Q is for Quality of Competition

Well, here we are two weeks later and it appears the “national” hockey media is still talking about Auston Matthews.

I mean, I know it’s Toronto but come on. Leafs fans really should change their little slogan to “Buds 24/7, 365.”

Anyway, just when I thought everyone had moved on, Matthews is back in the spotlight because now he’s allegedly feuding with Leafs coach Mike Babcock. But more on that later.

First, let’s recap how the mainstream media turned on Matthews during that Toronto-Boston series.

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It all started with a 3-1 loss in Game 4 of the Leafs’ first round series against the Bruins. Matthews was a non-factor, but then so were the rest of his teammates. But what really burned the Toronto media was that Matthews wasn’t made available to the media following the game. So much so, that they were still harping on it a week later:

This led to one of the most incredible sequences I have ever seen on hockey twitter:

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That’s right, folks. Elite hockey talents become better players by talking to the media!

I actually find this idea that facing your critics makes you a better as a person and in your chosen profession amazing coming from a group that can’t hit the block button fast enough at the slightest critique on twitter:

Yes, these are grown men that can’t handle a little push back on the internet getting apoplectic that a 20-year-old kid won’t come out and answer their trite questions with tired clichés.

Just to put a little context around this, two of the six forwards to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP didn’t get off to great starts their first couple of years in the playoffs either. Justin “Mr. Game 7” Williams went 1-5-6 in 17 games, while Henrik Zetterberg went 3-2-5 in 12 games. For context, is 5-2-7 in 13 playoff games. The point is, he’s just a kid and the fact the Leafs have to rely so much more on him is on the rest of the team, not him.

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This brings us to the topic of competition.

Now, over the course of a season I’m not convinced that quality of competition varies enough between players that it has a large impact on overall results. But over a short period of time, especially a playoff series, who you’re playing against can, and often will, be much more drastic. Not only are you facing the same actual players over a series, as opposed to players of similar “quality” by whatever metric you’re using to describe that, but the line matching is much more extreme.*

Let’s take Brandon Sutter as an example, and we’ll look at competition a couple of different ways. First, here are a couple of charts showing how Sutter fared against every opposing forward in each game he played this year. In this case, we’ll assume that NHL coaches are good judges of overall player quality and allocate ice time based on that quality. So along the x-axis we have opponent quality by 5v5 TOI/GP.

That ice time can also be expressed as a % of total 5v5 TOI available. So for example a top line player getting 16 5v5 mins per game on a team that averages 48 5v5 mins would be expected to be on the ice 16/48 = 33% of the time at 5v5. And if there was no line matching, and ice time was assigned purely randomly, this means that if Brandon Sutter played 15 5v5 minutes against this player’s team, we would expect them to be matched up 33% of the time, or 5 minutes. If we compare the actual head-to-head TOI with this expected value, we can get an indication or how much more or less Sutter played against this player than if the ice time was purely random, i.e. how much line matching or sheltering was going on. That’s what we have on the y-axis.

The chart on the right shows us that Sutter was indeed used to match up against higher TOI opposition over the course of the season (the vertical lines roughly represent the split between 3rd/4th line TOI and 1st/2nd line TOI). The chart on the left shows that for the most part, the players he faced did better when he was on the ice against them than they did overall, i.e. they had a better shot attempt (Corsi) differential vs. Sutter than their average. And the higher the opponent’s TOI, the worse he did, in general.

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The other way to look at player quality is by shot attempt differential, which we can see in the two charts below.

Here, the y-axis remains the same so that we can see how much more or less Sutter faced the opponent compared to a random deployment, but along the x-axis we now plot those opponents by their shot attempt differential. Here the vertical lines are at +/- 5 shot attempt differential per 60 mins, which again are roughly the break points between 3rd/4th line performance, and 1st/2nd line performance.

So when looking at Sutter’s competition in terms of shot attempt differential, we can see that with that as a measure of quality, Sutter did not really face particularly tougher opposition that we might expect. And in terms of performance, he was generally below expectations across all ranges of opponents.

With the explanation out of the way, let’s look at Auston Matthews’ competition in that first round series against the Bruins. Here he is against the Bruins forwards:

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The first thing to notice here is that Boston did not do much to match specific “shut-down” forwards against Mattews’ line. The competition was basically what you would expect with random deployment. And in terms of on-ice performance, while Matthews was under water against Bergeron and Marchand, his line wasn’t dominated any more than you would expect up against them. But he more than made up for that against the rest of the Bruins lineup and wound up above water overall.

