Thursday, March 06, 2008


An expanded view of the Role Player

One of these months, if I hit a slow time at work, I'm going to write a hellaciously long post about the things I feel like I've learned (or perhaps understand better) about hockey having spent 3 seasons writing and reading about it on the web. I'm just incredibly grateful for the dozens of smart people who provide really solid insight: on their own blog, or as commenters on this one and others.

Some of these things are bits of conventional wisdom that have been exploded; in some cases, into such tiny pieces that they have slipped my consciousness entirely. But some others (perhaps just as many) are rather the opposite: insights into why coaches/GMs are quite right to make the decisions that they do, and it's simply that the CW is a lousy explanation for why (or the reasons are logical in contexts that, for whatever reason, just aren't discussed openly).

Anyway, today is not the day for that post. However, I did want to link to what I thought was an excellent comment by Devin at IOF:
...every team has and needs guys in the sheltered role. Those guys need to produce in easy 5v5 minutes, and Nilsson has done that. Top 30 in the league in ESP/60? That says that he's making a lot more hay out of soft minutes than a lot of other wingers out there. That he's doing it and isn't giving more back should solidify the fact that he's a legit NHL player.

I think we can all get a little too excited about "tough minutes". The fact is there are different players in different roles, and maybe Nilsson will never be able to match up against Iginla, but really, who cares if he can beat up on the weaker opp?

To coin a phrase, that is so true. There are, I'll say, 12 to 30 Class A1 skaters in the NHL. There are a group of forwards who consistently outchance and outscore the other guys no matter who they are playing with or against, and are effective on the PP as well (e.g. Ovechkin, Crosby, Thornton, Iginla). And there are a handful of defensemen who a coach can happily send out for a D-zone faceoff against anybody, and yet not feel like he's playing half-a-man short when the puck goes north of the redline (e.g. Pronger, Chara). Players who (small stretches excepted) will have their impact, and there's very little that opposing coaches, or even their own coaches, can do to interfere with that.

There are simply not that many of these guys. Plenty of teams don't have one. The Wings have three, and that still leaves 15 spots on the roster every game night. So what do you do? The answer (if you can call it that) is a grab bag of things. Certainly, acquiring/developing as many A2's and A3's as possible is helpful. But past that, surely a reasonable idea is to have a few players who are very good at at least one element of the game, and use them in a role that takes advantage of that one very good element to help your team win games. Call them... role players! (Hey, did I just coin another phrase?)
Certainly the guy Devin describes is also a very valuable role player: forward who looks overmatched against #1 lines but lights up #3 and #4 lines. These guys are extremely useful (and not terribly common either) provided you avoid a couple of pitfalls:
  1. Have enough balance between your lines, or a really rigorous Carlylesque line-matching program, so that the guy doesn't end up being the focus of the opposition
  2. Don't get sucked into believing that he's an A1 and decide to pay him like one
Given that, count your blessings if you have a "role player" like this on your team.


This is one of the things that Bowman did with his lineup better than anyone else, going way back before my time to those legendary Habs teams. His teams may have had stars, but what they really were was the sum of their parts, and guys like Gainey, who hardly ever scored, became legends.

From a coaching perspective, you want to find out what parts you've got, like a Nilsson, and use them accordingly. It's certainly harder than it seems.

Great post, Matt.

Great post. Always been a believer in this as well.

It's why I have liked Malik (among others) for a loooong time. Check out the guys Desjardins numbers over the years. May not play the toughest opposition (this year excepted) but the opposition he does play he dominates. THAT is a valuable guy to have on a team. I laugh at NYR fans who think Malik is the problem.

3 years of being bitched at by Oilers fans vs. a lifetime of watching the Flames...I can see why you've learned so much in these last 3 years;o)

harder than it seems

No question, and I hope I didn't leave an alternate impression.

In general though, guys should hold back their scorn from players who pile up points against soft opp, and save it for the ones who don't.

One of the 100 most famous quotes in sports in Buddy Ryan on Cris Carter early in Carter's career: "All he does is catch touchdowns."

As it turns out Ryan didn't quite know what he had there, but even if he was *exactly right* in his assessment, surely there's some use for such a player, no?

Excellent post, Matt. Your descriptions of some of the various roles greatly expands on the tired old term "role players".

guys should hold back their scorn from players who pile up points against soft opp, and save it for the ones who don't.

Well said.

This is one of the things that Bowman did with his lineup better than anyone else, going way back before my time to those legendary Habs teams.

