In Michael Hutchinson’s second last game for the Leafs before the Jack Campbell trade, he seemed to be in a race with Cody Ceci to see who was responsible for causing the most goals against.
That game — where Frederik Andersen was hurt, Hutchinson came in in relief and allowed three goals on 13 shots, helping the Leafs lose to the Florida Panthers — was not a lot of fun for Leafs fans. And it kicked off the latest round in the long-running argument about who is to blame for the goals against: the goalie or the defender.
The Blame Game
The problem with just looking at the shots that go in, no matter who you decide was at fault, is that all you’re doing is setting out to find mistakes and you’re ignoring everything else the player does, good and bad, that go into their total impact on the ice. Sometimes you don’t have to go looking for mistakes, they’re so big, they poke you right in the eye.
And that’s the heart of the idea that the “big mistake” is the wrong way to analyze hockey, particularly defencemen who aren’t very often cheering you back up with a lovely goal. It’s emotional, not rational, and group behaviours and social media being what they are, the mob can decide one guy — and for the Leafs there’s always one guy — is the millstone around the neck of the team. Every mistake that guy makes is so overblown, so upsetting that no one even bothers to look up any real measures of his value. They just assume he’s irredeemably horrible and say so. Loudly. At length.
If we want to rise above that, and I do but you can decide that for yourself, first we have to define what exactly we mean by defence. How can we know if a defenceman, whose primary value isn’t scoring goals himself, is good if we don’t know what it is he’s doing most of the time. We can’t just look at goals against in some reverse box car method of measuring his worth. Points don’t even tell the full story for forwards, so how do we decide what to measure when we want to measure a defenceman?
What Exactly is Defending?
I think how you define defence depends on your mental model of the game. For a lot of coaches they see the game as playing with the puck and playing without it, and you can decide that defending is the latter. You can split the game up into zones and say all play in the defensive zone is defending. You can just go by shots (all shots - Corsi or unblocked shots - Fenwick) and say the measure of defensive contribution is total shots against. You can jazz that up with shot location and type and use Expected Goals Against if you think that’s better.
I think about the game like this, and I can’t claim this is Right and Proper, but it’s how I intellectualize it: Shotshare (Corsi differential) tells you how a team or a player drives play. It’s produced by all sorts of actions — things we’d think of as offensive, like cycling the puck in the offensive zone, and things we’d think of as defensive, like takeaways that lead to a transition in the defensive zone. Some of those offensive things, like that offensive cycle, have a defensive component to them. If you’re cycling the puck, the other team is not shooting on your net. And some of the defensive things, like taking the puck away from the other team, have an offensive component to them. If you’ve stopped their cycle, you get to shoot it next. Shotshare isn’t one or the other, it’s both in a way that can’t be unpicked.
Splitting that into shots for and shots against and deciding that only low shots against relative to the rest of the NHL is good defending seems wrong when you consider that it’s the overall balance that influences the probability that one or the other team wins a game. And the question becomes as well, how low is low enough? That depends on who the goalie is and how well the team executes defensively (the famous keeping of the shots to the outside actually does happen a lot for some teams [not the Leafs]).
And then of course, there’s all the other factors like what kind of competition a player faces, who his teammates are, and how he’s used in a myriad of ways. This is all hard to sort out, and it is very tempting to just count up the times you screamed in horror while a defenceman was on the ice, and just say the least scary one is the best. None of which actually takes into account that defencemen have meaningful roles to play offensively, and I haven’t even mentioned special teams.
Making it Personal: How Bad is Cody Ceci?
So how can we decide if Cody Ceci really is this anchor dragging the Leafs into oblivion? You can’t just look at his Corsi Against per 60 and decide if that’s good or not like we used to do in the old days. If I do that, if I go to Evolving Hockey and look at all the defencemen who have played at least 300 minutes, I find that Ceci has a Corsi Against per 60 minutes of 56.42 which is the 85th worst in the NHL (out of 217 players).
I can guess that that might not be great, but how much of that is him, and how much his teammates? And how much is just the Leafs being the Leafs? There’s several good ways to answer that. Today I’m using Evolving Hockey’s RAPM, and you’ve seen the charts, you know it covers the player’s impact on offensive and defensive measures by using a regression model to weight all those other factors discussed above.
I’m going to look at it numerically, and not with the chart, to see how Ceci measures up in the RAPM version of Corsi Against. Same criteria applies, this is all NHL defenders with at least 300 minutes played, and Ceci is now 37th worst in the NHL. Extending out to more sophisticated measures like Expected Goals Against (RAPM), he’s 38th worst in the NHL. And to give him his due that he might have some offensive oomph to offset that defensive horror, his Expected Goals (RAPM) +/- is -0.051, which is 81st worst in the NHL. He does get better when you look at the whole picture, but he’s still been a net negative impact on the team.
If you look at this in chart form, you can see this clearly:
He’s got a little bit of offensive value, mostly in driving play from his impact on Corsi For, so his overall effect there is okay, but the defensive negativity is just so pronounced that it nearly wipes out the full positive value in overall Corsi, and his Expected Goals situation is much worse. The surprising thing is, he isn’t even that good on the power play.
Let me just check something here... talk amongst yourselves...
