August 20 2012 12:11PM
During the weekend open thread, I asked everyone to envision what the team might look like in 3 years absent many of the longtime mainstays like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. The question of Iginla's future with the club will continue to grow as the year progresses and we near the completion of his current contract.
No doubt a large contingent of the fan base will agitate to re-sign Iggy sooner rather than later and for whatever it is he wants to get paid - he is, after all, the face of the franchise and the best forward to ever lace up the skates for the Calgary Flames. Jarome has been the guy around which the franchise has has built in earnest since he was 19 years old and the club's leading scorer for a decade. For many, the thought of a Calgary Flames team lacking Jarome is therefore abominable.
I have been unhappily battling against this sentiment for a couple of summers now. In 2010, I wrote about Iginla's decline. Last summer, I put together a three part series detailing his continued struggles, while they are inevitable and what the franchise should think to do about it.
Let's put aside for a moment the fact that Iginla leaving the Flames some day is inetivable: either because he signs elsewhere or retires. No one plays forever. For the purposes of this excercise, we'll assume the team has the option to re-sign their captain in perpetuity, until his legs fall off or the owners finally lock-out the players forever. The question is - should the team re-sign Iginla? And if so, for how much?
Before we proceed let me note at the outset that this is not an exercise in "hate" nor an attempt to punitively run the captain out of town. Iginla is one of my favorite athletes of all time. I consider myself lucky to have witnessed his incredible career here in Calgary.
This is simply my attempt to analyze and answer a couple of questions as ruthlessly and honestly as possible:
1.) How good a player is Iginla now?
2.) And how good is he likely to be near in the future?
Given the state of the team and the impending end of Iginla's current deal, these are the essential issues management needs to wrestle with. Jarome's storied past and wealth of accomplishments are fixed and unchanging going forwarded - to be celebrated and respected, for sure - but they aren't necessarily indicators of the quality of player he is currently or will be a few years down the road.
"WOWY" or With or Without You is a useful statistical tool for teasing apart the effect one player is having on his linemates. Thanks to David Johnson's Hockey Analysis site, this inquiry is easier to do than ever. I have filtered the results from the link a bit to clarify things:
|With Iginla||Without Iginla|
The table shows anyone on the Flames who played 100+ minutes with Iginla last year. On the left, we have shot/corsi results when both players were on the ice together. The right hand side shows how each guy did without Jarome. I have added bold and italics to each player whose outshooting improved sans Iginla.
The ratios (CF%) are the total shots for/against at even strength, an expression of puck possession in the offensive zone. In the NHL, 0.50 is about average and typically the minimum for what every coach shoots for when he is matching lines and setting his roster. It means his line is giving as good as it getting at 5on5.
Nine of Iginla's 13 more regular linemates improved when apart from him - some of them significantly. Jay Bouwmeester and Chris Butler went from getting their heads beat in (41.8% and 43.5%), to nearly treading water (48.2% and 49.5%).
Only two players of the 13 actually saw their numbers go up when skating with Iggy: Corey Sarich and TJ Brodie. We can assume that is an effect of competition quality and zone starts since Sarich and Brodie were mostly third pairing/bottom of the rotation options for Brent Sutter last year. It's a fair bet during those minutes that Iginla was facing nobodies and probably starting more often in the offensive zone as a result.
To be fair to the captain, there's no doubt he saw some of the heavisest sledding last year and playing with him meant seeing the other team's best players. You can bet that accounts for at least some of the improvement for guys like Backlund and Stajan who were probably playing against some lesser lights when not skating with Iginla.
That said, even all the regular high-end duties guys saw their shots ratios go down with Jarome. Glencross and Jokinen were consistently matched against other team's good players both with and without Iggy and their ratios went up in his absence. Ditto Bouwmeester and Butler.
Also distubring isn't just the general shift towards better results without the captain, but the fact with him on the ice the club's possession consistently sits below that mediocre 50% mark. A fifty/fifty split in possession isn't even in the "good" territory when it comes to controlling play as a forward. Anything around 45% or lower means the team is losing the territorial battle handily with said player on the ice.
