There have been some who accuse Arctic Ice Hockey for being negative. In actuality, we are a community of multiple different voices, with multiple different opinions, and views. However, the evidence provided by the on-ice results will never be subjective. Sometimes the results will be negative, and sometimes positive. That's just the way it is.
Saying the Winnipeg Jets have not played very well this season would be a severe understatement. When looking at all shot attempts (AKA Corsi), currently the Jets have the 5th worst differential 5v5 Close Game situations (when the score hasn't gotten out of hand, as in within 2 points or less). At a sample size of 10-15 games this becomes a pretty good predictor of future success, even more so than a team's win% or goal differential. This is not damning yet for future predictions, but it's very promising either.
In spite of all this, there has been one pair of bright lights in the Jets' roster: Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. Last time we spoke of them as a pair, now we focus on Byfuglien exclusively.
I hear Big Buff is good offensively...
Understatement of the decade.
Let's look at how Byfuglien ranks in his first two seasons as a Jet. We'll take all the defensemen who have played 750+ 5v5 minutes over the 2011-13 seasons, which is 205 players, and just under 7 per a team. Dustin's 1.16 points per 60 minutes of play is the 5th highest in the NHL. Only Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns (who is a part time forward), and Keith Yandle out pace Byfuglien per minute.
What about on power play? Well most often the power play is 5v4 situations. Looking at all defensmen who have played 100+ 5v4 minutes over the 2011-13 seasons, which is 110 players, and just under 4 per a team. Dustin's 4.38 points per 60 minutes of play is the 11th highest in the NHL. Many of those above Byfuglien are power play specialists like Marc-Andre Bergeron or Ryan Whitney. Only Kris Letang beats Byfuglien in both 5v5 and 5v4 situations.
On top of this Byfuglien can play a lot of minutes. Combine his two high end productions with these heavy minutes and you have the third highest active defensemen for points per game.
I hear he's a defensive liability though...
Byfuglien can sometimes play a bit of a rover role, which can be dangerous if one of the forwards don't cover for him. He also has had a reputation for getting gassed prior to backchecking.
However, Byfuglien also has good traits defensively. He is very physically strong and can dominate against the boards. He also rarely is beaten 1v1 and is usually wise when determining when to use the body and when to use his stick with checking.
Travis Hrubeniuk has been tracking scoring chances diligently for our blogger friends Jets Nation. I have been able to compare his values with my own (not so diligent) numbers and also those at a community database that has been setup Josh Weissbock, to assure of minimal if any scorer's bias. The Jets defensive even strength numbers prior to the game 9 against the Nashville Predators were as follows:
|Total Against||Against per Game||+/- per game||Against per 20 min||+/- per 60 min|
Keep in mind the sampling space is still a bit small for this to be overly indicative. Corsi tends to take 10-20 games to be substantial enough in size and the number of Corsi events are about 2-4x more common than scoring chances.
At first glance it doesn't seem as promising. Byfuglien has allowed the most chances in total, per game and per minute. Although, he has spent a lot of time on the ice with Grant Clitsome who has been struggling this season with unforced defensive zone turnovers. The part that counts the most is the differential; Dustin Byfuglien's chance differential is the best after Enstrom, albeit still slightly negative.
Still, he is getting better in this department, and it's showing up in the on-ice results. Gary Lawless noted as much in his article Big Buff worth weight in gold. In it Lawless highlights a great quote from Claude Noel:
"He's been reliable. He's taken the ups and downs out of his game," said Noel. "He's minimized the risk in his game and this leads to way more stability in our back end... He hasn't traded the offence for just defence. You see it in the numbers we track. We track scoring chances for and against when a player is on the ice. They're a lot better this year than last year. He's on the ice against the other team's better players all the time and often that makes a player a minus in the numbers we track, but clearly he's been better in that area this year."
Is he really improving there?
Yes. The numbers back this up.
Even in a single game situation shot metrics correlate strongly to scoring chances, and over a large enough sample size Fenwick (all non-blocked shot attempts) and scoring chance differentials essentially equate. Because of this, Fenwick events can be a near perfect proxy for comparing increase or decreases in scoring chances allowed or differential.
We can look at the percent difference than between this season and previous relative to ice time:
|Chances Against||Chance +/-|
|Rel to 2011-12||-19.8%||5.2%|
|Rel to 2012-13||-11.4%||11.3%|
|Rel to 2011-13||-15.6%||8.1%|
As you can see here, Noel isn't lying. Byfuglien's chances against have severely dropped. He is currently trending nearly 20% lower than his first season as a Jet and over 11% better than his second. His improved defense has come with a slight decrease in offense, but overall the net improvement has been positive.
In the article Lawless hypothesizes that Byfuglien's improvement is due to the blue liner's recent weight loss and improved conditioning. This is likely true although Byfuglien is also relatively new to the defensive position at the NHL level and there's the influence from Claude Noel and Charlie Huddy; all of these could be playing a role as well. Another factor could be time with Tobias Enstrom, as Byfuglien's Fenwick against tends to go down by 9.5% and Fenwick% improve by 22.0% when with the Swedish defensemen.
Some may point out to Byfuglien being a minus player over the last two seasons. Now we'll ignore that the traditional goal +/- is a pretty terrible stat, and point out that for over 1500 of Byfuglien's 2000 5v5 time on ice over 2011-13 was with Tobias Enstrom, Grant Clitsome, and Johnny Oduya, and he is a plus for all his minutes with them.
If Byfuglien's puck possession continues to trend as it is currently, we should see Dustin's chances for/against improve to near similar numbers as Tobias Enstrom.
Dustin Byfuglien is really good, and commonly underrated by those who think he is more of a minus than a plus.
I said the proof is in the pudding. Lawless says proof meet pudding. Either way, we're getting a better Buff, a good Buff and hopefully some nice pudding.