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Fancy Stats Simplified: Defense [Doesn’t] Suck, Slice 1

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Defense certainly doesn't suck, but Bryan Allen does.

Reverend Lovejoy cannot score here, but neither can this Red Wing imperialist scumbag! Mwauahaha
Reverend Lovejoy cannot score here, but neither can this Red Wing imperialist scumbag! Mwauahaha
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

My first post dealt with simplifying advanced stats to the most basic idea tracked – positive puck possession. My second post was boiling down possession itself, with a bit of fun in mind. But in all, having the puck more than the other team makes it easier to score goals. Scoring more goals than the other team equals wins.

The above paragraph is about all you really need to know about advanced stats, if you’re of the mind to ignore them. It isn’t all there is, and what exists is cool ish. But the concept of stats is complicated for many to grasp, so really just putting it as simply as possible: measurements that correlate to possessing the puck more are pretty good measurements for determining where a player or team is at. You don’t need to know it to watch hockey, nor even to discuss your opinions on events happening. But the stats will either back up what you see (because they are pretty intuitive, beyond the complexity of measurement) or turn you into a fervent believer of chance alone. And then get used to a long life of denial, because stats aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll keep improving in pointing out what we’re seeing.

Now back to my point. Possession is good, it makes scoring easier. And I’ve established that scoring is a grand thing. Scoring lots is really great too.

None of it matters if you let the opposition score more than you.

Wait, let me clarify something here real quick. Some of you are like, "but Kid, the sky is falling for us, according to advanced stats. We’re lost and lonely and so sad!" Relax. The full game is 100%. If the other team has the puck 60% of the time, it isn’t all the pizzas. The other 40% is still ours, roughly speaking. All I’ve touched on here is that having the puck 60% of the time makes it easier to score during the overall 100%-slice. But during that 40% of having the puck, we’re still trying to score too. Possession isn’t the game. Teams with crappy possession stats win games. But they make it harder for themselves to do so and typically get bounced in the first round (if they make it at all) because they’re exhausted or simply playing inefficient hockey. [I’ll get back to this more in Slice 2, homediggities.]

How does a team score more while not being scored on? Hot damn, defense it is. I’m not going to waste time getting too deep into the obvious here. Positionally, there’s two dudes on the ice whose primary responsibility is to limit scoring chances the other way. You all get that.

What you may not fully appreciate is that it is the defensive position that drives a team’s possession. Think of it like: the best defense is a good offense, but the best offense comes from good defense.

How do you get the puck in a hockey game? You don’t start with it, unlike soccer or football. All play starts with a faceoff, and there’s only two options here: win or lose. In both cases, the defense is key.

In a win, particularly in the offensive or neutral zone, it is common to "win the puck back" to the defenseman, who will push it forward. This draws the opposing team’s forwards into pressuring the puck, opening up lanes for passing or skating the puck up. So while it isn’t purely "defense," the players in that position have a part to play in moving the puck and, therefore, possession. (And if you’ve ever wondered why wingers will sometimes line up in the defensive spot for a faceoff, here’s one reason.)

In a faceoff loss, there’s any number of schemes coaches teach but ultimately it revolves around puck retrieval. With tenacious play, the puck can be retrieved in the neutral zone or upon entry into the defensive zone, but usually puck retrieval happens in the defensive zone near the goal. (Hence why stats tracking shots are effective measures of possession, but that’s getting more complex, which is antithetical to these posts.) Retrieving the puck, gaining it, and sending it back up are also good possession events that help generate shots at the other end.

What’s a good defense then? The ideal is a guy who can move the puck well, skate with the puck well, see the ice well, and limit offense well. I’m being very broad here, but track with me:

1. Move the puck – You hear about a guy’s "first pass" a lot. A defender who can put the puck tape-to-tape to a forward who is moving with speed is good. Whenever that guy has the puck, the opposition has to consider it a little more. How can they not? Too much pressure, without support, and the puck is moved behind them and is speeding up toward their goal. A defenseman with a good first pass and space to use it is even more deadly. So he can’t be ignored either.

A good first pass is not sending it cross ice to the other defenseman. That’s an outlet, a way to relieve pressure, not forward puck movement. It’s also a way to cough up the puck closer to your goal. The farther the puck is from your goal, the better for not being scored on.

