At 32 years of age, Vancouver’s twin first liners Daniel and Henrik Sedin have probably put in the most impressive two-way season of hockey in their respective careers.
Sure, at the end of the year neither twin will win the Art Ross trophy. Also, their overall offensive production appears to have regressed to a less godly point per game pace versus where it was in 2009-10 and 2010-11. But one shouldn’t overreact to point totals in this case, because the counting stats miss what the underlying data captures. Basically the twins have been counted on to do more with less this season, and they’ve managed it across the board.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before we proceed. The first is that hockey is a game of ratios, not one of raw numbers. Scoring five goals in a single game is great, for example, but not if your team has also allowed six.
We can, and should, apply that principle to our analysis of individual performance: scoring 100 points in a season looks wicked on the back of a hockey card, but if you were a defensive liability as well, it’s not necessarily all that valuable to your team. Personally, I’d rather employ an 80-point guy who plays suffocating defence.
The other thing is how unique what the twins have done this season is in the annals of hockey history. As elite offensive players age, typically, their two-way ability is the first skill to atrophy. This makes sense when you consider that so much of defensive play in professional hockey is based on speed, size, athleticism and strength – after all, you need to consistently win fifty-fifty puck battles against the best players in the world to be a defensive force in the NHL.
At the age of 32, most elite two-way players are guys who can still pick the top corner on the world’s best goaltenders, but can’t really carry a team and drive play against the toughest competition at even-strength anymore. The Sedins, somehow, are continuing to defy father time, and at 32 are having their stingiest year of defensive hockey. It’s actually kind of mind boggling, and certainly deserves our attention.
To illustrate my point, I’m going to build a series of tables and include some statistics that can help us measure the quality of an individual player’s defensive play. I know it sounds dry and advanced, but bear with me and I’ll do my best to make the data accessible.
Let’s start with something simple: goals for, goals against and goal differential. This is a concept kind of like plus/minus, except we’re isolating the five-on-five game state (no marks against for a short-handed goal against, for example). This table basically includes the number of goals the Canucks have scored with Henrik Sedin on the ice at even-strength rated per sixty minutes (GF/60), the number of goals Canucks opponents have scored with Henrik Sedin on the ice rated per sixty minutes (GA/60), and the overall goal differential per sixty minutes of ice-time (GD/60) for Henrik, and then Daniel Sedin.
"What should jump out to you right off the bat in the two above tables, is that the Canucks are allowing goals against at an extremely low rate this season with the twins on the ice. The Sedin twins have never been defensive liabilities or anything, but this season they’re bonafide stoppers."
Henrik’s numbers are particularly striking – the Canucks are scoring less often with Henrik on the ice, and their captain is no longer scoring at an Art Ross pace anymore. But he’s actually been better at even-strength this season than in any other year besides the season in which he won the Hart Trophy (and lots of that offense was percentage driven). Henrik’s defensive improvement means he’s actually probably been more valuable to the Canucks this season than in any previous season, and that’s despite his manufacturing goals for at a slightly lower rate.
These trends emerge again if we look at the shot data. We’re going to just go with Henrik Sedin now (they mostly play together anyway, but Henrik has been more durable over the past six years) but this next table is based on the shot record. So we’re looking at the number of shots for that the Canucks generate with Henrik Sedin on the ice at even-strength rated per sixty minutes (SF/60), the number of shots against that the Canucks surrender with Henrik Sedin on the ice at even-strength rated per, you guessed it, sixty minutes (SA/60), and the team’s shot differential rated per sixty minutes, with Henrik on the ice (SD/60):
So once again, we see that with Henrik Sedin on the ice, the Canucks are surrendering the lowest number of shots against in five seasons this year. Remember what I said earlier about hockey being a game of ratios rather than raw numbers? The Sedins are basically scoring slightly less than they did at their offensive peak a few years back, but they’ve more than made up for it by becoming absurdly stingy defensive players.
Finally let’s look at the usage metrics, and the attempted shot differential. Usage metrics include “Corsi Rel QoC” or “quality of competition,” and also offensive-zone start percentage.
Quality of competition is calculated based on the relative attempted shot differential of a player’s opponents (weighted by even strength ice-time). It’s a pretty solid indicator of which players are seeing the most difficult matchups on a game-by-game basis.
Offensive zone start percentage is calculated by dividing a player’s offensive zone starts (basically shifts that they start in the offensive end of the rink) by the sum total of their offensive and defensive zone starts. So offensive zone start percentage measures the number of times a player is deployed in an offensive capacity, versus the number of times that player is relied on to win a faceoff and clear the puck.
Attempted shot differential takes into account all goals, shots on goal, shots wide and blocked shots both ways. It’s basically a “flow of play” stat, and we’ll express it as a percentage here because we’re mostly just interested in using it as a proxy for “zone time”.
Again, the trend here is undeniable. For the first time in their respective careers, the Sedin twins are battling the toughest matchups game in and game out. They’re also starting a lower percentage of their shifts in the offensive end of the rink than they have in three seasons.
All of that context aside, the twins are consistently turning play in the right direction. When the twins are on the ice, they’re in the offensive end with the puck. In fact they’re spending more time in their opponent’s end of the rink than they ever have previously. Basically the Sedin twins play defense in the offensive end, by being relentless on the puck, and pinning their opponents two-hundred feet away from Vancouver’s goal. As the old adage goes, “the best defense is a good offense,” and the Sedin twins have put that principle into practice this season.
In doing so the twins have defied father time, which like defying gravity, only Wiley E Coyote can do (and even he eventually falls, leaving just his eyes and a sign saying “woops” behind). I tend to think the Sedin twins have a cerebral style of generating puck possession and offense that is less reliant on athleticism, and potentially less youth-dependent than most other NHL players. Still at some point, inevitably, the Sedin twins will begin to show their age. The good news for Canucks fans is that it certainly doesn’t look like we’ve reached that point yet.
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