Free agency pitfalls, fanalyst edition

Every year I go into the start of free agency with the goal of not letting it consume my day because for the most part, it’s just teams exchanging depth players with one or two big splashes here and there. Even then, we have an idea of where the more impactful players are going to sign a few days before they’re announces. It always draws me in, though. There’s just something about the constant stream of news & rumors breaking that makes you want to pay attention even if most of it is insignificant at the end of the day.

There was no greater example of that than in 2012, which was my first time “covering” free agency as a blogger. I had all my articles written on Shutdown Line & was prepared for a big day. Then a huge storm happened the night before & knocked out my power for two days. I was so pissed. It was my first time getting to play fake reporter & I was left in the dark on basically everything. Then I opened my computer two days later only to find out that nothing happened. Parise & Suter hadn’t signed yet, the Hurricanes signed Joe Corvo, Sami Salo went to the Lightning, Alexander Semin was still unsigned & that was basically the end of it. I didn’t really learn my lesson the following years, this one included. I was glued my phone or computer for most of the day wanting to fire off the first take about Tyler Pitlick signing with the Coyotes or whatever the latest signing was at the moment.

What always gets me about this day is how much information people like me have to regurgitate & how we have to act like we care about the best interests of every team in the league. I don’t care what the Calgary Flames do 85% of the time, yet I spent at least five minutes staring at their CapFriendly page thinking about what the hell their long-term plan is after signing Jacob Markstrom & Chris Tanev. As analysts, we we’re always the first to question everyone’s team building philosophy and say what could have done better. Hockey is probably the easiest sport to do this in because there are a lot of sub-optimal signings, trades & draft picks made every year. Sometimes I just want to say “not my team, not my problem,” but it doesn’t take much to set off the alarm.

Even with how mundane the signings & trades were this past week, it felt like everything on social media was some dick measuring contest on who could have the most correct take, the prettiest chart or throwing a fit because someone had a slightly incorrect take on a signing. I fell into the trap, as well. You have to pretend you’re an expert on at least 100 players just so you can get a quick word out on Twitter with whatever chart you made with your take added on. I don’t mind it sometimes. Even if you watched the games, it’s hard to throw out a detailed, substantial report out on someone who you last saw in August at the earliest. I know TJ Brodie’s a good puck-mover and a very solid player, but do I really know if he’s a better fit in Toronto than Tyson Barrie?

Defensemen analysis is even trickier for me because I feel like the player’s environment has more of an impact for defenders. Brodie was a mainstay in Calgary for years with Mark Giordano. What’s going to happen when he’s paired with Morgan Rielly? Are the Leafs just getting a less-turnover prone version of Tyson Barrie, or is Brodie good enough to put their team over the top? That’s the only thing that matters for a team like Toronto, right? Going deep in the playoffs? Sometimes I think the old free agency mantra of “acquire good players & sort it out later” isn’t good enough for a team like them who wants to get over the hump.

Same for a team trying to get out of the basement like the New Jersey Devils with bringing in Ryan Murray, who is a top-pairing defender or a third pair guy depending on who you ask. I think Columbus insulates their defensemen to a point (Jack Johnson’s numbers weren’t awful there), while New Jersey seems to be more of a trial by fire type of situation when it comes to fitting defensemen into their system. It’s a venture worth trying for the Devils because they gave up so little & they’re in a position where they can take bets on players like Murray (and Andreas Johnsson) for mid-round picks. I get the argument that they shouldn’t be trying to make the roster better, but I’ve also rooted for teams that have gone this route & got trapped on the eternal rebuild cycle for a decade. The Devils actually won two lotteries and the most lopsided one-for-one trade in recent NHL history and they’re still on this hamster wheel, so I understand being fed up with losing despite doing everything “right” in the off-season.

It’s a tough dance. A signing like Craig Smith is probably the easiest to analyze because you have a guy who scores goals & drives play going to a good team with two great centers for not much money on a three-year deal. There’s a less than 10-percent chance that deal is going to end up poorly. Meanwhile, you have his ex-linemate Kyle Turris going to Edmonton on a two-year contract after the Predators bought him out. What does he need to do for that to be a good signing for the Oilers? Put up 40+ points? Drive play as their third line center? The Oilers got virtually nothing offensively from their third & fourth lines last year, so all Turris needs to do is not get destroyed on the shot ledger & provide 10-15 goals for this to work, right? Or is it better to sign a defensive player like Johan Larsson, who will at least keep the puck out of the defensive zone while McDavid & Draisaitl are on the ice? The Oilers are stuck with players on the wings whose value lives & dies by how many goals they score in Neal & Chiasson. Would a player like Larsson help fix this or will the scoring depth that Turris could add help more?

You can ask the same questions about Tyson Barrie & how much better he makes the Oilers because of the concerns about his defensive play and how he didn’t turn the Leafs into a juggernaut last year. What does he have to do for this to be a successful signing for the Oilers? Run their power play? Drive play on their second pair? Be a good fit with Oscar Klefbom after he returns from injury? Most weren’t happy with how he played for the Leafs even if he was still a good puck-mover last year, albeit not an elite one and prone to the big mistake like most defenders of his ilk are. For all we know he might have an identical season & Oilers fans will be happier with it because of the boost in power play production with McDavid or him simply not being Kris Russell. It might not be concern until it comes time to offer him a second contract, though.

Ultimately I want players to get paid well & put into positions to succeed, which is why I kind of hate the free agency hot take barrage that goes on every free agency period even if most front offices make it fun. It’s easy to point out the flaws in a plan when 30/31 teams fail at the end of the season. I have appreciation for fans that just want to see good, entertaining hockey for a few months with some playoff rounds at the end of the year. I also get the “Cup or Bust” mentality because well, that’s the whole point of this. The Taylor Hall signing is a good example of this. Even with him in the fold, I don’t know what the Sabres plan is after this year, but if I’m a fan I am stoked that they just added someone who might end their playoff drought. As opposed to if they did nothing for the rest of the offseason and tried to hype up Cody Eakin as their big acquisition. You never know which you’re competing with is going to fall off the face of the earth (Hi San Jose!).

Other Hockey Thoughts

  • Circling back to the defensemen point, I honestly lose track of which ones are good or bad unless we’re talking about the elites or AHL fringe players. With the data we have now, we can get a good idea of what happens when they’re on the ice & make impressions on what their own impact is, but there always seems to be a lot of fluidity or players who don’t have a huge impact one way or another. Your Olli Maattas of the world if you will. They can play 18-20 minutes every night and you won’t remember much about their game except for a few goals scored off point shots or the occasional mistake that leads to a goal against. I don’t know if Ryan Murray falls into that group or not.

    There’s certain defensemen who just exist within their system and get you solid results but have a pretty neutral impact in one way or another. Murray was that until this most recent season where he only played 27 games. He’s always been an above-average player with most of the stats I track too, so I’m inclined to say that he should work in New Jersey since the skill is there. I also think it’s wise of Columbus to move on from him when they have to re-sign Pierre-luc Dubois and can graduate guys like Dean Kukan & Vladislav Gavrikov to play his minutes for not as much money. This goes back to what I said earlier about Columbus protecting their defensemen & how they’re better than most teams at integrating talent.

  • I am not in the camp of the Hurricanes needing to overhaul their goaltending, even though it seems like they’re done with the Mrazek/Reimer tandem. If they were able to sign Corey Crawford it would be a different story, but moving one of them to make a trade for someone like Joonas Korpisalo is an expensive way of rearranging deck chairs. Even if they go big game hunting & trade for Frederik Andersen, I still wouldn’t be a huge fan of it. Most of the want for a goalie like Andersen stems from the goalies letting them down in two particular games. It’s very similar to why some Leafs fans want to move on from Andersen, so I don’t get the desire the team has to make this switch.

  • Is this offseason perfect for the Winnipeg Jets or what? There’s so many random depth players & TJ Galiardi clones on the market for them to sign that they must have been having a field day when free agency opened. Add in the random good move in trading for Paul Stastny and it was the most typical Kevin Cheveldayoff summer I can think of. I wonder if they hope that Stastny can help fix whatever happened with Laine’s goal-scoring falling off the map this year, because that’s the one thing that can get them out of bubble team purgatory if they aren’t going to trade him.
     
  • Torey Krug had the most predictable contract of Friday, although I didn’t expect him to have the same cap hit with Justin Faulk given his power play production. I’m not that concerned with him not fitting in with St. Louis even though he’s not the same player Pietrangelo is. I do wonder how Boston will fare without him, though. They always seem to have someone “next in line” to replace whoever is leaving. Krug & Hamilton were there when Seidenberg declined & Boychuk left. Matt Grzelcyk has posted some outstanding numbers on Boston’s third pair for years so logic says that he takes over for Krug on that second pair while they fill the third pair spot from within. I’ve always appreciated his offensive skills and I feel like that will be tough for Boston to replace. Or at least that’s what I thought until I remembered that McAvoy will likely “figure things out” on that power play and the Bruins will remain good for the next decade.

