Hi, welcome to Delicious Icing! This is a reboot of a reboot of a blog, which really says volumes about my attention span. I’m hoping that the third time’s the charm, but if you’re viewing this a year from now and I’ve quit two or three posts in again, feel free to judge me for it.
This site is dedicated to the resurgent Colorado Avalanche, who despite being one of the most interesting teams this NHL season remains woefully undercovered in the blogosphere, a word that I can’t believe I’m using unironically. Given that I’m resigned to caring about this team far more than what is rational or healthy, it seems like as good a time as any to start pasting my ignorant opinions all over the internet for public scorn. My favourite topics include advanced (read: pretentious) analytics, refusing to let go of nostalgia, and terrible puns. I’m pretty sure this is going to be a disaster.
In advance of the Nashville game, I wanted to examine the recent trade that sent Steve Downie to his original team for superstar Maxime Talbot, as enough new details have emerged over a week that an in-depth look at the entire story seems worthwhile. In a vacuum, it’s perplexing; Downie is a more skilled player than Talbot and should surely have more trade value. Perhaps the Predators’ threats of retribution for Downie’s hit on Roman Josi earlier this season were more intimidating than we thought, and the Avalanche thought to protect themselves by jettisoning him before their next meeting, like a matador’s cape.
Seriously though, why trade Downie now?
Adrian Dater of the Denver Post speculates that Downie’s intensity, while certainly a boon in some areas, was difficult to control and could be detrimental to the team at times. Dater qualifies it as only a hunch, but Jan Hejda had the same impression and would know as well as anybody. One quantifiable aspect of this is penalty taking – with the Avalanche this year he’s drawn as many as he’s taken for a net zero (with one additional instigator as a Flyer), but somebody who takes as many penalties as Downie, who’s third in the league with 53 PIM as of this writing, must put his team at a man disadvantage pretty often.
Over large sample sizes, the number of penalties he takes and draws roughly evens out, which indicates that his value as an agitator offsets his allegedly being mad crazy. He’s also generally near the top of the league in roughing minors and misconducts, though it’s questionable if this really quantifies how out of control a player is. At a glance, many of his penalties are fighting majors or offsetting minors; if Downie’s style was hurting the team, it was probably more due to the unpredictability factor than penalty trouble.
In any case, Talbot’s penalty numbers aren’t much more efficient. Where he contrasts Downie is in the intangibles he brings off the ice; he’s often cited as a clutch performer and proven winner. I’m not convinced that these traits actually exist or are valuable, but more appealing is his playoff experience and reputation for being excellent in the locker room – Roy often talks about building a strong team culture and acquiring Talbot’s veteran presence and personality should add to that in ways that Downie most likely didn’t.
Keep in mind as well that Downie’s career high is only 46 points, and that was inflated by playing with Steven Stamkos, extended power play time, and some puck luck falling in his favour. But for all that he lacks, he was still a skilled player and excellent teammate – recall the Carolina game, where he passed up an open look at the empty net to try to spring Matt Duchene for a hat trick – and could be considered the most skilled enforcer in the NHL. From a distance, it’s hard to tell whether this was purely a hockey trade or the Avalanche just didn’t foresee Downie sticking around past this year – after all, he stands to make a significant raise this summer in what could be his only unrestricted free agency over the prime of his career.
An interesting twist was recently brought up as Elliotte Friedman reported hearing that Downie was on the block since a training camp conflict with boy king Gabriel Landeskog. (Patrick Roy has stated otherwise, and that the trade was predicated on the Flyers’ high interest in Downie.) It doesn’t really seem to click – as Harrison Mooney points out, his insubordination was a non-factor in the team’s 10-1 start. Mile High Hockey also notes from Hejda’s interview that Downie was well-liked in the room and the trade came as a surprise to the players. Maybe he became more expendable for it, but if this incident was what punched his ticket out, then the timing of this trade makes very little sense from the Avs’ perspective.
Was this a deal to save money?
