The Concept of a (Fantasy) Hockey “DH” – Yea or Nay?

by Rick Roos on January 25, 2017
  • Roos Lets Loose
  • The Concept of a (Fantasy) Hockey “DH” – Yea or Nay?

 

This week we take a break from the usual battle to cover a question that’s come to the forefront of fantasy hockey due to the production of Sam Gagner.

Thanks to Gagner’s 60-point scoring pace over his first 45 games – despite averaging only 13:38 of Total Ice Time per contest – he’s been coined hockey’s version of the Designated Hitter (“DH”); and his success has poolies eager to determine whether he might help usher in an era of more teams deploying their own DH. It also has many wondering whether one-dimensional forwards, who previously couldn’t find a place on teams or wouldn’t put up enough points to make it worth rostering them in all but the very deepest fantasy leagues, might be the next successful DH ala Gagner.

So for this week’s Cage Match, I’m doing a deep dive on the concept of the hockey DH. In particular, I’ll look at past examples to see if the DH might have a place in today’s real life and/or fantasy hockey. Then I’ll do a mini-Cage Match to see if Gagner’s 2016-17 production to date is sustainable. Finally, I’ll list forwards who might be able to become successful DHs in the near future. Time to fire up this special Cage Match!

 

Have Any Past Forwards Produced Well Despite Low Total Ice Time?

I did some digging, and Gagner would enter truly unprecedented territory if he was able to finish with 60+ points this season despite not averaging even 14:00 of Ice Time per game. That’s because according to nhl.com – which has charted Ice Time data since 1997-98 – not only has no player finished with 60+ points despite less than 14:00 of Total Ice Time per game, but just two have done so averaging less than 15:32– Nikita Kucherov (65 points, 14:57 per game in 2014-15) and Andrew Brunette (63 points, 15:00 per game in 2005-06).

If we reduce the points criteria to 55-59 however, we get nine forwards who finished in that range since 1997-98 despite averaging less than 15:00 of Ice Time per game in a season, including three averaging less than 14:00 (Jussi Jokinen – 55 points, 13:34 per game in 2005-06; Jiri Hudler – 57 points, 13:39 per game in 2008-09; Tomas Holmstrom – 59 points, 13:58 per game in 2005-06). If we drop the scoring minimum to 50-54 points and still look at the same time period, that results in 15 players who finished in that range while averaging 15:00 or less per game; yet only two of the 15 averaged under 14:00 per game (Marek Svatos – 50 points (in 61 games), 13:44 per game in 2005-06; Daniel Sedin – 54 points, 13:32 per game in 2003-04). Therefore, since 1997-98 a mere five forwards were able to score 50+ points in a season where they averaged less than 14:00 of Ice Time per game; however, 19 did so while averaging between 14:00 and 15:00 per game.

 

Here’s a table summarizing these results:

 

 

Forwards who averaged between 14:00 and 15:00 in Total Ice Time per game

Forwards who averaged under 14:00 in Total Ice Time per game

60+ Point Scorers

2

0

55-59 Point Scorers

6

3

50-54 Point Scorers

11

2

 

 

What – If Any – Factors Hold the Key to Being a “Successful” Hockey DH?

Looking at Gagner’s 2016-17 Ice Time data more closely, 2:50 of his 13:38 per game is coming with the man advantage, which translates to 21% of his Total Ice Time. This makes sense, since, with so little Ice Time overall, a large chunk needs to be with the man advantage in order to have any realistic hope of being productive enough to land on fantasy radars. Thus, in order to get a better picture of past DHs, we’ll only look at players who skated for less than 15:00 per game, but where at least 3:00 (i.e., 20% or more) of that Ice Time came with the man advantage.

