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Brad Marchand
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Hockey Analytics

Offensive Defensemen and Killing Penalties

by Gus Katsaros
Updated On: October 31, 2019, 9:12 am ET

It’s no secret that skilled players are more versatile than in strict even strength or power play situations. Using skilled players in a penalty killing role was the natural culmination of the next on-ice situation to institute an advantage – while at the same time, killing off a disadvantage.

 

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I’ve written about this before, so I won’t get into a tonne of detail here, but this is a summary of the idea.

 

“This isn’t strictly just a trend, skilled players as are becoming a vital component of a penalty killing unit. The offensive-oriented NHL has circumvented the requirement of ‘role players’ or implementing a philosophy of lower roster, rested players to kill off penalties. Maximizing asset value – and adding offensive elements strategically adds layers with a high reward (a potential goal) overriding a small risk of taking the chance to score that goal. Being dangerous in virtually every situation has led to teams using star talent to kill penalties.”

 

Adding credence is the propagation of using four forwards and one defenseman as a power play formation. The question of using a three-two power play formation, or for-one comes down to whether or not that second defenseman is a better addition than the fourth forward.

And defensemen are having some more impact, as we shall see.

Having that fourth forward becomes a strategic turning point for the penalty killing unit. If that forward can be isolated and forced to play an awkward transition and then full on defense, the advantage suddenly goes to the penalty killing forward.

 

WED

10/30

7:00 PM

11:30 PM

NHL

Wild vs. Blues

NBCSN

http://stream.nbcsports.com/nhl/wednesday-night-hockey

 

Neutral zone turnovers become deadly if the transition back the other way is a Mitch Marner as opposed to Jay Beagle. As teams begin to adapt to the drop pass more strategically, using a skilled forward to block the potential pass can take away the play altogether and disrupt the offensive zone entry as a result if teams can’t adapt.

Emerging as a cornerstone of generating offense while killing penalties is Brad Marchandtied with Michael Grabner with points at 4v5 with 14 since 2017-18.

Grabner’s explosive first step makes turnovers into breakaways – and he’s prospering as a specialist. His acceleration and quickness are attractive skills to have an impact, provided a sound strategy to producing turnovers – a different topic entirely. In that regard, any speedy and skilled forward could become the next Grabner.

If speed and open ice aren’t as attractive, a more gritty approach is available.

Brad Marchand – a late bloomer as an offensive threat – leads the pack with eight goals and is a legit threat whenever on the ice killing a penalty. Coupled with Patrice Bergeron almost exclusively over the last three seasons as a penalty killing duo, Marchand has legitimized the theory to skill up front.

But what about defensemen? Let’s take a look.

 

Defensemen – the next offensive breakthrough

Year over year, defensemen scored more goals at 4v5.

Well, not really, it’s just limited to one defenseman, Mark Giordano, who scored four goals, and a slew of defensemen with one apiece. The telling metric on Giordano’s goal, aside from a glaring 66.7% shooting percentage, was that they all came from high danger areas.

Overall, defensemen contributed a significantly higher rate of high danger scoring chances from 2017-18, and that trend is likely to continue with more defensemen activated while shorthanded without restraints to join the rush on the opportunity, but to get to high danger areas, they are either lead rushers, or heading into the high danger areas as trailers.

Either way, the contribution is significant and the test will be in 2019-20 whether or not last year was an outlier or beginning of a trend.

 

Defensemen High Danger Chances Per 60

The trend is also apparent in scoring chances per 60 minutes with defensemen participating more often in generating scoring chances.

High Danger and Scoring Chances For Per 60

Of note, the distance tracking glitch caught earlier in the season by the twins at Evolving-Hockey has since been corrected, but games post October 16 are appearing to be marked properly. I’d be hesitant to use the sample at this point, so we will revisit this later in the season.

Defensemen are making more impact in high danger areas and as a result, have become an offensive threat. In lieu of skilled forwards, empowered blueliners are given the green light to generate more scoring and contribute to more than just killing off the clock.