James, no question Scotty was an absolute genius at match-ups. And he had the horses to do it, with Jarvis-Gainey-Roberts on one checking line, Risebrough-Lambert-Tremblay on a second, and guys like Cournoyer, Houle, Mondou and Pete Mahovlich to eat up the "soft" minutes behind Lemaire-Lafleur-Shutt. Not to mention defence and goaltending. It was a powerhouse organization from top (Pollock) to bottom, but Bowman was an absolute master at pulling the strings.

This leads me to the inevitable questions for Oilers fans:

1) Lupul?
2) Schremp?

Bowman was also the special genius who turned Gilbert Perreault into a checker.

It's interesting that most people have a clear idea of the roleplayer concept for goaltenders. I think most people have a pretty clear understanding that you look for different qualities in a backup goaltender vs. a starter. (And the difference between a backup for Brodeur vs. Hasek vs. Gerber.)

1) Lupul?

Going by last year's Desjardins, Lupul was playing some of the easiest minutes on the team and still doing sweet FA.

2) Schremp?

Sigh. Yeah, though I guess you could make the case that Nilsson>/= Schremp at this point, no?

Also, I'm totally with Devin that whole thread, and by extension Matt here: I'll take a guy like Nilsson for our second line over, say, Torres, who can avoid getting scored on for the most part but, save one season (which is increasingly looking like the blip) can't score—that, to me, just screams third line. Sure, Rowbear needs to be sheltered, but somebody has to play the easiest minutes, right? It might as well be a guy who can score in them, so long, as Matt says, we don't pay him like he's a world-beater.

Great post Matt.

You need the guys who can play the tough minutes for sure - witness '06 when the Oilers could throw out seven forwards and four D who could play Thornton and Marleau and Selanne etc etc.

But one of the things that killed the Oilers in that finals run is that the guys who were supposed to do the damage against the easy opposition, namely Stoll and Samsonov, did very very little in the later rounds.

Sigh. Yeah, though I guess you could make the case that Nilsson>/= Schremp at this point, no?

Yes, I think that you could, rather easily, make that case.

Agreed on Lupul though. If I read Matt's post correctly, he's talking about guys who murder soft opp, not guys who tread water or barely get by.

If Lupul had gone 30-25-55, E last season (rather that 16-12-28, -29) -- even if it was still against weak opposition, and even if he still looked like a wuss, well... many Oil fans (including all sensible ones) still would have been disappointed with the return on the Pronger trade, but Lupul would have been (A) helping his team win, and (B) pretty much earning his $2.2M.

Sigh. Yeah, though I guess you could make the case that Nilsson>/= Schremp at this point, no?


Yes, I think that you could, rather easily, make that case.

Nilsson is an excellent skater which can get him to the places he needs to be to score at EV, and occasionally in the places he needs to be in the defensive zone.

Schremp, while his AHL stats are very similar to Nilsson's, and his offensive talent is the same or greater, does not have that speed...meaning he can't get where he needs to be at EV right now (offensively or defensively), and he's not going to get enough PP time to justify bringing him up, IMO. He needs to find another gear.

During his year in Edmonton:

Lupul didn't murder soft opposition,
Lupul didn't tread water with soft opposition,
Lupul WAS soft opposition.

I was calling him "Soft Joff" before the end of October.

Lupul WAS soft opposition.

I believe Dennis' line was, "King Kong is easier to hide than Lupul."

Thoughts while running around the ACC:

The thing about guys like Nilsson, and I mentioned this over at IOF for anyone who read it there, is you figure out who you should pay them.

At this point I think Nilsson's an NHLer, no question about it. A quick look at the counting stats shows he's had 27 points in his last 46 games and he picked up another plus tonight so I guess he's at +6, right?

Well, that's all well and good but I think a smart GM has to decide what these guys are worth. I'm envious of the Ducks for a number of reasons, ie they're winners, they're bullies, etc;) but I love how that Moen-Pahlsson-Neidermayer line carries the mail while getting paid at relatively a minimum wage price. This is what makes the Ducks forwards hum. Pahlsson goes out and takes on Iginla, then Selanne or Getzlaf gets to go at Lombardi.

So, if you can make that work and get these guys locked in, now you can pay Getzlaf, Perry and perhaps two more and then you have four forwards to build two scoring lines.

For a guy like Nilsson, you set a line in the sand for him unless:

- he learns to kill soft opp
- he learns to keep his head near water against tough opp.

I was throwing this idea around with Cam tonight but if you looked at the Oilers roster and assumed you could get rid of Moreau and wanted to keep Stoll and Torres and you wanted to get your money's worth on these two mill plus guys, you would:

have 14-16-34 as your Pahlsson line
and then give these other six the softer min: 12-13-89-27-10-83.

There's certainly more than one way to skin a cat but considering you can't play GNC against tough opp and that the 14-34 combo do some serious tough sledding in the '06 run, I think that's the way I'd build my top nine.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?