On Thursday, Tom Gulitti reported that the New Jersey Devils signed Cam Janssen to a two-way, one-year contract - a deal that we now know is for the league minimum salary. Yesterday, Tom Gulitti reported that the Devils signed Eric Boulton to a two-year, one-way contract, with financial details still unknown. I expressed by my displeasure with both signings in this post, as they were bewildering moves after the brilliant signing of Adam Larsson and trading away of Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The subsequent comment section has, appropriately, got into a discussion over the value of goons and such. Clearly, I don't think much of Janssen and Boulton, just like I didn't think much of Letourneau-Leblond.
Rather than go off on my own personal biases, let's look at the facts. Let's look at how both players did last season. In compiling various stats from NHL.com and Behind the Net, I decided that it would be useful to compare the two of them to some Devils players. I chose Adam Mair as he too was a fourth line guy, signed to the team as an energy guy after winning a spot in training camp, as a comparison. As it so happened, Mair played about the same number of games for an average of less than 10 minutes per game. I think it's a fair choice. I didn't care for Mair last season, and so I wouldn't have minded if he walked. So I have to ask, are either Janssen or Boulton even better than Adam Mair?
I actually asked Devils fans on Twitter for any other names they'd like to see compared, and several Tweeted that they wanted to see David Clarkson. Clarkson isn't really that fair of a comparison point because he plays a lot more than all three, he played the whole season, and he's demonstrated that he's more than just an "energy" guy. Still, given his horrible 2010-11 season and the possibility he could be traded for cap relief, it might be interesting to see how they stack up. Perhaps Boulton and Janssen can make up for Clarkson?
Maybe in terms of fighting, sure. In terms of playing hockey, not really. The numbers and an explanation as to why I'm making a big stink about this after the jump.
The Basic Stats
The first thing that I look at when it comes to comparing players stats is to look at the basic ones at NHL.com. They don't tell the whole story, but it provides a good jumping off point to know what their production was and how much they played. In fact, as a quick rule of thumb, ice time can be pretty telling. It's suggests what the coach thinks of the player. If they are of use, they'll get plenty of shifts; or if they have not received a lot of ice time, then it could be that they have a limited role on the team.
Immediately, Clarkson's on another level compared to Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen, and Adam Mair. He's received more shifts per game and more minutes per game than all three. Moreover, and I cannot stress this enough, are his shot totals. Clarkson loved to fire pucks on net - sometimes to a fault last season. While he was quite unfortunate and hit a career low in shooting percentage, it is proof that he had the puck in an offensive position more than Mair, Boulton, and Janssen had combined last season. Even at a career low, he managed to outscore all three of them combined.
Incidentally, these numbers reflect well on the notion that Boulton could be a straight swap for Adam Mair. They both played about the same last season. Boulton had much better luck, at least, with his shooting percentage; while Mair suffered the exact opposite. The last time Boulton shot higher than 10% was in 2005-06, so I wouldn't expect Boulton to be some kind of sniper. Though, I can agree he's a better shooter than Mair and way, way better than Janssen. By the way, the fact that Janssen didn't even average five minutes a game while averaging less than 0.3 shots per game makes me honestly question what he can do on the ice beyond "being physical."
Quality of Competition, Corsi, & Zone Starts
I'm only focusing on 5-on-5 play, since Mair, Janssen, and Boulton largely played there so it only makes sense to focus where they played the majority of their time. Those three got very, very little power play time, whereas Clarkson averaged over a minute on New Jersey's power play - which is arguable as to whether it was valuable. All of the following numbers come from the essential Behind the Net.
David Clarkson gets taken down by a peg by these stats. In addition to his paltry production, these numbers serve to show how bad he was last season. While he got more minutes than the other three, he still faced weak competition. Plus, he actually had a positive quality of teammates. While Clarkson can at least claim by way of his on-ice Corsi (shooting attempts by the team, used to approximate possession) that the puck ultimately went in the right direction when he was on the ice, it's not at all that impressive given his competition and teammates throughout the season.
That's not the case for Mair, Boulton, and Janssen. While Mair and Janssen got significantly weaker competition, they also had weak teammates. Still, Mair struggled against the opposition by way his low on-ice Corsi; while Janssen super-duper-struggled. Boulton's competition and teammate quality were both weaker than Clarkson's, though like Clarkson he had decent teammates to go up against weak competition. However, that's where that similarity ends, as Boulton often was in the wrong end of the rink when he was on the ice.
