Cage Match: Anders Lee vs. Logan Couture

by Rick Roos on November 22, 2017 | (0 Comments)

Would you really pick the red-hot Anders Lee over a more proven option like Logan Couture?

Here’s a battle I’d never have imagined doing a year ago, or perhaps even as recently as the spring. But that’s the beauty of fantasy hockey – things can change that quickly. Is Anders Lee’s success tied solely to John Tavares, and can Logan Couture become a team/scoring leader for an aging Sharks skater corps? Let’s answer these questions and more, and find out who’s the better fantasy own for this season and beyond – Cage Match starts now!
 

Career Path and Contract Status

Anders Lee, 27, was drafted 152nd overall in 2009. He played a year in the USHL then three seasons of college hockey, with cumulative point-per-game output. Between success in tastes of NHL action in 2012-13 and 2013-14 (16 total points in 24 games) and 46 points in just 59 AHL games, he was clearly NHL ready. He hit the ground running with 41 points in 76 contests in 2014-15, but took a step back to just 36 points in 2015-16. Then last season he posted 52 points (34 goals) in 81 games, which is more impressive than it seems considering he stood at one goal and one assist after 18 games, which in turn means he ended with a remarkable 33 goals and 50 points in his final 63 contests.

Logan Couture, 28, was selected 7th overall in 2007 after two OHL seasons, then went back to play two more. After dominating (53 points in 42 games) in the AHL, he joined the Sharks in spring 2010, and he’s been with the big club ever since. Although Couture only topped 56 points once in his first five seasons, because he was consistently productive and due to missing time to injuries, he still managed the 36th-best points per game among all NHL forwards during those five seasons, and 30th-best points per 60 minutes from 2011-12 through 2014-15. But over the last two seasons, which should be his prime, he produced only 88 points in 125 games, sparking new concerns about his scoring and renewed – if not increased – worry about his ability to stay consistently healthy.

Both players are set to become UFAs after next season. Until then, Couture’s $6M yearly cap hit is 60% more than Lee’s ($3.75M).
 

Ice Time

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2016-17

15:35 (A.L.) – 6th

17:36 (L.C.) – 3rd

2:27 (A.L.) – 4th

3:01 (L.C.) – 3rd (tied)

0:01 (A.L.) – 14th (tied)

1:05 (L.C.) – 7th

2015-16

14:34 (A.L.) – 7th

17:23 (L.C.) – 4th

2:29 (A.L.) – 4th

3:39 (L.C.) – 1st (tied)

0:01 (A.L.) – 13th

0:44 (L.C.) – 10th (tied)

2014-15

14:23 (A.L.) – 8th

19:04 (L.C.) – 3rd

2:12 (A.L.) – 5th

3:12 (L.C.) – 3rd

0:02 (A.L.) – 11th (tied)

1:27 (L.C.) – 3rd

2013-14

18:56 (L.C.) – 3rd

3:23 (L.C.) – 4th

1:21 (L.C.) – 3rd


For Couture, we can see perhaps why his points dipped in the past two seasons, as he shed 60 to 90 seconds of total ice time compared to his prior campaigns. His PP time remained stable, however, and he was a mainstay on San Jose’s PP1, which until this season had consistently rolled out four forwards.

Why the change in Couture’s ice time? Pete DeBoer taking over as coach starting in 2015-16, serving as another reminder that coaching philosophies influence – positively or negatively – the ice time (and thus production) of players. Given how DeBoer used Couture, and the negative effects it produced, Couture’s hot start (15 points – 10 goals - in his first 16 games) for 2017-18 becomes more suspect.

With Lee, I’m surprised there wasn’t more of a jump in ice time for 2016-17 versus past campaigns. Scoring 34 goals despite averaging that little ice time would seem difficult, and indeed since 2000-01 only six other players scored 34+ goals in fewer than the 1263 total minutes Lee played last season. Other than Mario Lemieux, who did it at age 35, all five others were younger than Lee. Three of the five (Phil Kessel, Marian Gaborik, Alex Semin) went on to score more goals in at least one future season, while another (Thomas Vanek) never exceeded that goal total but did put up more points in a later season. Only one (Michael Grabner) failed to record either more points or more goals in a later season; however, other than Lee, Grabner was the only one to meet the criteria while playing in 74+ games. And having Grabner as your closest comparable is definitely not ideal, as it paints Lee’s 2016-17 as inherently more suspect.

