36
Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

It’s 2017 and We’re Talking About Brandon Sutter’s Plus/Minus

Sportsnet 650’s Andrew Walker, along with Scott Rintoul, made an appearance during the Canucks broadcast last night, in both intermissions, to talk with Dan Murphy about the current state of the Canucks. One quote in particular about Brandon Sutter caught my attention.

“Travis Green’s done a lot of right things and he’s pushed a lot of right buttons. The number one thing I think is he’s carved out a role for Brandon Sutter. Listen, he’s not a fan, Travis Green, he’s a pretty good hockey coach, though. This is a market where people have kind of got on a guy like Brandon Sutter, which I think is pretty ridiculous. He’s a pretty good player. I think he’s a valuable player. I think he’s a useful player in the perfect role…

When I look at Sutter, he has one goal this season, and he’s still a plus-three. Now, when you look at the competition he’s played against, I think that’s pretty remarkable, and he’s one of the biggest reasons the Canucks have gotten off to a decent start this season.”

If we take a closer look, we can see that Brandon Sutter is rocking a 44% score-adjusted shot-share at evens through the first 14 games of the season, putting him just outside the bottom-thirty in forwards with over 100 minutes of even-strength TOI. A lot of defence-first forwards look better when you exclude blocked shots, but ironically Sutter looks even worse in this regard, sitting in the bottom-ten in 5v5 unblocked shot attempt differential among centres in his TOI range.

So why is this important? Well, shots lead to goals, and a tiny 14-game sample can wreak havoc on anybody’s goals-for or against totals. Keep in mind that Brandon Sutter’s been virtually attached to the hip of Derek Dorsett, who already has six goals and is shooting at 30%. Given this context, Sutter’s plus/minus doesn’t really look “remarkable”; it seems pretty pedestrian.

This may seem like just another entry in the age-old “stats vs eye test” debate that feels like it will continue ad nauseam until the end of time. It’s not. There’s an important distinction to be made here. Anytime you use plus/minus; you’re making a statistical argument. That’s probably not a battle Walker is well suited for in the best of times, and talking about plus/minus is the statistical equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight. Even the oldest of the old boys club doesn’t use it anymore.

There’s nothing wrong with the eye test. So use it. There are lots of smart people in this business that can use their eyes to analyze game tape and break down plays to shed light on things the stats can’t pick up. What you shouldn’t do is use being an “eye test guy” as a shield from criticism when you use bad statistics. In other words, when you’re talking about plus/minus, you aren’t being old-school. You’re being lazy.

  • I haven’t watched every game closely to see if it’s true, but as I understand it, the Sutter line is being used as a “shut-down” line — that is, Green does his best to match that line up against the opposing team’s elite line. McDavid, Crosby, Kuznetsov, that sort of thing.

    If so, I am not at all concerned that some of Sutter’s statistics suck.

  • Why does this article not factor in that the Dorsett-Sutter-Granlund line has been primarily deployed against other teams top lines? Pretty critical context as to why his shot-share is so low

    • So what? If they are a “shut-down” line, then they should be posting decent shots against averages by controlling the puck and limiting offensive chances. Also, top lines get paired against opposing teams’ shut down lines, and you don’t see their numbers in the tank. All this article is saying is that plus/minus is a dumb stat, and Sutter could and should be playing better. He’s just such a doofy go-getter, much like Dorsett, that not unlike a golden retriever is tough not to let play. When that golden retriever’s PDO hits double digits, though, you know it’s gonna be less visits to the dog park.

      Anyway, the theme of this comments section is so predictable. Waah, don’t criticize anyone for anything!! Waah!! Analysis is inclusive of critique and this is the best time to be critical – when the team is performing beyond expectations but it is clear – to everyone’s surprise – that it could be better. Criticism begets improvement, but not when you’re whining because you’re not being spoon-fed puff pieces.

  • And when you only write about the same topics ( ‘old school’, ”Bad Dorsett’, ‘Lousy Sutter’ ‘Trade Gudbranson’ ) it becomes very tired and uninteresting.

  • more agenda driven drivel here. this place is circling the drain with poor analysis trashing veterans. it’s like kids are writing this stuff.

    here is some basic common sense missing from the article.

    most teams that have the option do not dole out tons of ice time to offensively limited players like sutter.

    we don’t have the option as neither our past nor future top line can play toe to toe with other team’s top lines.

    so sutter is being deployed in a manner that is bound to hurt his stats. he’s being overplayed relative to his abilities against players who are better than him.

    sutter’s stats are thus very likely going to be bad if you compare him to players seeing different usage. they will lkely not compare favourably to first line players playing other first line players. they will also likely not compare favourably to a player of sutter’s ability deployed against 3rd or 2nd line opposition as would be more typical. they alsowill not compare favourably to players of sutter’s ability who play less often and in less key situations.

    unfortunately the article compares sutter to these types of players before reaching the shocking conclusion his stats are not as good as their stats.

    so how does sutter compare to other forwards with limited offence deployed in a comparable way against top lines?

    we won’t find out from this simplistic and misleading article.