  • How about the Ducks making a great signing for the first time in a few years? They’ve been lurking in the weeds as a rebuilding team since the Carlyle redux fell apart, so the Shattenkirk signing came out of nowhere.

  • I am going to miss having Justin Williams on the Hurricanes. Was the epitome of not needing to be the fastest or the most skilled player on the ice to be successful. He was always in the right spot to receive a pass or deflect in a point shot & always took the quickest routes to loose pucks. He has more history with the Los Angeles Kings than the Hurricanes, but he might be the most popular player in the fanbase despite that. There was just something about him always scoring that big goal or making that one key play when the team needed it the most. Then there’s the antics, can’t forget about those. I just appreciated him because he has all the intangibles that the 200 Hockey Men spew wax poetic about and he’s actually good at the sport.

    How many years did he score 20+ goals or have at least 50 points? He was one of the best play-driving wingers in the NHL for over a decade, while he was in his 30’s! This isn’t even getting into how he had most of his best seasons after recovering from two knee surgeries & a torn Achilles. It’s hard to think of a good comparable for him because he’s had such an abnormal timeline & players peak earlier than they ever did before now. You have those rugged, goal-scorers like David Backes & Andrew Ladd who fit the Williams mold while they were in their prime years. Injuries & age sadly took their toll on both of them & they’re both limited in what they can do now. Williams somehow avoided that & didn’t miss a game for the latter part of his career. He’s a unique player in that sense.

    With that being said, I am not looking forward to the “the team misses Williams leadership” diatribes that are going to happen when the Canes go on their first losing streak next season. It’s coming, you know it.

  • One of the biggest tropes I fall into every year is the idea that a team “needs” to trade someone because they have to get under the cap. We did this with the Golden Knights last year after they spent most of their cap space & draft capital on Stone & Pacioretty. They had to trade Erik Haula & Colin Miller. The former was moved at the deadline & is still a free agent while the other was replaced by rookie Zach Whitecloud in Vegas. Sure, some teams panic by making a move early, which is why Teuvo Teravainen is in Carolina, but it’s usually one of the more expendable contracts that ends up getting dealt or the team in cap trouble ends up stashing some players on LTIR once the season begins. Hell, the Leafs reacquired David Clarkson’s contract last year to increase their LTIR cushion while they were going through their own cap problems. Point is, teams usually find a way out of it & the moves are a hundred times more boring than you trick yourself into believing.

    Although, I do want to see how this works out for Vegas this year since they’re apparently about to trade Nate Schmidt to sign Alex Pietrangelo. Schmidt’s been such an important player to them for years.

  • Some team should sign Erik Gustafsson. Not because he’s important or anything, it’s just that I enjoy watching him play and how he has no regard to where a defenseman is supposed to be on the ice. It makes for very fun hockey games. He didn’t play like this at all when the Flames traded for him & it was very disappointing. If you’re acquiring a player for their offense, it’s my opinion that you should just let them roam and accept the consequences later when you’re giving up a breakaway from the red line in.

Missing Pieces

‘Tis the season of free agency and trades. It’s normally a fun time for me because I spend all day posting snapshots of my All Three Zones data highlighting what certain players do well and how they can help their new clubs. This year, things are a little different. My database has grown exponentially the past two years and it’s so much easier to share my work on programs like Tableau now compared to when I was first starting out. More data is good, but it’s also overwhelming.

If there was one thing I loved about CJ Turtoro’s All Three Zones player cards it’s that they were simple and pretty easy to understand. You had three or four stat categories & bars showing how a player ranked compared to the rest of the league. Zone entries, exits & shot contributions are a big part of what drives good results in hockey, so these charts were helpful for providing a quick snapshot of how players performed in terms of transitional play & creating offense. It didn’t capture /everything/ about a player but it wasn’t supposed to. These charts were a huge hit and gave people the first “real” tangible look at my data that wasn’t just Excel columns that I tried spruce up.

The simplicity of the charts were great & why they still have use today, but they were meant to be a supplement to the tested metrics & models we have now rather than a replacement. When I started tracking these stats, the initial goal was to help explain the “why” behind what makes a player a good play-driver and which areas of the game they excel at. Entries, exits & offense are part of that, but obviously not the whole thing. Every year there’s a handful of players whose entry/exit stats don’t line up with the on-ice results, mostly ones by trusted Expected Goals models like Evolving Wild’s and Micah Blake McCurdy’s. One of my favorite follows on Twitter, JFreshHockey, wrote a good article explaining the limitations of this data & why relying on one chart can be misleading, especially when it’s not lining up with their on-ice results.

He brings up the Leafs trading for Tyson Barrie as an example. Barrie’s a player with very spotty on-ice results in terms of Expected Goals, most of which relates to his defensive play. The microstats backed this up to an extent, as he was very poor at defending zone entries but even his offensive impacts were low compared to how many shot assists & zone exits he racked up during his time with the Avalanche. He had a mediocre season in Toronto with his zone exit stats not changing much. What did change was his impact on zone entries, as he didn’t lead many rushes at all and his overall offensive contributions saw a drop as well.

I’ve been skeptical about players from the Avalanche for years because it seems like any player who is a good skater will put up great entry/exit stats there. It’s easy to move the puck up the ice and get into the offensive zone with control when you’re playing with Nathan MacKinnon or Gabriel Landeskog. The Avs play at such a high pace that a defenseman who thinks offense-first like Barrie would thrive on a team like that compared to anywhere else. That said, Toronto is a team that can play a similar style to Colorado, or at least that’s the way it looked on paper.

The Maple Leafs defensemen didn’t enter the zone much at all, the lone exception being Morgan Rielly. Barrie fell in line with the rest of the team and that took away a big part of his game. He also exited the zone at a lower rate (but at a higher percentage) than he did in Colorado, so the two areas he excelled at were mitigated & most of what was highlighted in Toronto was his shoddy defensive zone play and low-percentage offense.

Again, on paper this looked like a trade that could have worked because he filled a need for the Leafs as a right-shot defenseman, but with that one key element of his game taken away his flaws were exposed more. It does beg the question of how valuable a puck-rushing defenseman like Barrie can be if the team he is on is forcing him to stay back. If his defensive play stays what it is, most of his value is going to come from producing chances off the rush & outscoring his problems. If your team isn’t allowing him to do that then, well I don’t know what the point was of acquiring him in the first place.

The Hurricanes faced a similar problem last year when they signed Ryan Dzingel. Needing someone to score goals & help on the rush, he seemed like a good fit on paper and the prevailing thought was that they have enough forwards to insulate his defensive shortcomings. He had an awful season and most of his skill ended up being wasted with him being stuck in the defensive zone for most of his shifts. Carolina is a strong forechecking team that dumps the puck in for most of their entries & Dzingel spent most of the year trying to find his way in a system that he wasn’t a fit for. The Sabres also got burned by this with Marcus Johansson, albeit in a different way because MoJo’s microstats didn’t change much in Buffalo. It’s just that his on-ice impacts have been mediocre despite this for his entire career & he’s always thrived as the second wheel on his line. Whether it’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, Charlie Coyle or Nico Hischier, he played his best when he wasn’t the main driver. Buffalo tried using him as a center and while he was still creating entries & high danger passes, it didn’t help the Sabres improve because they were either not finishing those chances or were just empty calorie plays that didn’t result in anything.

That’s kind of a long tangent, but you get the idea. There’s always more layers to player analysis rather than him just being good at one particular stat. Just ask the Buffalo Sabres. It also gets complicated because there’s different ways to look at zone exit stats. A player could have a high Possession Exit percentage, but it might be with a small workload (see Victor Mete) or mixed in with a lot of turnover (see Oliver Ekman-Larsson & Patrik Laine). At the other end, you have players like Josh Morrissey & Niklas Hjalmarsson who don’t have a lot of clean exits, but don’t turn the puck over either. The same comparison can be made about players who are weak on entries, but strong xG players because they’re great forecheckers. That or they play on a team that places more emphasis on the forecheck instead of attacking off the rush & are just more of a fit stylistically. Think about Tampa Bay this year. They became more of a forechecking compared to previous years & players like Ondrej Palat & Yanni Gourde saw their microstats change as they fit into the new system. What happens if/when they get traded?

