When I first started covering the Nashville Predators in their first season (1998-99), I learned quickly that trying to understand the game on a deeper level using the basic stats on your standard game day notes (goals, assists, points, plus/minus and PIMs) was going to be difficult. I knew they didn't tell the whole story. For example, I recall some early conversations with Terry Crisp on the flaws of the plus/minus category: "Should the shortstop get an error because an outfielder drops a fly ball?” Stats have to be put in context. What it taught me more than anything: I couldn't rely totally on the stat sheets. I had to learn the game by watching.
Fast forward to today. As is the case in all of the major sports, advanced stats are now all the rage. Now, there are better ways to interpret the value of the player through the numbers. And no question this is becoming a bigger and bigger factor in hockey. Like in baseball when the "Moneyball" rage was taking shape in the early 2000s, there are still those in hockey that scoff at the true relevance of these "fancy stats" like Corsi, Fenwick and so on.
Ignoring analytics is a big mistake. There is a lot to be learned with these numbers. But like any stat, they have to be put in context with what happens on the ice, advanced stat or not. The "eye-test" still has to be in the equation as well. Oftentimes the growing number of people who cover the NHL and lean heavily on these stats can fall into this trap. Take the example of the Corsi stat in reference to the effectiveness of Shea Weber and Roman Josi.
"Corsi" is a version of plus/minus, but instead of goals scored, it registers how many total shot attempts (shots blocked, missed the net or on goal) for and against while a given player is on the ice (in 5-on-5 situations). There have been a handful of articles written recently (often in the context of the Norris Trophy discussion) which point out that Weber and Josi's Corsi numbers are surprisingly below average (Weber is at -3.21, Josi -4.32). While other Norris caliber defensemen like Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, etc. score much higher in this area - especially relative to the rest of their respective teams.
While this is true, a closer look can put the Corsi stat in context (both in a vacuum and relative to the team). Let's look at a couple of factors:
Quality of Competition
Josi and Weber, as a pair, play the toughest minutes in hockey. Not just a high volume of ice time (4th and 5th most in the league), but a high volume against the best forwards on the other team. According to a fancy stats website behindthenet.ca, Weber and Josi rank No. 2 and No. 3 in the NHL in Relative Quality of Competition when they are on the ice (only Zdeno Chara ranks higher). Here are last week's assignments as an example: the Sedin twins versus Vancouver; Ovechkin and Backstrom versus Washington; and Datsyuk and Zetterberg versus Detroit. These are tough players to hold "shotless," especially when you so often start in the defensive zone.
Where is the Faceoff?
If you are on the ice to start a shift and you are starting in the defensive zone (in front of your goalie), the chances are higher that the other team will get shot attempts. You have to get the puck and successfully advance it down ice before you can take a shot, which is much more difficult than if you start in the offensive zone. Every coach has to decide when and where to deploy their best defensemen. Again from behindthenet.ca, Weber and Josi take only 44 percent of their starts in the offensive zone; well below other great all-around D-men like Doughty (54 percent), Keith (55 percent) and Ryan Suter (58 percent). This means Weber and Josi are taking the vast majority of their starts in the defensive zone, which makes their job tougher. But there's more...
Who's on the Ice with Them?
When there is a key faceoff in the D-zone, and the other team has their "top guns" on the ice, Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette will usually deploy Weber and Josi as I’ve illustrated above. In addition, Laviolette also tends to use Paul Gaustad's unit for these same situations (usually flanked by players like Taylor Beck, Eric Nystrom or Gabriel Bourque). This would be considered Nashville's fourth line. Gaustad's expertise in the face-off circle is a big reason for this choice, plus his unit's ability to be sound defensively and handle the skilled forwards on the other team. This has worked well for the Preds, but in terms of Corsi, the unit gives ground for a couple of reasons:
1) As stated before, guys like Ovechkin simply are going to get some shot attempts. Gaustad can't win every faceoff.
2) When Goose’s unit advances the puck, they are much more apt to cycle and grind in the offensive zone rather than get tons of shots. If they can force an Ovechkin or the Sedins to burn their shift playing defense, that is a victory.
3) This unit is also adept at blocking shots and "keeping the opponent to the outside," which is important, but again doesn't reflect well on your Corsi.
4) Gaustad's line gets more time when the game is tied or the Predators have the lead. This just in: That's been a lot of the time this season so far.
They Still Get it Done on Offense
Despite these handicaps we've discussed, Weber and Josi still manage to make dynamic contributions on offense. They both rank among the Top 15 in points by defensemen. Think of the number of big goals they have scored (the shorthanded 2-on-1 tally versus St. Louis, Josi's game-winning goal in overtime in L.A. and Weber's OT winner versus Dallas, just to name a few).
What is the Net Result?
The goal of a coach is not to make sure each player has a great individual Corsi rating. It's about winning games. And one way to win games is to have a great team Corsi. The Predators Corsi as a team is very good. This means they have possession of the puck more often than the opposition as a whole and take more shot attempts than they allow. Laviolette values this greatly in his system.
The "heavy lifting" done by Weber and Josi to defend the best opposing players for a high percentage of the time creates better matchups for their teammates. As a result, players like Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Seth Jones and all of the top forwards have taken advantage and had excellent seasons in terms of both Corsi and general production. This has to be taken into account when you look at “just” the Corsi of Weber and Josi. Again, look at the stats in the context of how the pieces all fit together. When you do this, the true value of the Predators' top defensive pairing comes more into focus.