September 29, 2023


Exercise makes us healthy

Analysis: Roope Hintz Is More Elite Than You Think, But There’s A Catch

I’ll come clean. I didn’t see the emergence of Roope Hintz coming. Not when contrasted with the 2019-2020 season. Sure, I knew all the reasons why my amateur gut could be lying. There was the minimal ice time, being juggled around the lineup (a lot), and Rick Bowness’ more dump than chase system. But 23 is kind of old in prospect years. Over an 82-game season, Hintz was on pace for 45 points that year: excellent for a first(ish)-year player but that’s pretty meh if we’re talking Dallas’ future number one center. To go from 45 points to 85, over a full season, would require a Wallace-like glow up.

I’m happy to report that Hintz has, at last, shed his inner-Wallace. Although funnily enough, not a lot changed from this year to last. In 2019-2020, Hintz’ average time-on-ice was 11.38: ninth among Dallas forwards. This season, Hintz’ average time-on-ice was 13.14: ninth among Dallas forwards. Of course, this season it made sense for players like Blake Comeau, Jason Dickinson, and Radek Faksa to average more ice time than Hintz (or not: how do you harmonize Comeau getting so much more ice time than Jamie Benn, for example?). I suppose last season we could chalk that up to the NHL’s Can’t Trust Rookies Just Yet logic, which wouldn’t explain Jason Robertson this year, but whatever. Point is, this season he didn’t even have his entire pelvis. Literally.

But first, I want to talk about the things that make Pierre McGuire roll his eyes every night: fancy stats. If you’ve been watching the playoffs, all of Pierre’s analysis boils down to preemptive attacks on analytics. ‘You can’t boil a player’s value down to raw numbers’, he says, as if anyone has ever said anything so childish. For childish things said, we don’t have to look far. Of course, that’s not what numbers are for. Even professional mathematicians know this. Like physicists, biologists, and virologists, you do your homework, and sometimes numbers give you an organized look at broad patterns that are hard to see from the naked eye. Which brings me to:

Understanding GAR, and the point of numbers

How do you decide who plays and who doesn’t? The simplest way is using a set of numbers. If Forward A scored twenty goals last year, he’s probably gonna get more ice time than Forward B, who only scored four. Chances are, the guy with the most points plays the most minutes. I know: tantalizing stuff. But how do you decide between two players with twenty points each? The splits between goals and assists might help. But what if they both scored ten goals, and ten assists?

In Dallas’ ill-fated 2017-2018 season, Devin Shore was 7th in scoring. Did that make Shore Dallas’ 7th best scorer? Of course not. Being 7th in scoring, and the 7th best scorer are two distinct things. This isn’t just hindsight analysis. Separate the offense Shore generated at even-strength, the defense he provided, his offensive and defensive contributions on special teams, and the ripple effect he has on both with the penalties taken, and penalties drawn — and you probably end up with a much different picture, right?

Now compare those numbers to the average output of a forward outside the the top 13, or a defenceman outside the top 7 (i.e. replaceable production), and Goals Above Replacement is the model brighter minds have come up with. Sure enough, we end up with a different Devin.

For some reason: Devin Shore’s Goals Above Replacement

Does this give us the whole picture? No. Does that mean Shore was the third worst forward on the team that year? Also no. This fancy stuff is simply telling us that in this particular season, Shore provided some value on the power play, and on defensive duties, but didn’t generate offense of any kind in the most prominent game state, or help out shorthanded. It may not be a smoking gun, but it does give us a better language to articulate where we think Shore lies on the spectrum of talent that is inherent and value that is provided.

It’s funny how analytics are often viewed as counterintuitive despite the fact that we routinely talk about overachievers versus underachievers. What this has to do with Hintz is simple. He’s good. Even without having all of his lower body. But did we know he was this good?

Roope Hintz is in a very special class.

Some of those names might look strange but it doesn’t negate the overall point here. As mentioned, I was skeptical of Hintz not just because of his modest point totals his first full year for a potential elite forward, but because the tape didn’t convince me either. I saw an excellent shooter in 2019. But an excellent shooter who maybe didn’t create enough space for himself in tight corners. I saw a functional passer. But a functional passer who maybe wasn’t creative enough to open up the ice beyond what was given to him on the rush. And I saw a smooth, if modest, playmaker. But a smooth, modest playmaker who maybe didn’t have the vision to make more patient plays with the puck.

