Friday, November 14, 2008

New Jersey's Forgotten Star

Many hockey observers, especially New Jersey fans themselves, claim that the current New Jersey Devils squad is a motley crew of castoffs and journeymen, held singlehandedly together by Martin Brodeur. I must admit I don't really understand why such a large portion of a fan base seemingly comes down so hard on their own players like Devils fans do, although it probably has a lot to do with high expectations and standards resulting from New Jersey's recent history of championship teams. I especially don't understand it since those fans are wrong. New Jersey still has at least one other star player remaining on its team, a player that has been one of their most critical pieces for the last decade. That player is Patrik Elias.

Since 1999-00, Patrik Elias has scored 231 goals and 314 assists for 545 points in 593 games, with a +130 rating. The points may not seem all that impressive, but he put up those numbers playing on a team with a primary focus on defence. In the one season the reins were loosened a bit, 2000-01, Elias scored 40 goals and 96 points to finish 3rd in the league in scoring.

Elias contributes in many more ways than the scoresheet. He combines his offensive strengths with excellent defensive play, and his plus/minus rating reflects his two-way dominance. A recent development in hockey analysis has been the use of the Corsi number, which is the difference between the number of shots directed at the opposition net and the number of shots directed at the player's own net while he is on the ice. Last season, Detroit Red Wing players dominated the Corsi numbers as they were the most dominant outshooting team in the league. The best player in the league in terms of Corsi numbers who did not play for Detroit? Patrik Elias.

But didn't Elias have a bad year last year? Not really, he was just unlucky. With Elias on the ice, New Jersey took 32 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and allowed just 21. Elias' only problem was that when he was on the ice this season the goaltending just happened to be much better at the wrong end of the ice: the save percentage on shots by him and his teammates was .930, while it was just .904 for shots against. Elias' shooting percentage has dropped in both of the last two seasons so he may be losing his scoring touch, but this season it afflicted his linemates as well. Some of this may be attributable to a difference in shot quality, but it seems unlikely Elias and his linemates were giving up large numbers of dangerous scoring chances against. When Elias is playing, the puck is usually in the other end of the ice and that is a tremendous advantage for his team as well as for his goaltender.

Perhaps the best way to express Elias' impact on the team is to show New Jersey's record with him in the lineup compared to without. Last season, they were 3-4-1 with Elias out of the lineup, and 43-25-6 with him. In 2006-07, 4-3-0 without Elias, 45-21-9 with him. Two seasons ago, when Elias missed a substantial amount of time, the Devils were 19-18-7 without him, and 27-9-2 with him. Overall for those three seasons, the Devils were a .508 team (26-25-8) without Patrik Elias, and a .660 team (115-55-17) with him in the lineup.

New Jersey's goals for and against splits were substantially different with and without Elias:

with Elias:

2007-08: 2.47 GF, 2.28 GA
2006-07: 2.53 GF, 2.31 GA
2005-06: 2.92 GF, 2.50 GA

without Elias:

2007-08: 1.88 GF, 3.00 GA
2006-07: 2.29 GF, 2.86 GA
2005-06: 2.77 GF, 2.95 GA

How did the Devils do without Martin Brodeur over that same time period? New Jersey was 6-7-5 in games without Martin Brodeur for a .472 winning percentage, and 135-73-20 with MB30 between the pipes (.636). That's a gap of .164, compared to Elias' difference of .152 (although the "without Brodeur" sample is much smaller). New Jersey allowed a lot fewer goals with Brodeur in net (2.30 per game) than with his backups (3.20).

Interestingly, though, the defensive impact of Elias was not too far behind that of his goaltender. With Elias the team allowed 2.34 goals per game, and without him it was 2.95. Most of the games the Devils played without Elias came in 2005-06, a season where the team played poorly during the first half and got on a roll in the second half. Elias missed the entire first half and played most of the second half, which was the ideal scenario to put up positive with/without win/loss splits. It is likely that Elias' contribution explains some of the improvement, but there were probably many other factors at play. However, even if we exclude 2005-06 entirely and look at just 2006-07 and 2007-08 the results are almost exactly the same. In those two seasons, the Devils were 7-7-1 without Elias (.500) and 88-46-15 with him (.641). There was also a combined average of 2.30 goals against per game with Elias in the lineup compared to 2.93 goals per game without him. The numbers certainly suggest that Elias has a very strong impact on New Jersey team success and goal prevention. They are especially impressive when you consider that when Elias was not available, the Devils would most likely elevate an established NHLer from the second or third lines to take his spot. Because of this it would have been reasonable to expect the Elias differential to be much smaller than the gap between Brodeur and his replacements (primarily infrequently-used backup/minor-leaguer Scott Clemmensen), yet the effect on team success by Elias and Brodeur might not be that different at all.

