Babchuk: Regehr's Defensive Equal?

Robert Vollman
January 15 2012 06:18PM

 

Last year, Anton Babchuk was not better defensively than Robyn Regehr.  I really hope I haven’t blown the minds of anyone that watched even a single game, but that sentence is surprisingly controversial in the statistical community.

In this first of a two-part series I’m going to reveal the controversy, and explain exactly why there are statisticians who might lead you to believe that Babchuk is as effective at shutting down opponents as Regehr, then in part two I’ll try to offer up a solution.

Does Babchuk = Regehr?

First of all, if Anton Babchuk truly is as good or better defensively than Robyn Regehr, then someone should have told Calgary’s coaching staff, because they treated him like a major liability. They didn’t use Babchuk to kill penalties, they didn’t use him against top opponents, they didn’t use him in the defensive zone, and given his obvious advantage offensively, they didn’t even use him at even-strength nearly as often as he could have played, let alone as often as Regehr.


                               Babchuk   Regehr
Even-Strength Ice-Time Per Game 12.98    17.23
Shorthanded Ice-Time Per Game    0.49     3.07
Power Play Ice-Time Per Game     2.47     0.24
Even-Strength Scoring Rate       1.07     0.57
Defensive Zone Starts           38.1%    50.1%
Quality of Competition          -1.15     1.45

The case couldn’t be clearer that, according to the Calgary Flames coaching staff, Anton Babchuk was significantly inferior defensively relative to their other options, especially Robyn Regehr.

The Controversy

So where’s the controversy? Well according to most high-level defensive statistics, Anton Babchuk was seen as being equivalent to Robyn Regehr defensively, most likely as a consequence of his +18 plus/minus rating, and the inability of opponents to score while he was on the ice, which is an understandable consequence of playing in the offensive zone against weak competition.

Check out Anton Babchuk vs Robyn Regehr using the Defensive Point Shares (DPS) system used at Hockey-Reference.com (explained here).  Heck, look at all their defensemen for the 2010-11 season.


Defenseman        GP  DPS  DPS/GP
Anton Babchuk     65  3.5  0.054
Jay Bouwmeester   82  4.0  0.049
Cory Sarich       76  3.6  0.047
Robyn Regehr      79  3.5  0.044
Steve Staios      39  1.6  0.041
Adam Pardy        30  1.1  0.037
Mark Giordano     82  3.0  0.037
Brendan Mikkelson 19  0.1  0.005
Ian White         16 -0.2 -0.013
Minimum 10 GP

Apparently Anton Babchuk was Calgary’s best defensively option, and it wasn’t just a single-season fluke, because a quick look at their defensive point shares since the lock-out, adjusted to 82 games and with Babchuk’s missing KHL seasons filled as midway points, it looks like Babchuk and Regehr have been equivalent defensively for a while now.

 

So there’s 30 seconds left, the Calgary Flames are sitting on a one-goal lead, and apparently Anton Babchuk should line up alongside Jay Bouwmeester!  We don’t really mean to pick on Justin at Hockey-Reference, because similar systems, like Corsi, Tom Awad’s GVT (explained here), Alan Ryder’s PC (explained here) and WhatIfSport’s defensive measurement all lead to similar conclusions.


                      Babchuk Regehr
Plus/Minus              +18      +2
Relative Corsi          3.1    -3.6
Defensive Point Shares  3.5     3.5
Defensive GVT           4.5     6.2
Defensive PC           38.3    40.3
WhatifSports Defense    79      59

Are you kidding me? This is the sort of thing that gets many fans to say statistical hockey analysis is complete nonsense (except using less kind language).  And who can blame them? What are we supposed to say – here are more statistics to put it into context? You don’t trust something, so we give you more of them, and that’s supposed to increase your trust level?

What Went Wrong

To me the deeper question is to figure out what these approaches are doing, and how to adjust them appropriately to avoid results like these. In each case they’re basically doing two things:

1. Figure out how effective the entire team is defensively (i.e. at goal prevention).
2. Assign that effectiveness among the individual players in a proportional fashion.

