Ilya Kovalchuk leads the NHL in a bizarre penalty killing stat category

This weekend, a select group of players converge in Ottawa to take part in a bizarre annual ritual that involves an exhibition game with no defense or goaltending in an effort to bring together all the best players in the world and have them compete against one another.

That’s all well and good, but while I frequently hear the argument “the game isn’t played on paper” I will retort with the argument “the game isn’t played on a highlight film”. Many players do things that we don’t notice night-after-night that help their team win, whether that’s shutting down a star forward, slowing down the pace of the game in the neutral zone, or dominating possession by repeatedly setting up shots on goal.

Here at the Backhand Shelf’s Research & Development department (one guy in his underwear in his basement) we have put together a list of six players who have one odd statistical trait about them, which you may find interesting. I will call this the Statistical Oddity All-Star Team, and, like the actual All-Star game, is a fun way of dissecting some of the numbers I use quite often around here.

With decent Leafs penalty-killing in the first half of the season, Reimer may be a Vezina nominee, never mind the team's actual starter

G – James Reimer, Toronto

James Reimer was supposed to be the answer in goal for Toronto this season, and after a fairly quick start, he was sidelined to concussion after taking a cheap hit from Brian Gionta, and hasn’t really been the same since. Jonas Gustavsson is getting the starts right now for Toronto, and he’s playing at a level where Ron Wilson has no reason to remove him from goal.

That said, Reimer’s even-strength save percentage is .931, which is 13th in the league among goalies with 15 or more starts. So why is Reimer’s overall save percentage so low at .899, tied for 39th among goalies with 15 or more starts? Because his penalty-kill save percentage is an amazing .771. 23 of Toronto’s powerplay goals against have been on Reimer, who has not been getting much help from his team in those situations.

D – Erik Karlsson, Ottawa

The only overlap between the SOAST and the actual All-Star Team. I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am to see a defenseman lead the league in overall shot attempts, given how many more minutes they play compared to forwards, but probably not midway through a season has something like this happened. Karlsson has fired 259 pucks at net 5-on-5 this season, 12 more than Alex Ovechkin and 50 more than Keith Yandle, his next closest competition.

(Mined this data from behindthenet.ca’s shots and blocks page)

And yet, at 5-on-5, Karlsson has just five goals. Being a defenseman, he takes shots from way further out than forwards so they’re less likely to go in. Plus, few of his shots actually reach the net: He’s had 102 of his attempts blocked this season, which is the most in the NHL by a mile (Ovechkin, again, is 2nd at 67).

D – Cam Fowler, Anaheim

Cam Fowler is going to be a pretty good defenseman. Despite going through some growing pains last year as an 18-year old, who will naturally have trouble adjusting, Fowler’s possession metrics have steadily improved this season. He’s playing against some tough competition in Anaheim, but has managed a 9.5 relative Corsi rate per 60 minutes, meaning that the Ducks are more likely to have the puck when Fowler’s on the ice as opposed to not.

However, Cam Fowler is a minus-14 in pure goals and goals against, sixth worst in the NHL, and is also sixth worst in the fact that 61 goals have been scored against his team when he’s on the ice. Now, here is one of the flaws of plus/minus in general: what that doesn’t tell you is that the goaltender behind Fowler has just an .885 save percentage. Believe what you will about whether the goalie can be helped out by good defensive play; but no goalie survives playing at that horrible level. Fowler has been hurt by bounces behind him this season, leading to some dreadful surface numbers.

RW – Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey

It was tough not to give this award to Tim Thomas, simply on the basis that the man has been a statistical nightmare ever since he got into the NHL, but here at the Backhand Shelf’s R&D department, we believe that positional considerations are more honourable than a cheap joke.

Kovalchuk is known for his scoring, particularly on the powerplay, but it’s for his work on New Jersey’s penalty kill that he makes this list. Now, Kovalchuk only plays 1:06 per game down a man, but when he’s on the ice, teams average only 40 more shots against the Devils’ net than the Devils’ get per 60 minutes, meaning that Kovalchuk has the highest Corsi rate in the league at 4-on-5.

It shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, the Devils have 9 goals at 4-on-5 this season, more than any other team (vs. 15 against) so Kovalchuk is playing as a part of a weird PK system, but it’s still fun to note. Also note-worthy: Devils’ rookie teammate Adam Henrique leads the league in goals for per 60 minutes with 4.8. The Devils average 4.1 per 60 against.

(h/t to @67sound for relaying this one)

Olli Jokinen, defending noted superstar Brad Staubitz

C – Olli Jokinen, Calgary

In the last seven seasons, 13 players have registered 50 points in each of them. While you may be able to name about 8 or 9 on the list, depending on how carefully you pay attention to hockey card statistics, I don’t think many people would land on “Olli Jokinen” as one of the 13.

This isn’t exactly why Jokinen lands on this list, but he’s a player who, for so long, has been viewed as overrated, and was even named as such in that brutal Sports Illustrated player poll. But during that time, he’s remained a consistent scorer through his years, and, this season, is doing something else.

Among all the centremen in the National Hockey League, Jokinen leads them in Corsi Rel QoC, which is the average relative Corsi rate of his opponents faced. This means that Jokinen faces the toughest competition in the league, a sort of role normally reserved for the Dave Bollands and Henrik Zetterbergs of the world.

LW – Tyler Kennedy, Pittsburgh

In case you have been living under a rock, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some severe injury issues this season, testing their forward depth, who, for the most part, have come through in a big way to keep the Penguins competitive. Not only are the Penguins one of the top possession teams in the league, but also, arguably, the third best team in the Eastern Conference behind New York and Boston, sporting a +25 goal differential.

Obviously, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal are big reasons why, but the team has eight 20-point scorers at this point in the season, one of them being Tyler Kennedy, who has done so without the benefit of much power play time or a sustainable shooting percentage, shooting at 4.8%, well below his career average of 8%. So that is bound to regress, but while wait, it’s fair to point out that Kennedy averages more shot attempts per minute than any other player in the league, 100 shot attempts minimum.

Per 60 minutes, Kennedy will put 20.67 pucks at net 5-on-5, which is very impressed as most teams will get about 45. He also manages to get 64.3% of those pucks on net, putting him at 19th in the league in that category, right behind SOAST teammate Olli Jokinen.