Fresh Cuts: Cale Makar, Seth Jones, Travis Boyd
Looking at various topics in hockey analytics.
As you probably know, I have joined EliteProspects Rinkside as their Lead Analytics Writer. For the time being, this doesn’t mean the end of the newsletter. But it does obviously mean that I won’t be quite as active writing on here as I was before, especially long-form stuff.
Here’s my tentative plan moving forwards. I’d like to resuscitate the doomed “Fresh Cuts” segment that survived for one article last autumn. The reason I killed it in the first place is because every time I would start writing something in short form I would inevitably extend it until it needed its own article. With my attention focused on EP (as well as a new day job) this won’t be as much of an issue. Ideally I would like to publish these every Saturday. Additionally, I’m interested in starting a new mailbag segment where I answer questions that you guys email to me at email@example.com. So for the time being I’m shooting for two pieces per week: Fresh Cuts on Saturday and mailbag on Wednesday.
I don’t need to tell anybody that Makar was elite last season, one of four rookie defencemen to enter the league as legitimate top-end players (along with Quinn Hughes, Adam Fox, and John Marino). While he wasn’t my Calder pick, his production was elite and he would’ve been the undeniable choice in most seasons.
This season has been absolutely next-level though. My colleague Dimitri Filipovic cut a highlight reel of Makar’s performance at both ends of the ice yesterday:
It’s an unbelievable highlight reel for a full season, let alone eleven games. Makar combines the offensive zone skills and hands of an elite forward with the quarterbacking ability of a top-end offensive defenceman. Most importantly, he’s utterly fearless with the puck, especially for a player his age. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone quite like this in the NHL. And early in the season his game hasn’t been just about flash; he’s been dominating possession like nobody else.
According to Patrick Bacon’s data, Makar leads defencemen in both expected goals for percentage and Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) for percentage. That means that when he’s on the ice the Avalanche are getting 68% of the quality chances and 62% of total shot attempts. Nobody in the league comes even close to this combination.
Now, Makar has spent a lot of time with the Avalanche’s top line - Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon have been on the ice for over half of his 5v5 TOI. Not a lot of defencemen have that good fortune. It will be weeks until we have access to reliable isolated metrics to fully account for the impact of this deployment on his numbers. But there are good signs for him. Namely that his numbers remain incredibly strong without the big three forwards while their numbers absolutely collapse without him.
It remains to be seen whether his dominance will continue as the season goes along. But I really hope it does. To have the most fun defenceman to watch in the league also be the best defenceman in the league analytically would be so exciting.
That’s enough positivity. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’re probably aware of my Seth Jones skepticism, backed up by an extensive argument for why I consider him to be just okay and not elite. While I have gotten plenty of heat for this take, it seems to be catching on a bit in the past few months (helped, no doubt, by the reputational damage caused by his questionable Twitter likes). I think it’s safe to say that “Seth Jones isn’t a top ten defenceman” isn’t as shocking an opinion as it was six months ago.
I have to give Jones himself some credit for helping me out here. Because I was just arguing that he was pretty average relative to his reputation - I never expected that he would perform as poorly as he has so far this season. His hockey card stats are not good (3 points and -9 in 12 games) but his underlying numbers are somehow worse, especially relative to his team.
The only defenceman who’s played over 100 minute with a lower xGF% this season is Erik Karlsson (that’s a whole other can of worms). The Jackets’ top pairing of Jones and Zach Werenski has been totally caved in both in terms of goals and expected goals in the 184 minutes they’ve played together. But it’s what happened in the 47 minutes Jones has been without Werenski that’s been really appalling: a 16.7% xGF% and 0% GF%.
It’s been a nightmare season for the guy who I expected to win an (undeserving) Norris Trophy this year. What’s gone wrong? If these stats continue how they have so far I’ll have to revisit this topic later in the season. But if he continues to struggle to this extent, there is every chance that by the time RAPM and WAR are ready to go, he could be one of if not the lowest rated defenceman this season. While you might say I was right to fan the flags on the Jones hype, rest assured that I did not expect to being saying that sentence.
This one is just stupid. Travis Boyd has played three games for the Toronto Maple Leafs so far this season and the result has been pure tomfoolery. Boyd doesn’t have a lot of name recognition around the league because he’s a classic fourth line tweener - in the past three seasons including this one he’s played only 80 games. But stats nerds know him because he is without a doubt the most annoying player when it comes to somehow sustaining obviously unsustainable results. For example, Boyd ranks seventh in EvolvingWild’s Goals Above Replacement per 60 minutes stat among players with over 800 minutes played in that time frame, right between David Pastrnak and Anthony Cirelli. He ranks eleventh in primary assists per 60 as well, between Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon. Something’s up.
What’s up is that he has been absurdly lucky. Since 2018-19, Boyd has the highest PDO in the NHL by a sizeable margin, 106.3 to 104.8. For those who are unaware, PDO is a stat calculated by adding a player’s on-ice shooting percentage to their on-ice save percentage. It functions as a sort of function for puck luck because both of these stats are influenced far more by fortune than a player’s own skill. A 100 PDO is the average, and over time a player’s PDO is expected to regress towards that number. Here’s Boyd’s cumulative PDO over time since 2018:
He’s kept up an egregious number consistently, and it shows no sign of changing. In fact, early in the season it’s actually going up improbably. The main driver of this is his on-ice shooting. Compared to the league average of 8%, Boyd and his linemates have shot over 13% in his past 80 games.
Maybe Boyd is secretly an elite player trapped unfairly in a fourth line role. Or maybe if you flip ten coins there’s a small chance they’ll all come up heads. Whether it’s good luck or generational efficiency, if Boyd can stick with the Leafs it will be amusing to see whether he can somehow keep it up.