ESPN's 25 under 25 - How could they leave off Tavares? (Going through Greenberg's point)

So by now I'm pretty sure everyone here has heard of ESPN's infamous Top 25 players under 25 list by Neil Greenberg (To see the full list and reasonings if you have ESPN Insider, go HERE) which excluded John Tavares. More to the point, it excluded John Tavares in favor of Michael Neuvirth, Sergei Kostitsyn, Semyon Varlamov and obviously a bunch of others. I think all of us here disagree with Tavares' exclusion from this list. In fact, Howie Rose even mentioned it on the air Saturday night.

That said, given the arguments made by Neil Greenberg, which to a certain extent involve statistics, it bothers me to see the following argument (in some shape or form) given as a rebuttal to Greenberg:

Obviously he doesn't watch hockey at all.

As someone who tries to learn about the latest in sports statistics and how they can be used to get a better understanding of the sports I love, this type of argument drives me a little bit crazy. Why? Because in essence it's showing ignorance - it's basically saying "I don't know what exactly you mean with your explanations, but I don't care to find out and I'm just going to ignore your conclusion anyhow." It's the type of closed minded reasoning that prevents people from learning anything new, and getting a better understanding of what's going on.

Now, mind you, it's everyone's own prerogative to bother to learn or even to pay attention to advanced stats - everyone can enjoy sports in their own way. But when someone uses those stats to make an argument, if you choose to not learn those stats, you can't really argue strongly "Well you're wrong" if you don't even bother to understand the arguments being made. (You can ignore the argument if you want, but you can't try to refute the argument).

And here, this is a case where there's a strong argument that Greenberg is wrong. So let's make that argument, rather than simply attack Greenberg with an ignorant response.

First, to make this argument, we need to know what exactly Greenberg's list is. In essence, it appears to be a list of who Greenberg believes are the top 25 players under 25 at THIS POINT IN TIME. In other words, age is for the most part irrelevant (Key words there "For the most part" - as we'll see later, that's NOT the case here) - what this list supposedly argues is that if you could have any one player for this season and THIS SEASON ONLY, you'd take any of these 25 players over any other player who is under 25 (ignoring the positional issues of course). So the fact that a 22 year old player is likely to get much better while a player who is 24.9 years old is likely to not get THAT much better is irrelevant here.

Second, let's remember that Greenberg is talking about the entirety of a player's play - it's not just about goal scoring, or even setting up goals (Assists), but also about the defense of a player as well. As a proxy for defense, Greenberg uses possession metrics - in this case, Corsi. That's not a bad approach - this type of metric essentially measures how well a player can keep the puck going toward his opposing net, whether he do so by getting the puck out of the defensive zone (or getting it out if the puck is in there) or keeping the puck in the offensive zone once it's there. For more on corsi and possession metrics, see here.

Okay so let's get into Greenberg's reasons for keeping Tavares off the list in favor of a player like Sergei Kostitsyn (his own example, not mine).

Claim 1: Tavares' Numbers are Inflated due to being given favorable ("soft") minutes:

Offensively, there is no doubt Tavares is a gifted player and like most young players, he has been put in a position to succeed early in his career.

For instance, Tavares has routinely started in the offensive zone at even-strength more than 56 percent of the time in each of the past three years. Across the league, only 27 percent of forwards have been given such an extreme advantage in 2011-12. And it is valuable when it comes to scoring points; an extra offensive start per game could lead to 9-10 more points scored over the course of an 82-game season. That makes sense, as it’s a lot easier to put the puck in the net when starting from only 45 feet away than it is when starting in your own end.

Verdict: True to an extent, but Tavares' numbers more than deal with this circumstance.

