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Alex Goligoski: Marginal Impovement Over Matt Niskanen?

THIS guy is marginally worse than Goligoski? Get out of here.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
THIS guy is marginally worse than Goligoski? Get out of here. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Yesterday an article was posted on recapping the 2011 NHL trade deadline. Well-connected national hockey writer E.J. Hradek was the author of said piece. In this piece he recapped the trade the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off on February 21st, 2011. The trade, for those that need a refresher, was James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh in return for Alex Goligoski. Hradek's summary of the transaction is as follows:

You may want to take a seat before reading it.

While both sides likely feel comfortable with the trade, I believe the Penguins got the better of it. Why? I felt the Pens were dealing from strength (Goligoski was their No. 3 puck-mover) and I don't see a huge difference between the two defensemen.

I think Goligoski is marginally better than Niskanen. On average, he's playing approximately 4:20 more per night. But the Stars gave up an All-Star left wing to make that upgrade.

In the end, Neal and Niskanen are going to be an important part of a potentially deep playoff run with the Penguins, while Goligoski will try to help the Stars qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

What? Let's take a facts-based look at Hradek's claim after the jump.

This is revisionist history of the highest order. Yes, James Neal was highly respected at the time of the trade. However he was scuffling badly. Matt Niskanen had been in a perpetual rut since Sergei Zubov finally broke down. Neither player was developing in Dallas. So, yes the Penguins dealt from a position of strength, but so did the Stars. They still had Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, and Brenden Morrow on the wings. They had no one with Goligoski's skill set.

The part of Hradek's assessment that really jumps out is in bold. "I don't see a huge difference between the two defensemen. I think Goligoski is marginally better than Niskanen." At the time of the deal there was no questioning the inclusion of Niskanen in the deal. He was on his last legs in Dallas. Niskanen has definitely revived his career in Pittsburgh, but the notion that he is only marginally worse than Alex Goligoski is categorically wrong.

Stats come from Gabe Desjardins',, and

In the Goligoski vs Niskanen "debate" the logical place to begin is with ice time since Hradek brought it up. He noted that Goligoski is playing "approximately 4:20 more per night". These are the time on ice numbers for both players via

Goligoski 49 22:38 3:22 1:02 18:13
Niskanen 59 18:10 2:15 :37 15:18

ATOI: Average Time On Ice/Game, PPTOI: Power Play Time On Ice/Game

SHTOI/G: Shorthanded Time On Ice/Game, ES TOI/G: Even Strength Time On Ice/Game

Goligoski does in fact get four minutes a night more than Niskanen. One minute a night is on the powerplay. Thirty seconds are on the penalty kill. Three minutes of the differential are even strength minutes. This is the only difference Hradek mentions, and he more or less dismisses it as insignificant. Does a player not generate more value by being productive with three more even strength minutes per game? The time you spend on ice doesn't necessarily indicate future performance, but it's still value contributed. Shrugging the difference off also suggests that they play similarly difficult even strength minutes.

Player GP OZ% Corsi QoC Corsi QoT Corsi Corsi Rel
Goligoski 49 50 .209 -1.31 5.90 14.90
Niskanen 59 55.6 -.029 .705 14.98 4.70

OZ%: Offensive Zone Start %, Corsi QoC: Corsi Relative Quality of Competition

Corsi QoT: Corsi Relative Quality of Teammates, Corsi Rel: Corsi Compared To Teammates

Niskanen sees 5.6% more offensive zone starts (55.6% vs 50%) than Goligoski. Goligoski sees a tougher level of competition (.209 vs -.029). Corsi Quality of Teammates should be taken with a grain of salt for various reasons, but intuitively we know Niskanen plays with better teammates. He plays for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Goligoski has spent significant time with Adam Pardy, Mark Fistric, and rookie Philip Larsen. NIskanen has a higher Corsi, but again he plays with a better team. When you look at Corsi Relative it isn't even close. Goligoski generates significantly more net offense than Niskanen compared to their respective average teammates. Niskanen is tied with Ben Lovejoy for first in Corsi Relative among Penguins defensemen. Goligoski is second in the NHL amongst defensemen, and more than double Stephane Robidas/Sheldon Souray. He is significantly more valuable to the Stars than Niskanen is to the Penguins under the surface, but results are what people want to see. With a higher percentage of offensive zone starts, playing against lesser competition, and playing with better teammates it's reasonable to expect Niskanen to be generating more offense.

