Optimizing the Leafs Lines & Pairs

Well – after a hiatus that lasted a couple years, the site is back up (for now)!

One of the most frequent topics I see on Hockey Twitter and am asked about is the Leafs line-up. More specifically, who should be playing with who in order to optimize the talent the Leafs have. I am going to present a few possibilities based on numbers, what has had previous success and what coaches tend to lean toward. The one stipulation here, a healthy roster. If everyone is healthy, what would the lines and pairs look like?

Goaltending: Andersen. End. He has been great for the Leafs and similar to most NHL teams, without your goaltender healthy and performing, it is difficult to have success. He has kept the Leafs, who don’t always start on time, in games with timely saves in key situations.

D Pairings: There are a few options here, and yes, you have to consider that Babcock has his favourites. With D, coaches want to know what they’re getting, they want to be comfortable with who they have on the back end. Here are some options:

  1. 51 – 44, 23 – 8, 2 – 22
  2. 44 – 8, 51 – 23, 2 – 22
  3. 44 – 51/8, 8/51 – 22, 23 – 2

The 1st option is optimal and there have been signs that Babcock likes the top pairing. When the Leafs need to generate offense, Babcock pairs 44 & 51 together and has seen successful. Pairing two high end skating defensemen together, who move the puck effectively, is a very good combo. When you consider Boston has one mammoth line that needs to be shutdown; depending on these two to mitigate the danger off the rush, exit the zone quickly, and control the puck when there is proven success, is a safer bet than 44 – 2. Playing 23 – 8 together supports the top pair with two effective D who can both exit the zone (especially Dermott) and defend the rush effectively. Rielly, Gardiner, Muzzin and Dermott are very clearly the top 4 because all of them consistently make good decisions with and without the puck, effectively defend the rush and exit the defensive zone with possession. Having a bottom pairing that you can shelter with the veteran presence of Hainsey and skating of Zaitsev allows you to control the minutes more effectively. Hainsey is an effective defender, but has issues with speed, and a pairing with Zaitsev will allow for lesser quality of competition – reducing the chances of mistakes ending up in the back of the net.

Option 2 sees Gardiner and Muzzin flip. While these pairings didn’t work to start, at least Babcock wasn’t comfortable with it, it needs more time. Adjusting to a new system, in a less physical style of play (Eastern Conference), with more speed takes time. Putting Muzzin and Rielly together and letting them adjust to each other over a longer period of time will allow them to be comfortable with each other’s tendencies. This is key in stressful situations, a shut down role against Boston in the playoffs, for example. Having Gardiner and Dermott together still optimizes the top 4, in terms of playing the 4 best D in a top 4 role. While Gardiner is prone to Good/Bad Jake, Dermott is a better skater than 22/2 and will be able to support Gardiner more effectively. Both players make excellent zone exits and stretch passes, meaning Gardiner has less pressure to make “the” play when he knows he can move it to Dermott who can also make the pass or skate it out of danger. If paired with Zaitsev, Gardiner knows once he passes it to Zaitsev, it is likely going off the glass, thus, putting the pressure on him to make the play. The more pressure, the more likely you are to make a mistake. With athletes, confidence is key, the more confident each guy is in their partner’s ability to make a good play, the more likely he is to use him, adding another option and lessening the burden.

Option 3 is the Mike Babcock comfort level with a nuance. A part of me thinks come playoff time, Hainsey’s minutes will rise for the reason that the coaching staff is comfortable with him. However, with a 90% chance of playing the Bruins, having a top pair of 44/8 or 44/51 is much more effective than 44/2. When the game is on the line, Babcock has been known to use 44/51, and has shied away from Dermott (likely due to inexperience). With D, it is all about trust, and Hainsey has that trust. Moving Dermott down to the 3rd pairing is less than ideal with the game he plays, but it is a realistic possibility.

As far as D are concerned, when healthy, the 3 players the coaches are likely to rely on are 44/51/8. This is due to play, experience and comfort level. Optimally, 22/2 play in a sheltered, bottom pairing. Marincin and Holl are both viable options, however, it just isn’t a reality with how things have unfolded. The bottom line here is: The top 4 in TOI need to be 44, 51, 8 and 23.

Forwards: There are a lot more options here so I won’t detail them as in depth, except to point out key decisions.

  1. 18 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28)
  2. 11 – 91 – 16, 18 – 34 – 24, 12 – 43 – 29, 63 – 19 – 42
  3. 11 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 18 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42

There are definitely more options, but one thing you will notice is Connor Brown is not listed. Do I think Mike Babcock is going to scratch Brown, 75% no. Scratching Gauthier is the easy decision when you look at the skill. Both Brown and Gauthier kill penalties, which is why I think Brown is likely to stay in. However, you can roll PK units that include: 11, 91, 16, 43, 18, 24 – all have demonstrated an ability to PK or the tools to be an effective penalty killer.

