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Sean Bergenheim Could be a Top Third-Line Player

With the NHL season fast approaching, the speculation surrounding the few free agents that are still available is running rampant.

As always, there are a number of players who are talented enough to have a positive impact on an NHL team left without a contract.

One such player is Sean Bergenheim, who had a tumultuous season with the Florida Panthers last year. After being a healthy scratch for several games, the Finnish forward requested a trade and was shipped off to the Minnesota Wild, where he was again a healthy scratch for many games. He wasn’t re-signed at the end of the season.

To give some background on just how good Bergenheim’s underlying statistics have been over the past couple of seasons, here’s Steve Burtch of Sportsnet.

Bergenheim is an underrated player according to modern hockey statistics, but hasn’t been able to stick in the NHL.

I’ve taken a look at Bergenheim before, back when he was initially benched by Florida’s head coach, Gerard Gallant. Here are some key takeaways from the article:

Steve Burtch found using his delta Corsi measurement, that Bergenheim had been the eighth most impactful forward over the past seven years when it came to puck possession.

This season, the veteran Finn hasn’t shown signs of decline, and continues to dominate the opposition and post great numbers.  He has the highest raw Corsi for percentage on the team at 56.8%, and is currently 3rd on the team in relative Corsi with a rating of +4.3%, trailing only Brian Campbell and Aleksander Barkov.

So, even though Bergenheim has seen his numbers drop due to Bolland, he still leads the team in raw CF%.  That’s an impressive feat, and it’s odd to think that the true cause for poor possession play (Bolland) got to play against Vancouver, while the man who carries Bolland (Bergenheim) was relegated to the press box.

The reason why he ended up out of the lineup is because Bergenheim excels at an incredibly underrated skill: getting possession of the puck on the forecheck.  Forwards such as Nathan MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Tyler Seguin use their speed and skill to knife through defenders and into the high scoring areas of the ice.  That’s what most coaches look for out of their top forwards, but Bergenheim isn’t skilled enough to do that.  Instead, he repeatedly steals the puck from the opposition’s defense and creates offense by working off of the cycle.  A by product of this?  The opposition’s forwards don’t get to possess the puck as much.

There are also video clips in the article that demonstrate that effectiveness on the forecheck, for those interested.

We know that Bergenheim is an effective producer at 5-on-5 who has an elite impact on possession numbers due to his forechecking skills. His career on ice shooting percentage is below league average, mainly because he isn’t the most effective at setting up his teammates, but overall, he would appear to be the type of player who can outscore the opposition at even strength.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Bergenheim’s goals for percentage over the past two seasons is a middling 44.6%, while his Corsi For percentage is 54.4%.

Most of this has to do with the incredibly low save percentage that goalies have experience while Bergenheim was on the ice, resulting in a high rate of goals against for Bergenheim. The low save percentages have followed Bergenheim throughout his entire career, even spanning back to the time he spent with the New York Islanders.

Part of this has to do with the goaltenders Bergenheim has been forced to play in front of. Since 2009-10, Bergenheim’s net minders have been Dwayne Roloson, Jose Theodore, Joey MacDonald, Scott Clemensen, Tim Thomas (in Florida, not Boston), Dan Ellis, Devan Dubnyk and Roberto Luongo. Discarding Luongo and Dubnyk, that list is mediocre at best, and terrible at its worst.

Of course, some had their save percentage negatively impacted by Bergenheim.

With that in mind, I turned to video in an attempt to assess just what went wrong for the goals against Bergenheim was on the ice for.

The results were mildly surprising, to say the least. I figured that I would see something to indicate that the 31-year-old forward was at least partially responsible for the poor save percentage numbers he experienced in 2014-2015, but came up empty.

There were only two goals that could classified as Bergenheim’s fault, and even then, the first one is a bit of a stretch. Both come against the New York Rangers, and have to do with the winger losing his defenseman up at the point, resulting in a shot against.

