Eye Test: Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz can be a good player but the team’s game is hurting him as much as he is hurting the team.
Five installments into this column, meant to examine players about whom “fancy stat” fans and “eye test” fans disagree, I have begun to make some meta-observations about their arguments that surprise me. Not once have I thought that advanced statistics were wrong about a player, or that they “missed” something that can only be seen by watching him on the ice. But paradoxically, the fancy stats crowd more often wrongly describes a player than the “watch the games” crowd. I’ll use my previous Eye Test subject, P.K. Subban, as an example:
I. Certain fans see Subban’s advanced stats and declare him one of the best defensemen in hockey. They fought the suggestion that he would not make Team Canada.
II. Other fans bristle at the idea that Subban is elite, citing the reason he did not start for Canada in Sochi: He makes more risky plays than the average defenseman.
III. Stats-inclined fans come back by claiming that Subban is not risky, citing his Corsi rating as evidence: “The argument that he’s ‘risky’ or untrustworthy is fueled mainly by biases and misconceptions about what ‘good defense’ is.”
This Corsi-proves-Corsi reasoning is not really responsive. As I wrote in the article, Mike Babock was right about Subban and justified in benching him at the Olympics. The technique that causes Subban to sell out on pinches and checks makes him more susceptible to being caught out of position, which made Subban a bad fit for Canada's 1-3-1 system and created needless risks that outweighed the razor-thin talent margin between Subban and the right-handed D-man directly above him on the depth chart (Alex Pieterangelo).
That does not mean that Subban isn’t one of the five or so best blueliners in hockey—the people who argue otherwise are wrong. But fancy-stat followers, in their zeal to defend Subban, won’t admit to the one thing the eye test crowd has right about him: he has a uniquely risky playing style.
Fans of advanced statistics start with the right answer and work backwards. They also know that the people who disagree with them will not be swayed by mathematical proofs. So we (I am as guilty of this as anyone) try to meet the eye test crowd on their own terms by creating ex post facto scouting reports—and by seeing what we want to see on the ice.
That brings us at last to Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz and this defense of his game by David Staples of the Edmonton Journal. Staples’ article did not trigger a lot of soul-searching from the advanced stats crowd. In fact, it was so ridiculed as to launch a meme: “Big Corsi,” the term Staples used for the analytics movement, presumably meant to evoke that all-purpose bogeyman, Big Oil.
But Staples’ error in his article is the same one that advanced stats folks make all the time: He’s trying to gain credibility for his position by meeting his opponents on their own turf. Like the fancy stats proponents who justify the claim that Subban plays a safe game with their “unbiased” eye test, he justifies his view of Schultz as a good defenseman (a view shared by many other Edmonton fans and executives, mind you) with fuzzy advanced statistics.
I don't buy his math as an indictment of Corsi. Former Oilers blogger and current Oilers employee Tyler Dellow had a good post (that’s no longer online) knocking down the numbers used by Staples. But Staples’ instincts on Schultz are right: He can be a good player—and the team’s game is hurting him as much as he is hurting the team.
As Staples himself acknowledges, the big objection to the idea that Schultz is any good comes from WOWY (With Or Without You) statistics. With Schultz on the ice, pretty much every Edmonton player plays worse than they do without him. These numbers suggest that Schultz is letting his team down, not the other way around.
There exists, however, a scenario in which a player could have terrible WOWY numbers without them reflecting poorly on his abilities alone. If an entire team was struggling to implement a defensive system, and that system especially exacerbated the weaknesses of one player, that would lead to poor WOWY numbers. This scenario, at least in part, fits Schultz and the Oilers.
Edmonton’s defensive-zone game plan is the most needlessly complex in the NHL, and it’s being executed by guys who can't spell banana or pass open-book boating license tests. Watching a few Oilers games, I was often confused by what they were trying to do in their own zone, and I could tell that Schultz (19) was right there with me. His best tools are his wheels and his quick wrists. So why is he mostly using his index finger?
As far as I can tell, Schutlz’s main job in his own zone is to be a traffic cop. He stands in front of the net and directs traffic, pointing to where his teammates should be converging. It never seems to work. He's totally out of sync with the other Edmonton players. The gif below shows a particularly egregious example, with Schultz calling for someone to pick up the trailer (the Coyotes’ Tobias Rieder, 8) and ends up looking like an idiot when Rieder blows right past him and almost scores:
Most defensive strategies involve a defenseman who plays close to the net. It’s especially important in whatever pseudo-swarm permutation the Oilers are using now. But Edmonton’s system also seems to call for the defenseman by the net to the be the most aware of the play, and to also have a lot of trust in the defensive play of his forwards. You can see why this plan might not suit a 24-year-old power-play specialist, especially when he is surrounded by other twentysomething power-play specialists.
The temptation exists to say that Schultz just reads the play too slowly and is the new Jack Johnson. There aree certainly some similarities between the two. Like Johnson, Schultz stands around too often. The system of coach Dallas Eakins calls for Schultz to stand around, though, which exacerbates his worst tendencies. One gets the sense watching both Johnson and Schultz that, unlike Johnson, Schultz really should be a great puck-mover. His puck skills, anticipation and passing grade out much better. According to the All Three Zones project, Schultz made the same percentage of offensive zone entries with control (46%) as Erik Karlsson last season.
Even in the neutral zone, however, Schultz’s struggles with his defense. The Oilers seem to have him playing up in the zone with his defense partner hanging back. In the games I watched, this strategy often lead to one very predictable result:
How much of this is a failing of Schultz's hockey sense and how much of it is Eakins’ fault for asking too much of players who haven't mastered the basics? Here's one final clip of Schultz that highlights in equal measure the ample failings of both the player and the entire Edmonton defensive scheme:
Does Schultz’s presence on the ice make his teammates worse defensively? Yes. But that's like complaining that he’s the worst actor in The Room. He's not Jack Johnson, a one-man defensive sinkhole who was dragging down an otherwise efficient Kings team before he got traded. Schultz reminds me more of a young Marek Zidlicky: frustratingly soft, not aggressive, but a potentially positive possession player. If Schultz was more concerned on defense with getting the puck from Point A to Point B than with the shenanigans of Jordan Eberle, things would slow down for him.
Maybe I'm giving Schultz too much credit, but I think in a man-to-man system, his defense would become passable enough to justify his offense. The risk would be greater that he’d get out-muscled one-on-one, but so would the benefits of keeping his legs moving and keeping his responsibilities simple. Don't misunderstand: The guy is a bona fide defensive disaster, largely of his own fault. Corsi is right. But I still see a fundamentally capable player who lets his teammates down and is let down by his teammates in equal measure.