The data I track isn’t as detailed as the stuff Sportlogiq or Stathletes puts out, but it’s still a lot to manage. I have nine tabs on my latest Tableau that look at everything from entries, exits, pass types, forechecking & special teams. All of it is displayed in a team-wide view for reasons mentioned above. At some point that gets overwhelming to sort through when there’s 10-20 signings and trades happening in a day. Building a viz with all of this stuff factored in is also a daunting task because if I’m overwhelmed with the amount of variables in front of me I can’t imagine how someone seeing these stats for the first time must think. Especially when I feel like there’s two or three new stats derived from my data coming out on a daily basis that I don’t have much control over. The most I can do is highlight some key points & maybe build on them later because you’re not going to catch everything on social media or with a single dataviz.

Yesterday’s Max Domi-Josh Anderson trade is a good example of this. Domi excels in most categories pertaining to offense (passes, high danger plays, controlled entries, etc.) while struggling defensively. He is also prone to turnovers more than almost any other forward in the league. His skillset might be more valued than that of Josh Anderson, who is more of a straight-line player who was one of Columbus’ best forecheckers the last two seasons. He’s also two years removed from a 27-goal season. Some might look at how the Lightning won and argue that you need players like him down your lineup to win. A counter-point is that there are 20 other teams who have Josh Andersons throughout their lineup and the main reason Tampa won is because of their high-end skill, which is what Domi brings to the table.

I think it’s easy for teams to be happy with a player like Anderson because he’s not going to do a lot to hurt you even if he goes into a shooting slump. He kills penalties, forechecks & is usually on the positive side of the ledger in terms of territorial play. Then you have Domi, whose value is tied into how many points he ends up with at the end of the season. Columbus’ best passer last year finished the season on the Anaheim Ducks & their most dangerous offensive player outside of Pierre-luc Dubois is one of Seth Jones or Zach Werenski. So, it’s easy to see how Domi can help.

A player like him is harder to find, but also tougher to deal with in bad shooting years if their defensive play remains poor. Fans don’t care how many zone entries or high danger passes you’re creating if they’re not resulting in goals. Granted, some of that is out of the player’s control, which is where most of the disagreement is with microstats & stats like Expected Goals.

The most a tracker like me can do is record the events a player is responsible for, so things like defensive zone coverage, shot velocity and other factors that might go into a goal being scored can get lost. It’s just one of five players on the ice, after all. I have my limitations as a tracker, so the data will have its limitations at being able to capture everything. I can’t control how people use it, but the most I can say is to recognize that we’re measuring results & we’re looking for patterns in certain players. Max Domi has shown to be a good passer over four years of data, which is good! Is it good enough to make up for his defensive shortcomings? That’s up to your discretion. Marcus Johansson was also a good passer & a skilled player on zone entries over four years of data. Is that enough to make up for his mediocre stats elsewhere? That’s tougher to say, because Boston & Washington were able to make use of his skillset. Buffalo struggled to do so and now he finds himself on a skeleton of a roster in Minnesota. Jack Hughes is an “elite transition player” because he has been very good at carrying the puck into the zone & making a pass afterward. It hasn’t translated to anything yet, but he was only 18 years old last season so there’s more to work on with him than a player like Pavel Zacha, who has been in the league for years with a pattern of empty calorie plays.

Again, interpret the results for what they are but recognize the limitations, the sample size & the amount of nuance that goes into analyzing a large dataset like this.

Third Season

In the process of rebuilding my zone entry/exit database, I was looking through my inaugural project from 2013-14 and got a little nostalgic. This was when zone entry tracking was in its beginning stages and the most we knew was that carrying the puck into the zone was more optimal for dumping the puck when it came to creating offense & winning games. It lined up with common sense but having the numbers to back it up was groundbreaking at the time.

What was ironic about that particular season was that the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup, a team that dumped the puck in more than anyone & played a pretty ugly brand of hockey. Every team was trying to get “bigger and tougher” to compete with them and the Bruins at the time & most games were a bit of a slugfest. On the other end, you had the Chicago Blackhawks, who were consistently one of the best offensive teams in the league and the gold standard for what an offense based off controlled zone entries can look like. Who was another team that ranked well that year? The Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was Jon Cooper’s first full season as a head coach, they lost Steven Stamkos early in the year to a brutal leg injury & traded Martin St. Louis at the deadline. Yet they were still one of the top offensive teams in that year & one of only six teams in the league that carried the puck in on more than 50% of their zone entries. Their forward corps was anchored by free agent signing Valtteri Filppula & a handful of rookies by the name of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat along with second-year player Alex Killorn. Also lurking was Nikita Kucherov, a second round pick from two years prior who they gave a shot after the injuries to Stamkos & others. He had only 18 points in 52 games, but showed a high degree of skill and an incredible ability to create plays out of nothing off the rush.

They ended up losing in the first round, but it was easy to see the seeds of what they were building. It was going to be a team that lived & died by offense and defended by simply having the puck more than the other team. It took seven seasons, but they finally climbed that mountain & won their Stanley Cup. Only in a completely different way than what their original blueprint was.

That’s right, Tampa Bay was a dump-and-chase team this year & we saw that in full display with how they closed out their series against Dallas. Sure, they still have a lot of guys from that 2013-14 team and the top-end guys like Kucherov & Brayden Point weren’t going to be forced into playing like grinders, but the rest of the team played a very similar style to those Kings teams of the early 10’s. Alex Killorn & Tyler Johnson were winning puck races & setting up quick deflection plays on a matchup line with Anthony Cirelli while Ondrej Palat played the support role on their top line with Kucherov & Point. Same goes for Yanni Gourde, a 20+ goal scorer who had a tough year and thrived as a puck-hound on a third line with trade deadline acquisitions Blake Coleman & Barclay Goodrow.

My 23-year-old self might be a little disappointed in what this Tampa Bay team has become, because I loved in the 2014 team so much and wanted that to be the blueprint of how hockey is played in the future. I didn’t find dump-and-chase or games where teams traded forechecks very interesting. I considered dumping the puck in a “turnover” even when I was tracking things like puck recoveries to see if some teams were better at it than others. That and the style of hockey was just boring to me because it seemed like something that dragged a lot of good players out of the game. I saw so many talented players on teams I cheer for get lost in fourth line or healthy scratch purgatory because they couldn’t adapt to this style of play from juniors or college & goal-scoring just seemed to take a backseat to players who would just kill the clock for 8-9 minutes.

Just like bands I didn’t give a chance until my mid-20’s, my views have changed since then. Sure, a team whose only strategy on offense is dumping the puck in & playing bumper cars on the forecheck will have bad results. Just like a team who doesn’t want to dump the puck in at all will probably spend most of their time turning pucks over in the neutral zone if their team isn’t skilled enough. I don’t find games that are mostly dump-and-chase that interesting to watch as a fan & would prefer it if most teams in the league played like the Colorado Avalanche. That said, we have better data now that shows the strengths & drawbacks of both strategies.

The old studies of Eric Tulsky still hold true. Carrying the puck into the zone is the optimal way for creating offense. A more recent study by Ryan Stimson showed that carries with a passing play are even better for creating higher percentage shots (and created a metric to weed out empty calorie plays). Other studies by Stimson & Alex Novet show the value of disrupting zone exits and forcing turnovers on the forecheck. What’s one way of forcing turnovers? Dumping the puck in. We also have better ways of measuring how effective teams are at dump-and-chase with some of the newer data like puck recoveries, exit disruptions & Charlie O’Connor’s forechecking tracking project for the Flyers. As it’s true in all sports, it’s all about optimizing what you have in your roster, which is what Tampa Bay did in this playoff run.

I tend to get highway hypnosis with the amount of hockey I watch every season & I feel like it reached a new level this year with how many teams seemingly play the same way. There’s a lot of nuances to the game that I miss and it’s why I hope the memo to teams this off-season is that they need to get “grittier” because it got Tampa Bay over the hump. It worked for the Lightning but I’ve see how this story goes when a team that doesn’t have a Brayden Point or a Nikita Kucherov to freelance & take over a few shifts. Same can be said for teams that don’t have an Anthony Cirelli in their middle six or guys like Killorn, Johnson & Gourde who can still be great checking line players at high price tags in down seasons.

Tampa Bay had the players & the star talent for this to succeed, but when most of the league tries to play like this and what you’re left with is 25 teams who are defensively sound carbon copies of each other and their peak is that they might win a playoff round or two if they get lucky. Unless they have the star power to break the game open, that is. The salary cap forces this to an extent, but Tampa’s had to deal with this more than any team & they still kept their stars. The Lightning have always been kind of an odd-ball team, though. Their only tank picks on the roster were drafted over a decade ago, their two stars were drafted in the second & third round, they’ve missed on more first round picks than they’ve hit on & they’ve been able to trade those misses into good players like McDonagh & Sergachev. They’ve been in a cap jam for almost five years now & the most they seem to do is trade an expendable piece like JT Miller and fill their depth from within. It’s a tough model for any team to follow regardless of what you want your team identity to be. They’ve got another tough off-season coming up so it will be interesting to see what they do while front offices focus on how to copy them.

