Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Couldn't Mats Sundin Score on the Power Play?

Mats Sundin was named to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, creating some controversy as many thought he was not fully deserving of that honour.  Some observers seemed especially miffed that Sundin was inducted ahead of Brendan Shanahan.

I don't really see the injustice there to be honest as I think Sundin is fully deserving of the Hall.  If you gave me the choice of Sundin or Shanahan I would have taken Sundin at virtually any point during their careers.  Sundin's record of consistent production is pretty strong, and I don't particularly care about his lack of team success or failure to win any major trophies.  His international scoring record, in particular, is fantastic (18 goals, 21 assists for 39 points in 30 games played in best-on-best tournaments, plus 18-26-44 in 35 games in his world championships career).

Many have wondered why Sundin was unable to duplicate the same excellent results in the NHL, particularly in the playoffs. North American observers are sometimes quick to resort to the traditional explanation that European players are more motivated to perform well in international tournaments than in Stanley Cup postseason games, but I'm
pretty skeptical of that being a major factor. I think a better explanation is that Mats Sundin was one of the best 5 on 5 forwards in the world and was playing with better linemates for Tre Kronor than he was in Toronto.

Sundin has a very impressive record of even strength scoring. From 1996-97 to 2001-02, he finished in the top 20 in the league in even strength scoring in six consecutive seasons while amassing 338 points at even strength over that span, the second-best total in the league behind only Jaromir Jagr. When you take into account Sundin's usual lack of top linemates and coach Pat Quinn's favoured strategy of rolling four lines that had the byproduct of reducing the available ice time for his #1 centre relative to other stars around the league, Sundin's scoring rates are even more impressive.

Here are the even strength and power play scoring rates during the regular season and playoffs for 8 of the top centers in the league from 1997-98 to 2003-04 (plus Brendan Shanahan, given all the recent discussion of whether he was more deserving than Sundin):


Sundin ranks second to only Forsberg in both the regular season and the playoffs in his rate of even strength point production. Sundin also had the best even strength goalscoring rate in the regular season as well as the fourth-best pace in the playoffs.  
However, the former Leaf captain ranks dead last in power play scoring in the regular season, and only Lindros (who had all of 7 playoff games played during this period) ranks below him in playoff power play scoring.

I checked the participation rates for the centers (percentage of team goals while a player was on the ice on which they recorded either a goal or an assist) to see if there were any major discrepancies:

Forsberg: 86.4% EV, 69.8% PP
Sundin: 83.9% EV, 64.4% PP
Sakic: 87.1% EV, 66.1% PP
Lindros: 81.5% EV, 64.4% PP
Turgeon: 85.7% EV, 70.0% PP
Modano: 83.8% EV, 64.7% PP
Yashin: 83.3% EV, 74.7% PP
Yzerman: 78.5% EV, 59.3% PP

Sundin's rates are pretty typical in both game situations. His power play rate is slightly below the group average, but is identical to that of Lindros and very close to Modano's.  Yzerman's PP number is interesting, given that it is much lower than the others.  To add to that, Brendan Shanahan's participation rate in the same unit was 61.4%.  These numbers suggest that the Red Wings' dominant power play unit was more of a team effort than, say, the Colorado Avalanche power play which was very dependent on Sakic and Forsberg.

Was Mats Sundin a poor performer on the power play, or was he merely a victim of a poor special teams unit in Toronto? It's probably at least a bit of both. Sundin apparently wasn't good enough to singlehandedly lift his team's unit above average, but he did score 47 points with the man advantage with Quebec in 1992-93 as a member of a standout PP lineup also consisting of Sakic and Steve Duchesne. Sundin also saw his rate jump in 2002-03 to 5.1 PPP/60 after several seasons in a row in the 3s or low 4s.  Over the remainder of his career Sundin never again dropped below 5.2.
Maybe he finally figured out how to score as a 31-year old, or maybe adding teammates like Nolan, Mogilny and Nieuwendyk had an impact and helped boost Sundin's scoring statistics.

It is interesting to compare the power play numbers for Sundin's Maple Leafs with Brendan Shanahan's Detroit Red Wings during the same period (1998 to 2004). Putting the top 10 in power play goals for each team side by side really illustrates the difference in quality, and does seem to suggest that Sundin would have most likely been able to rack up a lot more points if he had better teammates to share the load with the man advantage.

