Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Semin, Boudreau, and Understanding

Alexander Semin possesses a unique set of characteristics that often cause extreme polarization among hockey fans and pundits: he is supremely skilled, particularly in areas that are easily observable (FN1), and he seems to operate in a different space from the dominant North American hockey culture, both on the ice – whereas certain preferences exist for those players that appear to skate hard and fast into corners and up and down the ice (FN2), Semin and other such players "let the game come to them" without continually chasing the play/puck so aggressively – and off it – Semin is extremely shy, introverted, and does not speak English well. (FN3) While Semin’s patently high skill level does create expectations that are difficult to meet, what actually fuels the vitriol is subtler: an ingrained preference against a distinct playing style due to a hockey-cultural dissonance, i.e. because a player doesn’t skate around the rink like a madman, combined with an inability or unwillingness to share person and personality with teammates and/or fans, i.e. that there is no connection to the subject, not only poisons any objective evaluation of play but also foments unsupported and ad hominal attacks, such as that Semin “just doesn’t care,” to explain perceived failings. (FN4) Such attacks, long the domain of message board and blog pabulum, were finally levied by actual ex-teammates, first by Matt Bradley and then echoed by David Steckel. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and owner Ted Leonsis sort of lukewarmly, or at least inarticulately, responded to the criticisms and defended the player without really explaining why the attacks were without basis. GM George McPhee, however, supplied a brief but appropriate response, noting that Semin is a proven playoff performer, that Bradley got the facts wrong, and perhaps most succinctly and accurately, “[t]his kid’s been productive.”

FN1 – These skills being predominantly stick-handling and shooting, as distinct from other skills that are not always so obvious, e.g., screening the goalie, winning puck battles, etc.

FN2 – Those that play the game this way are not exclusively from North America, see, e.g., Semin’scountryman and good friend, Alexander Ovechkin. Also note the important distinction between appearing to skate hard and fast and actually skating hard and fast. Effortlessly smooth skaters, such as Paul Coffey and Phil Housely, were brutally criticized at various points in their careers for appearing to not work hard enough. Ditto for those players whose games involved patiently waiting in the weeds rather than relentless puck pursuit. Before reaching statistical heights which made them largely criticism-proof, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull faced criticisms regarding work-ethic that were born more from their style of play than any actual substantive flaw.

FN3 – In over six seasons with the Capitals, he’s given two English language interviews, and both occurred this week. The first was kinda heartbreaking, and the second was awkwardly charming.

FN4 – Another player who is similarly divorced from the predominant North American hockey culture is Nikolai Zherdev. Like Semin, Zherdev plays a passive game that is more read and react than pursue and attack. Zherdev also speaks very little English and in unconcerned with bonding with players or reporters. He is a very good hockey player though, who has no problem scoring or domintating possession at even strength (I’ve written about him before but others have done more). Despite this objective success, Zherdev is one of the more maligned players of his generation by fans, coaches, and reporters.

Notwithstanding the incomplete statistical picture he offered, McPhee is basically correct. Neil Greenberg provides a fuller analysis and concludes with what should have been long obvious to any objective viewer unbiased by a culturally-derived aesthetic preference of the game: Alexander Semin is an extremely effective hockey player who drives possession against tough competition and who is an effective penalty killer. (FN5)

FN5 – An effective but criminally underused penalty-killer. Semin finished the 2010-11 season with .96 TOI/60, 7th highest among Washington forwards. He did not spend a single second killing penalties in the playoffs. See infra.

McPhee basically nails the point about Semin’s playoff success, but I’d like to delve into Semin’s most recent playoff performance a little deeper with specific reference to how he was utilized.

2011 Playoffs

Power Play

Perhaps the most egregious example of the misuse of Semin came on the PP. The Capitals’ PP was mostly woeful during the season, but Semin was its most productive player:

Semin had the highest scoring rate and received the third most minutes (behind Ovechkin and Backstrom). This is consistent with Semin's PP utilization and production throughout his career, that is, he's played and scored a bunch (scoring rate rank among Capitals’ forwards is in parenthesis):

Those scoring rates are comparable with other elite scorers (Datsyuk’s PP scoring rates are 5.68, 5.38, 7.03, and 5.74 over the same period; Crosby’s are 4.80, 4.62, 5.38 and 5.02). Semin’s proven track record on the PP suggests that he should be used similarly in the playoffs. However, not only did Semin’s PP ice time decrease in the playoffs, relative to the other Capitals’ forwards, it decreased significantly:

While Semin’s raw decrease in power play minutes was only .15 minutes per game (a 5% reduction), the reduction is heightened by the fact that the Capitals as a team saw a 20% increase in power play time from the regular season to the playoffs (5.04 to 6.06). In fact, there were 7(!) other Capitals’ forwards who received more power play ice time than Semin. While Semin has been an elite PP scorer his entire career, none of Knuble, Fehr, or Johansson have ever approached Semin’s scoring on the power play, yet they received more PP time in the playoffs than him. The case of Brooks Laich is an interesting one. Laich received a whopping 3.58 min/game on the PP in the playoffs. That is 31% more time than Semin received. Had Laich ever done anything to suggest that he was a more effective PP player than Semin? No, quite the opposite:

Semin has been used more frequently on the PP his entire career, and he has scored at a higher rate than Laich every year (including 06/07 which is not listed) save for 07/08 when Laich scored at a higher rate but in nearly one-third the PP time. It seems clear that going into the 2011 playoffs, Semin had established himself as a great, bordering on elite, PP player, and Laich had established himself as a good or very good PP player. Yet, for some reason Boudreau opted to use Laich 31% more on the PP than Semin, and opted to use 7 different forwards more than Semin. This strikes me as completely insane, without justification, and a severe misuse of talent. (FN6)

FN6 – Critics may want to point to the fact that Semin didn’t score a single PP point in the playoffs as a justification for Boudreau to curtail his use. This argument fails because the Capitals only scored 5 PPG in the 9 games, so the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions. Moreover, with respect to shots directed at net, the key driver of PP success, Semin was third on the team in PP Corsi (behind Knuble and Sturm). Laich was eighth.

