Bet I can tell you who will win this puck battle (Getty)

Bet I can tell you who will win this puck battle (Getty)

The Los Angeles Kings have won six playoff rounds in the last two seasons mostly because of their crazy-hot goaltender, but partly because of a generally un-heralded top line winger—Justin Williams.

Now, there’s no way to know that if Williams hadn’t scored twice in Game 7, or if he never existed, that another King wouldn’t have. One goal drastically changes the balance of strategies in any game, never mind a low-scoring one, so it’s not fair to say that if Williams had been replaced with a stock first line winger, the Kings wouldn’t have won that game against San Jose.

But they did, and Williams fits into an odd category of player. He is good at everything, yet appears to be dynamite at two things: puck possession, and scoring in Game 7s.

We all know by now because it’s been dug up several times. Williams has played in four Game 7s in his career (2003 PHI @ TOR, 2006 CAR vs. BUF, 2006 CAR vs. EDM and 2013 LAK vs. SJS). In those games, he has five goals and nine points, which is quite impressive, they tell me.

Puck possession, though, is Williams’ most important aspect. The seventh game production is just gravy for the Kings. It’s unclear whether the Kings will play in another Game 7 this postseason, but it is quite clear that the Kings will play again at even strength, which is where much of Williams’ magic is created.

I’ve used “Corsi Tied” a lot as an indicator for puck-possession. For the un-initiated, “Corsi” is the total percentage of all shot attempts that were taken at the opponents’. While it doesn’t necessarily track the *quality* of a any given shot, it more or less syncs up with the amount of offensive zone time a team will have.

Offensive zone time is generally created by strong play in the neutral zone, and establishing possession in a carry-in over the line. Williams is quite good at this. So good in fact, that Jon Rosen, the LA Kings’ Insider for NHL.com, wrote about Williams that “the shifty, intelligent right wing that helps uphold the Kings’ strong possession numbers has slotted in with ease opposite Dustin Brown on a line centred by Anze Kopitar”.

Kudos to Rosen here for using the term “possession numbers” instead of the polarizing term “advanced stats”. What are the numbers that Rosen is talking about? Well, naturally, he’s referring to the Kings’ 56.3% possession rate this season, and 57.9% possession rate in score tied situations. Those are both tops in the NHL, according to Hockey Analysis. If you look at the last two seasons, the Kings are 55.3% overall and 56.5% at tied, both tops in the NHL by over a percentage point. It’s really quite astounding just how good the Kings have been at controlling the puck since the Mike Richards trade. They morphed into “elite” when they somehow traded Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter at the trade deadline last year.

But… they’ve always had Justin Williams, who is faaaaan-tastic at this sort of stuff. Let’s look at the entire period of time since 2007, when the NHL updated its scoring system to count every player on the ice for every “event” such as a shot, giveaway, or hit.

In that six-year period, only one player in the entire NHL has a better “Corsi Tied” rate when on the ice than Justin Williams. That is Pavel Datsyuk, whose Detroit Red Wings have had 60.4% of the overall puck possession in score tied situations. Williams is second at 59.5%, which is absolutely remarkable. The list is almost entirely made up of Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks, but Williams snuck onto that list.

What more is that Hockey Analysis, which captures individual players’ Corsi Tied rates, also captures the on-ice Corsi Tied rates of each player’s teammates when they’re on the ice, but not with the player in question. Basically, the weighted average of Williams’ teammates when separated from him is just 49.8%. In the last three seasons, when Kopitar and Williams are on the ice, the Kings have a Corsi rate of 59.8%, which is really super. When Kopitar, one of the elite centres in the NHL, is apart from Williams, the Kings’ Corsi rate drops to 54.7%.

To me it’s astounding that a winger could have so much effect on the play, but the closer you investigate the numbers, the more you’ll find that Williams is a player that would be flirting with superstardom if it wasn’t for a lengthy stretch of injuries during his prime years.

Williams is now 31. In 2008, he only played 37 games. In 2009, he played 44 and he had just 49 in 2010. During that span, he missed 43 games with a torn ACL, 25 with an achilles tendon, and 15 with a broken hand. In the 2010 season when he broke his leg in December of 2009 and missed 28 more games. Then he dislocated his shoulder at the end of the 2011 season and the Kings lost in the first round to the San Jose Sharks.

Health is important. But so is consistent production. Williams has a lot of points to show for his strong possession rates. Among players with at least 2500 minutes since the 2007 season, he’s 53rd out of 334 players in “even strength points per 60 minutes” at 2.04, tied with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, and notably ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk, Daniel Briere, Brad Richards and John Tavares. He’s 20th in assists per 60, probably because he’s such a fine neutral zone player that creates scoring opportunities off of rushes. What’s holding him back is goal scoring, because his shot isn’t a thing of beauty. He has a career 9.4% shooting percentage, which is a little below average for NHL forwards, but he winds up being such an overwhelming positive force because the Kings have the puck all the time when he’s on the ice.

