Is John Tavares of the New York Islanders one of the 25 best players in the NHL under the age of 25?
As of Sunday, he's 12th in the League in scoring with 48 points in 46 games. His career points per game average stands at 0.82. He's 53 percent on faceoffs, and is tied with Michael Grabner with 56 takeaways to lead the Islanders.
But Neil Greenberg goes deeper than the available stats. He's a columnist for the Washington Post and ESPN.com, analyzing the NHL using advanced statistics and metrics that purport to show the real value and output of a player.
When I saw Greenberg at a Washington Capitals game recently, he spoke about taking some heat for a list he published on ESPN: The Top 25 NHL Players the Under Age of 25 (sub. required). The pitchforks and torches were understandable: Jeff Skinner and Tyler Seguin were omitted due to sample size. Jamie Benn and Matt Duchene were left off due to Greenberg's analysis, as was Tavares.
The Islanders broadcast team of Howie Rose and Butch Goring caught wind of the snub, and torched Greenberg on their broadcast on Saturday night — a game against the Carolina Hurricanes that saw Tavares score both goals, including the OT game winner.
ROSE: I don't know if you happened to see an article in a national online publication recently, but someone actually wrote that … there was a list of 25 players under 25 in the National Hockey League. Can you believe that John Tavares was not on that list? Are you kidding me? Now think about that: We're just talking about players that are under 25.
When he was criticized for that, he came up with some kind of goofball numerical response. I don't know who this house-bound agoraphobe is, but I suggest he open the shades in room, get a little light in there and watch the games and stop playin' around with, you know, computer-based [cross talk] and calculators … give me a break! Open your eyes! You can make a case that John Tavares is among the 25 best players in the league! Nevermind under 25 years of age. That's just dumb.
GORING: I suggest the guy cover another sport. Clearly he has no idea what this sport is all about.
ROSE: That's just stupid. There's no other way to put it. Unless there's some kind of personal agenda. If you just want to be controversial. That's why I'm no mentioning his name. I'm not going to give him the satisfaction.
GORING: Other than stooge. Is that what you're calling him?
With Islanders fans, broadcasters and ESPN's own Katie Strang disagreeing with the assessment, Greenberg wrote a piece titled "Why John Tavares is good, not great" (sub. required) that detailed his reasoning, including:
Zone Starts. Tavares is seen as having an advantage by starting in the offensive zone at even strength more than 56 percent of the time for his career, when the average for all forwards is 27 percent. He scores more because he's given a chance to; it's the same argument frequently made by advanced stats critics about the Sedins.
"Being fed soft minutes (high offensive zone starts against non-top line competition) is a smart coaching move, one that puts your best players in a position to succeed. However, it is enough context to also keep you off my list in favor of a more seasoned player like Nashville forward Sergei Kostitsyn."
Clutch Performance. A measurement that Greenberg developed, it rates "how much a player contributes to his team's victories." The bottom line here: "When Tavares is on the ice, more shots are aimed at the Islanders' net than the opposition's. And when he is not with his most frequent linemates (Moulson, Parenteau and Kyle Okposo), it is even worse."
This argument is like being stuck in a room with Billy Beane's stats guy and his scouts in "Moneyball" — they know talent when they see it based on time-honored standards, and someone is trying to change the way we think about evaluating a player.
With due respect to advanced statisticians — whose work has certainly changed the way this writer approaches things like the Selke Trophy — the notion that Patrik Berglund, Bryan Little and Sergei Kostitsyn should be ranked ahead of John Tavares on this list or any list is ridiculous. Yet they're all ahead of Tavares on the ESPN list.
Maybe it's a crusty, old school notion, but there's something to be said for intangibles. Tavares has them, along with effective play on both sides of the puck. And he's only getting better.
s/t Christian Araos for the audio.