There doesn’t appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with the first step, especially since we’re comparing two players on the very same team. Nevertheless I did a quick verification as follows:

1. Identified the worst defensive team since shots were counted, the 1992-93 San Jose Sharks. They allowed 3075 shots in 84 games, or 3002 if it had been 82 games.
2. Calculated how many goals they would have allowed each season using modern-day average save percentages (shots multiplied by league average save percentage).
3. Repeated step 2, but for the Calgary Flames (to remove Miikka Kiprusoff’s influence on goals allowed).
4. Looked at the difference between the two, which should be the number of goals the Calgary Flames prevented as a team, relative to the worst possible team you could dress.

Comparing my results (which were never meant to be perfect) with Hockey-Reference for every year since the lock-out and not only does theirs make sense, it actually looks even smoother and better.

While both systems agree the Flames peaked defensively in 2005-06 and have been reasonably constant since then, Hockey-Reference saw a big jump in 2009-10 – which makes perfect sense, assuming the Calgary Flames deserve some credit for Miikka Kiprusoff’s .920 save percentage (it was .903 the year before and .906 the year after).

Next Time

Given that the process to figure out how good teams are defensively seems to make sense, obviously the flaw must be in how everybody’s share of that defense is being assigned. 

Having explained the controversy of how so many mainstream measurements claim that Anton Babchuk is as good defensively as Robyn Regehr, having explained why that’s completely mistaken, and finally having established that the team-based defensive evaluation is at the very least reasonable, all that remains next week is to explain how the individual assignments of that team-level defense is flawed, and how it might be corrected.
 

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Rob Vollman of www.HockeyAbstract.com is a regular feature writer on ESPN Insider, co-author of Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 and 2011-12, and regular contributor to NHL Numbers, Flames Nation and Arctic Ice Hockey. Innovator of Player Usage Charts, Quality Starts, GVS (Goals Versus Salary), the Snepsts Projection System, and known for work in League Equivalencies (NHLE). Twitter: @robvollmanNHL
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#1 Bob in the Abbey
January 15 2012, 10:36PM
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Just more evidence of why you can't put your faith in statistics and technical data. Nothing gives you the feeling of just how good a player is or can be until you've physically watched him over a period of time.

There are also a lot of attributes a player may be capable of bringing to a team that don't show up on reports or scoresheets. There's no doubt Babchuk has a cannon of a shot...but after watching him for a year the one thing I wonder about is his hockey IQ. To many little things done wrong that indicate his inability to properly read or react to a play.

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#2 RexLibris
January 15 2012, 10:36PM
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Great article. As I was reading it I kept thinking about how poor White's stats appeared and contrasted that with his performance this year. Taking any Detroit voodoo out of the equation, I'm left thinking that the resulting increase in performance is due to a.) improved ability that occasionally occurs in athletes from year-to-year b.) more favourable pairings and better support from forwards or c.) better coaching and deployment/preparation.

Obviously this isn't the case with the Babchuk/Regehr comparison as you have a wide sample size of data, but it does leave me wondering if perhaps some of this was Regehr "fitting" (sorry, I can't think of a more empirical way of phrasing that) into the coaching scheme in a way that Babchuk simply has not. The only comparison I have at hand is the success that Ryan Smyth enjoyed on the powerplay with the Oilers and his inability to duplicate that success when being plugged into a similar situation in either Colorado or L.A. It wasn't a lack of effort or a sudden loss of talent on his part. I can't think of any way to quantify the difference other than to say that something had changed, although I'm certain there exists data that, if properly extrapolated, could give an answer.

One thing I do know for certain is that, were you to suggest to a group of average, non-FN-reading Flames fans that Babchuk is a better shut-down option than Regehr they would likely recommend you see a specialist of the cognitive variety.

