Let me tell you a tale of two rentals. Player A has 1.45 primary points per 60 minutes played this season at 5 on 5, and Player B has 1.14. Player A’s GF%, relGF%, CF%, relCF%, xGF% and relxGF% this season at even strength are 43.55, -2.35, 49.22, 3.91, 51.85, and 5.01. Player B, in those same categories went 52.78, 5.64, 52.77, 1.25, 53.91, and 1.00.
There’s a lot to unpack here, provided I haven’t already lost you by dumping 14 different stats on you in the span of four sentences. Player A certainly seems to be on a worse team, because all of his raw percentages are lower than Player B’s, although relative to his teammates Player A seems to be the better player in every area except one, relative goals for percentage. Now, that one certainly means something, because in hockey, it’s the goals that count. All things considered though Player A is probably the one you’d take at the deadline right? Still, Player B seems alright, and depending on the ask a GM might opt for the latter player over the former.
Well that’s just this season, and although hockey is certainly a “what have you done for me lately?” sport, you’d want to make sure you’re not trading for some kind of fluke, so let’s take a look at their stats from last year. Player A and Player B have nearly identical P1/60 stat lines (1.59 to 1.56, respectively) but as far as their raw and relative GF, CF, and xGF percentages things get a bit more complicated. Player A, in all of those categories threw down 51.35, -3.68, 46.69, -1.07, 49.95, and 0.75 while Player B had 58.25, 6.46, 53.37, 5.18, 55.07, and 6.54.
While it seems that Player B is still on a better team than our other friend, now it seems like in addition to that fact he’s actually the better player by quite a wide margin. Things don’t seem quite so clear anymore – this season might be a fluke for Player A, or maybe last season was for Player B. A GM making a trade for either of these guys is probably looking at more stats than just these past two seasons, and probably has their own very sophisticated stat package their checking in addition to taking input from their scouts and coaches, but the problem remains. Who do you trade for at the deadline? Who’s going to put your team over the top?
Ok, now that I’ve drowned you in numbers, I’m going to cut to the chase: we’re talking about Rick Nash (Player A) and Patrick Maroon (Player B). As the initial trade deadline hubbub began to take shape, the rumored asking price for Rick Nash came out – a first round pick, a high-level prospect, and a lesser prospect. Naturally, there was pushback from a lot of fans and commentators who thought the price was outrageous, and a certain Edmonton beat reporter made this astute observation.
Why everyone so crazy about Rick Nash?
Forget past accomplishments.
Is he a better player than Patrick Maroon right now?
Good hype job by Rangers and media friends on player.
— David Staples (@dstaples) February 11, 2018
What Staples is getting at, underneath the mountain of salt his comment is covered in, is that hockey is indeed played in the present. A guy’s accomplishments and previous level of play may inform a GM’s decision-making process when considering a trade, but in the case of Nash and Maroon front offices around the league will be focusing on Staples’ question, given the difference in asking prices between the two players. If you can get Maroon, who is kind of, maybe, almost as good as Rick Nash this season (not exactly though) for a fraction of the price you would end up paying for Rick Nash, you do it and let some other GM get fleeced into overpaying.
The problem here is that you can’t forget past accomplishments – they form the fuller context in which players can be understood, and sometimes those accomplishments form a large part of a player’s reputation. As Craig Custance notes in his excellent story on Nash at The Athletic (it’s behind a paywall), Nash’s international experience with Team Canada may color the way some teams look at him as a potential trade target. How well a player has performed in the past, beyond the accolades is also relevant to evaluating a player. In short, reputation matters.
Along those lines, Rick Nash’s résumé paints quite a pretty picture, in contrast to Maroon’s relatively ho-hum accomplishments and stats. Nash won silver at the 2002 IIHF World Juniors, scoring 3 points in 7 games; Maroon did not play in the WJC. Nash played in the IIHF World Championship tournament on four occasions – in 2005 he won a silver medal and scored 15 points in 9 games, in 2007 he won gold with 11 points in 9 games, the following year in 2008 he won silver and logged 13 points in 9 games played, and in 2011 Team Canada came in 5th, when he had 5 points in 7 games played. Maroon meanwhile played in the World Championship once in 2016, when he had 3 points in 10 games and finished 4th with Team USA.
