Early in December, we unveiled the concept of the Heavy Lifter Index (HLI) to evaluate the NHL's best tough-minute players. The position of center was used to illustrate how the HLI ranks players based on their quality of competition (using QualComp & Corsi Rel QoC), zone starts, penalty differential, Corsi differential and scoring differential.
Since that time, we've made a few minor tweaks to HLI. First off, several players in the HLI dataset showed a position switch (e.g. from wing to center) mid-study. This has been corrected by evaluating forwards as a whole. Second, players like Samuel Pahlsson were given an unusually high ranking despite their results. Players like this don't match the true definition of a Heavy Lifter. While Pahlsson faced incredibly tough competition and faceoff situations (HLI Sit), his results were below the average NHL player in Corsi, Scoring and Penalty Differential s (HLI Res). In order to correct for this error, a second filter has been applied to include only players with positive HLI Res after all other filters and calculations have been applied.
Ranking forwards using HLI provides us with a variety of interesting angles on players that may be misunderstood by the common fan. It was also helped shed some light on the unsung heroes of several well-known squads. In the analysis to follow, we'll examine forwards in the NHL through the eyes of the Heavy Lifter Index over the last three seasons.
Rank Name Pos Team GP HLI HLI Res HLI Sit
1 Mikko Koivu C MIN 57 5.42 0.63 4.79
2 H. Zetterberg LW DET 75 5.24 3.28 1.96
3 Brad Richardson C COL 22 5.05 0.58 4.47
4 Pavel Datsyuk C DET 82 4.79 3.80 0.99
5 Ryan Kesler C VAN 80 4.70 0.79 3.91
6 Steve Ott C DAL 73 4.50 0.57 3.93
7 Alex Burrows RW VAN 82 4.38 1.03 3.34
8 Mike Richards C PHI 73 3.64 0.86 2.78
9 Erik Cole RW CAR 73 3.35 2.28 1.07
10 Tomas Holmstrom LW DET 59 3.35 2.70 0.64
Nobody understands the true value of Mikko Koivu like Minnesota Wild fans. While this is often the case from home fans, several Wild fan sites praised his ability to match up with the league's best when I criticized his new contract this summer, even though I acknowledged his positive Corsi playing tough situational minutes. In 2007-08, Koivu had a meager offensive zone start ratio of 42.0%, faced nasty competition (2.16 Corsi Rel QoC) and still regularly outscored his competition by over a goal per 60 minutes of even strength (ES) time! While he only managed to stay healthy for 57 games, he was stellar in those appearances.
On the other hand, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom were deployed in a very different manner. They started a lot in the offensive zone (>54% zone starts) and against good-but-not-great competition (>0.5 Corsi Rel QoC). That said, they completely dominated the shot counts. They took 27 shot attempts per 60 minutes of ES ice time more than their competition. Holmstrom outscored his competition by a goal per 60 minutes while Datsyuk and Zetterberg were closer to a two goal advantage per 60 minutes.
In 2007-08, Brad Richardson had one of those great stretches of play that can define a career. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't a long enough stretch or in a manner that is typically rewarded with a big contract. In 22 games, Richardson worked his way into a top 3 position on the HLI by drawing penalties against good players. Richardson played minutes that were just as tough as those logged by Mikko Koivu. While he was negative in scoring differential and Corsi, he managed to draw 1.5 more penalties per 60 minutes than he took. While that may seem insignificant to some, it was only matched by the slippery, yet congenial Pavel Datsyuk among HLI's top fifty forwards in 2007-08. It's unlikely that Richardson could have sustained this pace over a full 82 games since he didn't score over 0.2 HLI his next two seasons.
