Devon Toews: The Most Underrated Player in the NHL

The Islanders defender has somehow become one of the best-kept secrets in the league. How?

One of the many constants I’ve noticed about the way hockey fans see their sport is that those who watch the game through a traditional lens often have a very hard time understanding how others can enjoy watching hockey in any other state of mind, and vice versa. Because of this, players like Mark Stone, Jared Spurgeon, and Valeri Nichushkin have become rather controversial as of late, because those in support of the analytics movement claim that their contributions to their respective teams’ success cannot be fully cognitively identified by the human brain. Each time a player like this makes the headlines for that exact reason, his supporters are unsurprisingly countered by traditionalist skeptics, because there are always reasons not to believe what the analytics guys say about the players they deem to be underrated: He’s not flashy, he’s not talented, he doesn’t put up points, etc.

As a result, there are very few elite NHL players that the stats people haven’t already made themselves aware of. The introduction of bias-free statistical models has allowed fans to get the 101 on any NHL player they want, and this has been rather magnified considering that there has been no hockey for four months and counting. With a future as uncertain as the one ahead of us right now, all any sports fan can do is lament about the past. Over the last few months, professional and on-the-side analysts have pretty much nailed down everything there is to know about the 2019-20 regular season that was, in anticipation of a return.

So, when I came across a player whose performance slipped past the notice of traditionalists and new-age fans alike, I was obviously surprised. I believe Devon Toews is the best defenseman on the New York Islanders, but I can guarantee that most Islander fans would disagree with me on that one. And no, he doesn’t put up a ton of points, he’s not an overly imposing physical threat, and his +/- isn’t off the charts, yet I’m still surprised as to why he isn’t thought of highly by more Islander fans - or fans of any team, for that matter.

This, however, is the player that has beat the system. How does a player go relatively unnoticed by the majority of the group of hockey fans who give themselves the most credit for being attentive to detail? Sure, the opinionated claim in the title of this article will probably be out of date in a few months, or even weeks; no player has avoided the eyes of the advanced stats community for that long, but as far as I’m concerned, that day hasn’t come yet. If you’re already aware of how great of a hockey player Devon Toews is, then you’re in luck, because this is essentially a piece on that very topic, except in a very extensive format. If you’re not, then let me be very clear when I say I am very honoured to be the one to introduce you to this unicorn, of sorts, in the hockey world, and the full extent of his talents. This is the legend of Devon Toews.

The Data

Toews meets all the benchmarks necessary to be considered an elite player - he’s a two-way monster at even-strength, he moves the puck very well, and grades out overall as one of the most valuable players in the league. His one weakness is the powerplay, and I’m admittedly puzzled as to why the Islanders played him there and not the penalty kill. He doesn’t have any special finishing ability, despite being a perfectly fine generator of shot volume, yet he’s more than adequate enough defensively to deserve a nod on the PK. Either way, he’s one of the best defensemen in hockey in all three zones during 5-on-5 play, and if we’re looking at the complete package here, he was by far the best blueliner on his team. So, how does somebody like this, in a fringe-top-2 role in terms of ice time, get overlooked so easily?

There are a few reasons. The first is that despite the good goaltending the Isles got this year, Toews’s defensive play did not bear the on-ice results you would think, as is evident when we look at how he defends the high-danger areas of the ice from a strictly on-ice standpoint.

Again, Toews defends his blue line and exits his own zone quite well, but his isolates say that he is a very good defensive player at even-strength, and his raw on-ice ratings don’t. Who could possibly be responsible for this?

We’ve found our culprit. Scott Mayfield played over 700 minutes of ice time with Toews this season, and to say that Toews did the heavy lifting on this pair is an understatement. As well, the fact that Mayfield got more shorthanded ice time than Toews is an injustice that must be dealt with come the play-in round. In order to maximize Toews’s potential for defensive results, I would pair him with Ryan Pulock once the season resumes. The pair had only 176 minutes together, but sported a 60.3 xGF%, which easily trumps the 50.1 that Pulock posted with his primary partner, Adam Pelech.

There is a considerable amount of evidence that points toward Toews looking far worse than he is on both ends of the ice because of his teammates, but we could sit here and talk about defense pairings all day. For extra context, let’s see what my own adaptations of pre-existing statistics say about this player.

