There’s a great scene in a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry realizes that his maid, with whom he is having a sexual relationship, no longer does any actual cleaning – she just comes to his apartment, has sex and takes the money for cleaning. As with sleeping with your maid, a sport like hockey, in which it’s difficult to tease apart the contributions that various players make to the success of a team or, in many cases, their own statistics, creates the risk of paying someone for something that they aren’t actually doing.
There’s an interesting contrast in the Finals between Vancouver’s Raffi Torres and Boston’s Milan Lucic. Both are feared hitters. Torres was once also perceived as a goal scorer and, truth be told, I think he’s probably still got some finish. It was baffled when Roy MacGregor, a respected hockey journalist (presumably with a vote on the NHL awards) could call him “stone-handed Raffi Torres” and “the least-skilled puck handler on the team” in a recent piece in the Globe and Mail when Torres is coming off a season in which he was basically a third/fourth liner and banged in 11 even-strength goals. He was tied for 157th in the NHL in this category amongst forwards. He was 184th amongst NHL forwards in ESTOI. Of the 368 forwards who played at least 40 games, Raffi ranked 168th in 5v5 G/60. Lost in all of the noise about the hits is the fact that Torres can play hockey.
I wrote about Milan Lucic’s contract when he signed it early in the 2009-10 season. I was not impressed with the deal:
As I assume most people reading this site will be aware, he was one of last year’s poster boys for shooting percentage on the poster team for it. It has to date, been all about shooting percentage with him. In order for him to be worth his new three year $12.25MM deal, he’s going to need to start taking shots with much more frequency – his 5ish ESS/60 is not the stuff of power forwards.
At the end of last season, I looked pretty prescient – Lucic scored 9 goals and added 11 assists in 50 games. He shot 12.5%. At the end of this season, I look somewhat less prescient – Lucic scored 30 goals and added 32 assists in 79 games. He shot 17.3%. Most of Lucic’s scoring was at even strength – he scored 25 of his goals at evens and 5 on the PP.
Lucic’s ESG/60 was a sparkling 1.38, good for ninth in the league. Miles ahead of a “stone-handed” and “least skilled puckhandler on the team” like Raffi Torres. Except…if you dig a little bit, it starts to look a little fishy. First of all, 5 of those goals were empty net goals, which is a lot. Empty net goals are sort of the empty calories of hockey – they have basically no value from the perspective of winning games. If you knock those out, Lucic’s ESG/60 comes down to 1.10, which is still very impressive. Raffi Torres hasn’t scored an empty net goal since 2005-06.
Lucic still doesn’t take a lot of shots. He was around 7.4 ESS/60 this year, which is around the median for forwards. He’s improved from his days of 5 shots or so per 60 but that’s still not very impressive. He’s still heavily dependent on shooting percentage for his goals. While I think it’s reasonably well accepted that shooting percentage fluctuates, we’re also reasonably certain that there’s some skill buried in there. Do we start to suspect that Lucic has some skill?
Well, a look at Lucic’s linemates shows something interesting. Dobber Hockey goes through the NHL scoresheets and counts the percentage of events that various lines are together. It’s an excellent proxy for the percentage of time that a player spends with a given player. In 2008-09, 85.9% of the events that Lucic was on the ice for also saw one or both of David Krejci and Marc Savard on the ice. Last year, it was 34.9%. This year it was 83%. There’s a fine correlation between his playing with the Bruins’ best passers and his shooting percentage jumping. By way of comparison, more than 70% of Raffi Torres’ events saw Manny Malholtra being the man in the middle. Torres shot 12.2%.
I’m reasonably confident in saying that if you take into account the various advantages that Lucic had over Torres, the actual gap in their goal scoring ability is considerably smaller than the raw numbers or even the ratios suggest. 20 of Lucic’s 30 goals this year were assisted by either Krejci or Savard. Neither player contributes much on the PK and neither is a PP difference maker – Torres rarely played on the PP and Lucic has pretty average numbers.
To bring this back to the contract that Lucic got, 30 goal season or not, I’m not convinced that the Bruins are getting particularly good value for their money on him. Lucic is a famous player but, when you drill down, his numbers aren’t as impressive as they seem and there’s some reason to wonder about the extent to which they’re driven by playing with centres who are gifted passers. He doesn’t hit that much more often than Torres, if you’re into that sort of thing – Lucic threw 167 hits and Torres threw 134. Given how much more ice time Lucic got, it’s likely that Torres threw more hits per minute.
Most of the time, when you’re looking at elite players, you can see the difference between them and lesser players in their numbers. In Lucic’s case, a lot of the difference looks to be illusory – empty net goals and passes from David Krejci or Marc Savard. 30 goals or not, this still isn’t a contract I’d be particularly happy with if I was the Bruins. This is all the more true when you realize that the decision to pay Lucic was tied to the decision to move Phil Kessel. Tyler Seguin might be a great player but he’s going to be little help to the Bruins this year. One wonders how many goals Kessel would have scored in Lucic’s position and, if Boston does not go on to win the Cup, whether Kessel would have made the difference.