Could be – given his expiring contract, Downie may have priced himself out of the range that the Avalanche were willing to sign him for. Given the rare combination of energy and talent he brings to the team, it is difficult to believe this trade is made if negotiations are going perfectly well. However, asset management dictates that it would be more sensible to wait for a better offer, given what Downie might have returned at the trade deadline (Kyle Quincey’s comeback tour, anyone?). A trade this early in the season for ostensibly mediocre value indicates that the Avs targeted Talbot specifically and Downie was the price to acquire him, though his asking price could easily have influenced their willingness to complete the deal.
It’s been pointed out that Talbot’s contract over three years is worth more than Downie’s in total dollars (though not by much – the last two take a dip in salary paid), but that fails to account for whoever would have to be signed for the third line to replace Downie were the Avs to let his contract run out. Unless management thought the likes of Brad Malone or Mark Olver were capable of taking on his minutes, this is pretty much a wash. The idea that the smaller salary cap hit was necessary to accommodate extensions for Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly seems equally invalid. Both are already being paid very well and neither will be seeing a substantial enough raise to necessitate such a trade.
Why would we bother targeting a checking forward like Talbot?
In his press conference, Roy mentioned the appeal of Maxime Talbot on the ice as his penalty killing prowess – in the 2013 season, he ranked 2nd among forwards in PK usage share for his team, and is seeing similar deployment this season. The preceding year, he played the 3rd-most shorthanded minutes in the league, behind only Francois Beauchemin and Josh Gorges. His picture may as well be next to the dictionary entry for PK specialist, a niche that has been empty in Colorado since the departure of Jay McClement and Dan Winnik.
Roy intends to have him soak up the shorthanded minutes currently given to O’Reilly and Stastny (who have played 32.3% and 20.5% of the team’s PK time, respectively) so that their ice time can be redistributed to even strength and the power play, where their scoring talents will be put to much better use. But a cursory glance at his usage numbers reveals that he provides much more than just some PK relief. I’m aware that most Avalanche fans have something of a love-hate relationship with advanced stats, so I’ll try my best to explain and justify the conclusions I make with them here.
The two main metrics I’m looking at are zonestarts and Corsi Rel quality of competition. Zone starts are a simple enough concept: players who start more faceoffs in the offensive zone will have an easier time scoring, whereas those who start in their own end have a tougher shift because they need to work to exit their zone before they can accomplish anything in the way of offense. Since zonestarts reflect how players are utilized rather than how skilled they are, only shifts that begin on a faceoff are counted – this makes sense because these are when the coach has the most control over what players he wants to send out for the situation at hand. Neutral zone starts are generally discarded for similar reasons, as they don’t directly relate to shot generation or prevention.
Corsi Rel quality of competition (or qualcomp or QoC, if you want to drop some serious lingo the next time you’re beating up some stats nerd) is another usage measurement that tells us what level of opposition a player is being shifted against based on their relative Corsi. (Corsi is essentially +/- for shot attempts; relative Corsi measures how well a player directs shot attempts as opposed to the rest of the team when that player is off the ice.) Both Corsi Rel QoC and zone starts are important statistics to place a player’s performance in context of the situations he is put in.
With the Flyers, he was a primary defensive stopper at even strength – Behind the Net shows that a large majority of his shifts begin in his own zone and he plays against some of the best possession drivers on other teams. In short, Peter Laviolette trusted his defensive responsibility enough to give him some of the toughest assignments on the team – all the while propping up 18-year-old rookie Sean Couturier. (As an aside, I can’t stop reading his name as Maxi Metal Bot on this site, and now neither can you.)
His results last season are mixed: his Corsi Rel is poor, and although it is reasonable given his defensive role, Couturier performs much better with similar usage. Still, he acquits himself much better the previous year, with a somewhat lighter workload, larger sample size of games, and a much less terrible team. Some argue that Talbot is already on the decline at age 29; presumably Roy believes it was an aberration. Hopefully he’s right.
