Photography by: Daniel Fischer – www.stock4press.de
This past weekend, Cam Charron wrote a piece about analytics for the Province and dropped a line that might strike your average hockey fan as rather silly:
Ehrhoff might be a Norris Trophy contender if the Buffalo Sabres had a single other notable hockey player.
Here’s the catch: Cam didn’t go far enough. Who cares that the Sabres are terrible, Christian Ehrhoff’s performance has been good enough that he should be nominated for a Norris Trophy this season. Of course, he won’t get more than a couple of homer fifth place votes, but read on past the jump anyway.
Possession stats are still regarded skeptically by the vast majority of hockey fan and those in the hockey media, though it appears that NHL front offices are paying closer attention than they might publicly admit. Hell even the Edmonton Oilers, a club whose recent use of analytics as Public Relations is as hilarious as it is feeble, appear to be concerned about their league worst average shot differential…
Teams themselves may be coming around, they’ve got real skin in the game after all, but the average hockey scribe or Professional Hockey Writer’s Association member, with some notable exceptions, have been somewhat more resistant to more objective ways of looking at hockey. Plus/minus, for example, is still frequently cited when a player’s two-way proficiency is being backed up with "facts" – nevermind that plus/minus preposterously takes into account more than one game state, and is a metric hopelessly dependent on factors beyond an individual players control.
There’s also a whole whack of old-fashioned notions about which players even deserve votes in the first place. For example, if Christian Ehrhoff were to be win the Norris trophy for his superlative 2013 season, and I think he should be seriously considered, he’d be the first defenseman to win a Norris during a season in which his team missed the playoffs. Ever.
Last season, only one defenseman who played for a non-playoff team even recieved any Norris votes, that player was Dustin Byfuglien and he got four fifth place votes.
The prerequisite of "playing on a team that makes the playoffs" is kind of like "wins" for a pitcher in baseball. A pitchers record used to be a critical component in Cy Young voting even though the amount of run support a pitcher recieves is entirely beyond his control in the American league. Eventually the sabremetric crowd won the long argument, culminating in Felix Hernandez being rightly named the best pitcher in the American League for a season in which he went 13-12. Seriously: Christian Ehrhoff this season is pretty much the hockey equivalent of an ace going .500 because he plays for a totally hapless offensive team…
For now the Norris is supposed to be awarded to the "defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position," but really it just goes to the guy with the gaudy point totals and plus/minus numbers who was also fortunate enough for play for a playoff team. Which is preposterous.
Let’s get into Christian Ehrhoff’s body of work this season, because it has been absurdly impressive. Ehrhoff is 30th among all NHL defenseman in points, and 7th in total time-on-ice logged this season. He averages a hundred seconds more ice-time per game at even-strength than Buffalo’s next most frequently used defenseman, leads the team’s blue-liners in power-play ice-time, and he kills penalties too. Ehrhoff has proven to be durable and dependable, which would earn him a lot more praise if he had anyone besides Tomas Vanek to pass the puck too…
But to really understand Ehrhoff’s impact we have to get into the underlying numbers. The first thing to understand is that Buffalo is one of the league’s worst teams this season. They’re the fourth worst club in the league by Fenwick Tied (Fenwick is a stat that accounts for all goals, shots and missed shots both ways) and the single worst club by Fenwick Close. What this tells us, basically, is that the Sabres are awful when it comes to controlling play. Throughout this season, when the result of any particular game has been in doubt, the puck is usually in their end of the rink.
Except when Christian Ehrhoff is on the ice, that is. In score close situations this season, the Sabres have outscored their opponents by seven with Ehrhoff on the ice. Meanwhile when the versatile German blueliner is on the bench, and the score is close, the Sabres have been outscored by eleven goals. Kind of explains why Ehrhoff’s played so much more than the rest of his teammates, huh? It’s not really Sabre-metrics (couldn’t resist)
Ehrhoff plays so much because Buffalo plays like a playoff team when he’s on the ice. When he’s not, I’m not over-stating things when I describe them as completely helpless
|5on5||5on5 TOI||CF%||Fenwick Close%|
|Buffalo with Ehrhoff||695: 53||51.1%||51.4%|
|Buffalo without Ehrhoff||1141: 08||41.3%||38.6%|
Here’s Ehrhoff’s impact on a variety of Sabres defenseman whom he’s spent more than 50 even-strength minutes partnered with at even-strength this season:
|Christian Ehrhoff||EV TOI||Goals For||Goals Against||CF%|
|Ehrhoff’s Totals||695: 53||30||22||51.1%|
|with Myers||270: 12||9||8||49%|
|Myers without Ehrhoff||319: 12||12||18||43%|
|with Sulzer||182: 05||9||7||56.7%|
|Sulzer without Ehrhoff||64: 37||2||2||34.7%|
|with Weber||103: 02||3||1||43.4%|
|Weber without Ehrhoff||396: 48||15||15||40.3%|
|with Sekeraj||66: 51||6||3||61.7%|
|Sekeraj without Ehrhoff||405: 24||13||17||39.9%|
Pretty remarkable stuff.
It’s pretty unique stuff too. In fact if you look around the league at other Norris contenders, most of the defenceman who are getting "Norris buzz" don’t have a resume even approaching Ehrhoff’s this season.
Ryan Suter will probably win the trophy for some reason, and sure he’s been really good in his first year in Minnesota, particularly on the power-play. But it looks to me like his most frequent partner, hot shot rookie Jonas Brodin, is doing the serious heavy lifting possession-wise on the Wild’s top pairing. Before Brodin’s emergence, it’s not like Suter was making the Jared Spurgeons of the world look like top-pairing guys (which Ehrhoff managed this season with Alexandre Sulzer).
Also Minnesota is actually a slightly better possession team without Ryan Suter on the ice than they are with him. In part that’s because he’s playing against the opposition’s best, but then again, so is Ehrhoff…
Zdeno Chara is a possession monster once again in Boston, but the Bruins are a ridiculously good team even when he’s on the bench. They’re nowhere near as reliant on him as Buffalo is on Ehrhoff. Same goes for Drew Doughty.
There are, however, two players who are having a similar impact for their teams as Ehrhoff is having in Buffalo. They are also more fortunate, in that they get to play for good, playoff bound clubs. Those two defenceman? PK Subban, who is having a mind-blowingly dominant season, and Kris Letang, who is the nitrous that puts Pittsburgh’s offensive engine into overdrive. It’s pretty clear that those are the three guys who should be finalists for the Norris trophy this season, and it’s equally obvious that PK Subban should win the award in a landslide (which he won’t do).
But Ehrhoff won’t even be considered, and I’d be surprised if he even gets a small handful of fifth place votes. Which is disappointing. Thanks to a wealth of information and data that you can find at sites like behindthenet.ca and stats.hockeyanalysis.com, we’re now better able to quantify individual defensive contributions, even in a free flowing team game like hockey, than we’ve ever been before. That data suggests that Christian Ehrhoff is having a season worthy of Norris consideration, and the fact that his teammates aren’t very good really shouldn’t play into it.