52 games: How Jeff Cowan and Aaron Rome are different

Well, in regards to the title, obviously one player is a forward while the other is a defenseman.

Beyond that, the two have drawn comparisons recently. Aaron Rome is on a scoring tear right now, with three goals in his last four games, with another disallowed. He also scored in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals last season, so, playoffs and all, Aaron Rome has four goals in his last 11 games, which is a remarkable pace for a defenseman.

Back in the 2007 campaign, with the Canucks struggling to score goals, an unlikely contender stepped up to the plate for a few games. Tough-guy Jeff Cowan, one night against Phoenix, turned a routine penalty-killing shift into a shorthanded breakaway and a goal. Next game, against Minnesota, Cowan tipped in two Willie Mitchell shots. The game after that, against Tampa Bay, Cowan cut to the net and scored on a Brendan Morrison pass, and again on a late powerplay.

The second goal against the Lightning drew an odd response: A well endowed woman had thrown her support onto the ice, in a classic image depicted above. It was the height of Cowan-mania, and Cowan scored again in his next against Phoenix. He would also score in overtime of Game 2 in the second-round against the Anaheim Ducks, and is the only blemish on JS Giguere’s otherwise perfect playoff overtime record.

So where does Rome fit in? Well, what we know about Aaron Rome is that he supresses shots and is a defensive defenseman, so he has value on the team even when he doesn’t score. With Cowan, since we don’t have possession numbers for the 2007 Canucks, we can’t discuss too much his overall value. What we can tell you is that Cowan got beat up in difficult minutes in the 2008 campaign, so I’d assume against easier competition in ’07, Cowan might be slightly below zero as far as shot differential goes.

But we don’t want to talk about offense. Just defense. I’ll show two graphs here. The first is a 10-game average of shots in the last 52 games of Aaron Rome’s Vancouver Canuck career, along with the 52 games Cowan spent with the Canucks in 2006-07. I grabbed the data from NHL.com game logs, so the later games actually appear first on the graph:

The blue line being Cowan, the red line being Rome.

Visually, you notice that Cowan had that one upswing and was otherwise unspectacular, while Rome keeps a general average between 5 and 10 shots in his last ten games. Cowan peaked a few games after his big scoring streak, presumably because Alain Vigneault kept feeding him ice-time. That’s what happens when you go from playing 6 minutes a night to 14 minutes a night: you start to record more shots. Vigneault quickly realized that Cowan had generally run out of his usefulness.

The second chart here indicates 10-game weighted shooting percentage:

Again, the red line is Rome and the blue line is Cowan. Cowan had a huge peak in shooting percentage and regressed hard. 45% shooting is what Phil Kessel was dealing with when he started this recent NHL season, so that alone should be enough proof that shot percentage is luck-based. In the midst of scoring streaks, you can see that Jeff Cowan got well-luckier than Aaron Rome—Rome is still playing out of his element right now, and, indeed, his PDO of 112.3% is way too good to be real, but he’s also putting up decent underlying numbers in tough minutes as well, so he’s not playing much differently than he had been before.

With how much luck goes into scoring, every now and then guys with a limited skill-set will score one or two goals in a couple of games in a row. We love those goals because they’re unlikely, and it’s fun to see the fates reward the “working-man.”

That said, Aaron Rome is obviously a much better hockey player than Jeff Cowan ever will be, although Cowan’s brief scoring streak will forever remain legendary: It was even more bloody unlikely. If Rome continues to put up shots, he’ll continue to score goals, but I’d expect them to be a little more sparsed out in the future.