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Super 16: Analytics' rise gives game new dimension

by Corey Masisak

The 2013-14 NHL season may well be remembered as an important one years from now, in part because the use of analytics, or advanced statistics, has taken a significant step forward in media coverage of the sport.

There have been plenty of people using #fancystats for several years, but this season the volume of writers has increased and the "mainstream" nature of the publications for which they work has also increased. This website in particular has begun to employ analytics on a more regular basis, and these weekly power rankings have intentionally been part of that.

The goal was to help show how these new ideas and statistics can be helpful in analyzing the sport. Just as there was in the baseball journalism community when analytics started cropping up, there has been resistance and debate about the validity of these new metrics.

The Toronto Maple Leafs became a flashpoint in this evolving discussion. Toronto is a below-average team, according to data derived from these new analytics, yet spent much of the season among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Regression came swiftly, maybe more so than anyone could have imagined. The Maple Leafs, though, will finish this season about where a team near the bottom of the League in Corsi For percentage (CF%), but with great goaltending, should more often than not if this same season played out a bunch of times in a simulation.

There's more work to be done in this field. Analytics in hockey isn't just about specific statistics. It is about philosophies and ways to make an unpredictable game more predictable. This is the same in baseball.

The "Moneyball" movement was not just about on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) and wins above replacement (WAR), but rather finding new ways to accurately gauge a player's value and for teams to exploit inefficiencies in the player-acquisition market.

Hockey analytics is more than Corsi and Fenwick. It is about the idea that possession matters, the ability to enter the offensive zone with the puck matters, and shooting percentages cannot be trusted, and playing a decent backup goaltender is a better option than going with a Vezina Trophy candidate for a second game in as many nights.

In the same way WAR can show just how great Mike Trout really is, these analytics can show why Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are among the most valuable players in the NHL even if they are not among the leaders in goals and assists.

They can show which teams might be over-performing or under-performing in a way which wins and losses might not. The Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche are by no means bad teams because they rank lower than the other 100-plus point clubs in Corsi and Fenwick, but it can make it harder to trust them.

To wrap up the Super 16 for the 2013-14 season, here's a look at players who surprised and disappointed, and those who proved to be the most valuable for the best teams in the League.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is's weekly power rankings, the new-look version is going to focus more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It’s not always going to look like the League standings, and will likely take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close, the tiebreaker is almost always this: If the two teams started a seven-game series tonight, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. Also, the statistics and team records are through the games on Wednesday night.

1. Boston Bruins (53-18-8) LW: 1

MVP: This team has three of the most valuable players in hockey, and there are valid arguments for each to win a major award. Bergeron has always been considered one of the best all-round forwards in the League, but he's added a few more goals this season (his most since 2005-06) without needing an uncharacteristic spike in shooting percentage. He's also a player who benefits greatly from the way analytics can prove his immense value.

Surprise: Reilly Smith might seem the obvious choice here, but skating next to Bergeron and Brad Marchand is a plum assignment. Carl Soderberg gets the nod as the replacement for the other player, Rich Peverley, in that blockbuster trade with the Dallas Stars. He's been a nice fit next to Chris Kelly and nearly produced as much as Smith.

Disappointment: Loui Eriksson has had injury troubles, but he's still been pretty good when healthy. On a team that crushes it in possession, the famed "merlot line" has not, despite cushy usage by coach Claude Julien.

2. San Jose Sharks (49-22-9) LW: 2

MVP: Joe Pavelski could finish in the top five in Hart Trophy voting, and deservedly so. Joe Thornton has had a fantastic season, and probably hasn't gotten the attention he deserves for it. The pick here is Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who helps this team's great collection of forwards get into the offensive zone and is second on the team to Thornton in CF% at even strength (both are over 58 percent). He's not the classic defensive defenseman like Rod Langway, but he deserves Norris Trophy consideration as a modern version of that type of player.

