Friday, December 19, 2008

Sundin and Leadership

Is he the kind of of player, like Mark Messier, who can lead the Canucks over the hump?


The only connection between Messier and Sundin is the "leadership" award Messier bestowed on Sundin during last season's playoffs. Talk about shams.

Scott Burnside of ESPN, proving that writers are just as incapable of separating team performance from individual star players as they are from goalies.

Burnside sounds like he buys into the Messier leadership mythology, and trashes Sundin for being a selfish choker. What is leadership, though, really? Carrying your team, correct? Bearing the scoring burden, driving results while on the ice? I'd guess most people would talk about inspiring your teammates and making great locker room speeches and all that as well, but I think most people would agree the best place to be a leader is on the ice, and when it comes down to it they would take the guy out there dominating the game over a mediocre player who happens to be a great motivational speaker and everyone's best friend.

I'm going to use Messier's results from his first stint as a New York Ranger for comparison purposes, since that was when his legend as the "Greatest leader in sports" really grew. Look at the playoff results, and Sundin was carrying the Leafs just as much as Messier was carrying the Rangers. Probably even more so. Sundin scored 15% of Toronto's playoff goals, Messier just 12% of the New York's. Messier had an edge in points, having a hand in 34% of the Rangers' goals compared to 32% for Sundin, but Sundin missed 17 games due to injury while Messier missed just 2. Messier's overall PPG rate was higher (1.14 to 0.92), but he did it in a higher-scoring era with better teammates and probably more ice time.

If we look at plus/minus, Sundin destroys Messier. Sundin was +7 in the playoffs for Toronto, when the team as a whole was -88. Messier was -9 on Ranger teams that combined for a total of -1. If we figure that an elite forward plays 1/3 of the game, we would expect their plus/minus total to account for roughly one-third of their teams total. That total includes the minutes played by Sundin and Messier, so we can do a quick and dirty estimate of the "off-ice" plus/minus for each player by multiplying their plus/minus by 5 (since there are usually 5 players on the ice for an even-strength goal) and subtracting that from the overall team total, then dividing by 2/3 to factor out their ice time. I thereby estimate that the Leafs were around -30 goals at even-strength without Mats Sundin on the ice, and +7 with him on it, and that the Rangers were around +4 goals without Mark Messier on the ice and -9 with him on it. That is a very quick and dirty method, the assumptions aren't really completely correct and it doesn't account for the special teams factors that are one of the biggest problems with plus/minus, but it appears that the Moose isn't even in the ballpark compared to Mats.

Based on the results, then, someone like Burnside would have to argue that Messier inspired everyone else around him to be much better, while Sundin just couldn't get the rest of his team going. Maybe that's true, I don't know (isn't that the coach's job?), but when it came down to leadership by example Sundin looks pretty elite.

Leadership is supposed to mean, "Player who has great intangibles, carried his team and helped his teammates", but I think a lot of times it ends up really meaning, "Player who had a lot of team success." That is even more likely to be the case in the opposite scenario, i.e. for a player like Sundin who did not have a lot of team success. Apparently it is pretty much out of the question to call them a great leader, no matter how well they actually perform, just because their teammates weren't very good.

I don't think the Canucks are up there with the Wings or Sharks in terms of Cup favourites, but they were my pick to win the division before they got Sundin and they could be a dangerous team in the postseason. Is there any reason to expect that someone like Mats Sundin would not succeed if they were placed in a playoff pressure situation? Of course not. As the above numbers show, he did a pretty good job carrying the Leafs through a few playoff series. His record in international best-on-best games is 18 goals, 21 assists, 39 points in 30 games, which prorated to an NHL season would be 106 points. Every season in every team sport star players without a history of team success pull a Peyton Manning and finally win a championship, yet all the non-thinkers who were writing about their lack of leadership and lack of winning attitude and poor clutch play right up until the champagne celebration never seem to learn their lesson.


Topher0820 said...

there's a book about the 93-94 and 94-95 rangers seasons called "losing the edge: the rise and fall of the stanley cup champion new york rangers" and in that book you see what "leadership" was in the messier case. Keenan was basically a nutjob whom the players hated and at times didnt want to play for, but Messier always somehow was the branch between coach and team that got things done. They literally do not win that cup without him, not just b/c of his overall play. Oh yeah, there's the whole game 6 vs. the devils thing as well. your messier "myth" argument feels a lot like just another excuse to be "contrarian"

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

My point is more that Sundin was carrying his team on the ice just as much as Messier, and that guys like Burnside are way out of line to place them on completely different levels. I wasn't intending to bash Messier as much as praise Sundin, so sorry if it came across that way.

