The halfway point of the NHL season is in the rearview mirror and fantasy seasons are entering the stretch run. My usual collection of nuggets will return next time, but this week I’ll be using this space to discuss the concept of zone starts, an advanced statistic provided by the invaluable website behindthenet.ca.
A zone starts primer
A statistical revolution occurred in baseball over a decade ago and similar revolutions followed in football and basketball. Now game of hockey, too, has advanced statistics that provide greater insight into the game than traditional stats. While there are a number of very useful metrics available, not all of these are helpful for those of us seeking fantasy insight. For example, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball has proven to be an excellent measure of a player’s overall value to his team by measuring defense and baserunning, however this doesn’t mean much in a fantasy game. Conversely, the concept of zone starts is directly applicable to fantasy evaluators. For every player, the percentage of his shifts that begin in the opponent’s zone are represented as his Offensive zone start percentage, which we will abbreviate as OZS. While this number may not appear all that informative at first glance, it provides a good indicator of the way in which a player’s head coach has chosen to deploy him, especially when compared against prior seasons. Read on for some examples of how we can use this information to supplement our analysis
Mikhail Grabovski , 36.1 percent OZS –One of the textbook examples of how this information can be of use to a fantasy evaluator this season is Grabovski, who has recorded only 11 points in 29 games, a significant drop-off from the pace he set over his past two seasons with the Maple Leafs. Under normal circumstances we might call him a buy-low candidate due to his past performance, but his extremely low OZS gives us pause. Coach Randy Carlyle has been transparent about his desire to use Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in defensive roles against their opponents’ top scorers, and looking at his historical stats, we see he had never posted an OZS rate below 50 percent prior to this year so his role has been drastically altered by Carlyle. That’s reason enough for me to call him a stay-away in shallower leagues.
Mark Giordano, 42.7 percent OZS – Giordano is another great example of a player whose role has changed to more of a defensive one with the arrival of a new head coach. Entering this season, Giordano was viewed as a key offensive piece for the Flames and had recorded an OZS above 50 percent in each of his four prior seasons in the league. This year, the fact that Bob Hartley is willing to use him on Calgary’s shutdown pairing alongside Jay Bouwmeester makes him an extremely valuable member of his team in real terms, but helps to explain why he has registered only six points in 26 games at the time of this writing.
Ryan Getzlaf, 42.9 percent OZS – One player who appears to be overcoming a low OZS rate is Getzlaf, who routinely started nearly 50 percent of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice prior to this season. We definitely don’t want to overreact to just one indicator, but this, combined with an abnormally high shooting percentage by his standards, makes the Ducks’ captain a player I think could have difficulty maintaining his pace going forward.
Henrik Sedin, 68.9 percent OZS and Daniel Sedin, 70.8 percent OZS – Two players whose deployment has contributed greatly to their success are the Sedin Twins, who both sport OZS rates near 70 percent, which ranks near the top of the league. Their usage this season is not drastically different from prior seasons, but the consistently favorable situations the pair is placed make them amongst the safest bets in fantasy hockey. The trickle-down effect of this is that Ryan Kesler, when healthy, is often held back by the fact he often starts shifts in the defensive zone to play more important defensive minutes for the Canucks.
Rick Nash, 61.3 percent OZS – The move to New York has clearly worked out well for Nash, who has scored at a point-per-game pace on Broadway, a feat he accomplished only twice in nine seasons with the Blue Jackets. Much of this success can be attributed to the improved supporting cast he has to play with, but his career-best OZS is the real reason I like his chances of keeping up this pace. In fact, his current shooting percentage would be the lowest of his career if the season ended today, leading me to believe he hasn’t actually scored as much as the offensive chances he has generated would have you believe. I’m buying Nash at every opportunity I can.
Mika Zibanejad, 66.9 OZS – The litany of injuries that has plagued the Senators this season has allowed certain youngsters to step up, including Zibanejad, who has recorded seven points and 27 shots on goal over his last 12 games. The fact that coach Paul MacLean has used Zibanejad in so many favorable situations is one of the reasons I like his chances of keeping this up and remaining a useful player in deeper formats the rest of this season.
Alexander Steen, 62.5 OZS – One of the more surprising developments to occur over the past few seasons has been the transformation of Alexander Steen from useful third-liner to offensive force, capped off by the 19 points he has amassed in 20 contests this season. A closer look at his OZS rates might explain this, as he never had a rate above 47.7 percent OZS in his first three seasons with the Blues, but has since posted rates of 55.5, 52.6 and a whopping 62.5 percent this year. As long as he is used in an offensive capacity like this, he’s a good bet to remain a consistent scorer.
In short, I view offensive zone starts as another tool at my disposal when I’m piecing together the entire picture about a player and trying to evaluate his prospects going forward. We know this is an inexact science and without a crystal ball to fall back on we won’t be correct all the time, but the more useful data we can incorporate into this process, the higher our batting average can be in this respect.
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