Even Strength

At even strength during the regular season, Semin produced the second highest point scoring rate and the highest goal scoring rate on the team:

He did this while being paired up front most often with Brooks Laich (51% of the time) and to a lesser extent Nicklas Backstrom (36%) and Alexander Ovechkin (31%). He was paired with rookie Marcus Johansson not infrequently (22%) as well. This tells us that Semin played with a variety of different linemates at different times, and was with the big boys some but not all that often. Semin wasn’t exactly handed a golden key on a silver platter, but he wasn’t exactly slumming it either.

The playoffs were a far different (tragic and stupefying) story, however: Semin spent the majority of his even strength ice time with Jason Arnott (65%) and Marco Sturm (52%). These numbers are actually probably misleading because, while I’m a firm believer in the inverse correlation between shift length and effectiveness, Arnott in particular was taking ridiculously short shifts at even strength in the playoffs. It appears that it was as obvious to him as it was to me that he could barely hang on and keep up with NHL playoff pace, and he accordingly and wisely got off the ice at the earliest opportunity. Good for him, not great for his linemates if they happened to have the puck and were headed in the right direction. There doesn’t seem to be published data for even strength shift length, but we can make do with overall shift length:

The most immediately notable thing in that chart should be just how many fewer minutes Semin got than the “big 4” of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, and Knuble. One of Bradley’s comments was about top players and playing time:

When you’re paying your top guys a lot of money and those
guys carry you through the whole season, and if one of them isn’t going, it’s
very hard not to play them, and I understand that that’s tough. But I think in
the end, if you want to win, sometimes you have to sit some of those guys down
and maybe send a message and try to get them going.

It’s unclear if he’s talking about Semin specifically (it seems to me that he was) or someone else like Backstrom, but he probably should have been talking about Knuble, who was on the ice over 21 minutes a game and scored a whole 2 points, despite playing nearly exclusively with Ovechkin and Backstrom. I imagine "Knoobs" and "Brads" are good friends who talked a lot, whereas it wouldn’t surprise me if Bradley and Semin have never had a conversation. So, Knuble’s a great locker room guy who helps the team win, and Semin’s a monster that doesn’t care and wants to go back to Russia.

Sturm’s shift lengths are muddied because he saw time on the penalty kill, but if you consider that Arnott took about 16% of his ice time on the PP, and if you assume those shifts averaged a minute long, then you can estimate that Arnott’s even strength shifts were about 38 seconds long. Those strike me as the shifts of a player in desperate need to get off the ice because he knew he couldn’t keep up. Although Semin having to essentially babysit Arnott and Sturm so much of the time makes it’s difficult to precisely identify who was driving the results, we can nevertheless make some inferences.

Semin spent two-thirds of his even strength playing time tied down by the grizzly Arnott, during which time they would have had the same Corsi stats, but in the one-third of the time Semin thankfully extricated himself from the Anchor, he managed to create a 13.2 differentiation in Relative Corsi. Same story viz. Sturm, and because Boudreau blessed Semin with even more non-Sturm time, Semin separated himself even further from another old-timer playing on at best one leg. One wonders what Semin and the Capitals could have done if he was paired with actual NHL caliber players more of the time. After falling down by a goal late in game 1 against the Rangers, Boudreau put Semin together with Ovechkin and Backstrom (Prayer is the last refuge of a scoundrel). Semin promptly set up the Capitals’ first and tying goal late in the third. (FN7) There were far too few shifts for the deadly trio during the playoffs, as was the case last year v. Montreal. How many playoff failures will Capitals fans have to endure before Boudreau tries uniting those three for a sustained period of time?

FN7 – Of course Boudreau went back to the old line combinations for the overtime, and Arnott made his one nice play of the entire playoffs and Semin absolutely devastated a one-timer for the win.

Penalty Kill

Semin is a very effective penalty killer:

He had the highest Corsi among Capitals forwards last season. I’ll spare you further charts but let you know that this was also the case in 2009-10 and 2008-09. It’s painfully clear at this point that Semin is really good at limiting opposition shot imbalance (and by proxy, scoring chances) on the penalty kill. It may not jive with traditional hockey narratives of skilled, soft players not playing defense, but the statistics are unmistakably unequivocal in this regard. One person who either does not understand statistic or does not care about the Capitals penalty kill happens to be their coach, unfortunately, as shown:

The player who has demonstrated the highest ability to limit opposition Corsi on the PK over the last three seasons did not receive one single second of PK time in the playoffs. It is a stunningly dumb misallocation of assets and abilities, an important microcosm explaining why the Capitals, despite having a vast collection of talent at every position, perhaps unmatched around the league, have won 2 playoff series in four years under Boudreau.