Luca Sbisa may be one of the players who best epitomizes the divide between the old-school, eye test view on hockey and the statistics-focussed analysts offering their opinions from their mother’s basements on fan curated sites across the internet. While GM Jim Benning clearly thinks Sbisa is a useful defender, rewarding him with a 3-year, 10.8MM deal, and consistently praising his defensive zone smarts, Canucks fans have been less bullish on the talents of the 25-year-old Swiss pointman. Correctly noting his less than stellar possession numbers, J.D. Burke commented that his first season with Vancouver featured few “extended stretches in which any pairing with Sbisa on it looked passable”. These aren’t just the criticisms of a bitter fan wishful for better years, Burke backed up his arguments with a detailed numerical breakdown of Sbisa’s many failings, and video evidence of some of his less than professional defending from 2014-2015. Burke, and the Canucks’ fanbase in general, seemed to paint a picture of Sbisa that stands in stark contrast to what Vancouver management observed. Where the fans saw a player who frequently found himself out of position at critical junctures when defending his own end, Vancouver’s brain trust viewed Sbisa as the ideal player to disrupt a cycle down low. How could two groups of people who watched the same games with such intense devotion come to such different conclusions?
One of the biggest difficulties with evaluating Sbisa, and defencemen in general, is that what the eye test says is important is often wildly out of sync with what statistics can currently measure. While stats-based analyses focus on a defender’s ability to prevent shot attempts (in other words, their Corsi Against per 60), most of the praise for defensively-minded defencemen tends to focus on hockey IQ, being in the right position, and winning battles in the corner. While ideally these less “quantifiable” skills should lead to favourable statistical results, issues with differences in player deployment and the teammate-dependent nature of defending often mean that what gets praised in post-game interviews isn’t what shows up on the scoresheets, leaving a divide between management’s view and the story told by pure shot attempt numbers.