Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Caps Zone Starts in the Playoffs

From a purely numbers standpoint, the attribute of playoff hockey that stands out to me the most, as compared to regular season hockey, is plain aggressiveness by coaches. Coaches match lines and pairings more aggressively. Guys who before got a little ice time each game start getting none at all, while guys who were playing 22 minutes a night play over 25 and maybe close to 30 (for the 1Ds). A leading team will go into a tougher defensive shell when ahead, and probably earlier in games, too (though the Tampa Bay Lightning are an exception to this rule). Team Corsi differences get amplified for those that are capable of "elevating their game" (like the Pittsburgh Penguins this year). Starting goalies start getting every game instead of getting a day off once every five games or so. And so on.

I think the playoffs are a useful tool not only to enjoy watching hockey, but also to see what coaches really think is the best strategy to win. While during the regular season a team may sacrifice some success to instead develop players (see Marcus Johansson and faceoffs, or Tyler Seguin) and chemistry, once the playoffs come around, the team will ice what it thinks is its best team, with the most aggressive winning strategy.

Under this assumption, let's look at what Bruce Boudreau really has thought of his lineup in April 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. All information from behind the net.

My initial intention was to look at line matching, which Bruce Boudreau, surprisingly, has adopted in the spring (starting in 2009, Steckel vs Crosby), but because of the small sample in the playoffs, the quality of competition and teammates measures can be misleading. For example, whoever gets hard-matched to Ovechkin and Backstrom, and then to Crosby, will get shelled and come out looking as poor competition...even if it was Tomas Plekanec, Hal Gill, and Jaroslav Spacek (the same holds true in the regular season, but the greater variety of opponents and team skill levels tends to iron out those issues pretty decently). Instead, I'll use zone starts as a proxy for competition. Chances have it coaches are using their best offensive players for offensive zone draws, so the toughest-minutes, defensively-reliable players are going to have the hardest zone start. Similarly, the best offensive players will have the highest zone start.


The big beneficiaries appear to be Alexander Semin and whoever his center of the month happens to be (excluding Nicklas Backstrom). That should explain part of why Semin seems to ramp up his game in the playoffs. I'll still contend that he does, but this should put reality a bit more in context.

On the topic of Nicklas Backstrom, he's good enough on faceoffs and good enough of a two-way player that he'll see lots of ice time, including defensive ice time. While Sergei Fedorov, Jason Arnott, and others were too old to have their little ice time wasted on playing defense, that's not the case for Backstrom, and I think that's why his zone starts have stayed pretty stable all throughout.

For Ovechkin, his zone starts don't change all that much, for two reasons I think. First, he's typically among the Caps leaders, so not like he could go much higher. Second, when playing with Backstrom, the two are joined at the hip, and sometimes needing Backstrom for defense trumps needing Ovechkin on offense. Or, to spin it another way, the only way to get Backstrom and Ovechkin out against inferior defensive players may be to send them out in the defensive zone, since for faceoffs in the Caps' offensive zone, the other coach will certainly put out his top defensive players, just in case Boudreau trots out his top line.

I guess Knuble sees a drop because with the Caps trailing, he may be put on the second line in favor of Alexander Semin.

Brooks Laich was playing on the third line three of the four years, behind Tomas Fleischmann twice and Marco Sturm once. I can't recall the Caps ever having defensive issues with Laich on ice in a primarily defensive role. I'd love to keep him around...at the right price, of course.

Fehr is probably a victim of small sample sizes, but it's been clear to me Fehr should be getting more time to play offensive, given his skill.

Bradley and Gordon are dependable third/fourth (remember in 2009 Bradley played on the third line) liners, at least according to Boudreau. I'd like to keep Bradley around, too--someone has to help out in taking those D zone draws. Maybe Matt Hendricks is a bit more reliable than I thought, but I think Bradley is better in his own end.

Tomas Fleischmann + not-absurdly-high-zone-start = disaster. Even with an absurdly high zone start, he might be a disaster. But we already knew that.

So at the end of the day, do you give Ovechkin or Semin the high zone starts, or split those valuable offensive zone faceoffs up? The most straightforward solution is to ice a great team, so there are enough offensive zone draws to go around. Another is to put Semin and Ovechkin together, hell, maybe with Johansson in the middle, seeing as for whatever reason I'm trusting Backstrom's two way play a hell of a lot (maybe because I invested in a #19 jersey recently). More and more I'm thinking AO-Backstrom is less than ideal, but seeing as there's no better alternative that comes to mind, may as well stay the course.

As long as 8-19 need to take harder zone start in the playoffs, the media will keep coming out and labeling them as playoff chokers (reduced zone start likely means reduced point totals). We don't need them to have any additional pressure. On the other hand, giving Ovechkin Sedin starts could inspire the rest of the team. I definitely felt like that was the case more often than not in the spring of 2009.

Then again, winning has a way of having the same effect.


So Green when it matters most plays more in the defensive end? Hmm, that might contribute a teency-weency bit to his "choker" status. Maybe Boudreau realizes that Tom Poti isn't an ideal shutdown defenseman, too?

At the very least, I'm pretty sure he got a few things right:
  • Carlson and Alzner are studs and should be laced with heavy defensive zone starts.
  • Either Ovechkin or Semin should be starting quite a bit in the offensive zone, if not both.
  • Laich should be starting a-plenty in the defensive zone if he's not playing on the second line (and even then, with a 2C like Arnott, Backstrom, or Johansson, or even Laich himself, I'd do it)
  • It's playing with fire to drastically change your player usage come the spring, and you're best off more-or-less following your regular season game plan. I understand letting the tougher-minutes top-faceoff centers get Malhotra'd (i.e. Gordon) and the easier-minutes players get easier starts, but not for any big change in the guys towards the middle of the group, since that means either in the playoffs or regular season, you're grossly misusing those players.

Anything you notice? Want to see different?

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