Here, Kevin Klein and Martin St. Louis switch, and Bergenheim can’t catch up to the shooter in time. The ensuing chaos in front of the net results in a goal against.

The second goal is more obviously Bergenheim’s fault.

He hangs too low in the zone, and as a result, Marc Staal has plenty of time and space to tee up his shot.

That puck still deflects off of Bergenheim’s stick before going past Luongo. Bergenheim definitely had his fair share of unlucky bounces, best characterized by this goal by Alex Tanguay where Luongo kicks the puck right back into Bergenheim’s pads, which causes the puck to go in the net.

Funny how the Finn was the hardest back checking forward during that shift. It wasn’t uncommon to see the winger assume lots of defensive responsibility with the Panthers in 2014-15. Bergenheim hung low in the zone quite often, which was both good and bad. It was good because he often covered the middle of the ice when teammates left it exposed, and bad because he occasionally got burned when he had to get back up to his point.

It’s how plays like this happened, though I have no idea why Willie Mitchell leaves the front of the net completely wide open in order to chase the Toronto player who has barely beaten Bergenheim down the wall.

(Bergenheim is moving rather sluggishly in this clip, as is the rest of the team, because they’ve been trapped in their own zone for a considerable amount of time, not because any one is really “lazy”.)

Bergenheim dropping into the slot while in the defensive zone was actually a common occurrence, and it wasn’t really hard to figure out why. Here’s a short sequence of events where Dave Bolland (Sean Bergenheim’s center before he was made a healthy scratch) finishes his check, which would normally be a good play, if it didn’t also pull the center out of position.

This one in particular is infuriating. Bolland starts off in good position, drifts to the side boards, and then keeps his stick at hip level instead of on the ice, which prevents him from making a play on the puck. There are now three players behind the net, no one in front of it, and Henrik Zetterberg easily scores.

If you spent 28% of your ice time at 5-on-5 with Bolland last season, you too would be dropping into the slot more often than necessary. There’s much more to this story, and it requires digging deeper than Bergenheim’s on-ice performance last season.

To summarize what we discussed above, Bergenheim has either been unlucky, or has a negative influence on percentages that negate his shot attempt differentials.

We have little evidence to suggest that he has a negative impact on save percentage, given that it’s been mathematically proven that skaters have little impact over save percentage, and that the video hasn’t revealed any glaring trait in the Finnish winger’s defensive play that would result in a decreased save percentage for his goalies.

Not covering the point effectively will hurt shot attempt differentials, but allowing more shot attempts from the point isn’t going to drastically decrease save percentage; shots from far away have a really low chance of going in unless they’re deflected, or the goalie is screened.

It is possible that the averages never regress to the mean for certain players, as well. There is a good chance that Bergenheim has just been an unlucky hockey player throughout most of his career, with little that he can do to change it. We see crazy things happen all of the time despite slim odds; there are forces at work in the universe that people just don’t have control over.

If we can’t definitively conclude what the numbers say about Bergenheim, we can at least try to merge the two conflicting view points. We’ll say that Bergenheim is a good puck possession player who has a negative impact on the percentages, and this should result in him being slightly above break-even at (so around 52% GF%, which is high-end for a player who’s considered a bottom six forward), and not ending up too far below that break-even mark (which he has been below for most of his career).

How does someone like this end up so deep in his coach’s doghouse? Bergenheim’s 2014-15 season was arguably one of the best of his career, as he was scoring at close to half a point per game, and had a plus two rating on a team that was negative in goal differential. His counting stats showed that he was actually having a good season, and his coach sent him to the press box.

What could be Gerard Gallant’s reasoning for this? Let’s start with some discussion of mental biases that affect decision making. The first that I want to bring up has to do with how first impressions can last with us long after having been proven false, and can even affect how people react when around us. Here’s a good breakdown, with points I want to highlight below.