Surprise: Tommy Wingels had eight goals and 22 points in 80 career games before this season, but he doubled his goal total and added 38 points to help give this team even more depth up front. If Tomas Hertl can rejoin the lineup during the playoffs, this forward corps will be scary good.

Disappointment: Marty Havlat has now missed at least 26 games in five of the past eight full seasons, and even when healthy he wasn't very effective this season despite having easily the most offensive zone starts on the team.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (46-19-15) LW: 6

MVP: Each of the Blackhawks' six world-class players had great seasons, but captain Jonathan Toews did it all before he got hurt. He led Chicago in CF% despite also facing the toughest competition, he won 57 percent of a ton of faceoffs, and he had 28 goals and 66 points in 76 games.

Surprise: Brandon Saad took a nice step forward in his sophomore season, and he and Teuvo Teravainen are going to be nice complements to the big four up front in the next couple of seasons. Saad only has one goal since Feb. 1, but he's still been solid in possession and looks like he might develop into an elite two-way player.

Disappointment: Here's another spot where advanced statistics has an answer for a curious occurrence. Bryan Bickell had a huge postseason and scored a hefty contract in the offseason. He has 11 goals and three assists this season, and his playing time has fluctuated greatly. Bickell has not been bad this season. He's been terribly unlucky at times.

Bickell's CF% (57.8) is among the best on a roster loaded with strong possession players, but his PDO (the team's shooting percentage plus save percentage when he's on the ice) is a comically low 95.6. The team is only shooting worse when Michal Handzus is on the ice and the goalies are stopping the puck better for everyone else. That's a fluke, and don't be surprised if he magically becomes a "playoff performer" again this spring.

4. Los Angeles Kings (45-28-7) LW: 4

MVP: If Bergeron doesn't win the Selke Trophy, it might be because Anze Kopitar does. He faces the toughest competition on the team and earns the most defensive zone assignments among the forwards, and yet the Kings still carve out more than 60 percent of the shot attempts when he's on the ice. Oh, and he's got 16 more points than anyone else on the team.

Surprise: Dwight King had a couple weeks as a leading man in Los Angeles during the 2012 Stanley Cup run, but he became a solid third-line player for this team with 15 goals, 30 points and a CF% north of 58. It's not easy to be above average in puck possession on this team, but he has been.

Disappointment: The biggest disappointment for the Kings this season was the puck didn't go in as much as it should have earlier in the season, and Jonathan Quick had some troubles before an injury and the Olympic break.

5. St. Louis Blues (52-20-7) LW: 3

MVP: There are several strong candidates here, but Alex Pietrangelo is the choice. He logs a ton of minutes and the Blues attempt nearly 55 percent of the shots when he's on the ice. He's also one of five players with at least 50 points.

Surprise: Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko were both touted prospects, so each of them developing into above-average players is not really a revelation. Schwartz was aided by high shooting percentages earlier in the season, but he's also been a strong possession player.

Disappointment: Chris Stewart could have approached his previous career highs of 28 goals and 64 points on this team, but he struggled to earn Ken Hitchcock's trust and the Blues struggled to keep the puck at the other end of the ice when he was on it. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in the package for Ryan Miller.

6. Anaheim Ducks (52-20-8) LW: 5

MVP: Corey Perry has a Hart Trophy, and his buddy Ryan Getzlaf would have one in a couple months if Sidney Crosby didn't have his first healthy season since 2010. Getzlaf seems like a good bet to be first runner-up to Crosby. He set a career high in goals and has an outside chance of doing so in points. On a team with some possession issues, Getzlaf has been nearly as valuable as players like Kopitar and Bergeron from a usage standpoint.

Surprise: Patrick Maroon has benefited from great linemates and shielded zone starts and relatively light competition. All that said, he's still been effective, with 28 points and the best CF% (54.3) among the forwards. That's not bad for a player who was not a guarantee to be an NHL regular despite strong numbers in the minors.