I’d like to see Johnsson played with Tavares and Marner. He’s just as effective at getting to loose pucks as Hyman, but is a better skill option once the puck is recovered. He plays with the same tenacity as Hyman, and I think having Marner passing to Johnsson is more dangerous than passing to Hyman.

Another line I’d like to see is 24 – 34 – 29. We got a glimpse of that and it was highly effective. Kapanen’s speed and tenacity creating space for Nylander and Matthews to do their thing would be neat. Not as neat as my personal favourite: 24 – 34 – 16, 18/11 – 91 – 29, 18/11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28)

The odds of that combination are slim, but I would like to see it tried. There have been brief glimpses into Marner/Matthews and they’ve both stated they want to play together. Those brief glimpses…terrifying. The luxury of having 3 quality centres is it allows this type of tinkering. We already know Tavares/Marner works, so why not try Matthews/Marner (which seems to work) and Tavares/Nylander. Put Kapanen with Matthews and Marner as the puck retrieval/speed guy who can create space for the other two. Tavares and Nylander is an interesting combo that I think is best served with Johnsson. Nylander’s shot has been well documented, and one the more underrated parts of Tavares’ game is his ability to create space. Think about this: Johnsson digs the puck out in the way the Hyman does, Tavares is net front (he usually is) and drawing all sorts of attention. One D on 18, one on 91, that leaves Nylander to lurk and find the open space (which he’s good at) and get his shot off. The centre is likely supporting the puck, meaning defending teams have to have a winger on Nylander – a matchup I’d take. Whether Nylander scores or not, Tavares at net front causing havoc allows for screens, tips and most importantly, rebounds. To be fair, I think the LW can be tweaked with any combo of 11/18/24, but the 34/16 and 91/29 combos are what I would experiment with.

When Kadri comes back, he’s the 3rd line pivot, set in stone. Marleau isn’t coming out of the lineup or playing on the 4th line. So that’s two-thirds of the 3rd line. It becomes a matter of which one of 11/18/24 is left over there. The best part about that, every one of those players is effective both offensively and defensively, so you are not giving up defensively by having any of those players with Kadri and Marleau.

We will likely get our first look on Wednesday night at the 5’9 line of Moore, Ennis and Petan. If it works, then I think it is hard to ignore. However, I don’t see this as a permanent solution because Brown will play and Gauthier will likely see a few games as well. Petan is the easy odd man to rotate with Gauthier at centre and if the “tie goes to the veteran,” then Moore likely rotates with Brown. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering Moore is just cutting his teeth in the NHL and playoff hockey is different. Also, not a bad idea to have guys rested and fresh, which will definitely be discussed on the podcast and/or here.

Here’s what I would do: Andersen in net. The back end: 51 – 44, 23 – 8, 2 – 22. I’d rotate Marincin/Ozhiganov in (but I doubt 22/2 are coming out).I’d try: 24 – 34 – 16, 18/11 – 91 – 29, 18/11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28). If it works, you go with that, because it is down right terrifying. If the chemistry isn’t there, you go back to what works. In my eyes, 18 – 91 – 16, 24 – 34 – 29, 11 – 43 – 12, 63 – 19 – 42 (28). This isn’t a knock on Hyman, as I think he’d be terrific with Kadri in a checking role. Johnsson has shown to be a more offensively skilled player who can retrieve pucks the way Hyman does. If we are going with best lineup, those are the two forward options.

On the topic of rest…briefly. Down the stretch, I’d be resting some of the bigger guns. Ideally, you rest Hainsey a few games, but Dermott/Gardiner need to come back first. Heck, I’d even rest Muzzin a game or two. There’s something to be said for the extra bit of rest going into the playoffs. Up front, when healthy, use the depth. Rest some of the big guys for a night or two. I’m talking Marner, Hyman, Matthews. 34 & 16 are likely to take a beating in the playoffs, Matthews has had injury concerns, there is some merit to making sure both are 100% rested and ready for when the games truly count. Come playoffs, they’ll play. But, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a rotation on the 4th line to keep those guys rested and ready – you never know when a depth player is going to be a key difference maker.

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A Year Later: A Look into My World

First off, Happy 150th Canada!

This is a hockey blog, however, there is a human behind this blog. Sometimes, that human, writes about things not hockey-related. Today, is one of those times. In the hockey world, one of the big things is players/coaches/everyone involved in the game are guilty of being closed off. That is, we don’t know a whole lot about them because they don’t share it publicly, the way other professional athletes do.

Well, here’s a look into my world.