As if this wasn’t proof enough that Lee needs more ice time to legitimize his production, there’s also the fact that since 2000-01 only two players (Gaborik, and Jason Spezza) managed 30+ goals in two separate seasons despite less than 1300 minutes of total ice time for each season. In other words, Lee’s 2016-17 output, and the concerning company (i.e., Grabner) it puts him in, signifies that for him to improve (or even maintain) his production he likely must receive more ice time, so we’ll see below if that’s where he’s trending for 2017-18.
 

Secondary Categories

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2016-17

0.69 (A.L.)

0.16 (L.C.)

2.12 (A.L.)

0.78 (L.C.)

0.42 (A.L.)

0.89 (L.C.)

2.36 (A.L.)

2.38 (L.C.)

0.17 (A.L.)

0.20 (L.C.)

2015-16

0.63 (A.L.)

0.38 (L.C.)

2.05 (A.L.)

0.55 (L.C.)

0.38 (A.L.)

0.73 (L.C.)

2.28 (A.L.)

2.63 (L.C.)

0.17 (A.L.)

0.29 (L.C.)

2014-15

0.43 (A.L.)

0.15 (L.C.)

2.22 (A.L.)

1.01 (L.C.)

0.38 (A.L.)

0.86 (L.C.)

2.59 (A.L.)

3.18 (L.C.)

0.09 (A.L.)

0.29 (L.C.)

2013-14

0.30 (L.C.)

0.24 (L.C.)

1.04 (L.C.)

3.58 (L.C.)

0.18 (L.C.)


Here too we don’t see numbers supporting Lee’s huge jump in production last season, as his PP rate was identical to 2015-16 and his SOG rate was barely improved. This also shows why the stakes are so high in terms of whether his scoring totals from last season can be sustained or improved upon, because if they can that would put him in rare company, as since 2000-01 there were a total of just three instances of players not named Alexander Ovechkin who posted 35+ goals in a season while averaging 2+ hits and 2+ SOG per game.

As for Couture, there might be a more glaring reason for his reduced production over the past two seasons – his SOG rate dropping precipitously. Such a significant drop suggests that Couture was not as dialed into the offense or, dare I say, his effort level wasn’t there. It can’t be blamed on injuries either, since even when battling that issue in the past he was able to still fire lots of pucks on the net.

Last year also saw Couture’s PP scoring drop. The good news is without many other offensive weapons, Couture’s spot on PP1 likely isn’t at risk; however, he might not be able to count on as many points coming via the man advantage as he had in the past, particularly since last season the team’s shooting percentage at 5x4 was best when now departed Patrick Marleau was on the ice. One area where Couture hasn’t faltered, however, is blocks, as only five forwards played in more than his 272 games over the past four seasons while averaging more blocks per game.
 

Luck-Based Metrics

Season

Personal Shooting %

Team Shooting % (5x5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5x5)

Average Shot Distance

Secondary Assists %

2016-17

17.8% (A.L.)

14.4% (L.C.)

9.27% (A.L.)

8.97% (L.C.)

63.4% (A.L.)

71.2% (L.C.)

54.1% (A.L.)

52.5% (L.C.)

22.3 (A.L.)

28.9 (L.C.)

39% (A.L.)

22% (L.C.)

2015-16

8.2% (A.L.)

10.9% (L.C.)

5.88% (A.L.)

8.75% (L.C.)

53.7% (A.L.)

58.1% (L.C.)

55.2% (A.L.)

51.4% (L.C.)

23.5 (A.L.)

30.0 (L.C.)

38% (A.L.)

52% (L.C.)

2014-15

12.7% (A.L.)

10.5% (L.C.)

8.64% (A.L.)

8.32% (L.C.)

59.4% (A.L.)

