John F asked a question in the scoring chance post last night which bears investigation:
I’m wondering if we will see any complimentary analysis and discussion from you and others who subscribe to the site on this on Jokinen and Babchuk. I think both have been major contributors to the Flames playoff drive. While Jokinen may rank near the bottom of the tea in +/- he consistently plays against the teams top lines, has been (along with Glencross) been driving the play regardless of who is the 3rd on the line, and must lead the league in posts hit (which is nothing but bad luck). Babchuk (no not Badchuk) has been raising his game. In addition to the heavy shot and offence he provides he has greatly improved his defensive game. I know both players, but in particular Jokinen have been mercilessly trashed here (I excuse Steinberg here as he wansn’t as negative on either and I’ve seen him refer to both in a positive manner). For the sake of balance I would like to see Kent and many of those who were relentless in their criticism comment on these 2 players.
So here’s my take.
On Jokinen – The criticism of him is part of a much longer conversation which regular readers of my previous site are probably aware of. Under Brent Sutter during his first tour of duty, Jokinen was deployed with Jarome Iginla in a pure power versus power match-up.
He got killed. Destroyed. Jokinen had the worst scoring chance differential on the club last season through the first 30 games or so and one of the worst possession rates. He was a gross liability. Sutter eventually moved Jokinen down the rotation where he was less apt to getting beat up by better players, but then the Flames went through their infamous 9-game losing streak and Jokinen’s fate was sealed. Err…sealed until the summer when he was re-signed that is.
Jokinen was also unlucky last season: bad percentages (both on-ice and personal) sunk his value further, making him useless in just about every way. The fact that he was first acquired for a couple of useful assets and then moved for a toxic contract and then re-signed to a new deal despite little leverage to a contract that included a NMC despite limited leverage in the market – well, let’s just say the wreckage on the road leading to his current hot streak makes me skeptical that his recent success is truly indicative of the player. Or, at the very least, the org had to pay a needlessly high price to get the currently effective iteration of the guy.
Of course, a lot of the Jokinen’s revival should credited Brent Sutter, ironically the guy who fed him to the wolves previously. It took nearly a full season of Olli Jokinen playing beneath him for Sutter to really understand the player he has and deploy him in a more complimentary way. It’s not coincidence that Jokinen suddenly looks more capable when flanked by David Moss and Curtis Glencross, a couple of guys who been amongst the team leaders in terms of possession for the last three seasons running. Behind that trio has been Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr the last month or so – the best overall defense pairing on the team. And while Jokinen hasn’t been playing cupcakes in his role this year, Sutter has gotten away from hard-matching anyone against othe team’s best – Jokinen et al consistently face top-six opposition, but they aren’t buried in terms of zone starts or anything the way a true shut-down trio would be.
With all those caveats in place, I’m going to give Jokinen some credit. He looks to be far less of detriment on the ice these days because a lot of the bad habits that afflicted his game previously have been scrubbed out by Sutter and co. In particular, Jokinen used to take long, circular routes around the ice whenever he played. Olli has decent top-end speed but it takes him a bit to get going. To compensate for that, he developed a penchant for taking those inefficient loops that put him out of position more often than not. Now, he seems to be playing a much more sensible north-south game. No more looping behind his own defenders or around the opposition net.
In addition, Jokinen had a terrible habit of skating up the middle with the puck and smack into coverage at the opposition blueline, which would result in him ceding possession at least half the time. He still carries the puck through the neutral zone pretty frequently, but he seems to be making better decisions with it at the offensive blueline – dumping it off towards a streaking winger, for instance, or at least chipping it deep rather than trying to beat a couple of defenders.
Despite all the above, the picture of Jokinen overall still isn’t overly impressive. He’s still underwater in terms of possession and has the fourth worst corsi ratio with the score tied amongst regular skaters. Im guessing he’ll come out at about even whent he scoring chance numbers are tallied at the end of the season as well, so it’s not like the guy is mimicking Daymond Langkow who played against the heavies reviously and consistently came out ahead.
The final piece of this puzzle is the Flames uncanny run over the last 30 games or so. The team has played pretty well, but it’s fortunes have been pumped to a non-trivial degree by a run of good fortune. The club was "owed" after a few months of bad bounces, but it’s never a good idea to judge players solely by their results when a tide of percentages is carrying the team.
Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised Jokinen has been able to refine his game somewhat under this coaching staff. He’s not a total boat anchor anymore and it’s possible the Flames will be able to garner some value from the final year of his contract, which is more than I would have bet on when he was re-inked this summer. On the other hand, his underlying stats are still mediocre and he’s likely not the primary driver of results on his line. He remains more of a third line center than a second-liner in my eyes, but at least he’s not sinking the trio he’s skating with.
On Babchuk – The big Ukrainian has been a worthwhile addition, albeit in a very carefully managed role. After he struggled for the first week or two, Brent has actively and excessively sheltered the erstwhile Hurricane at ES. HIs zone start ratio is a ridicuously high 61.2%. To put that number in perspective, only two other defenders in the league have started more often in the offensive zone – the Rangers Matt Gilroy and the albatross that is Brian Campbell. In fact, there are only five rearguards in the entire NHL above the 60% ZS plateau*.
*Of note – this is roughly the way the Leafs used Ian White during his season in Toronto last year (although he played more often against top-six guys). His bubble burst in CGY because the Flames tried to deploy him as a legitimate top-four defender.
Babchuk also plays against the softest competition on the Flames. Third and fourth liners only, or as much as Brent Sutter can manage at least. This Jonathan Toews marker is what happens when Babchuk is caught on the ice against capable offensive players:
The fact that he’s not relied upon to do real defensive work is also reflected in the 23 seconds of ice per game he gets on the penalty kill. Even Steve Staios (0:50) and Adam Pardy (0:36) have averaged more than that this season. His 12:38 at ES is also the lowest total amongst d-men who have taken a regular shift for the Flames this season.
Which isn’t to say Babchuk hasn’t contributed to the Flames current run. He has a legitimately scary shot and he’s been a value-add to the power-play for sure (although I wouldn’t bet the lint in my pocket on his 10.7 SH% with the Flames persisting forever). Calgary has the sort of depth on the back-end that they can afford to shelter Babchuk and play him in his current specialist role. His point totals are nice, but they come with a price – other people have to be fed the tougher match-ups. Babchuk is a guy who would instantly be exposed if he was moved up the rotation, even to just second-pairing minutes. The team needs to kepe this in mind if they want to re-sign him this summer.
In summary – both Jokinen and Babchuk remain somewhat flawed players that are contributing thanks to a combination of savvy coaching and the Flames current hot streak. They deserve credit insofar as they have played well enough in their assigned roles, but the influence of circumstances shouldn’t be overlooked.