For one thing, first impressions color interpretations of the causes of behavior. So when your boss raises his voice during a meeting, you might attribute his behavior to meanness, rather than him trying to make himself heard over a loud train passing or the fact that he is sick. This interpretation is thus part of a vicious cycle in which the first impressions bias the interpretation of behavior, which further supports the first impression.

Beyond behavior interpretation, memory is surprisingly fragile and subject to interpretation. Even those memories that seem most real (“flashbulb memories”) are vulnerable to bias.

Still, let’s assume that you have somehow managed to “unbias” your vision, behavior interpretation and memory. You will still be left with the actual behavior of the boss. Decades of research have shown that people behave in a way that confirms our expectations about them.

The reason for such behavior is still a matter of debate, but one important mechanism appears to be nonverbal behavior. For example, in one study, interviewers who exhibited negative or positive body language elicited negative and positive behavior, respectively, in interviewees. In other words, interviewees confirmed the expectations that were communicated nonverbally.

To sum up: first impressions can alter visual perception, behavior attribution, memory, and even other people’s behavior. In turn, these influences reinforce the first impression and make it even harder to resist.

First impressions are incredibly important, then. Confirmation bias is at work as we work to make our first impressions come true, even if they aren’t accurate.

There’s also the availability heuristic, which Domenic Galamini sums up quite well in this piece on his blog. He writes:

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are approximately 1.27 deaths per 100 million miles travelled by car in the United States.  That number is virtually 0 per 100 million miles travelled by U.S. air carrier (a statistic compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board). Based on these relevant statistics, it’s apparent that flying is the far safer mode of transportation…

We feel safer driving in a car than flying in a plane. Why? Because we tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that stand out in our minds – the catastrophic event of a plane crash fits that description.

This is an example of availability heuristic – the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent those memories are or how emotionally charged they may be.

In hockey, mistakes that directly lead to quality chances against are more available in memory than the small errors like needlessly chipping the puck into the neutral zone, passive zone entry defense etc which are also linked, albeit less directly, to conceding scoring chances against.

Gallant likes his team to play a specific type of hockey, perhaps best categorized by Derek Mackenzie–a speedy, undersized, gritty forward who can forecheck and defend well, but has hands of stone and is usually caved in at even strength. Bolland is a gritty forward, who checks players along the boards, and plays defense (even if it makes him an ineffective player).

Despite his style of play, Bergenheim doesn’t exactly have a reputation around the league as a gritty forward with great character, which the other two do. I think part of this has to do with a language barrier; Bergenheim speaks English very well, but there’s definitely a bias in the league towards English-speaking players. Think of how Russian forwards slip at the draft simply because they’re Russian.

The other part of it circles back around to the first impressions that were talked about earlier. When taking a look at Bergenheim’s history with the Panthers, a contentious relationship arises.

The first season was 2011-12 and went well, as the team made the playoffs and Bergenheim was a key contributor. Then he got hurt, and took a long leave of absence in order to recover from a litany of surgeries. The Panthers asserted that he had suffered the injuries while playing for a Finnish team during the lockout, and eventually the two parties went to court, where the forward won two medical grievances, and was awarded his salary for the 2012-13 season despite playing in zero games.

Just when it seemed like Bergenheim would be healthy and back in the lineup for the 2013-2014 season, the Finn took even more time off in order to focus on rehab and return at 100%. The lack of desire to play through a serious injury caused the head coach at the time (Kevin Dineen) to question Bergenheim’s character and desire to play.

“I’m worried about the guy first as his coach and I worry about him as a player,” Dineen said. “It’s been an extremely long time off. I understand this is a tough game we play. He needs to be physically involved, be active. I’m worried he’s going to come back and he can’t feel his way back into the NHL.

“I have guys here with bumps and bruises and are playing hurt every night. You’re not going to feel 100 percent. He needs to get the medical situation straightened out. Once he does, he can be a valuable member of our team.”

Playing through injuries is something often considered heroic, as players sacrifice their bodies to gain eternal fame through victory. As poetic as that line of thinking is, it’s also partially idiotic. These are grown men, playing a game for a living. As we learn more and more about how injuries can affect long term health, players are starting to take note, and some are foregoing careers in order to secure their long term health.

