The Decline of Jarome Iginla

*This is a piece I wrote for an NHL annual this summer that has since been canceled. I present it here in all its tables and numbers glory!*

Through the long, meandering journey the Flames have taken since 2005 to arrive back amongst the league’s mediocre middle class, one thing has remained more or less constant: Jarome Iginla’s dominance. For a better part of a decade, Calgary’s captain (and arguably the best forward to ever don the Flaming C) has steadfastly carried the mail up front. While Darryl Sutter has gamely shuffled various wingmen tasked to “help Jarome out” through the line-up, the truth is the club has more or less relied on Iginla to be the lone big gun amongst rosters littered with support forwards of greater or lesser quality.

So while the organizations taciturn manager no doubt made some errors in 2009-10 (the overly cap heavy blueline, the thin left side up front and the reliance on Olli Jokinen to be a “number one center” come to mind), he can be forgiven for not anticipating the remarkably large step backwards taken by what had previously been a rock solid, conerstone player.

Not that there weren’t any warning signs. In 2008-09, Iginla’s corsi stats were mediocre, despite the fact Calgary was one of the best possession clubs in the league. His raw rate of +8.81/60 – good for sixth worst on the team amongst regular forwards – was inflated by a generous zone start of 58.5%. He also faced middling corsi quality of competition (-0.479). So while his counting stats (35 goals, 54 assists) and even strength scoring rate were impressive (2.46/60), subsequent analysis showed that the vast majority of his points were scored against the weaker sisters of the league. Alternatively, his results across the board cratered against the stronger clubs.

Tier PPG SPG plus/minus PPG % vs season
vs. Top teams 0.74 3.22 -19 -32.11%
vs. Middling teams 1 3.28 3 -8.25%
vs. Bottom teams 1.32 3.8 14 21.10%

Top Teams”: Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals

Middling Teams”: Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild

Bottom Teams”: Atlanta Thrashers, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs

The table shows Iginla’s point-per-game and shot-per-game pace versus the three tiers of clubs in 2008-09. His cumulative plus minus is also included, as is the relative point-per-game (PPG) percentage versus his overall PPG pace for the year. For example, Iginla’s 0.74 PPG rate against the best in the league was about 32% lower than his overall 1.09 PPG rate (89 points in 82 games played).

For comparison purposes, here are the results for Pavel Datsyuk and Joe Thornton across the same conditions in 2008-09:

Pavel Datsyuk

Tier PPG SPG plus/minus PPG % vs mean
vs. Top teams 1.1 3.45 8 -8.33%
vs. Middling teams 1.41 2.95 13 17.50%
vs. Bottom teams 1.13 2.92 13 -5.83%

Joe Thornton

Tier PPG SPG plus/minus PPG % vs mean
vs. Top teams 1.11 2.11 -5 5.71%
vs. Middling teams 1.1 1.52 1 4.76%
vs. Bottom teams 1 1.6 20 -4.76%

In terms of point production, Datsyuk and Thornton were far more stable relative to Iginla across the three “quality of competition” conditions. .

This inquiry isn’t exhaustive and is subject to limitations, but it is instructive nonetheless. The conditions for assigning clubs to one tier or another for this analysis were somewhat arbitrary. In addition, looking at point-per-game pace over a single season is painting with a very broad brush. Confounding factors, such as sample size, could be skewing the results to a non-trivial degree. Still, when combined with his middling corsi rate, the suggestion of an Iginla decline appears.

Of course, a rebound back up to elite levels in 2009-10 wasn’t out of the question. Iginla has been so good for so long, it would have been premature to assume he would be unable to regain his footing after a single questionable season. Particularly because Iginla has yet to enter the 35+ year old, “twilight” phase of his career; the time when typically many a player to steps off a cliff, performance-wise. That said, even if the assumption of decline was granted, it’s unlikely anyone would have predicted the degree to which Iginla would regress at the age of 32.

That’s a seemingly harsh indictment of a guy who led his team in scoring. Iginla’s surface results (32 goals, 69 points) were disappointing only relative to the previous three seasons (89, 98 and 94 points), but certainly weren’t terrible in absolute terms. In addition, Iginla has flirted with similar totals during his career, including a couple of 67 point seasons and a 73 point year clustered around the lock-out. The distressing info isn’t found in the counting stats however. A spin through the possession numbers reveals not merely a man struggling to remain dominant, but a player who actually inhibits the performance of his line mates. Despite past seasons of similar totals, there’s little doubt that Jarome Iginla hasn’t been a question mark to this degree since he was a youngster in the mid-90′s.

Iginla corsi ranked by season

Season Corsi (Raw) Corsi (/60) Rank
2007-08* 313 13.46 3rd
2008-09* 199 8.81 12th
2009-10* 10 0.45 15th

The table shows Iginla’s slide from a driver of possession to a passenger over the last three seasons. The ‘rank’ column shows Iginla’s rank amongst Flames regular skaters (50+ games played).

