By Sam Page, Exclusive to SNYRangersBlog.com
The road to John Tortorella’s doghouse is paved with brutal sound bytes.
“I’ve said all along that I think Chris [Kreider] has a lot to learn about the game and a lot to learn about being a pro, so this isn’t a shock to me,” the Rangers coach said when the rookie was returned to the AHL Connecticut Whale this March. Tortorella’s comments, while harsh, surprised few after he had called Kreider “God awful” during his debut in last year’s playoffs.
Tortorella is a coach notorious for his vocal displeasure with certain players (and media members). He has a reputation of being particularly hard on rookies, going back to his early days in Tampa Bay.
Should this tendency worry Rangers fans, though? Increasingly, as advanced statistics gain traction in pro sports, coaches who punish rookies to reward the old guard look to be on the wrong side of history. Think of Nashville coach Barry Trotz, Tortorella’s closest analogue in the Western Conference, who has — rightly or wrongly — earned a reputation of ruining offensive prospects by putting them in his doghouse.
Turns out in the case of Kreider, however, the advanced statistics agree with Tortorella — and emphatically so.
First, a brief explanation of the statistics used is required. Corsi rating, the most popular advanced hockey statistic (named for Sabres’ goalie coach Jim Corsi), basically measures plus/minus based on shots, instead of goals. The ability to prevent the other team from shooting and creating shots yourself has shown to correlate strongly with puck possession and, over the long term, winning.
Corsi is preferable to plus/minus because plus/minus is subject to several factors outside the player’s control, including opposing goalie save percentage and teammate shooting percentage. Corsi eliminates that noise and gives a clearer picture of a player’s ability to keep play moving the right way.
Here, Corsi is expressed as a positive or negative number, basically the differential of shots when that player is on the ice prorated to 60 minutes. For example, a player with a +5 Corsi means his team is the kind of team that outshoots the other team 30-25 when he is on the ice.
O-Zone start percentage measures the amount of faceoffs the player takes in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone. It’s a simple measure of the toughness of a player’s minutes. Players who the coach starts in the offensive zone often would be expected to have a higher corsi.
50% is a neutral number, obviously. Over 60% zone starts is a lot of offensive zone time, while anything under 40% denotes a defensive-specialist.
Typically, in hockey, a coach negatively favoring veterans over rookies manifests in his favoring clunky dump-and-chase-style forwards, over faster, puck-possession-oriented ones. While these defensively-minded veterans have more detail to their game, the net effect is more shots allowed because their team is playing with the puck less.
Interestingly, Tortorella doesn’t appear to be making that mistake. Chris Kreider, this season, has a Corsi (adjusted to be relative of his teammates) of -17.1, second worst only to Darroll Powe (-20.1). Powe, however, is a grinder, who takes the vast majority of his draws in the defensive zone (35.8%). By percentage, Tortorella deploys Powe in the defensive zone more than any other Ranger forward. He is thus expected to have a low Corsi number, since he’s basically skating uphill.
Kreider, by contrast, leads the Rangers in O-Zone start percentage. His 64.6% ties Brad Richards, who gets a bulk of offensive zone starts to facilitate his playmaking. Put another way: Chris Kreider has floundered this season, despite being babied by Tortorella with very soft minutes.
To test whether Kreider is the exception, or there’s really some method to Tortorella’s madness, I searched local papers for any explicit mention of a player being in the coach’s doghouse going back to his Tampa days. The results are in the table below:
There seems to be at least two groups here: players who Tortorella trusted, but expected more from and those players he really couldn’t trust. Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle, and — to a lesser extent — Artem Anisimov are all key figures from recent Rangers teams that Tortorella tried to send a message to at various times. But he trusted them and realized their importance to the team. There’s a lot to sort out here, but right off the bat, the three players the Rangers have sent to the Blue Jackets in the past calendar year stand out. Some coincidence that is…
Of the remaining players, he seemed to only really get Wolksi, Zherdev, and Lisin wrong, if even them. They performed pretty well in soft minutes, which doesn’t necessarily contradict Tortorella’s unwillingness to give them more responsibility.
But Del Zotto, Kreider, Gaborik, Christensen, Gilroy, and Roy all underwhelmed in weak minutes — their performances were undeniably bad. Most interestingly, Tortorella was able to discern down years, Corsi-wise, from Del Zotto and Gaborik during seasons in which their point totals and plus minuses (stats Tortorella expressed disdain for in the past) were still good.
There’s a lot of caveats here — this is hardly a scientific study. For one thing, Tortorella’s doghouse is not (always) a life sentence, so there’s no consideration for how down he was on each player and for how long.
Regardless, there’s at least some anecdotal evidence to suggest advanced statistics corroborate Tortorella’s own ability to see past point totals and determine who is really helping and hurting his team.
To read more of Sam’s hockey opinions, follow him @PredsBlog.