So when Sean Bergenheim takes an decent amount of time to make sure that his 29-year-old body has been properly healed from a hip ailment and a sports hernia instead of returning to a team that was going to end up finishing in 29th place even with him playing 62 games, and playing injured, I don’t think there’s ground for a coach to be criticizing the player’s desire to play.

There’s even the fact that Bergenheim turned down the opportunity to play for the Finnish Olympic team in order to focus on his long-term health. Bergenheim was committed to winning in Florida, and cared about being on the ice at 100%, and not being on the ice while playing through an injury.

But, as has been pointed out before, these types of reputations stick with players.

Bergenheim’s reputation headed into the 2014-15 season was as a player who didn’t have the best character, or someone who wouldn’t sacrifice everything for the team (the thought of wanting Bergenheim to play through an injury makes no sense, so for him to be criticized like he was is unfair).

Then there’s the issue of Gerard Gallant’s first impression of the Finnish winger. Let’s take a quote from early in the season, where Gallant talks about what type of player he sees Bergenheim as.

“He’s a forechecker, an energy guy and that’s the way he plays the game, he goes to the net hard. When Bergy’s in our lineup, he’s noticeable. He finishes checks and is all about forechecking and working hard.”

It’s almost as though Gallant views Bergenheim in the same way that he viewed other grinders such as Derek Mackenzie, and not as a player with more impact on the game. Bergenheim has the potential to be one of the best third liners in the NHL, if put in a position to succeed. He is not a fourth-line grinder, and expecting him to play like one is not only going to waste talent, but also cause the coach to feel that Bergenheim isn’t good.

And it would appear as though this is exactly what happened. From a discussion with Gerard Gallant over the offseason:

One of our players was their top analytics guy, and I couldn’t stand watching him on the ice. He was their top analytics player, and I couldn’t stand him one bit.

It’s not too hard to see why Gallant couldn’t stand the way Bergenheim played; the forward didn’t play like Gallant expected him too, and instead, played the game of hockey the same way that he always had. As the winger got shuffled about the lineup, he ended up with poor teammates who hurt his on-ice results more, even further affecting Gallant’s view of the player. Eventually, this led to his benching and trade request.

Bergenheim didn’t experience success in Minnesota because his season was already destroyed. His reputation preceded him, he had a short leash, and when he didn’t play well he was reeled in and shoved up in the press box again.

As the whole case of Bergenheim unfolds, one has to be reminded of Jack Han’s four stages of analytics.

The first level is basic viewing of players, and analyzing them using the eye test.

The second level is assessing players using statistics such as Corsi and Fenwick, but not figuring out why players have the numbers they do.

The third level is figuring out why players get certain ratings in certain statistics, such as Alexei Emelin has a bad Corsi rating because he is terrible at breaking the puck out of his zone with control.

The fourth level is best described in Jack’s own words.

In essence, it’s an expression of the belief that Corsi can be taught.

Or, more precisely, that the skills leading to good puck possession can be developed and fostered in any player in an NHL organization using holistic methods in addition to analytical methods.

While you can improve a player’s output by sheltering him (which is what a Level 3 thinker would do), a much more sustainable and ultimately effective solution is to tailor a team’s coaching and development philosophy to promote effective breakouts, controlled zone entries and Royal Road passing, the biggest drivers of positive outcomes (goals, wins; championships) in hockey.

Bergenheim can help an NHL team next season. That much isn’t up for debate.

That doesn’t mean that a team should sign him, however. If he’s going to make a positive impact on whatever team he signs with, there needs to be a level four buy in from every person involved in bringing the winger onboard. The general manager, coach, and scouts all have to agree on what type of player Bergenheim is, and what type of role he can play on their team.

If they use him right, they might be rewarded.

Use the player the wrong way, however, and a repeat of the 2014-15 season could be in store.

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