Grantland Features: Knuckles vs. Numbers

Sometimes, I hear questions float around about whether the analytics movement has changed the NHL all that much. I wrote about this a bit in my most recent post, looking at player usage, but there’s more to be said. Thankfully, I had a great opportunity to contribute to a documentary for Grantland and ESPN called “Knuckles vs. Numbers,” which focused on the influence of analytics on the reduction of the role of the enforcer. Including myself, you’ll also see interviews with Sean McIndoe (@DownGoesBrown), Steve Burtch, Paul Bissonnette, Colton Orr, and Brian McGrattan. Check it out, get the word out, it’s worth your time.

Now that you’ve enjoyed that, I have some behind-the-scenes anecdotes and information from the experience that are worth mentioning.

So I had been joking all the time leading up to the interview that I could just envision talking about enforcers and why they aren’t helping, and then the cameraman peeks to the side of the camera and it’s David Koci or something. I joked equally about them setting me in the same room as an enforcer as some kind of juicy confrontation scene. Imagine my surprise when, on the way to the shoot, the producer and head cameraman were discussing the shots they wanted to capture, and one included me meeting Paul Bissonnette!

Truth be told, I was more nervous about the interview, saying all the things I intended to say. I knew Bissonnette was a pretty level-headed guy, and obviously personable away from the rink, so if anything I was excited. Still, they planned on shooting our first meet…

So, before a Manchester Monarchs game, I did my solo interview, then we headed down to the locker rooms. The Monarchs head of PR, a really great guy I had a chance to visit with later named Dan Ventresca (@Dan_Ventresca), went into the locker room and brought Paul out. We shook hands, then he told me to go easy on him with the numbers. I took the opportunity to point out to him that, by the numbers, he wasn’t really in the same boat as other enforcers.

Season Age Team Gm G A P PenD CF% PDO PSh% ZSO%Rel TOI/Gm
2013-14 28 PHX 39 2 6 8 -1 52.6 104.3 8.0 4.2 4.8
2012-13 27 PHX 28 0 6 6 1 51.5 101.9 0.0 16.6 5.5
2011-12 26 PHX 31 1 0 1 -1 54.8 94.5 6.7 5.6 6.1
2010-11 25 PHX 48 1 0 1 2 49.1 105.0 5.6 16.1 5.3
2009-10 24 PHX 40 3 2 5 0 51.8 98.3 12.0 8.4 5.8

5v5 data, from War-on-Ice.com

While other enforcers surrender nearly 60-65% of possession at even-strength (resulting in 35-40% in CF%), Bissonnette was never that bad, even when his deployment shifted to fewer starts in the offensive zone. Compare him to Brian McGrattan, for instance:

Season Age Team Gm G A P PenD CF% PDO PSh% ZSO%Rel TOI/Gm
2014-15 33 CGY 8 0 0 0 0 43.0 92.6 0.0 4.0 6.5
2013-14 32 CGY 76 4 4 8 4 38.4 100.7 5.1 10.2 6.7
2012-13 31 CGY/NSH 21 3 0 3 0 40.9 96.4 16.7 14.2 7.0
2011-12 30 NSH 30 0 2 2 -2 46.8 99.8 0.0 7.7 5.1
2009-10 28 CGY 34 1 3 4 -1 52.6 103.6 5.3 20.9 3.3
2008-09 27 PHX 5 0 0 0 0 31.4 91.7 0.0 -41.4 5.5
2007-08 26 OTT 37 0 3 3 0 44.0 100.9 0.0 13.5 3.0
2006-07 25 OTT 45 0 2 2 -9 48.3 98.6 0.0 18.7 3.4
2005-06 24 OTT 58 2 3 5 -14 52.9 97.8 6.7 11.5 4.0

5v5 data, from War-on-Ice.com

Even in his younger years, with similar deployment, McGrattan was not performing as Bissonnette had…and Colton Orr was even worse.

Not included from my interview was the part when I noted this fact; I also observed that Bissonnette was a very good defensive defenseman in juniors, yet was converted to forward to be an enforcer in the AHL. In other words, the story of his career should really be about this lost opportunity. If those numbers above are any reflection, he might have been (and, as a long shot, still could be) an NHL-caliber defensive defenseman — and we know what kind of contract that’s netted guys like Brooks Orpik.

Bissonnette brushed aside the comments of being not bad by the numbers, then went to get ready for the game. The producer wanted another shot with Bissonnette and I, so we met again after the game. Paul came out of the locker room and the first thing he said was to ask me, “How was my Corsi?” I said it was pretty good, the Monarchs dominated the Hartford Wolf Pack in possession that day. Then he ducked back into the locker room and the camera guys realized they hadn’t caught the exchange. Paul came back out and we talked much longer. I noted he was out for a goal-against (a floater with eyes from the blue line) and he said, yeah, I’ve had a minus the last four games. I told him we don’t use that anymore, so the nice thing is we can just throw that out. New numbers say he did well! He was like, “Oh, that’s how you do that?” And I replied, “Just like that.”

We chatted a bit more, about the new NHL tracking, and I told him he could always slap his tracker onto Jordan Weal’s back during the game. He got a kick out of that.

Overall, it was an excellent experience, the Monarchs were incredibly hospitable, and meeting Bissonnette was a pretty awesome. The only downside was, at the end, Bissonnette went for the upright handshake, and he didn’t pull in for the half-hug, which I thought was standard with the upright handshake. So good thing they didn’t include that — though I will contend to my dying day I was not in the wrong there.

I have three points that either didn’t make it in, or I didn’t articulate, and I want to include them here:

  • Paul Bissonnette, as the numbers suggest, is not the same as other enforcers, including Orr & McGrattan who were in the film. It’s very likely he was a passable defensive defenseman who could have carved out an NHL career, but instead was pushed towards this enforcer role early in his pro career. I truly think that’s important nuance.
  • I do not think these guys are bad hockey players, I just don’t think they (for most part) are NHL-level hockey players. Anyone who has skated with these guys will tell you, they are way better at the game than your average person.
  • I don’t really think enforcers will go “extinct,” per se. I think the game is just evolving away from someone who is only there for that reason. But if the NHL wants the vigilantism of it to go away, they need to be proactive about enforcement themselves, and I don’t think they get there with their current approach.

A final, interesting anecdote: the producer really wanted to get some shots of Bissonnette fighting in the game we watched…but it never happened. Instead, Manchester dominated possession throughout the game, won 4-2, and Bissonnette nearly scored a goal. He didn’t have to fight because Paul and his teammates controlled the puck, and for me it was an apt summation of the whole thing.

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