen in a vacuum – they’re the result of opportunity created by all of the players on the ice. Even if Stralman isn’t shooting the puck himself, he can create opportunities for his teammates by ending opposition attacks quickly and moving the puck firstname.lastname@example.org