“You talk to Calgary fans about doing something with Jarome Iginla, and it’s like you’re calling out their religion. They have convinced themselves this guy is going to make this team go some place. But look where he is,” begins Terry Appleby, founder of PowerScout Sports, a senior economist, and an NHL analytical mastermind. “He’s a weak skater; he was never really a very good skater, but now age is catching up and his feet are slowing down. And on the wing position, what we’ve found (to be) important is skating.”
A hockey man who has been analyzing NHL positions and patterns for decades, Appleby believes one simple switch could boost the performance of the Calgary Flames’ great right-winger: move him to centre.
“If you watch a Flames game, he shoots a lot from the outside, which hurts Calgary. (A few games ago), for example, he got a goal on the power play by being right in front of the net. That’s a player that should be moved to centre. And if Calgary trades this guy at the trade deadline because they’re out of it, some team gets him and moves him to centre, they’re going to get another five years out of this guy. Because he’s a very good player; he’s just in the wrong position,” Appleby asserts.
“If you’re building a team, and you’re looking for a place to put your speed, the most important thing is to put it on the outside. Build your speed as much as possible through the wing position. What that does is spread the ice out more. Hockey is already played in such an enclosed area, so the more you can spread the attack out by having really fast wingers — guys that come to mind are Jaromir Jagr and Glenn Anderson — the more you open up the middle,” Appleby goes on. “Players like Martin St. Louis and Patrick Kane. Those players are really fast and can function well on the outside.”
PowerScout analytics have put mathematics behind the common-sense notion that shooting the puck from the centre of the ice increases scoring opportunities. The more you stretch the ice out, the more space is given for players in the middle of the rink to unload their shots.
“In the case of Jarome Iginla, he’s slow now,” Abble says, then politically-corrects himself. “Well, average. No one’s ever called slow. Everyone’s average or above average, which is mathematically impossible of course. But Iginla’s average.”
If — and this is a Rocky Mountains-sized if — Iginla were to switch hockey positions, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Emulating one of his heroes, Grant Fuhr, as a youngster in St. Albert, Alberta, Iginla played goaltender during his first two years of organized hockey before switching to the right wing. He seemed to take to the wing quickly; as a 15-year-old, Iginla led the Alberta Midget Hockey League in scoring with 87 points for the St. Albert Midget Raiders in 1992-93.
After 14-and-a-half NHL seasons on the right flank, however, jumping to centre, might take some convincing. But according to Appleby, all offensive players should get comfortable in the various forward roles.
“That would be my advice to (NHL) teams: Draft players, and while they’re in junior, get them to play the two forward positions. Don’t let them become specialists at that young of an age,” he says.
Nudging Iginla over to the centre third of the ice plays into what Appleby calls the “Christmas Tree Effect,” his data-supported theory on how a winning team should be constructed. Appleby explains:
“If you look at the lineup on the ice from the perspective of being a table-hockey fan, you see the three forwards across the centre line, the two defencemen, and then the goaltender — almost an inverted pyramid. If you look at that, you might think that’s the way to build a team: going from the goaltender out to the wings. The best way to build it is from the centre going to the two defenceman, which represents a triangle — that’s the tree. It’s supported by the most important player on the ice. That’s the goaltender, who provides the base of the tree. The two wingers on the outside, and it’s a derogatory term, I refer to them as the ‘ornaments’ because that’s how important they are to winning in terms of weighting goals and assists among the positions.
“What it means is that players like Jarome Iginla, Phil Kessel, Rick Nash and all these guys who are very good wingers, and very good in comparison to other wingers, those kind of players don’t contribute as much to winning. Not because they’re not good players, but because they’re playing a position that does not allow them to contribute a lot. Simply because of where they’re positioned on the ice, it inhibits their ability to contribute, in spite of how good they are. In a case like that, because these teams (Calgary, Toronto, Columbus) see them as equal (to a centre or defenceman) — at least, I assume that because of how these teams are built — they tend to drive their attack through that position.
“Jarome Iginla is the most expensive player on Calgary; Rick Nash is the most expensive player on Columbus; and Kessel’s gotta be near the top in Toronto. (Editor’s note: Kessel’s salary is second to Dion Phaneuf’s.) So what happens when a general manager shells out a lot of money for a winger? To support their decision to run the team that way, they run their attack through that position. They have to. Or else what would be the point of grabbing someone with a big salary?
“So the team brings the puck up the ice and then passes to the side with the idea they will enhance team scoring. What our research found is, the more you shoot from the centre of the ice, the more successful you’re going to be. When you’re playing even strength, you want to work the puck to the centre of the ice as much as possible because you get the best shot at the goaltender, whereas a winger coming down the side, he’ll usually shoot wide or shoot from an angle that doesn’t give him much goal to see.”
Appleby’s take on wingers like Iginla extends to the much-discussed struggles of Alex Ovechkin in Washington.
“We’re all looking at Ovechkin and wondering why his play has deteriorated. What we’ve found through our research is that players who tend to play along the boards have their performance drop marginally every game they play — just a little bit. Although our research doesn’t tell us exactly why this is the case, it’s our take that the physicalness of playing the boards wears the average player down every day. When he’s young, he overcomes that by gaining more experience and becoming more comfortable in the league and sharpening his skills. So even as his performance is rising and he’s contributing to his team winning, this playing along the boards is lowering his performance more than it might if he was playing centre.
“Over time, what happens is a player like Ovechkin — who also plays very physical — his play ascends as he becomes more comfortable, but then the physicalness of the position starts to deteriorate his performance bit by bit, until he reaches a point where he can’t play the way he used to. At that point in time, it’s my assertion that you should take a player like Ovechkin and move him to centre, because playing him on the wing, he’s constantly going to get ground down as he logs more games there,” Appleby says. “I might be wrong, but I see it manifested in so many players.”
Although seeing franchise building blocks such as Ovechkin and Iginla shift from their comfort zone might be a long shot, and the mere suggestion would be a fantastic way to get booted out of a coach’s office, it would be compelling to see an experiment like that play out.
Iginla has a respectable 17 goals in 47 games this season, but he is on pace to score fewer goals in 2011-12 than he has in his previous 10 campaigns. And at his current rate, the right winger will be hard-pressed to continue his astounding decade-long stretch of scoring at least 30 goals per season.
“When Jarome Iginla was playing really well and Calgary went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004, Iginla was playing at a level four times better than he is now,” Appleby says. “And here we are seven years later, and Calgary is trying to capture than ’04 kind of excitement, but it’s not there.”