2. Skate with the puck – We have Cam Fowler on the roster, so this isn’t hard to conceptualize. A defenseman who can skate with the disc well can relieve forechecking pressure without extra passing, which lessens the chances of bad passes and forces forecheckers to go get it. Getting a little heat? Some skating can take him out of trouble and put him in a prime spot to move the puck up. The risk is having the puck stolen nearer the goal, so a smart defenseman has to pick his spots and not try to do too much.

I thought Ben Lovejoy displayed pretty good ability to skate with the puck when needed at the end of the year. He didn’t dangle, like Fowler tries to do, and he didn’t free roam like a rover – so you may look at him and think, "well, he’s not our most mobile defenseman." He’s not. He just moved when he needed to, and it usually helped him out of spots and opened up the game for him.

3. See the ice – This is one of those beautiful concepts that is rarely ever explained well. It is what it says in some sense: a player who sees the ice well is "reading the play" correctly. But putting hockey IQ to action is a tougher task, and that’s what this is really about. Going back to Fowler: he passes OK, he skates extraordinarily, and he tends to read plays well overall. But he has a lot of trouble putting the three together on a breakout consistently. So he’ll go coast to coast, and we’ll think, "why isn’t he doing this all the time?" Because his doing it is the result of his panic, usually. He’ll look for an open man, get pressured, either try an outlet to his partner or be caught out of position, and be forced to take the puck with him.

The positive is, if he turns it over, he’s taken it out of the zone. The negative is, it’s really hard to play with someone who is unpredictable and is skating out of position, because then a forward has to decide to drop back and cover in case of turnover or keep trucking along to gain the offensive zone. Furthermore though, when a guy is doing his own thing, the team concept diminishes - nobody knows what to expect, dude's off the rails. But Francois Beauchemin is a good counterpoint to seeing the ice well and puts that into practice, not just to read plays but to get the puck moving in the right direction.

4. Limit offense – Wait, what’s this, you ask? Limit? Aren’t defensemen supposed to stop offense? Well, yes and no. Of course the best scoring chances are prevented by not allowing them to happen at all. When this fails though, knowing how to defend is very key. Hockey is like basketball in this way: offense is going to happen. The best defense for it is limiting the offense to lower percentage areas. Perimeter shots are the rage here, but it is beyond that, because a perimeter shot with a guy crowding your goaltender is still a good shot. A perimeter shot with a guy driving the lane is also a good shot. So less that, and more about protecting key areas of the ice. Defensemen are down low, so the perimeter is usually left to the forwards anyway.

What can defensemen do? Don’t let that guy set up shop in front of the net unmolested; don’t let someone skate hard straight toward the goal without forcing him to adjust course; don’t let a guy get into "the house" (as Boudreau calls it; Carlyle called it "home plate") for an easier shot. A good defender has to limit offense from his position without over committing and making life harder for the ‘tendy by missing an assignment, blocking his view, or trying to hit a guy and taking himself out of the play. There’s so many more things a good defender has to do in this regard (and that’s a whole different area to discuss, really). But pertaining to this discussion: limiting the offense can mean going on the offensive that much quicker.

The fourth point is key for team play, because five guys committed to smart play and limiting offense is five guys who love In-N-Out more than Five Guys. In-N-Out is the best! [Ed. Note: Indisputable fact! -CK]

I’m breaking "defense" up into two posts now, I’ve decided. Because tying it back into possession is primarily what I want to get to, but this is long. How can I bag on Randy Carlyle with this little space left? How can I lay the seeds for Pizzametrics or discuss the Gold Cup game at all now?

Until then, notice something here: all of the ways we judge as "good" defensemen involve their contributions to regaining and moving the puck and/or limiting offense. Not hitting. Not "clearing the net," because that means someone got there in the first place. Not fighting. But the best defensemen move the puck and limit chances well. Even considering an "offensive defenseman," we’re really only talking about a variation of "seeing the ice" at both ends and knowing when to snap a shot off. (Or in Luca Sbisa’s case, knowing when the opposing forward has his skates directly in front of him so he can bounce one off and back into the neutral zone.)

Besides, the most offensively gifted defensemen aren’t the ones we see regularly getting behind the other team and going in alone on goal. Obviously, there are specific situations when this occurs, but in general, having a guy who can use his tools to break out that forward who is behind the defense…well, that’s an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet of awesome.