Cage Match: Who would you rather own – Nick Foligno or Blake Wheeler?

by Rick Roos on January 18, 2017
  • Roos Lets Loose
  • Cage Match: Who would you rather own – Nick Foligno or Blake Wheeler?

Some of my most favorite Cage Matches are what I call “will the real [insert names] please stand up” battles. What I mean is, I like to cover players whose production has varied considerably from year to year, since the analysis in this column usually can reveal who the real version of each player actually is.

And this week we definitely have one of those matches, pitting Nick Foligno (who posted only four more points over 142 games during 2013-14 and 2015-16 than in 79 games in 2014-15 alone, and already has just one less point for 2016-17 than in all of 2015-16) against Blake Wheeler (who spiked to 78 points last season after only once having previously tallied more than 64). Let’s see if they’re more Jekyll, Hyde, or somewhere in between. Cage Match starts now!

 

Career Path and Contract Status

 

Foligno, 29, was grabbed 28th overall by the Senators in 2006. After another OHL season and brief stint in the AHL, Foligno was with Ottawa to stay at age 20 in 2007-08. In four full campaigns with the Sens, he managed over 34 points just once – posting 47 in his final campaign before being dealt to Columbus in 2012. There, Foligno barely totaled a point per every other game in his first two seasons before exploding for 73 points in 79 games in 2014-15. But as quickly as success came for Foligno, it seemingly vanished, as he cratered to 37 points in 72 games last season, igniting fears (from poolies and Columbus) that he was a fluke. But this season he’s back to producing elite numbers, at least thus far.

Wheeler, 30, was selected fifth overall by Phoenix in 2004 but didn’t come to terms, ultimately signing as a free agent with Boston 2008 and landing in the NHL for 2008-09. As a rookie, Wheeler posted 45 points; but it was downhill from there, until he was dealt to Atlanta (now Winnipeg) during 2011-12. Once there, he was thrust into a larger role and hasn’t looked back, with three straight 61+ point full seasons then 78 points in 2015-16. But with his scoring back below a 65 point pace for 2015-16 thus far, poolies are wondering who the real Wheeler is and what he’ll produce going forward.

Foligno is signed through 2020-21 at $5.5M per season, while Wheeler’s cap hit is nearly identical ($5.6M) but his deal ends after 2018-19.

 

Ice Time

 

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2016-17

18:27 (N.F.) – 1st

20:02 (B.W.) – 2nd

2:59 (N.F.) – 1st

2:56 (B.W.) – 2nd

0:44 (N.F.) – 6th

1:22 (B.W.) – 6th (tied)

2015-16

16:13 (N.F.) – 5th

19:47 (B.W.) – 1st

2:04 (N.F.) – 8th (tied)

3:09 (B.W.) – 1st

0:33 (N.F.) – 8th

1:17 (B.W.) – 5th

2014-15

18:49 (N.F.) – 2nd

19:39 (B.W.) – 3rd

2:31 (N.F.) – 3rd

3:15 (B.W.) – 1st

1:20 (N.F.) – 7th

1:44 (B.W.) – 6th

2013-14

16:03 (N.F.) – 7th

18:41 (B.W.) – 4th

1:44 (N.F.) – 8th

2:37 (B.W.) – 3rd

0:12 (N.F.) – 9th

0:51 (B.W.) – 8th

 

Apparently, when Foligno receives Ice Time he produces top numbers –look how similar his 2014-15 and 2016-17 (to date) Total and PP Ice Times are. Of course, that begs the question of what happened in 2015-16. Before John Tortorella arrived, Foligno skated 18:15+ in five of seven games for 2015-16, but then did so for only seven games out of the next 29. And even early this season, Foligno had to play himself back into favor, as he skated 18:00+ only three times in his first nine games.

 

The magic question is whether Foligno has done enough to cement himself receiving top Ice Time. If there’s one coach where you’re only good as your last game, it’s Tortorella – that is, despite Foligno’s elite play in two of the last three seasons, poolies shouldn’t automatically assume his spot and Ice Time are 100% safe. Then again, maybe now Foligno realizes he needs to put in the effort to “keep his spot,” which in turn could help his stats stay solid?

