Off the Charts: Suomela is an ideal depth center

The numbers say: Suomela has more than adequately filled in for the dearly departed Chris Tierney.

Though Antti Suomela led the Finish Liiga in scoring and helped his team control 5-on-5 shot share last season as a 23-year-old, there were always likely to be some growing pains as he transitioned to the North American ice surface. Recently, he has apparently struggled through that adjustment. Benched at various points in favor of a combination of Rourke Chartier, Barclay Goodrow and now Lukas Radil, Suomela has watched a handful of games from the rafters. Coach Pete DeBoer talked in early November about the young pivot hitting a bit of a “plateau” before scratching him.

There is always so much more that goes on in the locker room and at practice that we will never see. Even when someone offers sparkling numbers, as Suomela has, there is always a coaching staff to remind us that combining statistics with the eye test is the best way to evaluate a player. It sounds as if there were specific facets of Suomela’s game DeBoer and his benchmates felt needed work, including defense.

His initial healthy scratch 13 games into the season seemed cause for alarm, but the measure appeared “instructive rather than punitive.” Since then, DeBoer has benched Suomela again and has reduced the forward’s minutes in the games he does play.

At the time of this writing, Suomela had played 22 games with the Sharks, registering five assists and three goals. We can use those games — as small a sample as they are — to inspect how Suomela has fared by the numbers as a depth center (and sometimes winger). And, by way of comparison, we can juxtapose Suomela’s impact with that of dearly departed Chris “Cobra” Tierney, the team’s former third-line anchor. While Suomela is playing far fewer minutes this season than Tierney averaged last year, the team has the luxury now of playing Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton as their top three centers. This improved depth eliminates the need to thrust someone like Tierney or Suomela into an overextended role.

If we begin by attempting to isolate each player’s impact on the team, we can see that Tierney was not as impressive as his ice time suggested.

Micah Blake McCurdy, proprietor of HockeyViz and otherwise impressive mathematician, created a new model this off-season: Magnus. Magnus attempts to isolate a player’s “individual impact on NHL 5v5 [unblocked] shot rates” from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, on aggregate. The “Isolated” column gives us an estimation of a player’s impact, isolated from contextual factors, such as teammates, zone starts, and opponents. After adjusting for context, it appears Tierney helped the Sharks to a relatively average offensive shot rate and was detrimental to their efforts on defense. While we don’t have the same information available for Suomela, we can approximate his impact on unblocked shot rates when adjusting for his teammates. According to Corsica, the Sharks owned 6 percent more of all 5-on-5 unblocked shots relative to his teammates. That figure is the best mark of all Sharks forwards so far this season.

Thanks to Corsica, we also have relative-to-teammate measures. These measurements attempt to adjust for a player’s teammates to isolate his individual impact on things like shot and expected goal share. By comparing Suomela’s season to date with the best of Tierney’s last three seasons, we can see what Suomela brings that which Tierney did not and vice versa.

This table compares each player’s relative metrics. When looking at expected goals and shots against, a negative number in this column is good. It means the Sharks allowed fewer shots or expected goals against with this player on the ice relative to his teammates. With Suomela, these ranks are of the 13 forwards who have played at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 (thus excluding Dylan Gambrell and Radil). Tierney’s ranks are out of the 23 forwards who played at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 during DeBoer’s first three seasons in charge. Tierney’s individual season ranks are out of the 45 forward seasons during DeBoer’s tenure through last season — they represent every forward who skated for at least 300 minutes of 5-on-5 in a given season.

A few things stand out. First, Tierney’s best individual season by these metrics were only slightly above average, at least relative to the Sharks’ roster. You can see, however, that even Tierney’s most prominent impact on expected goals was exactly average: The Sharks generated exactly the same share of expected goals with Tierney on the ice as they did with his teammates when he was not skating with them. Second, although Tierney received much praise last season for hitting the 40-point mark, his best season by these relative metrics was his 2016-27 campaign. Finally, Suomela bests Tierney in every mark, with the exception of generating expected goals on offense. When we understand that Suomela’s teammates generally create more expected goals without Suomela than they do with him, we can also understand why he isn’t racking up points, despite his otherwise favorable showing.

The last thing to touch on between these two players makes Suomela’s performance so far this year seem even more impressive.

(CF = Corsi for, or shots for. CF% is the same as “shot share. CF/60 = shots taken per 60 and CA/60 = shots allowed against per 60).

This table shows the same measures as the relative table, but provides us with how each forward’s teammates stack up in those numbers.

By almost every single measure, Suomela is playing with, on aggregate, better teammates this season than Tierney ever did during his tenure. Forgive me if this is faulty logic, but my assumption here is that playing with good teammates will make it harder to perform better relative to them when you are away from those same good teammates.

We would be remiss if we did not discuss the sample size issue at play here. Suomela has only played a quarter of a season. He has spent much of that time with the likes of Joonas Donskoi — who we know is helpful in driving play — but also with Melker Karlsson, someone without whom the Sharks’ forward corps would be much more productive. Because Suomela has played so little time overall, and because he has bounced between legitimate top-six forwards and replacement-level skaters, his teammate numbers and relative-to-teammate numbers are subject to more variance than those of Tierney.

For good measure, this table includes each players offensive zone starts relative to his teammates. DeBoer is giving Suomela a higher share of offensive zone starts relative to his teammates than he ever gave Tierney over the course of a full season. It’s worth noting this because relative-to-teammate numbers don’t necessarily cancel out zone starts. However, we also know that the teammates a player skates with have a much larger impact on his overall numbers than do zone starts.

By comparing both players who, until Joe Thornton’s recent transition to the team’s third center, were responsible for similar roles, we can examine how Suomela may or may not be filling the hole Tierney left on his way across the country. The season is still young, but the early results are promising. Whereas Tierney essentially topped out as an average player, Suomela’s start is one of someone who is a very capable depth center when given solid teammates. There is always more to player evaluation than, say, analysis via spreadsheet, but given what we do know about Suomela’s fast start in San Jose, it remains befuddling that DeBoer continues to send him to the press box at the first sign of trouble.

So far, signing Suomela was a few hundred thousand dollars well worth it.