In December, I wrote about my dream in hockey. A lot has happened since then, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Within that post, I briefly touched on the bond with my grandfather (Opa, as we Germans say). Ask anyone who knows me well, he was my world. I lived with him and my Oma for a while growing up. FullSizeRenderIt was with them I learned to swim, to walk, to play soccer, and play with his incredible train set. In tough times throughout my young life, he was the first person to defend me, to support me, to drive 100 kms to watch me compete, to come on school trips with me, and most importantly, to tell me everything was going to be okay. He was my pillar of strength through it all. Weekly McDonald’s trips, just him and I, watching the Germans play football (soccer), building pine cone Christmas trees, and calling him every single day after my Oma passed away (July 2015) to talk to him. What I’m saying is, my whole life, is built on moments with him, because he never missed one.

IMG_1169 A year ago, he passed away, rather suddenly, on vacation with our family, in Mexico. I’ll keep it short. I walked in on him having a heart attack. It is something I will never forget and something I wish no one to ever live through. It is the most helpless, empty, lost, scared feeling you can ever have. That night, while sitting by his hospital bed holding his hand, I tried to leave to get some water. He summoned some Superman strength because he nearly broke my hand, squeezing it to keep me there. That was followed by 4 days of time in the hospital with him, life saving surgeries and significant improvement. Thursday night, I promised I’d bring him pancakes the next day. I hugged him, he talked about how excited he was to go home (Saturday). We told each other how much we loved one another, and shared a long hug…that was the last time I ever saw him. Early Friday morning, another massive heart attack. This time, the damage was done. There was no saving him. My mom didn’t wake us up, it happened at 3am. But, at 9:02am, she knocked on my door. Her face was swollen and red, I knew something was wrong. She asked me to sit down and she gave the news that shattered my world. It brought me to my knees. I don’t remember a lot about that day, its a big blur. But, it is the most painful day of my life, and it isn’t even close.

What happened after his death, it still bothers me. But, I believe in karma, and that karma train is coming, full steam ahead. He never got the goodbye he deserved. I never got the chance to give the eulogy I promised I would, as I did my Oma’s. His dying wishes, unfulfilled.

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The very last photo taken of him. The morning of his heart attack.

So it has been a year. I drive the car he left me, and there are days where it is too tough to do that. His sunglasses are still pinned to the shade above the driver’s seat. I still refer to it as Opa’s car. I still go to McDonald’s every Thursday, just like him and I did for 20 years. I have 22 pictures of him and I pinned on a wall in my room, 22 being his favourite number. I promised him, when Toronto FC started playing better, we’d go to a game. So when TFC made the MLS Cup Final, I went. I went with a Toronto FC jersey that read “Opa, #22” on the back, with the TFC scarf I had given him for Father’s Day. He introduced me to Bastian Schweinsteiger, my first non-hockey, athletic love. When he came to play on April 21st against TFC, I was there. Not only that, I am lucky enough to have the jersey Schweini wore that night, hanging on my wall. My Opa and I had planned a trip to Germany for Oktoberfest 2016, that didn’t happen. However, barring anything extraordinary career-wise, I will be in Germany this year for Oktoberfest. I won’t be with him, but he’ll be there.

So where am I, a year later? Well, those close to me will tell you I’m very different. For 8 months, I was a shadow of myself, almost a ghost. I completely shut down, emotionally. I couldn’t or wouldn’t allow myself to grieve, to feel the pain, to accept what had happened. It impacted other relationships, too. I’ve started to try and unlock the emotional cabinet, to grieve, and finally start to heal. I’ve started to feel a little bit better. The lack of closure has really hindered it. Moments, places or phrases bring tears to my eyes. I’ve cried myself to sleep, or woken up crying because I’ve had a dream about him. Moments in life seem incomplete because he isn’t there. He’s still on the Favourites List in my phone, right above my Oma. There isn’t an hour, let alone a day, where I don’t think of him. I heard a young child say, “Opa! Look how big this French fry is!” and remembered the many times I said that growing up.

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The Last Family Photograph – (my brother, sister, myself, my mother and Opa)

He’s given me life lessons, he’s raised me to push through tough times and make yourself stronger. To be strong for those around you. To conduct yourself in a manner that he would be proud of. To laugh and enjoy the little things. I may look like my Mom, and love hockey like my Dad, but I am my Opa’s little girl.

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I can still hear him saying “Langsam (slowly in English)” when I run down the stairs or calling me “Maus (mouse)”. I’ve got that signature “mouse” tattooed on my right foot, one I had long before he died. One that appeared in every card I received. A symbol of my right hand man, with me, every step of the way…wherever that may be.