 

Wheeler’s numbers are virtually identical to last season, but also comparable to 2014-15. And given that his scoring pace thus far this season is closer to 2014-15 than 2015-16, that tilts the scales to 2015-16 being an outlier. It also would be one thing if his linemates last season were better than 2016-17 or 2014-15, but that isn’t the case; in fact, this season he’s played with Mark Scheifele for just under half his 5×5 shifts and Nikolaj Ehlers for nearly a third, so it’s not like there’s been a drop off there.

 

Secondary Categories

 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2016-17

0.92 (N.F.)

0.61 (B.W.)

1.47 (N.F.)

1.32 (B.W.)

0.62 (N.F.)

0.59 (B.W.)

2.40 (N.F.)

3.06 (B.W.)

0.42 (N.F.)

0.24 (B.W.)

2015-16

0.73 (N.F.)

0.59 (B.W.)

2.11 (N.F.)

1.12 (B.W.)

0.64 (N.F.)

0.68 (B.W.)

2.07 (N.F.)

3.12 (B.W.)

0.18 (N.F.)

0.20 (B.W.)

2014-15

0.63 (N.F.)

0.92 (B.W.)

2.44 (N.F.)

1.62 (B.W.)

0.66 (N.F.)

0.68 (B.W.)

2.30 (N.F.)

3.09 (B.W.)

0.33 (N.F.)

0.15 (B.W.)

2013-14

1.37 (N.F.)

0.77 (B.W.)

3.00 (N.F.)

1.83 (B.W.)

0.60 (N.F.)

0.83 (B.W.)

1.58 (N.F.)

2.74 (B.W.)

0.08 (N.F.)

0.23 (B.W.)

 

I was surprised by Wheeler’s PP Scoring rate being so low, so I did some digging. From 2014-15 onward, Wheeler has the 16th most PP minutes among all forwards yet stands only tied for 46th in PPPts. Meanwhile, Foligno is tied for the 19th most PPPts despite only receiving the 92nd most PP minutes. Not only does that call into question Wheeler’s 2015-16 output even more, but it paints the picture of a player at risk of losing his prime PP role to up and coming Jets youngsters. Conversely, Foligno has shown he can do more with less, which in turn will likely keep his plum PP spot secure.

 

Like Ice Time, Foligno’s highest PPPt and SOG rates coincided with his best seasons, although there was less of a “night and day” difference in his SOG rate. Foligno’s PPPt success this season makes his rate from 2014-15 more legitimate; however, we have to expect his 2016-17 PPPt rate to drop. For one, it would translate to 35 PPP over 82 games, and only five forwards have posted 35+ PPPts in a season since 2011-12, with all having at least one 88+ point campaign to their credit by age 24. Also, the Blue Jacket PP is currently converting at 26.0%, and the only teams since 2000-01 to finish at or above 25% were the powerhouse Caps (three times) and the Red Wings (back in 2008-09) – more evidence that Columbus (and thus Foligno) are all but assured to come back to earth with the man advantage.

 

Wheeler’s SOG rate is similar to his Ice Times in that they’ve held mostly steady over the past three years, further suggesting unsustainable good luck during last season. The good news is it’s still a very solid SOG rate. In fact, he’s fired the tenth most SOG among all forwards dating back to 2014-15 and six of the other nine are proven 70+ points scorers year in year out.

 

In terms of other numbers, Foligno is not only on pace for his worst output in Hits, but his rate is less than half what it was just three seasons ago. Fortunately, his Blocks have held steady and his PIM have rebounded after two down campaigns. Wheeler isn’t hitting like he once did, but his drop off has been less than Foligno’s while maintaining steady PIM and Blocks. Overall, both are still multi-cat assets, but be careful not to think that they’ll give you what they once did.

 

Luck-Based Metrics

 

Season

Personal Shooting Percentage

Team Shooting % (5×5)

IPP (5×5)

IPP (5×4)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

2016-17

15.6% (N.F.)

9.2% (B.W.)