Toews handily ranks first on his team’s defensemen in hbGAR. This stat seems to say exactly what the more sophisticated isolates and regression models do about him: Well-balanced even-strength player, victim of underwhelming results on the man-advantage, and an average shooter. His total hbGAR score of 6.4 was top-20 among NHL blueliners in 2019-20, and when we look at how his teammates fare in this model, it paints an alarming picture as to how much better he is than others on his blueline.

Adam Pelech and Noah Dobson were the only other Islanders defensemen to rank above replacement level according to my model. Pelech’s total of 1.0 is probably weighed down by the injury he got, and Dobson’s total of 0.6 is a product of him hardly ever playing. After that, it gets ugly: Pulock, who ranked top-10 in Evolving-Hockey’s GAR because he got by on excellent results on both ends of the ice, sits at -1.2. Then, we have two albatross contracts and our old friend Scott Mayfield sitting at the bottom of the pile. Nick Leddy (-9.5), Johnny Boychuk (-11.0), and Mayfield (-11.2) rank as three of the worst twelve defensemen in the NHL by hbGAR.

I’m not going to use this as leverage for why I think all hockey fans should be giving more credit to Devon Toews, because hbGAR is constructed using statistics that we can't easily identify when actually watching hockey, but it is quite surprising that many Islanders fans choose to gush over other defensemen on their roster when there isn’t really much debate as to who is the best one, at least in my eyes.

The Narratives

It doesn’t take a genius to notice trends in how groups of people think or behave. Humans crave ease 24/7, and with that in mind, I’m going to go over why I believe Devon Toews gets overlooked by far more fans than what is typical for a player similar to him considering how the hockey analytics community has reacted to players like this in the past.

Islanders fans know it: Last year was a really great year for their squad, and while this year wasn’t bad, the on-ice product certainly didn’t live up to the bar they set in 2018-19, and we saw flashes this season of what may be a not-so-bright future to come. Without the use of advanced macro-level statistics, it’s just as easy to give credit to the defense for the Islanders’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net, as opposed to the goaltending. This is where Adam Pelech comes into play. When he injured his achilles on January 2, many Isles fans didn’t believe it to be a coincidence when the team started to go downhill in 2020, on both ends of the ice. Pelech is not a bad player by any means, and it’s unsurprising that the natural reaction of many was to see that he went down with injury, and then witness a downward trend in the Islanders’ on-ice performance, upon coming to the conclusion that he was the reason their team was dominating in the early part of the season, and that he is their best defensemen. However, in reality, the Islanders went on a massive PDO bender in November. Everything they shot at the net went in, the goalies dominated, and the end result was a ridiculous stretch of over 15 games in which they did not lose in regulation time. Adam Pelech is a solid top-4 defenseman, but he isn’t the best his team’s blue line has to offer, like many Islanders fans have come to believe. Interestingly enough, he wasn’t the only one on said blue line that got a little too much credit from the spectators.

Many people in the analytics community took notice of Ryan Pulock in 2019-20. He finished 2nd among all NHL defensemen in Goals Above Replacement, with a total of 19.3, ranking behind only Ryan Ellis in that regard. However, if we look at his isolates, we see that Pulock is an elite finisher, but doesn’t have a high expected output offensively, and he takes a strict quality-over-quantity-prevention approach defensively.

GAR is a slippery slope. There isn’t a hockey statistic that exists today that gives a more detailed look at the results of a player’s performance at both ends of the ice at different strength states, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of predictability of future performance, and it doesn’t show how a player contributed to the results he got. Pulock is a rare talent himself: Shot quality is a far better indicator of future performance and impact than shot quantity, and stats like Corsi just don’t tell the whole story with him. Again, however, his offensive results are a product of a great shot, which isn’t as important for defensemen as it is for forwards, and when we take the neutral zone and expected value into account, Toews grades out as a better player.

A quick look at a GAR table would show that Pulock is the best defenseman on his team, and depending on the argument, people who are into the fancy stats side of hockey would pull for Pulock over Toews any day of the week. A common narrative with most Islander fans and many fans of other teams is that Pelech is the best defenseman on the squad, but a lot of people on the numbers side would say it’s Pulock. It’s not hard to see where either side is coming from, but I’m taking the stance that it’s neither of them.

The (Dreaded) Eye Test

Now that I’ve laid out the reasons why I believe Devon Toews is the most underrated player on his team and one of the best defensemen in the NHL, while trying to dissect the intuitive reasons that he gets overlooked in the thought process, I’m going to explain what I saw from Toews after scouting two of his best games in 2019-20 from a statistical standpoint. The purpose of this was to see if I could gain any more clarity as to why he gets so easily overlooked by so many people.

