On Guys Who Score But Don’t Drive Possession

This dude didn’t drive possession much, but MAN what a shot.

Consider four types of forwards:

1.  Forwards who don’t drive possession and don’t score points
2.  Forwards who drive possession forward and score points effectively
3.  Forwards who drive possession forward but don’t score points
4.  Forwards who don’t drive possession but score points.

The first two types of forwards are easy to think about: Type 1 forwards are bad players, not really giving value through their play and Type 2 forwards are the best type of players, those who provide value in both offense and defense and aren’t a liability if they ever go on a cold streak.

Type 3 forwards are a little trickier, but really aren’t that hard to think about – they’re your ideal 4th and maybe 3rd liner, the guy who might not score but keeps your team in the game while your better guys rest.

Then you have your type 4 forwards – the dudes who can score a bunch of points but really don’t keep the puck out of your own zone and in the opponent’s zone.  Perhaps these guys are really bad defensively, perhaps they’re completely inept in the neutral zone, or perhaps they’re guys who score mainly by being in front of the net at the right time, and thus aren’t really being helpful when the puck doesn’t come to them.

How do we value these guys?  Depending upon the point totals these guys can put up, we can value them pretty high actually.  Ilya Kovalchuk was a pretty damn good player who didn’t drive possession much, but his scoring almost certainly made up for what he cost the team otherwise.  Matt Moulson’s hands allowed John Tavares to rack up assists due to his amazing ability to be in the right position to put in goals.  Thomas Vanek likewise.

In a sense, these guys are basically role players.  Of course, that role isn’t being a grinder or a checker or some other name for defensive forward, it’s to be an offensive specialist, paying little attention to anything else.  You’d like to play these guys in positions that maximize that ability like any other role player – so high ozone starts, alongside guys who might complement those skills (playing them alongside guys who don’t have these weaknesses, and thus can make their line a plus possession line, is another typical way to handle these guys).  And scoring lots of points is a pretty important type of role for a player to have.

Most of the time, the best scorers don’t fall into this category – the skills involved with being a plus possession player are the same ones that lead to scoring goals – getting the puck into the zone by carry-in, spending more time in the O Zone, etc.  But a few guys will – think Ilya Kovalchuk or perhaps even the more recent version of Alex Ovechkin (though he used to be a clear driver of play).  These are guys you play as much as possible despite the possession problems simply because well – scoring is what wins games in the NHL.  These guys aren’t that common, so you’ll never see a low possession team dominate for multiple seasons like you did in the 80s (when three teams did accumulate such players).  But you play them anyhow and you try and surround them with a lot of plus possession talent to make up for their shortcomings.

Again, these players aren’t bad by any means – they can even be elite!  Of course, lacking possession driving skills means slumps by these guys will kill you, but for your Kovalchuk’s and Ovechkins, you’ll live with that.

32 thoughts on “On Guys Who Score But Don’t Drive Possession

  1. I would’ve liked more of an analysis of this type of player (and indeed, Steven Stamkos seems to fall in this class too, I don’t think it an accident that Tampa’s possession numbers have gone up with him out). Indeed, while someone like Kovalchuk is ultimately helping your team, it is a question how much. In addition, these guys who pile up goals are typically not cheap either, so it also becomes a question of how much money you’re willing to spend on this sort of player, and are they worth it if they don’t also do any play driving?

    • I agree. And I don’t think determining the positive/negative value of that kind of player is beyond us, since offense is one thing we’re pretty good at capturing with the data. If I had to start, I’d probably have to look at shares of ice time in 2012-13…

      Player — 5v5% — 5v4% — 4v5%
      Kovy —– 0.348 — 0.946 — 0.304
      Stamkos — 0.352 — 0.656 — 0.144
      Ovechkin – 0.326 — 0.845 — 0.013

      5v5 FF% On and Off…

      Player — FF% On — FF% Off
      Kovy —– 0.521 —- 0.563
      Stamkos — 0.501 —- 0.458
      Ovechkin – 0.479 —- 0.482

      5v4 FF/60 On and Off…

      Player — FF On — FF Off
      Kovy —– 62.4 —- 39.2
      Stamkos — 52.4 —- 47.1
      Ovechkin – 64.0 —- 48.4

      So that’s a start. I’m going to add Sh% stuff in a little bit.

