The League of Extraordinary Statisticians (LOES) is a weekly forum bringing together top analytical minds in the hockey world to answer a variety of questions that straddle the line between stats analysis and something you might hear floating around section 304. They have agreed to answer these questions in a few paragraphs or less, and with minimal formulae. Because this is a forum, we'd encourage you to use the comments section to answer the questions yourselves, or to discuss or debate the answers given.
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"Underrated" is a term common in all of sports, typically meant to refer to a player that has not garnered sufficient media or monetary attention (as perceived by the person who uses it). In some sports, it can refer to an entire position on the field (the offensive line in American football, the sweeper/defenders in football), and in some a "type" of player (the "sixth man" or first bench player in basketball, the "defensive forward" in hockey). Recent hockey stats analysis has made great strides in recognizing players that are important to their team's winning percentage without receiving the kinds of accolades usually reserved for goal scorers, goaltenders, big hitters, and fighters.
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to have our statisticians reach back to previous eras to find players that, bereft of modern data, might never have a chance to be so recognized.
What I found with this question was a bit of apprehension concerning the word "underrated" and what it suggests. You can't have an underrated player without "correctly rated" and "overrated" players, with a notion of "rate" as something expressed, as I said, through things like positive media coverage (I lump awards into this category) and the contracts the player receives. As finite as that sounds, it has to be juxtaposed with what you personally think that player is worth. And that, of course, varies from person to person.
This, I think, is all the more the reason to ask the question. How do our statisticians rate players...and an extension: who is underrated when this is compared to things like positive media and contracts?
Or, as I put it to them: Name and provide an explanation of an historical player you feel has been underrated.*
I'd say the most underrated players are the ones that didn't play in the NHL, for example guys like Andre Lacroix and Marc Tardif (WHA), Guyle Fielder and Gordie Fashoway (WHL), Vladimir Petrov and Valery Kharlamov (Soviet), etc.
- Rob Vollman, Hockey Prospectus
Mike Ramsey. He was a dominant defensive defenseman, and while he played in four All-Star games, he was still under-appreciated. Today, hard to say - mostly we have guys who are underpaid: defensive forwards or defensemen, guys who draw penalties, guys who win faceoffs.
Steve Larmer? Dave Taylor? Guys who have been overshadowed by a flashier player, but who contribute to a similar level as that player.
Have to briefly comment on this - I hate this term, it is a question that generally brings up arguments between people simply because it is asking a two-part question: who do you think is perceived as bad that is actually good. Each person will have a different opinion of people's "rating/quality" and then on top of that you are asking them to criticize the opinion they believe others have - it just isn't productive.
- Chris Boersma, Hockey Numbers
It's hard to figure out which one player to single out. After a bit of thought, I pick Craig Ramsay, a Buffalo Sabre in the 1970s and 80s and current coach. He is one of the great defensive forwards of all-time and quite arguably the best in hockey history. During his time, Bob Gainey, a good defensive forward in his own right, was the media star defensive forward. He won the first four Selke Trophies (an award basically created for him). He had international success and won a Conn Smythe Trophy and Craig Ramsay was even better.
Ramsay played in all the toughest situations against the toughest opposition in the league and consistently put up one of the top +/- ratings in the league. He was on a much weaker team than the Montreal Canadiens (who Gainey played for) and frequently put up a better +/- than Gainey. Ramsay was a Selke runner-up three times and won it once in 1985, so he wasn't entirely without recognition in his career.
In the time since the NHL has kept +/- as a stat (since expansion), there is no defensive forward who played as tough situations as Craig Ramsay did, as frequently as Ramsay did, who managed to significantly outscore his opposition the way Ramsay did. His +/- rating was never negative in any season in his career. He topped +35 five times, topping at +51, and he did this on a Buffalo team that was no Stanley Cup favorite.
- Greg Ballentine, The Puck Stops Here at Kukla's Korner
This isn't exactly a straight-forward question because what does "underrated" really mean? Underrated by whom? Is this the public perception of the player, a player who underperformed due to things like era, team strength, or other performance-altering factors or was underrated by people in the NHL?