Final Thoughts

  • Sometimes I worry that I dehumanize the players when I analyze the game & did my best to take the whole “playing hockey in a bubble during a pandemic” thing into account in my breakdowns on Twitter. Rewatching how the Stars played in Game 6 really put that into context because they looked flat out exhausted until the third period where they desperately needed a goal. They were down at least three regular forwards for Game 5 and played their best game of the series, surviving a ton of zone time & still putting up 18 scoring chances. It was a great, gutsy showing but I think it took most of their energy out of them. They didn’t have much legs for most of Game 6 and it was evident in that 6v5 sequence at the end of the game where they couldn’t do much except shoot from the outside a few times after nobody could get open or create a seam. They did what they needed to have a chance in this series, it’s just that Tampa could play the same type of game with better players.

  • I said this on Twitter, but Blake Coleman is a pretty unique player in how he made the show. It’s not often you see a player make the NHL at 25 with the same team that drafted him because most players who finish all four years of college become free agents. The Devils signed him instead and he played 23 unimpressive games in his first call-up stint. Fast forward to the next year & he’s part of an important shutdown line with Travis Zajac & Stefan Noesen, posting very solid play-driving stats in a tough role. Then he repeats this level of play the next two years & scores 20+ goals as a bonus, all of which came on a bad Devils team. He is the rare case of a player figuring things out in his late 20’s, which basically doesn’t happen nowadays with hockey players peaking earlier & entry level contracts being at a premium.

    What’s even more interesting about him is that he has just gotten better since his rookie season. His first year with the Devils was a case of him finding a niche & running with it, but his stats across the board have improved since. He is one of the few physical players that will carry the puck end-to-end to play keep away instead of grinding out the clock, which is likely why the Lightning paid such a high price for him. Just look at his stats with the Devils.


    Even I was a little surprised when I saw this, but this is part of the reason why his line is so effective. Yes, they’re dumping the puck in most of the time but the ability to strike on the rush is there if they need it, especially with Yanni Gourde as the center.

  • Speaking of unexpected stats, how about Cedric Paquette making the only cross-seam pass of the game the other night? I honestly think that was the first one of his career.

  • Another fun stat is that Patrick Maroon was one of only two Lightning players who carried the puck in on more than 50% of their entries in the Cup Final (the other was Brayden Point who had an insane 84% Carry-in rate in the post-season). Granted, this is only on 16 entries, but it was weird to see Tampa’s fourth line making the most plays off the rush out of their bottom-nine in the game the other night. I’ve always liked Maroon as a player even if he can’t play big minutes. I went on a Twitter rant the other day about why guys like Brandon Pirri are never used as power play specialists on the fourth line & I think Maroon is one of the few who has been able to fit into this niche. He plays a little more than your typical fourth liner & is more of a net-front guy on the power play, so it’s a different situation. Still, I always thought his skill was a little underrated and I would take him on my fourth line any day of the week.

  • While Tampa is being praised for their forecheck, Dallas’ was also very good when it came to recovering the puck. It was a key to their success all playoffs long, but you saw the downside of it in the Final. They were still good at getting to the puck, it was just that had a few players who struggled to make any plays or produce any offense with their zone time. Jason Dickinson & Andrew Cogliano in particular. I used to get so frustrated watching Dallas’ younger players because I knew they could play in the AHL but it always seemed like they weren’t allowed to do much outside of the “system” once they got to Dallas. Roope Hintz broke out of this rut & so did Denis Gurianov. Dickinson has carved out a nice role for himself as a checking line player but I can’t help but wonder if there’s more there because it seems like all he’s allowed to do is skate in a straight line.

  • After watching Gurianov excel in the first two rounds & finish off Vegas with that one-timer from the right faceoff dot, I can’t help but wonder why the Stars got away from that on their power play in this series. Their top power play took up most of the time & was focused on setting up Seguin or producing rebounds. The injury to Hintz probably gave them incentive to ride that first unit, too. Still, Gurianov’s arguably their best power play weapon outside of Pavelski & they still could have worked him in on that top power play unit without it disrupting much. I thought that could be one thing they might go to in that late third period power play when they were desperate for any offense. He had only four shot attempts on the power play all series, after having 18 in the previous three rounds.

  • Shoutout to Anton Khudobin for running with this opportunity Dallas gave him. He was such a good goalie during his brief time with the Hurricanes and I was sad to see him go.
  • I didn’t think Shattenkirk was great in Tampa Bay during the regular season, even if he was a massive bargain for what they got him for. He was light years better in the playoffs, especially at leading breakouts. I had wondered if this part of his game was gone with the knee injuries he had in New York. He looked like he did when he was with the Blues during this playoff run & I wonder how it will translate to a new team next year. I don’t know if “offensive zone specialist” is a real term for a defenseman, but that’s what I thought he was going to be limited to with him not being able to move & avoid checks as smoothly as he used to. I’m interested to see where he signs next year. Also wonder if Tyson Barrie is looking at this & thinking it could be him next year.

Getting off the mat

The light at the end of the tunnel. It’s so close, yet I can feel another multiple overtime game keeping me from a full night of sleep. Between my training and trying to stay on top of my tracking work, the past two months have been a real grind. The end is near, though. There are, at most, two games left of the playoffs and my first ever powerlifting competition is on Sunday. Balancing the two has been a tough act along with real life so that might be why this post-season has lasted six months instead of just nine weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast when the qualifying round started. There were so many teams and I was embracing the weirdness of this tournament as long as they kept everyone inside the bubbles safe. Then I just hit a wall. I’m not sure if it was the five overtime game in the first round, the Hurricanes imploding against Boston or just everything adding up overtime, but I crashed. Hard. So much that I ended up taking a series in the Conference Finals off because I legit could not focus when I tried to work for a whole weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tracking games & all. It’s a brutal, time-consuming job but the stats are always fun to glance over at the end of games. Like how many shot assists Brayden Point had at the end of basically any Tampa Bay game or Mathew Barzal’s zone entries. It’s just something I enjoy & I feel like I kind of got away from focusing on that as the playoffs went on. Some of my statcaps weren’t getting any traction & I tried a little too hard to focus on the coaching/tactical side of things, which led to me making a lot of posts that made no sense or pointing out things that were ultimately trivial in the end.

Then I would get frustrated that people didn’t care about them because of all the work I put into it. Sometimes I forget that this data is new to most people, so the most I should do is post what happened & what it means instead of trying to come across as some “hockey genius,” (which I’m not). Yes, most of it is pretty straightforward, but there’s more I could have done to expand on it instead of trying to sound like I’m Mike Johnson.

I needed to remind myself that it’s okay if people don’t care or notice a post. The world is a disaster right now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and there’s lots of other sports going on right now. If I’m feeling burned out on hockey then I can only imagine how a casual or neutral fan feels. It was just a frustrating season for me because I wasn’t making any real progress as an analyst. No writing gigs, a decrease in Patreon support, countless tweets that were just me yelling into the void. I didn’t appreciate the “jokes” everyone made about how I’m basically going to be useless once the NHL’s tracking data becomes public either. Seeing people I respected talk down about my work behind my back instead of giving me feedback when I asked for it also got me down (I probably took those a little more personally than I should have.). But I legit didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing this at the beginning of the year. It took me rebuilding my database in February & a few conversations with people around the stoppage.

Things have been going a little better since then. The data is so much easier to access for patrons than it was when I started this in 2016. It’s even easier for non-patrons to get a snapshot with my Tableau skills getting better. I’m close to rebuilding my data archive so we’re going to have four seasons of data to work with by the end of the week. So why am I so frustrated with where I’m at? I don’t know.

Everything can be better. I haven’t found an optimal way to share post-game stats & the All Three Zones data can be even more detailed than it is now. There’s data I’ve tracked that I haven’t even shared yet because organizing the basics is a huge task on its own. That’s kind of the niche I’ve settled in, though. Not book smart enough to fit in with most of the analytics crowd & not hockey smart enough to fit in with the player/coach crowd. It’s not a bad middle ground to be in, but I’m hoping there’s another level I can get to next year. Maybe I’m already there but I can’t see what’s happening because my days have been nothing but hockey, training & housework for two months?

