Hockey fans, highlight show hosts and TV announcers frequently gravitate to the offensive stars in the NHL. Its fun to watch the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin and Stamkos fill the net. It can be jaw-dropping to watch Joe Thornton find teammates open at will. Drew Doughty rushing the puck up ice is beautiful thing to see.
Yet, for opposing coaches, these players are a nightmare to play against. Finding a line to match up against Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin is enough to give most bench bosses a headache. There are, however, players capable of matching up against the leagues best, and coming out on top. These players typically play against the other teams top line and either outscore them, outshoot them or at the very least, play them to a stalemate. We call these players Heavy Lifters for the comparative burden they shoulder.
The topic of Heavy Lifters has been explored in depth by Derek Zona at Copper N Blue. Gabe Desjardins wrote an article about players who are Corsi outperformers and recently at Behind The Net, the exploration of historically underrated players also evoked more thoughts on an already interesting niche.
In an attempt to expand upon the work of the authors above, the Heavy Lifter Index (HLI) has been created.
The basic anatomy that qualifies a player as a Heavy Lifter is the fact that they face the other teams top players or play in difficult situations. In order to judge these parameters, several situational statistics were used.
All statistics used were derived from www.BehindTheNet.ca
In this case, two measures used to judge the quality of a players opposition will be Corsi Rel QoC and QualComp.
We already know that Corsi correlates extremely well with scoring chances and that Corsi Rel compares a players Corsi value versus those of his teammates. It stands to reason then, that Corsi Rel QoC is a great way to measure which players are facing their opponents best. In order to qualify for the HLI, a player must have a Corsi Rel QoC above zero, indicating that they are facing the better half of the opposition. The other qualifiers used were that a player must average at least 10 minutes TOI per 60 at Even Strength as well as play at least 20 games that season.
QualComp is a measure of competition using the Relative Plus-Minus of the opposition. It is based on less total events than a Corsi-based method, but is based on goals rather than shot attempts and therefore represents another piece of the picture.
Finally, Zone Start percentage is used to tell us how often a player starts his shift in the advantageous offensive zone or the detrimental defensive zone.
Corsi Rel Qoc, QualComp and Zone Starts are used to create the Heavy Lifter Index Situation (HLI Sit) which describes the difficulty of the assignment a player is facing.
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
That said, just playing against top competition and starting in ones own zone doesnt make a Heavy Lifter. These elite players still have to make something positive out of such a negative situation. There are several ways to show if a player is having a positive impact. In order to create the Heavy Lifter Index Results (HLI Res), three measures were used.
First and foremost, a player should outscore the opposition. Just like Derek Zonas method, the HLI will use Scoring Differential per 60 minutes of ES time. Secondly, a player can beat the opposition in the possession game. Corsi per 60 minutes was used as the possession statistic. Finally, and somewhat overlooked in most analysis, is the ability of a player to draw more penalties than they take. Penalty Differential per 60 will be the final results measure for HLI.
The main goal of the Heavy Lifter Index is to not only provide the measures by which a Heavy Lifter should be judged, but also a method to incorporate all those measures in a comparable manner. It can be very hard to tell whether a 40% Zone Start is more impressive than a 0.811 Corsi Rel Qoc. For HLI, each metric for each player was compared to the mean and standard deviation for that season. The metric was then converted to the number of standard deviations better than or worse than the mean.
For example: In 2009-10, Jonathan Toews had a Corsi/60 of 20.12. Given that the mean for Corsi is 0.0 and the standard deviation for that season was 13.4, Toews contribution for Corsi was 20.12 divided by 13.4 = 1.50. Therefore, Toews Corsi was 1.5 standard deviations better than the average NHL player.
Standard deviations were used to represent the rarity of the situations a player faced and the true uniqueness of a players results.
For each player, the standard deviations for all six metrics were summed to create the Heavy Lifter Index. An individual players HLI Sit is the sum of the standard deviations for Corsi Rel QoC, QualComp and Zone Starts. A players HLI Res is the sum of the standard deviations for Scoring Differential, Corsi and Penalty Differential. Summation of the standard deviations was used to reward players for the degree to which they differed from league norm, rather than just whether they cleared an arbitrary hurdle. We want to know if he cleared that hurdle by two inches or two feet.
The Strongest of the Heavy Lifters
So after all this measurement, Im sure you want to know who ranks the highest.
