It's been a long time since week 19 in the NHL transpired. Here's what happened before the Olympic break.
Columbus Blue Jackets at Anaheim Ducks (L)
The Ducks played a better game than the final score shows, which is positive. The same result without any push-back means more than just the bounces going against the team. Bad bounces happen as often as good, we just like the latter more! In this one specifically, EV scoring was equal - special teams dropped the ball here, with the BJs scoring twice with the extra man.
Here's the opening goal of the game, which speaks to the kind of game this was. Vatanen and Perry don't close their gaps fast enough after Vatanen challenges high, but they're both positionally sound overall. The shot was perfectly made, and that happens.
Chicago Blackhawks at Anaheim Ducks (L)
The result was bad but goodness did the Ducks play a solid game. They played extraordinarily well against a great team. Very few teams have done this against the Hawks this year, and when it happens in California it has usually been the Kings doing it. The first goal was off the rush, the second was the result of a turnover to one of the best players in the game. Otherwise, the Ducks played to their system well.
Here's the first goal. The inclination here is to pin it on Fowler when all is said and done. But Getzlaf and Perry are the two culprits here. Getzlaf commits the turnover and allows Hossa to get too far ahead of him. He doesn't catch back up to the play in time to stop the shot attempt, likely because Perry is up high and figures to be the first forward back. But Perry, bless his little heart, goes chasing along the boards...on a rush play. That's a no-no as the first forward back. Protect the house, all that.
Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators (W)
In complete defiance of the previous two games, a Predators team that outworked this Ducks team nets a loss. Such is sports. Anaheim played better in its previous two outings but didn't have the results to show; this time, they lucked into some nice results in a game the coaching staff doesn't want to see repeated.
Here is an example of "good bounces." Two points are two points, but this isn't exactly according to plan or anything.
Jakob Silfverberg 4P-Met
Mathieu Perreault 4P-Met
Cam Fowler 5P-Met
Dustin Penner 4P-Met
Ben Lovejoy 5P-Met
Andrew Cogliano 4P-Met
Sami Vatanen 4P-Met
Hampus Lindholm 4P-Met
Bryan Allen 3P-Met
Daniel Winnik 3P-Met
Ryan Getzlaf 6P-Met
Corey Perry 6P-Met
Teemu Selanne 2P-Met
Saku Koivu C 2P-Met
Kyle Palmieri 2P-Met
Nick Bonino 3P-Met
Francois Beauchemin 2P-Met
Matt Beleskey 4P-Met
Patrick Maroon 4P-Met
DEFEND YOUR SLICE
How the position of defense is now played is something I've been thinking about for awhile. A lot of these statistics and metrics are fantastic evaluators for telling what has happened in a game of hockey, which is valuable. Many people want to use them for predictive purposes, which is also useful. For me, I think about what they say about the game itself - it's how I think, I guess.
Watching the Olympic tournament really cemented something that others before me have alluded to but I hadn't put together yet. Defense has changed radically in the last 10 years. Brooks Orpik lumbering around the big ice being 100% ineffective in every game is something that shouldn't be happening, given our understanding of the game based on the numbers and the outcomes. Coaches and management teams should be able to see this, right?
This convinced me of something that's become problematic in the NHL: some hockey people value the wrong things still. In terms of defense, they still overvalue guys who "don't get scored on a lot during tough minutes" over guys who "move the puck away from the net." This was a great thing 10 years ago, but today? It doesn't fit with how the game is played anymore. Moving the puck is the most important part.
I'm breaking this up in parts, because it'll get lengthy. At least this way you can stop and come back to it.
When the NHL reopened after locking players out a full season about 10 years back, it did so with some new rules and promises to uphold the existing ones to a stricter degree. While the desire was for increased offense in the short term, we're now far enough out to see the long term impact of the rule changes. As many speculated would be the case at the time, the most changed area of the game was defense.
I frame my little monologue about defense in this way because under the older rules, big-bodied "shutdown" defensemen were just about the best players a team could have on the blue. In today's game, these guys don't really exist anymore. (Or, rather, they evolved into the least helpful defenseman in the game.) One of the biggest changes the new rules brought about is the speed of the game and the importance of mobility, especially from the backend.
Whether this change is good or bad is up to you, but there's basically three types of defensive players now: puck movers, positional defenders, and stay-at-home guys. The latter is obviously what the shutdown guys have evolved into, which figures to be a less desired player going forward. The new role of defense is incongruent with what stay-at-home guys provide.
One constant in the new statistics people keep for hockey is that shot attempts are a good proximation for possession - that's even the premise of my humorous series of posts. Regardless of the breakdown in who has what percentage of possession per, ultimately each team in a contest will have shots attempted. The team who bests limits the amount of attempts or the quality of chances created tends to be the better possession team in a contest. It is no longer possible to "shut down" an opponent's attempts at creating offense the way it used to be.
Shutdown guys made their name by preventing skill players from attempting shots or any other kinds of offense. They accomplished this with loads of obstruction - slashing, hooking, interference, you name it - that did exactly what the name advertised: shut down offense/chances/attempts/flow. With the change in rules, many of those things became illegal. It is very difficult to stop someone from shooting with a well-timed stick slash to his wrists moments before he fires, so the shot gets away.
Defense is less about prevention now (because shots will happen) and more about corralling and controlling the puck to prevent more shots and/or positioning oneself to lessen the quality of the shots taken. Everything involved in this involves movement and skating. Typically, the stay-at-home defenseman has very little impact on that as he tends not to roam too far from the net, which makes retrieving pucks more difficult. (Those who have added "puck retrieval" to their skills probably end up in the positional defender category.)
