The Decline of Chris Drury

Chris Drury always had the bright lights on him because of his on-ice actions.

Note: This little write-up was inspired by a very similar piece named The Decline of Jarome Iglina, by Kent Wilson. Kent knows his numbers better than I do, but I couldn't help but think of the similar situation the Rangers are in with Chris Drury the whole time I was reading it. With Mr. Wilson's permission, this is my attempt to apply a similar format to see if we can draw any conclusions as to why Chris Drury has declined since arriving in New York.

 

            It was day one of NHL free agency in July 2007. I was fresh out of high school and the news was on SportsCenter before I even went to my summer job by 8 AM: the New York Rangers had signed both Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to huge deals. Everyone essentially knew it was coming, but all of a sudden the Rangers, who had lacked quality centers for what seemed since the 90's, were a threat in the East. Drury was to play with Jagr, while Gomez was option 1A and would play with Shanny. Things were looking up.

            Flash-forward and its November, 2010. Scott Gomez is long-gone to Montreal in a trade that has proved to be a early winner for the Habs (with the future question mark of McDonagh still left on Broadway), and Chris Drury has played one out of fifteen games so far with a broken finger. I can't find a job, Derek Stepan hasn't scored since opening night, and Chris Drury is making a cool $8 million this season after going through his worst full season as a professional hockey player. While there is a lot of upside in general about the Rangers, any conversation on downsides usually ends up mentioning Drury; who will be a free agent once again after next season.

            How could someone who came off their best season in their career decline to essentially a third line center role in what seems like no time? Well, the answer(s) there lies in a mix of numbers and logic, Ranger fans.

            Coming off his best year as a pro in 2006-07, Drury raised on-ice expectations immediately upon donning the Rangers sweater. I remember vividly (as I was at Game 5) that the Rangers lost to the Sabres narrowly in the playoffs, so it was expected that Drury would have a similar style year (30 goals/60 points minimum). After all, that's what the size of his contract would give him, wouldn't it?

            While many pegged Drury for another big year as he would most likely be playing with Jagr as well, few considered that he was going from a Sabres team that scored the most amount of goals during the 06-07 season to a Rangers team that was a top-10 defensive team (Goals Against)/just below league average scoring team. So, while the hype drove expectations for Drury and the Rangers higher and higher, it set up Ranger and Drury fans for only one thing: disappointment. Although I'm currently looking through crystal clear 20/20 hindsight vision, it's too bad no one recognized this then (especially Sather). If Drury was to put up another career year (tough to do to begin with), he was going to have to do it more by himself than ever.

            Three of Drury's assets has always been his ability to score (and score "clutch" goals), to win face-offs, and to be a defensively responsible forward (i.e. block shots); and these assets shaped the expectations of him when he arrived. We'll combine shot blocking and face-offs into Part A and work up to Drury's declining production (the reason for the article) in Part B.

Part A: Drury Without the Puck and on Draws

            Being a rounded player when you're a forward usually means your worth just as much in your own zone (or without the puck) as you are when your attacking the net. As a Senior at BU he won Hockey East's Best Defensive Forward award all while scoring at a 1.5 PPG rate. Needless to say, Drury has always been a smart player and relied upon when his team went to the penalty kill, as we've seen with each team so far in his career. Let's take a look at a couple of shorthanded metrics and blocked shots as well to see if Drury has declined in this area of his game as well. Note: click on images to see full size.

Defensivedrury_medium

            According to the numbers, Renney used Drury on the second PK unit in 08-09, which would explain the dip in time on the ice. Ironically, this was also the recent season when the NYR was the top PK team in the league. His blocked shots have risen every season while his production goes south, which to me indicates a player really giving an effort in shorthanded situations. His BOTN rating (which is adjusted +/- for amount of time on and off the ice) is most curious to me seeing as it has taken a nosedive since being positive in 07-08. Even despite having a top 10 league PK the past two seasons, the numbers say Drury has been getting scored on more and more often; which would ultimately point to a decline in an area where he is known for; the penalty kill.

            When we put these numbers in a league-wide perspective, though, Drury is perfectly fine. His TOI/60 is still top-20 and his rating is very much so affected by the PK being a group effort. Additionally, the Rangers being below the league average in short-handed goals (except 2008-2009) does not help his numbers seeing as he logs significant shorthanded time.

            Let's take a peek at his faceoff ratios and percentage to see if there is a similar trend:

Druryfaceoffsseason_medium

            It's a very similar trend, in fact. One little idea I had when I saw these numbers was that maybe Renney saw Drury's dip in face-offs as enough of a reason to drop him to second-line PK, where he would face (or match-up) against the opponents second-line PP (ideally). It makes sense to me; at least, seeing as how I already mentioned that Drury's league-wide numbers when it came to defensive metrics seemed fine. I cannot go further back than 2007-08 with these stats (seeing as I don't have access), but I would venture a bet that Drury was around or above his 2007-08 levels in many of the previous seasons of his career.

            One tidbit that is encouraging is the fact that both charts so that Drury regained his form in his own zone and in the face-off circle in 2009-10. Because of his point production, some call him the "most expensive third line center in the league." While I don't necessarily disagree, he's here to stay for at least one more season; and I'd rather have him doing the little things like winning face-offs and blocking shots than nearly nothing at all.

Part B: Scoring and "Clutch" Scoring

Druryppgcareer_medium

            Chris enjoyed an incredibly successful college career and is the only player in BU history to have over 100 goals and assists. His average over four years turned out to be 1.39 PPG, which leads to the 0.57 PPG NHLe (equivalency) red base line. The green line represents Drury's amazing sophomore year at BU, where he scored 1.84 PPG; good for 0.75 PPG according to the translations. My first reaction to this graph is the fact that according to the numbers Drury has consistently played (with the exception of last season) above average when it comes to his scoring habits. This is hard to do, but if we look into each rise and fall some simple logic can explain the pattern.

