Vulgar Statistics: Ehrhoff And Karlsson
Earlier this evening I was watching the Sabres game, minding my own business, when someone brought up Christian Ehrhoff in the game chat that accompanies the feed. The initial comment was something like “I’d trade Ehrhoff,” in complete seriousness. (The comment is too far back for me to retrieve it.) That said, the following are exact quotes that I did pull:
Ehrhoff played with the Sedins, Thronton Marleau Couture Kesler etc etc etc and Karlsson’s PPG is double
he was also 21, 22 and 23 those years. He’s a better player. Again my whole point is Batman vs. Robin.
[Ehrhoff is a Robin not a Batman] becaue he doesnt generate offense by himself
[Ehrhoff is a Robin not a Batman because Karlsson had] 1 PPG for 3 years while being a + player over that time.
Additional criticisms for Ehrhoff were that he doesn’t produce as much in Buffalo as he did in Vancouver (or San Jose), that he shoots wide too much, and (sort of illustrated above) that he can’t carry the offense, whatever subjective definition gets applied to that.
I love the Batman/Robin comment because it’s so ludicrous. In the vast spectrum of NHL metaphors it kicks back in a recliner next to the stuff that Don Cherry and Mike Milbury think is too dumb to use on the air. It is stunningly meaningless in a vacuum, and when alongside the evidence used to justify it, completely falls apart.
Allow me be the first to admit that comparing these players is probably an exercise in stupidity and that I am a moron for getting sucked into an argument that is, quite frankly, beneath anyone that has looked into the game beyond what their biases and their eyes tell them. Allow me to also state, for the record, that one need not be a Karlsson, or even an Ehrhoff to be a number one defenseman, and that one’s performance compared to the other’s does little to shed light on just who is and isn’t a top d-man. But I have nothing better to do on a Saturday night, so here we are.
The bodies of evidence to support my position that Ehrhoff is (or more accurately was last season) one of the best defensemen in the league were duh, and also the fact that he still manages to put up relatively decent stats while playing with the crap sandwich that is the Buffalo Sabres. Karlsson plays for the Ottawa Senators who are by no means an elite team, but are certainly better than the Sabres, and Karlsson’s linemates are certainly better than Ehrhoff’s.
I should also state going in that I expected Karlsson to be better than Ehrhoff. Without having watched a whole lot of the former, my inclination would be to say that Karlsson is slightly more skilled than Ehrhoff while Ehrhoff plays a smarter game. Ehrhoff is older, has more experience, yadda yadda yadda, you’ll never be able to quantify it anyway so who cares. Karlsson’s sheer goal numbers are probably enough to prove the first half of that, but I digress.
Here are the simplistic stats for the past three seasons:
If you want to get into points per game (I really don’t because it’s not a good stat), Ehrhoff hits .453 while Karlsson is at .940. The reason I don’t like this stat is because it doesn’t account for icetime, power play icetime, or linemates. It also doesn’t really indicate whether or not a player is “driving the offense,” again, whatever that means.
Karlsson has averaged about two and a half minutes more of total icetime (26.66 to 24.14) per game than Ehrhoff and 50 seconds more (4.18 to 3.35) of power play icetime. Unsurprisingly Karlsson scores more, both at even strength and on the power play. However, Karlsson also bests Ehrhoff when the differences in icetime are accounted for, tallying 1.63 points per 60 minutes at even strength to Ehrhoff’s 0.94 and a whopping 5.33 points per 60 minutes on the power play to Ehrhoff’s 2.87.
Point, Karlsson. OR IS IT?!?
As I’ve stated previously, Karlsson has had the benefit of better linemates than Ehrhoff. How much better? Well Ehrhoff’s three most common linemates (what behindthenet.com shows) have an average Corsi rating of -6.74 these past three seasons. Karlsson’s have an average Corsi of 6.05. Unsurprisingly, Ehrhoff’s on ice Corsi is fairly bad (-1.29) while Karlsson’s is pretty good (+12.84). However their relative Corsis, that is the comparison of how much their teams control play with them on the ice vs. how much they do with them off, is very close. 11.7 relative Corsi for Karlsson, and 10.4 for Ehrhoff.
Not only that, but Karlsson has had the benefit of having better linemates while facing weaker competition. Quality of Competition measures the goal differential of a player’s opponents versus that of the rest of their team when they are not on the ice per sixty minutes. Generally the best players are roughly a full goal per sixty minutes better than the rest of their team. Ehrhoff’s average QoC when in Buffalo is at +.531. Karlsson’s over the same span is .061.
