Drance Numbers: Who is Alain Vigneault really sheltering?

Drance Numbers is the silly research wing of PITB. While Messrs. Wagner and Mooney blog nationally and solve mysteries, Drance Numbers will look into the minutiae of quantifiable NHL data and bore you with it every Friday. Today, Drance looks at Alain Vigneault’s quickly zone start schemes.

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For a couple seasons now, Alain Vigneault has employed a curious strategy in deploying his team’s four forward lines. While the concept of “starting your best face-off man on defensive zone face-offs,” is nothing new, the Canucks have taken that simple convention to its most radical logical endpoint: “Why have your best defensive centerman ever take a face-off anywhere but the defensive zone?”

The Canucks are now at the point where certain forwards function as “specialists” at one end of the ice or the other. While Vigneault employed this approach last season, it has become even more pronounced through the first half of this campaign (albeit with some minor tweaks). I figured I’d take a look at some of the differences between the way Vigneault has been using his forward lines in the first half of the current season and what he did last year.

While a few teams have earnestly copied the “Gimme Shelter” approach that the Canucks rode so successfully last season, no other team demonstrates as acute a pattern of specialized usage as the Canucks do. In fact, Alain Vigneault and the Canucks have doubled down. Through the first half of this season, the Canucks are deploying their forwards in an even more extreme fashion than last season.

The Sedins are now starting close to 80% of their shifts in the offensive end, and as a result there are no offensive zone shifts left for the bottom-6. Of the 5 NHL forwards (more than 10 games played) who start the fewest percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone, all five of them are Canucks skaters.

Let’s go line by line and look at some of the changes to Vigneault’s deployment strategies in the first half of this season. We’ll start with the Canucks top-line. Henrik Sedin has taken 52% of the team’s offensive zone draws so far this season (up slightly from 50.4% last year). This is the definition of extreme situational usage, and the Sedins are far and away the most sheltered line in the league. Rodd and Todd Flanders are less sheltered. Here’s how the Sedins zone-starts broke down last season:

2010-11 Season

O-Zone Start %

O-zone starts per game

D-Zone starts per game

Henrik Sedin

71.4%

6.94

2.78

Daniel Sedin

74.5%

6.93

2.3

Alex Burrows

70.5%

6.8

2.5

As you can see, the twins were almost never tasked with a defensive zone-start last season. This year you’re as likely to find an enthusiastic Mitt Romney supporter as you are to see a Sedin start a shift in their own end:

2011-12

O-Zone Start %

O-zone starts per game

D-Zone starts per game

Henrik Sedin

79.2%

7.1

1.8

Daniel Sedin

79%

6.95

1.85

Alex Burrows

75.7%

7.12

2.28

This makes good sense. By feeding his top line a steady diet of offensive zone starts, Alain Vigneault maximizes the opportunities given to the Sedins and Burrows to score goals (using their relentless possession game and ingenious collection of set-plays).

Of course, With the Sedins soaking up over half of the offensive zone starts, there are significantly fewer opportunities for other skaters to be deployed there. Last season, Daniel Wagner pointed out that the third line of Malhotra, Torres and Hansen were given the bulk of “tough minutes,” and thus “enabled” the top-6 to be used mostly in advantageous situations and against softer head-to-head match-ups. The ability of last season’s third line to keep their head above water in difficult circumstances allowed Vigneault to feed the Sedins the steady diet of offensive zone face-offs that they continue to enjoy.

With the Sedins being deployed even more exclusively in the offensive zone this season, the ramifications are felt throughout the line-up and especially in the bottom-6. This season, Malhotra’s “enabling” has kicked it up a notch, but he also has more help.

Last season the Canucks’ third line were the “defensive specialists” but this year, Vigneault clealry trusts his fourth line more defensively. Among forwards who played on the Canucks fourth-line last season, Tanner Glass was the most regular and consistent presence – so we’ll use him as something of a proxy for fourth line deployment. Here’s how Vigneault used his fourth line last season:

O-Zone Start %

O-zone starts per game

D-Zone starts per game

Tanner Glass

39.1%

1.11

1.73

 

This season, Dale Weise has been something of a fixture on the fourth line (Lapierre and Malhotra have bounced around more, though Dale Weise played a couple of games with Ebbett and Hodgson in late December), so we’ll use him to represents how Vigneault has used his fourth line this season:

O-Zone Start % O-zone starts per game D-Zone starts per game
Dale Weise 23.4% 0.78 2.56

 

Over the past few weeks, the Canucks fourth line has consisted of Weise, as well as both of the team’s defensive aces: Maxim Lapierre and Manny Malhotra. It hasn’t been unusual since this line was put together for them to see 10 or more defensive zone face-offs at even-strength, while receiving none in the offensive end.

