I’ll try my best not to get ahead of myself when explaining below, so I’ll start by giving everyone insight on to what provoked my train of thought.
As most of you probably know, the Avalanche were without some of their top players for much of the series against the Predators:
Updated playoff injury/suspension summary. Look at the most definitely fully healthy Flyers. pic.twitter.com/M7obTCF5lt— NHLInjuryViz (@NHLInjuryViz) April 23, 2018
Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard are two of the Avalanche’s top three defensemen. Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier are their one and two in net. As a result of these injury problems, there was much “what if?” discussion from both sides. From the Nashville angle (paraphrasing): “They’re down so many of their top guys...this should be easy to take advantage of!” And from the Colorado angle (again, paraphrasing): “Imagine what this series would be like if the Avs were completely healthy!”
My critique is going to focus a tad more on the Nashville angle, but it is a two-way street nonetheless. It will be broken down into two ideas: systems and individual attention.
At the beginning of August Justin Bourne wrote a piece for The Athletic titled, “How do teams get prepared to face an opponent in a best-of-seven playoff series?” The piece is linked above for those of you who subscribe to The Athletic, but I will summarize what I got out of it.
Bourne identifies ten areas where teams can exercise control in the chaos of playoff hockey. They are:
- Power play & penalty kills
- D-zone coverage
- Set breakouts
- Set forecheck
- Neutral zone forecheck
Inherently, these are all areas of the game that a replacement level NHL player can succeed at to some degree. By this, I mean their specific role. Not all players are good at faceoffs but all know, to some extent, how to play their role in a faceoff.
This ability is only enhanced by the extra preparation teams are afforded for the playoffs. The Avalanche ran one system against the Predators. The specifics might have changed game-to-game, but the skeleton remained stagnant. So, although the Avalanche were without some of their better players, their roster as a whole was specifically prepared for this challenge. In this case, the better team prevailed but systems run so deep in the NHL that they can contribute to upsets. I’m not sure how to exactly quantify this, so I hope you’re still following .me
My point is that teams have all the resources to build and practice a system that can succeed regardless of who is in or out of the lineup. Your natural response should be: what about star players who can take over or steal games? And I would respond: what an excellent segue!
As pointed out above, every team has players that require more acute attention. I could rant on and on about what qualifies players as elite or a “star”, but that’s not important. What is is that we can agree, in principle, that some players can positively impact a game more than others. Who are these players? Typically those at the top of a lineup...maybe a starting goalie, or two, or two top-4 defensemen (see: the Colorado Avalanche in Round 1).
This brings us to Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I don’t mean for this to be an analytics-heavy post. I simply want this to be a thought exercise regarding how to discuss odds and abilities against damaged teams. If you care to dive deeper into WAR, I would start here, then here, then go here, and, finally, here.
The last link is especially important. It is Emmanuel Perry’s latest WAR notebook. While it is true that WAR is not a unilaterally-achieved statistic, Perry has been doing the most up to date and enjoyable work on the matter. Plus, Corsica (his creation), is my go-to for analytics research. In it, Perry breaks down how he arrived at his latest WAR statistic. It’s a long but worthwhile read, so I will list the components below:
- Shot Rates (For & Against)
- Shot Quality (For & Against)
- Penalties (For & Against)
- Zone Transitions (Offensive, Neutral & Defensive)
He also delineates his use of a regression model to show the effect of independent variables (players indirectly responsible for goals) on dependent variables (the talent and quality of the shooter). This is important context. I urge you to read through this on your own, but, for now, I hope you have a basic understanding of WAR for my point below.
*these are regular season numbers
As you can see above, Samuel Girard ranks second on the Avs’ defense corps in WAR at 0.15. This is somewhat pedestrian. This is while securing the fifth-most ice time of the unit and the most offensive zone finishes suggesting, at the least, a mild amount of sheltered minutes. Additionally, he provided only the fifth-best Offensive WAR (OWAR) on the team and the third-best Defensive WAR (DWAR) but with a significant margin between him and the top two.
Erik Johnson, meanwhile, was fourth in WAR at 0.05. It’s indicative above that Johnson is more of an all-situations player than Girard (this makes sense as the team’s workhorse defenseman). And although his OWAR is a relatively staggering 0.34 (1st), his DWAR is just as shocking at -0.29 (7th).
Here is where the talk of advantage could slip in. Losing Semyon Varlamov for a series is a massive blow. He was 10th among starters this season with 2.38 WAR. Regardless, my point remains true when the Avalanche shifted to Andrew Hammond in net. At 0.67 WAR, Jonathan Bernier is hardly above replacement level. Among playoff starters, he ranks third to last in front of Brian Elliott and the much-injured Matt Murray. So, the difference between him and Andrew Hammond in a chaotic, compact playoff series should be minimal.
I understand that this discussion ignores a few things: experience, minutes-eating, readiness, luck, etc. And, certainly, I didn’t write this to be a holistic review of WAR. I simply want to address the lack of context we often have when speaking about matchups. I see that it is easy to say, “The Avs are on their third-string goalie...why aren’t the Preds’ steamrolling them??” But, again, this largely ignores the impact of the players that have been replaced and the strength of team’s (likely) ultra-prepared playoff systems.
All statistics are courtesy of corsica.hockey.