Back in the summer of 2011, it was pretty difficult to find anybody that would suggest Jonathan Toews was anything but a clutch performer. He was a year removed from a Conn Smythe Trophy and had scored a late shorthanded goal to send Game 7 of the first round series to overtime. Chicago was an 8-seed.
Also in the summer of 2011, there were people who were thrilled that their pre-season prediction had come true. The Miami Heat weren’t a championship team. LeBron James isn’t clutch, you can’t assemble groups of superstars and have them win blah blah blah blah. We’re approaching July in 2013, hockey is still going on for some reason, Jonathan Toews has one goal in his last zillion games and LeChoke and the Heat have repeat as NBA champions.
It’s unreasonable to think that there aren’t players that step their games up in key situations. It is unreasonable to think that we have any way of measuring the difference. There’s such a marginal gap between the quality of players and teams at the highest level of sport that you’d need literally hundreds of games to be able to tell a good player from a not as good player. We have six seasons worth of play-by-play data for individual players and there’s still a lot we don’t know about shooting talent, how players age, and how to effectively measure defence.
But it’s painfully obvious that scoring slumps belonging to Toews until Game 4 of the Stanley Cup and another belonging to Jaromir Jagr are just blips on the radar. How much weight do you put on production versus performance in a small sample? Toews, like Jagr, passes every eye test imaginable. As Tyler Dellow noted over at mc79hockey, Toews has been going head-to-head against top players and has been dominating them in puck possession. He has 67 shots in 21 games in the postseason and just two goals for a shooting percentage of 3.0%, well below his career rate of 14.2%.
One of the things I don’t like about judging a player based on his supposed “clutch” ability or lack thereof is that the short nature of the playoffs means that there’s going to be a lot of random sampling. I’m no mathematician, but smart people have done the work on consistency, and when you plug in very slim odds (ie: 0.30 goals per game) over a large stretch of games (Game 4 was Toews’ 481st career game, regular season and playoffs) you’re going to go scoreless in a bunch of them. Eric T has done some great work noting that as the number of playoff games increase, extreme highs or lows in production begin to normalize.
Looking through Toews’ Hockey Reference pages, I count three 8-game goal-less droughts, one of 9 games, another of 11 and one of 13. His two goal-less droughts in these playoffs were 9 and 10 games. The difference is that when these droughts happen during the regular season, there’s still a lot of time to play your way out of a slump. There’s less pressure, coverage, and media people that don’t often cover hockey looking for an easy angle.
The performance is there. Is there really anything more Toews could have done to score more goals? The expectation in hockey is that goals lead to wins and the bottom line is that the team’s top players have to produce, but there are a lot of factors that lead into who scores and when, and some of it is luck. In a small sample, there are a lot of things that can’t be explained, but the luck will balance out over a larger sample. Maybe.
In the Cup Final, matching up a bunch against Big Z in the two home Bruins games and a lot on the road against the big-minute behemoth that does nothing but restrict the possession and scoring of superstars, Toews has a Corsi per 60 rating of 37.3 if I’ve done the calculation right (his Game 1 Corsi was +31). His Relative Corsi is approximately 27.2. The Blackhawks are heavily out-playing the Bruins at even strength and the Bruins have had Tuukka Rask really keep them in it, but it’s primarily off of the back of Toews. The Blackhawks have 31 more shot attempts than the Bruins without Toews on the ice, and an astounding 54 more shot attempts with Toews on the ice.
In Toews’ case, a player with a Conn Smythe and one of the best offensive centremen in the league, I’d lean towards his slumping being more about luck than any missing ingredient. You have to be precise to score a goal at the NHL level. Less than half a degree of a shooting angle on a 40-foot shot is the difference between the puck going just under the crossbar and the puck easily finding the goaltender’s glove. A great player will have 2.50 shots per game, yet just 0.30 goals. If there were players that could score every game, they would.
Then you have to factor in the goalie. The Blackhawks are playing against the likely 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Tuukka Rask, and played last round against 2012 runaway Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick. They played against an underrated Jimmy Howard in the second round (his .937 even strength save percentage this season was fourth among starters behind Sergei Bobrovsky, Tuukka Rask and Henrik Lundqvist). It hasn’t been an easy ride for Chicago, yet without one of their top two offensive weapons producing, they’re in a 2-2 tie in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Again, to update the totals that I posted on Twitter the other day, with Toews on the ice at even strength so far this series Chicago are out-shooting Boston 55-30. When he’s off, it’s just a slim 98-94 advantage. Toews has somehow managed to be a +6 despite a PDO slightly below 1 at .996. Him, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Jaromir Jagr appear to be the only four plus players in the playoffs with a PDO of below 1. Plus/minus means bupkes as far as predicting the future, but the fact that Chicago has such a positive goal differential with Toews on the ice without him getting the offensive breaks is really telling of the way he’s played.
Not to put a lot of weight into Toews’ performance as for being in the playoffs because, again, there’s some sampling problems as we’ve played just four games. Toews has been very good in those four games and if all you’re looking at are the pucks that are going in, it’s time to start watching the games.
Final thought: this has been a hell of a series.