As far as the Olympics go Nash had an unfortunate showing with Canada in 2006, when the team came in 7th and he notched 1 point in 6 games. Things went pretty OK since then in the Olympics however for Nash, as he earned a gold medal in both 2010 (5 points in 7 games played) and 2014 (1 point in 6 games played). Maroon, suffice to say, hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA, because no one has since he’s been alive.
Even the most cursory look at a player’s stats, goals scored, speaks volumes to the quality of Rick Nash as compared to Patrick Maroon. Nash has played 14 seasons in the NHL to Maroon’s 7, and in those 14 seasons he’s scored 20 goals or more 12 times, while Maroon has had one 20-goal season. Nash has been able to do that with a consistently changing supporting cast, while Maroon’s personal best of 27 goals and 15 assists came alongside the best player in hockey, Connor McDavid.
Still, if you’re fixated on this season and this season only, and you rightly want to point out that there’s more to hockey than being on ice for more goals, shots, and scoring chances for than against, that’s fair. Maybe Nash’s reputation doesn’t do it for you, maybe his relative percentages don’t mean much, whatever.
The good news is that Corey Sznajder, one of the smartest and most dedicated people in hockey analytics has been keeping track of the kind of small things most stat skeptics point to when voicing their concerns. The full list of what he keeps track of can be found on his blog (here’s the Rangers page) and additional data can be accessed via his Patreon page, but if you don’t want to sift through a sea of data the good news is that CJ Turtoro has made excellent visuals representing Sznajder’s data (if this stuff seems familiar to you, my devoted fans, it’s because I used it in a post over at Blueshirt Banter). Two charts comparing Nash and Maroon, one representing data from last season and one from this season, can be found below.
Although Sznajder tracked different amounts of time for the two players and things may not be perfectly representative, we’re still working with enough information to make some broad statements based on the data. In 2016-17 Nash outplayed Maroon in almost ever aspect of the game except shot assists per 60 minutes, but in 2017-18 it appears that Maroon has caught up somewhat.
This season, Nash and Maroon are tied in terms of shot contribution per 60 minutes, mostly because Nash’s shot assists per 60 remains incredibly low (which makes sense, as he’s always been much more of a shooter than a passer). In terms of zone entries and exits though they seem relatively even, so it’s tough to really say who’s the better player in the here and now. Maybe David Staples, cynicism aside, is right.
Unpacking the data a bit further with regard to these microstats is helpful here however (I gleaned all of these numbers from the other charts on Turtoro’s tableau page, which I couldn’t set up head to head but I promise you are extremely informative and fun to play around with). In order to get a better idea of what each player is particularly good at, it’s important to compare the individual categories for zone entries, exits, and shots/shot assists.
Starting with zone entries, looking at each player’s entry passes per 60 minutes, carry-ins per 60 minutes, dump-ins per 60 minutes, and failures per 60 minutes gives us a clearer picture. In those four respective categories, Nash to Maroon we’ve got 3.50 to 3.93, 7.96 to 5.33, 8.76 to 7.01 and 2.39 to 0.56.
Unraveling things a bit we’ve got this: the two players are almost equally as good as each other at creating zone entries via passing plays (slight advantage to Maroon here), but Nash beats Maroon in terms of carry-ins, dump-ins and, unfortunately, failures (which one could ague has to do with the fact that he’s carrying the puck in more). This all makes sense on an intuitive level, because we’ve all seen Nash take that big stride over the blue line as he carries the puck through the neutral zone into the offensive end. Let’s look at exits now.
Zone exits are interesting because they give us another qualitative look at the two players’ play styles, but as Dave would say systems matter here. The Rangers’ defensive scheme has been a mess for a while now, and it’s hard to contextualize these stats, in particular when it comes to who’s playing what role as the team tries to collect itself and begin moving the puck up the ice. Still, in terms of exit passes per 60 minutes Nash falls to Maroon, 2.87 to 5.89 but beats him as far as carries out of the zone per 60 minutes (5.57 to 2.81), dump outs per 60 minutes (1.43 to 1.12), and clears per 60 minutes (5.41 to 3.65). Interestingly here Maroon just barely fails at a higher rate, 2.53 times per 60 minutes, than Nash, 2.39 times per 60 minutes.
