A Neanderthal's Review of Hockey Prospectus' Look at the Wild

If you'e not very good at your job, raise your right hand.

I was taught early in life that if I didn't have something nice to say, it was better to just say nothing at all. Of course, that lesson clearly did not stick, leading to the snarky sarcasm you have all come to know and love. The lessons that did stick were things like "keep an open mind," and "help out when you can." I'm fairly open minded on most subjects, and as long as my schedule allows it, I can be a pretty helpful guy.

That leads us to the request from friends Timo Seppa and Kent Wilson of Hockey Prospectus to take a look at their section on the Minnesota Wild for 2011-12. For those unaware, HP is a stat lovers dream. Seppa and Wilson are big believers in their stats, and are two of the stat geeks out there that can actually explain the stats without charts and a physics book.

If you enjoy stats, or just like knowing as much as possible, check it out. It reads well, it is monumentally informative, and does provide some solid analysis. That is, if you can stay awake.

I kid. Make the jump.

Forwards

The team overview is pretty straight forward. Wilson, the author of this portion of the book, does an excellent job of breaking down why the Wild failed last season. He uses quality of competition, CORSI, relative CORSI, and a whole bunch of numbers to explain what it all means. Where they lose me is that I have said all of the exact same things, but without stats, and was told I don't know what I' talking about by other stat folks.

Their reasoning? Mikko Koivu was used incorrectly, being forced into a role of pure offense for one of the best two way players in the game. His line mates, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, are included in the analysis, but are not cited as the reason for the failures of Koivu. This is a critical piece of information, and one of the weaknesses I see with some statistical analysis.

Miettinen liked to shoot the puck, or sorry, direct it at net. The problem was, he couldn't put it on net. Brunette is a great man, and a pretty good hockey player, but he isn't taking 200+ shots a year or wearing a goalie down. He's a garbage goal guy. He needs someone to shoot and create a rebound. Koivu is a play maker with no one to make a play to.

That is why Koivu failed to produce big numbers. However, the CORSI ratings and such say they did a decent job, turning Koivu into an offensive player, etc, etc. I disagree, as Koivu took two third line forwards and made them into first line players. This is a credit to Koivu, not a detraction.

The review potion goes on to talk about how the defensive forwards could not match Koivu's ability to shut down the opposition's top threats. Again, I placed the blame for the Wild being outshot and losing regularly on the defensive forwards. John Madden, while another great player, was past his prime, and having Kyle Brodziak in a second line scoring role didn't help. Add in a struggling season from Eric Nystrom, and Cal Clutterbuck playing extended time on the second line, and the defensive forwards were weak out of the gate.

I agree that Koivu should play a two way game. He should play on the PK, the PP, and at even strength. All fo this, just so long as it does not wear him down. This is also how I see Mike Yeo using Koivu this season. Big minutes, all situations. At even strength, however, Koivu's job will be to score. It has to be. At $6.75 million per season, Koivu has to lead in very aspect of the game.

Wilson uses the qualcomp stats to explain why the team suffered with Koivu in an offensive role. Qualcomp is a great stat, but never, ever ask someone to explain how it is derived. That's where you lose friends fast.

Defense

After the forwards, Wilson moves on to the defense and goaltending, where we have some sources of disagreement. He calls Brent Burns' play "one of the undeniable bright spots of the Wild’s season." Sure, pre all-star game. After that, he was a liability. The all too fast turn of events destroyed the run the Wild were on and killed their chances.

Brent Burns is a spectacular hockey player, one of the best defensemen in the game. I would take him on any team at any time. However, he is not the end all be all of this team, nor any other. Using shooting % to explain why the Sharks should not expect the same production, Wilson does hedge a bit on Burns's success in San Jose. We'll see how it all plays out, but my bet is he is still a 45 - 50 point defenseman if used properly.

We then move on to a detailed description of why the removal of Cam Barker was a good thing for the Wild. Something we said here for months, but hey, he's going to score 50 points in Edmonton, right Oilers fans?

No regular rearguard was more sheltered than Barker, who faced nobodies at even strength and was the only veteran with a zone start north of 50%. He nevertheless managed a terrible Corsi rate (-14.1) and the worst even strength scoring efficiency on the club (0.17 ESP/60). Barker was pretty much a disaster from every angle, which explains the organization's sensible decision to buy him out this offseason. As much as the Burns subtraction hurts the club, the Barker one likely makes them better.

Agreed. 100%. But let me some it up without the numbers. Cam Barker is not a very good defenseman. In fact, he is a terrible defenseman being given far too many chances because of his high draft position. We can only hope that when he fails with the Oilers, NHL GMs will let him walk away.

This next graph is where Wilson loses me:

While Burns was the club's best overall rearguard, Schultz and Zanon combined to form a strong, albeit purely defensive, shutdown duo. The pair faced the toughest opposition on the team and started way more often in the defensive end. Zanon's scoring and possession numbers suffered as a result, although Schultz somehow managed to post the third-best relative Corsi rate on the blueline (+5.5/60). With Burns gone, Zanon and Schultz form the core nucleus of the blue line heading into the new season.

I get the implication that Schultz and Zanon were defensive partners, which they were not. And why do Zanon and Schultz for the nucleus of the defense? Where did Marek Zidlicky go? I am picking nits at this point, but still...Where does Marek Zidlicky fit into all this?

Goaltending

Wilson notes that Niklas Backstrom's numbers were not good, something everyone who continues to draft him in fantasy hockey agrees with. It is difficult for even the best goalies to perform well when the team in front of you is terrible. There is only so much one guy can do. The bad numbers do not reflect Backstrom's skill any more than Luongo's inflated tires stats explain his ability. Backstrom was an elite goalie on terrible hockey team. Show me the stats that prove that, and we can talk.

The review says Backstrom "went in the toilet" after signing his contract. Well, his numbers went in the toilet. He didn't. His ability is unchanged, but no one can make the third and fourth save every time. Eventually the guy needs some help. Show me a stat that shows how the defensive forwards sucked golf balls through garden hoses and we can begin to discuss the numbers Backstrom put up.

Outlook

As with every other preview we have seen and read this preseason, HP has the Wild picked to finish "near the bottom of the Western Conference." We all know my opinion on that, so we'll just move on.

My Review

This was all supposed to be a review of the product, so I should likely include that. The folks at Hockey Prospectus do excellent work. Even though I disagree with it, it is well reasoned and well written. If you are a "faith in numbers" hockey fan, these guys are tough to beat. Hell, even if you are on the fence, this book will be enjoyable for you.

If you are, however, not a stat based fan, you will not enjoy the book. The numbers will make your eyes gloss over and scream at Billy Beene for ever being born.

So, nearly 1500 words later, here is the final thought. The stats Wilson uses prove exactly what I have been telling you all summer:

  • The Wild needed better talent for the first line, or to put Koivu back in his normal role so he could win the games by himself.
  • The defensive forwards were terrible last season.
  • The Wild struggled to score.
  • Cam Barker is not a good hockey player.
  • Brent Burns is a good player, but not a savior.

Keep in mind, I did so without the benefit of numbers or statistics. Just plain, old fashioned watching hockey.

Go buy the book if you enjoy statistical analysis. If you don't, stick with us. We'll get you through. To Kent and Timo, keep up the good work. I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to debate this further. Thank you both for allowing me the chance to review the Wild portion of your work. I am honored that you would allow this neanderthal to partake.

Now get off my lawn.

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