As advanced stats have taken the NHL by storm, and really all professional sports, the reception has been mixed.
Certain teams have embraced them — look at Phoenix promoting John Chayka to general manager at 26 years old based on his analytics background. Others though, have rejected it.
Of course, certain rules should be considered when looking at hockey analytics, such as they never tell the full story, or that they can be manipulated in different ways to prove different points. Perhaps the golden rule would be to make sure you are looking at a big enough sample size before drawing conclusions, so let's break that golden rule and take a deep dive on the measly 10 game sample that Toffoli played for the Canucks.
When the Canucks got the news that Brock Boeser would be missing a significant amount of time with a rib fracture, Jim Benning jumped into action and acquired Tyler Toffoli for Tim Schaller, Tyler Madden, a second round pick in the upcoming draft and a conditional pick. Following the trade, the multi-million dollar question centered around Toffoli’s contract. As an unrestricted free agent this summer Toffoli could walk away from the Canucks, leaving them with nothing to show from the trade, and for a team already in a cap crunch tough decisions will need to be made.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has thrown a wrench into every team’s plan revenue-wise since the cap will likely not increase. That’s problematic in Vancouver with Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Troy Stetcher and Jake Virtanen all free agents alongside Toffoli. The Canucks are going to have use some cap wizardry or make a decision based on what they see as a priority.
Tanev, Markstrom and Toffoli all figure to demand a solid chunk of change and the Canucks will not be able to keep all three of them unless drastic changes (maybe a couple compliance buyouts as we recently discussed) are introduced by the NHL.
If Toffoli were to walk in free agency — whether it be because of Canucks cap issues or his unwillingness to sign here - it would be a terrible waste of assets. Of course Jim Benning is not at fault — he made a decision with the information that he had at the time and could not have foreseen a global pandemic putting the season in jeopardy - yet the trade will not look good on him if he gave up a promising prospect and a high draft pick for 10 games of Toffoli.
So with tough decisions to be made, at least we have seasons of footage of Markstrom and Tanev on the Canucks to gauge how they fit into the puzzle. Toffoli, we have just 10 games. Alas, it was a remarkable 10 games as he scored six goals and had 10 points.
To get a better idea of just how effective Toffoli was, let’s take a look at the underlying metrics and some of his highlights on the Canucks.
Analyzing Terrific Tyler’s Tiny Sample Size
Many fans were excited at the prospect of Toffoli reuniting with former lineman Tanner Pearson and potentially rekindling some of the chemistry they had shown in Los Angeles. Travis Green had other ideas, and Toffoli got the chance to play on the top line alongside JT Miller and Elias Pettersson.
The trio played a total of 119 minutes of five on five time but looked like they had been together all year. They were on the ice for 10 goals for compared to only three goals against at five-on-five, and the fit was obvious.
Looking at the underlying metrics, we can see how well the line controlled the play. At 5-on-5 play they had a Corsi % of 57% and a Scoring Chance % of 56%. These are both encouraging numbers that show that these three could form a strong first line for a contending team. These analytics don’t tell the whole story, but when you combine them with the strong play that we saw on the ice it makes the idea of re-signing Toffoli appealing.
Of course we can not attribute all this success to Toffoli and it’s important to understand that he was playing with great players who are possession drivers on their own. To get a better idea of Toffoli’s true effectiveness, we should cross reference the stats of the Miller/Pettersson/Toffoli line against the Miller/Pettersson/Boeser line that played around 426 minutes of 5-on-5 time this season.
Of course the caveat in all of this is the fact that Toffoli was only on the team for 10 games, yet that is all the sample size we have so we’ll have to make do. Looking at the possession metrics, both lines score very similarly with their Fenwick %, Corsi %, and Scoring Chance % being within a few points.
Some differences start to appear when we look at some more deeper numbers. The Toffoli line scored at a rate of 5.01 goals per 60 minutes of play and allowed 1.5 goals in the same time frame. Compare this with the Boeser line scoring at a rate of 4.22 goals while allowing goals at a rate of 2.11 per 60 minutes.
Toffoli outperforms Boeser here and it becomes more impressive when you look at the deployment numbers. The top line with Boeser had an offensive zone face-off % of 73% compared to only 60% for Toffoli on the top line. The line with Toffoli on it had tougher deployment and still scored and defended at better rates than the alternative with Boeser.
Does all this mean that Toffoli is 100% a better option than Boeser? No, of course not. Advanced stats do not tell the full story and they are even less effective when dealing with a 10 game sample. When we combine these metrics with the games that we saw does that give us a better idea? Of course, and when the metrics agree with the eye test that gives us some pretty solid evidence.
So where do the Canucks go from here? It’s clear that in Toffoli’s small time in Vancouver he impressed. He should be a priority this offseason as even if coach Travis Green opted to keep Boeser on the first line and put Toffoli on the second one, it would mean being reunited with old linemate Tanner Pearson. In the end, if the Canucks can find a way to keep Toffoli together with their current forward core they look to be in good shape moving forward.