The Canucks blogosphere (lovingly called the Smylosphere by those working within it) has been talking about zone-starts and what they tell us about this team for well over a year now. Lately, however, the conversation has gone mainstream, and articles and broadcast segments about this topic are beginning to appear in places like Hockey Night in Canada and the Vancouver Province. Between the team’s sustained run of success, the uniqueness of their zone-start deployment patterns and, hopefully, several well argued blog-posts on the subject, more people are coming around to the idea that this stuff matters.
But the data remains somewhat problematic, especially for Corsi skeptics. Where shifts begin has a demonstrable impact on possession stats, sure, but what about production? Gabe Desjardins, who runs Behindthenet.ca, suggested that the Sedins benefit from being sheltered to the tune of 7-9 points per season, but that figure was questioned elsewhere.
One of the key things I use zone-starts for when writing about the Canucks is that, if nothing else, they tell a story. If a head coach is relying heavily on a particular skater to start more shifts in his own end when the team is on the road, that’s a pretty good indicator that the coach has a lot of trust in that player’s two-way game.
To put it most simply, zone-starts and quality of competition metrics have improved our understanding of “how NHL players are deployed.” As a result, hockey math nerds have come up with labels over the years to more accurately qualify and describe the roles of certain players. I figured it might be instructive to go through them:
For Canucks fans: This would apply to guys like Ryan Kesler, Manny Malhotra (especially last season), Dan Hamhuis, and Kevin Bieksa. These guys are the enablers. They’re usually able to turn play the other way, while frequently starting their shifts in the defensive end against the best players on the opposing team. Fans who aren’t interested in advanced stats usually perceive the value of the yeoman work these “tough-minutes” players do, but often become critical quickly when the offensive production from these skaters falls off for a stretch.
Other examples: Probably Pavel Datsyuk, with honourable mentions to Patrice Bergeron and David Backes.
Pop Culture Example: Penny from Inspector Gadget. The unheralded, unseen assistance of Penny (and Brain of course) was what made Inspector Gadget a formidable foe for M.A.D. agents. Between her computer skills, overall surveillance and espionage excellence (and occasional Irish luck — Penny had a high PDO), her steady competence allowed Gadget to benefit from a steady diet of offensive-zone starts against inferior competition.
For Canucks fans: Right now, Cody Hodgson is the guy who plays “soft minutes” for the Canucks. Hodgson’s line is “protected” or “sheltered” in that the rookie doesn’t start many shifts in the defensive-zone, and is usually kept away from matching up against the opponent’s best players. This type of deployment isn’t uncommon for rookies, but Hodgson has definitely been playing soft minutes since January.
Other examples: The Oilers’ young skaters, as well as Tomas Holmstrom, are probably the most high-profile NHLers playing “soft minutes” right now, though most fourth lines in the league do too.
Pop Culture Example: Harry Potter. Harry Potter played the softest minutes of any fantasy hero in the history of children’s literature. Under the watchful eye of ace defensive centre and two-time Selke winner Albus Dumbledore, Potter was matched up mostly against inferior competition. While he played on the celebrated “kid line,” that line featured a more talented tough-minutes skater on his left side (Hermione), and a better physical presence in right-winger Ron Weasley.
Also, Harry’s most NHL-ready skill was “magic that was “done to him”” either by his mother, or Dumbledore, or his having the same wand as Voldermort or whatever. In most of the final showdowns he gets into over the course of the series, he’s just dropped into where he needs to be, which is the magical version of the Muggle offensive zone-start.
“’SHELTERED’ OR ‘OPTIMIZED’ MINUTES”
For Canucks Fans: The Sedin twins and Burrows. A lot of people have issues with the idea of “sheltered” minutes for top offensive skaters, and I think their qualms are generally convincing. The Sedins aren’t “sheltered” from their opponents’ best skaters, as no opposing coach allows their third pairing to so much as sniff the ice when the twins take their shift. As such, I propose we use “Optimized Minutes” — the twins are deployed in the offensive zone to maximize the team’s mathematical edge, but they’re not exactly playing “soft” or “sheltered” minutes.
I think the “optimized” term is more accurate for a top-player who starts most often in the offensive zone against tough competition. In the case of players like the Sedins or Jonathan Toews who exhibits a similar deployment pattern, their constant offensive zone-start deployment is a testament to their skill-level — not necessarily a reflection of their defensive inability.
Other NHL examples: Patrick Kane, Evander Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Gaborik, any NHL superstar that sees a lot of offensive zone starts and a lot of top shutdown pairings.
Pop Culture Example: I think it’s fair to go with Marty McFly here. McFly was a bad-ass: super elite skateboarding skills, bucket loads of natural charisma (i.e. he was clutch) to go along with his superior pick-handling (the guy knew his way around a guitar).
That said, McFly clearly benefited from the ability to appear at crucial moments in time throughout the Back to the Future trilogy. His advantageous deployment didn’t make his job easy, but it enabled him to do more with his impressive assortment of talents than he’d have been able to accomplish without all those O-zone Starts.Tags: defining terms, drance numbers, enablers, Kesler, Sedins