Gosh, I’m terribly sorry, everyone. All this time, I’ve been telling you Tyson Barrie’s stats, not Cody Ceci’s. You have my abject apology. Let me just start over...
Stop Big Mistaking Tyson Barrie
In Jack Campbell’s second game for the Leafs, he seemed to be the answer to our prayers, and he had the game in hand in overtime until Tyson Barrie picked a really bad time to lay on the big booming point shot.
Blah, blah, nature of defence, big mistake is not the way to judge, and back to that RAPM chart.
... and his Expected Goals situation is much worse. The surprising thing is, he isn’t even that good on the power play.
The even more surprising thing is that the Leafs most hated defender, Cody Ceci, is actually just a tiny bit better overall than Barrie in overall impact, and his good side is primarily defensive. You might have big mistaked him to death, but he’s actually not sinking the team in the defensive zone. I’d question if it’s necessary that every defender have a positive offensive impact to be valuable, but Ceci’s is so poor, you can’t really be sad he won’t play when his replacement is Timothy Liljegren.
But if we’ve all big mistaked Ceci to the point you believed those stats up there were about him, we’ve all big successed Tyson Barrie to the point that you didn’t catch on very quickly. He’s got that big boomer of a shot, and he sure likes to use it, and he’s in on a lot of offence. But his points, though!
But his defending, though!
It’s this argument again. This is the argument that something like that Expected Goals RAPM +/- is meant to solve, and overall, Barrie fails by this measure. He’s not only not a top four defender, the Leafs would be better off with him off the team in favour of any sort of competent mid-pairing defender who could just not be an overall negative impact player.
The real argument in favour of Barrie, aside from the fact the Leafs have hit the bottom of the defenceman barrel, is that everything discussed so far includes the first part of the year where it’s widely believed Mike Babcock was mis-deploying him.
The truth is that Sheldon Keefe’s cycle system that uses activated defenders deep in the offensive zone suits Morgan Rielly, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Barrie and Justin Holl very well. They are the right types of defenders to play it. That doesn’t mean they play it equally well, however.
Barrie’s Bad Start
Since November 20, and looking at all NHL defenders who have played 250 minutes total, Tyson Barrie is 59th worst in the league at Corsi Against per 60 minutes (out of 188 players). RAPM cannot be chopped up by partial seasons, and nor should it be, but his traditional on-ice results split on the fateful day compare like this:
Tyson Barrie 2019-2020
|Dates||10/01/19 - 11/19/19||11/20/19 - 02/09/20|
His shotshare is identical, but the Expected Goals % is way up. That is driven mostly by the offensive half, although his on-ice Expected Goals per 60 minutes is a little better. But the biggest change is in the Goals For %, and that’s why he looks so much better. Having your horrible on-ice shooting and save percentages shoot up to great levels from terrible ones will do that for you. So will playing a different, more offensively focused game away from partner Jake Muzzin.
There isn’t enough change in on-ice results to say that Barrie’s overall negative value under RAPM is wrong and would look a lot better with the first section of the season removed. The coaching change wasn’t a miracle for him. But the split from Muzzin and the new system sure put him on the ice with a lot of good offence happening. Over time, could that tip his total Expected Goals RAPM +/- into a positive? It might. But it won’t be much of one, not with defending as bad as his.
Barrie’s Big Boomer Shot
One way to measure his impact on the current offensive renaissance is to look at his personal shooting numbers. His Expected Fenwick Shooting % (the shooting % you’d expect from a league average player taking his unblocked shots from the locations he took them) went from 2%, which is low even for a defenseman, all the way up to 3.5% under the new system. He stepped in a little closer to the net, and he is shooting almost the same amount as in the too-many-point-shots Babcock era. Barrie shoots as much as a top-line forward, and he’s still only managing to get his expected shooting % into tolerable for a defenceman territory.
His personal contribution to the improved offensive power is not coming from the shots off his own stick. And yet he shoots at the fourth highest rate on the team. For comparison, here’s the Expected Fenwick Shooting % of the players who have the highest shot rates since Keefe took over:
- Auston Matthews - 7.62
- John Tavares - 8.43
- William Nylander - 9.03
- Tyson Barrie - 3.5/
Only Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are worse at quality of shooting than Barrie over this period. In terms of actual Fenwick Shooting % (the percentage of his unblocked shots that became goals) Barrie’s is the lowest of anyone who scored a goal in that period. Aside from Ceci and Muzzin, and the snakebit Holl and Rielly, he’s the last person you want shooting the puck, except he shoots it all the time, more than most of the forwards.
Are Barrie’s Mistakes Just the Price of his Success?
I’d argue he’s not only not making up for his horrible defending with great offence, he’s actually not even making up for his own negative impact on the offence from his shooting habits. Considering who he’s on the ice with most of the time, his 3.5% Expected % shots all come out of the pocket of better players.
Back to the RAPM Expected Goals +/- for a second. The only Leafs player worse than Barrie on the whole season so far is Kasperi Kapanen, and I think we all realize he’s had a very rocky year. One badly-timed boomer of a shot in overtime that led to the winning goal against is not how you judge a defenceman. His points are not how you judge a defenceman, either. Judge him on all his results. And considering Barrie is not any better than Ceci overall, he needs a power play that’s awesome for him to be a valuable top pairing defender.