Tom Sestito’s Value As a Hockey Player

Tom Sestito, in his haven.

I’d say that over the course of the Mike Gillis Era in Vancouver, the Canucks as an organization have employed a fairly avante-garde approach. They’ve done an admirable of thinking outside of the box in an attempt to maximize their assets and stay ahead of the curve. This includes sleep doctors, extreme zone deployment, and tracking all sorts of "advanced" stats (like passing efficiency, for example). After leaving the organization back in February, Craig MacTavish acknowledge this with a choice quote:

"The one thing that Mike Gillis brings is a real progressive outlook. As we all are, he’s looking for new and creative and innovative ways to give ourselves a competitive advantage."

It’s always difficult to quantify how much any of these innovative tactics actually contribute to the sustained success on the ice over the years, but I’d argue that the effect has been profound. You’d think that a braintrust with that sort of track record would be cognizant of the value in icing a full lineup of players that can actually, you know, play hockey. Or even better yet, the handcuff that sending a constant liability out on the ice presents.

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For whatever reason, the Vancouver Canucks have shown an inability to apply the forward-thinking approach we’ve seen from them when it comes to 4th line Hockey Player FacePuncher Tom Sestito.

The Hockey Player

I think it’s kind of intuitive from the eye-test that Tom Sestito isn’t a particularly good possession player. We often seem him plodding around the ice looking for someone to throw his body at. Apparently – I say that, because this is probably one of the first times I’ve ever actually opened the real time stats section of – he’s 2nd on the Canucks in hits with 47, just 5 behind Kevin Bieksa (who plays significantly more minutes, obviously). This is relevant because it’s a common response I receive from my followers in defense of Sestito; it seems kind of ironic that someone would view this as a valid retort, when in fact, all it does it solidify my point.

Why does Tom Sestito have so many hits? Is it because he’s a particularly good hitter? Is it because he’s all over the place, causing havoc for the opposing team? Not really, no. It’s actually mostly due to the fact that the other team has control of the puck an overwhelmingly large amount of the time that he’s on the ice.

Now, normally I wouldn’t cite the possession numbers of a 4th liner that’s starting less than 30% of his shifts in the offensive zone, because we’d expect them to be ugly. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Sestito’s, because he’s on pace for a historically bad season in that regard..

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According to Extra Skater, Sestito is in a dead heat with Cody McCormick of the Buffalo Sabres for the worst on-ice shot differential in the entire NHL (out of regulars who have suited up in at least 21 games thus far). McCormick actually has a worse 36.2 Corsi For % than Sestito’s 37.0% on the surface, but we need to put those numbers into perspective using Corsi Relative (which takes into account the strength of the player’s teammates). 

When sorting by Corsi Relative %, Tom Sestito is rocking a league-worst -16.7%. I hope you can appreciate just how truly bad that is. Next up is Brad Richardson, actually, but he’s quite a ways away from him at -11.7%. The same overriding trend holds true when you look at Fenwick (removing blocked shots), and actual Shots on Goal – Tom Sestito is the biggest anchor in the NHL at the moment.

Now that I’ve thrown a bunch of numbers at you though I’d like to put some of this stuff into perspective. Tyler Dellow wrote a really good post about Oilers forward Lennart Petrell last season when he was sporting a sub-40 CF% himself:

"What happens to sub-40% Corsi guys? Looking at seasons of 300 minutes or more, there are 29 of these guys in the BTN era, which started in 2007-08. 17 of these guys are no longer active in the NHL. For eight of them (Jeff Cowan, Jim Dowd, Jeff Giuliano, Byron Ritchie, Scott Thornton, Dan Hinote, Todd Marchant and Jon Sim), a sub 40% Corsi season was the end of the line. Another five played one more season after a sub-40 season." 

That’s quite the trend, and some damning company. Luckily for Sestito, Dellow goes on to note that the best way for a player to survive such a season is to have a contract already guaranteed the following year, which he does. This brings us to the $775k question of why Mike Gillis and Co. felt compelled to offer Sestito a 2-year, 1-way deal? Was he getting better offers on the open market? I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have taken that one guaranteed year in a heartbeat. 

The FacePuncher and the Deterrent

Even Sestito’s biggest backers would have to conceed the information above. But I can already hear the rebuttal of "he’s not there to score goals or drive play.. he’s there to act as an enforcer, protect the stars, and act as a deterrent to stop other team’s from taking runs". But what is Tom Sestito enforcing and deterring, in all seriousness?