Detroit Red Wings, Power Play Goals ('98-04):

1. Brendan Shanahan, 81
2. Steve Yzerman, 52
3. Nicklas Lidstrom, 46
4. Sergei Fedorov, 46
5. Tomas Holmstrom, 43
6. Brett Hull, 29
7. Martin Lapointe, 25
8. Igor Larionov, 21
9. Vyacheslav Kozlov, 20
10. Luc Robitaille, 16

Toronto Maple Leafs, Power Play Goals ('98-04):

1. Mats Sundin, 69
2. Gary Roberts, 28
3. Sergei Berezin, 27
4. Bryan McCabe, 22
5. Steve Thomas, 21
6. Darcy Tucker, 21
7. Jonas Hoglund, 17
8. Igor Korolev, 14
8. Alexander Mogilny, 14
10. Mikael Renberg, 13

I think Sundin was disadvantaged by team factors, particularly from 1997 to 2002, which also happens to be his peak period of even strength scoring.  As the team's best player he should shoulder some of the blame for Toronto being so mediocre with the man advantage, but results from earlier and later in his career show that when Sundin did have the good fortune to play together with star linemates then he was able to post better power play scoring numbers.  Pumping up his PP scoring stats could have moved Sundin from the 75-85 point range to a consistent 90+, which would have made him a more significant factor in the overall scoring race and in turn would have seen him viewed in a much more positive light today.

One final stat to compare Sundin and Shanahan:  In the 18 seasons where both of them played in the NHL, Shanahan scored more even strength points than Sundin only twice.  I'd take Sundin over Shanny every single time, and I think he's a deserving first ballot Hall of Famer.


Agent Orange said...

Does Shanahan get any benefit for being a left winger? Typically LWers don't produce as much as other offensive positions. You can make a pretty good argument for Shanahan as the 2nd best left wing in NHL history.

How does Shanahan come to the other best left wingers in the NHL (as you compared Sundin to centers).

Does Shanahan get any credit for his work off the ice? The competition committee he lead during the lock-out and his post career work for the NHL?

Personally I don't buy either one of them as a "1st ballot" hall of famer. That should be a special distinction.

I would have preferred to see Phil Housley as a guy who has been eligible for 5 years get in. He is 4th in NHL history for defenseman scoring and the only member of the top 13 who is eligible and not in.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

To me, players should be rated on how much they helped their team win hockey games, rather than how highly they ranked relative to other guys at their position.

What's your case that Shanahan is the 2nd best left wing in NHL history? Career points? I don't even see a good argument to put Shanahan in the top 10 at his position. You'd have to ignore the vast majority of hockey history and weight career scoring numbers unreasonably highly just to do that, much less get him up at #2 all-time.

As for Housley, I don't agree with you. Hockey is about outscoring, not scoring, and I think Housley gave away enough in his end that he doesn't deserve to get in the Hall even despite his great offensive numbers.

Agent Orange said...

I wanted to address a few of your quotes and I broke them up for the flow of conversation. I'm not intending to pull them out of context.

"rather than how highly they ranked relative to other guys at their position."

You compared Sundin to other players at his position but don't see the value in making this same comparison for Shanahan? What was the point in this article then?

"To me, players should be rated on how much they helped their team win hockey games"

"Hockey is about outscoring, not scoring"

But these only apply to even-strength right? Because since Sundin out-scored Shanny at evens he is better? Nevermind that their +/- was relatively close (144 for Shanny and 111 for Sundin) which would lead us to believe they are mostly even players players at even strength and Shanny was a weapon for the Wings on the PP.

I fail to see how Shanahan could have done more to help his team. He was frequently among the top scorers, he played the enforcer when he was called upon and he played the high man in the left wing lock when Bowman asked him to.

"What's your case that Shanahan is the 2nd best left wing in NHL history?"

Career points and goals. Granted this isn't fair to guys like AO who aren't done yet but when talking about the Hall I like to consider whole careers as opposed to peak (I think we have talked about this before). I weight team accomplishments more than you we've been over this. Again maybe not fair but Shanny's 3 cups and a Olympic gold give him an edge over a lot of LWs.

Re: Housley
Whats your opinion of Coffey in the Hall of Fame or where he ranks among top D-men of all time? Coffey was just as much a 1-way defenseman as Housley but had the benefit of playing with Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Lemieux, Jagr, Yzerman, Fedorov. Housley played with some good players but not a list like that.

Agent Orange said...

One more item.

I would like to get your feedback on Shanny's off-ice contributions to the game. Do you give him any value for this?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

This post is perhaps a bit disjointed because my draft version was focused primarily on Sundin compared to other centers, and then after the widespread backlash to the HHOF decision I threw in some discussion about Shanahan since that suddenly became very topical.

The main point of the post is that Sundin was an elite even strength scorer in the prime of his career, with the second-best total level of EV production in the league from 1997 to 2002, and a scoring rate that surpassed no-doubt Hall of Famer Joe Sakic's in both the regular season and playoff points per minute production at 5 on 5 from '98 to '04. Anybody who managed to do that must have been very good, and that's why Sundin deserves the Hall of Fame.

Comparing raw plus/minus numbers for Shanahan and Sundin is clearly unfair because of their different team situations. There's an occasional commenter here named Overpass who calculates adjusted plus/minus numbers by comparing team results with a player on the ice to results when he was on the bench. His ratings list Sundin at +219 career compared to +170 for Shanahan, indicating that relative to their teammates Sundin was the better outscorer. Sundin was also used more often to kill penalties and scored more shorthanded points. Shanahan may have scored more PP goals, but as I mentioned in the post I think the strength of his teams contributed to that.

