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Dissecting the Penguins’ roster for ‘empty-calorie scorers’

Some players were obvious coming in, others may surprise you.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Penguins aren’t back in action until Friday night in Arizona against the Coyotes. So let’s play around with some stats and have a little fun on this extra day off, shall we?

Alan, one of our colleagues over at SB Nation’s Lightning site Raw Charge, wrote an interesting article that took an NHL player’s “empty-calorie scoring” level, a hockey cliché that depicts someone who scores a ton of points but doesn’t help their team win in other facets, and analyzed it using the newly-popular WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric.

For those unfamiliar, WAR is a single stat that tries to measure how many more wins a player contributes than a “replacement level” player, which in hockey would be a 13th forward or a No. 7 defenseman (spots on the roster that could be filled interchangeably with AHL call-ups or waiver claims).

While empty-calorie scoring is a concept that’s been around the league for quite some time, it’s often used in a negative way out of frustration to discount a talented player’s productivity on a “struggling” team — i.e., “Player X scores a lot, but Player X doesn’t know how to play a complete game to win. Trade them for someone who does!”

These types of players infamously attract a lot of criticism from media and fans alike and are often the centerpieces of line combination/trade arguments across Internet message boards far and wide, especially during the offseason.

Penguins fans never experience that, eh?

Because measuring “knowing how to win” is basically impossible, WAR metrics were introduced and applied to assist us in measuring how much a player on a specific team contributes to winning hockey games.

Before you yell at me and say, “but Kaitlyn, if a player is scoring points, aren’t they helping the team win by default?” I want you to know that, yes, I agree with you! Scoring is obviously a good thing. But the idea behind WAR usually refers to a player who scores points, but doesn’t contribute in other ways. So maybe their defense is bad, or they’re bad through the neutral zone, etc. It’s complicated, but it ultimately does make sense when you use a wider lens.

In Alan’s analysis, the two statistics he applied simultaneously to calculate a player’s contributions were WAR and points, both pulled from Evolving Hockey because their site updates daily, and their WAR stat has an even-strength component, a power play component, a short-handed component, and a penalty component. They’re currently in the midst of writing upwards of 20,000 words on WAR in a several part series on Hockey Graphs, and you can read more about their process here.

Calculating both stats as a scaled percentile provided a consistent method of ranking the players, because points and WAR are on vastly different scales. The best player is in the 100th percentile. The worst is in the first percentile. For example, if a player ranks 10 out of 200, they would be in the 95th percentile.

A player who’s great at scoring, but doesn’t contribute to winning is the conventional “empty-calorie scorer.” The inverse is a player who contributes to winning in ways that don’t result in points. To clarify, in this application, WAR is the most important stat, and argues that piling up points doesn’t always equate to winning.

To quote Alan, “If we have two players with identical WAR but one scores a lot and one scores infrequently, the one who scores infrequently isn’t somehow more virtuous. They’re equal in value. They just get to that value in different ways.”

Because I was so intrigued by the data, I pinged Alan to work in tandem with me to aggregate those same data categories specifically for the Penguins.

To ease into it, here’s a visual of the 2018-19 Penguins and their empty-calorie percentile for the current season, showing their points (gray box) relative to their WAR (purple box) compared to NHL players around the league. The longer the line, the bigger gap between those two measures. The color of the line is also noteworthy — blue means that their WAR outweighs their points and they’re labeled as a “winner,” and orange depicts the other end of the spectrum, labeling them as a “scorer.”

Because the Penguins are a good team with good players, a decent chunk of their lines are blue. Olli Maatta not regularly contributing on the score sheet but still finding ways to contribute to win games goes right along with his career M.O. Bryan Rust is also a player that comes as no surprise. His contribution is one of the biggest reasons for why his contract was extended last summer. This chart also points out how important to winning the play of Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and Jamie Oleksiak are, despite what their performances on the score sheet depict.

However, orange shows its ugly head here more than we’d like to see. Phil Kessel is the most obvious player on the team we’d expect to end up with his points outweighing his WAR simply due to his reputation. He has often been perceived as a star player with a lethal shot that’s constantly criticized for his defense.

Another interesting point from this chart is the results of Evgeni Malkin. Malkin has had a strange season thus far, marked by many ebbs and flows, so this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. As we go on though, you’ll see his metrics trend in the right direction in a larger sample size.

Moreover, when you take a look at those same statistics with players who meet the TOI requirement over a three-year span, the results aren’t perfect, but you can see how Kessel still looks pretty rough and Malkin looks much better:

The biggest surprise to me throughout all of this was the results for Jake Guentzel. After doing some digging, Guentzel’s problem was that he was measured pretty poorly by WAR last season, thus depicting him with an awfully big line between his points and WAR numbers and showing an orange line. From looking at Evolving Hockey, their model doesn’t seem to like his defense very much.

To take it a step further, data was collected across the entire NHL to show the 30-most empty-calorie scorers at each position for the 2018-19 season thus far — defensemen on the left, forwards on the right.

Viz by Alan (@loserpoints on Twitter)

Looking at WAR from a mid-season perspective can bring with it some anomalies, but this list is fascinating. Guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Kessel, Jonathan Drouin, and Vladimir Tarasenko — guys who have often been portrayed by the media for being empty-calorie scorers with a mired focus on defense — make this list. Kessel came in at No. 8.

Here are the opposite results; players who often contribute to winning in other ways that aren’t scoring in 2018-19 only:

Viz by Alan (@loserpoints on Twitter)

Hello, Maatta, Oleksiak, and Dumoulin.

Just to drive home my awe at Guentzel showing up with such compelling numbers, here is the same data adjusted to the past three seasons to offer a bigger sample size:

Viz by Alan (@loserpoints on Twitter)

Interestingly, Kessel didn’t make the top 30, but he was very close. Guentzel came in at No. 20.

And finally, for the sake of balance, the opposite results from 2016-19:

Viz by Alan (@loserpoints on Twitter)

Net-front nuisance Patric Hornqvist and newly-acquired Tanner Pearson made the cut at forward, coming in at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively. Rust squeaked in at No. 29. However, no Penguins’ defensemen cracked the top-30.

The obvious caveat and takeaway here is that WAR isn’t scripture, especially when aggregated over only half a season. Stats can be used in a lot of fun and different ways, and by no means do these findings mean that Guentzel and Kessel aren’t “winners.” That’d be a silly conclusion to draw considering the decorated careers both of them have had so far. But what it does do is highlight the play of guys not lighting up the box score every night, that instead, constantly contribute in their own specific ways to help their team win hockey games.

This specific example just takes traditional analysis and runs with it to introduce and create a new perspective. Simply put, it gets us thinking about our already-formed opinions and expectations of certain players, and encourages us to use our new knowledge to watch the game even closer than we did before.