It’s sort of like this Dallas Stars team. How many times have we said “holy shit, this team is out of their element!” after they were down two or three goals only for them to come back & win? How long were they in that middle ground of the NHL where they couldn’t seem to find the right mix to get them into the playoffs? I still don’t know if they’re that good of a team, but they keep finding ways to come back & win no matter how many times we say that they suck & don’t belong in the playoffs. They’ve slowly made a fan out of me over the years because of how similar their online fanbase is to the Hurricanes. Dallas is a bigger market & has had better talent, but we were all frustrated about the same things for years and savor the good seasons when they happen. It’s just a shame they couldn’t meet in the Cup Final, but hopefully that happens next year.

Hockey Thoughts

  • Thank god the last two games were more competitive and interesting because I am not sure if I could stomach Tampa Bay just forechecking the hell out of the Stars for 60 minutes to close out the series. If they were skating around & outscoring them it would be one thing, but both teams just getting the puck deep & keeping play on the boards doesn’t entertain me much. It’s why I couldn’t get interested in last year’s SCF with Boston & St. Louis. That and Tampa Bay is going to win that battle nine times out of ten unless they’re playing from behind. Brayden Point’s line is going to do whatever they want once they get the puck, so it was great to see Dallas start to push the pace a little.
  • I’m impressed with how well Dallas is at controlling scoring chances despite whatever the shot count says. It’s in line with how they played in the regular season (7th in xG against), but it didn’t matter because they couldn’t score a goal to save their lives. They’re finishing a little better in the playoffs & the good defensive play has held up for the most part. Game 5 was probably their best performance, outchancing Tampa 18-12 & allowing only one cross-seam pass (which didn’t happen until overtime).

    I also feel the need to hammer this point home because whenever a team wins despite getting outshout & winning the xG battle, someone from media makes a snide comment about the shot attempts like it’s 2013 and analytics nerds only look at Corsi. We’re beyond that now!


    As good as Dallas is at defending, it can only take you so far in the playoffs if you don’t have any scoring or top-end talent to back it up. Dallas’ offense was better than they showed in the regular season & we’re starting to see it come around. Jamie Benn was great in the Conference Final, Joe Pavelski is one goal away from matching his regular season total, John Klingberg is still one of the most creative players in the league at making plays from the point. Game 5 was, by far, Tyler Seguin’s best of the playoffs so we’ll see how much Dallas has left now that they’re letting their best players open it up a little more.
  • I still can’t believe Yanni Gourde went over 40 games without scoring a goal this year. I’m not sure if he felt the effect of Tampa trying to play a “grittier” style or if it was some insane shooting luck, but he has found a great niche for himself as a puck hound in these playoffs. He’s been on the same line with Coleman & Goodrow all post-season (I think?) and leads all players in puck recoveries off dump-ins. By a wide margin, actually. It’s been cool to see him seamlessly change his role after spending most of last season with Stamkos as his most common linemate & scoring 20+ goals. Also fits the old “acquire as many good players as possible” team building philosophy.
  • As someone who tracks microstats & tries not to miss the big picture, analyzing Esa Lindell is tough. He is a total zero when it comes to moving the puck, but consistently ranks high as one of the top players at forcing dump-ins & negating zone entries. This is easy to see this when watching the Stars, too. He’s always playing high in the neutral zone, looking to poke-check or hip-check anyone who dares challenge him with the puck. He plays with the puck like he’s killing a penalty even if there’s 20 feet of open ice in front of him. He has exited the zone with control on only 21-percent of his attempts this post-season and 19-percent this series. Only Jamie Oleksiak has a worse Zone Exit Rate on the Stars & his regular Possession Exit rate of 25-percent was comparable with the likes of Kris Russell, Olli Maatta & Connor Clifton. Did I mention he kills an insane amount of penalties?

    In other words, he’s a defensive defenseman. Nothing out of the ordinary on a good team. The weird part is that his on-ice stats are all pretty lousy no matter which source you check. The terrible zone exit rate & the lack of offense explains some of it, but he has never looked great from a defensive perspective either. He wasn’t especially bad this year going by Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, which estimates isolated impact, but he hasn’t exactly been Niklas Hjalmarsson either.

    With how good he is at defending the blue line, you’d expect his on-ice impacts to be a little better. The fact that he sends the puck off the glass for all of his exits is one thing, but he is one of those players where the macro-level results don’t lineup with some of the micro-stats tracked.

    On a personal level, I always wondered if Lindell’s style of play had to do with coaching because he scored 14-goals in his lone AHL season (and had 11 goals last year, somehow) & is known for showing some high level skill in the rare event that he’s in the offensive zone. It’s just that he’s been programmed to play a certain way since entering the league & can’t shake old habits. I don’t think this is the case because he’s on his third coach now & his playing style hasn’t changed much since Lindy Ruff left. It is one of those things I always think about, though.
  • I was ready to crown Victor Hedman with saying he had one of the best playoff runs I’ve seen from a defenseman (yes, better than EK65 in 2017). Then he went onto have his worst game of the playoffs with eight failed exits & a brutal Expected Goal differential. Just goes to show that I have great timing with my hot takes. (Seriously though, he’s played like 800 minutes the past two months. I’ll cut him some slack).

Historic Game Score & the 1999 Dallas Stars

ZUBOV23

Dallas’ Stanley Cup run did not cross my mind when I was thinking of quarantine projects. The Red Wings, the Avalanche and the Penguins got most of my attention when thinking of who I wanted to see historical data on, but Dallas wasn’t high on my initial list. Once a friend asked me to track it and helped me get video for most of the games, I dove into the roster and they were kind of a hidden juggernaut.

Six Hall of Famers, 51 wins and Ken Hitchcock as their head coach during the peak of the Dead Puck Era. This isn’t even counting Jere Lehtinen, who should be in the Hall of Fame, or good veterans like Darryl Sydor and younger talents who ended up playing big roles like Jamie Langenbrunner. Getting out of the gauntlet that was the Western Conference wasn’t an easy task, but they had the talent to keep up with higher scoring teams and the system to thrive in that low-event hockey environment where defense thrives and stick penalties are ignored.

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Corey Watches Old Games: Red Wings vs. Blues, 1996

opening faceoff

Hockey was a secondary sport to me as a kid. I went to my fair share of Caps games back in Bondra/Oates years and I could name a decent number of players from hockey cards & video games, but I couldn’t tell you any game that I remember watching before 2008. The games were always on so late and my child attention span couldn’t keep up with the games even in the trap-era. Football & Pokemon consumed most of my time.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the game today and the era that I came up in. The early Ovechkin/Boudreau Capitals hooked me on the sport and stars like Nathan MacKinnon keep me watching games today. There’s a certain lore associated with the 90’s, though. I always felt like I missed out on this time because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. My first hockey game was in 1998 and I had no idea I was watching four Hall of Famers at the time. Everything just went over my head at the time & games were mostly background noise to me.

I’ve been interested in tracking some classic games for that reason. It was a different era of hockey that I don’t know much about beyond the stories I hear on podcasts. Tracking the Miracle On Ice game for Chris Peters’ ESPN article was a cool introduction to this, because the game almost looked like a different sport compared to what I’m used to watching. While hockey in the 90’s wasn’t that much of a culture shock, it was a different game. The pace is slower, big-hitting defensemen had more value, goalies were free to make bad decisions, icing the puck was another way to get a line change among other things. I’ve watched only a handful of games from then, but I can already tell there were a lot of things (and penalties) that you could get away with then that you can’t now.

Still, the greats from this era are legendary. I always wondered how guys like Gretzky, Lemeiux, Jagr, Sakic and Yzerman would grade out compared to today’s game. Comparing across eras is a tough exercise because the rules and playing styles were so different (especially goalies), but I always wanted to see how some of the old greats look through the view of more modern stats. Not so much to debunk any myths, but more to see just how good some of the old dynasties like Detroit were. That and I’m a sports nerd at heart, so these types of research projects are what we live for.

Since we’re all grounded indefinitely, I figured now is a good time to start this and the 1996 double overtime classic between the Blues & Red Wings is one I’ve had my eyes on for awhile. It’s only a second round series, but it was a year before Detroit won their first Stanley Cup and on the other side, you had a Blues team featuring Wayne Freaking Gretzky as their captain. Nick Lidstrom was also one of my favorites to watch when I started tracking games in 2011. Even at 41, he was one of the best in the league at leading breakouts and disrupting entries at the blue line so I wasn’t passing up a chance to watch him in his prime.

I also like that it’s a scoreless game up until the end. That’s the reputation the late 90’s had and I like tracking games that aren’t dictated by one team sitting on a lead for a period. Plus, it’s got the full vintage ESPN package with Gary Thorne and Bill Clement that I’ve always enjoyed on the highlights. Now that the short biography is over, let’s get on with the game.