Vic Ferrari did a post on this topic last year, investigating the difference between when a star player is playing compared to when they are out. Often teams do much worse without their best player, since it creates a ripple effect throughout the lineup - the great player benefits his teammates not only directly by playing with them, but also indirectly makes things easier for the rest of the team by taking on extra minutes and tougher opponents, as well as often drawing penalties or ending their shift in the offensive zone. Earl Sleek made a similar "trickle-down" argument for explaining the importance of Scott Niedermayer to the Ducks in the second half of '07-08.

These types of effects are a lot more difficult to see. Everybody knows when the backup goalie is in the game, but not everyone notices when a second-pairing defencemen has to suddenly start playing 25 minutes a game, or when a second-liner accustomed to playing against checking forwards finds himself moving up to play against the opposing top line, or when a rarely used forward has to be pressed into service as a replacement on the penalty kill unit. And this subtlety is another reason why the importance of goaltending tends to be overrated compared to other positions. Valuable, of course, but still generally overrated.

Is Patrik Elias more valuable to the Devils than Martin Brodeur? I don't think so, but Elias is nevertheless underrated player. Led by Elias, the Devils have a strong group of forwards that usually wins the territorial battle and outshoots the opposition. This talent is recognized by informed hockey fans - over 80% of the people who voted in a recent poll on this site predicted New Jersey would still make the playoffs despite losing Brodeur to injury. Unless Elias or several other key forwards join Marty on the injury list then I agree with that assessment.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

the more you go out of your way to attempt to discredit brodeur with all of these very irrelevant and obscure blogs, the less credibility your site has. are you really trying to say patrik elias is a superstar who is largely responsible for nj's success? the only time elias was close to being a top player in the league is when he was on a line with arnott and sykora. that lasted for at most 2 years.
its getting ridiculous. this site used to be pretty credible but between all these theoretical "what if everyone was equal" studies, and the "lets compare eras by manipulating the actual numbers" its turning into the type of site i'd expect from a born again catholic who is dead set on proving their point to everyone, even if it means stretching the truth and cherry picking arguments while ignoring what the actual truth is.
elias has always been a good, but not great player. i understand you want the attention for your site, and there is no better way to do it than go against the grain to the extent you have. but as far as being credible goes, it wouldnt hurt to admit the obvious stuff.

Anonymous said...

and, martin bodeur is best evr becuz he has low goalavg lots of shutsouts! he best!!

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

How is the above post discrediting Brodeur? It is crediting Patrik Elias. I was merely pointing out that New Jersey has a player who outplays the opposition whenever he is on the ice and has a demonstrable impact in terms of winning games and preventing goals. If you don't like those numbers, then how about this: Elias has led his team in scoring 6 of the last 8 seasons (and 5 of the last 8 playoff seasons). If claiming that guy is a star player is an insult to Brodeur, then what exactly am I allowed to write about Marty other than, to quote the presumably sarcastic comment above, "martin bodeur is best evr becuz he has low goalavg lots of shutsouts! he best!!"

It could just be random chance or pure luck that the team does very well with him the lineup and mediocre without. It could also be pure fluke that New Jersey dominates the opposition and allows far fewer goals with Elias out on the ice, I don't know, but I wouldn't bet on it.

its getting ridiculous. this site used to be pretty credible but between all these theoretical "what if everyone was equal" studies, and the "lets compare eras by manipulating the actual numbers" its turning into the type of site i'd expect from a born again catholic who is dead set on proving their point to everyone

I thought I've been doing era adjustments and comparing guys on different teams and evaluating what-if scenarios ever since I started this blog. If I haven't, my mistake, because that was certainly my intention. And quite frankly I have no intent to stop, because looking at simply what goalies have done without considering anything else will simply cause you to give credit to the wrong people. I think I have demonstrated that enough times to make it clear.