Both Lapierre and Malhotra are starting fewer than 20% of their shifts in the offensive end. Malhotra has averaged seven and a half defensive zone starts per game, and has been on the ice 54.4% of the team’s defensive zone face-offs, while Lapierre has been on the ice for 31.1%. When Gillis told Botchford and Rintoul on the team 1040 today that he thinks the Canucks are “a more complete team this year than last” because the club has, “more depth and more opportunity to move players around,” this is partly what he means.

Which brings us to Cody Hodgson and the third line. Now that the Canucks’ fourth line plays the “defensive specialist” role, the team can deploy their third-line as a modified scoring line. Hodgson and his rotating cast of wingers are still deployed in somewhat difficult circumstances, but it’s nothing like the up-hill battles Hansen, Torres and Malhotra waged as the third line last season. Let’s compare the usage of last year’s third line center (Malhotra) with Hodgson:

O-Zone Start % O-zone starts per game D-Zone starts per game
Malhotra 2010-11 25% 2.15 6.47
Hodgson 2011-12 42.2% 2.09 2.88

 

So what’s changed about the Canucks forward deployment strategies this season? Basically Vigneault has erected hockey’s version of a shrine to Adam Smith, and tasked his forwards with becoming increasingly specialized on both sides of the puck. He’s also shifted the bulk of the “tough-minutes” burden from the third, to the fourth line allowing the third line to become a tertiary scoring line led by Cody Hodgson.

While the team isn’t quite winning at the rate they did in the latter half of last season, it’s clear that the club’s forward depth is pretty dramaitcally improved and that its stable of “enablers” has grown considerably.

2010-11 Season

O-Zone Start %

O-zone starts per game

D-Zone starts per game

Henrik Sedin

71.4%

6.94

2.78

Daniel Sedin

74.5%

6.93

2.3

Alex Burrows

70.5%

6.8

2.5

Mason Raymond

55.6%

4.53

3.61

Ryan Kesler

50%

4.8

4.8

Jeff Tambellini

49.4%

2.05

2.09

Mikael Samuelsson

49.1%

4.26

4.43

Tanner Glass

39.1%

1.11

1.73

Jannik Hansen

34.3%

2.19

4.21

Alexandre Bolduc

30.6%

0.63

1.42

Raffi Torres

29.6%

1.85

4.4

Manny Malhotra

25%

2.15

6.47

 

2011-12 Season

O-Zone Start %

O-zone starts per game

D-Zone starts per game

Henrik Sedin

79.2%

7.1

1.8

Daniel Sedin

79%

6.95

1.85

Alex Burrows

75.7%

7.12

2.28

Mason Raymond

57.3%

3.63

2.31

David Booth

54.8%

2.96

2.44

Ryan Kesler

48.4%

4.19

4.22

Chris Higgins

48.3%

3.94

4.22

Jannik Hansen

42.5%

2.75

3.73

Cody Hodgson

42.2%

2.09

2.88

Andrew Ebbett

26.1%

0.92

2.87

Dale Weise

23.4%

0.78

2.56

Aaron Volpatti

21.3%

0.74

2.74

Maxim Lapierre

18.1%

0.95

4.29

Manny Malhotra

14.9%

1.31

7.51

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8 comments

  1. Zach Morris
    January 6, 2012

    it makes sense; why, after all, if you have the opportunity, wouldn’t you want the NHL’s top 2 scorers to start in the offensive zone?
    the rest follows from that, as someone else has to take the defensive zone draws.

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    • Zach Morris
      January 6, 2012

      Also: Vigneault is sheltering Luongo.

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      • shoes
        January 8, 2012

        I am not prepared to believe that AV is sheltering Luongo. He started him in Minny recently, which was always a house of horrors. Why cannot people accept that he just wanted to let Schneider play in front of his friends and family. Schneider has been the consummate pro since the AHL and he deserved this honor. Luongo is a very good goaltender that has recently learned a few lessons about professionalism. To be the decision is not about sheltering Luongo and now the Bruins and the rest of the NHL probably can figure out that both goalies are pretty darn good, after all …………..all we here is how good Thomas is ……and he did just get beat by our backup. *note here…I believe in the team game and seldom credit goalies with wins or losses, entirely.

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  2. Dave
    January 6, 2012

    what about neutral zone starts, are the excluded from the stats?

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  3. Cam Charron
    January 6, 2012

    Too many numbers!!!11

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  4. By-Tor
    January 6, 2012

    Things like these are why AV should be winning the Jack Adams award. He’s a brilliant coach.

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  5. Anonymous
    January 6, 2012

    Nice to see it all laid out like that, really helps with understanding. While the twins line has increased their O-zone% this year, Kesler’s been about the same?

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    • Andrew
      January 7, 2012

      Kelser will be taking PK draws in the D-zone, so I think his % won’t change much from year-to-year.

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