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Hitched Horses

November 27, 2007

The Blue Jackets have performed above the expectations of just about everybody so far this season, much to the delight of this writer.  The easy mentions for reasons why are usually picked from this list of four: Hitchcock, Leclaire, Nash, and Zherdev.  I can’t argue with any of those picks as integral to the early season success of the team.

One of the things that’s intrigued me about hockey, especially recently, is who is playing against whom.  I’m not talking about Jackets vs. Wings.  I’m talking about this: when Henrik Zetterberg comes over the boards, who are we sending out against him?  As a neophyte to the game of hockey compared to many, educated solely by hockey video games, I assumed that rolling lines meant they went on the ice in order.  The more I watched and learned, this perception slowly changed.  I began to notice that the better players were out on the ice more often, which made good sense.  What only later began to dawn on me was that you’d better not have Jody Shelley on the ice when Pavel Datsyuk was out for the Wings.

I’m not sure why this didn’t dawn on me earlier (before you start laughing too hard, I’m talking about many years ago.  It’s not like I just picked up on this yesterday), as in football you match up defensive backs with wide receivers, and in baseball you commonly play the lefty/righty matchups at the plate in the late innings.  But for some reason, I was slow to connect the dots.  The I started to learn the different roles of a hockey forward: sniper, playmaker, grinder, etc.  I watched Draper, Maltby, and McCarty out against the Jackets top line time and again, and I slowly woke up.

So now that I’ve found all these great new-to-me hockey stat/analysis/etc sites, I started asking questions.  The broadcast media has been all over the “Speed Line” of Jason Chimera, Manny Malhotra, and Dan Fritsche.  I’ll be the first to admit they can be fun to watch, and based on what I heard on TV I was under the impression that these guys were the ones put out against the top line of the opponents.  So I decided to do a little checking

I went over to Behind the Net, and pulled some of the data.  In the following analysis, I’m only comparing NHL players who have played 10 or more games as of last night.

One of the stats at the center of Desjardins’ site is his “Behindthenet number”, or what I’m hoping he won’t mind I’m going to call “Rating”.  Essentially, it is the expression of the difference (at 5 on 5) between the team’s plus/minus rate when a player is on the ice and when he’s off the ice (note this is a rate per 60 minutes of ice-time).  He uses this number for each player combined with shift chart data to show quality of competition data and quality of teammate data, among other things.  These are the things that interest me in regards to my question: Who does Ken Hitchcock have playing the hard minutes in the hockey game?

My suspicions

Based on what I’ve heard from broadcasters, print media, friends, and my expectations from what I know of playing styles, I would expect the following players (in no particular order) to be leading the team in hard minutes: Michael Peca, Manny Malhotra, Jason Chimera and Adam Foote.  Peca is a former Selke winner, which indicates that someone thinks he plays decent defense.  Malhotra and Chimera always seem to play decently in their own end, so I assumed they’d be on the list.  And finally, Foote plays on the first D-man pairing, so I figured he’d see more hard minutes than most.

So what did I find?

The findings

584 players had played 10 or more games as of last night, here are the top ranked Blue Jackets.

Adam Foote – 24 games played, tied for 5th in the NHL in strength of opposition: 0.25

Jan Hejda – 23 games played, tied for 12th: 0.21

Nikolai Zherdev – 24 games played, tied for 12th: 0.21

Rick Nash – 24 games played, tied for 18th: 0.19

For additional information on this metric, check out the site.  Also, for reference, Sammy Pahlsson leads the NHL in this category at 0.33.  The average rating for players in my sample is roughly zero as you might expect (plus/minus at EV is a zero sum event).

So what about Peca, Malhotra, and Chimera?  Peca is tied for 116th with 0.08, and the entire Speed Line (plus Brule) is tied for 363rd at -0.03.

Conclusions

It’s not surprising to me that Foote and Hejda are leading the team.  They generally form the top pairing, and should play tough minutes.  Zherdev was a huge surprise to me, as until this season I’d thought of him as a defensive liability.  The same goes for Nash, to a lesser extent as he started to show some d-zone responsibility last year.  The huge shocker goes to the fact that all four of those guys are in the top 20 in the NHL is strength of opposition faced.  Perhaps three games so far against Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom is skewing the stats?  In any event, it was interesting to see those two forwards up there.

The final interesting item lies in who is being protected from the big boys.  Ringing in at 570 of 584 with a -0.21 strength of competition is rookie defenseman Kris Russell.   I think it’s nice that the team has the luxury to be able to groom Russell in NHL game speed against competition that is relatively weak.

So now I know who Hitch is riding to success so far, and I’ll be interested to see if/how this changes as the season progresses.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.

– Drew

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