It’s when you look at Mathews’ matchups against the Bruins defensemen that you can really see how Boston was playing against him. Most coaches tend to focus more on matching defensemen against the opposing top lines, and that’s certainly what was happening here:

Matthews was overwhelmingly matched up against Chara and McAvoy and did very well against that pair.

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So sure, Matthews was unlucky in terms of goal scoring, and ultimately that is the point of playing hockey games. That is the thing that gets you to the next round. But he was also matched up against the Bruins’ top defensive pair.

Compare that to Tyler Bozak, who was able to feast on the bottom end of Boston’s lineup, whether it was the defensive pairs of the forward matchups:

And compare also to Patrick Marleau, who was pretty heavily matched against Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak but didn’t do nearly as all in terms of holding them to their expected shot attempt differentials:

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And he had the luxury of staying away from from the top defensive pair:

But hey, he scored four goals and presumably answered the media’s questions, so it’s all good.

The point is this, process wise, Matthews did ok given the competition he faced. Could the results have been better? Sure, if more of those scoring chances wound up in the back of the net, no one would still be talking about this. And maybe if he had a chance to play a bit more, some of those chances would eventually start going in. But Babcock was all about “balance and depth” so Matthews didn’t get the ice time an elite player might usually get:

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And hey, maybe he’s right. As I said above, Matthews is still just a kid.

Unfortunately, some in the Toronto media don’t seem willing to accept or even acknowledge that.


* does not apply when facing Willie Desjardins



  • Buula

    Great post. In fact, probly my fav post of yours over the last 4-5 years I’ve been frequenting the site.

    It’s brutal how Toronto’s media treated and apparently continues to treat Matthews.

  • Cageyvet

    Way to hide another anti-Sutter piece in a column ostensibly about Matthews and quality of playoff matchups. You’re not convinced the data means much over a full season (more so in a short series) yet we get the Sutter data foe the year……with no zone starts or other data to consider. Once again, I wasted my time even reading the garbage you put out. Your agenda is supported by your cherry-picked analytics, instead of defined by solid statistical analysis. Add to that the fact that your columns are always negative, and it’s no wonder both your bylines are pseudonyms, nobody would want to cop to generating such tripe on a regular basis.

    • The_Blueline

      I really don’t understand your comment. The autor qualified his statements about Sutter. Also, if you believe Sutter is so a better player than supported why don’t you make an argument. But one with substance. Not a AW eye test comment quoting some old hockey man. I for one would really appreciate that because I do not know enough about hockey to do it myself. But from what I have read from sources I trust and fromm what i have seen myself, I have a hard time to understand why the Canucks pay Sutter more than 4m for 3 more years.

  • The_Blueline

    Great article. This is why CA us the best source all things Canucks.

    Crazy how Toronto media treated Matthews. This is how players are hounded out of town.

  • wojohowitz

    The problem here is that three topics get a drive by when each is worthy of an article by themselves. Such as;

    1- The hatchet job on the media unfriendly, hot dog gorging Phil Kessel or the unhappy (I`m resigning tomorrow) Trevor Linden.
    2- Why the twenty year old Auston Matthews is such a disappointing replacement for the hockey icons Dave Keon and Doug Gilmour.
    3- Or most interesting to most of us is whether Brandon Sutter is a leader or an anchor.

    • argoleas

      3. Legit question, but the way I look at it (fairly or not) is that in the end, the +/- was in his favor while soaking up the hardest minutes (in whichever way the coach attributes that as opposed to the above analysis). That will become important because it will allow Canucks to shelter Pettersson and Gaudette for now. This will obviously happen in conjunction with the opposition keying in on Bo’n’Flow.

      Can you have, in theory, someone that is better at shot suppression and possession while being actually cheaper in Sutter’s role? Hell yeah. But we go with what we gots.

      • Freud

        Go with what we gots? Gaunce and Granlund’s numbers show they could have filled in for Sutter in his role and done a better job, for a fraction of the salary.

        Team Lemming says Sutter is a very valuable shut down, face off winning centre.

        It’s a win/win. Trade the very valuable Sutter for a high first round pick while replacing him with better players from within.

        • Canuck4Life20

          Exactly what numbers are you referring to smart guy? It’s not goals and assists. And why someone so bright would bring up face-off percentage to support his argument is truly puzzling. Sutter had a face-off percentage of 51.7 last year while Gaunce was at 48.2 and Granlund was 40.8. But of course you’ll say that face-offs don’t matter because there was that one article years ago that said they didn’t. Apparently actual goals don’t count in your world either.

