Passes - A New Analytic To Explore

"You pass the puck to ME... then I'll pass it back to YOU... and BAM - GOALS!" - Abelimages

Rob Vollman spent the lockout coming up with a new advanced statistic we can use to assess a player's puck distribution skills. It gives some surprising results with respect to the Leafs.

A couple of weeks ago Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus, ESPN, and presented a new statistic he'd been working on that he refers to as "passes". The stat is tabulated as an estimate of passes a player makes that result in a shot on goal - using their assist totals and the on-ice shooting percentages of their line mates (i.e. primary assists / on ice SH% of line mates = passes).

Vollman has made data available from the 2009 season and, using last year's numbers, refined things a tad for a specific 2011-12 sheet that explores specifically primary assists and breaks things down based on man-power situations.

So what I'm going to provide here are the Passes and Shot data for the players from last year's Leafs club and some insight into what they've done since the 2009 season. It is worth noting that variation in the numbers year over year seems quite highly linked to offensive output of units and not just individuals. The players are ranked on the basis of their ES Passes per 60 minutes of ES ice time. This is a slight modification I've performed on Vollman's work and I feel may provide indications of who is making the most effective and efficient use of their ice time offensively.

Player Pos Age GP G A PTS Shots Passes P/S P+S ES Passes ES Passes/60
James van Riemsdyk LW/RW 22 43 11 13 24 121 108.8 0.90 230 79.6812749 9.459
Mikhail Grabovski C 27 74 23 28 51 163 219.3 1.35 382 171.6738197 9.415
Tim Connolly C 30 70 13 23 36 104 149.0 1.43 253 137.4570447 9.069
Phil Kessel RW/LW 24 82 37 45 82 295 218.9 0.74 514 196.8911917 8.955
Joffrey Lupul LW/RW 28 66 25 42 67 191 182.1 0.95 373 139.275766 8.476
Keith Aucoin RW/C 33 27 3 8 11 21 36.0 1.71 57 36.00360036 8.204
Matthew Lombardi C 29 62 8 10 18 101 82.2 0.81 183 82.19178082 6.811
Tyler Bozak C 25 73 18 29 47 109 155.4 1.43 264 114.822547 6.370
Matt Frattin RW 23 56 8 7 15 92 77.5 0.84 170 72.90400972 6.315
Clarke MacArthur LW 26 73 20 23 43 148 119.1 0.80 267 95.13742072 5.743
Joey Crabb RW 28 67 11 15 26 75 74.5 0.99 149 74.46808511 5.709
Nazem Kadri C 21 21 5 2 7 28 21.8 0.78 50 21.81025082 5.058
Brayden Schenn C 20 54 12 6 18 97 48.5 0.50 145 48.46526656 4.549
Nikolai Kulemin LW/RW 25 70 7 21 28 107 99.0 0.93 206 65.86169045 4.382
Jake Gardiner D 21 75 7 23 30 79 105.0 1.33 184 88.84501481 4.154
Jay McClement C 28 80 10 7 17 95 53.1 0.6 148.1 53.1 3.785
Luke Schenn D 22 79 2 20 22 81 74.5 0.92 155 70.14028056 3.722
Cody Franson D 24 57 5 16 21 65 57.3 0.88 122 50 3.690
Dion Phaneuf D 26 82 12 32 44 202 136.3 0.67 338 91.98423127 3.629
Mike Brown RW/LW 26 50 2 2 4 56 30.7 0.55 87 25.70694087 3.582
Joe Colborne C/LW 21 10 1 4 5 7 6.7 0.96 14 6.715916723 3.194
David Steckel C 29 76 8 5 13 79 36.5 0.46 115 36.49635036 2.839
John-Michael Liles D 31 66 7 20 27 106 74.0 0.70 180 41.20879121 2.205
Mike Komisarek D 29 45 1 4 5 34 23.2 0.68 57 23.17497103 2.105
Carl Gunnarsson D 25 76 4 15 19 89 44.7 0.50 134 36.49635036 1.678
Carter Ashton RW/LW 21 15 0 0 0 22 0.0 0.00 22 0 0.000
Colby Armstrong RW 29 29 1 2 3 14 0.0 0.00 14 0 0.000
Colton Orr RW 29 5 1 0 1 3 0.0 0.00 3 0 0.000
Jay Rosehill LW/D 26 31 0 0 0 15 0.0 0.00 15 0 0.000
Philippe Dupuis C 26 30 0 0 0 30 0.0 0.00 30 0 0.000
Ryan Hamilton LW 27 2 0 1 1 1 0.0 0.00 1 0 0.000

This table should help make a few things more clear. I'll discuss each of them in no particular order below.