It turns out since 1997-98 there have been 42 instances of forwards skating 70+ games (as opposed to being part time players) while averaging 15:00 or less per game but 3:00+ (i.e., 20% or more) of PP Time. Within the 42 instances, four players (Jokinen and Holmstrom, plus Andrew Brunette and Kyle Wellwood) met the Total and PP Time criteria in more than one separate season. So not only are hockey DHs uncommon in general (an average of just over two per year), but players tend to be a DH only once. Keep that in mind for Gagner next season.

Did the 42 fit a pattern in terms of age? They skewed younger, as 23 of the 42 were age 26 or less, with eight being age 19-21. The other 19 of the 42 were spread pretty evenly among age ranges, with seven being 27-30, six age 31-34, five age 35-40, and just one (Igor Larionov in 2002-03) being over 40. Thus, although DHs seemingly can be any age, it’s something that tends to occur more with younger players. In fact, six met the criteria in what was their rookie season. That makes sense, since teams often want to shelter players while also being able to benefit from their offensive talents.

The other interesting thing I noted in looking at the 42 forwards, is that a large (pun intended) number weighed 210+ pounds, including Holmstrom and Brunette, plus Martin LaPointe, Dave Andreychuk, Patrick Berglund, Anson Carter, Adam Hall, Scott Melanby, Luc Robitaille, and Thomas Vanek. When you think about it, this also makes sense, since in many cases these players can provide a key net-front presence on the PP, yet might not fit the bill on a speedier even strength scoring line.

Now the most important question – how did the 42 fare, production-wise? More than half posted 45+ points, with seven getting 55-59, five tallying 50-54, and 12 posting 45-49. Of the remaining 18, three had 40-44 points, six posted 35-39, five ended with 30-34, and only four had fewer than 30. Thus, there appears to be room for fantasy success among forwards who don’t skate a lot of minutes, provided a good chunk of those minutes are on the PP.

 

But Is the DH Mainly a Thing of the Past?

Something that stood out among those 42 instances (of players skating 70+ games while averaging less than 15:00 of Ice Time per game of which 3:00+ came with the man advantage), was that none were from later than 2011-12 and all but eight were from 2006-07 or earlier. Also, 13 occurred in the 2005-06 season alone. Is there a reason for this? I’d argue yes, since the leaguewide GAA for 2005-06 was 2.93 and the next highest among any season since 1996-97 was 2.77 in 2006-07, with the GAA for more than half the seasons being 2.56 or below. Thus, 2005-06 was an outlying season of very high scoring, which in turn created a rising tide that lifted all boats, including those of DHs.

So can the DH be viable today, or is it a relic of the past? Just because teams haven’t used DHs lately doesn’t mean the concept can’t be resurrected. In fact, today’s salary cap era might be the perfect place for it, since the more one-dimensional or younger players who’d fit into the DH mold can often be signed for a lot less money, especially if they’re seen as failures as compared to expectations. Look no further than Gagner himself – after he played himself out of Edmonton and Philadelphia by age 27, Columbus was able to sign him for short money and thus afford to give him DH-type minutes.

 

Are Gagner’s 2016-17 Numbers Sustainable?

Looking at Ice Time alone, the takeaway is that Gagner has overachieved with his first half 60 point pace. After all, no one in the last nearly 20 seasons has posted 60+ points without averaging at least 14:57 in Total Ice Time per game. But we also saw from past data that it’s possible for him to end up in the 50-59 point range. Of course avid readers of this column know there’s more to determining the sustainability of a player’s output than just his Ice Time. Here are Gagner’s key metrics for 2016-17 to date:

SOG (per game)

Personal Shooting %

5×5 Team Shooting %

Points per 60 minutes (5×5)

2.31

13.5%

9.79%

3.2

 

5×5 IPP

OZ% (5×5)

PP Points (per game)

5×4 IPP

68.2%

50.0%

0.33

52.2%

 

While these numbers (notably the elevated PPPt rate, P/60, and Shooting %s) further support the likelihood that Gagner’s scoring output isn’t sustainable at his current 60 point pace, they also don’t paint the picture of someone whose production is poised to plummet down below the 50s, particularly given his already banked points. Moveover, his IPPs and OZ% are reasonable, and his SOG rate – while not exceptionally high – is good enough to stay productive.

