Player types: The two-way forward



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Earlier this week, I took to the Nations Network to further analyze a player’s plus/minus rating, specifically to do with on-ice shot differential, in an effort to learn more about teams and players, sharing a theory I have with “high event” hockey players.

This month, somewhat regularly, I will break down types of players and teams in an effort to localize player talents and figure out exactly what certain teams need. There’s definitely more to a hockey player than simply being “good” or “bad” and by how much, so instead we’ll look at how different types of players can fit on teams. First up, the Two-Way Player.

The modern two-way player is given a pretty weak reputation among sports media and casual fans. A lot of talk of a two-way player belongs to a third-line plugger in an effort to justify his existence on the ice. In my ideal world, a two-way label is given to a player, a forward or a defenseman, who has terrific talent at both ends of the ice and is better than the average player at both ends.

Place a player on the grid, right on the x-axis is more events for, high up on the y-axis is fewer events against. A player to the right of the diagonal would be a

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The two-way player is slightly underrated in hockey. Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler and David Backes are four names that feature prominently as guys who contribute a lot of shots and prevent a lot of shots. A shot against is worth the same as a shot for, in the odd balance of hockey, so proper credit needs to be given to those who prevent shots. This doesn’t necessarily mean blocked shots, takeaways and big neutral zone hits, but shots can be prevented several ways: Stopping zone entries, playing smart and getting into the passing lanes, or, most effectively, controlling possession of the puck in the other team’s end.

Since a lot of the post-game headlines are dominated by players who score the late goals, or many goals, and not necessarily by those who backcheck efficiently, the two-way forward gets less of his due than you’d think. As I discussed in the “high events” post on Monday, certain high-scoring players also tend to give up quite a bit going the other way, especially at even strength. The two-way player accounts for this and creates his chances with effective use of his teammates and not taking risks in the defensive or neutral zones.

One of the primary functions of advanced statistics is that they allow us to quantify exactly how many shots against a player was on the ice for. While a player’s individual goal and shot total give us a pretty clear picture of his offensive capability, we run into a road block when attempting to discuss his defensive qualities. Plus/Minus is both heavily luck-based and doesn’t tell us how many goals a player allowed. Behind The Net lets us track exactly how many shots a player was on the ice against 5-on-5. Since play at either end is equal on the scoreboard, we have to take all this into account.

While team shot differential is a little bit more tricky due to score effects, of the nine teams that my method would classify as “two-way”, seven made the playoffs. Only St. Louis and Calgary didn’t, and part of that is because they fell below their Pythagorean Expectation in regard to their point totals. The President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks had eight of their players grouped in the two-way category, while Tampa Bay, who showed an impressive turnaround last season, had the most with nine.

Of the four teams who didn’t have a regular ‘two-way’ forward, Carolina, Edmonton, New Jersey and Toronto, none made the playoffs. This may be a case of the team’s overall skill-set playing to the mould of the player, but I’d suggest that there’s an importance in the team playing around one or two individuals. One player, like Patrice Bergeron for Boston, can open the game up for several by hogging and winning tough minutes. Full lines, like Tampa’s Adam Hall, Nate Thompson and Teddy Purcell combination, can provide scoring in areas where little is expected and take the burden off of their superstars.

To give you a better indicator of which players were most successful in this role, I’ll show off the names of the players that popped up in my spreadsheets as best fitting into the highlighted “two-way forward” zone shown in the graph above. Essentially it’s the players further from the origin, so their adjusted numbers will be some of the best among forwards in hockey:

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NAME TEAM AdjFen Events F Events A Type Events
Joe Pavelski S.J 3.80 2.34 1.38 2W 3.98
Torrey Mitchell S.J 3.77 1.71 1.88 2W -0.67
Sean Bergenheim T.B 3.13 1.81 1.25 2W 2.31
Ryan Kesler VAN 3.07 1.98 0.94 2W 4.30
Ryane Clowe S.J 3.01 2.18 0.69 2W 6.15
Logan Couture S.J 2.78 1.77 0.90 2W 3.57
Patrice Bergeron BOS 2.62 2.01 0.68 2W 5.46
Andy McDonald STL 2.48 1.45 0.96 2W 2.06
Mikael Backlund CGY 2.47 1.01 1.25 2W -0.97
Brian Gionta MTL 2.45 2.33 0.12 2W 9.07
Tim Jackman CGY 2.43 0.40 1.69 2W -5.25
Nikolay Zherdev PHI 2.43 2.01 0.38 2W 6.74
Pavel Datsyuk DET 2.42 1.53 0.94 2W 2.45
Viktor Stalberg CHI 2.39 1.19 1.03 2W 0.69
Mason Raymond VAN 2.38 1.73 0.50 2W 5.08
Justin Williams L.A 2.36 1.44 0.84 2W 2.51
Christopher Higgins VAN 2.34 1.59 0.66 2W 3.82
Ryan Malone T.B 2.30 1.14 1.01 2W 0.58
Alexander Steel STL 2.25 0.88 1.41 2W -2.13
David Backes STL 2.18 1.55 0.73 2W 3.40

