11/20/18 -Developing, or not, Julius Honka

Developing any skill is hard. I don’t care if we’re talking about hockey, making a pizza, or learning to write. Skill development is challenging because of the inordinate amount of factors that go into it that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the skill.

School this year has been a unique challenge for me. Our kids came to us out of control behaviorally with learning gaps, un-diagnosed learning disorders, and an extreme lack of confidence due to the aforementioned issues. Regardless of how they come to me I’m charged with putting them in a position where they can be successful on the STAAR exam at a 40% clip for them personally and 60% clip to meet grade level expectations for the state.

What matters is results. Full stop. The extenuating circumstances don’t matter. 75% of my students being served by special education. ESL, or 504 doesn’t matter. The regular gaps of the students not served by a special title doesn’t matter. What matters is how prepared these kids are to succeed on an exam that the school, district, and state can point to as an indicator of success or failure.

Such is life for anyone in a position where they are asked to develop talent in any walk of life. Each different scenario presents unique challenges that people on the outside will not be able to comprehend without being there. When people criticize teachers for a lack of success I tend to laugh because few know what goes into the process of dragging a kid kicking and screaming to learn a subject they don’t care to learn. It isn’t possible to know all of the inputs to the situation from the outside.

Hell, it isn’t possible from the inside. Prior to break I found out a student of mine has a two year old child. How am I supposed to continue to be upset about this student being sleepy at 6:50 in the morning on a daily basis? I can’t in good conscience be mad at this kid, but knowing this information gives me an opportunity.

I can now point out how much better off his child’s life can be if he completes high school. I can work with him to make sure he gets the information he needs while understanding he has significant responsibilities at home. I can build a relationship that shows I care which allows me to feed him negative feedback in an environment where he understands I’m saying it because I care and want him to be successful.

Sports development has one significant difference from teaching kids: the personal responsibility falls on the athlete to use the coaching and tools at his disposal to meet the goals set by the development staff. All of the other extenuating circumstances don’t have to matter to the development staff because in a professional environment the professional is expected to meet the standards of his profession despite any noise on the outside.

Inevitably I would guess most coaches care, but the nature of professional sports is such that if a player isn’t meeting a coach’s expectations they turn to the next man up if he gives the team a better chance of success. There exists a delicate balance between development and success on the ice that organizations have to maintain. The question they have to answer is can a player develop his game while maintaining a level of play superior than enough of his contemporaries in the organization to demand a roster spot?

Julius Honka is not a top four defenseman in the 2019 NHL season. There is a fair debate to be had about whether or not he can ever reach that goal on a championship caliber team, a ceiling set for him with the pedigree of being a mid first round pick. What there can be little debate over is that in the minutes he has been given overall this season he has produced capably.

I pulled a bunch of info from Corsica on the Stars most common five defensemen. I then changed the numbers to their ranks among the five of them. Honka is one or two in most, and goes no lower than third on any of them except ice time. One of the lower ranked ones is individual expected goals per hour, but he, like John Klingberg, isn’t an even strength goal scorer. You wouldn’t expect him to excel there.

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There are a number of inputs to this situation that need to be considered before anointing Honka as being on his way to greatness. Honka gets the easiest zone starts, the easiest competition, and consistently the worst linemates of the five players. Given the first two he should be producing. The last nugget should, theoretically, bring his offensive totals down. It probably does drag his secondary assists down, but he’s tops among these five in primary points per hour. The signal here is that he is doing something right.

The emphasis here should be on something. As in, not everything. The sum total of what Honka has brought to his role this year is positive by almost every statistic you can find. An overwhelming consensus of the available information suggests he has done something right.

Jim Montgomery has pointed out that he wants players taking chances to make offense happen. The idea has been that he can live with mistakes, if the mistakes come from a player trying to make a play. Many of the mistakes Honka does make come from trying to make a play, but the mental calculus any professional has to work to figure out if he can make a play is off for him right now.

It isn’t so far off to make him a liability in the role Montgomery and his staff have given him however. If you look at the sum total of his skills with the assumption that all are equally valuable, or look at the events which transpire with him on the ice without proper context, or disregard the statistical information generated by his play the conversation becomes disingenuous and unfair to the player.

If you watch Honka play you see good flashes and bad flashes. You see the inconsistency in his game that holds him back. We’ve seen Honka do magical things with the puck that make him believe he can do anything with it, but we’ve then seen those same situations bite him in the ass enough that it is going to naturally make him question his ability as a hockey player while minimizing the amount of skill he puts on display.

Honka, at his best, skates the puck out of the zone and springs the offense with crisp outlet passes. He gets into the offensive zone and sets up goals with quality vision. At his worst Honka is passive defensively for fear of making a mistake, gets pushed around physically, and turns the puck over because in his mind he feels like he can make plays that to this point sometimes lead to turnovers.

And in the end, the statistical indicators show that this year Honka has done quite a bit more good than bad in the role given him by the coaching staff. Having a discussion about Honka without the context statistics provide is not going to provide the proper nuance necessary to fairly look at the overall game he has played making any discussion that begins with that premise pointless.

The injury to Klingberg has provided an opportunity for Honka to show that he can be the type of top four defenseman the Stars thought he could be when they drafted him. I pulled data from Corsica again for the last five games for the four regular defensemen still playing.

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Honka, largely, has been the worst of the four. He has the points, but other than that statistically he has been the worst of the regular four. Added responsibilities and being forced into the situation of being “the guy” on a pair more frequently have exposed Honka is pretty clearly not a top four defenseman right now, or, at least, not a play driver for a defensive pair.

On the other hand, Miro Heiskanen is proving that he is already a top pairing defenseman in the league at 19. With Klingberg out of the lineup he has a 72% xGF rate to go with a 53% Corsi and almost 90 minutes of even strength ice time. The kid is an absolute horse who, with Klingberg out, has stepped up to show he is the future of the franchise defensively.

Honka hasn’t, and that’s ok. When the roster is in less flux he will slide back to his role ideally with more positive experience that will allow him to fine tune that rough mental calculus that leads to turnovers and mistakes. He may not develop into the guy many hoped he would, but as a bottom six guy who can put points on the board he still has value.

And, using the data tracked by Corey Sznajder from 2014-2018 this image shows why it’s too early to just toss Honka out.

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The kid has something. It’s just a matter of him finding the right balance between risk and reward so he can unlock it consistently.

6 thoughts on “11/20/18 -Developing, or not, Julius Honka

  1. Great stuff. This is one of the most logical/sensible approaches to Honka that I’ve read. There are things he does with his feet that most of our defenseman not named Miro can do and his defense isn’t horrible. His skating is the 2nd smoothest on the team and his edge work has been insane at times. But if you pay attention to just him for every shift, he looks like when he doesn’t have the puck he’s thinking way too hard. He will stare/zero in on his guy so intensely that he loses his peripheral vision and sense of what’s going on around him. No other player on the team stares and keeps his head focused directly on only their guy the way he does. Idk how a coach hasn’t pointed it out to him. That overthinking also leads to the hesitation he displays at times that lead to turnovers. There’s still clear potential – he has skills that most defenseman don’t, he’s just got to figure his entire game out.

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      1. Yeah, you’re probably right. I just know I’ve been yelled at for doing the same thing back in the day and getting shown the video opened my eyes to how bad it actually was. It seems like he’s making gradual progress though, so I’m still holding out hope it clicks one day.

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      2. That makes sense. I feel like last year we saw it with him, but every good aspect of his game was drained away. He was just there – no flash, skill, or risk to his game. It does seem like he’s more comfortable now, but that line of “should I go or stay” seems pretty undefined for him right now.

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