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Erie Otters Transition Game: A Theory on Creating Offence

All season, the Erie Otters were the Harlem Globetrotters of the OHL. They scored at will, thanks to their 2nd-ranked power play and the OHL’s top-2 scorers, Alex Debrincat & Taylor Raddysh. In 68 regular season games this year, the Otters scored 316 (!) goals, an average of 4.65 per game! This can be attributed to a few things: 1) high end talent, 2) an offensive system that feeds on speed, 3) commitment to unselfish play. Those 3 things make the Otters extremely difficult to deal with, so let’s breakdown what makes their offence so potent, and why it leads to my favourite offensive theory:

 From your icing line to the offensive blue line, the puck goes North/South. From the offensive blue line on, move the puck East/West.

Having the ability to put the league’s reigning scoring champ (Strome) on the same line as the league’s leading goal-scorer (Debrincat), helps. While it is always helpful to have high-end skill, Knoblauch has all 4 lines playing offence the same way. The Otters play a very Russian-style of offence, meaning puck possession and transitions at speed that make your head spin.

Erie Transition

Against the QMJHL Champs, here’s second line of Cirelli, T. Raddysh & Maksimovich taking 6.7 seconds to move the puck from their crease to the back of the net. The Otters recover the puck and immediately, the centre and weak side winger fly the zone (although Cirelli is still a support option, if necessary). A great first pass from the D allows Raddysh to one-touch the puck to a streaking Cirelli up the middle. Cirelli takes two strides and moves the puck to the streaking winger. Three passes before the blue line, all North/South. The defensive cross-up occurs when Cirelli enters the zone, taking the left D with him. The right D misjudges the speed and unwisely goes for the hit. The miss allows Maksimovich to cut to the middle (East/West). Joseph (21), the back checker, hesitates because he has to respect Raddysh as an East/West passing option in the play. The 2 on 1 created down low happens because of the speed. Yes, the D-man made a mistake, but that often happens in transitions that move this quickly and at the junior level. You catch the team in a bad defensive shape, creating chances. 6 seconds, 3 passes, 195 feet, now that’s a transition.

We’ve seen a full-ice transition, now a half-ice one that depends on the players recognizing mistakes and capitalizing. Enter Alex Debrincat and Dylan Strome.

Strome:Debrincat

This first pass is in Debrincat’s skates, however, the support from Foegele allows the puck to continue moving forward. Foegele wins the battle and 4 Sea Dogs are caught on the same side of the ice. The play really happens when Debrincat picks the puck up. He sees the Sea Dogs forward (37) who looks to be attempting to shadow Strome cutting across, and the subsequent collision that occurs with the D (4). Another avoidable mistake, one that was created by Erie’s transition speed. Debrincat recognizes the open space on the near-side, while Strome uses the confusion at the blue line caused by Foegele and the collision to sneak in the far-side, unmarked. A 2 on 1 with those two ends up in a face-off at centre-ice more often than not, as it does here. From the time Debrincat retrieved the puck in the neutral zone to the goal, 4.3 seconds. Debrincat and Strome both identify the breakdowns in the Sea Dogs play, then Debrincat does a great job protecting the puck and putting it on a tee for Strome to hammer home. There’s individual skill involved, but it started with the transition support in the neutral zone by Foegele going North/South. Debrincat turned it into East/West as he carried it over the blue-line, and moved it across.

Are we seeing a trend? Here’s a fun tidbit: their power play operates the same way. When you can put out a power play unit consisting of Debrincant, Strome, Raddysh, and Cirelli as the forwards, two things will happen: puck movement and scoring chances.

PP Attack

All 4 Otters hit the line with speed, puck going North. Strome forces the D to back off, meaning Debrincat has an acre of space to handle the puck when he gets it just inside the blue line. It isn’t until Joseph, who was marking Raddysh on the entry leaves to pressure Debrincat, that the puck is pressured. Seeing the pressure and the now, wide open Taylor Raddysh, Debrincat makes a great pass through the seam (East/West).

Why is that seam there? Cirelli, stays high, meaning if he goes unmarked, he’s a one-timer option from the high slot and no team wants to give that up. As a coach, you cover that guy and take your chances the 65-foot pass doesn’t get through. The problem is, once Joseph comes over to pressure, the other PK forward (16), has to recognize the switch and take the Raddysh seam. This is a 4v4 rush, as the Otters point man hasn’t joined yet, that’s even strength. Once the pass gets through, Chabot is caught and can’t get back to Raddysh in time to cut off the passing lane to Strome. Raddysh doesn’t one-touch it here, which is key. He opens his shoulder as if he was going to shoot. That little nuance is enough to freeze the goalie. With Strome in perfect position after splitting the D, taking both with him, Raddysh makes the crisp East/West pass across and that’s another tap-in. The Russians scored twice against Canada at the World Hockey Championship on this type of entry and passing play.

