Scott Gomez scored his first goal in over a year against the New York Islanders Thursday night, a feat that you are surely aware of as Gomez’s scoring slump became viral over the past couple of weeks. A website even tracked whether or not Gomez had scored and it has now been hilariously updated since Gomez’s 3-0 goal, which held up as the winner as the Isles scored a couple of snack goals to shut down Carey Price’s shutout bid.
Gomez, of course, takes as much flak for his $7M contract as he does for his offensive ineptitude, but how can he be blamed for his transgressions: after all, he wasn’t the one who gave himself a 7-year/$51M deal during a period of reckless spending by NHL General Managers on a weak offensive free agency class. That was Glen Sather, a man who decided to give money to a man who had cracked 20 goals in the NHL just once by age 27. Gomez merely signed on the dotted line.
His play never led to the abuse he took from visiting fans, in particular an immature, pants-less, basement-dwelling Toronto fan who vandalized Gomez’s Hockey-Reference.com page, sponsoring it with a NE PAS DE BUTS taunt. Upon Gomez’s return from injury, with the Habs well out of 8th place in the Eastern Conference, he heard boos in the Bell Centre.
From the Montreal Gazette:
“You’ve got to take it,” Gomez said philosophically during a lengthy talk about his personal drought and the miseries of the Canadiens. “It’s part of sports. Who am I to sit here and tell fans who pay good money to come to games that they can’t speak their minds? If I’m paying their rent, then maybe.
“I’ll quote (tennis player) Jimmy Connors, who said to fans: ‘You might not like me, but I love you.’ The fans are an important part of what we do. They’re why we’re all here. No one wants to play in an empty building. You dream of playing in places like this as a kid. There’s no better place.”
Was Gomez “struggling” as the article title seems to imply? Maybe at one end of the ice. But Scott Gomez has never been about goal-scoring only. He boasts one of the league’s highest first assist rates and second on his team in relative Corsi. From one angle you could attack this by saying “well, Gomez has been unlucky,” but that’s not really what I’m aiming for here.
The problem with the hockey card stats such as goals, assists, points and plus/minus, don’t paint a full picture of the game. This is why the Edmonton Oilers and my 11-year old self do a poor job at evaluating hockey players. Nowhere, in analyzing the year that Scott Gomez went without a goal, did anybody attempt to look at Gomez’s defensive play.
Poor, poor, under-appreciated Scott Gomez, really.
One goal for is worth just about as much as preventing one goal against (okay, maybe slightly less, but let’s keep this simple). If a player protects the puck from the opposition with a 2-1 lead, that has to be just as valuable as scoring the 2-1 goal in the first place. Having control of the puck more often than not means one thing from a defensive standpoint: the opposition doesn’t have it. From this perspective, possession stats are the defensive numbers are hockey cards don’t have. If Gomez were a player in reverse, who scored 30 goals but also gave up 30 due to reckless play (okay, so pretty much Joffrey Lupul), he might be considered an All-Star. But if a player keeps time in the offensive zone, for the sole purpose of being on the ice and not scoring (something that Scott Gomez is very effective at) nobody really notices. You could prevent 30 goals, have a 30-goal season in reverse on defense without being so much considered in any All-Star debate.
It’s not like Corsi or shot differential indicators don’t align well with zone time. From Vic Ferrari, circa 2008:
The results for the teams are listed in the table below. By way of example, for Atlanta the puck spent 355 more minutes in their own end of the rink than in the good end. They were outscored by 101 goals, outshot by a margin of 927 shots, adding in the missed shots they were beat to the tune of 1276, and for all shots directed at net they were outdone by 1532.
There’s nothing easy about analyzing a player’s defensive contribution, but a player that slows the play down and suppresses shots can’t be a bad thing. This doesn’t make Gomez a two-way player, it makes him a very defensive forward, and with the best score-tied Corsi rate on the team among regular players, it can’t be too much of a coincidence that Montreal have gone 93-90 with him in the lineup, and 12-24 without since he joined the Habs. Defense contributes, just in a way that our eyes are not attuned to seeing.
In Calgary, there’s a similar sort of situation popping up, with one Mikael Backlund, a first round pick back in the 2009 draft who has yet to develop offensively. Backlund has been a frequent target of mainstream media types who cover the Flames, specifically Andrew Walker, a radio host who saw his fair share of critics in Calgary from an ill-advised post that dealt with the issue surrounding Gomez:
Backlund hasn’t been scoring, but as guy on a rookie contract, he hasn’t been scoring at a much cheaper rate, which means his defensive contributions can be considered a positive.
After all, there’s a reason why management keeps giving him ice-time, even if Walker can’t see it. Walker makes a note to decry the “arguments from the ‘advanced stats’ crowd” (making a note to air-quote the ‘advanced stats’ part of the sentence). That crowd has been “pursuing the notion that Backlund is ‘better than his numbers indicate’.” Actually, I’d say he’s as good as his numbers indicate, if you’re looking at the right ones:
Backlund, despite loads of ice time and opportunity, has 4 goals, 11 points and is a -14. Backlund is at a point in his career and skill-set where he NEEDS to contribute for his team to be succesful. At the present time, the Flames are riding the quartet of Iginla – Cammalleri – Tanguay- Jokinen. There is no reason, ABSOLUTELY NONE, that Backlund shouldn’t be this team’s fifth best forward.
Backlund has a Corsi rate of 50.7%, which means the puck spends more time in the opponent’s end, which means that even though Backlund only has 4 goals this season, he’s not giving away a lot of chances to his opposition. Young players often aren’t good at the possession aspect of the game. He’s done this despite starting more draws in the defensive end as a ratio than every regular Flames forward but Blair Jones, and he also faces tough competition, 4th on the Flames in Corsi Rel QoC, which measures quality of competition.
If Walker, or anybody in Calgary, want to point at Backlund’s minus-14 as a negative, they shouldn’t do so without first putting it in context: while the play spends a lot of time outside of Calgary’s end, the shots that do make it through go in at a pretty high rate. With just .892 goaltending behind him, of course Backlund wouldn’t have a positive plus/minus, but as we’ve seen before, players with low percentages tend to regress, and that number will begin to increase in due course. As for Backlund’s offense, he has over two shots per game, and, as you can tell by the shot search, many have come close to the net in dangerous areas. It’s only a matter of time before puck finds net.
Still, when a player isn’t contributing at one end of the ice, it’s best not to worry too hard about it if the player is making defensive contributions as well. That is worth half the game.