And what do we call these offensive situations? Power kills.

Power Kill

Studying the Flames penalty killing has been Mike Pfeil, who’s project spawned a presentation at the Seattle Hockey Analytics Conference. He gave way to the term ‘Power Kill’ during the conference and it’s stuck as a method of generating offense from the penalty kill. Power killing involves consistent counterattacks with purpose, be it shot generation or time management.

Using turnovers and loose pucks to take advantage of getting up ice for an offensive opportunity is more beneficial than simply dumping a puck down the ice only give the opposition the chance to regroup. Good defense is what leads to this, too.

Mike’s idea here align with my own in not allowing the power play team to set up.

“From a theory perspective: You want to create an inhospitable defensive zone while defending which takes advantage of errors, press to force turnovers, etc.; anything to make it difficult to play against.”

The next generation of offensive creation is ready to hit the mainstream as teams adapt to being more competitive offensively while killing off a penalty. As one-offs during the season, those moments fade … but in a tight playoff series, allowing shorthanded goals could be the difference between the next round of the playoffs, or an early round on the golf course.

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Update

Mike was kind enough to answer some of my question regarding the power kill. His responses are below.

1 - Are defensive zone turnovers transitioning to offense more beneficial for generating offense, or would being good at defending the blueline (or neutral zone forecheck) be better?

Mike: I think the most important part to a good, if not great, penalty kill is transition defense which can be a conduit for creating opportunities shorthanded.  From some tracking I did see the Flames create a handful of chances off in-zone defending, but the sample isn't substantial enough to indicate a clear pattern to how a team - let alone 30 others operate. Both the creating of turnovers from in-zone defending and turnovers (or the ability to gain possession and move up ice with the puck) at the blueline can exist in the same system. Relying on one or the other to be the end-all, be-all however isn't something I feel comfortable endorsing.

2 - Do you think that in-zone aggressiveness to thwart teams setting up on the PP can be used to transition to offense?

Mike: Yes, 100% and I've seen it in tracking and from other tracking projects. That's not to say you can't be coy, using a passive-pressure approach in your own end to get the puck back, it just feels currently less likely. With power plays all adopting the 1-3-1, with most running a 4F-1D combination, the penalty kill needs to be capitalizing situations where it's conducive to applying pressure and taking a risk.  There are all kinds of options, however more research is required into what might have a repeatable value. I just started a few days ago on a PK offense project for the Columbus Hockey Analytics conference in February 2020. The major point of it is exploring how and where 4v5 offense is created and if we can find actionable items that blend coaching with data analysis.

3 - Is there any formation in the defensive zone you think is more instrumental into transitioning to offense?

Mike: It's hard to say, but the most experience I have is observing the wedge+1 and it's more aggressive variant the Czech Press. The Czech Press is what I've observed specifically being a great option for putting the opposing team's PP on their heels, while hopefully giving the defending PK an opportunity to capitalize on mistakes. Still, we need more science and research into repeatable (and measurable) factors to truly say. 

4 - Is generating offense more about personnel or can tactics and strategy overshadow individual personnel decisions?

Mike: Personnel is a big one and a lot of teams have a de facto competitive advantage in that regard. Having someone like Michael Grabner or Brad Marchand gives you an advantage. Some teams have the luxuries available to play star or higher-end talent at 4v5, which can lead to a higher chance of creating chances. Whereas a team like the Arizona Coyotes can have Grabner down the lineup and also out there killing penalties, maximizing his strengths (he's also pretty good defending on the PK too).

From a tactical perspective, a lot of coaches might find the risk-reward conundrum too much for their team. Be it a need to play safe (or as close to), or they aren't equipped with a roster to play that way, or other factors contributing to it. To contrast that slightly I do think it's in the coaching staff, the video staff, and any analyst's portfolio to see if adopting some tendencies to the risk-reward aspect of shorthanded goal creation can be explored. Torts' "safe is death" motto is what the league needs more of frankly.

 

Gus Katsaros
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