          • crofton

            He merely includes “facts” to suit his narrative du jour. he probably didn’t expect anyone to call him on the numbers issue he brought up either. And I suppose he is conveniently forgetting the draft pick he espouses (sarcastically a 1st rounder) will take 2 or 3 years to be NHL ready, and that Vancouver would have to sign another FA to replace that.

  • North Van Halen

    It’s funny I said much of this a few days ago myself when I heard the Matthews bashing in the middle of that series. Kids frickin 20 years old. 90% of the guys can’t even make the league at this age and the media thinks he’s supposed to dominate? Ken Campbell is a total joke, in-laws got me a sub. to the hockey news, hated it, couldn’t wait for it to end. Watch these same guys trip over themselves to fawn over him when he does have a good run in the next few years. Kinda fell sorry for fans in the east, cox, campbell, o’neil, mccown, proteau, thats a lot of jerk masquerading as experts but when you get 24 hr coverage I guess some are gonna be schnooks.
    Too bad GC still feels a need to push his ‘I’m so smrt’ even when unnecessary. He could probably make a better case if he found new material. At this point we got a pretty good idea what you think about Sutter & Gudbranson, could we have done this with Horvat? Sedin? How about a comparable from another team like Bergeron or Backstrom , you know #1 centres like Matthews?
    Or how about thoughts on Poulliot? Can he be a future piece? Boeser can he sustain? There are a million things I want to read at this point beyond Sutter not good. Thank you we get it.

  • KCasey

    Im not on the team that thinks you directly bashed Sutter here, but I would strongly suggest you avoid using him at all period for anything ever. Next to nobody actually cares that much about him let alone cares to see or hear anything second hand from you guys for 1000th time. We get it. He got overpaid. Kudos to you guys for spotting that in the data several years ago. But make no mistake, that did happen several years ago. Than you insult us readers with your cop out line of ‘what else should we write about’. Heres a tip. Write endless repeat articles on how Horvat has exceeded expectations. If you can scour sources for different angles to bash Sutter, you can definitely dig up the same amount if not more information on articles that dont even need to be positive(cause we all know positive makes your blood boil) but just simply better. Just try it guys. Be adventurous and think outside the box. Ya know, like you demand of the ‘old boys’ hockey men club. Side note to that, dont he hypocrites.

    • Dirk22

      If the Canucks had moved on, replaced their management and started making astute moves that made up for things like the Sutter trade I think you would probably see this narrative stop.

      Problem is, they just reupped the guy responsible for all this who then proceeded to double down on a mistake by signing Gudbranson to another contract. As long as these sorts of things happen you’re going to see management get skewered. There’s not another professional sports team in the world where this doesn’t happen.

      Have some higher expectations for people making millions of dollars to build a hockey team. They can do better than pay a guy 4 + mill a year because of his family name.

      • KCasey

        Once again…
        CA: Managment sucks because of Sutters contract–Rebuttle: Managment got Sven for a second–CA Rebuttle: Managment sucks because of Sutters contract–Rebuttle: Managment fleeced the same team again for Granlund–CA Rebuttle: Managment sucks because of Sutters contract–Rebuttle: Managment hit paydirt on Boeser at 23–CA Rebuttle: Managment sucks because of Sutters contract.
        Long story short, yall have been standing on that one leg so long your foot must be killing you. Take a seat, relax and muster up a new concept. I guess in technicallity you hop back and forth between the Sutter contract to the Gudbranson trade/Contract. So you beating 2 dead horses. Still beating a dead horse though no? Even worse is most of this board has already agreed….years ago….that the trade and both contracts are undesirable. Like cool story bro, you got any lemonade cause im sick of the kool-aid.

        • Cageyvet

          Exactly. I’m not saying Sutter is a world-beater, a difference-maker, or properly compensated. It just boggles my mind why, after GC says he doesn’t place much value in a season’s stats, out comes a bunch of Sutter’s season stats.

          What did this have to do with Matthews in a short sample size? Maybe use a meaningful example from other playoff series from this year. It just screams agenda and disrupted what was an enjoyable read to that point. For those who lauded this effort, stay tuned, I may not love this piece but you’re probably correctly, this as good as it gets with GC.

          • Cageyvet

            Probably correct……channel some of that anti-Canucks management energy into finding a way to restore the oft-requested edit button……not doing so is ignoring your readers who all know this would be such a simple fix.

