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Age, Injury, Era? Examining the decline of Brendan Witt

I feel bad revisiting this, but I can't help my curiosity. Defensemen are hard to evaluate. Their mistakes stand out, but when they're doing their job they are often under the radar. And a very good defenseman can cover the weaknesses of a sub-par partner, leaving that partner's true worth unclear. Advanced stats give us a little better picture -- over the long haul -- but only to a blurry degree of clarity thanks to hockey's many moving variables.

Meanwhile, Internet discourse, you may have noticed, trends toward the snark. Probably thanks to the anonymity ("On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."), sweeping declarations displaying one's superior intelligence are the norm. I'm no different. (Would you believe I'm actually a 72-year-old New Orleans-based psychic who's never watched a hockey game in her life? Had you fooled all this time, suckers.)

So while online I've heard no shortage of concise "baaah, Witt sux" snark -- along with, at the other extreme, fans of other teams (who haven't seen the games) touting Witt as the "tough veteran D-man" they need -- I'm curious: What did happen to Brendan Witt? Why did he go from a reliable tough-minutes guy for the Islanders to one who sticks out for his peripheral numbers and general low mobility? How much of his perceived decline is real, and how much is exaggerated -- whether by an inflated view of what he provided three years ago or by a dismissive view of what he is today?

Whenever his injuries are mentioned, I'm reminded of the night just six games into Scott Gordon's Islanders tenure, when Witt, during his fourth shift of the game, took what would have been a routine hit from Krystofer Barch in the corner -- except their knees collided just so, and Witt's knee gruesomely bent the wrong way.

After the jump/poll, some numbers and ideas to consider...

By the way, since his demotion, in ten games for low-scoring AHL Bridgeport, Witt has 1 goal (game winner!), 1 assist, a minus-1, 20 PIM and 16 shots on goal (he had 25 shots in 42 games with the Islanders).

Three days after that Barch hit, Witt's knee remained so swollen that an MRI still could not be scheduled. Of course, without surgery -- you know, it was just a "lower body" injury -- Witt, true to form, typically hurried back to help his struggling team and was in the lineup four weeks later. Minus-1 in the five games before the injury, he quickly went an additional minus-16 in his first 15 games back.

Witt turned 35 this month, so that carries with it its own hint of age and injury decline, which are two sides of the same natural cycle. And that brings up an ill-timed confluence of two factors that likely turned Witt from a defensemen receiving a multi-million-dollar contract extension in 2008 to a veteran clearing waivers in 2010: He was a poor stylistic fit in the Islanders' transition from Ted Nolan to Scott Gordon -- who was hired just after Witt's extension was signed -- and he's played through an accumulation of injuries that have probably taken their toll.

But is there any way to quantify or confirm that? We can try, with the help of Gabriel Desjardins' advanced hockey stats at Behind the Net. You can follow the links to dig in more deeply, but here's a quick look at Witt's numbers and quality of competition over the past few years, both under Nolan and Gordon.

The Ted Nolan Years

Note: All of the charts below refer to 5-on-5 play only.

2006-07 GP Rel. +/- QualComp Teammates
Martinek 43 1.73 0.001 0.09
Witt 81 0.11 0.117 0.10
Hill 81 -0.16 0.07 0.07
Poti 78 -0.45 -0.014 -0.11
Meyer 35 -0.82 0.114 -0.11
Campoli 51 -1.03 -0.021 -0.13
Gervais 51 -2.03 0.012 -0.25

The "relative +/-" column is what appears as "Rating" in Desjardins' tables. It's a way of depicting a player's +/- not in relation to the rest of the league (a good player on a bad team can have a lower +/- rating than a bad player on a good team), but in relation to his teammates and based on minutes played.

In 2006-07 under Ted Nolan, Witt had the second-highest relative +/- among regular defensemen -- and that was while playing against the toughest competition (QualComp). Nolan sued him as one of his shutdown guys, and to my eyes at the time and according to the numbers above, he performed well in that role.

2007-08 GP Rel. +/- QualComp Corsi Rel. QoC Teammates
Campoli 46 1.39 -0.034 0.004 -0.054
Gervais 60 0.48 0.024 0.393 0.092
Meyer 57 0.47 -0.003 0.533 -0.03
Witt 59 -0.41 0.105 1.542 -0.168
Berard 54 -0.41 -0.032 -0.278 0.015
Martinek 69 -0.53 0.086 1.44 -0.104
Sutton 58 -0.57 0.012 0.07 -0.089

For 2007-08, we can add what Desjardins calls "Corsi relative to quality of competition." So Corsi is a little alternative to +/-: a measure of how many shots are directed at either net while you're on the ice, and Corsi Rel. QoC tries to control Corsi for players who face tougher competition (i.e., if you are always on against Alex Ovechkin, your Corsi will suffer, period).