Incidentally, I decided to include Corsi Rel, which is relative Corsi, or the difference between on-ice Corsi and off-ice Corsi. In the case of all four players, their respective teams were better off in terms of possession when they were off the ice. However, Clarkson's close to the break-even point. Boulton comes off looking good only in comparison to Mair and (especially) Janssen.
Lastly, let's look at those two stats on the far right: offensive zone start percentage (OZ SRT%) and offensive zone start finish percentage (OZ FIN%). These are their percentage of offensive zone starts and finishes over both offensive and defensive zone starts and finishes. Janssen was incredibly protected by largely starting on offense, and he often didn't finish where he started. Then again, many of his shifts may have ended in the penalty box, and that's not recorded. Boulton actually has a slight edge in starting in a worse position more so than Mair, even though Mair has finished a higher percentage of shifts at the more advantageous end of the rink. Clarkson is the only one among the four who has started a little more on defense and came out ahead.
I want to take it a bit further and present these same stats relative to their own team? It doesn't do a whole lot to compare a quality of competition of one player from one team who has their own role, which can be different from another player from another team. Therefore, I've filtered out the team's stats by imposing a 10-game played minimum and recorded their team rank in every category.
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To be brief, while it's reflective of how bad David Clarkson was last season, his weak competition wasn't nearly as weak as Mair's, Boulton's, and Janssen's - where they all had among the weakest of their respective teams. Plus, he started in the defensive zone more often than most of his teammates - which is in small favor of Clarkson. Combine the fact that those three didn't even average 10 minutes per game, and it's clear that their usage was limited and they were protected in said usage. Their respective coaches knew they couldn't handle the average hockey player, much less a good or a great one.
Janssen's rankings are especially instructive. He was incredibly protected in his zone starts, played against soft competition, didn't go onto the ice with solid players, and ended up in the dregs of possession. This alone should any idea that Janssen is a NHL player of some quality outside of being "tough." At least Boulton and Mair weren't nearly as protected, though they were both limited in terms of who they went up against. Boulton's poor Corsi values come across better than Mair's and Janssen's not just in base value but by ranking, where he wasn't at all close to being the worst Thrasher.
What About the Rough Stuff?
You tell me. I'd love to point to the hits stat as something useful. While it is recorded as a Real Time Super Stat in games, but scoring bias makes it difficult for me to really trust it. There's a very large variation among home teams compared to road teams. In the case of the Devils, the scorer seems to undercount hits among other stats (shots, blocked shots, etc.); so it's difficult to say whether or not Clarkson and/or Mair were as tough as Boulton or Janssen. I'm not really sure fighting means anything to a game at all, so it's sort of pointless to count up how many fighting majors they had. Though, that can be explored later.
What may be somewhat instructive is to look at penalties drawn and taken. The old Behind the Net format has a good format in bringing up these stats.
Mair and Boulton drawing one more call than they took is a positive sign in their favor. Clarkson taking more than he draws is not. That's something Boulton (and Mair) can claim as a victory over Clarkson, though a difference of one more drawn penalty isn't anything to scream about from the rooftops. Janssen, of course, comes across as the worst here by this metric as well.
Yet, at the same time, this doesn't say really much of anything by way of "physical play." Toughness is an intangible in that it can be described in several different ways that aren't entirely quantifiable. A player who plays through an injury is tough. A player who throws hits is tough. A player who takes lots of hits and keeps on going is tough. To be frank, I could describe every player in the NHL as tough by way of playing a full-contact professional sport knowing full well that one wrong movement or being at the wrong place at the wrong time could end a career. I don't doubt it's existence, I just doubt it's importance.
Answering the Title Question
Either way, based on the many stats presented prior to this section, it doesn't really mean much of Janssen and/or Boulton are extraordinarily tough because they're not getting things done on the ice in a positive fashion.
Frankly, I'm not seeing the evidence that Cam Janssen can contribute anything tangible to a NHL team. He was heavily protected in terms of ice time, zone starts, and competition; and he didn't do a whole lot when he did get what little ice time that he got. I'm confident in saying that Adam Mair was better than Cam Janssen and that he probably still is right now. Per Tom's suggestion in the comments, the AHL may be a better spot where it's apparently an unwritten rule to have goons.
Eric Boulton, on the other hand, doesn't come across as terrible among this group. Where as Janssen frequently brought up the rear in this group of four, Boulton's numbers were similar to Mair's. Boulton got a bump in good fortune and out-produced Mair; but the underlying numbers don't show too much of a difference. Therefore, I'm more comfortable in thinking that Boulton was about the same kind of player Mair was. We can quibble whether he's slightly better or worse, but he has not done enough last season to say he's an significant upgrade over Mair on the roster. I doubt Boulton's going to shoot as well as he did last season, so I'm not confident in saying he'll do more than Mair in terms of production in 2011-12.