 (Raw data downloaded from and adjusted in Excel. I briefly touch on that below.)

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[ LEGEND: AdjFen Adjusted Fenwick number per 14.65 minutes Events F On-ice goals, shots and misses for above the league average Events A On-ice goals, shots and misses below the league average Type Player type Events T Unadjusted total number of events above or below the league average ]

< MATH >For the adjustment, I crudely normalized a player’s Corsi QualComp by converting it to a per 14.65 metric like everything else I’ve done, and then taking 3/4 of the number to have it more closely ressemble a Fenwick number and added it to the player’s total. I normalized for zone starts by adding an extra .6 of a Fenwick point for each extra defensive zone draw for the total adjusted number, and an extra .3 for the individual “for” and “against” metrics. If there are any statisticians more proficient in math who can help me with a decent QualComp adjustment, I’m all ears.< /MATH >

What to make of this data? San Jose is a pretty good place to be a forward and their system seems to be designed to take shots on as they have a number of pretty high-event players with good Fenwick numbers. Not only can they control the shot clock when they’re on the ice, but they also seem to do well controlling the pace of the game—With an exception granted to that third line centred by Torrey Mitchell. It will be interesting to see how that team does with Brent Burns playing some good minutes, as he can also move the puck forward. Also, while they aren’t big names, I always seem to end up with Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture in my hockey pools, and they have yet to let me down yet.

While it isn’t surprising news that San Jose has good forwards, the inclusion of players like Tim Jackman or Michael Backlund is. Both played some easy minutes, but had a strong enough shot differential to help them survive their adjustment. This might be little consolation for Flames fans still shivering in the wake of the Daymond Langkow trade, but I’ve always been a fan of Backlund and I’d like to see him get some more minutes. We know that Tim Jackman became a surprisingly fit third line option in Calgary, so well have to see if he can repeat his performance from last season. I think that he fits the mould of a “low-event” type hockey player and he finds success by slowing the game down and making his opponents work.

Otherwise, some names aren’t all that surprising. The Canucks second line were all included, even though Christopher Higgins spent the bulk of the season with the Panthers, he had very good underlying numbers in Florida before being traded from Florida for a couple of sock puppets. St. Louis has some players up here thanks to the impressive play of David Backes and I’m wagering that he’s the one who drives the play on that team. Despite the tough division, I think the Blues problems last year involved some bad luck that kept them out of the playoffs and I think they have a good enough team to make a serious run at the postseason; the Flames do, too.

One other name in there is Brian Gionta. The Montreal Canadiens shot just 7 per cent at even strength last season and not for lack of quality players—Gionta scored 20 goals at even strength for the first time since 2006 last season despite a lower shot percentage than his career average. He controlled possession and pushed pace and the entire Habs offense should look a step better this season if their percentages normalize. Brian Gionta had a pretty quiet 29 goal season for a Montreal Canadien, although I guess he was expected to score 30.

Finally, there isn’t much left to say about Bergeron or Ryan Kesler. I think they are both fantastic hockey players and presumably the most valuable on their team at even strength since they can control the play in both directions. The one more surprising name I want to discuss is Sean Bergenheim: When Dale Tallon signed him to a four-year contract, I’m not sure if he knew he was getting a guy who saw two-way success in Florida. I’ve seen Bergenheim’s name pop up a bunch near the top of a few spreadsheets and I have to think that, like Joel Ward, he may have been very underappreciated defensively before he went on a scoring tear in the postseason. Higgins and Nicklas Bergfors both put up strong underlying numbers in their short times in Florida, so maybe the same will ring true for Bergenheim.

Join us for our next “Player-Type Profile” as we look at my favourite role in hockey: The Defensive Forward.