That’s when I decided to re-watch some games because why not? I would have put together some sort of highlight package but I realized very quickly that most of Hintz’ routine plays are the highlight reels.

His assist at 1:34 is the sorcery of pyromancers: in traffic, letting the puck go through his legs for a behind-the-back pass through the defender. The complete control of the puck he has when shooting it at 0:44, you’d think he was holding a cesta instead of a stick, and playing Jai Alai instead of hockey. He’s the goods. But we already know that.

So much of what he does well is ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ type stuff. I think there’s where I understated Hintz’ strengths. Analyzing a player’s true value is difficult, or so I tell myself. That’s why numbers help: to separate the obviously good from the routine good, and the obviously bad from the routine bad. They can also help separate the dynamics of a player’s value from season-to-season. Just compare and contrast Hintz’ last two seasons to Denis Gurianov’s. Totally, different, right?

Side-by-side comparison of Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov: Expected Goals Above Replacement

How do we know which season better represents each player? I don’t think we can. Gurianov may not have been as good as he’s shown, but he wasn’t half as bad as he seemed to look either. Hintz, on the other hand, is only trending up. It’s not a science, but the most a team can do is leverage a player’s strengths to the best of their abilities and let the chips and pucks fall where they may. Systems matter, and understanding those strengths is how teams can get the most out of their players consistently rather than intermittently; it’s not a coincidence Old Man Spezza’s still got it.

Analysis, in all forms of sport whether it’s number-crunching or some talking head beating you over the head with the Will Beats Skill cliche, tends to have a horrific blind spot. We fall victim (and I include myself) to the idea that each athlete is a sum of static truths about their abilities. When they’re revealed, a great shot is a great shot, and creative passing is creative passing. We think of these talents as unchanging. When they’re hidden, it must be because the opponent shut them down, they had an off night, they played hurt, or they got out-coached. It’s easier to logically accept than to admit that, say, hockey games are inherently volatile, and that each game functions on a continuum of luck and skill. In that way, elite talents in hockey’s glacier mobocracy are like Brazilian river otters: totally OP when left to their own devices, but in an environment so hostile, even the best of skills can look endangered.

The Edmonton Effect

If you’ve been paying attention to the drama in Edmonton, you know the story. The organization looked at the biggest numbers — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl being the NHL’s top three point producers since the 2015-2016 season — and paid little attention to the rest. That tunnel vision led to misguided contracts for players like Zack Kassian and Milan Lucic, among others. I don’t think Dallas and Edmonton have too much in common. Although it’s interesting to note that Dallas was in on Lucic when he went to free agency.

Nonetheless, there are a few common threads: it’s not enough to have elite players. Dallas has a nice banner for what they accomplished last season, but they’ve only made the playoffs one more time than Edmonton since Jim Nill took over. Former DBD scribe, Robert Tiffin, said it best two years ago, and it’s something that I think still holds true.

Ultimately, I believe the Stars faltered when Jim Nill stopped trying to build the team into a consistent contender and started looking for the missing pieces that would make it a Stanley Cup favorite.

If you’re wondering what the catch is regarding Hintz, it’s nothing. Made ya look, right? Hey. I didn’t say I was above, or ever put away, childish things. Hintz looks like an elite player. If Dallas has 85 points in the bank from a healthy Hintz next season, all the better. But then, nothing is guaranteed.

There’s a reason why Dallas has taken such drastic swings of the pendulum, from offense at the cost of defense to defense at the cost of offense. It’s for the reasons Robert stated, but I’d add that Nill has only ever traded his way into a window (Seguin, Spezza) or bought his way into a window (Bishop, Radulov, Pavelski), making the team much more susceptible to artificial fluctuations. Nill has never had a core driving the identity of the team. Whatever Dallas’ faults at the draft table, and there are plenty, at least they can say that’s no longer the case.

Dallas deserves a re-do this season. Fans and media have largely given the organization a pass for good reason. But missing the playoffs shouldn’t be some kind of consolation, especially with a team that still has a mostly aging core.

Dallas will go into next season as a very good team on paper, with some very good players on paper. If their goal is to be good, they’re already there if healthy. If their goal is to get better, that’s gonna take real analysis — something beyond simply adding a ‘veteran’ but figuring out the identity of the team moving forward, and making moves to leverage that identity so that games are never won or lost solely because of bad health or overtime goblins.

Hintz is more elite than we think. But is Dallas less elite than they think? An honest assessment is the only way to make sure Hintz isn’t just an elite performer during the regular season, but a consistent threat once it ends.