Rank Name Pos Team GP HLI HLI Res HLI Sit
1 Andrew Ladd LW CHI 82 6.28 2.39 3.89
2 Dave Bolland C CHI 81 5.04 1.67 3.37
3 Pavel Datsyuk C DET 81 4.57 3.67 0.90
4 Marian Hossa RW DET 74 4.48 3.28 1.20
5 H. Zetterberg LW DET 77 4.32 2.79 1.53
6 Johan Franzen RW DET 71 4.06 2.44 1.62
7 Alex Burrows RW VAN 82 3.74 1.46 2.29
8 Cal Clutterbuck RW MIN 78 3.63 0.68 2.96
9 Patrik Elias LW N.J 77 3.53 2.23 1.30
10 Zach Parise LW N.J 82 3.53 2.87 0.65
Despite all the focus on the emergence of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as NHL stars during the 2008-09 season, they were afforded the ability to do so by Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland. Toews started 63.0% of his shifts in the offensive zone and Kane topped him with 67.0% according to BehindTheNet.ca. They effectively were facing third line quality of competition as well. Back in the trenches, Ladd started only 41.2% of his shifts in the O-zone while facing the toughest competition amongst all Blackhawks forwards. Bolland wasn't far behind. The amazing part is that despite being given killer minutes, both players outscored and outshot their opponents immensely. Ladd and Bolland were the unsung heroes of that Blackhawks team.
Adding Marian Hossa to the Red Wings just seemed unfair to the rest of the league. Detroit's dominance on this list comes down to one outstanding statistic more than any other, Corsi. All the Detroit players had a Corsi differential of over 20 shots per 60 minutes, putting them squarely among the Heavy Lifter elite when combined with harder-than-average situations.
Canucks fans are probably enjoying a secret fist-pump right about now. We all know about Ryan Kesler as a very good tough-minutes player and this year, he's emerging as an elite scorer as well. However, 2008-09 was the second straight year that Alex Burrows made the HLI Top 10, not Ryan Kesler. While none of his micro-stats are to the extremes of some other HLI Top 10'ers, he is positive in every single category. At a cap hit of only $2M through 2012-13, he's a steal.
For those wondering about Cal Clutterbuck, he used the Brad Richardson formula, but over an entire season. He had a 1.9 penalty differential per 60 and started a miserly 32.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Rank Name Pos Team GP HLI HLI Res HLI Sit
1 P. Bergeron C BOS 73 4.35 1.25 3.09
2 Zach Parise LW N.J 81 4.26 2.87 1.39
3 Joel Ward RW NSH 71 3.90 0.14 3.75
4 Alex Ovechkin LW WSH 72 3.71 3.28 0.43
5 Mike Richards C PHI 82 3.64 1.28 2.36
6 Pavel Datsyuk C DET 80 3.55 2.70 0.85
7 Mark Recchi RW BOS 81 3.54 1.45 2.09
8 Ryan Kesler C VAN 82 3.33 1.59 1.73
9 B. Dubinsky C NYR 69 3.23 0.64 2.58
10 Jonathan Toews C CHI 76 3.12 2.48 0.63
Pavel Datsyuk is the only forward to make the Top 10 in all three seasons. Not only is he a special player, but he's consistently mind-blowing. He's the Heidi Klum of hockey.
The New Jersey Devils terrible 2010-11 season is making more and more sense. Zach Parise was in the Top 10 on the HLI the last two seasons. His loss means that someone else has to play those tough minutes. Like baseball teams that lose an ace pitcher, Parise's teammates are forced to carry a tougher load than they are used to. This obviously isn't the only reason they are struggling but it's a big contributor.
Alex Ovechkin may not be the first player to most of our minds when we discuss heavy lifters, but he cracked the top 5 last season. While Ovie faced second line competition, he started over 55% of his shifts in the offensive zone. He makes the list purely on offensive dominance. At even strength, he outscored the competition by an incredible 2.76 goals per 60 minutes and his Corsi differential was 19.32 shot attempts per 60.
Joel Ward's player card page on NHL.com probably just got a ton of hits. Ward faced harder competition (Corsi Rel QoC) than any player that qualified for the HLI in 2009-10, and it wasn't even close. On top of that, he was handed only 39.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Looking at his traditional counting stats, the casual fan would determine that he's a third or fourth line player capable of 30-40 points a year and breaks even on plus-minus. Using HLI, we see him as a big minutes eater who comes out even against the game's best. That's a huge disparity in reputation.
