Finding Milan, Part II

Last week I took a look at what Milan Lucic was. If teams are trying so hard to re-create him, I think we need to learn exactly what Lucic is. I concluded the hulking former Vancouver Giant was a fundamentally-flawed hockey player, and the perception of his talent varies year-to-year which, creates a crisis of expectation. You just don’t know what you’ll get each year out of Lucic scoring-wise, but he’s a tremendously-effective forward.

His beat-em down game, while ugly to watch, works. He’s a plus possession player who helps his team generate shots and chances. It’s the conversion ratio that’s a little off. His PDO, which has ranged from 977 to 1045 throughout his career, is volatile and unpredictable. Is that what we can expect out of the great power forwards?

Reasonably, I think that Lucic plays the type of game that can only be appreciated with statistics. Otherwise, why did traditional scouts mis-read him every day of his life until the day he lifted the Cup over his head for what he brings to an organization? He’s almost the perfect Moneyball player:

“He can’t skate! He can’t shoot!” “But what can he do?” “He takes shots on goal.”

There’s also something to be said about his Scheuermann’s disease, causing Lucic’s hunched-over posture:

“We’re not selling t-shirts here, people.”

I wouldn’t press that point too much. One-time prospect that everybody wanted to draft, Kyle Beach, still has impressions from Lucic’s knuckles when he brought the issue up—probably very respectfully, I might add—in a WHL game. But the Canucks drafted a different player, and traded him this spring for another guy. That second guy is a player that Mike Gillis although not directly expressing but rather implied, wants to be Vancouver’s “Milan Lucic”.

Can he be someone else? Why is Lucic the standard? Power forwards, if you look at it from a definition of “goals” and “penalty minutes” aren’t necessarily a key component of a Stanley Cup squad. Here are the players with 25 goals and 110 penalty minutes since 2008. You’ll notice Lucic is the only one who played for a Cup winner in the last five years:

Player GP G PIM
David Clarkson 80 30 138
Scott Hartnell 82 37 136
Milan Lucic 81 26 135
Corey Perry 80 37 127
Wayne Simmonds 82 28 114
Milan Lucic 79 30 121
Alexandre Burrows 82 35 121
Corey Perry 82 27 111
David Backes 82 31 165
Alexandre Burrows 82 28 150
Ryan Getzlaf 81 25 121
Scott Hartnell 82 30 143

I think there’s something to be said for a physically-commanding forward who holds the puck in the offensive zone and is prone to shooting variations. The closer a player gets to the net, the fewer shots he can record, and the more vulnerable the player is to a cold snap that affects his numbers. It’s not like he’s a high-volume shooter who can wire lasers from just outside the scoring area repeatedly, and hope Nikolai Khabibulin is in net.

I went to Behind the Net and looked at what it was Lucic did particularly different from his teammates during the Stanley Cup season. Basically, he took a lot of penalties, but played more minutes than Gregory Campbell or Shawn Thornton, who also took penalties. I decided to make “power forward” a mix of “penalty-taking forward” and “plays effective forward minutes”. The idea was that players who had hit 0.9 penalties drawn per game, at least a 1.0 Relative Corsi and at least 13:30 of even strength ice time per game (with 60 games) qualified. I narrowed the search and looked for duplicates. Full list here.

Only one player matched the description for all five years of behind the net. That would be Corey Perry, who I’ve been convinced for quite some time is the best all-around winger in hockey. Three Canucks made the list: Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, and Henrik Sedin, the latter of which I’d say fits the “power forward” mould the best on the team, and I’ve been saying that for quite some time.

But the rest? More importantly, our list of Stanley Cup winners quadrupled with our expanded definition to include Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, and Dustin Brown.

What can Brown do for you?

McKeen’s in its description of Brown, also alludes to similar faults in Browns’s skating, as well as volatility: “missing elite explosiveness .. can dominate when his passion meter peaks – feeding a tendency to score in bunches .. trade rumours circulated during an 11-game goal funk in February”.

Dean Lombardi did not trade Dustin Brown, his captain, right before the trade deadline despite the rumours. How was he going to make space for all these highly-paid players, and how was the old core supposed to fit the new core of the team built around Jeff Carter and Mike Richards?

Brown found a spot, creating space for Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, one of the more well-built lines in the NHL. LA’s top line combines an elite two-way centreman with a shot-creator and an elite power forward. It’s the stuff of genius that EA has been trying to sell as part of its NHL franchise in line chemistry, but it never gets the player roles right on the nose.

Here are Brown’s percentages, coupled with his Corsi Rel:

  PDO Shot % Corsi Rel
2008 990 15.1% 7
2009 975 8.2% 5.6
2010 992 9.7% -6
2011 1021 12.3% 1.7
2012 1011 10.3% 6.6

It’s worth noting that Brown is not as good of a shooter as Lucic is, but the Kings have had him playing against tougher competition throughout his career. Rather, they’ve built to lean upon him not just for dominating offensive zone play, but they’ll gladly exchange the equivalent of 11 goals through the year for a player who they can better trust in the neutral and defensive zones.

I think building a team in the Los Angeles Kings’ mould is a better idea than building one in the Boston Bruins’: the Kings are more sustainable. They were a dominant puck-possession franchise after picking up Jeff Carter. They only looked for players who could move the puck. They used their minor league system to bring in replacement players, giving them piles of money to spend on the top two lines. They never gave up on Dustin Brown or Dustin Penner despite long scoring slumps, and both players were terrific in the playoffs.

What does this mean for, say, Zack Kassian going forward? At 21, Brown was playing 14 minutes a night, and in his 22-year old season he cracked the top six, hitting 18:43 and never dipping below 19:15 since then. Kassian is at 11:18 after his 21-year old season, so the first thing I’ll look at is whether the Canucks increase his role.

A lot of what Brown does isn’t visible on the scoresheet since he doesn’t rely on percentages as much as Lucic. Judging Kassian by goals and assists, if the Canucks really want to make him a power forward, isn’t the way to go. Look at his defensive and neutral zone play and whether he breaks up rushes with hits. Those are the plays that can contribute to Corsi points and a positive goal differential even if they don’t necessarily appear on a standard box score.

(Stats taken from Behind the Net and Hockey Reference)


  • The Last Big Bear

    Is there going to be Part III? I don’t see any conclusions being drawn in this article. Did you find Milan? Is he Zack Kassian, or Cory Perry, or Dustin Brown?

    Will Kassian become as good as Brown if he plays the same amount of ice time at the same age? Seriously, what are you saying in this article?

    • I don’t know, that Dustin Brown has an easier to follow career path, that it hinges on ice-time, that that’s what I’ll be monitoring in Kassian next year (not goals and assists)?

      I don’t know, it helps to read the things.

  • Just curious: are you avoiding Derek Zona’s definition of a power forward (.3 goals/game, 1.5 hits/game) for a reason? Penalties taken doesn’t intuitively seem to be a good proxy for “he breaks up rushes with hits”.