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Devil's Advocate: Thank God for Stephen Gionta

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In this week's Devil's Advocate, we look at the possibly underappreciated Stephen Gionta. He plays the inglorious role he has been assigned very well.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

For those who are new to these articles, the purpose is to take a stance that is at least in some way contrary to popular opinion and attempt to argue the counterpoint. I typically try to draw on as much hard evidence as possible to make my arguments as unbiased as I can. In the passed I've investigated attempted supporting Bryce Salvador, as well as blaming Cory Schneider, and praising Dainius Zubrus. This weeks investigation is very similar to last week in that we take a look at someone who is given a very inglorious role and plays it exceedingly well. We will look at the situations Stephen Gionta plays in, the "big" things that he does, and the "little" things that he does.

Hard-Knock Life

Stephen Gionta doesn't play in good situations. Like ever. He only get's offensive-zone starts 21.8% of the time. That's 25th worst in the NHL according the Hockey Analysis, and 2nd worst on the team to the aforementioned Dainius Zubrus (Zubie is 11th lowest in the NHL). According to War on Ice, he is literally the only player on the team who hasn't seen a single second of powerplay time (though there are 7 players that have negligible time).

Not only that, but he spends 2.1 of his 10.5 minutes per game on the PK. That ratio is the highest of any forward on the team. Moreover, at 19.5% of his ice time on the PK, Gio once again is top 25 in the NHL in proportion of ice time spent killing penalties

Furthermore, it would seem as though he digging himself and even deeper hole because of his notoriously bad faceoff skills (Faceoffs.net).

So he clearly is leading a difficult life. The next step is to see how he performs in this environment. Is the team better or worse for him being out there.

The "Big" Things

I was perusing the comments of Gerard's most recent article and saw multiple people reference the "big" things that Zajac doesn't do. This refers to the shallow stats, specifically points. Now we all know that Gionta isn't a big point-getter and that's not surprising given the picture I painted in the first section. But what about the big picture? What does it look like when Gio is on the ice in these tough situations? We'll look at two things, Gionta's shot production, and the on-ice goal distribution.

Remarkably, Gionta has managed to lead the team in shots per 60 minutes. Despite his horrible ZS%, he has managed to take around 10 shots per 60 minutes. On a hunch I checked out the ZS% Adjusted stats on Hockey Analysis. This means that they take into account where the player starts his shifts, and changes the stats relatively to league average in those zones. Little Gio is in the top 30 in the NHL in shots per 60 minutes when adjusted for zone starts. Reminder: these aren't corsi numbers, these are hard stats of pucks getting to the net while mighty mouse is on the ice.

The second big thing is the goals. Not Gionta's goals -- those don't exist. But, the goal distribution is impressive. His on-ice goal differential is above the team average despite the insane amount of PK time and terrible starting positions. His even strength goals for-goals against ratio is 2nd highest on the team to only Andy Greene. When adjusted for zone starts, he's the best.

The "small" Things

Gio has been rightfully lambasted by the Devil's faithful for is apocalyptically terrible Corsi numbers. As recently as the Jets game, Gio had a 2-10 corsi ratio. His Corsi numbers are the worst on the team regardless of if they are adjusted for zone starts or not. He's just really awful in the possession game. But we already established that he isn't giving up goals at an absurd rate. What gives?!

One place we can look at is the Hextallies.

Stephen Gio Hextally Agn 11-20

This shows the distribution of shots against the team with and without Gionta on the ice. The numbers are shot rates relative to league average with 1.00 being league average shot rate. Remember that these are not adjusted at all so despite getting routinely pinned in his own zone, Gio's shifts actually allow even less shots from the slot with him on the ice. More shots have been allowed from the low-risk areas in the corners of the blue-line, but that's what you'd want.

Compare this to his buddy Zubrus's hextallies who is used in similar situations. With Zubrus on the ice, the Devils allow dangerous shots at 86% the league average rate. Without him, that number falls to 67.4%. Gio's lines are restricting the opposing opportunities to low-danger shots.

Furthermore, there are some small things evident in his "base counts." This is also a section or War on Ice's statistics and to be honest I'm not entirely sure what it means, but there's a few miscellaneous stats accumulated there and the Devils are below:

First thing: Gio's has attempted 33 shots and 30 have made it to the net. That is nothing short of amazing and soon shots will have to start finding the back of the net. No one is that bad.

Second thing: He is tied with Zubrus for most blocked shots.

Third Thing: Despite spending what little ice time he has in the defensive zone, Gio is 2nd to Jagr in penalties drawn and he is #2 on the team in differential having only taken 2 himself.

Concluding Thoughts

Stephen Gionta plays a 5th of his minutes on the PK and only takes offensive zone faceoffs a 5th of the time. Despite this he has produced the highest shot rate of anyone on the team, and has done little things like block shots, draw penalties, and restrict high-percentage shots which has resulted in average goals against rates which neutralizes the poor zone start percentages. He plays an inglorious role exceedingly well. And the team is better for it.

Counter-Argument

Seriously, who doesn't score in 30 shots on goal. Even I could have snuck one of those through a 5-hole. Restricting shot danger level is all well and good, but when you are worst on the team even in adjusted possession, it's going to come back to bite you sooner rather than later. He is a high-effort, low-skill player who is ill-suited to play anything other than a 4th line role and his poor faceoff percentages make even that a tough sell.

Your Thoughts?

Is Gio as important as I am making him out to be? Would any of our abundance of forwards be able to slide into the 4th line role and perform just as well or better? Is he bound to see some more goals against if he keeps playing the way he is now? Does he fail the eye test despite all these positive stats? Leave thoughts in the comments below.