So now we’ve established that despite playing with worse players and against better players, Ehrhoff is creating offense (via shot differentials) at roughly the same rate as Karlsson compared to their respective teams.
Ah, but who is driving offense? Well, let’s look at zone starts. The benefit to having a puck moving defenseman is that you can rely on them to move the puck, that is take it from your end and get it into (and keep it in) your opponent’s end. Because Karlsson does put up more points than Ehrhoff, you would expect him to be a bit better in this regard. You would be wrong.
Let me get this straight, Karlsson is a great player, and one of the best offensive defensemen in the game. He is an asset to any team and probably a top pairing guy on almost all of them. However, a large part of his success is being put in a position to have it. As I’ve outlined previously, he gets a ton of icetime, and a ton of powerplay icetime. He’s 3rd and 2nd in the league in those categories (per game) respectively. He also gets the majority of his starts in the offensive zone, skewering his point totals even further.
In the past three seasons Karlsson is starting in the offensive zone 56.7% of the time. He’s finishing in it 51.3% of the time, or in layman’s terms, quite a bit less. Now that’s not a complete indictment, as someone who starts in the offensive zone that much pretty much has nowhere to go but down. But it’s pretty clear that Karlsson isn’t taking turds and turning them into goals. Ehrhoff is used a bit differently, he starts in the offensive zone 48.7% of the time and finishes in it 51.4% of the time, or again, in layman’s terms, better than Erik Karlsson.
There are a few things that could explain this and I don’t honestly watch Karlsson enough to say definitively. But my guess would be that it’s some combination of the Senators wanting to use Karlsson’s elite offensive ability as much as possible (and the Senators aren’t torrid goal scorers) and Karlsson being somewhat underwhelming in his own end. Sabres fans criticize Ehrhoff for being defensively suspect and soft or non-physical (because they’re idiots), but he’s actually a fairly solid defensive player. You’ll have to trust me on that one I guess as there is no stat for “stays in the right spot and doesn’t make Mike Weber decisions”…other than the zone start numbers I guess.
How much of this is Karlsson being a better shooter? Well, that depends, are you asking in general, or are you asking as shooting generally pertains to defensemen? I didn’t crunch the numbers because shooting percentage is a stat that doesn’t mean much, but from what I’ve seen Karlsson has been about 3-5% better than Ehrhoff per year. My gut tells me that Karlsson is just a better shooter than Ehrhoff is and this would seem to bear that out.
Shooting as a defenseman is tricky. You’re not always trying specifically to score. I’ve used ‘Net Hitting Percentage’ to try to create some method of assessing point-shooting ability and it’s probably better than any other equally straightforward metric. As you’ll recall, one of the criticisms of Ehrhoff above was that he “misses the net too often.” In the last three seasons, Ehrhoff has averaged 116 shots on goal, 80 shots blocked by the opposition, and 54 shots that missed the net. In layman’s terms, we’ll call that “missing the net less than Erik Karlsson.”
Yes, Ehrhoff’s net hitting percentage is 46.6% to Karlsson’s 43.5% over the same span, and while Ehrhoff does shoot wide more often (21.5% to 19.8%), it’s probably because he gets far fewer shots blocked (31.9% to 36.9%). What’s worse, a puck that’s free behind your opposition’s net with five of your skaters between it and your own net, or a puck that’s free along the blue line with zero to two skaters between it and your own net?
The final part of this is value. Karlsson counts for $6.5M against the cap while Ehrhoff counts for $4.0M. In terms of one player versus another, value is irrelevant, but for the purposes of building a competitive team, it’s vitally important.
They’re both great players, and both teams benefit from having them around. The point of this was less to compare them to one another and more to illustrate the value of Ehrhoff to the Sabres while using Karlsson as a standard for “elite” or “number one defenseman.” It’s pretty obvious that Ehrhoff has suffered from less talented teammates and a less offensively advantageous role and that he is more important to the Sabres than Karlsson is to the Senators. If you doubt that, look to the Sabres’ record without Ehrhoff (3-10-3 in 2011-2012) and the Senators’ record without Karlsson (39-19-15 last season).
When you look at the whole picture and the reasons behind their statistical differences, they’re a lot closer than people (dumb Sabres fans) think. Perhaps, due to their faults, neither is a legitimate #1 defenseman (depending on how you define it), but if one is, so is the other.