Disappointment: After a star turn in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, seven goals and 11 points in 29 games was not a stat line most pundits would have expected from Emerson Etem this season. There's still plenty of time for him to be great, but he didn't exactly tear up the AHL, either.

7. New York Rangers (44-31-5) LW: 8

MVP: While there might have been an expectation for the forwards to benefit most from the coaching change, defenseman Ryan McDonagh has leapt forward in his first season playing for Alain Vigneault. McDonagh is playing nearly 25 minutes per game, and has a career-high 14 goals. He's not a top candidate for the Norris Trophy this season, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't merit serious consideration in a different season. There are a lot of great choices this year, and being a top-10 guy instead of a top-three guy is no great slight.

Surprise: Show of hands: Who predicted Mats Zuccarello would lead this team in scoring? Anyone's hand that is still in the air is lying. From fringe NHL player to leading scorer on a Cup contender … that's a significant improvement.

Disappointment: Brian Boyle's style of play does not seem to have translated for the new coaching staff. Granted, he starts a lot of shifts in the defensive zone, but he's a player who is going to see third-line money in his next contract when he performed like a fourth-liner or an extra this season.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins (51-24-5) LW: 9

MVP: The guy with 103 points.

Surprise: Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta have each been thrust into larger roles than expected because of injuries and have arguably been the most valuable players on the team that weren't the first player taken in an NHL Draft.

Disappointment: Sure, the vast amount of injuries has been crippling at times, but the biggest disappointment can be summed up like this: This team performs like a Cup contender during shifts that involve Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, and looks like a non-playoff team during shifts that don't.

9. Colorado Avalanche (51-21-7) LW: 10

MVP: Semyon Varlamov has turned potential into prowess with the help of Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy, and is a likely Vezina Trophy finalist. Matt Duchene is an honorable mention here and might be the pick if not for his knee injury.

Surprise: Paul Stastny makes a lot of money to land here, but on a team with possession issues, he's had a really good season. He's the only healthy forward north of 49.1 in CF%, and his per-game production trended upward for the first time in four years. He is a pending free agent, so it was a good time for that.

Disappointment: The three players who have typically made up the fourth line all face easy competition and have somewhere between slightly and really favorable zone starts. When that happens and all three are at 42 or below in CF%, that's an issue … like a "let's find a new fourth line for next season" issue.

10. Detroit Red Wings (38-27-15) LW: 13

MVP: When the NHL took its annual holiday break, Gustav Nyquist had four goals in 14 games. He now has nine more than anyone else on the team, and has carried the offense with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk missing through injury.

Surprise: Of all the players who have contributed after starting the season in the American Hockey League, Luke Glendening is the one who has risen furthest up the organizational depth chart. Nothing about his play or his numbers really stands out, but the best coach in the NHL trusts him to play legitimate minutes in this League. For a player on an AHL-only contract last season, that's a pretty big deal.

Disappointment: Ken Holland had too many players and wasn't able to offload the ones necessary for Nyquist to spend the entire season in the NHL. If it weren't for all the injuries, there would have been some hard choices to make this season.

11. Montreal Canadiens (45-27-8) LW: 11

MVP: In general, the word value gets twisted around a lot when the words "most" and "player" are put next to it. Someone like Crosby or Toews does not provide less value because the team has other great players, nor is a great player on a lesser club more "valuable" despite inferior statistics. That said, the Canadiens would probably be a mess without Carey Price, and he's been great this season, so let's say he fits both definitions.

Surprise: There's not a lot to choose from here. The talented players have played well, but nothing out of the ordinary. Max Pacioretty's goal total might qualify for some, but he's got the goods to be a 40-goal scorer.

Disappointment: Douglas Murray's trajectory as an NHL player is a steep decline, something the Penguins and now the Canadiens have been slow to realize.

12. Tampa Bay Lightning (43-27-9) LW: 7

MVP: There's a case to be made for Jon Cooper, but he's earned plenty of praise in this space. Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman have both been great, filling huge areas of need for what has been a forward-heavy franchise for much of the past eight years. They are two of the breakout stars in the NHL, though Hedman had more of a pedigree previously.

