The concept of the replacement-level player is an important one in statistical hockey circles. To the unenlightened, a replacement player is a scab, looking to replace a locked out NHLer, such as was espoused by former Toronto Maple Leaf GM Bill Watters in recent weeks. Those theoretically literal replacement players are very similar to the purely theoretical replacement-level player that is discussed when terms such as GVT are bandied about. In short, these are players that you do not truly want to see lining up regularly in the NHL. An NHL made up solely of replacement players would be a shadow of its former self, a glorified version of the AHL, played in nicer venues and with higher per-diems*. The level of play would suffer greatly and NHL attendance would soon also resemble AHL attendance.
*Then again, with these owners, they would probably make less in meal money than they normally do in the bus league.
Of course, the value of these replacement players would change. When us statheads think of replacement player value, we tend to place them in the context of the regular NHL. If Team X calls up Player Y from the AHL, the best they can usually hope for is that this replacement player does not actively hurt the team. Successful are those whose presence on the ice is benign. In our hypothetical scab league, with all players at replacement level, there will, of course, be significant variance in the output of specific players, just as in the AHL. In the end, someone will win a scoring title. Similarly, in the real world, there are always replacement players who exceed that standard of benignity.
Following up on an article published last January, wherein I delved into the topic of replacement players made good, the Hootenanny Award is given to the player who began the season outside an NHL roster (which, with extremely few exceptions, means the AHL), got the call and produced positively over a prolonged stretch. As I wrote in January,
While zero GVT over a full season is the hypothetical mark, actual flesh-and-blood midseason replacements may vary greatly. Those that fail to reach the breakeven point will usually find their way back to the bus leagues in short order, as the home team can swing a trade for a better replacement if another acceptable alternative cannot be found on the farm. A few lucky bounces here and there may also see a given replacement exceed expectations, particularly when that replacement is actually a highly-touted prospect being given a midseason chance.
During the 2011-12 NHL regular season, 241 players who began the year hidden from the public eye found themselves recalled to help fill out NHL rosters at one point or another. This includes players such as Michael Hutchinson and Ryan Keller, who were recalled only to find their role confined to a press box, although it does not include those like Jeremy Welsh or Joel Rechlicz, who began the year unaffiliated for one reason or another and signed NHL deals while the season was already underway.
In deciding upon the year-end Hootenanny Award finalists, I elected to look at per-game value, while narrowing it down to players who appeared in at least 20 games. By not focusing on raw GVT totals, I willingly excluded players who were called up early and played well enough to earn their keep, but perhaps not spectacularly enough on a per-game basis to create overly high expectations going into next season. The Hootenany Award finalists are those who exceeded a rate on one GVT per 10 games played while also playing enough so that a very small sample fluke would not unfairly mark their territory. That last clause was especially important for goaltenders, some of whom came up and shone for a game or two, as did Anton Khudobin, who appeared in one late season game for the Bruins and picked up 2.4 GVT for his efforts. While Khudobin earned more per-game GVT than any other potential Hootenanny, that single game left him ineligible for this list. In any case, he gets a much bigger prizewith Tim Thomas off doing Tim Thomas things, Khudobin is a the favorite to take the reins as backup goalie in Boston if and when the season ever gets going.
With these restrictions in mind, we are left with seven finalists for the Hootenanny Award 2011-12 as the best replacement player in the NHL. These are seven players whose contributions, pro-rated, would place them in the upper third of all NHL players.
7. Ryan Ellis, D, Nashville Predators
32 games, 3 goals, 11 points, 3.2 GVT (prorated to 8.2 GVT)
When Kevin Klein was ill in late December, Ellis, the former 11th overall draft pick, was recalled from AHL Milwaukee, where he had been averaging just shy of one assist every second game for the Admirals. The undersized future power play quarterback asserted himself in short order for Nashville, playing in 19 of the Predators' next 20 games, and getting a regular shift even after Klein returned to active duty. Featuring prominently in that first NHL exposure was back-to-back two-point nights against Carolina and Colorado in January, each game featuring one power play marker and one assist. With the trade deadline acquisition of Hal Gill, Ellis was moved to the periphery, being just as likely to spend the night in the press box than on the bench or on the ice. The 21-year-old appeared in only three of the Preds' 10 playoff games. Now with Ryan Suter gone to sunny Minnesota, Ellis figures to play a regular role on the Nashville blue line this season, with only Jonathon Blum potentially standing in his way.
