The best player no one talks about


As someone that’s worked the mathier side of hockey analysis for a few years, I’ve become inured to seeing players with shiny boxcar numbers get lauded while players labouring under difficult circumstances get ignored. It’s the way things have always worked in the hockey media, and despite the occasional mention of underlying numbers from guys like Elliotte Friedman, the use of advanced stats still is out there on the fringes.

With that in mind, this morning’s column from Gary Lawless mentioning, amongst other things, that Jonathan Toews was his pick from the Selke was pretty much exactly what I expected. I realize that the Selke has evolved into an award given to really good offensive players that can find their own end without the aid of a GPS, so the fact that players in the recent past like Frans Nielsen have received the bum’s rush is unfortunate, but unsurprising.

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I have a bit of a harder time with the perpetual lauding that Toews gets in that regard, however. Toews is a terrific player any team would want, but a player who, contrary to Lawless’ assertion, doesn’t routinely play the other team’s toughs and also enjoys ZoneStart numbers north of 60% likely hasn’t any business being in the Selke conversation. Again, wonderful player, but he’s been getting pretty generous treatment from Joel Quennville several years running. 

The guy that wasn’t mentioned in that story, and a player fresh off a snub for the league’s showcase event in Ottawa later this month, is someone whose performance merits a closer look. The St. Louis Blues have become one of the league’s powerhouses this season, a dominant out-shooting club at EV that have reached equal status with Detroit and Chicago, and anyone paying any attention at all should be able to identify the guy that’s made the leap from good player to elite.

David Backes isn’t exactly an unknown quantity, obviously. He was terrific on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, and even as St. Louis has missed the post-season over the last couple of years, he’s been widely acknowledged as a very solid pro.

This season, though, Backes is performing at a very high level in all phases of the game, and it’s my view that his progression is driving the Blues’ move from a OK team at EV to becoming a club sporting the second best Fenwick tied in the NHL, just behind the Red Wings.

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Let’s run the numbers, then. First, from Behind the Net, here are his 5v5 stats, with his team rankings where applicable. For comparative purposes, I’ve included similar stats for Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, and Jonathan Toews:


    Corsi On Corsi Rel ZoneStart%   CorsiRelQoC   PDO
Backes   17.59-2nd 13.7-2nd 49.7-4th toughest   2nd toughest   101.3-6th best
Bergeron   14.84-5th 11.7-4th 45.5-3rd   2nd toughest   106.7-5th best
Kesler   18.59-5th 15.8-5th 48.8-8th   7th toughest   102.6-3rd best
Toews   13.67-3rd 13.1-1st 61.4-8th   4th toughest   100.0-6th best


Backes and Bergeron really stand out here, in my view. Both get tough comp, aren’t particularly aided by easier starting postions, and can still knock it out of the park. Kesler’s world is made markedly easier by the fact that Alain Vigneault buries Manny Malhotra, and Toews gets equal benefit from the manner that Joel Quennville uses David Bolland. As an aside, those Bruin PDOs are off the planet. Unless Claude Julien has invented a new way to play hockey, they’re likely due for a regression all the way down from exceptional to merely excellent.

As for Backes’ standing amongst the Blues, a few notes should be added. His Corsi numbers only trail Alex Steen, but Steen has a ZS% of 53.3, so some of the difference is simply positioning of ice time. His ZS numbers are second toughest amongst the regular Blues’ centers, trailing only Berglund, but Berglund’s playing second liners, so the overall effect likely suggests that Backes is drawing the toughest assignments, even if only by a slight amount.
The only player Backes trails in terms of Quality of Competition is his linemate T.J. Oshie, by the slimmest of margins, and as for the PDO, it’s a little above average, mostly on the back of good goaltending. Backes’ on-ice SH% is nothing special, and his personal SH% of 11.3 is in arrears of his career figure of 12.6, so his +/- isn’t widely out of line, even with the fine work of Brian Elliott accounted for.
Beyond the overall EV numbers, though, is the fact that Backes is absolutely killing it when the game is tied. Score effects can really skew out-shooting figures, so in order to account for that factor, the next table, with data from, shows the Shots/Fenwick/Corsi for all four gents when the game is even:
    Shots% Fenwick% Corsi% EVSH% EVSV% PDO
Backes   0.605 0.615 0.614 7.5 0.927 100.2
Bergeron   0.543 0.534 0.555 5.3 0.969 102.2
Kesler   0.552 0.571 0.572 6.3 0.967 103.0
Toews   0.608 0.603 0.600 9.9 0.933 103.2
This is where the rubber hits the road. The only player within hailing distance of Backes by this measure is Toews, and considering the wide disparity in ZS%, Toews isn’t really within range, either. That mix of relatively neutral Zone Starts and EV-tied dominance is fairly astonishing, and it’s the primary reason I think Backes should be getting markedly more attention than he is. 
St. Louis isn’t the biggest media market, and I don’t doubt that a few folks might look at the Blues’ success with a jaundiced eye, given the surprising nature of the goaltending they’ve received. Those out-shooting numbers are quite sturdy looking, though, and David Backes is at the heart of that dominance. He might not even get a mention at year’s end, but through half a season, he’s a worthy Selke candidate, and in a just world, a very worthy All-Star.