Erie is dangerous when they have possession in the offensive end, as well. However, they generate a lot of their clean zone entries because of their transitions. In a game moving more and more towards speed and skill, the Otters are using a brand of hockey made famous by the Russians. It requires the ultimate buy-in from every player, from the D, up. Buy-in to move the puck, to support the puck and to attack with speed, which leads me back the theory: North/South until the blue line, East/West after that. Ergo, attack with speed, and use the East/West puck movement to capitalize on the mistakes in coverage created by the North/South speed. 

A Thank You Note To David Matsos

As many of you know, I do video breakdowns on this site. I’m not always active due to commitments and obligations, and the time required to do the breakdowns. However, this website would not be possible without the hockey knowledge required to break down the video. While a lot of that has come from watching a significant amount of hockey over the years, it really took off because of one person.

In December, I wrote about my dream of becoming a GM in the NHL. In that story, I spoke briefly of the opportunity given to me by the Sudbury Wolves. My time officially came to an end in Sudbury after this season, 2 years that I couldn’t be more thankful for. I am able to provide breakdowns and understand hockey at a completely different level because of David Matsos, former Wolves coach.

In the two years I spent with the team, particularly the year where I was around the team on a daily basis, I cannot say enough about what Matsos and former GM Barclay Branch, did for me. It started with a leap of faith in September 2015, where Matsos was on board to work with me as long as I committed to working with him. Both men took EVERY opportunity to check in with me, ensure I felt comfortable and gave me every opportunity to learn.

Every game I’d clip the video and there were some hiccups at first. I was learning a new program, I wasn’t sure what the coaches were looking for. Matsos (Matty) was unbelievably patient with me, detailing what he was looking for. When I had questions about anything, he never hesitated to answer them. I felt more included and confident as I spent more time with the coaching staff and the program.

Most importantly, I learned two life lessons from Matty, that I have taken with me past my time with the Wolves. The first, preparation is paramount. Pre-game, post-game, and for endless hours on the bus, I would watch as he looked at video of the Wolves or other teams we were preparing for. He spent hours looking at player clips,  recognizing patterns and tendencies (something I learned to do). There was not a SINGLE game where I felt like he didn’t know every detail. He would ask me to pull up video of a play at a certain point in the period, I marvelled at how he recognized and remembered patterns and plays. I realized it was because he showed up at the rink in the early hours every morning to prepare himself for whatever was next. I have taken that same approach forward, it is better to be over prepared and do too much prep, than to be underprepared and get embarrassed.

The second lesson I learned was that it isn’t always about hockey, it is good to care. The reason so many players love playing for Matty is because they know he’s in their corner. He understands that he’s got many personalties and life situations in his room, and that each of them needs a different approach. Its about communication. Rarely, if ever, did I hear him yelling in the room. We had some blow out losses and tough stretches, games where we didn’t show up. I can’t remember an instance where he was demeaning towards the players. Junior is about developing hockey players, but also, people. He really understands that, and it shows in his relationships with his players. For me, he genuinely took the time to get to know me, my past, my dreams, my goals, all of it. Towards the end of my first season and the beginning of this season, I had some family issues. To this day, they are difficult to discuss. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive response from him, the rest of the coaches or Barclay. Every opportunity he had, he asked about how I was handling things, if I needed anything, and how he could help. This type of support allowed me to go to the rink and feel comfortable. For the hours I was around the team, I was at peace. Looking back on it, this was invaluable to my healing. From him, I learned the importance of communication, compassion and understanding how to deal with the multiple personalties and adversities in a given situation. In hockey or otherwise, this is a lesson that I have taken to heart and its had a profound impact on how I deal with everyday life.

I’m going to miss working with Matty. He is one of the toughest guys I know. I’ve seen him deal with adversity in a calm, confident manner and it rubbed off on his staff and his players. Not only did I learn an incredible amount of hockey knowledge from him, but I learned some really important life lessons, too. He’s a great coach because he develops people as much as he develops hockey players.

I will never forget the chance Matty gave me and the incredible learning experience that followed. I owe an incredible chunk of my “hockey education” to him; and for that, I will be forever grateful. I would jump at the opportunity to work for him again, and I hope that our paths cross one day. Wherever he ends up, he will do great things. Success follows great people. David Matsos is an incredible coach, and an even better mentor. It is impossible to thank him enough for what he’s done for me.

