Discover more from Infernal Access
Ty Smith's rookie season was fine, but not special
Be sure to join the Discord channel to talk hockey, and everything else, with me and fellow subscribers.
Today’s post was written by C.J. TURTORO. You can find him on Twitter @CJTDevil.
The NHL has seen a flurry of special young defencemen take the league by storm. Debatably the best two blueliners this season were Cale Makar and Adam Fox -- both rookies just last year.
Many optimistic New Jersey Devils fans mentioned Ty Smith in that vein especially after his Makar-esque point streak to start the season. He’s considered in the mix for the 3rd slot as a Calder nominee after Kirill Kaprizov and Jason Robertson, and has the highest odds among defenders.
And, before I say anything else, I want to say that Ty Smith may eventually become a special defenceman. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he did. But, he was decidedly not that this year. In fact, he wasn’t even special amongst his peers.
Last season, Makar and Fox were the top 2 defenders in the league in value (according to Evolving-Hockey’s GAR) and were 1st and 3rd among rookie D-men (Marino was sandwiched between them due to his defensive impact). They were big stories and they earned it by being genuine studs immediately.
Ty Smith is very much not in that company. According to NaturalStatTrick, there were 29 rookie defenders to play 200+ minutes this season at the NHL level. Here is where Ty Smith ranked among those 29 in key even-strength impact metrics and general value metrics via Evolving-Hockey.
Not only was Ty Smith not the top of the class, he wasn’t even substantially above average. Everything he contributed offensively at even-strength he gave back on the other end, and his powerplay stats may have inflated his point totals, but he didn’t do any better than a replacement-level player in those minutes.
How was Ty Smith, a Calder contender and top-4 defenceman, only average in value among rookies, and slightly above that of an AHL player? It comes down to two things: opportunity and results.
When evaluating a player, you should think about what you expect to happen in the shifts/minutes they played, and what actually happened. The difference between those two things is how valuable their play was. Let’s break that down for Ty Smith as we hunt for explanations. We have to look at how hard his job was, and what results he ended up getting.
I’m sure someone on Reddit or Twitter or somewhere will type something like “Of course his results weren’t there yet, unlike most 20-year-old rookies, he was immediately thrown into top-pair/top-4 minutes against in tough competition with no help.”
But … was he?
According to HockeyViz, Ty Smith was getting disproportionately played with the Devils best player(s), and was typically somewhat sheltered from the opposing teams’ top line. Ty Smith played about 29% of the Devils 5v5 minutes, but Sidney Crosby only played him in 20% of the time. Giroux and Bergeron were at 18% and Eichel was at 23%. One superstar Smith did play a ton with, however, was the Devils’ star -- Jack Hughes. Jack played 33% of his minutes with Ty Smith and here’s a breakdown of Smith’s performance in those minutes vs in other ones.
Ty Smith succeeded in the shifts with Jack, but Jack was actually even better in chances/goals without him (thought he improved in shots). So it seems like, if there is a passenger among this duo, it’s clearly Smith.
This isn’t to say the the staff didn’t have faith in Smith. Part of the reason he was “sheltered” in this way was probably because of where his strengths are.
He’s better in the offensive aspects of the game, so he started in the offensive zone more than any other Devils defender and played a team-high 12% of his minutes on the powerplay and only 0.6% of his minutes on the PK (ahead of only Will Butcher).
What else is going to happen when you start in the offensive zone? Jack Hughes will likely be out there, and the other team will likely but the gritty guys out there to defend. But the reason isn’t important.
Regardless of why he was put in this situation, Smith experienced a very favorable environment relative to that of his teammates. Despite this, he struggled to improve the Devils fortunes when he was on the ice.
With Smith on the ice, the Devils gave up 2.8 goals per game, better than only P.K. Subban among Devils regulars on D. Now, it would be fair to say goaltending hurt him a little -- we’d have expected the shots/chances he allowed to produce 2.51 goals per hour, not 2.8. But that 2.51 figure is actually the highest among the Devils regular D -- even worse than Subban’s.
He did produce a little more offense than his teammates, but not enough to make up for the defensive struggles. His goal differential per hour (-0.3) was 4th among the Devils top 7 D and his expected goals differential (-0.13) was 5th.
So, back to the chart from the top of this article.
How is it that, even just among rookie defenders, Ty Smith did not stand out? It’s pretty simple. He was put in a position to succeed, and didn’t. He was given easier shifts than his teammates and produced similar or worse results with them.
He has some raw skills that are rare and make him an encouraging piece for the future. As I said at the onset, he may very well be a special player one day. I won’t be surprised at all if that happens.
But he was not this year. Not even close.