2016-17 Hockey Graphs Top 50 Players

Welcome to the second annual Hockey Graphs Top 50 Players in the NHL list.

The main reason I put this together last year (you can view that here) was as a basis for comparison against the other, more famous, top 50 players lists. The annual list is a season preview staple for TSN and THN and the rankings are usually slightly controversial. Both lists are created via a poll of various people inside hockey, who are generally very smart people, but who are also prone to old-school thinking with value sometimes being shaped by recency bias, reputation and a winning pedigree.

This list is a bit of the opposite as it comes from mostly outsiders, people who study and analyze the game in the public sphere. That’s not to say these are necessarily smarter people, they just approach the game from a different angle based mostly on underlying trends and numbers over more traditional stats and what is immediately seen on the ice.

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Measuring Single Game Productivity: An Introduction To Game Score

Who had the best game last night?

That’s a rhetorical question obviously… because it’s July, but when hockey is actually being played from October to June it’s an important question to ask – one that’s currently not very easy to definitively answer.

Some will look at points, some will look at shot differentials, some will watch the game, but rarely is there any consensus. Different people value different things. At the top and bottom of the spectrum the answer is sometimes obvious. If Connor McDavid has a five point night, he was very likely the best guy on the ice. If Pekka Rinne lets in five goals against on 21 shots he was very likely the worst. But for many games the answer is neither obvious or simple and is generally up for debate depending on an observer’s personal value system.

What we don’t have in hockey is a standardized measurement for single game productivity. It’s not something that will end any debate, but it can provide a much better framework to answer the question over what’s currently available. And that’s what I’m going to introduce in this post.

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Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin and Quality of Competition

During the offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs made two small additions to their blueline that were lauded by many in the analytics community. At the draft they traded a fourth round pick and a low-tier prospect for Martin Marincin and on the first day of free agency they signed Matt Hunwick to a low money two-year deal.

Both players had very similar trajectories over the previous three seasons. Marincin had a relative shots percentage of +4.3 while playing 15.7 minutes per night while Hunwick landed at +2.8 percent playing 15.3 minutes. Looking at just the 2014-15 season, Hunwick had the edge at +5.1 in 14.3 minutes to Marincin’s +2.4 in 16.1 minutes. Basically, the Leafs acquired two decent and under-appreciated defensemen who have shown ability to push play in the right direction and for a relatively low cost too.

Flash forward to the culmination of their first seasons as Leafs and opinions of the two couldn’t be more different. Marincin is praised regularly while Hunwick is seen as a proverbial boat anchor.

So what’s changed exactly?

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Hockey Graphs Top 50 NHL Players

Before the season begins there’s two lists that seem to cause a stir within the hockey community: the Top 50 Players in the NHL. The Hockey News puts out one in its annual season preview yearbook while TSN has an entire hour-long broadcast dedicated to it. Both lists are compiled in the same way (which is why they tend to be similar), and that’s via a poll of people inside hockey. That may be where some of the controversy lies.

It’s not necessarily that those guys are wrong about who’s the best of the best – it’s their job after all – it’s that their opinions tend to be moulded by a few biases that cloud their judgement. From looking at the list every year (and how it changes) it’s shaped a lot by recency bias, reputation and a winning pedigree.

I wanted a different take on the debate so I enlisted some of hockey’s top nerds doing work in the public sphere to share their opinions of who they think will be among the 50 best players in the league in this upcoming season.

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