Even without the news of Rick Nash's back injury last night and the call-up of Maksim Mayorov in case the captain can't play, we're likely at a strange crossroads in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets. It is extremely probable that last night's game or tomorrow's final home game will represent the last time Rick Nash wears a Union Blue sweater. We all know this, we all know the trade request fallout, we've been anticipating this for weeks.
But in the strangeness of it actually happening, I think it's interesting to note that Nash has statistically been the best Blue Jacket of them all. Even in this down year from Nash's production, he's still easily the team MVP just as he has been for much of his time in Columbus. To take a look at Nash's standing relative to the rest of the team, let's examine GVT.
For the uninitiated, GVT stands for "Goals Versus Threshold." It's a statistic developed by Tom Awad of Hockey Prospectus (a site that, much like Behind The Net, is an exceptional resource for those looking into hockey stats). To get a better feel for the GVT statistic, I'd advise checking out Awad's 3-part article from 2009 describing the concept of GVT and its overall value to hockey statistics. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here. Briefly, GVT attempts to condense the overall contribution of an individual player into a singular value (similar to VORP or WAR in baseball). It accounts for offensive, defensive, goaltending, and shootout contributions of each player and forms a result that as "the value of that player in goals above what a replacement player would have contributed." Further describing the ideas from Part 1, Awad explains:
While hockey is ultimately about winning or losing, players' contributions always come down to scoring goals and preventing them. A player cannot "win" a game, even though he may be put in a situation where scoring a goal or making a key save would create or conserve a win. Each player's role, no matter his position, is to try and increase the goal differential in favor of his team. An offensive player who scores a hat trick only to see his teammates allow 4 goals against has nevertheless done his job; a goaltender who stops 39 of 40 shots only to lose 1-0 has likewise performed well. Using this standard, all players can be compared by the same yardstick: how much did they help (or harm) their team's goal differential?
The mathematical breakdown of values used to reach the final GVT number can be found in Parts 2 and 3. And like every condensed metric, it's not perfect (offensive defensemen like Jack Johnson benefit despite well-documented defensive inability, & it favors more games played and can diminish the value of defensive fowards; other authors have attempted to address this). But GVT gives us a very simple way to directly compare players at different positions and accounts for the various strengths of different types of players.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at the GVT values of the top Blue Jacket players over the past few seasons. The data for these are for the 09-10 season from Behind the Net, for the 10-11 season from Awad's publicly shared data, and for the 11-12 season from Hockey Prospectus' website now.
|Player||09-10 GVT||10-11 GVT||11-12 GVT|
I should note that for players one star next to their GVT, they didn't play with the Blue Jackets that season. For players with 2 stars, their season was spent with two teams due to a trade and the selected GVT value is the sum of their GVT with each team. For more information about the specific breakdown of each season's GVT, check out the previous links for a look at the data sources; these split up the various values discussed by Awad in his 3-part article. While we could go into the specific components of each GVT, it's worth noting that for each of these three seasons Rick Nash was the top CBJ player by a reasonable amount and Steve Mason was the worst, often by an absurd amount.
Arguments about actual salary value are often considered when discussing Rick Nash's performance. So what is Nash's ranking as a player and among just skaters (no goalies) and just forwards in GVT each year? For the 09-10 season, Nash was the 51st best player, 37th best skater, and 29th best forward in the NHL. For the 10-11 season, Nash was the 44th best player, 31st best skater, and 28th best forward in the NHL. This year, Nash has only been the 136th best player, 117th best skater, and 90th best forward in the NHL.
Exactly how to execute salary breakdown can be left to other armchair GMs, but as one of the top 29 NHL forwards for the first two years of this analysis, a forward like Rick Nash is something that not every one of the 30 teams can have. That makes him exceptionally valuable and thus justifies a high price tag (even if not his current cap hit). That's even more pronounced in the 10-11 season where he's the 44th best player in the league including goalies. His contribution measured by GVT was down compared to the previous season, but up relative to the rest of the league. Those who argue his falling stats are correct, but his value overall was either maintained or improved thanks to a down year for non-Tim Thomas players in the league.
But that brings us to this season, the epic disappointment for the whole team. Nash's down year has been heavily discussed and his GVT numbers reflect this drop (the only one of these 3 years where the captain's dips below 10). But despite his individual slip, Rick Nash remains the best Blue Jacket and the GVT-based MVP of this season. That's both alarming and expected. It's alarming because GVT shows how much all the other players have dropped (Nikitin, Jack Johnson and the Philly-based Voracek being noteworthy exceptions) or just how low the rest of the team is. It's expected because Rick Nash is paid to be the best player on the team. He still was this year, even if his numbers have plummeted.
Expectations for next year will be hard to set for Nash, especially if he is traded and used differently with his new team. While his PDO (akin to puck luck) wasn't particularly low, his shooting percentage was off his career average and he continued to shoot the puck at a high rate. However, just looking at the past 3 years, Nash's sudden drop in GVT is surprising, and this seems to be an anomaly year for him (just like the sudden nose-dive in GVT for R.J. Umberger).
Of course, the biggest positive of any offseason move would be to acquire a goalie. For 3 straight years, Steve Mason has been in the bottom 10 of the entire NHL for GVT. This year, Mason is the 2nd worst player in the NHL and his staggering -19.3 GVT reveals just how damaging he was to the team this year. By simply putting a "replacement level" goalie in net, the Jackets improve by 19.3 goals. That's mind-boggling and while Nash is a valuable player, if moving the captain nets a strongly-positive goalie, the Blue Jackets will have benefited immensely from the trade. Getting rid of Steve Mason (or moving him to backup) is the most important thing to do in order to improve the Jackets by GVT this summer.
So if we really are sitting at the end of the Rick Nash era in Columbus, we can know that Nash was certainly the best Blue Jacket for his final 3 years and (with the exception of this season's drop) it will be difficult to replace him with similarly valuable players. Not every team can have a top-29 forward by GVT, as Nash was for two years. But if Nash can be swung for a legitimate goalie, the team may actually see a net benefit despite not having a top-tier forward.