Iginla Versus The Big Guns
Hockey Analysis also allows us to see how Iginla fared against other skaters in the league. This sort of inquiry will give us an indication how the Flames controlled play against specfic competition when Jarome was one the ice last year.
The following table contains the 29 skaters against whom Iginla spent at least 30 minutes of ice time against in 2012-13:
It's a long list with a lot of good players on it. Only in four cases (highlighted above) did Iginla come out on top of the total shots ratio: Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Nick Shultz, Dany Heatley. Not coincidentally, all four of those guys are Minnesota Wild, one of the very worst teams in the league last year at controlling play.
At the bottom, I have totaled the Flames total shots for and against at even strength for this sample. It show that the team was nearly 500 shots (!) in the red with Iginla skating against this collection of other team's top-end skaters.
In other words, Calgary managed just 42% of the total shots with Iggy on the ice against these folks. He was especially dominated by guys like David Backes (35.2%), Sam Gagner (40.3%), Henrik Sedin (36.0%), Anze Kopitar (34.9%), Dustin Brown (35.5%), Ryan Smith (33.3%), Bobby Ryan (28.6%) and even Daniel Winnik (35.4%).
To make things a little more explicit, I pulled out the various defenders and put together the list of opposition forwards:
That cuts us down to 21 names and the list of guys Iginla was in the black against to just Dany Heatley (by a single shot). In sum, this group outshot Jarome by over 275 shots on net and controlled the puck over 60% of the time at even strength against him.
That's a very steep hill to climb for the Flames and is particularly noteworthy because it's not like they are yielding ground to the Johnny Stonehands of the world in this sample. Many of these guys are the best players on their respective teams, meaning the oppositions top-end is spending a lot more time at the Flames end of the ice when they are matched against Iginla these days
This is all very much in line with the decline in Iginla's general effectiveness which I began to chart in 2010. A couple of seasons ago, he was merely average at controlling play and lagged behind many of his peers in terms of stature and pay across the league. Now, Iginla has entered liability territory at even strength - he consitently yields shots and possession against while he's on the ice and almost universally pulls down his linemates ability to control play as well.
No doubt some will ask what the value of a shot/possssion based inquiry is when Jarome is still scoring 30+ goals and 60+ points per year. I'll respond with a metaphor -
When a coach gives a player ice time, it is essentially an "invesment" in the player. The potential profit is shots/chances/goals for. The potential expense is shots/chances/goals against. The goal is to have the profit margin exceed the expenses as often as possible and in aggregate.
There are some factors that can help overcome a negative shot differential so that the most important line item - "goals" - remains in the black. Specifically, high SH% and SV% can help mititgate possession issues. Of course, skaters only exert modest influence over those things and they are mostly swamped by issues of randomness and variance.
Meaning - to overcome Jarome's issues of volume (shots/chances against) Calgary will need to control the frequency of goals (the percentages) to a non-trivial degree ir order to come out even or above water. And even though Alex Tanguay is one of the few skaters who can probably amp his linemates shooting by about 1% above normal, the truth is it would take a season of extraordinary luck (well above average percentages) for Iginla's ice time not to cost the club dearly in terms of goal differential.
To get back to the inital question - Iginla can likely continue to put up 30+ goals and 60+ points in the next few years if the team keeps giving him a lot of ice time. The issue is, Jarome's an asset now in the red; his ice time (and therefore production) costs the team shots, possession, chances and goals against. And it will likely continue to do so more and more now that he has crested 35 years old.
None of this means Iginla is worthless and must be immediately sent to the glue factory. He's iconic in the city and invaluable to the Flames marketing department. He carries a lot of weight and respect with other players and youngsters. He is highly competitive and still has a great release and shot, so is dangerous in particular circumstances. As a third line, PP option Jarome would probably still be a boon to most clubs in the NHL.
What it does mean is simply that Iginla isn't the player he was when he was 28. It means the team can't continue to deploy him as a top-line, power vs power option and pretend it's making a meaningful dash for the post-season. And in evaluating the club's needs and his upcoming free agency, the Flames have to properly assess where Jarome is in his career, how he is likely to continue to age and decline and weigh that accordingly with potential trade options or salary demands.