I appreciate your readership, but if you have a problem with normalizing for era (one of the most basic stat techniques out there, literally the very first thing they would teach you in Hockey Stats 101) then I don't really know what to tell you. I certainly don't feel compelled to defend the legitimacy of that technique here.

overpass said...

Good post on Elias. You've hit on a lot of fallacies about goaltender evaluation on this blog, and the view that the value of a 1st line forward = # of points scored is equally wrong.

Elias has certainly been a big part of New Jersey's success and has consistently been an elite forward, whether he was among the leaders in points or not. I'm sure he could have scored a few more points if he went all Ilya Kovalcuk, stopped backchecking, and started trying to beat every defender himself, but instead he's played a great team game and been the best of a strong forward corps.

Anonymous - The point of goalie statistics, or indeed any hockey statistic, is to measure a players contribution to the team winning games and making the playoffs/winning the Cup. Adjusting stats for historical context is simply maintaining the relationship to winning games. It's a question of VALUE, not necessarily of what-if.

A win in the post-lockout era where points are given out like candy simply isn't worth as much as a win in a time when 2 points were given out in every game. Similarly, 30 wins in an 82 game season is less valuable than 30 wins in an 80 game season, which is less valuable than 30 wins in a 70 game season, because it takes more wins to make the playoffs in a longer season.

If you don't understand this, you don't understand anything about how hockey statistics relate to the game of hockey as played on ice. You can look at your lists of unadjusted stats all you like, imagine that Martin Brodeur is the greatest goalie ever and Mark Messier is better than Gordie Howe, and you'll won't have a clue.

Anonymous said...

oh so then i guess its just coincidence you picked a guy from the same team as brodeur? i guess similar studies will follow about forsberg/ sakic on colorado. robinson/shutt/richard/ lafluer on montreal, and lafontaine on buffalo? if so then i guess it was my mistake for viewing your "research" as subjective.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

First of all, I don't know how many times I have written that Roy and Dryden played on great teams. Way more than I can remember. They both played on many awesome, stacked teams. So stop trying to fabricate a double standard.

Obviously I looked at Elias to prove a point, that Brodeur isn't singlehandedly carrying the team. I very clearly explained that point in the first paragraph of the above post - the point is that the general public tends to underrate the value of the New Jersey skaters, and in particular Patrik Elias, in terms of their contribution to winning hockey games. That does not "discredit" Brodeur, unless your viewpoint is that Brodeur singlehandedly deserves all the credit for his team's success.

If that is indeed your view, then you are wrong because hockey is a team sport. However, if you still want to argue it, please debate the point by refuting the evidence in the post or bringing in additional evidence, rather than accusing me of a lack of subjectivity. Whether or not I am biased against Brodeur, the Devils still won a lot more and allowed a lot fewer goals with Elias in the lineup. On this blog, ad hominem attacks are never going to win an argument.

Bruce said...

Nice post. You don't need to convince me that Patrik Elias is one of the NHL's more underrated players, but that's a nice set of numbers to support that position.

Many hockey observers, especially New Jersey fans themselves, claim that the current New Jersey Devils squad is a motley crew of castoffs and journeymen, held singlehandedly together by Martin Brodeur.

Well that's an extreme position. Nobody can hold a team togther singlehandedly ... even the great Roberto Luongo couldn't make the playoffs on a motley squad of castoffs and journeymen in Florida. You can't get 100 points a year with no decent skaters for goodness sake. Patrik Elias, whose +162 is 6th among active players, is the best of an underrated crew. Not sure they're collectively much better than average, but the team doesn't completely stink either.

How did the Devils do without Martin Brodeur over that same time period? New Jersey was 6-7-5 in games without Martin Brodeur for a .472 winning percentage, and 135-73-20 with MB30 between the pipes (.636). That's a gap of .164, compared to Elias' difference of .152 (although the "without Brodeur" sample is much smaller). New Jersey allowed a lot fewer goals with Brodeur in net (2.30 per game) than with his backups (3.20).

Wow. Looks like their goalie is pretty good too.

Btw, the up-to-the-minute numbers for 2008-09 are as follows:

With Brodeur: 6-2-2, .700; 2.16
Without Brodeur: 1-5-0, .167, 2.75

Anonymous said...

Without Brodeur now they are 2-5, but 0 wins in regulation in the 7 games since he's been out.