Now for the good stuff: shots and shot assists. This one gels pretty easily with what we know, which is that Rick Nash is a shooter. His shots per 60 minutes of 15.29 beats Maroon’s 10.10. But as far as primary, secondary, and tertiary assists go he falls short of the Edmonton Oiler, 7.48 to 9.26 for primaries, 3.82 to 6.45 for secondaries, and 1.11 to 1.96 for tertiaries.
If I had to draw one conclusion from all of these microstats it’d be this: Rick Nash does it all by himself. That notion, along with stellar reputation might be enough to convince a GM that Nash is significantly better than Maroon and thus worth that significantly higher price. After all, with a rental, you’re taking a guy who’s played on a different team all season (and probably multiple seasons) and dropping him into a foreign lineup in the hope that he’ll perform up to expectations.
Chemistry is hard to pin down when rolling the dice on a rental trade, so the knowledge that a guy can perform no matter what, as opposed to the insidious but totally valid fear that the guy you just mortgaged the future for can only perform well on the wing of the best player in the world, is almost definitely worth paying a premium for.
It’s all quite tricky, and good GMs are better at properly weighing past and present performance when evaluate than the bad ones. Part of my point in going through all of these numbers and putting together this extensive comparison was to counter David Staples’ point that Patrick Maroon is a a better player at present than Rick Nash, but in large part what I’m getting at is that pedigree does matter in hockey, and GMs are certain to know that.
Knowledge of what a player has done beyond the arbitrary limit of the past season can be critical in providing some idea of what a team is getting when they choose to tempt fate on a rental in the hope that they put you over the top on the way to Stanley Cup glory. Sure, “what have you done for me lately” is important, but the recency bias is strong there and a guy who has looked good for 14 seasons is likely a better bet than they guy who’s looked good once in the last 7. Whether that’s worth paying a sky high asking price is another question, and in many ways that can’t be evaluated until whatever picks and/or prospects turn out to be world-beaters or total busts, depending. Still, what you see, right here and right now, may not be what you get – the past is important.
If you’re still with me I have a brief postscript, and it’s a two parter. The first thing I ask you to consider is Michael Grabner’s trade value. The ask for Grabner is reportedly lower than that for Nash, with Bob McKenzie reporting that it’s likely a second rounder and a prospect. I don’t think I need to say much about Grabner because most of it has already been said by smarter people than I, but I will say this – purely in terms of goal scoring, a contender looking to add at the deadline is likely getting more goals from Grabner than from Nash, and yet the price on him is lower.
I realize that I just laid out the case for Nash as a more complete player, and I’d certainly lay out all the stats comparing the two for you if I weren’t pushing 2,200 words right now, but it reinforces my point. Michael Grabner has a history of being up and down, doesn’t have the international accolades that Nash does, and lacks that vague sense of completeness that Nash seems to have. There’s probably a lot of factors at play in the differences between Nash and Grabner on the trade market, but reputation is almost certainly one of them.
The second part of my addendum is a brief comment on Nick Holden and Michal Kempny, two depth defensemen recently on the move. Holden, who we’re all intimately familiar with, fetched a third rounder and prospect Rob O’Gara. Kempny too brought home a third-round pick. To bring this full circle, let’s take a look at their stats. Holden’s GF%/relGF%, CF%/relCF%, and xGF%/relxGF% for this current season are 48.28/3.91, 45.73/-0.33, and 49.23/1.32, while Kempny’s stats in those same splits are 66.67/14.77, 53.82/1.72, and 55.15/4.15.
It’s pretty clear from just this surface-level peek at the stats that Kempny is the better defenseman (and I’d be willing to bet a more in-depth look at things would bare this out), yet the two brought back roughly equal returns. Why is that? I’m gonna hammer it home a little bit more: reputation matters. Holden was once touted by Patrick Roy as his best defenseman, played on the top pairing here in New York, and has been called “dependable” “reliable” and so on by NBC pundits every Wednesday night since he joined the team. Have you heard of Kempny? Probably not, and even though he’s the better defenseman, him and Nick Holden are of equal value on the trade market. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"GMs DO Give a Damn About Your Good/Bad Reputation",