To answer it briefly: No. Boulton was about the same as Mair last season and Janssen was a worse player, so I don't see how either could be that much better than Mair.
Lastly, if 2010-11 was truly the worst we could get with David Clarkson, this re-assures that he's still better than fourth-line enforcers/energy guys. Don't misunderstand me, Clarkson's overpaid and he really needs to have a much improved 2011-12 if he wants to have any hopes of being paid like he is in the future. While I think trading him would make sense, I don't believe the signings of Janssen and Boulton should be seen as signs of this happening because both were worse than Clarkson last season. Even if Clarkson bounces back a little, it's not even a contest. I still think he could be on the trading block, but should it happen, someone else will have to step up to take his spot. Neither Boulton or Janssen can really replace him based on what they did last season.
Why Care So Much About the Fourth Line?
This is a fair question. A fourth line won't face tough competition or put up lots of points. They aren't nearly as important as the first or second line performing night-in and night-out. They generally only play 10 minutes at most.
At the same time, they can't be filled with fodder because that just opens up a team to getting destroyed for 8-10 minutes. A forward who goes out for a handful of minutes, has their arranged fight with someone on the other team, requires that team to double-shift a forward and/or cut minutes differently. Should the player or the team play poorly, all that does is exacerbate those struggles. Should an enforcer do his thing regularly, then it has to be asked why the coach doesn't just dress 11 forwards and 7 defensemen if only so he has 18 players who can play throughout the entire night?
Let's get back to the title question. You may argue that Mair's not an enforcer like Janssen or Boulton, but last season showed that he really wasn't all that useful on the ice for New Jersey. Usefulness is all I'm really looking for in a fourth liner. Someone who provides just something positive to the table. It doesn't have to be a lot, it doesn't have to be from a young or an old guy, and it doesn't have to be from someone who doesn't like to hit. It just has to be more than hitting guys and stopping the game to punch people in the face. Think of Vladimir Zharkov and Dean McAmmond from 2009-10, or even Rod Pelley to a degree. Should the Devils be able to put a fourth line that isn't drowning in the wrong end of Corsi and chip in a few goals, then they may have a line with an advantage over other teams.
Hence, my concern over the signing of either player. They're not going to bring much to the table on the ice, as they didn't last season. Boulton's like Mair and Janssen's worse than Mair - and Mair didn't add much to NJ. When they will play, someone like Zharkov could be held out - and should they get a fight and call it a night, then New Jersey's down a forward for the rest of the game. I'm not seeing the upside of either signing. So what if they may be good in the room? While off-ice chemistry is important (see: Jamie Langenbrunner), we're not in the room and so it's unknown whether Boulton or Janssen would really have a significant effect. (And if they do, why sign them as players who take up cap space, why not sign them as special assistants for less money and be in the room then?) So what if they can fight people well? That's not how games are won or lost, nor will they drive the Devils to score goals or prevent them. If they're in the lineup, then it's likely that someone with more talent isn't - and that hurts the Devils, even if it's only something like a fourth-line forward spot. I don't believe intangibles alone can make up for on-ice talent or performance.
In today's NHL with a hard salary cap, it is to every team's advantage to get full value out of every player on their active roster. This is especially important for New Jersey, who is spending to the cap ceiling and can ill afford to waste space. The best teams have depth throughout the lineup, so that they can win match-ups even when it's fourth line vs. fourth line and get an edge (e.g. the Bruins in their Stanley Cup Final series against Vancouver). It's why today's "enforcers" have to do more than fight, they have to prove they can defend or contribute to some offense. Signing guys like Mair and using them as they have been goes against that. Given that these stats show that Boulton and Janssen don't appear to be upgrades over Mair based on last season, then I don't see how either signing helps New Jersey in any tangible manner.
What do you make of the stats of all four players? Were you surprised to see that Janssen was that much worse than the other three players? Were you surprised to see that Mair was not much different from Boulton, or perhaps you feel otherwise? Were you intrigued by the notion that Clarkson's awful season wasn't as bad as the season Mair, Boulton, or Janssen had? What do you think a fourth line should have? Lastly, did this provide any additional perspective on any of these players? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about any of the four players and the role of fourth-liners in general in the comments. Thanks for reading.