Phil Kessel

Kessel is extremely under-rated as an all around offensive talent. He ranked 15th in the NHL last year in Passes + Shots. He is also one of only 15 players to produce over 500 Passes or Shots resulting in an attempt on goal (estimated). This all being said, he actually still produced fewer Passes than Mikhail Grabovski, which brings me to my next point:

Mikhail Grabovski

Grabovski led the team in Passes with 219.3, slightly ahead of Kessel's 218.9. Together the two of them ranked 44th and 45th in the NHL in this regard. It is worth pointing out that on a per minute basis neither of them would currently rank as the team's top puck distributor at Even Strength based on last year's play though.

Grabovski has been the Leafs top passer over the past few years also so this isn't a new occurrence, look for him to continue providing pucks on a platter for years to come. Oh and one other thing, his high totals make sense in reference to an old statistic that Tom Awad played with a few years ago that I wrote up, Delta SOT, which was an assessment of scoring chance +/- while a player is on the ice based on shot attempts for and against along with distances being factored in. I seriously haven't seen an advanced metric yet that doesn't make Mikhail Grabovski seem even more awesome.

James Van Riemsdyk

JvR has play making abilities that may be flying under the radar. On a per 60 minute basis at even strength, he ranked 3rd amongst Flyers skaters with more than 20 GP behind only Jaromir Jagr and Claude Giroux by this measure. That means he was ahead of Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and any other Flyer forward you can think of that isn't a past or present contender for the Hart trophy.

Van Riemsdyk immediately looks to become an impact player in the Leafs top six when it comes to setting up other scorers, and if his goal totals grow alongside those assist totals, we can expect a point producer long term. He obviously has talent, he just needs to polish things up a bit. His totals likely improve as he works towards playing larger minutes.

Tim Connolly

Obviously by this measure Connolly retains much of his puck distributing skills. If it wasn't for his fragility and the fact that he's on an expiring contract and aging quickly, I would gladly see him playing the role of top line C more than Tyler Bozak on the basis of these results. Unfortunately for Tim, career trajectories DO matter and he's on the wrong side of 30 here.

Keith Aucoin

Obviously being promoted from the AHL to play as a grinder for the Capitals didn't completely stunt Aucoin's vision and offensive gifts - which he has displayed at the minor league level for years. He's continued to produce on the farm with the Marlies so far this year and is still in the top 5 in the AHL in points. Despite his age, he could provide offense on the PP and at ES if given the opportunity.

Nazem Kadri vs. Brayden Schenn

I included Brayden Schenn on this chart to illustrate further how comparable the two young forwards are thus far in their careers. Their point production on a per game rate is very comparable at both the AHL and NHL level, and apparently their passing results aren't far off from each other either. This continues to be a situation where Schenn is perceived by many as a future star while Kadri is considered a perennial disappointment in Leaf land. Not sure Schenn deserves such lofty expectations and Kadri will have to improve in this and other areas if he hopes to win a top 6 spot with the Leafs.

Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin

The 2nd and 3rd forwards alongside Grabovski both saw a drastic reduction in their numbers this past season. MacArthur fell from being the 2nd most productive Passer the Leafs had in 2010-11 to a middling number in 2011-12. While some of this is impacted by Kulemin's shooting, the whole idea behind this statistic is to analyse passing irrespective of shooting percentages. MacArthur provided fewer opportunities to score this season than in the previous year, and this too may have contributed to Kulemin's decline in production. Grabovski's pass rate was comparable year over year, MacArthur's dropped off drastically... there's something to be said for the fact that Kulemin's doing just fine on Malkin's wing in the KHL so far this year.

Perhaps if MacArthur can't recapture his passing magic with Kulemin it may be time to consider moving him out as part of a trade? I like MacArthur and this is one of the few instances where I've seen an observable decline in his play in particular last season but it is worrisome if this trend continues. His main value to the club is offensively, so if he isn't helping to drive play and produce chances, he may not warrant his prior usage.

Matt Frattin

Frattin is obviously the cream of the Leafs prospect crop on this basis. This can be seen as a further indication that his playing level is above that of some of the younger Leafs. He should step into a full time role this coming season and receive at least 3rd line minutes with the club. Looking forward to see if he can make strides this coming season offensively with more consistent playing time.

In summary, I think this paints an interesting picture of where the Leafs and some of their prospects are heading offensively based on last season. It does give insight into who distributes the puck effectively and who is carrying the load offensively all around.

Realistically these numbers are purely estimates, as nobody is actually counting passes this finitely. Long term though it'd be awesome if we could track this type of production in real time using IR chips in pucks and on players. Comments below are welcome.

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