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.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Darryl Sutter and Goaltending

Darryl Sutter is getting a lot of credit for his impact on the Los Angeles Kings this season, which is perhaps not too surprising given that the team was 15-14-4 prior to his hire and 40-15-11 since, playoffs included.  Jon Quick is all over the headlines for his ridiculous postseason numbers, and certainly much of that is deserved, but there is also some historical evidence that suggests Sutter may be in the class of coaches that have a positive impact on the statistics of their goaltenders.

Throughout his career, Sutter's goaltenders have routinely been above average.  Sutter-led teams have only posted a below-average save percentage in two out of his dozen seasons as an NHL coach, and in every one of the remaining ten his team was at least .006 above the league benchmark in save rate:

1992-93: .901 in Chicago (.885 avg)
1993-94: .902 in Chicago (.895 avg)
1994-95: .907 in Chicago (.901 avg)
1997-98: .896 in San Jose (.906 avg)
1998-99: .915 in San Jose (.908 avg)
1999-00: .911 in San Jose (.904 avg)
2000-01: .914 in San Jose (.903 avg)
2001-02: .918 in San Jose (.908 avg)
2002-03: .897 in San Jose/Calgary (.909 avg)
2003-04: .919 in Calgary (.911 avg)
2005-06: .917 in Calgary (.901 avg)
2011-12: .930 in Los Angeles (.914 avg)

Overall:  .910 under Sutter, .903 league average

Sutter had Belfour for three seasons, Kiprusoff for two and Quick this past year, so he was partially lucky to benefit from some good goaltending.  However, the numbers before and after he arrived in the different towns seem to suggest that there was a consistent save percentage effect as a result of Sutter's hiring.  I looked at the full season prior to Sutter being hired and the full season after he was fired, with partial in-season results before he was hired/after he was fired also included in the before and after sample:

Chicago (before & after):  4352 SA, .898 save %, .893 average, +.005
Chicago under Sutter:  5940 SA, .903 save %, .892 average, +.011

San Jose (before & after):  6434 SA, .906 save %, .908 average, -.002
San Jose under Sutter:  11781 SA, .910 save %, .906 average, +.004

Calgary (before & after):  5738 SA, .909 save %, .907 average, +.002
Calgary under Sutter:  5545 SA, .914 save %, .906 average, +.008

Los Angeles (before):  3258 SA, .917 save %, .913 average, +.004
Los Angeles under Sutter:  1271 SA, .930 save %, .914 average, +.016

That's a consistent bump of .006 at each of Sutter's first three stops, with his L.A. numbers looking even better so far.

I should point out however that selection bias probably has an impact here, given that teams with low save percentages would be more likely to fire coaches and hire replacements.

Combined before sample:  .901 save percentage, .905 league average, -.004
Combined sample with Sutter:  .910 save percentage, .903 league average, +.007
Combined after sample:  .914 save percentage, .906 league average, +.008

Looking at it this way gives a potentially much less charitable interpretation of Sutter's true impact:  Maybe he simply coached some good goalies and was the beneficiary of teams bouncing back from poor seasons.  On the other hand, it does seem reasonable that the impact of a coach would continue in at least some fashion even after they leave town.  If Sutter played a key role in developing young players or established a style of play that the team continued to use under his successor then he could be partially credited for some of those continuing effects.

It is always important to take regression to the mean into account when evaluating coaches, or else guys hired by underachieving teams will look like heroes nearly every time as the team's results gradually change to more closely match their overall level of talent.  Sutter is not a miracle worker, and I think that Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter trade had a larger impact on the Kings' amazing transformation into a playoff juggernaut than their mid-season coaching change.  On the other hand, Los Angeles is certainly doing a great job of protecting their goaltender through great defensive play at the moment, and that reflects well on their head coach.

In the competitive world of the NHL, slight edges can sometimes end up being important, and Sutter's coaching may just be providing Jonathan Quick the defensive advantage needed to help the Kings' goaltender complete his memorable season with a great postseason run that currently has him holding the highest official playoff save percentage of all-time among goalies that participated in more than one playoff round.