We’ve wrote a bunch about how our puck moving metric can be used to break down different team’s defense groups and compare ability across the league. This can be helpful in helping teams identify undervalued players on other teams, determine potential fit (e.g., 2nd/3rd pairing, defense style), etc.
Here we look at identifying breakout candidates — before they break out as stars. To do so, we examine 2 top-end puck movers in the league today: Kris Letang and Victor Hedman.
Looking at a quick 10 year average, you’ll notice 2 elite puck moving defensemen. There are obviously other factors that may explain the slight difference between the players: down years, injury-riddled years, tougher quality of competition, etc. – but the key takeaway from this chart is that both – despite generally facing top QoC – have still excelled at driving possession and helping their team generate scoring chances.
Is it possible to have predicted how each of these players would turn out? Of course it’s impossible to be perfectly accurate all the time. There are many cases of promising prospects who don’t pan out. But in the cut-throat world of professional sports, any edge is a big one – so let’s explore.
From 2007/08 to 2009/10, Letang posted an average of 26 points per season and was a combined minus 8 over those 3 years. Knowing those stats, one might jump to the conclusion that his breakout 2010/11 (50 points, +15) came out of the blue. Not if you look at his ability as a puck mover.
Letang posted a PMF of +0.86 in 2007/08, followed by +3.10 in 2008/09 and +2.78 in 2009/10. Those are exceptional numbers. While his “basic” stats left much to be desired, our puck movement metric highlights a top-end puck mover early on in his career.
Some might have been understandably worried after Hedman’s first 4 seasons. After being the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 draft, he was averaging ~20 or so points per season and was a combined -8 through 4 years.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. Despite not lighting up the scoresheet, Hedman was dominating as a puck mover. Posting PMFs of (+1.16, +3.20, +1.38, and +3.12) are very good and point to a strong puck-moving defenseman who routinely drives possession and makes his teammates better. Hedman finally broke our in 2013/14, posting 55 points and leading Tampa Bay to their first playoff birth in 5 seasons.
No one can accurately predict how every player will turn out. But any edge carries tremendous value. Analytics shouldn’t be viewed as the only tool; rather, it should be seen as one of several that provides insights that can be used to complement the rest of the evaluation of a player.
In the case of Kris Letang and Victor Hedman, we see two examples in which our puck movement metric provided strong evidence of two players on the rise – each primed for a breakout. Those insights might help a team target either player who could be undervalued by their team. Letang and Hedman’s “basic” stats were more than modest through 3-4 seasons, but their puck movement ability hinted at strong upside and potential.
This same approach can be used today to identify hidden gems who, despite flying under the radar with low point totals or modest plus/minus, are on the verge of taking the league by storm.