Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated has been running hot and cold of late. Just last week, he ran one of the best pieces of hockey writing I’ve seen in the last year, a detailed look at the players coaches send to the doghouse and the reasons coaches put them there.
Unfortunately, he followed that up this week with a piece on Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin that displays a fundamental misunderstanding of why he is such an excellent player.
For starters, the idea that Henrik’s sudden ability to score goals – attributed by Farber to a newfound penchant for shooting from scoring areas – seems fairly unlikely to me. Shooting percentage is notoriously unstable; it fluctuates seemingly at random, and it’s more likely a run of shots just going in then any fundamental shift in Henrik’s mentality. The reason I say that with a certain degree of confidence is from a quick look at the second and third years of Henrik’s career.
The usual response to a shift in shooting percentage is that the player is being pickier about his shots, but that clearly wasn’t the case here, since Henrik fired only three more shots but saw his shooting percentage cut by more than 50% – almost all the way back to the level of his rookie year. A similar effect occurred between 2005-07, as Henrik’s shooting percentage soared to 15.9% before dropping to 7.5%. Daniel has experienced similar shifts, as have Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson, and the majority of NHL players with long careers.
It’s also worth noting that Henrik and Daniel played together in both of the seasons listed above; there was no desire to fill in for his brother motivating the last surge over 20.0%. Additionally, that shooting percentage is almost certainly not something that Henrik can sustain; no active player has a career shooting percentage over 20.0% (Alex Tanguay is far and away the most efficient shooter in the league, with a career average of 19.3%). I don’t want to call it luck, but there is certainly an element of chance to this current run of goal-scoring.
If any of this comes across as a criticism of Henrik Sedin, it shouldn’t. Because it isn’t his shooting percentage that makes him such a good player, and it wasn’t separation from Daniel that made him such a good player this season. He certainly changed his style, but I think we can argue that it was for the worse. Henrik’s numbers with and without Daniel this season, projected over 82 games for full effect:
Those numbers hardly match Farber’s interpretation, which I’ll quote:
Like many of his countrymen, Henrik had to overcome the pass-first reflex he’d learned in the MoDo club system in the Sedins’s hometown of Ornskoldsvik; “the typical-Swede-being-a-nice-guy thing,” Daniel calls it. Says Henrik, “At MoDo, if you have a two-on-one, they expect you to pass. They want you to play for the team, not yourself.”
Looking at the numbers above, Henrik didn’t need to overcome the ‘being-a-nice-guy-thing’;’ he had to embrace it. Sure, his goal scoring rate is nice and shiny when he’s playing without Daniel, but not only do the points drop off, the plus/minus sinks like a millstone. Every single coach in the game will take a 30-goal scorer who is on the ice for 57 more goals for than against over a 46 goal-scorer who gives everything back the other way.
The decline in the numbers wasn’t just a result of Daniel’s absence, though. When the Sedins have been together this year, coach Alain Vigneault has used them in a primarily offensive role – Daniel, for example, leads the team with a 60.2% start rate in the offensive zone. Henrik’s 5% behind that, largely because he was sent out for a ton of defensive zone work when his brother was out of the line-up.
My final objection is that Henrik’s season represents a breakout. Both Sedins have been simply incredible players since the lockout - Henrik’s tied for 10th in scoring over that time span, within 10 points of players like Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier, and ahead of higher-regarded players like Martin St. Louis, Eric Staal, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Rick Nash. Also if interest: of the top-100 scorers since the lockout, exactly six have a better plus/minus than Henrik’s plus-79 rating (since going minus-2 as a rookie, Henrik’s never had a negative plus/minus). This was already a player who should be recognized as one of the league’s best players.
This year, stuff is going his way. I’ve mentioned Henrik’s personal shooting percentage, but his on-ice percentage at even-strength (12.61) is one of the best in the league. None of this is controllable; Henrik can influence them, but not by much, and the numbers are too high to sustain. Still, I’m enjoying this aberration (which reminds me of a higher-end version of the same phenomenon that Patrik Elias experienced in 2000-01 or Scott Gomez went through in 2005-06), because it means that both Henrik and Daniel might get the recognition that they have richly deserved for years.
Even among Canucks fans, it’s been recognition that has only come slowly. Local columnists, like Tony Gallagher, have implied that the lack of playoff victories by Vancouver somehow plays into their value (although of course he ignored the gold medal collected with Sweden in 2006), and that comparisons to Zetterberg are “delusional”.
I almost hope Henrik wins the Hart at the end of the year; it would finally cement his reputation where it deserves to be: right next to the best players in the league.