Gillis, Hodgson and Advanced Stats

We’ve long suspected that Mike Gillis and the Canucks use advanced metrics when making personnel decisions. Certainly they’re up on the importance of zone-starts, that much is clear from the way the team deploys, but throughout this season they’ve openly discussed stuff like scoring chances while writing off the utility of plus/minus. We now think that the team looks to acquire players who demonstrably suppress shooting percentage, and based on the way Raymond has been deployed the past couple of seasons, and the acquisition of players like David Booth and Chris Higgins – there’s suggestive evidence that the Canucks pay attention to possession numbers, and the idea of acquiring players who "drive play."

Read past the jump!

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At this point, if you’re covering the team and trying to figure out whats going on, you’re missing the forest if you’re not savvy to the underlying metrics. Trust in the numbers, and a modern view of the game has seeped into the very way the Canucks talk, and certainly has impacted several key roster decisions throughout the course of this season. Nowhere is that clearer than with Cody Hodgson.

Mike Gillis’ stern comments on the issues the team faced when handling Cody were as close to Gillis "lashing out" at a player as we’ll ever see from the former player agent. Here’s a sampling of what Gillis said about the trade today (what is in block quotes below is two distinct quotes, one from the first part of the press conference and the second part was said closer to the end):

"Clearly there were issues that were ungoing. I spent more time on Cody’s issues than any other player combined in the last three years. We made a determination that he didn’t want to be here, we built him into something we could move."

"We put Cody on the ice in every offensive situation we could, I don’t think he took more than 5 or 6 defensive zone faceoffs – that was by design. I don’t regret that move and I’d do it again."

Those are two extraordinarily revealing quotes. Let’s start with the first quote and the telling statement that "We built Cody Hodgson into something we could move." Canucks fans agonized about Hodgson’s ice-time throughout the first part of this season, and blamed Vigneault for his hatred of young players generally, and of Hodgson in particular. Meanwhile, Cam Charron noticed that Hodgson was most effective while playing a limited role five-on-five, and playing sheltered minutes.

If we take Gillis at his word (and I don’t see why we wouldn’t, this was clearly the most candid part of the press conference), it turns out Hodgson’s minutes weren’t just a product of Vigneault’s preferences – it was something the organization as a whole designed.

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In early February, I broke down the evolution of Cody Hodgson’s role on the club over at Pass it to Bulis. This is what I wrote then:

Finally we get to Hodgson, the man who has “claimed Malhotra’s job” (but hasn’t really). In the first three months of the season, Vigneault protected Cody Hodgson competition-wise, but not situationally. He trusted the rookie to hand it to the opposition’s bottom-6 forwards, and third defensive pairings, without requiring offensive zone starts to do so.

For the most part, Hodgson was up to the task, and produced at a reasonable rate in this sheltered situation while posting impressive possession numbers. That has changed in a big way in 2012. Now Vigneault gives Hodgson the “Sedin treatment” in terms of situational deployment, but the rookie faces harder competition, and his possession numbers have cratered.

In January, Hodgson had a 12% on-ice shooting percentage, shot 28.6%, and carried a PDO of 107.7. No wonder there have been a rush of articles, some genuine and some tongue-in-cheek, praising Hodgson for being “clutch” – he scored on every third shot he took in the month!

I have no doubt that Hodgson possesses the raw tools to be an elite finisher at the NHL level, and partly that’s what we saw this past month. But, obviously, there’s no way he’s going to keep scoring at January’s rate over the balance of the season. Hodgson’s January performance was a lot of fun, but it was something of a mirage and he’s bound to regress, especially if the Canucks continue to get their teeth kicked-in from a possession standpoint.

Basically Gillis admitted today that the way they began to deploy Hodgson as the season wore on, was designed to inflate his value. They were after one of "six young players" apparently, and one of those players was Zack Kassian. After Hodgson played an entire month riding crazy percentages in three-ply soft minutes – the Sabres were willing to make the deal and Gillis lept at the chance to acquire Kassian. The move didn’t work out in the short-term, but it turns out that we were dead-on when we described the deal thirty minutes after its completion as the "Canucks selling high on Cody Hodgson."