8.51% (N.F.)

6.50% (B.W.)

70.8% (N.F.)

72.7% (B.W.)

65.4% (N.F.)

80.0% (B.W.)

60.9% (N.F.)

54.6% (B.W.)

2015-16

8.1% (N.F.)

10.2% (B.W.)

6.46% (N.F.)

9.20% (B.W.)

67.7% (N.F.)

80.0% (B.W.)

66.7% (N.F.)

64.0% (B.W.)

50.2% (N.F.)

53.3% (B.W.)

2014-15

17.0% (N.F.)

10.7% (B.W.)

10.48% (N.F.)

8.41% (B.W.)

71.9% (N.F.)

75.0% (B.W.)

72.7% (N.F.)

44.4% (B.W.)

48.9% (N.F.)

51.5% (B.W.)

2013-14

16.2% N.F.)

12.4% (B.W.)

9.68% (N.F.)

8.29% (B.W.)

69.6% (N.F.)

82.0% (B.W.)

42.9% (N.F.)

77.3% (B.W.)

48.4% ((N.F.)

53.2% (B.W.)

 

There’s plenty of good news here for both players. In all four seasons they’ve been essentially at or even above the 70% mark for 5×5 IPP, which I’ve observed is an important marker for successful fantasy forwards. In Foligno’s case, it’s reassuring to see that he was barely below 70% in both of his lousy seasons, as that showed he still found a way to factor into what little scoring occurred while he was on the ice. In the case of Wheeler, he’s not only been over 70% in every season, but actually exceeded 80% twice. That shows he’s an elite player.

 

There’s also a bit of justification for the year(s) where each produced worse than expected. In the case of Foligno, his 6.46% 5×5 Team Shooting % was tied for 115th out of 127 players who skated for 975 or more minutes at 5×5 last season. Also, Foligno’s 8.1% personal shooting % for 2015-16 was less than half his average over the other three seasons.

 

Speaking of personal shooting %, if Foligno maintains his current paces and ends 2016-17 with 70+ points and 15%+ or higher personal shooting %, that would mark the second season in which he hit both milestones, and the list of players who, since 2008-09 also did that twice consists of Steven Stamkos, Henrik Sedin, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, and Joe Thornton. What do they all have in common? At least four seasons of 70+ point output, which suggests Foligno could continue to produce well in coming campaigns, rather than falter like he did in 2015-16.

 

As for Wheeler, his 5×5 Shooting % this year is nearly as atypically bad as Foligno’s was last season. Also, Wheeler’s luck metrics for 2015-16 are reasonable. In fact, none of his 2015-16 metrics were the highest among these four seasons. Thus, looking together at this season and his past two campaigns, he should be able to approach or achieve 70+ points again, even if 75+ might be a tall order.

 

Who Wins?

 

Before I researched this column, I had a feeling I’d find out Foligno was “the real deal” (or at least that his 2014-15 wasn’t a complete fluke, but also that Wheeler was a sinking ship. I guess I was 1 for 2, since while Foligno was shown to be legitimate Wheeler might be a 70 point player after all, rather than a 60-65 point guy who lucked into 78 points.

 

As for who wins, I’ll give the match to Wheeler in one-year leagues since at best Foligno could maintain his current pace, although that seems like a longshot due to the PPPt factors I covered. Meanwhile, given the perception of Wheeler as a disappointment versus 2015-16, plus the large shadow now being cast in Winnipeg by Mark Scheifele, the cost to get Wheeler should be low enough to benefit from the value he’s likely to provide between now and the end of 2016-17. But don’t sell Foligno – he’s a hold, since if you try to sell, you’d be unlikely to get a fair price from doubting Thomases.

 

For keepers, I’m going with Foligno. Player comparables suggest he could score 70+ points for at least another couple of seasons. Plus, chances are Foligno owners in your league will be worried he might falter again and thus willing to sell for lower than he’s truly worth. Wheeler, on the other hand, is likely to be less of a top dog with each passing season, with his PP Time likely among the first things to suffer. But don’t sell him either, as his bottom shouldn’t fall out any time soon.