Slava Voynov‘s NHL career ostensibly ended in the fall of 2014, when word of his off-ice behavior reached the league. Voynov spent two months in jail before leaving the country rather than facing possible deportation, but four years later he appears ready for a comeback. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman now has the option to grant Voynov’s request for reinstatement, the final obstacle before general managers could sign the 28-year-old, right-handed defenseman to a new contract.
They should not. Voynov’s supposed on-ice value has never matched reality.
Between the Los Angeles King’s twin Stanley Cup Championships in 2012 and 2014, Voynov got dark-horse Norris buzz in 2013. Even then, but especially now, it was clear that Voynov benefitted from playing on an excellent team without substantially contributing to that excellence.
Voynov’s value to the Kings becomes apparent in his usage, which was sheltered. The following graph shows, over time, which zone Kings defensemen started their shifts, how tough their matchups were, and how many 5-on-5 minutes they played per game. In general, the bottom right of the graph means a sheltered player (lots of offensive starts against weaker competition) and the top left means high leverage (fewer offensive starts, tougher competition). The significance is the relation of the dots to each other. Voynov is in red.
After favorable deployments in his rookie season, Voynov’s workload got a bit tougher in the shortened 2013 season, but it never approached the top-tier difficulty that Drew Doughty saw. In his third and final full season with the Kings, Voynov returned to a more sheltered role.
This context is easy to overlook as the Kings dominated even-strength play for the duration of Voynov’s tenure. There’s a halo-effect tendency to ascribe the team’s domination to Voynov individually, but it does not bear out in the numbers.
Here are three graphs illustrating the percentage of total offense belonging the Kings when Voynov was on the ice (blue) and off the ice (pink) per season.
After that first, sheltered season (when he was paired with a still-viable Willie Mitchell), Voynov consistently saw the team do poorer at controlling shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances when he was on the ice. Only Rob Scuderi and late-career Willie Mitchell saw opponents get more quality volume than Voynov did in his final two seasons.
That on-ice/off-ice effect can also be seen in how Kings forwards fared in their shot-attempt percentages (SA%) when taking shifts with Voynov versus without him.
|Player||Shared TOI||Shared SA%||SA% Apart||Δ|
Only two forwards, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, saw a noticeable improvement in how the ice tilted when they skated with Voynov. Everyone else saw either a negligible difference (Justin Williams) or a marked falloff.
It’s important to note that the possession numbers are all good – above 50 percent – with or without Voynov on the ice. Back then, the Kings were a powerhouse at driving 5-on-5 play, but we should think of this dominance as systemic, not individual. Players who left the club did not bring their shot-attempt percentages with them, but they did tend to bring their impact on those percentages (see Jack Johnson). Voynov’s impact was not positive, though it was masked by factors he did not control – specifically goaltender Jonathan Quick.
In 2011-12 and 2013-14, Voynov saw his sport higher save percentages than any other Kings defenseman saw (94.0 and 93.9 percent, respectively). In 2013-14, Kings goalies were lights out for Voynov despite seeing a team-high 10.1 high-danger chances per hour.
In the purportedly dark-horse-Norris-caliber 2012-13 season, Voynov did not get excellent goaltending, but the Kings shot an uncharacteristically high 8.3 percent when he was on the ice, which happened to coincide with the highest-event hockey of Voynov’s career.
At the peak of his career, Voynov was neither an important player for the Kings nor a good one. If anything, he held his team back – though it’s hard to tell because of great goaltending. Now, staring down the aging curve at the cusp of 29 years, Voynov would be a foolish investment for a GM who would have to wear rose-colored glasses to think he might do in 2018-19 what he never really could in 2013.
Nothing you read above matters.
At the top of this article, I used the phrase off-ice behavior. This is a bad phrase. It’s an unfortunate and unfortunately common euphemism that masks an awful truth: Voynov’s vicious and repeated abuse of his intimate partner. (In consideration of some readers, I have omitted the details from here, but you can read them at the link above.)
Voynov’s crimes should be disqualifying for any organization who might consider signing him. To sign him would be an act of callous negligence for the women, domestic violence survivors, and vulnerable populations in and near their organizations. To frame a potential signing of Voynov as a kind of rehabilitation is absurd. Rehabilitation requires contrition, the making whole of victims, and the assured prevention of future behavior to protect more victims. Exactly none of those conditions have been met, making the notion of rehabilitation as hollow as the NHL’s declaration of principles, a startlingly bold statement coming from the only major sports league without a domestic violence policy.
Voynov is overrated, but the particulars of statistical analysis will not excuse NHL teams from meaningfully engaging with their moral responsibility here. Numbers are not the substance, and they must not be allowed as a refuge.
In his book The Business of Happiness, Ted Leonsis writes about a double bottom line, the obligation of corporations to serve the public good in addition to their stakeholders. The Voynov question is a test for the NHL’s double bottom line. Even if Voynov could win games and drive revenue, how would that balance with their abnegation from setting a standard and protecting vulnerable people? It does not. It cannot. They are on different axes – one measured in dollars, the other in human beings.
This is not about hockey. This is about character. No league, team, city, community, or society is exempt from this issue: not Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, Toronto, San Jose, or Washington. The league and all its teams must collectively and loudly reject Voynov and establish a coherent domestic violence policy. They must do it now.
Headline photo: Mikhail Voskresenskiy
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