Through six games, Julius Honka has no points and is a minus four. It sounds bad. It looked bad too in his last game against the Colorado Avalanche, where a bad turnover and a lack of movement led directly to a goal against.
But is it?
I guess it depends on how a person analyzes things. If you see Honka as a defensive liability with offensive upside, then suddenly superficial stats like his minus four means something. His lack of points means something too, because if he’s not producing, then what reason is there for him to be in the lineup?
If these assumptions about Honka’s value in the defensive zone lead you to shelter him, and he’s on the ice for a goal against anyway, everything adds up to make something of an argument - “I shelter him, he still struggles in his own zone, and has yet to produce. I told you Jim!”
But that’s not analysis. That’s heuristics. There is no field, no matter where you look, in which understanding comes from two competing groups in which one “looks at just numbers” and the other “just what they see”.
If you want to analyze a player rather than the stereotype, it helps to start with what has actually happened.
So far Honka has done what he did last season: when he’s on the ice, the team generates more shots for than against. Whether paired with Esa Lindell or Jamie Oleksiak, he’s helping drive play.
For a player that comes with a label - puck moving defenseman - this would appear good news. Honka is second on the team in shot attempt differential at 59 percent, and second on the team in Rel CF. He’s also 1st in xGF percentage, just above Tyler Seguin.
Dallas is shooting at just 2 percent when he’s on the ice. His PDO of 90.1 means we can reasonably assume that his “plus minus” is a glitch, and not a feature.
So far the retort has surrounded Honka’s zone starts. When it comes to Zone Start Ratio, he is by far the most sheltered. His zone starts must be helping boost his numbers, right?
For a lot of people, this makes intuitive sense. More offensive zone starts should lend themselves to more shots, and defensive zone starts should lend themselves to less shots.
However, measuring zone starts relies on faceoffs. Faceoffs make up roughly 40 percent of all shifts. Once you include on-the-fly starts (which constitute the other 60 percent), you end up with a different, but clearer picture. Furthermore, as Matt Cane explained:
Another driver is the fact that often a player’s zone start percentage is impacted by their own performance: bad players end up with more defensive zone faceoffs due to their inability to drive possession, which incorrectly inflates their defensive zone start percentages. This also helps to create a false link between zone start percentages and possession numbers, leading people to incorrectly infer that tough zone starts are a key driver behind a player’s results.
This is something you didn’t need stats to tell you about in Dallas’ contest against Edmonton.
Dallas’ blueline kept icing the puck in the third period (a tactic Hitchcock explicitly singled out in his postgame interview), which allowed the Oilers to sustain pressure. This was a clear cut case of players getting “tough starts” not because the coach wanted it, but because the players were making it tough on themselves.
In addition, Honka sits 16th in quality of teammates. Most of his minutes among the forward trios have been with the often shuffled Martin Hanzal and Jason Spezza lines. Players like Pateryn and Oleksiak have had the benefit of playing with veterans like Methot and Hamhuis. Honka, for whatever reason, has not (even though Honka and Hamhuis had excellent chemistry last season).
It’s true that Honka hasn’t always looked comfortable. He resets in the neutral when there’s a potential counterattack, and doesn’t look confident trying to activate. Maybe he’s listening too much to the narrative that he needs to “work on his defensive play”. Or maybe these are the struggles of a player with just 22 games of NHL experience.
But put these struggles into perspective: he’s a +27 in shot attempt differential. Pateryn and Oleksiak are -19 and -6, respectively. Struggling on specific plays is not the same as a player struggling.
Asking Honka to improve his defensive play is fine in some ways. But get a player to work on their weaknesses enough and soon they’re actively avoiding their strengths. That’s not how premiere players become most effective. At least not according to one current NHL head coach. It’s like asking a running back to focus less on their routes, and more on their blocks.
Honka will make mistakes. Just like Jamie Oleksiak and Greg Pateryn will make mistakes. But the biggest mistake would be compromising Honka’s current promise just to secure his future perfection. The former can exist. The latter cannot.