From the QualComp (and from our memory) we can see Nolan still used Witt against the opponents' better players, continuing to be used 76% of the time with Radek Martinek, according to Dobber Hockey. Witt's overall rating suffered, but his Corsi relative to QualComp was still higher than any of his teammates. Year 2 under Nolan is a tough one to capture, because the first half of the season the Islanders were in a playoff position thanks to Rick DiPietro's stellar play, while the second half was sabotaged by DiPietro's injuries, which he initially played through to ill effect.

The Scott Gordon Years

2008-09 GP Rel. +/- QualComp Corsi Rel. QoC Teammates
Sutton 23 3.23 0.006 0.622 0.253
Streit 74 1.71 0.033 0.575 -0.028
Hillen 40 -0.25 -0.060 -0.455 -0.036
Gervais 69 -0.53 0.035 0.59 0.089
Pock 59 -0.78 -0.032 -0.061 0.074
Martinek 51 -0.78 0.062 0.861 -0.214
Meyer 27 -1.15 0.063 1.002 -0.147
Witt 65 -1.3 0.069 1.08 -0.218

If 2007-08 was hard to capture because of the DiPietro injury that split the year in half, 2008-09 is hard to capture because of the absolute carnage that hit the blueline. Every defenseman spent time on IR except Mark Streit, who still missed 8 games with injury. It's hard to know who was playing through injury, because blueliners were constantly trying to tough it out or rush back to stem the reliance on AHL call-ups. I include Andy Sutton in the table above despite his playing only 23 games, because his early performance -- paired with #1 Mark Streit -- is illustrative.

This is the year Witt played only five-plus games before the injury. He continued to be paired with Martinek most of the time -- 46% of even-strength shifts -- though his second most-frequent partner was Freddy Meyer, with about 17% of his shifts. Gordon continued the trend of using Witt against the toughest competition, and it showed in his team-worst rating. This is the first season where Witt's deployment against the toughest opponents translated into the worst numbers on the blueline corps (and it shows in partner Martinek and Meyer's numbers, too)

2009-10: The Tipping Point

2009-10 GP Rel. +/- QualComp Corsi Rel. QoC Teammates
MacDonald 38 0.87 0.02 0.506 0.104
Hillen 49 0.47 0.054 0.777 -0.028
Streit 62 0.26 0.004 0.561 -0.028
Sutton 54 0.18 0.101 1.167 0.058
Meyer 44 -0.12 -0.085 -0.409 -0.026
Gervais 56 -0.73 -0.043 0.091 -0.076
Witt 42 -2.14 -0.111 -0.400 -0.006

2009-10 is the season where it all comes to a head, resulting in Witt's decreasing playing time and eventual demotion. For the first time "hidden" against the weakest competition instead of being used in a shutdown role, Witt nonetheless had the worst rating on the team -- and not by a slim margin, either.

Before being waived and sent to AHL Bridgeport, the Islanders first put him on IR thanks to what was first called a calf strain but was later reported to be a knee injury that team management believed was holding him back. Witt, playing the warrior, said he was fine, while management thought otherwise. The numbers certainly support management's contention; what's unclear is whether a "fully healed" Witt is: (1) still possible, and (2) could return to form.

Part of me will always suspect that one reason Witt has passed through waivers and is playing in the AHL today is the same thing that made him valued: That heart-and-soul willingness to play through any pain, fend off any attacking shark, bounce off any approaching SUV. Eventually, that mileage catches up to you. Absent an elusive interview or inside information, it may have very well been that early 2008-09 knee injury that pushed the odometer too far.

The other part, of course, is that whatever Witt's body can still provide, it is not an ideal fit for the type of game Scott Gordon employs. That system is more "new NHL"-oriented, demanding mobility from blueliners who can join the rush at will to exploit holes while still having the speed to get back.

We knew this back in that rapidly descending month of December 2008, when Witt's honest but blown-up responses to then-beat writer Glenn Logan revealed how he thought Gordon's system needed some tweaks to suit the personnel. The only remaining question is whether Witt at age 35, if/when healthy and deployed in a more traditional system, could still provide the no-prisoners shut-down service he was once counted on to provide?

Thanks to his $3 million cap hit, that probably won't be answered this season. Thanks to one more year left on his contract, one way or another next season should provide the final word.