Adding a Kap-Sized Wrinkle in the Leafs PP

Here we are. In September, the playoffs seemed all but a pipe dream for the Maple Leafs. The Caps, well they entered the Stanley Cup favourite. Add Kevin Shattenkirk to the blue line and you’ve got the makings of a juggernaut. At first glance, and second, and probably third, many think this should be a clean sweep. Here’s the thing about the playoffs, things rarely go according to plan (ask Jake Allen). There’s something special about the playoffs, the pressure is higher, the games are tighter and things happen when they usually wouldn’t. Let’s face it, if the Leafs have a chance, they are going to need many things to go their way. For starters, Andersen to steal a few games, the power play to run at close to 30%, and then they hope that the young Leafs shine under the spotlight, not fade.

There is no way of measuring how Andersen will perform under the pressure, the same for the kids. But the lethal power play, well that can be measured. At the trade deadline, the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk made an already dangerous Caps PP, more dangerous. If the Leafs are going to have a chance, they need to stay out of the box and hope the PP scheme clicks.

The Leafs top unit, of Matthews, Nylander, Gardiner, Brown and Komarov is easy to dissect. Adding Kapanen to replace one of Brown or Komarov would be a smart decision, the “new” Leaf brings more skill to the PP and another dangerous shooting option (9/18 AHL goals this year were PP goals). The first unit shot breakdowns, brought to you by Micah McCurdy, indicate a stationary set-up; the video indicates the same. hcQ1ZqBp

It is the standard 1-3-1 setup, with a twist. Instead of the one-timer options for Nylander & Matthews, they play on their strong sides. Brown parks himself in front of the net; both him and Komarov handle puck retrievals and move it to Matthews or Nylander. The Nylander and Gardiner clusters speak for themselves: shots are generated by passes from Matthews or each other. Many times this year, Matthews feeds Nylander who quickly gets a shot off. This opportunity presents itself more when the team on the PK employs the Czech Press because Nylander has more space to release. If Nylander has to puck, Matthews creeps into the quiet area of the slot, an explanation for his shot location. He presents himself as a shooting option that requires little time to release the puck after the pass is received.

Here’s the wrinkle: If you replace Komarov with Kapanen, once Matthews creeps in the middle, Kapanen can slide up to the top of the face-off circle. He’s a right-handed shot, opening up a one-timer option. Nylander has shown his ability to thread the needle countless times this season. The Kapanen addition gives him Gardiner at the top with Matthews in the slot (to tip) and Brown net front, Matthews in the middle for a shot or Kapanen on the far side with Matthews and Brown at the net. One of those options will likely always be open and the Leafs have to trust that Nylander will find it. This makes the top half of the Leafs power play similar to Washington’s, who use Backstrom on the half-wall to feed Oshie, Shattenkirk and Ovechkin. The difference: Washington has to respect Nylander’s shot (more than Backstrom) because he’s demonstrated the ability to inflict damage with that, as well.

The Leafs are in tough, that part is not news. Playing with house money, adding a wrinkle to an already successful power play could be the boost they need. Kapanen provides a one-timer option and more player movement by the Leafs, something the Caps would have to adjust for. In a playoff series, there isn’t a lot of time for adjustments, one goal can be the difference. If it leads to win, that may plant seeds of doubt in a Capitals team that has left more questions than answers, in the playoffs.

Redefining the Definition of Winning a Draw

With the new interest in delving deeper into statistics, the one most frequently brought up on broadcasts is faceoff win percentage. While it is important to win draws, the reasoning behind it is often explained incorrectly.

Many times, the broadcast discusses face offs as a win/loss scenario, with no context as to what happens after the draw. I cannot tell you how many times “This goal happened because they won/lost the draw,” is said on a broadcast when there were 10+ passes made and 30 seconds of game time played after the puck dropped.

So, let’s get to the actual purpose of a face off: win possession of the puck. As we know from other analysis, the team that possesses the puck generally dictates the game.

Now that we’ve agreed the purpose of winning a draw is to gain possession, let’s look at the current state of the draws. It is becoming rarer nowadays to see a clean win back for possession. Often, we are seeing tie-ups with wingers battling to see who “wins” the draw. At that point, is it really fair to hang a face off percentage on the centre if the winger wins or loses the battle?

Either way, it is possible for a centre to knock the puck back to his “side,” meaning a technical win. However, if the opposing winger jumps through and grabs the puck, the team that just won the draw has lost possession.

In looking to analyze possession off the draw, coaching staff and fans should understand face-offs as a scenario with 4 possible outcomes: win draw-win possession, win draw-lose possession, lose draw-win possession, lose draw-lose possession.

This allows us to analyze a couple of things. First, who is winning or losing draws. Second, how often the team retains or loses possession on wins, and how often puck possession is recovered on lost draws. This focuses on how the winger performed, rather than the centres. Third, if you have this data for every faceoff dot on the ice, it enables the team to see the splits in the three zones, as well as which side of the ice certain players were more successful on.

For the 2016-17 season, data was collected for a specific team that used 3 centres consistently, each taking over 875 draws. The “checking” pivot leads the team with 60%. The “two-way” centre owns a 53%, with the “skilled” centre at 51%.

