Gus Katsaros

Hockey Analytics

print article archives RSS

Passing Over Rushers

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Rushing the puck up ice as a defenseman used to be a much-regarded ability. I think this is changing now and in the future.

 

A critical and practical application of hockey analytics has manifested in the way that fans and analysts alike view traditional roles and skills. Evidenced by the passing project, headed by Ryan Stimson and systems work performed in contemporary analytics research, the role of the defenseman is clearly being changed, be it as a puck rusher, mover or the dwindling role of the ‘defensive defenseman’.

 

Editor's Note: Rotoworld’s Season Pass is now available for the low price of $19.99. You get plenty of extra articles including the minor league report, the junior report and much, much more. Buy it now!

 

Traditional views of defensive defenseman have changed. Out of circulation is the slow lumbering rearguard that doesn't push the play up the ice but instead focuses on shot blocking ability, net front physicality, and in corners and grinding it up.

 

Today’s NHL speed is slowly (but quickly) phased out those role players, offering instead to optimize their roster with skilled players. For defensive defenseman I've outlined a little bit of that here.

 

How about the rushing defenseman? I think we tend to confuse mobility with above average skill in carrying the puck. Solid skating stride and mobility offers strength by jumping into the play and creating pressure. You want defensemen to support the rush and hit the line with four players. Defensemen do not have to rush the puck any longer. Outlets and stretch passes could suffice to move the play the right way.

 

Defenseman appear in two categories specifically in transition.

 

Puck rusher - defenseman capable of skating the puck out from virtually any situation, whether a controlled breakout or under pressure, making a successful offensive zone entry.

 

Puck mover - defenseman that adequately moves the puck up ice via passing to a forward and then support the attack.

 

Ottawa Senators Erik Karlsson is the smoothest and the NHL’s leading puck rusher amongst defenseman. His skillset there is elite, and an exception. Very few exhibit similar capabilities among NHL blueliners. In 2015-16, the Swede was edged out in Norris trophy voting by Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, another prime puck rushing blueliner that lacks the offensive output of his Ottawa counterpart.

 

An afterthought in 2015-16, the Norris Trophy should all but be decided for Brent Burns. The San Jose Sharks defenseman is rewriting the way we look at modern defenseman, a prototype rover. Dustin Byfuglien played a wonkier version of this style. In reality, Burns isn’t a great puck rusher. He can make outlet passes and moves the puck up ice and supports the attack, but skating and rushing creativity aren’t advanced.

 

He’s a force at the top of the zone and that’s what sets him apart, controlling the play and firing howitzers, while sneaking off the point and getting down into low coverage. The prototypical rover supports the offense more so than creates a defensive presence, which is a coaching decision, not necessarily a personnel issue.

 

Having a defenseman skate the puck up ice isn’t efficient. Certain aspects of the game are dictating a change in the role that can significantly impact strategy.

 

Elements that support playing defenseman that are solid movers rather than puck rushers:

 

  • Subtle changes such as the D-to-D pass on a regroup that is being phased out, with preference for single lanes and pucks right back up ice replacing the initial lateral pass.
  • Defensive zone structure emphasizes support in transition, requiring pairings or triangles for passing outlets to move the puck to different areas of the ice, eluding forechecking pressure, which has become sophisticated
  • On the power-play teams used defensemen to bring the puck up into the zone, or carry it out to the red line and hammer it into the zone for a puck recovery. Now setups are defaulting to the drop pass in the neutral zone, which can be dominated by forwards.
  • Sticking to the power-play, teams are straying from conventional three forward – two defensemen setups, preferring a formation of four forwards and a lone defenseman. Matt Cane advocates using that form for second units. The onus to carry the puck is actually more so on a forward than it would be on the loan defenseman who is likely trailing the entire play.

 

ANALYTICS

 

Identifying efficiencies is a basic tenet of hockey analytics, in the mainstream or proprietary (although we are less informed on the effectiveness of black box solutions). Whether devoted to player acquisition or strategy, ongoing research is altering player acquisition and playing style.

