Alexander Burmistrov’s Return Didn’t Prove That Analytics Fail

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ST PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 15: Alexander Burmistrov #91 of the Winnipeg Jets controls the puck against Minnesota Wild during the game on October 15, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The “Alexander Burmistrov experiment” as they like to call it in Winnipeg has come to an end. The once productive forward was waived by the Winnipeg Jets this week, causing a stir between the traditionalist and analytic crowds. The former view his departure from Winnipeg as a big reason why analytics “don’t work”. This however, is an effortless analysis, failing to pay any mind to the situation’s unique variables.

Burmistrov was claimed by the Arizona Coyotes on Monday morning. He’ll seek a fresh start under his new organization and try rectifying his once reliable game.

Burmistrov’s Numbers

Burmistrov has turned into a nuisance since the Jets loaned him to the Kazan Ak-Bars in 2013. There is a myth floating around that he still has “good analytics”. This could not be further from the truth.

Did Burmistrov have good analytics? Yes. He had a 3.1 and 2.2 relTM Corsi% in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, respectively.

Does he have good analytics? No. Things went downhill after he left for the KHL. Last season his relTM Corsi% dipped down to -3.3. This year he’s sporting a woeful -2.9.

Not even close to the Burmistrov of old.

The Numbers Debate

For the most part, analytics advocates and traditionalists did not see eye-to-eye on Burmistrov between 2011 and 2013. “Stats guys” believed his shot metrics made him a positive player. Traditionalists typically viewed the stats as bogus – a reason to disregard the numbers altogether. Both sides do however, agree on Burmistrov being a futile player in the present day. Rather than this being an event where both sides can simply concur, it has turned into another exhausting argument.

The eye test versus analytics debate has reoccurred throughout the hockey community all season. Just do a Twitter search of “Kris Russell” and see how long you can go without stumbling upon a heated conversation. If both sides are ever going to find some middle ground, it’s important to properly identify all elements in a given situation. There’s no healthy debate to be had when context is being skewed to fit one’s narrative. Sadly, this is exactly what’s being done in the case of Burmistrov.

Burmistrov’s recent numbers aren’t proving that analytics don’t work – seven of the last ten Stanley Cup champions finished in the top three for score and venue adjusted Corsi%. Corsi is the most successful predictive measure of future goals that we currently have. Burmistrov is simply a strange anomaly, a rare case in which a player’s analytical value peaked early and dwindled in their mid-20’s.

For more on score and venue adjusted Corsi metrics, read here.

Why Has Burmistrov Struggled?

While Burmistrov was once a positive player, it’s not to say he was flawless. Him leaving for the KHL wasn’t the same as say Jaromir Jagr going to play for the Avangard Omsk and returning to the NHL a few years later. Burmistrov had positive effects on his team, but was not an All-Star. He had areas which needed improving. Many were hoping he’d fill out his offensive potential in Russia and come back a more dynamic player. Unfortunately, it appears as though all his stint did was turn his flaws into even more commonly occurring habits.

Skating East-West rather than North-South was something many found frustrating. Hanging onto the puck for too long was another. These types of things would have been easy for Burmistrov to augment on the KHL’s larger playing surface.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that caused his dip in execution, but there seems to be no logical explanation other than the style the KHL allowed him to play wound up being detrimental to his development here in North America.

Why Claim Him?

It was logical for the Coyotes to pick Burmistrov up in a lost season. Sure, there’s little to gain, but there’s even less to lose. Giving high first round selections another chance is common in the NHL. The Jets have done it a handful of times themselves with the likes of Keaton Ellerby and Al Montoya.

Making these waiver claims works out for teams occasionally. A player who pans out in these scenarios is however, an anomaly. If looking for an example while keeping the theme of Jets related players intact, Ron Hainsey comes to mind. After the Montreal Canadiens drafted him 13th overall but could never continuously work him into their lineup, Hainsey would go on to establish himself as a consistent 30-point defender with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers. To this day, Hainsey remains a steady player. He’s producing yet another serviceable campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now, saying advanced stats fail because of Burmistrov (outlier) would be the equivalent of saying Burmistrov will pan out because it happened once upon a time with Hainsey (outlier). He probably won’t. Anomalies aren’t safe to bet on. But with absolutely nothing to lose, claiming Burmistrov is at least worth a shot. After all, he is only 25-years old. Given the strange timing for his negative dip in shot differential, perhaps an equally strange bump in the right direction is in the queue. Arizona would be in for a real treat if he ever came close to the ceiling he was believed to have on draft day.

Closing Thoughts

It’s important to identify that Burmistrov is an extreme outlier with unique variables. It would be foolish to use this bizarre case as a means to bash the usage of shot differentials. Corsi remains a successful predictive tool and should be judged on what it projects the majority of the time, rather than an individual’s abnormal career trajectory.

Burmistrov figures to draw in the Coyotes lineup for the first time Friday night against the Anaheim Ducks.

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4 COMMENTS

    • Not really. There’s a much larger list of Russians coming from the KHL (Panarin, Vasilevsky, Komarov) to the NHL and succeeding. Burmi is just a really weird player.

        • I get it, he had frustrating tendencies from 2011-13 but his positive effects still trumped them. It’s really too bad he didn’t erase them and develop into a top-six centre.

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