I have nothing against Shanahan, I think he was a really good power forward and that he is a deserving Hall of Famer. He might even be more accomplished of a player than Sundin, depending on what criteria you use, and he probably was a better left wing than Sundin was a center, but I think if you compare the two directly head-to-head the evidence makes it clear that Sundin was the better hockey player of the two.

Re: off-ice stuff, I'm really much more of a stat analyst than a guy who gets too deep into Hall of Fame debates, so no, that stuff doesn't really matter much to me. Although I guess if I was an actual HHOF voter I probably would have to give it some value since it is explicitly stated in their list of selection criteria.

Agent Orange said...

+/-: We agree that the difference between them adjusted or not was +/-30-50? Do you think that a +/- difference of 50 over 1400-1500 career games is significant? That squeaks out to about 3 goals per season. I don't think that we can definitively conclude that one or the other was a better scorer. I believe that they were basically even.

This doesn't consider that one is a LW and one is a center. I looked at the top 10 scorers at each position (I can extend to more if you want me to) and here are the aveGP avePS avePPG.
aveGP avePS avePPG
RW 1316.8 1424.5 1.08
C* 1393.4 1647.7 1.18
LW 1287.2 1197.1 0.93

*For the centers I took out Gretzky. His numbers would raise the avePS by ~100(!) and the average PPG by ~0.1. I think its safe to call him an outlier.

So we have 2 logical assumptions we can conclude here.

1) Left Wingers are definitively worse than other forwards.
2) Its harder to score as a left winger.

It seems obvious that a center should score more points. Its easier to defend a winger than a center because you get deep into the zone the winger has 1 path to the net. A left winger has to go to the right to move the puck toward the net (either a shot, a pass, or skating the puck in). A center can go either left or right.

I don't know the exact percentage but most forwards (and I think players in general) in the NHL are left handed. If you are a lefty your hands are open on the right side and you get a better angle on a forward shot.

A left handed center has an easier pass to the right than to the left (cause its on the forward) which will give the right winger more opportunities to score.

Most goalies catch right. Its easier to beat a goalie blocker side than glove side because they have less mobility on that hand.

We make a lot of attempts to capture era effects and team effects shouldn't we consider position effects?

Just comparing the scoring stats takes away from the other aspects of the game that Shanahan brought (detailed above).

I'll concede that Sundin was a higher producer at evens than Shanhan but he should have been based on position alone. I'll concede that he was a marginally better outscorer at evens than Shanahan. But Shanahan made up for it on the PP. I'll agree that we should count it less but we can't ignore PP performance completely.

Agent Orange said...

Sorry there were a couple instances where my phone auto-corrected fore-hand to foward. Apparenly it has to be 2 words.

My bad.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I'm not sure I'd say that 50 goals is the exact difference between the players. Adjusted plus/minus isn't perfect, it is still affected by linemates and opposition. I'll just say that I think it is simply more evidence that Sundin was the more impactful player.

I'm not sure I buy your positional argument, particularly since Sundin and Shanahan both shot right. I favour the "weaker players play LW" theory over the "it's harder to score on the left" theory.

I'm not ignoring PP contribution, I'm merely suggesting that it is more team-influenced. And I'm not sure how Shanahan made up much ground there on Sundin given that over the course of their careers the two produced a virtually identical PPP/game rate (Sundin 0.34, Shanahan 0.33).

The difference is that Shanahan scored at a relatively consistent rate, with a few peaks and valleys here and there, while Sundin scored at an elite rate both early and late in his career and then had an unexplained stretch of six consecutive seasons with very weak PP scoring numbers during what was also his EV scoring prime.

Here are some more numbers to show what I mean. Let's not count Sundin's first two seasons, as he did not get much PP time. From 1993 to 1996, Sundin averaged 0.43 PPP/game in Quebec and Toronto. From 1997 to 2002, he dropped to an average of 0.25, never going above 0.29. From 2003 to the end of his career, Sundin again scored at an average of 0.43 PPP/game.

The percentage of team PP goals that Sundin got a point on did not change nearly as much as his overall scoring rate did. From '93 to '96 Sundin was in on 43% of his team's PP goals. From '97 to '02, he participated in 39%. From '03 to '09 he got a point on 40%.

To me, that suggests that the overall weakness of the Toronto power play unit during that time period deflated Sundin's numbers. If Sundin had scored on the power play at the same rate as he did over the rest of his career, here are what his scoring totals and finishes would have been from 1997 to 2002:

1997: 106 pts, 3rd
1998: 85 pts, 9th
1999: 100 pts, 4th
2000: 82 pts, 8th
2001: 84 pts, 14th
2002: 88 pts, 3rd

With that offensive resume absolutely nobody would have been challenging him as a Hall of Famer.

Hostpph said...

well when I first read your post title, I did not know what to answer, but when I read your entire post I got your point and your answer to the question, really good, keep it up!

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