Adam Gretz over at CBS wrote a little about how the Kings managed to acquire such a player:

Back on March 4, 2009, right at the NHL trade deadline, the Kings were involved in a three-team trade with Edmonton and Carolina that ended with them getting Williams, in the middle of what would be the worst year of his NHL career, in exchange for Patrick O’Sullivan.

Williams, on the other hand, was struggling through a brutal year that saw him score just four goals in 46 games as he returned from an Achilles injury. Williams had proven to be an extremely productive player at the NHL level and had twice over the previous two years scored more than 30 goals. Injuries, and a large dip in his shooting percentage, significantly damaged his goal and point production. Even so, there were still signs that he was a player that had a high likelyhood to rebound and could still provide value to his team.

@ShutdownLine, an excellent general follow in the playoffs that occasionally drops his overall focus on the Carolina Hurricanes (gee I wonder why) linked Williams’ Behind the Net page, which shows individual points per 60 rates through several seasons:

Year Points per 60 On-Ice Sh%
2008 2.84 9.44%
2009 0.87 5.56%
2010 1.98 7.14%
2011 2.57 10.07%
2012 2.10 7.3%
2013 2.37 8.62%

2009, the year Williams went to Los Angeles, is looking like a definite outlier here. His on-ice shooting percentage was unsustainably low, and just two years since being named to the All-Star team, the Kings got a great player for what amounts to pennies.

Using NHL.com’s time on ice and points data, it’s easy to look back at Williams’ points per 60 rates from before 2007. Check out how they stack up. I even made a chart, and colour-coded the columns to indicate the team he was playing with (traded mid-season 2004 from Philadelphia to Carolina, and mid-season 2009 from Carolina to Los Angeles):

chart_1

In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to see Williams’ 2010 through 2013 seasons coming. Maybe the Hurricanes and Kings both knew about Williams’ on-ice shot percentage at the time. Maybe the Hurricanes had such high hopes for Patrick O’Sullivan. Maybe the Hurricanes knew the kind of player they were giving up in return for one with one-and-a-half seasons of NHL experience. It’s easy to knock the Hurricanes for a trade like this in retrospect without knowing the process behind it.

That said, in 8 of those 11 seasons, Williams has had a points per 60 rate of above 2.00. To put that in perspective, 2.00 points per 60 over about 15 minutes of even strength ice-time per game is about 41 over an 82-game season. That puts you in the top 60 of point scorers at even strength, since powerplay time is generally where players rack up the excess points.

It’s nice to see a player who has been consistently good throughout his career get some recognition for his Game 7 heroics, but it’s worth noting he’s pretty good everywhere else.

There are lots of words to write about Justin Williams. Justin Williams is a very good hockey player, who would have been an All-Star a bunch of times if it weren’t for injuries during his scoring prime. Justin Williams is a key factor behind the Kings being so good at what the Kings are best at. Justin Williams. Justin Williams. Justin Williams.

Comments (7)

  1. Small note — though the Hurricanes traded for PO’S, they flipped him within minutes for Erik Cole who was struggling in EDM at the time. So, still not a terrible decision, but definitely not a good one.

  2. He was described as sneaky, or sneaky good, I believe, the other night by Ferraro. The Kings would be a much different team without him. Good analysis and article.

  3. “would be flirting with superstardom”

    That’s a bit much.

    But there’s no question Williams is under-the-radar for a clutch, 60 point do-everything forward and you’ve done a good job making a case for that.

  4. Williams has definitely been one of the most if not the most underrated player in the NHL, not just due to advanced stats but the eye test supports the numbers. And his cap hit is only 3.65 million, that’s less than half of what Marian Gaborik, Dany Heatley, Alexander Semin make for example. It just shows which teams know how to allocate their money and which don’t. I imagine for the Kings they rather have Williams at 3.65 playing on their top line than paying twice that for Kovalchuk, Gaborik, Heatley or other flashy wingers.

    This elaborates on that concept, and if you pay attention to the teams that actually win it turns out to be true:
    http://puckstorming.blogspot.com/2013/04/blinded-by-flash.html

  5. I’ve been saying all season long that Williams is the Kings MVP. He’s been the most consistent. Shown the most heart. Has great numbers across all the stats columns. Has shown the most leadership. Quick is making his case in the playoffs for MVP for sure. But, for the regular season, it was Williams.

  6. Canes also got a second round pick out of it but it hasn’t amounted to much: Brian Dumoulin, a 6’3″ defenseman who actually now plays in Wilkes-Barre.

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