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So, about yesterday…

For only the second time in my Hurricanes fandom, the team decided to be buyers at the trade deadline. Heavy buyers. Not the “Sergei Samsonov for Bryan Allen” or “Ryan Carter & a draft pick for Cory Stillman” type of trades. No, these were the types of moves that get you on the front page of NHL.com for five minutes before they switch to the next headline. It was the most productive deadline day the Hurricanes have had that didn’t involve trading expiring contracts for draft picks.

On the whole, three trades were made. One unanimously approved deal, one rental that seemed fueled by desperation and one very strange trade that seemed to come out of nowhere. The first two are pretty clear-cut. Vincent Trocheck is better than any center Carolina has not named Sebastian Aho and Carolina acquired him for a UFA, a good roster player, an older prospect and another forward prospect. You make that deal nine times out of ten. Adding a rental like Vatanen isn’t ideal, but the price wasn’t too bad. Janne Kuokkanen could be a very good player in a couple of years and is facing another roster logjam next season. I’m not as high on Vatanen as I once was, but he is likely better than whoever was next in line to replace Brett Pesce on the depth chart.

Now to address the elephant in the room….

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“Quality vs. Quantity”

With the Hurricanes road to the playoffs being such a trek, just making the final cut felt like a huge accomplishment. It looked like the playoff drought was going to reach year 10 just a few months ago and since New Year’s Eve, the Canes fought an uphill battle to get themselves back in contention and put an exclamation point on it by ending the drought. A fanbase that desperately needed a jolt in the arm is rejuvenated again and there’s a reason to be excited about Hurricanes hockey.

That said, expectations for their upcoming series against the Washington Capitals are pretty tempered. Realism starts to set in when you go on a 30-12-2 run in the second half of the season and still only make it as a wild card team and end up facing the defending Stanley Cup champions to boot. I can’t speak for the entire fanbase, but most fans I’ve talked to are just happy to see playoff hockey again after watching admirably from afar from almost a decade. Although, there are some who would like to see them carry this stretch of play into the post-season since we have no idea what will happen next year. Still, this fanbase just wanted a winning team to cheer for again and they’ve gotten that now.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Do the Hurricanes in this series? If you want to be blunt, yes. Any team has a chance in this post-season, unless you’re facing Tampa Bay (shoutout for not mailing in Game 82). All it takes is a goalie playing out of his mind for a series to completely turn the tables and Mrazek is showing that he might be able to steal a couple games for them. Beyond that, this matchup is closer than your typical wild card vs. conference winner series. It’s also one of the more interesting matchups to keep an eye on because it’s a real battle of quality vs. quantity in terms of how they play at even strength. 

I know, it seems silly to call this a close matchup. Washington won the season series, they’re coming off a Stanley Cup win, Carolina is inexperienced with a rookie head coach, they haven’t had a true “starting” goalie all season and you would go through three Washington forwards before you get to the best Carolina player. Why would anyone give the Canes a chance? Again, it mostly comes back to five-on-five play and who can get to their games first. Carolina has built their reputation on being a dominant team at even strength, running an aggressive forecheck and piling up a lot of shots on a nightly basis. It’s been their bread-and-butter for years, but the team has amplified this approach since Rod Brind’Amour took over as head coach. Carolina is averaging about 64 shot attempts per 60 minutes during five-on-five play and owning 54-percent of the attempts. Better finishing (thanks for Nino, Minnesota) and a solid run of play from the goalie tandem of Mrazek and McElhinney has yielded more wins.

Washington, on the other hand, has struggled to carry the play at five-on-five for most of the year although they have improved, ranking as a top-ten team in Corsi For-percentage team since the trade deadline. They also have out-performed their Expected Goals rate according to Evolving Hockey’s model, averaging over three goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five. They’re an interesting team because they have a group of high-end players who could out-perform their expected results and it only takes or two breakdowns from Carolina for them to cash in. With a 4-7 game series, that’s all you need sometimes and it doesn’t help that they’re backed by a lethal power play with Ovechkin standing in the left faceoff circle waiting for one-timers until the league decides isn’t allowed to that anymore.

Factoring in all of that, this series could definitely go either way but I can see why someone might give the edge to Washington. Sure, they might get “outplayed” but they’re a team that can make the most of the few chances they get. It’s how the Penguins beat them two years ago. They’ve also been playing better the past month even if Carolina is the stronger five-on-five team. On the other hand, Carolina has started to see some rewards for controlling the shot clock and I could see them frustrating Washington with a couple of goals off turnovers. There’s also the goalie factor but past playoffs should tell you not to predict these things.

Forecheck vs. Counter-Attack

The main thing to watch for this series is how each team controls play. Washington is more talented, but their mindsets aren’t that different. Carolina’s made a habit of being a fast, physical team that uses their forecheck to win pucks and create favorable matchups in front of the net. Washington is also a pretty physical team, albeit much more skilled and they prefer to attack off the rush.

Entries vs. Exits (1)

What we’re looking at here is how often each team enters & exits the zone with control of the puck. Ideally, you’d like to see your team in the upper right quadrant where Washington is but there are teams that still make their living through dump-and-chase play. In the 25 games I’ve tracked for Carolina, they fall into that category. What’s interesting is that it’s mostly by design because they aren’t having any problems exiting the zone with control, they are just more reliant on their forecheck to create chances rather than attacking off the rush.

Does this play into their favor against Washington? In theory, yes. The Caps are a team that doesn’t like dumping the puck out of the zone and looks for that one extra play to get the puck up the ice with speed. They are pretty good at this, as they can stretch the ice out if they need to but their forwards will come back to help carry the puck or lead a shorter breakout. One of their favorite things to do is make diagonal passes across the neutral zone and have one of their forwards skate the puck in while beating the next layer of the forecheck.

5v5 Defense Exits vs. Turnovers (10)

Washington has a few defensemen who are suspect to turning the puck over, so Carolina might be able to expose them here if they get to their forecheck. With what we know about failed exits leading to goals against, this could be where Carolina makes their mark in this series. It’s easy to breakdown a team’s structure if they’re constantly under duress and this is has been Carolina’s goal with how they’ve played this year.

Dashboard 1 (10)

The forecheck has been a team-wide strength for this Canes team and it shows in how they’ve defended breakouts this year. Every forward on the team is above the league average in how often they apply pressure when the other team is exiting the zone. It doesn’t always force a turnover or a clear, but the process is there. It’s been a strength of this team even when they carry the puck in. Carolina was able to frustrate the Caps early in their first game last month with this.

forecheck

This is a dump-in off a line change and Aho is the first forechecker. He forces the Caps to reverse the play and quickly follows the puck to the other side of the ice while Nino Niederreiter follows him. Washington tries to counter this by going across the ice but Williams is there as the high forward to intercept the pass. They can then get to their 2-1-2 forecheck with Aho & Williams forcing a turnover from behind the goal-line. This could lead to a decent chance with better execution, but everything up to that was on point.

Now, there are a few things worth pointing out here. First, the Hurricanes obviously lost this game. Second, the Capitals are prone to turning the puck over but they’re also one of the best teams in the league at breakouts. If you look at the zone exit chart I posted earlier, you’ll see that most of their defense is above the league average at exiting the zone with control, the notable exception being Brooks Orpik. Some players like Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have fallen off this year, but they’ve played the Hurricanes enough that they probably know how to deal with their forecheck. Washington made some notable adjustments in this game.

Being aggressive has its advantages, but it’s also a risk when you’re dealing with a team that has some high-end skill like Washington. Most of their defense is experienced and can make that first pass even if they’re under duress and once they beat the first wave of the forecheck, they can attack off the rush more freely because the neutral zone is more open. This is especially true when you’re facing a team like the Hurricanes who give their defensemen more freedom to join the attack.

HIGH FORWARD

Dougie Hamilton actives from the blue line and tries to create a chance off a rebound. Carolina is being kind of risky here because there’s no high forward covering the point for him and they are banking on either one of their guys scoring on the rebound, or that one of the forwards will be able to get back before things go awry. Once the play dies, Tom Wilson flies the zone and the one forward high in the zone for the Canes does his best to run some legal interference on Ovechkin. It doesn’t work and the Capitals get a 2-on-1 break with Andrei Svechnikov trying his hardest to get back into the play.

If there is anything that can cause a game to slip away from the Canes, it’s things like this and you can look at it from a couple angles. First, they had a defenseman pinch with the high forward not doing a good enough job to cover his point. Second, all the pinching defenseman did was send a soft backhander off the goaltender in hopes that they could score off the rebound. It’s something that has worked for them at times this year, as illustrated in Micah Blake McCurdy’s series preview, but there is a lot more Hamilton could do here besides send a backhander off the goalie. Maybe have him circle the net more and look for a pass instead? Inefficient offense is something that has plagued Carolina for years and while it has gotten better this year, you still see some bad habits creep in, especially when the Canes are trailing.