6. Ian Cole, D, St. Louis Blues
26 games, 1 goal, 6 points, 2.7 GVT (prorated to 8.5 GVT)
Like Ellis, a former first round pick, selected 18th overall in the 2007 draft, Cole was first called up from Peoria in early November, even though his AHL numbers were underwhelming. Cole actually scored at a higher rate with the Blues than in the bus league, although more is expected of him in the defensive end. The Notre Dame alum was given rather cushy assignments in his second partial NHL season, starting a disproportionate amount of his shifts in the offensive zone and against lower caliber competition. Cole nonetheless drove play forward when asked, and his even strength on-ice Corsi of 10.3 suggests that more challenging roles could be in his future. With the departure of Carlo Colaiacovo to Detroit, Cole should compete for a regular gig this year.
5. Andrew Shaw, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
37 games, 12 goals, 23 points, 4.4 GVT (prorated to 9.8 GVT)
Only six months after being drafted in the fifth round as a third-time-eligible OHL skater, Shaw scored at a pace not far off his junior numbers in both the AHL and NHL, eclipsing 0.6 points per game in both the AHL and NHL in his first pro season. For a player who only surpassed the 20-goal mark in his final season in the OHL, we should be both impressed and skeptical that he scored 24 goals in 75 combined games as a rookie pro. Somewhat undersized at five-foot-ten and 180 pounds, Shaw makes up for that deficiency with the expected amount of hustle that NHL traditionalists love. Once we get past that skepticism, we can see that Shaw was even better than advertised, as he was among the Blackhawk forwards most likely to start a shift in his own end (only 41.9% of his zone starts came in the offensive zone), while he also tended to play against higher level opposition. A staple in the Blackhawks lineup after scoring in his NHL debut in January, his brief AHL demotion in February seems to have been a case of being the odd man out in a post trade-deadline roster crunch. The fact that he played regularly in the playoffs when not suspended by the league for running over Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith points to a regular role in the bottom six for Chicago this coming season.
4. Slava Voynov, D, Los Angeles Kings
54 games, 8 goals, 20 points, 6.9 GVT (prorated to 10.5 GVT)
On a team that was remarkably healthy through its historic Stanley Cup campaign, Voynov was able to take full advantage of one of the few in-season roster openings. The former second round pick earned the nod during an early season absence by star Drew Doughty and came back a few weeks later when Alec Martinez hit the shelf. On the second occasion, Voynov earned the right to stick around by showing so much promise that the Kings felt safe in trading Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter, a move that many feel was one of the stepping stones to their eventual championship. While his lack of prototypical size may prevent him from fully contributing on the penalty kill, Voynov's offensive acumen is undeniable and he is expected to take the point on the Kings' first power play unit this season. Not reflected in the numbers above, Voynov did not miss a beat during the playoffs, even playing over 20 minutes per game in each of the first five games of the Finals. More than any other player listed thus far, Voynov should never again appear on a list such as this one.
