The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is this week, and Intelligent Hockey is getting its nerd on. With Sochi now in the rearview mirror, the NHL playoff push is in full swing. But a lot of hockey has been played already, and these five skaters have helped their clubs establish playoff position or avoid complete disaster. Let us delve into what has made these players successful this season.
It does not seem like that long ago that Columbus Blue Jackets’ defenseman James Wisniewski’s contract was being mocked for term and cap hit. But now, especially with the salary cap rising, it’s looking pretty darn reasonable. To wit, Wisniewski is an important part of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ success this season, and the veteran’s best skill is possibly his composure, which facilitates a good transition game.
Wisniewski looks comfortable off the puck, and polices the defensive zone strictly. When carrying the puck, he is effective at resetting the offense, and making the first pass to leave the zone. Moreover, his contribution on Columbus’ first-unit power play is pivotal. Wisniewski and fellow defenseman Jack Johnson form a twosome that unleashes sharp, undeviating missiles into the corners of the net. They are not quite the man-advantage assassins that Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle or Montreal’s P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov are, but their formidability along the blue line buoys their forwards’ impact down low. If an opponent needs to honor powerful slap shots from the point, that allows for more wiggle room and space beneath the circles and around the paint.
A former fifth-round draft pick, Wisniewski is a decent skater and has good instincts, and he can push the puck up the ice. He eats important, top-pair minutes, logging over 22 minutes a night. The veteran is top six among all NHL defensemen in Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick, and has been a key player for a team with a more defined identity than in years past. Columbus plays faster than ever, and Wisniewski is a big part of that.
As a fan of the game, Intelligent Hockey hopes that a mix of bitterness and jealously about Canada winning yet another Gold Medal will spur the NHL to allow its players to compete in South Korea in 2018. And Sweden has an argument for being as bitter and jealous as anyone after the Nicklas Backstrom fiasco. IH is also intrigued by the inevitable changing-of-the-guard from the back end, and how 2014’s notable omissions from Sweden’s Sochi team — Victor Hedman and Jonas Brodin — will look in four years. Hedman’s evolution has been more gradual than Brodin’s, but what he has become is scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
The former No. 2 pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2009 draft, Hedman has a lot of allure. He is 6’6” and 230 pounds, but moves quickly and smoothly for someone that size. In fact, when he accelerates, he is downright fast, and wins footraces against speedy forwards. For someone so large, his burst is impressive, as is his lateral mobility.
NHL coaches and general managers believe that you do not really get a feel for a defenseman’s ceiling until he hits the 300-game mark and, conveniently, Hedman just recently passed 300 games this season (he is at 309 currently). Hedman can skate, he can spot a forward in space and thread a silky pass, and he can shoot hard enough that the puck explodes off his stick. His defensive game is also very good, and his fundamentals for not biting on dekes, and for using his body to disrupt the player from the puck, are strong. He is first (!!) in Relative Corsi and eighth in Relative Fenwick among NHL defensemen, and his quality of competition is high caliber. Hedman may have missed the cut for Sweden in 2014, but if the NHL players participate in 2018, he indisputably will be there representing the Blue and Yellow.
Jakub Voracek is likely the most established “Advanced Stats All-Star,” but he still seems a little underrated. Center Claude Giroux is the captain of the Flyers and his Bobby Clarke/Jeremy Roenick impersonation gives him the spotlight. But there is less of a difference than people realize between the two and, at 24, Voracek is younger than Giroux.
The big Czech is just entering his prime, and shows flashes of being a Marian Hossa-like slasher who possesses the ingenuity to be effective every shift. Voracek can pick up a loose puck in the neutral zone and lead the transition the other way for a goal or primary assist. When he is humming, he is nearly impossible to stop. One of the defining dynamic qualities of Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel is that they like to curl in their own end, build some speed when leaving the zone, catch the puck just as they enter the neutral zone, and GO! Voracek does that too, and he has a lot of size, power, and puck skills to repel.
In the offensive zone and on the power play, his shot is formidable and he has good instincts as a playmaker. Voracek is becoming increasingly skilled at protecting the puck, and skating to the outside and then using his power to drive to the inside. Among right wingers, his Relative Corsi is third in the NHL and his Relative Fenwick is second. It still feels like he has another level he can hit, where he puts up around 35 goals, 35 assists, and falls somewhere in the 70-point range.
Frankly, it is a bit surprising to see that Nelson’s Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick are higher than those of fellow centers Jonathan Toews, Joe Pavelski, and Tyler Seguin. But on closer look, this starts to make more sense, because often the Islanders’ forwards look like they are in cryogenic sleep in their own zone.
Nelson performs well in his defensive duties: hounding those with the puck, boxing out around the net, and understanding his assignments when New York gets hemmed in. The difference in attitude towards 200-foot play is what makes Nelson’s Corsi and Fenwick so conspicuous. Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick assess the difference between a team’s Corsi/Fenwick Number when a player is on the ice and when he is off. Making sure the puck cleanly leaves the zone while staying defensively aware is a strength in Nelson’s game.
While Nelson’s offensive game is still developing, his good size, strength, and solid skating allow him to stay tough on the puck. He has assumed the role of No. 2a/2b center role with fellow center Frans Nielsen, and has put up good rookie numbers: 10 goals and nine assists. With Tavares’ season-ending injury and the franchise conducting triage, Nelson’s role will be stretched, as will his resilience. The silver lining is that the Islanders seem to have procured a strong two-way player.
The former Carolina Hurricanes’ winger, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional 2013 sixth- or seventh-round draft pick while Carolina agreed to retain some of his salary, has flourished in a top-six role with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Jokinen has found value in Pittsburgh as the ultimate fill-in-the-blanks forward, and his plucky play has made life easier for the two stars.
Jokinen does what is necessary — whether that is driving the net to open up the seam, standing around the paint for a deflection, working beneath the goal line so Neal and Malkin can hover around the slot, regulating passing lanes, or diving to draw a penalty. He does a little of everything each game. Jokinen is the type of player who may have a 15-year NHL career because he has the introspection to keep recalibrating his game so that he stays valuable. Shrewd self-evaluation is an underrated NHL quality, and after being traded for peanuts, Jokinen seems to have rejiggered how he provides utility.
Jokinen’s ability to drive the puck away from Pittsburgh’s end is a quality that gives him rare company — he is in the top five for Relative Corsi and Relative Fenwick. Still, when you are playing with Neal and Malkin, it seems natural to be overshadowed. Thankfully, we have the quantitative details to appreciate what Jokinen brings. And he shares that in common with this entire group.