When the Canes get to their game, however, they tend to play a little smarter in the offensive zone. Hamilton, in particular, is an interesting case because there are games where he dominates and is the best player on the ice for either team. He’s a perfect defensemen for how this Canes team wants to play because he takes a lot of risks and is usually the first one back in the play if he makes a mistake that leads to a rush the other way. Mistakes don’t appear to bother him and when he is on, Carolina can compete with any team.

hamilton entry

This is using the forecheck to create a more dangerous chance. Hamilton immediately joined the rush once the Hurricanes won the faceoff and made a play at the line to create the initial entry. Williams and Aho took over after that, but Hamilton gave them some favorable numbers at the blue line and created the entry in the first place. It’s a decent example of how a back can contribute to transitional play even if he’s not the one breaking the puck out.

The other way Carolina has involved their defense on the forecheck is moving the puck low-to-high to create more space in front of the net. Low-to-high plays (i.e point shots) are not an efficient way to go about business if you’re looking to score, but Carolina has had trouble creating passing lanes from behind the net and across the slot, so they’ve had to look for other ways to open up space. One way to do this is moving the puck to the center up the ice up high and having the defense activate to potentially get to the rebound.

pesce

With the Caps playing a man-to-man defense, moving the puck around quickly like this can break down their coverage and Brett Pesce does a great job here of trying to break free. Nicklas Backstrom stays with him the entire way and is able to disrupt the chance, but the design here wasn’t a bad idea. Also shows the advantage of Pesce playing on his off-side with Faulk, as it’s a more dangerous chance for him coming from that angle. Ideally, you want the Caps to start noticing this more and hopefully that opens up some more passing lanes lower in the zone, especially from behind the net. Hockey is such a read-and-react game that this might get lost, but maybe the coaches pick this up and the Hurricanes can start to create more dangerous chances once Washington starts to cheat towards the defense.

System Breakers

What makes Washington a dangerous matchup is they have some players that I like to call “system breakers.” Basically, it’s another word for a superstar talent who can change the complexion of the game with just one shift. Ovechkin on the power play is the obvious one, but the guy I want to talk about here is Evgeny Kuznetsov. He has 72 points but by some metrics, he isn’t having a great season. He’s a negative possession player and is having a dreadful season defensively going by Evolving Wild’s RAPM metric. However, he has been a thorn in Carolina’s side this season and he is capable of making a play or two that could put the Hurricanes in a hole. This is especially true when you consider his playmaking ability.

kuznetsov passes

High danger passes are passes from behind the goal line or a pass that traveled across the slot. Kuznetsov is one of the best players in the league at completing those plays and it’s something the Hurricanes need to be conscious of. I mentioned earlier that the Caps are a team that might be able to outperform their Expected Goals rate and Kuznetsov exemplifies that. He is one of those players who might be getting hemmed in for an entire game but it only takes him getting one shift where he breaks free for him to change the outcome of the game. Carolina found this out the hard way in their first matchup where he found TJ Oshie for a beautiful cross-ice pass to put the Caps up 1-0 and more recently in the rematch at home.

vrana

Here’s what the Caps breakout looks like at its most dangerous. Kuznetsov beats the first wave of the forecheck and notices how the Canes flood his side of the ice in hopes of shutting the play down before he can get any speed going. He can’t move the play north himself, but he makes a little cut to the left and finds Jakub Vrana with a major step on Micheal Ferland, who burns him for a quick goal. Carolina took a risk by having two defensemen go to Kuznetsov’s side of the ice in hopes that Ferland would be able to cover whoever is coming down the left wing. He got caught flat footed for one second and the Caps tie the game.

Elite talent can breakdown the best of structures and this is going to be a going concern for the Hurricanes unless they can match the Capitals speed. They’re fast enough to where they can probably match them on a lot of shifts, but it just takes one mistake to change the series. Carolina is such a solid team that I think they can control the majority of these games, but it will depend on how they handle the Capitals speed when they start to get on the attack.

Capitals Entries vs. Canes Defense

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Carolina’s top-four has been pretty good at matching the skating of top-end talents that they can keep them to the outside even if they concede the blue line, but you wish Calvin de Haan was healthy to give you some extra stability there. Washington has been one of the top teams in the league at completing passing plays after carrying the puck in, so they’re not going to waste a lot of their possessions. To counter this, Carolina’s defense is one of the best at forcing teams to dump the puck in and shutting down passing lanes after allowing carry-ins, so it will be interesting to see who wins that battle.

Will an upset happen?

Yes, but Carolina needs to take one of the first two games in Washington. It depends if they can get to their forecheck and not allow one or two mistakes to burn them, which was a problem earlier in the season. They also can’t be afraid of being aggressive even if a mistake happens because that’s how they’ve had success this year. It’s a pretty cool matchup to watch because you have two teams that are going to thrive off mistakes. Carolina is waiting for Washington to turn the puck over while the Caps are waiting for an opening when Carolina gets too aggressive. The Caps have owned the matchup this year, but it’s a different game now. Very excited to see how this series goes.

Zone entry, passing & exits stats were tracked as part of the All Three Zones Project. Tableau can be found here

Breaking the hex

The Carolina Hurricanes are going to the playoffs!

I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t a major accomplishment. It’s the bare minimum for a good team in a league where half the teams make it. It’s been a decade since the Hurricanes were one of those teams. There was an overwhelming feeling of relief among everyone in the fanbase when Nino Niederreiter scored late in the third period to put the Canes ahead 3-1 and effectively get them in the post-season, because it’s been the other way for so many years.

It’s weird to say this about a team that has won a Cup since the lockout, but if you’re like me and were too young or not a huge hockey fan at that time, most of what you know about the Hurricanes is disappointment. There was always one thing or another that would go wrong in years where it looked make it as a wild card team and I can’t blame fans who were waiting for the other shoe to drop while the Canes went on this incredible run. You can only get burned so many times.

What made this year in particular so cathartic is that even some of the more patient fans were reaching their breaking point. I don’t want to speak on behalf of everyone since I’m outside of the market, but another year of an offense that struggled to score two goals a game backed by weak goaltending was the last thing anyone wanted, because we had all seen that movie before and the ending always sucked. I definitely had to ask myself a few times if being a fan was worth the headache.

I’ve kind of made a small career for myself as a hockey analyst, but I’ve always stayed a fan and started being more vocal on social media when the team was bad. I took it a little too far sometimes, calling them the worst team in the league on multiple occasions, but it was honestly draining to be a fan of the Hurricanes around December. After an off-season where they were hockey media and stat twitter’s punching bag, tuning in to see the same anemic offense again just seemed like a waste of time. All while Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm are scoring a million goals with their new teams. I got to see them play the Caps a little after Christmas and Washington looked like they were in a different league than Carolina. You had a team with Brock McGinn on their first line matching up against three 20+ goal scorers and the game was just as one-sided as you could imagine.

I was pretty vocal about my frustration with the team even after they started winning in January and it got to the point where a few people had to reach out to me to tell me to knock it off. Some said that I should just stop investing in something that I hate while others felt like they had to remind me that I have a good thing going on with my tracking projects and being a fan is kind of frowned upon in the business. A few people felt the need to bring up my mental health because well, that’s the Internet. I didn’t think much of it because being irrational is what being a fan is about and I wasn’t saying anything else in the fanbase wasn’t saying or thinking. It was almost like I had to apologize for being a fan because I also work as an analyst. Calling them the worst team in the league might have been out of bounds, but most of what I said is out of legit frustration unless it’s obviously sarcastic.

I consider myself a fan of a few teams, but the Canes were always the team I allowed myself to openly root for and I never had a problem with it. That said, I had to dial things back after watching them live because it was clear that this team had a dire lack of talent (one of their top prospects was on the roster that night) and that screaming into the void about the same thing every night didn’t really help. I almost wanted to tell the fans who were still sticking around to just stop watching because it was just Groundhog Day over and over again.

Then January happened. They started rattling off wins, we rallied around Greg McKegg leading us to victories, Curtis McElhinney looking like a starting goalie and the team somehow going on a winning streak without Jordan Staal. It was ridiculous, but it was at least fun to watch every night.

