Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts column had a really interesting bit about players playing on their off-wing a few months back that I seem to have referenced an awful lot. Let’s do it again.
15. Had a terrific conversation with Oates last week about his dislike for players lining up on their off-wing. He is 100 per cent against it and explains why with an MLB analogy. “You look back through the history of baseball and every shortstop throws right. Why?” “Because it’s too hard to make the throw left-handed,” is the reply. “Right,” he says. “How many plays won’t be made because a left-handed shortstop isn’t able to turn, get set and make the throw with strength or speed?” He believes the same theory applies to a winger on the wrong side.
16. One play he uses to illustrate this theory is Alex Burrows’ 11-second overtime winner in Game 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Watch Andrew Ference off the draw. “He takes two steps, is closed off and has no play,” Oates said. He then pointed out something very interesting. Look at Boston’s roster now: four left-shooting wings. Four right-shooting wings. Two right-shooting centres. Two left-shooting centres. Three right-shot defencemen. Three left-shot defencemen. (It’s true, you can look it up.) That’s going to be the blueprint in Washington.
If you don’t want to watch the video, let me tell you this: the Bruins defence pairing is Chara on the left side and Ference on the right. Ference, of course, shoots left – this was a lefty/lefty pairing. Bergeron wins the draw to Ference, who quickly finds that he has no angle – as a lefty shooter, he carries the puck on the left side of his body, closer to the centre of the ice, which enables the Canuck forward to close him down more quickly. Ference makes a soft play with the puck, because he hasn’t been able to get close to the red line, there’s a neutral zone turnover and, before you can blink, Vancouver scores.
That’s an anecdote, albeit an interesting one. What if we looked at how Chara’s done with all of his defence partners since 2007-08 in terms of Corsi%? We’ll throw in how those partners did away from Chara.
That’s awfully interesting. With a left handed shot on the opposite side of the ice, the Bruins aren’t bad with Chara. With a right handed shot out there with him, the Bruins crucify teams, which is all the more impressive because Chara tends to play the other team’s best.
This kind of ties into a point that Twitter’s @Woodguy55 and @67sound made about who Ference plays against: he hasn’t been matched up against the other team’s best players. The thing with that is that the options the Bruins have include a monster who is seven feet tall on a pair of skates, shoots left and one of the greatest defensive defencemen in the history of the NHL. I don’t know that losing time to that guy tells us a lot about Ference.
Now slide your eyes over to the column on the far right side. That’s the difference between how the player did with Chara on the ice and without Chara. Of the eleven defencemen who’ve played at least 200 minutes with Chara over the past six years, only three of them did worse with Chara than they did when he wasn’t on the ice. All three of them were left handed shots.
Why do I bring this up? Well, Derek Zona doesn’t like the Oilers signing of Andrew Ference. He wrote, amongst other things, this:
Last season, he was a 4/5 defenseman, playing even up zonestarts and had the worst relative corsi on the defensive corps. Two seasons ago, he was a 4/5 defenseman, playing even up zonestarts and had the worst relative corsi on the defensive corps. Three seasons ago, he was a 5/6 defenseman, playing even up zonestarts and was 4/6 in relative corsi on the defensive corps. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: four seasons ago he was a 5/6 defenseman, playing even up zonestarts and was 5/7 in relative corsi on the defensive corps.
Ference is an okay bottom-pairing defensemen in the Eastern Conference, and when he plays higher than that, he’s not good.
Here’s the thing about hockey data: it’s not an end in and of itself. It’s a reasonably objective record of what took place. I think that it’s better than relying on observation and recollection alone because people are not particularly well evolved to consume vast quantities of data by watching and then make good decisions. That being said, there is no number you can just look at and say “This. This says it all.” You’ve got to question the context.
With the Bruins, there seems to have been a bit of a unique context. You have a defenceman who’s one of the greatest defencemen ever who happens to be a left handed shot. He performs much better with a right handed shot defenceman on the ice. If you’re a right handed defenceman, you’ll get the Chara Bump to your numbers when you play with him. If you’re a lefty, a) you won’t get to play with him much and b) you might actually do better not playing with him.
Therefore, I’m not convinced that RelCorsi, which I generally like to get a quick and dirty feel of things, is a good metric to use with the Bruins and Ference. I suspect it tends to overrate their right handed shots and underrate their non-Chara lefties. There’s a hockey reason to suspect that that’s true – see the Oates comments above – and there seems to be some data in support of it. If I was charged with evaluating this decision for a hockey team, there are other things I’d do to look into the hockey truism but there’s a pretty solid prima facie case that Ference had circumstances acting against him.
As far as what sort of a role Ference played, I think that Derek may, as he occasionally does, have let his rhetoric get away with the facts. 2009-10 is kind of arguable – it sure looks to me like Ference played in the top four in the regular season and then lost his spot to Matt Hunwick in the playoffs. From then on though, I kind of think he was second pairing fixture. He played there most of the season in 2010-11, lost his spot to Sexy Deadline Acquisition Tomas Kaberle for a little bit and then was a clear second pairing guy in the playoffs, playing 4:30 a night more than Kaberle.
In 2011-12, the Bruins were kind of a five defenceman team. In the regular season, they used Chara (25:00), Seidenberg (24:02), Boychuk (20:36), Ference (18:53), Corvo (18:47) and then Adam McQuaid (14:57). I kind of see three different tiers in there: Chara/Seidenberg, Boychuk/Ference/Corvo and then the rest. Come the playoffs, Ference was clearly a second pairing guy.
This year was more of the same. There’s a clear separation between Ference, fourth in TOI/G amongst Bruins defenders at 19:29, and Dougie Hamilton, at 17:07. The playoffs had an even cleaner split between the Bruins’ second pairing and the third pairing guys. Ference was third in TOI, with Johnny Boychuk fourth at 23:55. Fifth was Matt Bartkowski, who played 19:46 a night in only seven games; Torey Krug played most of the playoffs and was below 16 minutes a night.
All of which is to say that it’s probably most reasonable to characterize Ference as being a second pairing defender. When the games mattered most, he was the guy Claude Julien kept putting out there. He overcame guys who the Bruins acquired to be top four defenders (Kaberle) or who they see as having big futures in Boston (Hamilton). I’ve indicated some of the difficulties that I have with RelCorsi as a metric in his circumstances; there’s a more generalized problem when dealing with players from good teams in that a guy can be a contributor and have a poor RelCorsi because it’s a good team.
The money on this deal isn’t bad – $3.25MM a year. If the money’s structured as Hockey Symposium’s speeds suggested, it’s even better in terms of being easier to move in the future. The only real issue I have with the deal is the length of it, which is something that I’ll touch on in my next post.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org