 

Defensemen here are vogue.

 

I heavily favored puck rusher's in the past, their value inflated in part to tantalizing rushing and skating skills, a rarity except for the elite of the NHL. Some skills such as skating ability must be at a high level now, or else blueliners can’t keep up with the NHL pace. Stickhandling technique are still vital components however they have more value now working the top of the offensive zone controlling the play and being more active in cycles rather than just release points. Moving the puck up ice is becoming a secondary function.

 

Some evidence shows getting the puck up and entering the zone through a forward is more beneficial than for a defenseman.

 

Using the All Three Zones entry project data accumulated by Corey Sznajder, we can analyze the individual impact of both positions. Cory tracked zone entries for every game in 2013-14. Breaking down the data for example how many zone entries were carried in or passed as a percentage of total entries offer insight.

 

Intuitively defensemen carry the puck significantly less often than forwards, with only top echelon rearguards doing most of the heavy carrying. In 2013-14 about 20% of zone entries on average consisted of a defenseman carrying the puck, less than half of a forward. Most entries were generated via a defenseman ended up coming from a pass.

 

On a per/60 basis, defenseman carry the puck and enter the zone with possession far less. The average shots on goal per 60 often entry by a defenseman, controlled or otherwise, is clearly less than that by forward.

 

Position

 Carry-in%

 Carry-ins per 60

 Entries per 60

Avg Entries SOG/60

CTRL ENT SOG/60

D

20.21%

1.628

7.471

2.869

1.122

C

49.44%

9.212

18.262

8.232

5.930

F

45.18%

8.824

19.035

8.351

5.712

L

44.78%

8.975

19.456

8.819

6.230

R

45.76%

9.441

20.132

9.197

6.454

 

In a chart form, the visual shows a stunning difference. (note ** the chart – and table above – contain forward splits by position with an extra ‘F’, resulting from the original data – I didn’t aggregate forwards together only to show uniformity of wing position or as a center).


View post on imgur.com

 

Using an entire defense corps here isn’t ideal for comparisons. A limited few actually facilitate puck rushing. From 2013-14, the top 25 defensemen with top carry in rates don’t necessarily fare any better than average rearguards and don’t compare to forward rates.

 

The final column on the right of the table below represents controlled entries shots on goal per 60 relative to the league average for defensemen (1.12). Elite talents like Erik Karlsson and … Ryan Murphy (really? Ryan Murphy?) produce more than four times the shots on goal than an average controlled entry by a defenseman. The rest of the list contains a mix with an average of 2.39 times.

 

Even among elite talents, these shot on goal rates don’t compare to forwards shot generation.

 