*(At 5-on-5 only. With all even strength conditions applied, Iginla was actually marginally underwater in 2009-10)

Iginla 2009-10 Corsi with or without you (WOWY) analysis:

With Iginla Without Iginla
Player Total Corsi + Corsi - Corsi +/- Ratio Total Corsi + Corsi - Corsi +/- Ratio WOWY
Bourque 404 186 218 -32 0.460 1355 724 631 93 0.534 -13.8%
Dawes 253 122 131 -9 0.482 1212 669 543 126 0.552 -12.6%
Conroy 347 163 184 -21 0.470 882 469 413 56 0.532 -11.7%
Hagman 453 221 232 -11 0.488 812 427 385 42 0.526 -7.2%
Stajan 567 268 299 -31 0.473 151 76 75 1 0.503 -6.1%
Jokinen 1076 552 524 28 0.513 539 294 245 49 0.545 -5.9%
Langkow 305 162 143 19 0.531 1358 729 629 100 0.537 -1.1%

The players selected comprised the majority of Iginla’s running mates at even strength. The table includes all even-strength conditions: 5-on-5, 4-on-4 and 3-on-3. The WOWY (with-or-without-you) column shows the percent increase/decrease with Iginla versus without for each player. In short, a negative WOWY value means the player saw his possession rates go down when he was on the ice with Iginla.

In terms of completely counter-intuitive results, the winger that has taken over as the club’s strongest ES outperformer in terms of taking on the big guns over the last two seasons (Rene Bourque) suffered the most when matched with Jarome. The two were primarily combined during the Flames fight for a playoff spot in March. The pairing was obviously a disaster which suggests they may have been deployed in a pure power-vs-power role during that time. Clearly though, everyone who played with the captain suffered as a result. Only two guys were in the black with Jarome on their wing (Langkow and, surprisingly, Jokinen), while everyone else was under water.

Ironically, the weakest possession player overall (Matt Stajan) was not only the centerpiece of the Dion Phaneuf swap, but was almost immediately re-signed by an overly eager Darryl Sutter just weeks after being acquired. In contrast, the player who saw the smallest hit to his corsi rate while skating with Jarome (Daymond Langkow) spent the second least amount of time with Flames captain.

Like the rest of the team, Iginla’s results and underlying numbers fell across the board in 2009-10. However, the true extent of his degradation as an elite player is captured by the WOWY analysis: previously a driver of results, Iginla acted mostly as an anchor in 2009-10. Every single line mate saw their possession numbers go down while skating with the club’s most expensive player. The explanation does not lie in contextual factors like quality of opposition or difficulty of zone starts either: Jarome’s circumstances varied widely throughout the season, but the results were depressingly consistent. He began October facing top quality opposition with Jokinen and David Moss and he ended the season being actively sheltered with Stajan and Niklas Hagman. He was largely outplayed in both situations, with a corsi ratio of 0.458 in October and 0.440 in March. Iginla also began a majority of his shifts in the offensive zone (53.2%) relative to most of this teammates (Bourque, Dawes and Langkow were 52.4%, 50.5% and 47.7% respectively for example).

Nor were there any indications of nagging or chronic injuries potentially slowing the Flames captain during the year. He played all 82 contests and saw the most even strength ice time in the league amongst forwards (1,397 minutes). In short, there was no perceptible external factors or confounding circumstances to explain Iginla’s questionable effectiveness. A return to form seems unlikely therefore.

Going forward, the Flames face a bit of a conundrum: they’ve built around Iginla with the assumption he’d be the primary difference maker up front indefinitely. Their farm system is totally bereft of similar quality talents. Paying a guy you have to shelter $7 million per season is obviously never an ideal situation, but it’s hopelessly exacerbated when the club lacks the ability to replace his contributions, whether by internal promotion, by trading assets or by spending cap space. Aside from the emergence of Rene Bourque as a legitimate power versus power option, the Flames currently have none of the above.

In fact, perhaps Calgary’s best option for acquiring another elite forward was Dion Phanuef because of his prior success and pedigree. Unfortunately, while Sutter’s gambit to shift cap space from the blueline to the front-end in his trade with the Leafs was sound in principle, the return of Stajan, Hagman and Ian White did little to assuage the need for an Iginla successor. Not that the players acquired are totally without value themselves – all are capable NHLers to one degree or another – but the trade didn’t address what will no doubt become the club’s overarching need as Jarome rides into the sunset of his career. The club can certainly be competitive as it’s currently constructed, but if the aim is to join the NHL’s upper ranks and challenge for the Stanley Cup, the team is essentially tied to Jarome Iginla and he’s heading in the wrong direction.