First off, to a decent extent this is true. Tavares, like many many other scoring forwards for a team, is given the best chances to score on his team (he's on the first line, in other words). Coaches do this by giving these players extra faceoffs in the offensive zone (and thus these players get more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive ones). That said, Tavares is hardly unique in this - as Greenberg states - this means that over a quarter of forwards in the NHL have such an advantage given to them by their coaches. And Tavares' edge from this is NOT "extreme" (it's 49th in the NHL among forwards) - it's enough that Tavares gets a good amount of scoring opportunities, but he still plays a good deal of time in the defensive zone. Contrast this with the Sedins (by far the most extreme in the league) as well as other members of Greenberg's list, such as say James Neal, and Tavares' advantage doesn't look so big.

In addition, Tavares gets a lot of power play minutes, which are obviously great for racking up points.

But yes, ignoring the fact that Tavares' situation isn't as extreme as Greenberg makes it seem, he does indeed have a clear point - Tavares' easier minutes mean that it should take much better offensive numbers than usual in order to impress us.

Of course, point per minute production is kind of what we're talking about by much better offensive numbers. Sooo yeah, while Tavares' numbers may not be as impressive as they might be if he was given really tough minutes (like say Grabner last year), they're still really impressive and should count a good bit toward being on such a list.

Claim 2: Tavares has some defensive issues and doesn't have success on the defensive end:

Moulson and Parenteau also have more success defensively. When he’s on the ice, Tavares has failed to tilt the ice in the Islanders’ favor (Corsi%) despite the favorable starting position. In other words, when Tavares is on the ice, more shots are aimed at the Islanders’ net than the opposition’s. And when he is not with his most frequent linemates (Matt Moulson, Pierre Parenteau and Kyle Okposo), it is even worse.

When Tavares is paired with Moulson, for example, there is an even split among shots directed at the opposition’s net and the Islanders’ own. When Tavares is without him, only 45 percent of shots go in Long Island’s favor. When Mouslon is away form Tavares, he too suffers a little, but not as much as (47 percent). Parenteau and Okposo, on the other hand, are better at driving puck possession when they are away from Tavares than they are with him.

This aspect also explains two other perceived snubs frequently mentioned in the comments section. It is not only Tavares who gets sheltered minutes; both Benn and Duchene have received them as well during their young careers. Each has been given a majority of their starts in the offensive zone (OffZ%), and while they have been stellar offensively, none have shown the ability to consistently drive play in their team’s favor.

Verdict: At best Misleading.

When dealing with possession numbers like Corsi, one needs to take into account context. What this means is that you can't simply use Corsi without taking into account the situations a player is put in when he's on the ice. Corsi and possession numbers don't measure a player's performance directly - like +/-, they measure the performance of the player's team while the player is on the ice. Thus to truly figure out a player's value, one needs to account for things such as competition and TEAMMATES:

Tavares faces tough competition. And some of his teammates, his line-mates Moulson and Parenteau, are pretty damn good. But other teammates on the ice at the same time as Tavares ARENT very good at all - that would be the defenders on the ice with JT - Jurcina, Eaton, Mottau, Staios - etc. We need to ACCOUNT FOR THIS....and Greenberg, doesn't.

One standard way of doing this is not to look at standard corsi, but RELATIVE corsi, which compares how a team does with that player ON the ice to how the team does with the player off the ice. And once you do, Tavares stands out as the top player on the Isles (or basically tied with Parenteau). Now this isn't as impressive as it sounds - just as with his scoring, Tavares' extra offensive zone faceoffs mean that his possession numbers by definition are going to be above the team's average or at least should be.

But Tavares' relative corsi is at WORST no less than what we'd expect from an average defender with Tavares' favorable minutes. In fact - while I'm not doing the math right now - these numbers are probably above average.,

In other words, while Tavares may not be extremely proficient at driving possession, he's more than solid (at worst you can go with average, and that's pushing it given the competition Tavares faces). You can give some other players bonuses for D...but you can't ding Tavares.

Claim 3: Tavares doesn't impress as being very clutch - or really, that Tavares contributes to his team's wins less than his teammates.