Also, with Gagner playing 13:38 per night (21% coming on the PP and essentially zero SH duty), the reality is he’s skated a lot fewer minutes than most 50+ point players, which in turn could give him the kind of “fresh legs” needed to help sustain at least a 50 point scoring pace. Beyond that, Gagner is on a one year, $650,000 contract and thus playing for his very NHL future, which in turn gives him added motivation to continue to succeed. All in all, I think it would be unwise to count on his output tanking. Most likely he’ll still be able to finish 2016-17 in the 50-55+ point range.

 

Conclusion, and Some Other Current/Future DH Candidates

It looks like there’s indeed room in today’s NHL for DHs to produce 40-55+ points despite playing limited overall minutes provided that 20% or more of their Ice Time is on the PP. So which forwards might fit that bill? Based on past data, it could be a one-dimensional veteran (300+ games played), a youngster (age 25 or less, fewer than 300 games) being eased into the line-up, or a big body (200+ pounds) who can’t consistently be rolled out at even strength but who can succeed on the PP.

Here are some possible examples of each type of forward. Most don’t meet both the 15:00 or less Total Ice Time and/or over 20% PP Ice Time criteria right now, but they could next season. Long story short – if there’s going to be another hockey DH in 2016-17, it could be one (or more) of the forwards below.

 

Veterans (i.e., 300+ career NHL games)

 

Player

Average Total Ice Time Per Game for 2016-17

Average PP Time Per Game for 2016-17

Jiri Hudler

12:03

1:56

Matt Moulson

12:17

2:35

Mark Letestu

14:04

2:04

Kris Versteeg

14:19

2:22

Andrew Shaw

14:45

2:21

Justin Williams

15:32

2:08

P.A. Parenteau

15:33

2:37

 

 

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time Youngsters (age 25 or younger and fewer than 300 career NHL games)

 

Player

Average Total Ice Time Per Game for 2016-17

Average PP Time Per Game for 2016-17

Brandon Pirri

12:12

2:49

Nic Petan

12:30

2:09

Austin Czarnik

13:07

1:50

Beau Bennett

13:28

2:02

Jimmy Vesey

13:48

1:50

Ryan Spooner

14:29

2:35

Frank Vatrano

14:30

2:29

Ryan Strome

14:32

2:48

Vladislav Namestnikov

14:39

2:30

Pavel Buchnevich

15:17

2:43

Brayden Point

15:44

2:46

 

Big Bodies (i.e., 200+ pounds)

 

Player

Average Total Ice Time Per Game for 2016-17

Average PP Time Per Game for 2016-17

Brett Ritchie

12:46

1:50

Devin Shore

13:35

1:57

Mikhail Grigorenko

14:34

1:57

Anders Lee

14:48

2:12

Thomas Vanek

14:53

2:55

Matt Beleskey

15:03

2:02

 

Keep in mind that past data has shown that DHs are a rare occurrence, so don’t necessarily count on any of these players morphing into Gagner next season, if at all. Then again, six months ago who would’ve even thought that Gagner was capable of what he’s done this season? That’s the beauty of fantasy hockey – surprises at every corner!

Beyond that, of the five players who posted 50+ points in a season since 1997-98 despite, like Gagner, averaging less than 14:00 in Total Ice Time in that season, three played in the NHL the next year (Hudler returned to Russia for 2009-10 and Sedin didn’t play in 2004-05 due to the lockout). How did they fare? Not too well. Jokinen gained 0:19 per game in Ice Time but saw his scoring pace drop by seven points, Holmstrom jumped 1:14 per game in Total Ice Time but his scoring pace droped by four, while Svatos lost 1:15 of Ice Time per game and saw his scoring pace plummet by 30 points. While of course past data doesn’t dictate future results, this might give poolies more reason to be wary of Gagner for 2016-17.