    • ‘Kay, some more stuff. At 5v5, here are % of Shots while on-ice, shooting percentage, shooting percentage of teammates on-ice (w/o player’s shooting stats), shooting percentage while the player is off-ice, and percentage of team total shots at 5v5:

      Player ——– 5v5 S% — 5v5Sh% – 5v5 TMSh% – 5v5 OffSh% – %TSh 5v5
      Kovy ———- 0.270 —– 0.063 ——- 0.087 ————– 0.079 ———— 0.091
      Stamkos —— 0.299 —– 0.156 ——- 0.117 ————– 0.106 ———— 0.112
      Ovechkin —– 0.428 —– 0.115 ——- 0.134 ————– 0.084 ———— 0.143

      (sorry for formatting)

      Same drill as for 5v5, only for 5v4:

      Player ——– 5v4 S% — 5v4Sh% – 5v4 TMSh% – 5v4 OffSh% – %TSh 5v4
      Kovy ———- 0.293 —– 0.024 ——- 0.182 ————– 0.000 ———— 0.283
      Stamkos —— 0.343 —– 0.229 ——- 0.149 ————– 0.149 ———— 0.235
      Ovechkin —– 0.526 —– 0.222 ——- 0.323 ————– 0.174 ———— 0.450

      Unfortunately, the off-ice time is pretty meager for Kovy and Ovechkin, so I’m not sure how much that can tell us beyond league-average.

    • This is something I was discussing the other day.

      Recent championship teams seem to have a possession driving as a key piece of their lineup.

      For Example:

      I am not sure this is a coincidence. That kind of center takes tough matchups and wins. This allows other players to be sheltered – which in theory would help the depth players.

      Other players in your Category 4

      Phil Kessel
      Eric Staal

      They are are very talented players, but they are hard to build around.

      • What I really want to do is build a dataset of NHL players using the metrics I threw together above and see if people are falling into categories. I might even see if I can’t use multiple years of data, since there is something to be said for PP/PK contributions, if only I had a robust sample.

      • I am curious about what it means at the team level. Should a team spend top dollar on a a player that scores, but can’t drive possession?

        Can that player carry a team?

        Is there a scoring threshold that makes such a player worth the lost possession?

        Sam Gagner is another such example. He can score, but I don’t think he would help the Jets due to possession woes.

        Charting scoring vs possession could be interesting.

      • The short answer is this: a player would have to consistently score at a higher percentage of his shots (relative to average), and generate at the very least an average amount of shots-for (relative to average), to be worth being a poor possession player. So that already takes away about 99% of the player population, if not more. I’m guessing this is one potential market inefficiency that isn’t exploitable, for the simple fact that those few that fall into the category of “great shooter, poor possession” are going to be worth big bucks or big assets (unless you draft them in the 1st round).

  2. How does a guy like Patrick Kane compare to those guys? He scores a lot, his possession numbers are ok, but looking at his zone starts, it seems to me that he needs almost 70% OZ starts to sustain even decent relative numbers.

    • I suspect he fits into that same – non possession group.

      Based on what I was saying above, I am skeptical that you can build a team around such a player. The fact that the team also has Toews allows them to cover up for this though.

  3. This article makes me think of the coaching switch in Vancouver. AV was always giving the Sedins big OZ pushes but, as far as I know, these are players that can drive possession and start in their own zone but still generate shots at the other end on the shift. A lot of people that are into the facystats thing seem to roll their eyes at Torts, but there might be some method to his madness (particularly since he does not enjoy as deep a team as AV did for most of his tenure).

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