          • steviewire

            I’m not sure why some people are so obsessed with an edit button. Proof read before you post and own your words. A moments reflection before posting is not a bad thing

        • Dirk22

          I think what you’re trying to say that every ‘bad move’ they have made has been offset by an equally ‘good move?’ That’s a real stretch and one that I don’t agree with at all…but let’s say that’s true. Every bad move/contract Benning has made has been offset by an equally good one (sounds funny to even say doesn’t it). If thats the case though, that is a mediocre performance. Why then support rehire a GM who has had a mediocre performance? Do you not want something better for your team? Do you not want an above average GM?

          • KCasey

            Nope….both wrong/ignorant guys. Nothing of what I had orginally said had anything to do with managment but everything to do with writers bouncing the same ball on Sutters face for years on end. So to clear the air and help you children move on from your little detour of trashing managment…ill just go ahead and say I hate Canucks managment because they suck. There, happy? Does that appease you in a way that can allow the real issue at hand to be addressed? Ill phrase it in a question in hopes that you can provide an answer instead of a distraction. What will it take for the writers and you trolls to drop the Sutter and Gudbranson enigma and move onto other things? Its done. Finished. Cant change it. Happened years ago. Dont care about managment and what they could do right or wrong in the future. Bash managment for Forsling for all I care….I mean thats been done a handful of times too but at least not to the tune of 25+ articles. Thats really it. Not managment. Not Sutter. Not Gudbranson. Just you guys and the writers that fuel your endless ranting. This site used to be sick. Guess what it is now. Mailbags, Black Fish reports and a half finished prospects list….that also took a quarter of a year to come out….and as stated, not done. Less comments and traffic on articles. More trolls and zero moderation.
            You guys really knocked the formula for success out of the ball park.

          • North Van Halen

            Literally reading this is about the same as reading many of the articles and comments. Coulda stopped with the 1st WE KNOW YOU HATE SUTTER AND GUDBRANSON!!!! Shoulda stopped with the 2ndWE KNOW YOU HATE SUTTER AND GUDBRANSON!!!! By the 3rd WE KNOW YOU HATE SUTTER AND GUDBRANSON!!!! It gets boring and by the time you get to this WE KNOW YOU HATE SUTTER AND GUDBRANSON!!!! We completely understand, we just wish the author had something else to say.

  • TD

    This is an entertainment business. Matthews gets all the praise he deserves when he does exceptional things. The Leafs should have put him in front of the media. His wages are paid by the fans and the TV deals. The networks who pay don’t want fourth line players getting interviewed cause no one cares so no one watches. Same thing for the fans. With his bonuses, I’m sure Matthews is cashing at least 1.5 mil. Regardless of league average salaries, that’s still a [email protected]$ load of money. The only way he makes that much is because fans want to see him play (the TV contracts come because of fan desire to watch). He’s probably going to sign for around 10 mil soon. Those salaries include media availability. This whole thing is a non-issue if he does a couple minute media hit, which is part of what he is getting paid to do.

  • Dirty30

    Well, given the seriousness of this problem there seems only one logical solution: Trade Matthews to the Canucks for Gudbranson and a second round pick and cut your losses Toronto!

    You’re welcome.

  • Kootenaydude

    I would like to see some stats on a centre we could bring to the Canucks. Well stats and comparisons on a handful of centres we could sign for one to three years. Also our goaltending sucked. How about an article on available coaches or a grade on our goaltender coach. How about UFAs and their rankings for the Canucks to aquire over the summer.

  • North Van Halen

    Hey, did you guys hear, GC, Jackson, both JD’s & a few trolls don’t like Sutter & Gudbranson & believe they are over paid.
    Glad we could establish that, I wasn’t sure how you guys felt til just now.

    • Locust

      Ya, they all come from the school of ‘if you say it often enough, someone might believe you”.

      Just a bunch of ‘band campers’ pretending to know something about hockey.

      Seriously though, I wonder how they feel about Sutter and Guddy?

      • liqueur des fenetres

        What’s up with this whole Guddy situation anyway??

        Like first, uber scout and new GM JB unloads his second ever pick (who it turns out has attitude problems) with some sweeteners to Florida for EG. Then after his first season, where EG only plays 30 games, JB signs him to a show me deal one day, then tries to flip him for JD the next. But JD blocks the deal so EG starts the year off in Vancouver and finally makes it become AE’s partner, at which point he gets injured, again AND signs a 3 year contract extension! Like, what insurance company even guarantees a contract for an injured guy anyway?

        So is EG here to stay? Has he become a top pairing D now that he’s with AE? Why does he wear #44?

        I know the #44 answer, it’s the average number of games he plays over 2 seasons.