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#3 If Only HIs Name Was Olli Postandin
January 16 2012, 12:38AM
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WTF!! We`re supposed to keep a lid on the truth and let the conspiracy unfold so that a team will bite on Babchuk by the trade deadline. Damn you Vollman!!!

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#4 Justin Azevedo
January 16 2012, 04:32AM
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@Bob in the Abbey

it took you a year to get to that point?

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#8 xis10ce
January 16 2012, 09:47AM
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@Robert Vollman

I've discussed this extensively with a few people.

I figure our team MIGHT have 3-5 legitimate contenders for a NTC, but I'm not GM so I have no say.

Ok, fine we overpaid for a PP specialist with a hellofva slap shot, but how on earth does he merit a NTC? Expecially after Feaster said no more NTC's? I mean I get the Glencross NTC, he's underpaid compared to what the free market could have got him, to some extent I get Tanguays too, but Babchuk? REALLY?

It just kills me every single time I think about it.

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#10 Bob in the Abbey
January 16 2012, 10:33AM
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Justin Azevedo wrote:

it took you a year to get to that point?

Ha,ha...I'm slow but not that slow.

Just merely a statement to show the length of the agony we've had to endure.

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#11 ChinookArch
January 16 2012, 11:37AM
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@Robert Vollman

Any statistician who believes Babchuck is better than Regehr needs to put his calculator away, and start watching the games.

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#13 Kevin R
January 16 2012, 12:23PM
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Robert Vollman wrote:

And, by extension, any statistician that develops a catch-all statistic that leaves Babchuk equivalent to Regehr needs to head back to the drawing board for version 2.

Good luck with that Version 2 edition. Everything in life has multi variants that impact performance or outcome. Why do some people smoke & get cancer & others smoke all their lives and dont? So many things to consider when viewing a players performance, were there any injuries within the previous year that may have impaired the players "peak" performance? Given how injuries are so hidden these days (ie. whats wrong with Tanguay) there are obvious things missed in the analyses. An injury to a defensive partner that brought that "peak" performance that a different defensive partner doesnt. Coaching changes, goaltending performances that impact on the defensemans numbers. So many things that maybe I'll wait for Version # 5 before I take the stats too too seriously. What the stats certainly do indicate is how the player is performing at that point in time & where to put some focus on correcting & get back to peak performance. One just has to be careful on generalizing conclusions.

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#14 RexLibris
January 16 2012, 12:58PM
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Robert Vollman wrote:

Is that why they just re-signed him to a two-year, $2.5 million/year contract with a no-trade clause?

Other defensemen with the same cap hit: Zach Bogosian, Douglas Murray, Mark Eaton and Josh Gorges (until super-recently).

For $2.75 you can get Andrej Sekera, Tim Gleason, Jeff Schultz, Roman Polak, Steve Montador, Derek Morris, or Erik Johnson.

For $2.25 you can get Ladislav Smid, Andrew Ference, Hal Gill, Cam Barker, Joe Corvo or Radek Martinek.

Not sure why Anton Babchuk got $2.5 million.

Soooo, you're saying you'd be interested in acquiring Cam Barker, then? Because if so, well, I'm sure we can come to some sort of player for picks arrangement (The ~ is kind of implied here, I hope).

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#15 RexLibris
January 16 2012, 01:10PM
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I tend to fall somewhere between the "saw-him-good" crowd and the math crowd. I think that both are required to properly assess a player's abilities and performance. Statistics can indeed be misleading at times, and anyone familiar with the way politics is run in the U.S. would likely agree. That being said, properly formulated sets of data can be more illuminating about a player's abilities than many scouts. I think the balance always has to be struck between the two, which is what I believe Robert is attempting to do here with the second part of this article and trying to explore why the numbers would imply something that, at face value, would seem to be so counterintuitive.

One final thing I will say both in defence of atatistics, and as a cautionary note about the weight they are often given, is a quote from Sir Isaac Newton: "Errors are not in the art but in the artificers."