  • Dan Murphy’s quote was bang on. Sutter is being deployed in tough situations and still achieving a positive result in the only place that matters – the scoreboard. The article’s reference to other stats leads one to think the results may not be sustainable, but the author’s focus on Murphy’s reference to the plus/minus stat instead of on the player he was praising is small-minded and not particularly informative.

  • Jackson’s only valid point is he knows more about hockey stats than whoever is being quoted about Sutter’s +/-.

    Congratulations he must be very proud. Perhaps Jackson would like to see Sutter back on right wing with the Sedins?

    The point of the quote is Green has found a modicum of usefulness for Sutter that eluded Willy all last year. It seems to be working better than Sutter’s deployment did last year.

  • Have I missed something about +/-? I’ve always thought it was a fairly useful (if unrefined) way to determine if a player is scored upon more than if the opposition. I got into a fairly drawn out argument a few years ago with someone, the year when Bo had the worst +/- in the league. He tried to tell me that that didn’t mean anything…which I didn’t understand. He said – you have to look at Bo’s corsi, fenwick and Corsi relative. I did and they were all really bad, so I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.

    I’ve always felt that +/- is a generally good starting point to understand how a player is doing…you can then get into details for a clearer picture.

    The Sedin’s are both currently -3 and are probably the best play drivers in the league according to Corsi . So…I think this tells you they aren’t burying their chances or they are getting caught flat-footed on a few juicy counter-attacks. Again, I’m deriving this from their +/-, so I’m not sure why people are so quick to argue it has zero value.

    • Plus-minus is out of fashion among the analytics crowd. The cool kids spit whenever they hear its name. That’ll likely pass. In a decade, plus-minus will be in again, although maybe in a slightly modified form, and people will wonder why such a useful statistic was so outré.

    • The stats crowd isn’t fond of it because it depends on events that are statistically rare – goals, and so the measurement tend to fluctuate wildly during and between seasons, even for very good players. All stats are affected by quality of teammate (QOT), quality of competition (QOC) and by the goaltender, the zone start, game state, and so on. Stats guys like measuring shots because there are so many more of them so the impacts are easier to measure and eliminate, and blind luck (good or bad) is also easier to eliminate. Over several seasons, and assuming a player stays healthy and doesn’t move from a good team to a bad one or vice versa, plus/minus is a perfectly valid way to assess a player’s value. Bobby Orr and Larry Robinson had the two highest totals across their entire careers; they also happen to be two of the best three defensemen in the history of the league.
      Over 14 games the number doesn’t mean much, but over a career it does. In the case of Brandon Sutter, he gets a point about one every three games, and stays about even in the plus/minus, so this year’s results are in line with his history. As a checker playing against very good opponents, his play so far this year is in fact impressive.

      • Well said BendingCorners – well said. Orr’s plus minus in 1970 – 71 of + 124 will never be broken. While I’m at it, the player not mentioned as one of the 3 best defencemen ever to play, IMO was Doug Harvey – 7 times a winner of the Norris trophy – Lidstrom was also a 7 time winner but I favour Harvey. Sort of off topic but I just had to get this in.

        On topic, IMO Sutter does a hell of job in taking and winning many defensive zone faceoffs. He contributes way more than the CA bloggers will ever give him credit for. The CA group have got a major ‘hang up’ with what he gets paid.

  • I’ve spent most of my working life using statistics. First thing I learned is that if you base your decisions solely upon statistics you do so at your own peril. There are so many variables involved that can change the meaning of a statistic. I agree that plus/minus can be simplistic but it does provide some valuable information if it’s used in the proper context. Score adjusted shot share is more precise but it doesn’t take into consideration where the shot is taken. As an example, lets say you have a player with a score adjusted shot share of 50% but the majority of the shots taken are from the slot with a high probability of scoring. Is this a better player than one whose score adjusted shot share is 44% but the majority of the shots are taken from the outside where there is a low probability of scoring. Who’s better. I’ll take the guy with the score adjusted shot share of 44%. In this case using plus/minus in conjunction with with score adjusted shot share might not be a bad idea. Using score adjusted shot share is better than plus/minus, but not much.

    I think using statistics to determine whether Sutter is good or bad player is a bad idea. His role is to shut down the opposition’s best line. He has been reasonably successful in this area but, most importantly, he is probably the best player on the team to do this job. We could go back to old system and match our #1 line against the oppositions #1 line but that was a disaster last year. Sutter has freed up the other lines to score more goals and he has been reasonably successful. I don’t need statistics to tell me that.