Soon after, they added Nino Niederreiter, which inexplicably only cost them Victor Rask and just like that, this team had a roster that looked like it could compete for a wild card spot. Unfortunately, they were so far out of the race that it looked like a long shot, but this was an important trade because it earned the confidence of the fanbase. Same with extending Teuvo Teravainen. Everyone could understand if this team came up short, but the team had some traction going with a forward corps that was completely undermanned and the front office making this trade showed that they were willing to reward a team that had worked their asses off just get back into playoff contention. They got a little lucky with Nino producing right off the hop, but he was exactly what the team needed at the time.

From then on, things kind of took off. They were winning 7 out of 10 games for two straight months, finally winning a damn game at Madison Square Garden and gaining some attention with the Storm Surge celebrations. Mostly because every Hockey Man felt the need to chime in on it whenever they had the platform, but the team did an incredible job of just feeding of the criticism and working it in their favor. The fanbase loved it and suddenly, they had earned back a lot of the goodwill they lost over the past decade. I see how excited people are to go to games again and how there’s a real buzz around this team again and it makes me incredibly happy even though I’m halfway across the country.

What’s mind-blowing is how different things were just four months ago and I think about what has changed since. They don’t play that differently from how they did at the beginning of the year. Maybe I didn’t give the team enough credit for moves that were made before the year. They aren’t in a playoff spot now if they don’t trade for Dougie Hamilton, drafting Andrei Svechnikov second overall, bringing in Mrazek in the first place wasn’t exactly seen as a great move and they only claimed McElhinney off waivers because Scott Darling got injured in the last game of the preseason. There’s also hiring Rod Brind’Amour as head coach, which seemed to have a positive impact even if I don’t always agree with the tactical decisions.

The player deployment is different and Nino was a huge addition but if Petr Mrazek doesn’t play out of this world the past two months, am I writing a different post now? It’s tough to say, but I guess this year shows how much of a ride one season can be. It’s a sport where one bounce here or there can determine the outcome, so things can seem worse or better than they actually are that times. Perhaps that something I need to remind myself of next time I want to put the team on blast for losing.

Either way, I’m glad that I decided to stick around for this season and can’t wait to see PNC Arena in a couple weeks. Let’s hope that days like this will be normal in future seasons.

 

The losing cycle

A few weeks ago, I said I needed a break from the Hurricanes. So here I am again writing about the Hurricanes. There’s been a lot that has gone down since then, though. After doing nothing at the trade deadline, the team decided to “promote” Ron Francis to Director Of Hockey Operations and will find a new GM in the off-season. Some fans were happy to see some form of change while others weren’t happy. I can sympathize with both viewpoints. The Canes have been spinning their wheels for years now and it’s easy to see why fans want a change with the new owner in town. They got it on one level, even if some don’t agree with it.

That brings us to the next phase, which is deciding what to do with Bill Peters. His timeline is similar to Francis in that fans were on-board with what he was selling for the first few seasons. He wasn’t afraid to scratch players who were higher in the lienup, he had the Hurricanes competing with poor rosters every night and it looked like they were building something with him. Four years have gone by and now the honeymoon is over. The Hurricanes still haven’t made the playoffs under his tenure and the coach is usually one of the first guys to go in this spot.

I have kind of a cynical view on coaching because even on good teams, there always seems to be one, two or twelve things coaches do that annoy the hell out of fans. There’s also a lot that we don’t get to see outside of just systems and lineup decisions. How are they getting their teams prepared? What are they teaching players? etc. Peters has the reputation of being a good coach in some of these aspects. The Hurricanes are consistently one of the top teams in the league at out-shooting their opponents and fans of other teams think pretty highly of him. Watch a Hurricanes game or two on the opposing broadcast and you’ll nothing but nice things about how good Carolina’s breakouts are, how structured their game is and how talented their defensemen are. Hockey nerds love the Hurricanes, it’s true. I’m one of them.

Then there’s the other side of it. Peters has a 131-131-53 record, making his points percentage 6th worst in the league among active head coaches. You can do a lot of good things but if you consistently fail to get results, does the process matter that much? Also how much of it is on the coach? Everybody knows the Hurricanes have two major weak spots. They’re a bad finishing team (ranking in the bottom-10 in shooting percentage again) and their goaltending stinks. These are two problems that have been around years before Peters came to town, so I’m willing to give him some leeway here. Cam Ward’s .910 save percentage in 54 games in 2014-15 was the best goaltending he’s ever gotten and that’s not even league average, so he’s already found himself behind the eight-ball there. The old saying is that if you want to evaluate a coach, just look at how his goalies have played and there’s your answer. The Hurricanes goaltending issues speak for themselves here. There’s an argument that Peters system hurts the goalies but I haven’t really seen a study or proof of it. I’d love to see some further work here, because it could explain some things.

THAT BEING SAID, there’s some blame to go around here. Cam Ward has not been a starting caliber goalie since 2011 and he has gotten a starters workload in every year that Peters has been the head coach. If they had better goalies on the roster, I’m sure this would have never been an issue, but there has been a disturbing timeline with how the goaltending has been handled in Carolina. Anton Khudobin gave the Hurricanes one of the best goalie seasons they’ve ever had in 2013-14 and started the next year as a back-up. He didn’t post great numbers in his first four starts and it took him 14 days to even get another shot. It took him until around January for him to get consistent playing time and he ended up having a sub-par season. He was then traded for Eddie Lack.

It was uncertain if the Hurricanes brought in Lack to be the back-up or spell Ward in a 1 A/B role, but he started the year on the bench had a bad first few games and couldn’t get any starts until December. Last season is a bit of a write-off because of the two concussions, but he couldn’t get consistent playing time even when he was healthy and then there was the whole “make a fucking save” rant which honestly pissed me off more than any lineup decision Peters has ever made. Even if that rant was out of character, it really made me think less of him as a coach. If only because berating your back-up goalie in front of the media when he’s only five games removed from a second concussion doesn’t exactly help anyone. Frustration gets the best of everyone sometimes, but whatever. I wasn’t a fan.

Then you have the finishing problems and a lot of it can be traced back to the talent on the roster. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Jeff Skinner are guys who you can count on for 20 goals and aside from that, the Canes are kind of scraping the bottom. Drafting is the best way to get top-end talent and the Hurricanes haven’t gotten much from here in their history and most of their recent picks are too young to help right now. Every team has a lot of whiffs and sometimes it only takes one or two home runs to turn your franchise around (just look at the LA Kings drafting history). Either way, there’s an argument that Peters hasn’t been given the talent you need to succeed. It’s a fair point, but should they be so bad that they’re consistently shooting at 7-percent? This goes back to the possible “system issues” that I see thrown around all the time and would love to take a closer look at.

It’s also a little annoying to keep seeing how the Hurricanes don’t have the talent to be a “playoff team” when the bar to get in the playoffs really isn’t that high, especially this season. The Metro Division has been painfully mediocre this year and all the Hurricanes had to do is be 5th best out of that bunch, which isn’t saying a lot and they’re struggling to get even to that mark is troubling. This is why fans have been harder on the coaching staff this year and picking apart some of his decisions like playing Jeff Skinner lower in the lineup with guys who can’t get him the puck, giving Derek Ryan top-nine minutes when he has eight points since January and giving Joakim Nordstrom any ice-time at all when Alex Nedeljkovic has outscored him in Charlotte.

They’re all decisions around the edges that add up over time and hurt more when you can’t get a save and average only two goals per game. Replace him with Coach X and he might end up doing the same thing, or he’ll fix one thing and do something else that’s not optimal. It become a case of “he isn’t the only problem, but he isn’t helping.” Which is the argument you’re left with when your team isn’t very good to begin with.

There’s some what-if games you can play with the Hurricanes. Like, I wonder how many more games they would win with .925 goaltending for one season if a goalie is even capable of doing that in Carolina. Would we be having this same discussion or would they be just barely making the playoffs instead of sitting six points out? Would the season be a “success” then? I don’t know. The reality is that the team isn’t in a good spot at this moment and all Tom Dundon has seen is a team that has found different ways to lose and look horrible in the process. So it’s easy to see why they would want some new faces in the building.

I wanted Peters to succeed in Carolina and I’m sure he’ll be a good coach somewhere, but there comes a point where something needs to change if you don’t get results. The constant meltdowns, poor starts and no-shows when the team is on the cusp of making a push don’t exactly reflect well on him either but again, this happened when Kirk Muller was the head coach too. Remember April 2013? I have some time for the argument of getting him a better roster and there’s room to do that. The Hurricanes will have a new boss and loads of cap space. I can also understand wanting a new guy coaching the team because they haven’t been able to win under Peters’ leadership. I’ve also followed the NHL long enough to know that there’s only so much GMs are willing to do in an off-season and a coaching change is the easiest thing you can do. Will that guy end up being better than Peters? He could be! We really have no idea and as Hurricanes fans, we should be prepared for the worst regardless of what they do.