In addition, despite scoring fewer points, both Moulson and Parenteau have a higher Clutch Performance Index. The CPI is a measurement I developed of how much a player contributes to his team’s victories. That Moulson and Parenteau outpace Tavares in CPI indicates their points have been more important than those their all-star teammate.

Verdict: Completely out of place in this argument.

Let me quote myself on this topic:

"Essentially, what he’s calling CPI is the same stat known in baseball as "Win Probability Added." Essentially we can measure the percentage change in a team’s chances of winning the game when certain events occur – so teams start with a 50% chance of winning, and say when they score a goal it goes up by a certain amount, depending upon how much time is left in the game.

WPA (or CPI here) essentially adds up all the win-probability changes caused by a player (so Tavares goals as positives, Tavares being on the ice for an opposing goal as a negative) and uses that to determine how much they’ve added to a team’s chance of victory. Essentially it’s a measure of how "clutch" players are (sort of).

Unfortunately, it’s essentially useless for making any determinations as to player value, or who the best player is. For the most part, players don’t start scoring more goals in the clutch than they do in other time, and thus WPA leaderboards fluctuate a good bit from year to year.

The stat has to be WORSE in hockey, since your ability to measure negative events is limited to basically "He was on the ice for a bad event" (other than causing a penalty).

Just crap. And he’s using it for this."

After talking to Greenberg on twitter, it seems that he wasn't really using CPI to make decisions as to his top 25, but rather he just threw in this argument last minute.

So I'm just going to leave it that.

Claim 4: Greenberg put extra weight on players with greater than 2 seasons and Playoff experience.

I also gave more weight to players with 3 full yrs (plus playoff exp) before 25th bday than those with just two.

Like I said, I put more weight in players with > 2 seasons + playoff experience. I get you disagree and ur list would be difft.

Verdict: Once again, pretty out of place.

This is the weakest part of Greenberg's argument, but it explains his list pretty well. It's nearly all 24 year olds, with a few 23 year olds. The only player as young as Tavares is Stamkos - someone who has the playoff experience that Greenberg is asking for and whose performance I think we can all agree is better than Tavares' so far (with an extra year on Tavares, mind you).

Essentially, Greenberg is heavily valuing experience, and in particular playoff experience. Hence Sergei Kostitsyn (30 playoff games, wow!). Hence Michael Neuvirth (9 playoff games with a .912 SV%)!. Hence Semyon Varlamov (19 playoff games, .915!).

But here's the thing - having playoff experience DOES NOT MEAN SOMEONE IS MAGICALLY A BETTER PLAYER. Playoff experience simply means that player has been on better teams than John Tavares.

Now, a player may grow and learn in the playoffs and become a better player - and thus may improve his numbers in future years. But such improvements CAN BE SEEN IN THE REGULAR SEASON STATISTICS OF THAT PLAYER IN THE NEXT YEAR. And we don't see the marked improvements due to playoff experience with players like Kostitsyn, Neuvirth, and Varlamov on Greenberg's list.

The same goes with just overall experience. If it really was helping a player, we SHOULD SEE THAT IN HIS RESULTS. Simply being older does NOT make one better.

(In fact, going beyond the scope of this list of Greenberg's, being older and not clearly playing better than a younger player makes one WORSE - as it means that the younger player is likely to easily surpass the older player, if he hasn't already).


Greenberg's omission of Tavares essentially comes down to a misplaced value on experience and playoff experience. Such things are good of course, but should show up in a player's underlying numbers and a lack of such experience shouldn't be taken against a current player if he's PUTTING UP GREAT NUMBERS IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Greenberg's other conclusions seem overly harsh for what the data shows - if we're being generous. Tavares' play is, even taking into account his favorable situations, extremely good offensively (if not "elite") and at least average if not above average defensively. There aren't 25 other players under 25 who improve upon Tavares' overall package (which is why Tavares was 35th by GVT among forwards when the article was written..that's top 35 OVERALL, not top 35 under 25).

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