There’s no doubt, analytics have found a permanent home in the NHL.
After becoming a common aspect of the game last season, which saw nhl.com integrate their stats page to include an entire section dedicated to enhanced stats, most fans now find themselves somewhat comfortable understanding the common metrics. Most statistics go towards finding which players and teams have possession of the puck the most, assuming the correlation between puck possession and wins is strong.
Common statistics that go toward calculating puck possession include Corsi, also known as SAT, which is simply a count of shot attempts. The stat is broken down into many components to find how much offensive pressure a player/team is forcing, as well as how much they allow. Enhanced stats can even compare individual players to their teammates and their opponents.
All in all, it goes towards finding out who has possession of the puck the most. So, we’ve broken down several statistics to calculate the best five puck possession forwards in the NHL over the past three seasons.
For these rankings, we used three key puck possession stats. SAT represents the player’s shot attempt differential. It is simply the differential between the player’s shot attempts for and against. CF% (Corsi For %) represents the percentage of shot attempts that are made by the player or his team when he is on the ice. CF% RelTM represents how much greater or less than the player’s Corsi For % is relative to his teammates when the player is not on the ice.
5: Pavel Datsyuk – Detroit Red Wings
SAT: 615; CF%: 58.0% (6th); CF% RelTM: 6.6% (7th)
Pavel Datsyuk is known for his ridiculous stick handling abilities, being able to create space and put defenders out of position. What’s sometimes left out of the picture is his ability to score at the same rate as the league’s best players. He was one of only eight point-per-game players in the league (playing at least 60 games) with 65 points in 63 games. But, his puck possession could be what really sets him apart as a superstar at the age of 36. Over the past three seasons, Datsyuk has been 6th in CF% among forwards, proving he consistently creates shooting opportunities while also remaining one of the best defensive forwards in the game, an award he’s won three times in his 13-year career. Although his combined three-year SAT is lower than more than few players, he was 8th among forwards last year with a 309 rating. Don’t be surprised to see Datsyuk’s name stay at the top of possession ratings for the next several years.
4: Joe Thornton – San Jose Sharks
SAT: 845; CF%: 57.5% (8th); CF% RelTM: 7.4% (3rd)
Although Joe Thornton seems to be on the down swing of his career, he remains one of the premier puck possession players in the NHL. Like Datsyuk, the 36-year-old hasn’t slowed down yet, as he continues to lead the San Jose Sharks in multiple categories. As one of the best playmakers in recent memory, Thornton has been known as one of the easiest players to play alongside. Despite the Sharks missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, Thornton managed to finished second among forwards in the league with a 353 SAT rating. What makes his Corsi For % even more impressive than simply the 57.5% rating, is that relative to his teammates, he is 7.4% ahead of their 50.1% Corsi For %. He clearly doesn’t rely upon strong teammates, instead using his own hockey IQ to create scoring chances. Although he doesn’t have much to show for his Hall of Fame calibre career except a Hart and Art Ross Trophy in 2005-06, if there was a puck possession trophy, he would no doubt be among the top contenders each year.
3: Justin Williams – Washington Capitals
SAT: 1019; CF%: 60.0% (2nd); CF% RelTM: 5.9% (13th)
Justin Williams is one of the most unappreciated players in the NHL today. He has been one of the most consistent puck possession players in the league over the past three seasons. Not only does the 33-year-old provide world-class leadership in the locker room, but he also adds around 20 goals and 50 points a year. Playing on a very offensive Washington Capitals team in 2015-16 could further improve those totals. There’s no denying that it helps to have played for the Los Angeles Kings, far and away the best possession team in the NHL in each of the past three years. But Williams’ numbers even made his teammates’ numbers look underwhelming. He boasts the second best Corsi For % since 2012, controlling 60% on the shot attempts. The Capitals will be getting an extremely valuable piece for the next two years, at a very reasonable cap hit of just $3.25 million. It will be very interesting to see the impact of playing for the Capitals will have on Williams’ possession numbers.
2: Anze Kopitar – Los Angeles Kings
SAT: 1122; CF%: 60.4% (1st); CF% RelTM: 6.3% (10th)
Anze Kopitar, teammate of the aforementioned Justin Williams for the past seven years, is yet another superstar in the possession aspect of hockey coming out of Los Angeles. Kopitar is one of the best two-way players each year, although he’s yet to be formally awarded for it. The 27-year-old is consistently among the top of SAT ratings each year, placing 2nd, 1st, and 1st among forwards over the last three years. Beyond that, he ranks 1st in Corsi For %, owning 60.4% of shot attempts. Like Williams, his numbers remain significant even above the Kings 54.1% rating. Not only does Kopitar get the job done at each end of the ice, but he does it with authority, remaining nearly a point-per-game player over the course of his 683-game career. If there’s any doubt about the legitimacy of puck possession resulting in wins, look towards the Kings’ two Stanley Cups over the past four years as a reference, which was led by Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar.
1: Patrice Bergeron – Boston Bruins
SAT: 980; CF%: 59.8% (3rd); CF% RelTM: 9.4% (1st)
With so many phenomenal two-way forwards mentioned on this list, Patrice Bergeron arguably holds the title as the best. He holds three of the past four Selke Trophies as the league best two-way forward and now holds the title as the best puck possession forward as well. Bergeron may not blow you away with his scoring totals, but he still puts up about 25 goals and 60 points a year. In the possession categories, he finds himself 3rd in Corsi For % among forwards since 2012, with a 59.8% rating. Although this is lower than Williams and Kopitar, what makes Bergeron so impressive is the fact that the Bruins Corsi For % in that time is just 50.4%. That leaves Bergeron with, by far, the greatest CF% RelTM rating in the last three years, at 9.4%. Just imagine what his numbers could be had he been playing for the Kings. Bergeron’s $6.5 million cap hit may seem high to the naked eye which only sees his point totals, but the wise man can see that in a few years, this will be one of the greatest bargain contracts in the NHL.
If you doubt the correlation of puck possession to wins, just look at the SAT of the Stanley Cup Champions over the past four seasons. Los Angeles was 1st in 2011-12 and 2013-14 when they won their only two Stanley Cups in franchise history. Then, the Blackhawks were 4th and 2nd in SAT when they won the cup in 2012-13 and 2014-15, respectively. There’s no denying the truth behind advanced stats in the NHL today and the effect they have on the game. That’s why identifying the top puck possession players is so important for teams, as there is proof that they will help your team win games and championships. For that reason, I see the Justin Williams signing as the best one in this year’s free agent class, by the Capitals. They locked him up at a bargain of a cap hit, giving them a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner, as well as a top possession forward in the league. For that reason, the Capitals could be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16.
Who do you think is the best puck possession forward in the NHL? Let us know in the comments below!
Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at email@example.com or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.