So now we know something else, and it’s something very interesting. Not only do the Canucks use advanced stats when thinking about what personnel to add, but they consider how they can use their "edge" in understanding, to inflate player value on the trade market. 

  • vetinari

    Any GM worth his salt should pay attention to advanced stats, whether they admit it to the press or otherwise. Obviously Gillis saw Hodgson as a pain in the rear and tried to inflate his value on the trade market before dumping him (which, I’m sure, is not a practice unique to the Canucks). However, I wonder what Kassian’s numbers were on 5v5 play and on zone starts before they made the deal?

  • vetinari

    Very interesting! PITB had a column late in the season about Cody’s defensive play – there was a video showing him dogging it on a play that led to a goal against the Sabres. But one wonders if it was prudent for Gilles to comment publically on this now. Doesn’t this appear to show up the Sabres GM?

  • vetinari

    hmm.. I still don’t understand the deal. Hodgson is a good player, he put up good numbers with Buffalo once he found his groove and he is still a young player.

    Kassian has/was a plug this year, did absolutely nothing for the team.

    • DCR

      Cody wanted out. Cody wasn’t working out in the Canucks’ system. It wasn’t a good situation for either Cody or the team.

      The Canucks simply featured him in such a way as to maximize what they could get for him – because they really didn’t feel they had any other option but to move him.

  • vetinari

    Does anyone else wonder who the other five young players are? Elliotte Friedman mentioned Washington, Carolina and Florida as other teams that were targeted by Gillis. Alzner/Carlson from Washington, Faulk from Carolina, and Gudbranson from Florida?

    • vetinari

      I recall one of the TSN guys (either McKenzie or Dreger) reporting that two other possible destinations for Hodgson were to Washington for Carlson and to Catolina for Brandon Sutter. Jim Rutherford loves Sutter though, so that deal fell through.

  • NuckfiSh

    I still think Kassian will be a Beast one day soon. He has all the tools & I think any real hockey person can see why Gillis values him so high…. and Hodgson’s face always reminds me of Eric Lindros – which by all accounts is who Hodgson strives to be off-ice – so I think Gillis made the right move. Having said that, we def could used him against LA.

  • Dmac

    The more I think of this, the less I like the comments by Gilles. Like a lot of people, my gut reaction to the trade was negative – Cody has scored some big goals, and he has a fantastic shot. I don’t dismiss the analysis, and I can see the logic. As others have said, Kassian could turn out to be a great addition. But it is all uncertain now – potential, not current performance. At this point the stats approach hasn’t yielded a cup. The cup is played with emotion as well and great teams often overachieve for emotional reasons – e.g. Colorado Avs in 2001 playing in final without Forsberg against a superior NJ team. Other example would be the 1993 Habs, the last Canadian team to win. So in making a comment like this, Gilles provides extra incentive for Hodgson to do well, and increases the risk of negatives on the Canuck side. In other words, no complaint about the trade, just the commments. Better to be proven right by the respective play of the two key players in the trade, than publically accusing Hodgson of being self centred. Also, how are future draft picks and their families going to feel about Gilles and Canucks after those comments?

  • Dmac

    IRC, Cody’s possession numbers also tanked as he started playing more and playing non-sheltered minutes as a “featured forward” (to borrow a football term) in Buffalo.

    You also have to factor in fitness – Cody was playing on a western team with arguably the hardest travel shedule. As Boudreau pointed out earlier in the season the Eastern teams/GMs have NO CLUE how tough the schedule is in the west. So Buffalo gets a guy who’s used to flying 5 hours and 1-3 time zones and is now taking bus trips to games. Conversely Kassian was clearly not in the same shape.

    Give Kassian the off-season to work out with the Vancouver staff and get a full sleep pattern work up and I think we’ll start to see a player that plays like the Bertuzzi he idolized while growing up.

  • @Cheops I like “featured” to describe either a young defenseman bumping up into the top-four, or a young forward beginning to regularly play top-six minutes. Can it work for goaltenders too? Is Cory Schneider on the verge of becoming Vancouver’s featured goalie?