The Maple Leafs are currently faced with a problem we knew they would have from the start of the season: they just have too many forwards. If you had told me they’d claim two more on waivers to add to that mix, I would have said you were crazy, but here we are with Ben Smith and Seth Griffith added into the mix.
The Leafs chose to re-waive Seth Griffith, and I’m not going to get into why that itself was dumb. Instead, I want to focus on the addition of Ben Smith, and investigate what kind of effect he is having.
I have a two-part disclaimer for this post. First, if you don’t like math at all, you probably won’t enjoy this piece. Second, I am doing that thing where I already have a conclusion in my mind before I analyze the math, which is bad form, so I apologize for that.
Are you ready to dig into it?
Let’s start with what Ben Smith is. We all know what Babcock said, that he adds depth to the penalty killers. Specifically, that his faceoff ability was an attractive asset.
We can call back this piece of “vintage” (i.e. pre-2013) analytics work done by Gabriel Desjardins (aka Hawerchuk) on faceoff effects. He broke it up into Even Strength and Powerplay and it looked like this:
So, you can see Babcock isn’t an idiot. The positive effect of winning a faceoff in your own zone does exist. You can also see that for a powerplay unit, it exists for approximately 16 seconds, and then it’s back to normal. That’s a pretty significant advantage! And the fact that we can quantify that advantage means we can extend it to Ben Smith’s time, and determine how much of an advantage he himself is providing.
(A surprising side note: faceoffs appear to be equally if not more important at 5v5 than when on the powerplay)
The issue is that this positive effect happens rarely. On average, a powerplay only gets 2.37 faceoffs in the offensive zone per game. So approximately 35 seconds of advantage are on the line. Let’s imagine Ben Smith takes all of them for the Leafs. Over the last three seasons, Ben Smith is exactly 50% on PK faceoffs so it’s a wash! But let’s be kind to him and use his all situations faceoff percentage – since really it shouldn’t matter – which is 51.96%. That means Ben Smith will gain his team less than one second of net advantage per game. ONE. SECOND. PER. GAME.
Meanwhile, Ben Smith plays no powerplay time (thank goodness) so his impact is contained within 5v5 and 4v5 strengths. Let’s quantify his impact there (all data from 2014-2017):
So if you care about shot attempts (which you should) Ben Smith is having an astoundingly negative effect both at 5v5 and 4v5. If you only care about goals, though, I guess he’s doing pretty well. (You shouldn’t only care about goals).
The value added of PK faceoff wins is small. To the point where, if you were being extraordinarily stingy, you might say it’s non-existent. Meanwhile, Ben Smith is having a tangibly negative effect in the other areas of the game.
It shouldn’t take much deliberation to decide that playing Ben Smith is not a value added decision, and he should be replaced with a capable option sooner rather than later.