67.0% (L.C.)

57.9% (A.L.)

49.8% (L.C.)

22.2 (A.L.)

31.6 (L.C.)

43% (A.L.)

42% (L.C.)

2013-14

9.9% (L.C.)

8.59% (L.C.)

62.4% (L.C.)

46.1% (L.C.)

28.2 (L.C.)

42% (L.C.)


Looking at this data, I’d have guessed Couture did best in 2016-17, since in several cases he had his highest numbers. What sticks out though is his secondary assists percentage being so low. In fact, it was half what it normally was. Thus, while it might be difficult to write off his subpar 2015-16, his lower totals in 2016-17 might be excused, in some part, by him getting unsustainably fewer secondary assists.

Lee’s personal shooting % last season was high, yet as I’ve often noted in this column players who score lots of goals have high personal shooting percentages. Still, of the 234 instances of forwards scoring 34+ goals since 2000-01, only 28 had a personal shooting % higher than Lee’s 17.8% last season. Yet 76 had a 16.0% or higher personal shooting percentage, so Lee’s number might not be in danger of a huge drop. Also, his team shooting % showed that his overall scoring was barely above the 9.0% norm.

That’s not to say to Lee’s data is entirely reassuring. Most notably his IPP has never even been 65% and his ASD is very, very low. What that signifies is he’s a “mule” type of player, which is great in terms of having a key place on a team, but not so good when it comes to points. Examples of forwards who fit this type of mold are Patric Hornqvist and, previously, Johan Franzen and Eric Cole. What do they have in common? Lofty expectations based on a couple of good seasons, followed by disappointment when they fail to deliver and/or get hurt too often.
 

Early Returns for 2017-18

Couture’s OZ% is way down to 42%, but his SOG has rebounded to be nearly three per game while his total ice time is back to 18:22 per game and his PP usage is holding steady. His IPP is again over 70%, so he might be a late bloomer in that area; however, the most telling stat is his team shooting %, which is at an unsustainable 12.1%.

Lee’s OZ% and IPP are in line with previous numbers, and his SOG rate is only slightly up. On a more positive note, his ice time is up by more than a minute, and he’s taking the ice for 57% of New York’s PP minutes. But his team shooting percentage is an amazing 16%, meaning a major drop in production is all but a certainty.
 

Who Wins?

Lee is riding a very long hot streak that, on the surface, looks sustainable. But make no mistake – it will end, since Lee doesn’t get enough assists and is parked in front of the net such that he’s not always in position to score or share in scoring. Most likely he will follow a Hornqvist, Cole or Franzen “mule” trajectory, with at most a season of two of 60+ points. In other words, pencil in Lee for 50-55 points most seasons, assuming he doesn’t get injured like many mules do.

With Couture, we’re seeing him step up to take on more of a key role amid the apparent decline of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns. Already it resulted in San Jose tinkering with Couture being paired with Pavelski at even strength for the first time pretty much ever, and seemingly both the coaching staff and Couture realize he’s got to be more of a focal point for the team. The only issue is whether he’s a “the guy” type of player. If not, he might have a hard time doing better than he did in his past seasons when he was scoring at a 60-65 point pace.

The key here is Couture is the winner in points-only leagues, and, Lee in multi-cats, although there was never much doubt of the latter. If you have Lee, you must – I repeat must – entertain trading him away before he comes back to earth. This is perhaps the most glaring example of a sell high I’ve seen since I’ve done this column. Turn him into a top rearguard, or upgrade your goaltending, or see if you can get someone who doesn’t fare well in multi-cat but would be a clear upgrade over the long haul, like maybe a Sean Monahan or a Taylor Hall.

With Couture, I’d kick the tires on selling also, since even if his role and importance are growing, the team itself might be headed for offensive struggles that could last several seasons and which would impact Couture, particularly on the PP. The issue is Couture doesn’t possess the same name value he used to, and he’s not as tantalizing as Lee, so you might end up having to hold, which wouldn’t be the worst outcome since he’s only one more season away from being a UFA, when he could head for greener scoring pastures.