            Drury came into the league being a very rounded player; having just won the Hobey Baker and putting up another 1+ PPG season. Being drafted by Quebec in 1994, he was lucky enough to join a team that was already primed for a deep playoff run with the newly relocated Colorado Avalanche. That's not to take anything away from his Calder-winning rookie season, but I compare it to Tyler Seguin joining a deep and experienced Bruins squad this season (he is on pace for 36 points to Drury's 44 as of 11/10). From here on out it seemed as though Drury's production went as the team went. The Av's peaked at the cup, and then he regressed a bit as the Av's stepped back. He held his own on a below-average Flames team, and then rode the wave up as the Sabres made their rise in the middle of the new decade. Then, July 2007 came, and we all know the story from here on out.

            So in the end, Drury has only had to endure a few down years of production and subsequently in both of those years his team did not make the playoffs. This tells me that on the ice Drury is the type of player that needs equal or better talents around him in order to produce. This can be seen using two different types of Corsi statistics:

Drurycorsiseason_medium

            Drury's Corsi relative to his Quality of Teamate rating essentially shows how much Drury was leading his line when on the ice with his teammates. This rating shows who Drury played mostly with (2nd line, Antropov on LW, Callahan on RW) and also has a strong correlation to the number of points a player produces over 60 minutes of on-ice gameplay. For that second line, Drury was just behind Antropov while Callahan actually dragged the pair down. Finally, his rating is so high in 08-09 because Gomez was moved to first line (with Naslund and Zherdev) and he flourished playing against second-line competition. In 09-10, we see the crash to earth due to the crowded Rangers center situation last year. With Anisimov, Prospal, Dubinsky, Jokinen, and Christensen all vying for the top 3 spots, Drury was used predominately in a third line role and saw his stats plummet because he was playing with third-line teammates; and that doesn't help his production when at one point he was on the power-play with Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic years ago.

            Another part of Drury's game is his ability to score "clutch" goals. Historically, Drury will be remembered as a clutch scorer, even though his game-winning totals aren't all that high (20th for active players, outside the top 100). But, because the magical "clutch" description has been bestowed upon him, Drury has to live with that expectation. Subsequently, if he does not score said goals, then some disappointment follows. So how clutch is the captain? It's never an easy question to answer with facts, but one way we can look at it is through is production against different levels of teams over the season.

Druryvteams_medium

Note: The "tiers" of teams was determined by winning percentage (NHL.com splits)

            The charts indicate a few trends to me. First off, he has always played well as the underdog against top teams. Simply put, in games where it is supposed to be difficult for Drury and his teammates to score, he elevated his game. On the flip side, he also produced in games where he was supposed to against weaker teams in the league. His stats against the middling teams are intriguing to say the least. The number of shots Drury took stayed about the same, yet his point production dropped. The only explanation I have for this is consistency; which many players are plagued by. Drury's drop though is pretty severe, and for comparison's sake here are the same numbers for Pavel Datsyuk and Joe Thornton in 2008-09:

Datsyukthornton_medium

Note: Chart done by Kent Wilson in original article (linked above).

            Big Joe is perfectly consistent while Pavel beats up on those gritty games where there might not be a clear favorite. In the end, I say Drury has lost his touch for the clutch but at the same time the legend status in Colorado and Buffalo will never be forgotten.

Part C: Conclusions and Going Forward

            Chris Drury is 34 years old and past the prime of his career and will most likely play below his NHLe average in terms of production because of regression to the mean. I'm not counting out a bump back up possibly, but it would have to be with a good team and I wouldn't expect him to repeat over a long period of time. While I have shown many reasons for Drury's decline, most of this is natural due to age and happens to every player. It's the criticisms of the stars (and the salaries they make) that make it frustrating.

            He started his career out of college at 22 years old, which although that seems old in today's NHL that age was relatively young in 1998 when we look back. Drury had himself a year with Buffalo at the age of 30 in 06-07 (my age bump theory at 30!) and to think he was going to surpass that (0.9 PPG) was naïve of all of us. It's becoming more and more apparent that in today's NHL the value of aging veterans is declining just as fast as their production numbers are. While there is still a spot for them due to their experience, leadership, and the ability to do the little things right; they are not going to be able to demand as high as salaries going forward.

            It will be interesting to see how Drury does when he returns from his broken finger. Even if he played every game upon his return, he will still play less games than in any of his previous 12 NHL seasons. I think, after looking at the numbers, that he will continue to excel in his defensive abilities, but the real question mark remains on production. If he can find a groove on the second line, he still has the ability to produce if his wingers play well and essentially elevate his game for him. The summer of 2012 will be interesting when Drury's contract comes off the books, as many Ranger fans do like him and appreciate the work he has done as captain. I doubt the Rangers will resign him when that time comes, and I for one will bid him luck to wherever he lands. He genuinely wanted to bring his boyhood club to the next level, and it's just too bad it hasn't worked out in his favor thus far.

Some footnotes:

1. None of this would be possible without a fellow SB Nation site behindthenethockey.com. Thanks as always for the numbers and insight, Gabe.

2. All advanced metrics were sorted by a minimum of 50 GP.

3. I am no means an expert when it comes to these numbers, as it is a hobby of mine (just like writing) to study the numbers. If I made any mistakes, I'm always willing to learn from them.

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