Josh Weissbock, who writes our prospect report each week, went through the trouble of watching every one of Tom Sestito’s 7 games fight this season. According to him Sestito has thrown 55 of the 123 total punches in the 7 bouts, giving him a 44.7% Punch %, and a -13 Punch Corsi. I quickly scanned through Hockey Fights’ database, and their voters have Sestito winning just 2 of those 7 fights (he was 2-5 the year before, too). His fighting ability is slightly better than his hockey playing ability, but not by much, and that’s saying something. At least a guy like Colton Orr can thrown down..

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Why would anyone out there, that’s already crazy enough to risk their body playing hockey professionally, be scared of Tom Sestito? I gave him some praise in last night’s game recap for sticking up for teammate Ryan Stanton by fighting Chris Neil. Even though he technically got the better of Neil in that fight, Neil still went on to shove Alex Edler from behind into an unsuspecting and prone Roberto Luongo during a play in the 3rd period after the whistle had already been blown. I’ve long thought that the idea that an enforcer-type would help "police the game", and deter guys like Chris Neil from doing Chris Neil things was silly. If it’s part of their game they’ll continue to do it, with or without a Tom Sestito around.

The Trickle-Down Effect and The Problem

.. is felt on players like Darren Archibald, Zac Dalpe, and Jeremy Welsh, who are on the outside looking in because of Tom Sestito’s continued presence in the lineup. You’d figure that a team that has had as much trouble scoring goals as the Canucks would look to squeeze every goal it could from their depth players, but apparently not. That probably has to do with the fact that a Zac Dalpe, despite being significantly more talented than Sestito, doesn’t fit the stereotype of what a 4th liner should look like. 

Adam Gretz had a fantastic article about this pigeonholing of 4th line traits:

"At some point hockey people decided that a fourth-liner in the NHL almost always has to be a certain type of player. This player is usually described with several buzzwords and phrases. He has to have grit. He has to be tough. He has to be physical. He has to be difficult to play against (a phrase that can have multiple meanings)."

"When we talk about players who are "tough to play against" we always think of it is as physical play. But what type of player is harder to play against? A relatively skilled player who can control the puck and make you defend him; or a player who can’t keep the puck and will bang you around after you’ve already made a pass or taken a shot? I’d go with the former."

I would as well. Even if it’s for just 6-8 minutes a night, wouldn’t you want to give your team a better chance to win during that time? It’s nothing personal against Tom Sestito, who I’m sure is a nice person, but it’s pretty clear at this point that he doesn’t do that for the Vancouver Canucks. While the team surely has bigger problems than the 4th line, they don’t exactly have the luxury of squandering opportunities given how good, and tightly packed the Western Conference is.

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  • mk

    Don’t worry – most teams in the league have this problem. Some take it to the extreme.

    It’s an institutional thing that probably won’t change quickly, even though it might help a team incrementally.

  • mk

    What was Geno Odjick’s corse and fenwick? How much of a legend is he? I’m not saying Sestito is in Odjick’s class as a face puncher, but I am saying Sestito and his ilk help sell tickets. As I recall from 2011, everyone except Canucksville were emotionally tied to the Bruins because they were the “tougher” team. Yes, it was total BS. But the point is why not have a guy or two who you can send out and punk a guy like Marchand?

    Is Sestito that guy? Probably not. But you need someone like that.

    • Dimitri Filipovic

      .. you can be both tough and competent at hockey at the same time. Don’t need to trade one off for the other, which is what the Canucks are doing every time Tom Sestito is dressed for a game.

    • Dimitri Filipovic

      Gino also played at the end of the era before the instigator rule, head shots, etc all came into play.

      If Gino was 20 years younger and riding shotgun on the Sedins, he would end up hurting the team by taking instigator penalties and retaliation penalties, and he’d be suspended for a good chunk of the season as a repeat offender. It is the same reason why Gillis let Torres go as a UFA.

      Enforcers had more of a role back then, because they could drop the gloves and issue some frontier justice without as much risk of putting their team down a man or getting suspended.

      Even after the instigator rule was in effect, there still were quite a few years where most of the league still grew up and played under the “Code” and guys would drop the gloves if challenged.

      As an increasing number of players who never had to answer for their hits by dropping the gloves came into the NHL, the role of the enforcer declined in effectiveness.

      Or maybe I’m just romanticizing that period since I was a kid then, but thats how I remember it.

  • acg5151

    Yeah, if there was actually any proof that having enforcers deterred other teams from taking liberties with your skill players in the modern era… I’d be all for having 2-3 enforcers, not just Sestito.

    But there isn’t any such proof, as you noted.

    Now if you want to stack your depth lines with guys that strike fear into the opponents, you should be collecting guys like Cooke, Eager, Torres, etc that make the other team be wary of taking a headshot every time they are on the ice.

    What enforcers bring is entertainment value.

    For whatever it says about our culture, a good fight where the two guys are just throwing punches left and right brings the crowd to their feet, just like a highlight reel goal.