The first game I watched was when the Islanders took on the Ducks on November 25, 2019, in Anaheim, where Toews posted his highest single-game on-ice xGF%, and the second was when the Bruins visited Brooklyn on January 11, where Toews posted his highest single-game on-ice CF/60. The Islanders lost both games; to the Ducks in regulation, and to the Bruins in overtime. Every time Toews showed up in the highlight pack, I tried to take note of every detail I could notice. This is what I saw:

Offensively, Toews showed the capability of jumping up into the rush, but this was where he was at his most tentative. The deeper he got into the offensive zone, the more comfortable he seemed letting his forwards do the work and drifting towards the middle of the ice in anticipation of a pass. However, from the point, it’s a completely different story. He’s a very confident offensive player from the blue line. If the Islanders were applying pressure in the offensive zone, he was a great quarterback from up top. He made his passes, he took a considerable amount of shots, and didn’t miss the net once. He’s essentially a perimeter offensive player, but so are a lot of defensemen, and by the standard of perimeter players, he’s as good as they come.

Toews’s offensive zone entry and defensive zone exit rates from 2019-20 were both very good, and that field of hockey analytics is often the easiest to notice with the eye test, so I was curious to see if he’d look like a difference maker in the neutral zone when I watched him. From what I saw, he exited the defensive zone well, but didn’t build up speed to lead to an offensive transition very often. When it came to entering the offensive zone, he showed the tendency to hang back and let his forwards do the puck-carrying, which isn’t really a surprise when guys like Mat Barzal are on the ice.

Defense was the hardest part of his game to identify when watching him, because good defense is good shot suppression, and that’s boring, so the NHL obviously doesn’t like showing that in their highlight packs. As a result, I didn’t see Toews play “defense” very much, but when I did, he showed good defensive instincts all over the ice, even in the offensive zone: He seemed to recognize when the opponent would try to exit the defensive zone a few seconds before it happened, and he made his best attempts to get in position to stop that from happening. He wasn’t the most aggressive at defending in his own blue line, but in his own zone, his positioning was excellent, and he almost never gave his opponents a clear path to the net.

All in all, I’d say Toews’s stats and the eye test go hand in hand for the most part. Sure, these may have been two of his best games of the 2019-20 season, and I went into the scouting session with a preconceived notion of him because of what I already knew in terms of how he profiled statistically, but I came out of it certain of one thing: Devon Toews, at the height of his powers, is a very dangerous player despite not being very flashy, and I’d certainly give him a shot on my top pair if I ran an NHL team.

Conclusion

There are many reasons that an elite NHL player can fall under the radar. If you don’t put up a lot of points, if you’re not madly skilled, and if you don’t pose a threat physically, it’ll be hard for you to get noticed in today’s NHL. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact. Logical fallacies can play a factor too, as I discussed when analyzing why fans of the Islanders and other teams alike overlook him so easily. Very rarely, however, do players fall under the radar of the hockey analytics community, and Devon Toews has done so during his career so far.

Devon Toews is not a flashy player. He ranked just outside the top 50 in points among defensemen in 2019-20, and a bit further outside the top 50 in points per game. He didn’t rank top-10 in the league in GAR. There wasn’t all that much hype surrounding him when he was a prospect. However, he is a very responsible and a very impactful hockey player, and after examining his 2019-20 season from every angle possible, I didn’t arrive at any point where I believed he wasn’t worthy of being a top-pair defenseman.

He’s only 25 years old, and he was arguably even better analytically in 2018-19 than he was this year (maybe people shrugged him off because of the 48-game sample?), and he plays defense for a team that has made headlines for their sudden ability to keep the puck out of their net better than almost any other team in the NHL over the last two years. He also shares a last name (no relation, mind you) with one of the greatest two-way centers of the 2010s.

But no one talks about him.

He’s going to be silently tormenting the metropolitan division for at least 5 more years, unless Lou Lamoriello trades him because of the Islanders’, uh, not-so-good cap situation (great read there from JFresh by the way). How long will it take for the Islanders fanbase as a whole to recognize how good Toews is? Maybe a year or two. Maybe more. Maybe he goes his whole career as The Elite Defensemen that No One Cared About For Some Reason. Wouldn’t that be something?

The most impressive thing about all of this, though, is that Devon Toews has done the impossible. He has become the most underrated player in the NHL, not just by the mainstream media, but by the analytics community too, and for that, I respect him.