Down Goes Brown said...

Sundin should certainly get credit for his on-ice leadership. And not everybody has to lead with the (probably great exagerated) fire-and-brimstone Messier approach. Besides, most of what passes for "leadership" is really just an ability to win over the media.

That said, I've questioned the leadership of guys like Sundin and Alfredsson in recent years, and I stand by it. Both guys are universally regarded as great leaders, yet both lead dressing rooms that have been an absolute mess recently. The Leafs were country club full of whiney excuse-makers, and the Senators have had all sorts of in-fighting and a general lack of commitment. Yet both captains get/got a pass. Why?

Bruce said...

I'm a fan of Mats Sundin, a classy player with a great international record who has remained one of the most consistent producers in the game under the microscope in the COTU. His formidable presence in Vancouver will further improve an already decent team.

I'm also a fan of Mark Messier, one of the greatest of the Oilers and perhaps the greatest player ever to come from this area. Messier's leadership skills, while no doubt overrated in the blizzard of "greatest leader in team sports" BS, were nonetheless significant. On the ice they could best be summarized in three vignettes:

The Goal: Northlands Coliseum, Game 3, 1984 Stanley Cup Finals, series tied 1-1, Oilers trail 2-1 midway through the second period. Messier storms over the blueline at speed, dipsydoodles Gord Dineen before wiring a perfect wristshot just inside Billy Smith's stickside post. Oilers never again trail in a game or the series en route to their first Cup. Messier scores two more highlight-reel goals on Smith and wins the Smythe.

The Game: Chicago Stadium, Game 4, 1990 Campbell Conference Finals, Oilers trail series 2-1, having lost the two previous games. Messier, now the captain of the Oilers, shows up wearing his game face and absolutely dominates the Hawks physically with numerous crunching checks and countless stick fouls, skates miles and scores 2 spectacular goals and 2 assists in a 4-2 Oiler win. Oilers roll from there to their last, most unexpected, Cup.

The Guarantee: The Swamp, Game 6, 1994 Wales Conference Finals. Trailing the Devils 3-2 min the series, Messier famously guarantees a Rangers win, then delivers by setting up a late second period goal, then scoring a natural hat trick in the third period that turns a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 Rangers win. The Rangers go on to win the Cup, with Messier scoring the Cup-winning goal.

More important in New York was Messier's reported ability to turn am country-club locker room with all the players going their separate ways, into a cohesive team. He won the Hart Trophy his first year in New York, leading the Rangers to the first of two President's Trophies. On their ride to the Stanley Cup in 1994, he reportedly was able to convince Mike Keenan to refrain from his usual goalie-yanking roster-shuffling panic after Rangers lost Games 5 and 6 of those Finals by calmly promising they would win with what they had. He proceeded to score the Cup-winning goal in the 3-2 finale.

Any Vancouver fan, already embittered by that tough loss in '94, will tell you that Messier's leadership magic did not rub off on the Canucks during his time there, but he hardly had a core group like Richter, Leetch, Graves, etc. to work with in Lotusland. So in Vancouver he didn't create a miracle, but did succeed in turning water into whine.

Messier remains the only player in NHL history to captain two different franchises to the Stanley Cup. His six Stanley Cups and three Canada Cups speak to the success of his teams, of which he was always a (if not "the") major player.

Anonymous said...

Is there even a remote possibilty that Burnside was being a wee bit sarcastic with his piece (that I haven't read, naturally)? I mean, Mark Messier and 'leading Canucks over the hump' in the same sentence, and all that jazz. The dude was a disaster in Vancouver in his time.

That being said, mainstream journos tend to suck at sarcasm, so maybe he's just riffing the usual talking points on auto-pilot. I mean, that's what they get paid for.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Nope, no sarcasm, just a stream of Sundin-bashing. I picked out the unusual Messier/Canucks combination as well, but I don't get the sense Burnside was even aware of it.

Anonymous said...

burnside is a terrible writer. that being said he still gets paid to write for espn, not some silly little blog like this one

Anonymous said...

Anon - we can only hope that the general reading public becomes smart & demanding enough to require reasoned analysis... then, writers who cannot back up their assertions with facts will be phased out, & will be replaced (hired) by those who can.

Question is, where will the dumbed-down readers (such as yourself?) go then? To silly little blogs?

Anonymous said...

yea anon, i guess it is just you and the 5 other people who follow these blogs that are just oh so intellectually beyond the rest of the world ahaha. there is a reason nobody follows this crap.

Anonymous said...

See ya, Anonytard.