Best Individual Seasons of Last 3 years
Rank Season Name Pos Team GP HLI HLI Res HLI Sit
1 2008-2009 Andrew Ladd LW CHI 82 6.28 2.39 3.89
2 2007-2008 Mikko Koivu C MIN 57 5.42 0.63 4.79
3 2007-2008 H. Zetterberg LW DET 75 5.24 3.28 1.96
4 2007-2008 Brad Richardson RW COL 22 5.05 0.58 4.47
5 2008-2009 Dave Bolland C CHI 81 5.04 1.67 3.37
6 2007-2008 Pavel Datsyuk C DET 82 4.79 3.80 0.99
7 2007-2008 Ryan Kesler C VAN 80 4.70 0.79 3.91
8 2008-2009 Pavel Datsyuk C DET 81 4.57 3.67 0.90
9 2007-2008 Steve Ott C DAL 73 4.50 0.57 3.93
10 2008-2009 Marian Hossa RW DET 74 4.48 3.28 1.20
11 2007-2008 Alex Burrows RW VAN 82 4.38 1.03 3.34
12 2009-2010 P. Bergeron C BOS 73 4.35 1.25 3.09
13 2008-2009 H. Zetterberg LW DET 77 4.32 2.79 1.53
14 2009-2010 Zach Parise LW N.J 81 4.26 2.87 1.39
15 2008-2009 Johan Franzen RW DET 71 4.06 2.44 1.62
16 2009-2010 Joel Ward RW NSH 71 3.90 0.14 3.75
17 2008-2009 Alex Burrows RW VAN 82 3.74 1.46 2.29
18 2009-2010 Alex Ovechkin LW WSH 72 3.71 3.28 0.43
19 2009-2010 Mike Richards C PHI 82 3.64 1.28 2.36
20 2007-2008 Mike Richards C PHI 73 3.64 0.86 2.78
Above are the top 20 individual seasons over the last three years by HLI. Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Richards, Henrik Zetterberg and Alex Burrows all have multiple appearances. How many times do you hear Burrows mentioned alongside those three?
Mikko Koivu's 2007-08 season sticks out as the most difficult HLI Sit rating. Datsyuk's results (HLI Res) in 2007-08 were the best on the list.
Rank Name HLI HLI Res HLI Sit
1 Pavel Datsyuk 12.91 10.17 2.74
2 H. Zetterberg 12.60 7.73 4.88
3 Ryan Kesler 11.35 3.15 8.20
4 Mike Richards 10.47 2.77 7.70
5 Dave Bolland 10.42 2.99 7.43
6 Zach Parise 9.33 7.73 1.60
7 Alex Burrows 9.21 3.81 5.40
8 Andrew Ladd 8.44 3.96 4.48
9 Marian Hossa 8.04 5.82 2.22
10 Johan Franzen 8.01 5.47 2.54
11 Mikko Koivu 7.96 0.88 7.08
12 J. Pominville 7.95 2.34 5.60
13 Jordan Staal 7.85 2.18 5.67
14 Eric Staal 7.70 3.99 3.71
15 Tomas Holmstrom 7.07 7.04 0.03
16 Martin Hanzal 7.07 0.73 6.34
17 P. Bergeron 7.02 1.61 5.41
18 Patrick Marleau 6.87 4.25 2.61
19 Alexander Steen 6.76 0.72 6.05
20 Colby Armstrong 6.56 0.51 6.05
By summing the three years of the study, we can see the total contribution by players that qualified as Heavy Lifters. Some players made the list on the back of one phenomenal season, while others were consistently solid.
There were several players who made it despite not having a top 10 showing in any individual season. Martin Hanzal, Alexander Steen, Colby Armstrong, Jason Pominville and the Staal brothers all fall into this category. Their contribution can more easily be seen over an extended period of time. Whether Armstrong can continue this style of play with the Maple Leafs after three years in Atlanta remains to be seen.
Many people will be surprised to not see Sidney Crosby show up anywhere in this article. Remember that Heavy Lifters do more of the dirty work so that the stars can take offensive assignments. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are the exception, not the rule. The Sedin twins are extremely effective because they have players like Kesler and Burrows to let them focus more on the offensive end of the ice and against secondary competition. That said, as Kent Wilson pointed out a week ago, Crosby is taking on a more difficult role this year.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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