    So in terms of maximizing entertainment value (as opposed to maximizing the chances to score goals), it does make sense to spend a a 4th line spot and a bit of cap space to have a guy like Sestito in the lineup.

    Although that doesn’t explain dressing him in road games, since the Canucks don’t give a damn whether the fans in Ottawa are entertained or not, since we want to send them home unhappy their team got spanked on the scoreboard anyways.

  • acg5151

    “I’d say that over the course of the Mike Gillis Era in Vancouver, the Canucks as an organization have employed a fairly avante-garde approach. They’ve done an admirable of thinking outside of the box in an attempt to maximize their assets and stay ahead of the curve. This includes sleep doctors, extreme zone deployment, and tracking all sorts of “advanced” stats (like passing efficiency, for example).”

    “It’s always difficult to quantify how much any of these innovative tactics actually contribute to the sustained success on the ice over the years, but I’d argue that the effect has been profound.”

    Based on what exactly?

    Cam’s article doesn’t in any way show that Gillis was the cause of the Canucks’ success for a few years.

    It’s nothing more than a popcorn piece to manufacture consent for the organization.

    Unless one believes in general manager fairy dust, and perhaps you do, a logical connection actually needs to be established here to attribute the success of the franchise to Gillis.

    Because there is a growing body of tangible evidence (notably Gillis’ draft & trade records) that suggest the organization has had a poor approach for years and the W-L record is finally catching up to the god awful transaction record…

  • elvis15

    Gillis hasn’t traditionally gone the route of the heavyweight enforcer stereotype. In fact, he’s gone for guys like Weise (along with Glass and Rypien) who can step in and fight while also having enough skill to be useful. He’d never go for a Fraser McLaren type, who adds very little else beyond exceptional fighting ability, but still has to get the qualities he wants in a package that fits in the cap world.

    Sestito has shown some contributions, no doubt, but then Weise has shown he can be more effective overall and still step in to get his face punched in if that’s really what’s needed. This team will generate more momentum from big saves, scoring chances and energy play (hits/blocks/etc) than they will from a fight. We aren’t Boston, who is a team that will feed off that type of play.

    Archie I like, but has just a bit more development I’d like to see before we play him here for minimal minutes. I’m not opposed to playing someone like Dalpe in an energy situation either, but he won’t succeed if that means being hemmed in his own end 60+% of the time.

  • acg5151

    Thanks for the informative post. Don’t forget to add that Sestito was like the first RFA (or was it UFA?) signing last summer and you really have to wonder why. My guess is that ownership feels that Italian connection.

  • Fred-65

    I don’t mind Sestito as much as some apprently do. I like a heavy fore check and I believe few defensmen like to have their face pushed through the glass. Big hits make a defense move the puck quicker than they’d like. Often making break outs fail. I used to watch Brashear he made it an art form almost, good speed and heavy hit and Defensemen trying to unload the puck ASAP. The fights are often as a result or alternatively the other team trying to do the same to the Canucks. He knows his role and doesn’t often get into big trouble, doen’t win them all but every one knows it’s coming.

    As Markus Nasland used to say about Brookbank it makes every one on the bench 6″ taller

  • Fred-65

    I don’t mind Tommy on line 4 and used sparingly. It is obvious he deters people from taking liberties and the Canucks haven’t had that in a while. He knows the role and enjoys being the bully and is a big body – when he does land a check, it hurts. He brings intangibles to the team and that’s why he suits up for every game. Torts won’t have his team pushed around or bullied and it’s nice to see.

    Do you think the Nucks would’ve pushed back the way they did against the Kings if Sestito wasn’t there? Unlikely. There isn’t anyone really pushing Sestito and Torts wants that element on his team.

  • acg5151

    Dimitri just spent more time writing a column about Sestito than Sestito plays on a road trip.

    In all seriousness, I look at Archibald’s time in the NHL, his advanced and real time stats and wonder “why in the hell is he in the AHL if the goal is to ice the best team possible?” losing Sestito to waivers shouldn’t keep Gillis up at night should it?

  • acg5151

    Sestito is great at what he does and im beginning to have serious doubts about Filipovic as a goto source for Canucks.

    If you can’t see the mental edge that the Canucks play with when Sestito is in the lineup then your watching the wrong sport. Maybe track & field is more your speed Dmitiri?

    The Canucks have been pushed around and had the “soft” label for the last 2 years, so they finally get a legit heavyweight – who isn’t a cheap shot artist or a head hunter or a goon – and you want to drop him for Darren Archibald?!? That’s ludicris.

    You should get your head checked.

    Fancy stats can tell you a lot about a player or a team, but they can’t pant the full picture. This is clearly an example of when fancy stats fail.

    Sestito is a Canuck.