3. Matt Taormina, D, New Jersey Devils
30 games, 1 goal, 7 points, 4.2 GVT (prorated to 11.5 GVT)
Ellis, Cole, and Voynov were all highly thought of young defensemen, needing only an opportunity to crack the lineup in order to showcase to the national stage those talents that earned them such high praise. None of that is true of Taormina, the Michigan Mite. A slight five-foot-nine, Taormina was inked as an undrafted free agent by the Devils after a four-year run at Providence College, not necessarily coincidentally the alma mater of Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello. Recalled from Albany in mid-December with Andy Greene and Anton Volchenkov both hurting, Taormina played in 12 of 14 games over the next month, sat out four in a row and then played in another 14 of 15 games through late February. For the remainder of the season, he was relegated to the press box, which was also his home throughout the entirety of the Devils march to the Stanley Cup Finals. In spite of a superficially high GVT, Taormina was not that impressive as a highly-sheltered third pairing defender. What most swayed his numbers last season was an incredibly high on-ice save percentage by Devil goaltenders. Not only was his .940 mark the tops among his New Jersey blue line colleagues, but only 12 other defenders across the NHL had better numbers among those appearing in at least 30 gamesand none of the 12 started on the offensive end as often.* Duly unimpressed, the Devils allowed Taormina to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent this offseason, where he will compete with the likes of Brian Lee and Brendan Mikkelson for the role of seventh defenseman.
*In fairness, it should be pointed out that Slava Voynov had an equal on-ice save percentage and was nearly Taormina's equal in terms of zone starts. That said, Voynov showed far more offensive moxie and came with much more prospect pedigree than the former Devil.
2. Eric Wellwood, LW, Philadelphia Flyers
24 games, 5 goals, 9 points, 3.4 GVT (prorated to 11.6 GVT)
Before saying anything else, it must be pointed out that the small sample definitely works in Wellwood's favor. The GVT cited does not include his work in the postseason, where in 11 games, he failed to garner a single point for the run-and-gun Flyers. Perhaps I should have restricted my list to players with at least 30 games played, but there is a certain type of fun in looking at a player of this ilk. Another undersized player (this seems to be a trend), Wellwood first got the call to Philadelphia to replace another replacement-type (Ben Holmstrom) who was sent back down. He appeared in one game (where he picked up an assist and was a +3) before being sent back down for another three months. From mid-February on, Wellwood was a lineup regular, playing fourth line minutes, although in tough situations (heavy on the own-zone shifts, against better than average competition). Like Matt Taormina before him, Wellwood benefited greatly from outstanding puck luck, with a phenomenal PDO of 1086 (1000 is average), the highest on the team and the highest among all NHL skaters with at least 20 games on their resume. No one else was even close. That he got a regular shift in the playoffs tells us that the Flyers' brass is buying what Wellwood is selling, but we should know better.
1. Carl Hagelin, RW, New York Rangers
64 games, 14 goals, 38 points, 9.6 GVT (prorated to 12.3 GVT)
Here is the find we have all been waiting for. Recalled from AHL Connecticut in late November along with Hootenany Award contender John Mitchell as the Rangers sought a new look for their bottom lines, Hagelin was an immediate Broadway smash, with points in each of his first four games. Within a few weeks, his average playing time rose from the 10-13 minute per game range to the 15-19 minutes. Before anyone complains about his team leading PDO, they should also note that Hagelin also faced the highest caliber of competition among Ranger forwards as well. His two shorthanded goals are a tribute to the trust placed in him by head coach John Tortorella, in that the rookie was not spared the tough tasks. In Hagelin, the Rangers not only have the best replacement player of 2011-12 and the winner of the inaugural Hootenanny Award, but the former sixth round pick is also a tribute to the organization's European scouts, as the former Sodertalje Jr. winger blossomed after being drafted over four seasons as a Michigan Wolverine and ascended to a deserved regular NHL role in his first professional season.
There are no true lessons to be taken from an exercise such as this. The sample size is far too small, and even within that sample, we can spot some pretty obvious flukes (Wellwood and Taormina). Other than Cole, the other finalists are all undersized by NHL standards. If anything, noting that each of the teams represented here were among the upper echelon of the league last season does suggest that good teams need to plan their depth ahead of time and need to be at least a little bit lucky in their replacement players when the need arises, as the season-opening roster will never be the same by season's end. So assuming that there is a 2012-13 season, keep your eyes on the transaction wire, as today's call-up might be tomorrow's Hootenanny.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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