Surprise: Sticking with the co-winner theme, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have both gone from amateur afterthoughts to candidates to finish in the top four of the Calder Trophy voting. The Lightning have had lots of high draft picks and have other young talent coming, but if these two can be consistent contributors for the next few seasons the Lightning just might be an elite team in the near future.

Disappointment: Martin St. Louis is the greatest player in franchise history* and was a great representative for the franchise for many years. He left on terms that nobody, inside the organization or out, would have wanted.

*A healthy Steven Stamkos will acquire this title someday

13. Columbus Blue Jackets (42-31-7) LW: 16

MVP: Quick quiz: Name the best center in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That's almost a trick. If Ryan Johansen can replicate what he has done this season, he will become the first franchise center to inhabit central Ohio. The comparisons to someone like Getzlaf or Kopitar are legitimate. Fun fact: Johansen has scored five more even-strength goals this season than anyone not named Rick Nash ever has for the Blue Jackets.

Surprise: Johansen was the No. 4 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and has shown flashes of maybe growing into a dominant, two-way center. Predicting it would definitely happen in 2013-14 would have been tough given his recent resume.

Disappointment: Trading Nash has worked out for the Blue Jackets. Adding Marian Gaborik did not go quite as well. The net gain might still be quite alright for Columbus in the long run.

14. Dallas Stars (39-30-11) LW: 12

MVP: This might be the most obvious co-choice on this list. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have been one of the top tandems in the League this season. That said, the slightest of edges goes to Seguin here. Benn has benefitted slightly more from team shooting percentage at even strength (12.5 percent to 11.5 percent) and Seguin is slightly ahead in goals and points.

Surprise: When Cody Eakin played for the Hershey Bears in the AHL, longtime observers of players in that league and of that team liked him as a future NHL player. Did they expect him to be the fourth-leading scorer on a potential playoff team?

Disappointment: Two guys expected to be veteran anchors, Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar, have become complementary players on salaries that do not allow someone to be in that role for long.

15. Minnesota Wild (42-26-12) LW: 15

MVP: Though Ryan Suter does play half the game, Zach Parise has been nearly a point-per-game producer when healthy and along with Mikko Koivu has easily been one of the Wild's best at possessing the puck.

Surprise: Mikael Granlund was an elite prospect, but he had a rough first go in the NHL. He's bounced back nicely this season, and a star turn during the 2014 Sochi Olympics didn't hurt, either. The Wild should feel better about counting on him and Charlie Coyle as foundation pieces moving forward.

Disappointment: The simple layout of the player usage chart made popular by Rob Vollman has four quadrants. A player in the top left faces tough competition and zone starts. A player in the bottom right sees the opposite. Players with blue circles dictate possession in a game, while players in red do not. A player with a red circle in the bottom right of a team's usage chart is a problem. When that player is named Dany Heatley and counts $7.5 million against the salary cap, disappointment is an understatement.

16. Philadelphia Flyers (41-29-9) LW: 14

MVP: Mark Messier was the captain of a team facing a must-win game in the Eastern Conference Final. What do people think he should have said, exactly? Claude Giroux's team was a mess, had lost seven of eight games to start the season and had one of the worst offensive starts to a season in recent NHL history. He also made good on his promise, and he's been one of the three or four best players in the League this season. As long as his coach doesn't overshoot when discussing his status, Giroux won't have to deal with the fallout from that moving forward and can just be an elite player.

Surprise: Michael Raffl might be 11th on the Flyers with 22 points, but he's also the only current forward on the roster that doesn't play on the top line with a CF% north of 50.

Disappointment: Vincent Lecavalier spent some time on the fourth line recently, which is not where a player in the first season of a five-year, $22.5 million contract should be. The fourth line is exactly where a player who receives favorable matchups and zone starts but yields the opposition 55 percent of the shots attempts should be, so that's a problem.

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