Player GP G 1A 2A P S S%
Goligoski 49 8 11 6 25 98 8.2
Niskanen 59 3 3 11 17 100 3

G: Goals, 1A: Primary Assists, 2A: Secondary Assists, P: Points, S: Shots, S%: Shooting Percentage

In ten more games Niskanen has eight less points than Goligoski. Take stock of their assist totals though. Goligoski has 17 total assists to Niskanen's 14. That seems close until you break it down between primary and secondary assists. Goligoski has 11 primary assists. Niskanen has three. What does even strength offensive production look like with those two on the ice?

Player GF/60 1A/60 2A/60 P/60
Goligoski 0.39 0.32 0.16 0.87
Niskanen 0 0.07 0.49 0.56

GF/60: Goals For Team With Player On Ice/60 Minutes

1A/60: Primary Assists For Team With Player On Ice/60 Minutes

2A/60: Secondary Assists With Player On Ice/60 Minutes

P/60: Points Per 60 Minutes With Player On Ice/60 Minutes

For 60 minutes of even strength ice time Goligoski generates .71 goals plus primary assists. Matt Niskanen has a whopping .07 goals plus primary assists. If you gave both players 20 even strength minutes a night over 82 games Goligoski would be on the ice 20 goals and primary assists. Niskanen? Two. Luck could be involved with those numbers. The players Goligoski is playing with might be finishing at a higher rate and inflating his assist totals or Niskanen's teammates might be converting at an abnormally low rate to hinder his offensive abilities.

Player GP S% Sv% PDO
Goligoski 49 8.04 89.6 97.7
Niskanen 59 8.92 90.6 99.3

S%: Shooting Percentage With Player On Ice, Sv%: Save Percentage With Player On Ice

PDO: Save Percentage Plus Shooting Percentage

When Niskanen is on the ice his teammates shoot 1% better than Goligoski's teammates. The Penguins goalies also stop more pucks for Niskanen than the Stars goalies stop for Goligoski which inevitably inflates his +/- some. Gabe Desjardins of Arctice Ice Hockey has graphically shown that the sum of the shooting percentage when a player is on the ice and the save percentage of his team's goalie when a player is on the ice (PDO) will always go to 100 over a long enough time line. Fluctuations are random (except in extreme cases like dynasties). Both Niskanen and Goligoski have been unlucky in that regard with PDO's under 100. They can expect to naturally see their point totals improve, but Goligoski has been significantly less lucky.

I think the point is pretty obvious. There is no realistic way to make the claim that Goligoski is only marginally better than Niskanen. Niskanen gets more offensive zone starts. He plays against easier competition, with better teammates, and the Penguins generate little offense with Niskanen on the ice. Niskanen's point total is propped up by a ridiculously high secondary assist total. Goligoski is by far the Stars most valuable defenseman. He plays more than 20 minutes a night, scores at a much higher clip than Niskanen, he takes more shots, and he's had much worse luck than Niskanen. The two aren't on the same plane. Goligoski is significantly better than Niskanen. The fact that this is even a fringe debate is unfortunate

I would be remiss if I didn't try to consider the statement concluding Hradek's summary. The Stars gave up an All Star winger for a marginal upgrade on defense. Niskanen is definitely playing with more poise this season, but he's nothing special. At this point there should be no question that the upgrade from Niskanen to Goligoski was significantly more than marginal. We also have to get past the revisionist history to truly look back at this trade. James Neal wasn't an All Star winger on the day this deal made, and if the trade doesn't happen you can make a convincing argument that he isn't this year. He wasn't playing the trademarked James Neal game at the time. If the trade doesn't happen Niskanen is dealt somewhere else, or exposed to waivers. He had been completely shell shocked for two years by the time the trade was made.

The question is would both teams make the trade again? Absolutely. The Stars got their #1 defenseman for a young winger in need of an environment change and a defenseman that had no business being in the NHL. Is a young winger from a team deep at wing worth a solid to good offensive defenseman? In some cases maybe not, but in this case there shouldn't be much question.