If you remember Ryan Kesler’s Selke-winning year, Talbot’s role will be similar to the one played by the 2010-11 edition of Manny Malhotra. The irony of that award, of course, is that Kesler essentially won for scoring 41 goals and in fact played the least defense of his career that season. Malholtra was the one responsible for practically all of the Canucks’ defensive zone faceoffs, shutting down the strongest players other teams had to offer, and playing more shorthanded time than any other Canucks forward. This allowed the Sedin twins to start an absurd 79% of their shifts in the offensive zone terrorizing opposing goalies, as well as allowing Kesler to play easier minutes against weak opposition, leading to tremendous offensive seasons for all three.
Although Steve Downie is a better hockey player than Maxime Talbot, Talbot will make his teammates – especially those classified as two-way players – more productive by eating up PK time and defensive starts, allowing them to produce more offense. And next time we play Detroit in a Game 7, he’ll be ready.
But why mess with 10-1 team’s winning formula?
One thing that’s become apparent over this young season is that the new Avalanche brass is proactive rather than reactive. Roy cites wanting to bring Talbot aboard as a PK specialist, which seems strange when the Avalanche already boast the top kill in the league until he points out how they have 14 games each in the next three months and will need some extra hands on deck to keep his roster fresh. Losing Cody McLeod to suspension showed him the limitations of his PK personnel, and he wanted to make the adjustment to eliminate that weakness. Odds are he’s also realized that the underlying numbers indicate that we’ve actually been quite terrible at preventing shots on the PK and that our success is inflated by a ridiculous save percentage when down a man.
Roy knows as well as anybody that Semyon Varlamov and J-S Giguere won’t be able to play lights-out goaltending forever and that eventually their Goals Against column will start rising up – especially as PK save percentage has historically been an unsustainable quantity. Rather than riding out this hot start, he’s attacking problems before they happen. It’s a bit risky, but it shows that management isn’t complacent with success and that they’re cognizant of where we stand as a team and where we need to be. Winning is nice, but having the tools to keep winning is even nicer.
I mentioned earlier that Talbot spent a lot of ice time with Couturier, and was in fact his predominant linemate over his first two professional years. It’s probably not a coincidence that Roy first played him with Nathan MacKinnon, our own precocious 18-year-old rookie. Even more than the PK and defensive factor, Talbot’s experience mentoring Couturier and sheltering him in defensive situations may be the exact reason that Roy and Sakic set out to trade for him.
Despite showing some offensive flair, MacKinnon’s line has been getting demolished at even strength – despite getting offensive starts 64.4% of the time and playing against the minnows of the league, they have been atrocious in possession and absolutely bleeding shots against. With Talbot on his wing, it becomes much more feasible to play the third line in defensive situations and allows Stastny some relief from his own paltry 41.7% offensive start rate. But more importantly, the Avalanche hope that Talbot can do for MacKinnon’s development what he did for Couturier. Talbot may be two years older than Downie, but make no mistake – this is very much a trade for the future.
So who wins the trade?
On mulling it over for about 2,000 words longer than necessary, I feel similarly as I did about the Chris Stewart deal: we fill a need but surrender a rare commodity in return. It’s a trade that easily has potential to backfire. Talbot has done most of his damage in the playoffs against the toughest possible competition, but Downie’s intensity seems like it ought to be valuable in the postseason as well. And while it’s difficult to measure, his hitting and work in the corners absolves his linemates of some physical punishment and gives them time and space to work – similar to the effect Talbot has by taking so many defensive minutes.
Given the concussion that Downie suffered on Friday, it’s obviously unfair to evaluate the trade in the short-term, so let’s settle on one thing to take away from this: the Downie for Talbot deal shouldn’t be judged by who outperforms the other, because they contribute very different things to a hockey team. Barring a miracle, Talbot is never going to become the better scorer – but if the likes of Landeskog, O’Reilly and Stastny turn up with career offensive years, his play will certainly have something to do with it.