  • Jackson got me to comment again, damn it I need to be stronger. I would like a stats guys to tell me what is the difference between even strength goal differential and +\-. I don’t disagree with CA’s constant barrage regarding Sutter being overpaid and not being a good possession player. At the same time, can anyone at CA honestly say Sutter and his line haven’t been substantial contributors to the decent start the Canucks have had to the season?

    I understand that 14 games is a small sample size, but it is closing in on 20% of the season. Shot share and expected goals % are meant to predict success, but what happens when the results don’t mirror the predictions? Should we discount the actual results?

    So far the Sutter line has bent but not broken playing the hardest minutes. It would appear that Sutter’s actual goals for is +3, despite the fancy stats predictions. He’s not Bergeron, Toews or Kessler (lean over and spit), but he’s been helping the team exceed expectations.

    Finally, +\- is still being used in 2017 because the 99.99% of fans that aren’t part of the Nation Network have no idea what the advanced stats mean, but know that players that are on the ice for more goals for than against are generally doing a good job.

    • JD has hammered on Sutter and Benning since Brandon arrived.
      JD stated that Sutter was barely a third line center.
      Over time he has been proven to just look silly.
      Now Jackson is jumping on to JD’s sinking ship of stats.
      Way to think for yourself,Jackson!

  • “So why is this important? Well, shots lead to goals…”

    No…not really. Shots that go in, lead to goals. All other shots don’t lead to anything except being shots.

    If you’re going to be literal then be sure you follow your own logic all the way through.

    Corsi may be a more “valid stat” than +/- , but in what way is corsi a good predictor of success? I’ve asked this before and still haven’t gotten a good answer. As I mentioned in a previous thread….over the past few years the corsi “darling” teams have missed the playoffs or not gone far in the playoffs. Some have won, some haven’t.

    Seems to me you have to filter corsi numbers combined over a long stretch of years to even get the correlation between playoff success and good corsi to even show up.

    https://www.hockey-reference.com/play-index/tpbp_finder.cgi?request=1&match=combined&year_min=2011&year_max=2017&situation_id=ev&order_by=corsi_for

    To the point where it’s almost irrelevant stat to use over the short sample size of a season, let alone a small 4 round playoff run. As the playoffs last year and the year before showed, corsi doesn’t mean much when it comes to winning.

    So what’s the point of it again? That if the canucks can just have great corsi numbers consistently over the course of the next 5 years maybe the team might win a cup in that time? Or is it that in the end, it’s not as important a stat as some of you make it out to be? That the sample sizes needed for it to be an accurate predictor don’t fit with the reality of a single NHL season no matter how much you try to shoehorn it in?

    If I’m wrong, by all means show me how? But don’t just say…”oh you don’t understand…this has all been gone over before.” Then give me a link. Give me direct correlative data that shows the link between corsi and teams that have success either by finishing at the top of the league in the regular season or who have regular deep playoff runs. And not over a 5 or 10 year period, because that is irrelevant. Sure the kings got a cup or two out of being “corsi darlings”, but in turn the Pens have as well without it.

    Believe it or not I’m not anti fancy stat….but I do need to see the evidence before I buy into all this worry about the canucks shot differentials as if they are some huge disaster waiting to happen.

    • I think possession can really depend on style. When the kings were Corsi darlings, they played a heavy cycling game with big bodies dominating the corners and behind the net (not unlike the possession darling Sedins, although they did it with skill not size). Pittsburg is all about speed and attacking. They don’t look to cycle or own possession. They look to attack quickly. If they don’t score on the attack the other team often gets possession back.

      Look at it in terms of basketball, a run and gun team may possess the ball for mere seconds every possession while a slower half court team may use most of the shot clock before they attack the net. Having more time of possession. Doesn’t mean the half court team will be more effective than the fast break team.

      • It’s a good point. The NBA analogy is an excellent one. I often think of the extremely boring but extremely effective Italian soccer teams of the past. The ones that would sit in their half of the field and soak up pressure. Keeping everything to the outside or forcing low quality shots. But then suddenly BAM they’d hit on the counter and had so much skill they’d score on their few trips down the field. I’m sure those teams got absolutely murdered on the possession stats and the shot stats as well.

    • You’ve brilliantly articulated every issue I’ve had with CA’s analytics only approach to team evaluation and advanced stats in general. It bothers me that there cannot be a constructive, informative debate about the subject. I appreciate this post.

      • When people explained to me why WHIP is a better way to judge a pitcher than win/loss record, I had to let go of my belief in the value of the win/loss record. I still see a 20 game winner and assume they must be the best, but it’s just not true. The logic of the argument shows that. Something like this article sums it up very well.

        https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/what-is-the-best-pitching-stat/

        I’m still looking for that kind of logical argument regarding many of the fancy hockey stats. It’s kind of like when SV% took over from GAA when judging a goalie’s individual play. That makes sense. But I don’t see evidence of Corsi being a reliable predictor or indicator of success.