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#17 joey joe joe jr shabadoo
January 16 2012, 02:03PM
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@xis10ce

I think the NMC/NTC is typically blown way out of proportion. Feaster has moved 4 of them in less than a year.

the fact of the matter is we don't know what the terms of Babchuck's NTC are. we don't know if there is a list of teams he has on his NTC or how many teams, when can it be activated, etc etc.....

NTC's are a simply a baraging chip and we don't know why Babchuck got one. Maybe we were able to save on term, who knows? would you rather have Babchuck for 3 years without a NTC or would you rather 2 years and a NTC?

either way if the Flames want to get rid of him, they will. Babchuk's contract is not that scary. If the Flames can find someone to take Bourque's contract and get good value in return, that should tell you NTC's are not as daunting as one might think.

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#18 RexLibris
January 16 2012, 02:46PM
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I think the knock on No Trade and No Movement Clauses is that they can make a GMs job even more difficult when moving "assets" by limiting the proverbial dance partners when negotiating a trade. Once the amount of bidders is limited it can also reduce the return value for that player. Sometimes it doesn't matter one bit, as in the case of the Cammalleri trade, but those arrangements are becoming more uncommon in the NHL today, as was demonstrated in the media's response. A player-for-player swap with two bodies close in age and performance just doesn't happen as much anymore.

Your point about the NTCs and NMCs in Calgary is well put though, in that without these clauses there might have needed to be a corresponding change in either real dollars or term. Those alternatives were never made public and so are outside the scope of most critics' comments.

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#19 RexLibris
January 16 2012, 02:51PM
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Robert Vollman wrote:

I was listing those defensemen without prejudice. Obviously there is bound to be one or two deals worse than Babchuk's.

How about this: I'd gladly take a random selection from those defensemen, and take my 1-in-17 chance that I get Cam Barker.

The knock on Barker is, to some extent, well earned. That being said, dollars aside, he is a passable 4th defenceman on an average to below-average team. His game, at the time of his injury, was simplified and he didn't make many glaring errors. In some ways I feel sorry for him because his time here in Edmonton was likely his last chance in the NHL at this time and he'll likely either have to take a try-out with another team or play in Europe and wait for another chance to get back into the North American leagues.

Ladislav Smid has been good value for the dollar thus far this season. He is a UFA at the end of next year and he will likely be watched very closely next season to discern what kind of contract extension he'll get. My guess at this time would be about a $750K raise.

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#20 Rain Dogs
January 17 2012, 09:56AM
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When we do other calculations ie: plumbing, electricity, power, flow etc. there are losses at each junction, conversion and re-direction.

The problem for me is that when you build a calculation on shots, which is subject to scorer bias around the league, then you add another "factor" which has error, then you add a "correction" it's going to have more loss. Then you want to synthesize it all into one metric: ABC, DEF, GHI analysis... even more fuzzy.

'Advanced stats' still is stuck seeing the game fundamentally from one linear direction: Offence.

Until we correct that, all the factors, corrections and tweaks to the calculations are going to have too much inaccuracy in them.

If Advanced stats tell you Babchuk is better, it's not surprising because of Offence. If you try and correct it, using the same framework, it's dangerously approaching confirmation bias, I'd say. Yet another conversion.

I've been saying for years... someone show me the value in defense. Show me the value in team. I'm not interested in it, it's too easy to pick on, but I could say show my the value of a fight (an advanced stats guy will say: no value! rid the pugilists! Momentum, Confidence... *scoff, idiots!)

Right now it's everything offence and sv%... in a vacuum. I appreciate how the new statistical movement is reframing questions, but there are too many people putting too much value in "answers". It's a religion. A group of people, spending a lot of time with calculators waiting for that A-HA! moment. With few checks/proof, and little critical/systems thinking. Advanced stats are a caveat to an answer, they aren't the answer. I like the direction and evolution, but let's temper the "I told you so results"

That's just my opinion, and while reading this article, that's what I'm thinking.

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