First, lets examine the Center position. For each of the last three seasons, just over 100 centers qualified for consideration as a Heavy Lifter, based on Corsi Rel QoC and playing time qualifiers. Obviously, not all of those pivots would be considered the best of the best, but they met the minimum requirement.
Keep in mind that the Heavy Lifter Index is built upon rate-based statistics, so a center with only 40 games played (Player A) could rank higher than another who played 75 games (Player B). That doesnt mean Player A is more valuable overall than Player B. What it tells us is that Player A had a better combination of rare results in difficult situations during the time he played than Player B did.
Below are the Top 5 Centers by HLI for the last three years.
Name Team HLI
Mikko Koivu MIN 5.42
Rob Niedermayer ANA 5.39
Brad Richardson COL 5.05
Samuel Pahlsson ANA 4.99
Pavel Datsyuk DET 4.79
Mikko Koivus dominance is part of the reason Wild fans hold him in such high regard. Rob Niedermayer and Samuel Pahlsson made their way into the top five by facing harder situations than any centers in the league. Brad Richardson is probably a surprise to many and only sustained his pace over 22 games, unlike the others on this list.
Name Team HLI
Dave Bolland CHI 5.04
Pavel Datsyuk DET 4.57
Eric Staal CAR 3.44
Ryan Kesler VAN 3.32
Mike Richards PHI 3.19
For 2008-09, Dave Bolland had decent results against extremely difficult situations while Pavel Datsyuk achieved his status by blowing away his competition, despite having easier situations than the other four.
Name Team HLI
Patrice Bergeron BOS 4.35
Mike Richards PHI 3.64
Pavel Datsyuk DET 3.55
Ryan Kesler VAN 3.33
Brandon Dubinsky NYR 3.23
In 2009-10, Patrice Bergeron had results that were just as good as Mike Richards, but faced much more difficult situations. The Heavy Lifter Index definitely agreed with Steve Yzermans selection of Bergeron for the Canadian Olympic team. He was billed as a defensive specialist, but more accurately could have been called a matchup specialist.
While single seasons are impressive, the real measure of a players talent is whether they can repeat their performance over a longer time frame. Below are the Top 25 centers by HLI over the past three years. Keep in mind that just because a player had one outstanding season, doesnt mean they even qualified for the index the other two years.
PAST THREE SEASONS
Rank Name Team 3-Yr HLI
1 Pavel Datsyuk DET 12.91
2 Ryan Kesler VAN 11.35
3 Mike Richards PHI 10.47
4 Dave Bolland CHI 10.42
5 Samuel Pahlsson CBJ 8.70
6 Mikko Koivu MIN 7.96
7 Jordan Staal PIT 7.85
8 Eric Staal CAR 7.70
9 Martin Hanzal PHX 7.07
10 Patrice Bergeron BOS 7.02
11 Patrick Marleau SJS 6.87
12 Alexander Steen STL 6.76
13 John Madden MIN 6.39
14 Travis Zajac NJD 6.35
15 Steve Ott DAL 6.18
16 Rob Niedermayer BUF 5.91
17 David Legwand NSH 5.83
18 Jay McClement STL 5.79
19 Derek Roy BUF 5.69
20 Joe Thornton SJS 5.64
21 Paul Stastny COL 5.58
22 Stephen Weiss FLA 5.50
23 David Krejci BOS 5.48
24 Manny Malhotra VAN 5.47
25 Eric Belanger PHX 5.47
Sami Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, Jay McClement and Ryan Kesler faced the hardest situations by a long shot. But of the four, only Kesler outplayed his competition. Pavel Datsyuk cements his status as the best matchup center in the game today. While his HLI Sit was middle of the pack, he outperformed his competition to the extent that his HLI Res was double that of Travis Zajac, who came in second.
Teams like Vancouver (Kesler and Malhotra), Boston (Bergeron and Krejci) and San Jose (Thornton and Marleau) have the players to match up with any teams best at the center position. This has to be a huge advantage when playing the leagues best offensive teams. With two Heavy Lifters, the oppositions best can be bottled up continually.
Players like Jay McClement, Martin Hanzal, David Legwand and Stephen Weiss rarely get the credit they deserve for taking the tough assignments and providing a valuable countermeasure for their team. Hopefully, the Heavy Lifter Index provides insight as to their impact.
Coming soon: the Heavy Lifter Index for wingers and defensemen.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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