However, I am more concerned with looking at how often the team retains possession off the draw, as opposed to actual win percentage.

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The graph shows the data for the 2016-17 season with the splits of possession off the draw. This is important to know for important draws throughout the game, especially in the final minutes.

Of note, the two-way wins the most draws, but loses possession more than skilled & checking centres. Further, the two-way centre’s teammates win the puck only 2.3% of the time, less than half of the other centres. This discrepancy is related to winger assistance, meaning a coach can work on “winger wins” to capitalize on two-way’s success in the face off circle.

The checking centre’s wingers assist in winning the puck 6.4% of the time he loses a draw and only lose possession 3.7% of the time he wins. This means the checking centre gets the most possession assistance from his teammates. When taking possession into account, checking line wins the puck 62.7% of the time,  the two-way at 51.3% and the skilled at 50.7%.

The skilled and two-way centres see a reduction in their possession success, while the checking centre sees an increase. If the two-way centre’s wingers increased the amount of time they won the puck by 1% on both wins and losses, the team would retain the puck on 18 more draws (on 875 draws).

On a larger scale, winning possession in the offensive and defensive zones is imperative to team success. Coaches at junior and pro levels look for edges in both zones as the game can change.

With all power plays starting in the offensive zone, retaining possession off the draw is more important than the winning of the actual draw. Yes, a clean win can lead to a direct shot. However, if possession is retained (on a win) or recovered (on a loss), it gives the attacking team a chance to set-up, increasing the likelihood of a scoring chance.

From a defensive standpoint, a team up a goal in the final minutes is more focused on retaining possession (“if we have the puck, they can’t score” mentality). Therefore, you may use your best faceoff man for the draw and your most effective possession wingers to give your team the best chance of winning the puck. In this case, load up the checking line.

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The defensive zone is interesting and shows why possession should be considered over win percentage. The skilled centre is the most successful pivot in the defensive zone, but the checking centre’s line wins possession the most.

Of note, the checking centre is 57% on the left and 49% on the right, while the skilled centre is 54% on the right and 56% on the right. Therefore, it would be wise to use the checking centre on the left and skilled centre on the right should an important draw arise.

With both centres, using the checking centres’s wingers for possession assistance should be considered. The two way centre’s low win percentage can be due to a number of factors such as inexperience and having to put your stick down first on defensive draws. Younger centres often struggle on defensive zone face offs.

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It is very interesting to note that the skilled centre’s wingers win possession of the puck more in the offensive zone. This is the only zone where the wingers win possession more than the centre wins draws. In fact, puck possession jumps almost 4%, not a negligible percentage.

If this data holds true over a full season, it would be fair to assume the wingers are capable of winning possession, and are more motivated to do so in this zone. This is a coachable tendency, one that can be improved over the course of the season.

Faceoffs are no doubt, a key part of hockey. However, merely winning a draw does not lead to success. Three of the top 5 NHL faceoff teams are out of the playoffs, with two (COL/DET) in the basement of their conferences. While this sort of data is in the infancy stage, as more becomes available to teams and the public, it will be easier to analyze if possession off the draw leads directly to zone exits and shot suppression in the defensive zone, and scoring chances in the offensive zone.

The purpose of winning a draw is to own possession of the puck and dictate the game through it. Losing possession after winning a draw undoes the positive impact of winning the draw. This is the case vice-versa, as well. If a player is weak on the draws, having wingers that can win possession on lost draws go a long way to preventing scoring chances and dictating pace of the game.

If faceoff data is important to coaches and fans, it is important to put the focus on the purpose of the draw: to win possession of the puck.

All-In: Shattenkirk’s impact on the Caps PP & Overall Depth

At season’s outset, Washington was a clear favourite for the Stanley Cup, along with Pittsburgh. Throughout the season, Columbus and Minnesota emerged as favourites, as well. The rise of Minnesota was expected under Boudreau, but Columbus rose quickly on the back of Bobrovsky and a lethal powerplay. With the Metropolitan division clearly the NHL’s strongest, Washington needed to make a splash.

Ovechkin, the franchise cornerstone, is aging. Oshie will likely be lost to free agency this summer and Kuznetsov is due for a raise from his current $3M AAV. Let’s not forget Washington will also lose a pretty talented player to expansion this year, most likely. The window is now for the Caps.

