Last year, right before the season was complete, I took a look at the forwards in the NHL that were playing the tough minutes. The entry's title, "The Best", has a double meaning: first, it's meant to show which forwards are playing the best opponents possible; second, it's meant to show my belief that the best players in the NHL are the ones that are able to outscore the tough minutes. For those unfamiliar with the quality of competition metric, please visit the always-educational Behind The Net Hockey and Gabriel Desjardins' FAQ on QualComp.
QualComp is important because it shows which forwards are playing the toughest minutes night in and night out. These forwards are the men entrusted with not just shutting down the opposition, a phrase beloved by hockey fans and media, but outscoring the toughest competition, a phrase that should be much, much more important to hockey fans and hockey media. Limiting the opposition's best in terms of chances is always a good idea, but the impact players, the players that bring true value to a team, are those that can outscore the opposition in any circumstance at even strength.
There are other factors that can bring context to the performance of these players, but the list that follows after the jump is a simple look at the forwards that have taken on the tough minutes for three consecutive years and their performance against that competition in a very narrow view: even strength outscoring. I'll add context in the coming weeks.
There are sixteen forwards that have played the tough minutes each of the last three years. Broken out by position they are:
Jochen Hecht, Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Zetterberg
Pavel Datsyuk, Scott Gomez, Martin Hanzal, Shawn Horcoff, Jay McClement, Samuel Pahlsson, Mike Richards, Eric Staal, Stephen Weiss,
Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Hejduk, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis
This is a select, though varied, group as Centers make up nine of the sixteen men on the list. Twelve of the sixteen are first line players, traditionally known as "scoring line" players. The specifics are in the chart below, broken out by scoring differential per fifteen even strength minutes, approximately the minutes per game of a top line forward.
Out of the sixteen tough minutes forwards, eleven have been able to outscore their opponents over the last three years. While there are a few bargains, this group is a very expensive one.
- Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg continue to be the gold standard of forwards in the NHL. Datsyuk's even strength +/- is astounding considering his nightly competition. The underlying secret of the Detroit model isn't saving on goaltending or drafting Swedes in the sixth round -- it's having a pair of forwards that can destroy the other team's best players season after season.
- I said last year that I was stunned that Stephen Weiss was the 4th-best player on the list. This year, he's up to 3rd. I took a deeper look at Weiss and noted that he was outscoring the biggest names in the game each year and I still find it hard to believe just how good Weiss is and how under-recognized he is.
- Scott Gomez takes a beating from NHL fans for his lack of goal-scoring and Bob Gainey took a beating for the trade that he made to acquire Gomez, but Gomez is the goods. He may not score goals, but his defensive prowess and playmaking ability are top notch. His performance in New York was supposed to be a by-product of Henrik Lundqvist, but the numbers in Montreal show differently. Gomez is an even strength demon.
- Jochen Hecht is one of those bargains on this list. Though he's thought of as a role player in a very specifically defined and extremely narrow scope, in reality, Hecht is an excellent even strength player.
- The bottom of the list contains three centers that have been asked to do some near-impossible work on pretty bad teams and their results are very similar. Adding context to the list shines a much brighter light on Shawn Horcoff, Samuel Pahlsson and Jay McClement.
The above list raises a question. If you knew that you could sign an NHL forward and had knowledge that he would outscore the tough minutes for three seasons in a row, how much would that forward be worth? If you had the ability to see into the future, are these guys worth a contract near the cap? Why or why not? How much more valuable is player that isn't scoring goals, but is still beating the other team's best, like Scott Gomez than a player that is popping in 35 goals per year, but isn't playing the best compeition, like Jeff Carter?
Finally, how likely is it that the players on the above list will continue to play the tough minutes? How likely is it that they will continue to outscore the tough minutes?
In the article last year, I looked at forwards that had turned the trick two years running. Here is that list:
- Is Travis Zajac riding Zach Parise's coattails or is he just that good. His outscoring rate is Datsyukian.