Positions

 Carry-ins/60

 Entries/60

Avg Entries SOG/60

Ctrl Entry SOG/60

Cntrl entry sog/60 Rel

Erik Karlsson

6.97

15.11

7.88

4.95

4.41

Ryan Murphy

6.90

12.70

6.90

5.10

4.55

Nick Leddy

5.70

11.40

4.90

3.60

3.21

Keith Yandle

5.02

11.81

5.85

3.40

3.03

Roman Josi

4.94

13.00

5.02

2.79

2.48

Kris Letang

4.67

12.67

4.86

2.76

2.46

Brian Campbell

4.60

10.20

4.70

3.40

3.03

Morgan Rielly

4.55

10.70

4.77

3.22

2.87

Cody Ceci

4.50

11.76

6.06

3.40

3.03

Tyson Barrie

4.50

9.80

4.20

3.00

2.67

Mike Green

4.40

13.16

4.50

2.34

2.09

Sami Vatanen

4.30

8.00

3.20

2.20

1.96

Drew Doughty

4.09

8.40

4.09

2.54

2.26

Travis Hamonic

4.05

10.36

3.96

2.34

2.09

Jacob Trouba

4.01

9.48

4.68

2.56

2.29

Dustin Byfuglien

3.93

9.90

6.41

2.99

2.66

Tyler Myers

3.80

9.60

3.70

2.60

2.32

Jake Gardiner

3.78

8.83

4.22

2.64

2.35

Brendan Smith

3.70

8.70

3.30

1.80

1.60

Matt Bartkowski

3.60

10.20

4.60

2.50

2.23

Alex Pietrangelo

3.57

12.31

5.33

2.21

1.97

Seth Jones

3.56

10.79

4.22

2.09

1.86

Victor Hedman

3.41

9.61

4.42

2.50

2.23

Michael Del Zotto

3.39

7.96

3.91

2.52

2.25

Andrej Sekera

3.30

10.00

4.30

2.40

2.14

 

The Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly is a standout here for me. In Junior as a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors, without much offensive support from sub-par forwards, he would rush the puck a lot. He was successful rushing and creating plays almost single-handedly.

 

He carried enough Solo rushes he should be called ‘Millennial Falcon’.

 

The ‘Lone Ranger’ rushes don’t work as well at the NHL level, and taking away a vital skill that made him such a desirable prospect.

 

Recent data mimics the results, using statistics from 2016-17, once again compiled by Corey Sznajder. On average defenseman zone entries account for 46% courtesy of a pass and 31% by a blueliner carrying it into the zone. Defensemen generate a shot on goal in 55% of their carry-ins, relative to forwards that generated shot about 70% of the time.

 

View post on imgur.com

 

 

ZONE EXITS

 

Corey is tracking a variety of items, including passing and zone exits. Similar results manifest from effectiveness of a defenseman carrying the puck up ice. On average, defensemen are passing it out of the defensive zone 37% of the time, in comparison to about 28% for forwards in more desirable spots to carry it out. Game flow is affected where defensemen deeper in the zone pass it up (or head man the puck) to a forward, who in today’s NHL should be in a proper support position, or perfect breakout scenario, with the puck skated through the neutral zone by forward, finishing off with a controlled entry in the offensive zone.

 

View post on imgur.com

 

 

Players can’t always properly skate the puck out of the zone safely. Support is crucial for plays under pressure. Proper support ensures clean(er) zone exits and likeliness of hitting the neutral zone with speed and backing up defenders, effectively crossing the offensive blueline with a burst of speed. Teams are using the HOG (high off glass) play using the neutral zone to create havoc and scrambled zone entries, and those can adeptly defend their blueline offer distinct advantages on forced zone clearing due to a difficult forecheck. Defensemen are clearly pressured most in the defensive zone. They have to be smarter about how they move the puck out of the zone, defaulting to a pass to achieve that end.

 

View post on imgur.com

 

 

There are downstream effects that a proper team analyst could compile with more complete datasets. Will teams still value and draft puck rushing defensemen from juniors? Will they value current NHL blueliners by their ability to move the puck with clean outlet and stretch passes, or seek out rushers that may go against the grain to where the game is heading?

 

One final note I can’t stress enough. Don’t confuse mobility with rushing ability. The NHL is full of excellent skating rearguards, but only the top tier can effectively carry the puck, the Karlssons, Hedmans and Ryan Murphys. Offensive zone ability and supporting the rush/offense may be more beneficial than just getting the puck to a defenseman and driving up ice.

 

Time will tell.



Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey
Email :Gus Katsaros



Highest Searched Players over the last 7 days



Video Center

  •  
    Matchups: Bortles vs. Texans

    Matchups: Bortles vs. Texans
  •  
    Dose: Osweiler leads DEN

    Dose: Osweiler leads DEN
  •  
    RotoPat: Start Rodgers

    RotoPat: Start Rodgers
  •  
    Rankings: Steelers on top

    Rankings: Steelers on top
  •  
    Dose: Rodgers returns for GB

    Dose: Rodgers returns for GB
  •  
    Waivers: Wentz replacements

    Waivers: Wentz replacements
  •  
    Dose: Miami upsets NE

    Dose: Miami upsets NE
  •  
    Dose: PIT

    Dose: PIT's O crushes BAL