Shattenkirk makes a very deep defense corps, even deeper. When healthy, the Caps D lines up as:

  1. Alzner – Carlson
  2. Orlov – Niskanen*
  3. Orpik/Schmidt – Shattenkirk

* Shattenkirk & Niskanen can switch

Consider this: according to the numbers, Washington has 3 D (Carlson, Niskanen & Shattenkirk) in the top-25 in Points/60 at even strength. That is a D-man on each pairing capable of producing at an elite level. With the playoffs an inevitable grind, Washington can afford to compensate for injury or scoring droughts from one of their D. In a tough division where Columbus relies on a rookie (Werenski) & Pittsburgh relies on the oft-injured Letang, this is a key differentiator for Washington.

Where Shattenkirk will make the biggest impact is on the powerplay. Washington’s powerplay sits 6th in the NHL, but 5th in the East behind Toronto, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Columbus. While the Lightning & Sabres likely will not make the playoffs, Toronto may, and Columbus will. Shattenkirk sits 3rd in the NHL in PP Points/60 for D, behind Hedman & Werenski (over 100 mins). He is 3rd in PPG/60, behind Weber & Parayko. Undoubtedly, Shattenkirk will see time on the top PP unit (he should!). With 7 PP goals (2nd in NHL D-men) this season, Shattenkirk is a major reason for the success of the St. Louis powerplay & his  presence on the point forces opponents to contend with many options. Looking at Ovechkin and Shattenkirk’s PP heat maps, courtesy of Micah McCurdy, Shattenkirk and Ovechkin can not only co-exist, but, be lethal on the PP.

Between the two of them, they’ve generated almost 300 PP shots. Looking at the heat map, it is clear where Ovechkin sets up (no surprise). Shattenkirk’s shots are generated from the top, but he has a propensity to sneak down and penetrate the PK box. His set-up plays perfectly into the Caps PP set-up; here’s how I see it setting up now:

On the Caps 1st unit, the puck runs through Backstrom (19) on the 1/2 wall. With Shattenkirk (22) at the top and Ovechkin (8) in his usual area, it presents two right-handed, one-timer options for Backstrom. Based on Ovechkin’s proven success on the PP & teams continuing to fail in their attempts to stop it, the defender would have to make a choice. Backstrom, one of the NHL’s most gifted passers, would easily recognize the ‘choice’ and capitalize on the open one-timer option (green arrows represent pass to one-timer). Oshie (77) and Backstrom can play catch as well, forcing the LW and LD down, opening up the lane for the one-timer to Shattenkirk or Ovechkin.

By having Shattenkirk on the 1st PP unit, it allows Carlson & Orlov to play on the 2nd unit together. Trotz could elect to include Niskanen in there as well, whatever combination has the most chemistry. I am not a proponent of 2 RD on the PP, but Niskanen’s PP numbers are very good this year. A righty-lefty pairing on the 2nd unit allows for one-timers on both sides. With Williams or Eller at the net, it gives Kuznetsov the ability to work the puck on the wall, as well as open himself up for a shot. Carlson on the 2nd unit means less attention is paid to Kuznetsov, leading to more space for him. Having a different look on the 2nd unit is an advantage for the Capitals, as it forces teams to adapt mid-penalty kill to a separate structure. Keep in mind, Trotz may choose to use Shattenkirk on this unit, keeping Carlson on the top unit, but that would be squandering a major opportunity.

In the playoffs, when the margin for error is razor thin, simple adjustments and different looks are all a team needs to generate the scoring opportunity. Shattenkirk’s proven ability to drive a powerplay is a welcome addition to the Caps. It is reasonable to expect an increase in shots, as well as scoring chances. Many nights, teams focus on shutting Ovechkin down (unsuccessfully). With Shattenkirk as another weapon, the forwards on the PK are forced to choose which passing lane to take, meaning one is open for the shot. It is a new look for the Caps, it takes pressure off Ovechkin and allows Backstrom to control the play.

Expect teams to adjust to the Caps PP, but not without consequence. Should teams press up towards the top, Backstrom can use Oshie & Johansson below the icing line as options to create opportunity. Washington’s top unit with Shattenkirk, are responsible for 33 powerplay goals, Ovechkin with 12 (2nd in NHL). Backstrom is 2nd in the NHL with 19 powerplay assists. Combine the three, Washington’s top PP unit boasts the 2nd most effective players in PPG, PPA and PPG by a D-man in the NHL. That is tough to defend, even for the league’s best penalty kills.

The Caps are all-in this season, for good reason. They’ve got arguably the deepest D core in the NHL, the NHL’s most lethal powerplay shooter in Ovechkin and one of the NHL’s best powerplay D. Add in a Vezina-calibre goaltender in Holtby, three lines capable of scoring, the Caps have ticked all the proverbial boxes. That’s a recipe for playoff success.

Due to the nature of the playoff match-ups, I’d say the best playoff series will likely occur in the 2nd round with some combination of Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus. The Caps are going to be a fun team to watch, especially if they continue to score 5+ goals at home on a regular basis.