Without a clear guideline in that regard I'm going to go with public perception and go with Peter Forsberg. However due to the lack of clarity of what is underrated that may not be a 100% accurate statement as there are some out there who love, love, LOVE Peter Forsberg and I am amongst them. The public perception I get on him though is that he was a very good player that got hurt a lot. However, I think "very good" undersells him. He hit triple-digit points only twice, won one Hart Trophy, and really has a career riddled with missed games, going over 70 games five times in a 12-season career. So I can understand the scepticism but one has to have seen Forsberg in his prime to understand him. The guy was flat-out dominant and not dominant like an elite player, dominant in a generational sense. His prime was smack-in-the-middle of the Trap Era where league-wide goals-per-game regularly were under 2.75 so it definitely hurt his counting stats. Sharing ice time with Joe Sakic didn't help either.
This guy could just do it all; his hockey skill set was insane. He was an elite passer (career assists/game of .90), a very good shooter (14.7 career shooting %), could make jaw-gasping dekes, physically he was one of the strongest and toughest guys out there, and he played very good defense. I feel sorry for anyone who started watching the NHL closely after the lockout, because you missed one hell of a player and possibly one of the most talented players to ever play the game.
- Corey Pronman, Hockey Prospectus
Schony. Recently selected as the #6 Sabre throughout history, Jim Schoenfeld ranks 46th all-time in plus-minus -- yeah, yeah, I know -- but that's pretty darn good for a defensive defenseman who never raised the Stanley Cup over his relatively-short 13-season career. Consider that's a +1 per every three games he played, and a clip of 0.93 plus-minus per point he scored. Serge Savard, Jacques Laperriere, and Rod Langway are all in the Hall of Fame with similar "profiles". I wish they kept shot-blocking stats from back in the day, because the Sabres captain did it like no one else. He would literally sell his body out. As a kid growing up in Western New York in the late 70s, I learned to love defense watching Schoenfeld play. GVT ranks Schoenfeld among the top 100 defensemen and top 400 players of all time. I have to think that he would be thought of more highly if we had better stats to measure him by.
- Timo Seppa, Hockey Prospectus
I'm going to go with Adam Oates. Oates had the misfortune of having the peak of his career overlap with a number of legendary centers - Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, and Steve Yzerman - such that he was never even chosen to play for Team Canada in any Canada/World Cup or Olympic team, and was only once named to the 2nd All-Star Team. He led the league in assists 3 times, including once at age 39, and was runner-up twice. He was an incredible playoff performer, with 156 points in 164 games during the NHL's lowest-scoring era, but never won the Cup despite making the Finals twice and the Conference Finals another 3 times. His career totals, while impressive (1,420 points just in the regular season, 16th all-time) would be insane if his NHL career hadn't started at age 23. It's a joke that he's not considered a lock for the Hall of Fame.
My alternate choice would be Mark Howe, who may be hindered by the fact that he played in the WHA for the first 6 seasons of his career.
- Tom Awad, Hockey Prospectus
As you can see, no goaltenders listed here, though a curious number of Buffalo Sabres from the 1970s and 1980s. Rob Vollman gives us a chance to think about "underrated" as potentially including players who didn't play in the NHL yet still reached a high level of achievement, and as you could probably imagine, I also think this is an important category of player.
Vollman, incidentally, has developed an excellent stat that can shed some light on players who contribute far more than their paychecks suggest (and the opposite kinds of player), called Goals Versus Salary (GVS). Here's a better description. GVS could go a long way to identifying underrated players in a way that could help small-market teams.
So, for discussion, what do you think of Chris Boersma's assertion that "underrated" is a bit of an overrated concept in itself? If enough Buffalo Sabres from the 1970s and 1980s are mentioned, do they become an underrated team? Can goaltenders be underrated? Note: The great goaltending analysis site, Brodeur is a Fraud, might have some things to say about that. And the question that is probably on a lot of your minds: when is Richard Zemlak going to get his?
* I allowed them the opportunity to name a contemporary or additional player as well.