Some hockey people are only now beginning to figure out that big-bodied, immobile "stay-at-home" defensemen are not helpful in generating offense (shot attempts, chances). It took approximately 10-ish years for this to shake out fully, but it has, and here we are. A quick glance at the top of the standings show a bunch of teams with GMs who have figured out that too many shutdown guys means fewer wins (and then the Maple Leafs, who continue to defy anything rational except a "goalie makes every stop so we win" strategy).
Let's call this the Douglas Murray Phenomenon, because San Jose epitomized it best when they got rid of him. He's big, he's slow, he hits, he blocks shots, he sometimes passes to his own team, but the puck has to come to him for him to even touch it - he is the quintessential shutdown defenseman. The Sharks jettisoned him (and a couple other slow guys, in fairness) and then won a shit-ton of games on the backs of smaller, more mobile defensemen as well as Dan Boyle, who might be a big asshole but is very good at hockey in my esteem.
Over the next few years, more GMs are going to figure this out, and the contrasts will begin to startle exactly nobody who pays attention to advanced hockey metrics. Teams are going to get away from the "Chris Pronger" ideal in every draft pick they consider or trade option they look at. I suspect Pronger is far better positionally than people give him credit for though, similar to Chara, but that's neither here nor there.
Anaheim has good examples of all three kinds of defensemen for my use in this monologue. Cam Fowler is a puck mover, whether he skates it out or passes it up. Hampus Lindholm is a positional defender, in that he's far better at making opposing teams work for shot attempts than he is at, say, stripping the puck and going up-ice with it. Bryan Allen is a stay-at-home guy.
That's not to say Fowler isn't good positionally, but up until this year he's been a bit of a garbage fire in his own end. He's best known for what he does when he gets the puck. He quarterbacks play going forward pretty well, regardless of his points totals. Where he failed before was in puck retrieval, but he's become far better at it this year. He still pinches in the OZ a bit haphazardly for my liking, but I only notice it because he doesn't always win the puck there - when he wins, who cares. That's the risk of a puck moving defenseman.
Lindholm is a surprise to me because he's pretty sound defensively. I hear he has a bit of offensive upside but I don't even care if I see it for a time. It will come. Just watching the little things he does in his own end impresses me. He stays inside with a poise beyond his years, he can push attackers away from trouble spots, he keeps his stick active without taking typical one-hand penalties, and he skates well enough to lend support to the breakout once he's pushed the puck forward. He's been the surprise player of the year for this team and the reason there's been more comfortable depth on the blue.
Allen is a big-bodied, stay-at-home defenseman. He's not going to challenge attackers a lot away from the net. He's not going to drift up to the side boards and win back many pucks. He's going to be in about a 10 feet radius of the net, where he's either going to block a shot, corral a rebound, and/or take away the slot from encroaching players. Contrary to popular belief, he serves a good purpose - it's just one that should be minimized in the sport going forward. He's great on the third line, against softer competition. He's also strong on the PK, which caters to shutdown types because the scheme is to collapse anyway.
One of the reasons the defensive play of the Ducks has held up is, well...honestly, because Boudreau has the forwards playing better in the DZ. But in addition to that, there's a nice balance on the blue that hasn't been there previously. Instead of a couple big bodies and maybe one puck mover, we have a couple puck movers (which our offensive output reflects), one big body, and a bunch of positional guys who have committed to limiting chances.
Note: this team has middling possession metrics at times because better attackers can exploit our young blueline by overwhelming them. The credit to this group is that they don't chase play when that tactic is employed. This is a positive the coaching staff on the whole doesn't get credited with enough. Whether it is against San Jose or Los Angeles or any other strong possession club, extended DZ time with the opposition on the cycle isn't the "take a penalty" or "give up goal" certainty it used to be. That loss of possession isn't great and shows in the numbers, but when it occurs, the group tends to stay the course and eventually turn the pucks up ice again. This whole paragraph could really just be summed up as: "Randy Carlyle isn't the coach anymore!"
What some hockey people are really looking for with defenders these days are strong positional guys. Size is helpful, but the ability to skate is the key. Duncan Keith, our own Francois Beauchemin, Drew Doughty - these are examples of guys who aren't behemoths and who play strong "shot suppression" games. (They take away prime chances, limit multiple attempts against, and retrieve pucks and turn them up ice with precision.) What many other hockey people are still stupidly looking for are big-bodied, stay-at-home defenders, believing that's the key to defending well.
I suspect the next few years will be interesting for defensemen, particularly as it pertains to drafting. With more teams icing four lines of hockey players and not three lines plus one line of guys who hit late and punch hard, the need for three lines of quality defensemen follows. Add that into the change in rules, which prohibit the sort of shutdown tactics that used to work for the size-advantaged, and there you go.
That's not to say big guys aren't going to be sought after. But if they are limited in their spatial understanding or ability to skate, they should be desired for limited roles (like Allen plays in Anaheim) instead of top four roles. They should be the PK specialists on the roster, not the regular go-to guy who might have a hard slap shot but not much else.
Much of this is going to continue coming from people who begin to utilize metrics better. We know all teams use some forms of stats in their contract negotiations - and that's mostly been driven by player agents, who have taken up advanced stats for players who don't normally get a fair shake. We know that some teams, not many outright, have begun using stats to evaluate their team play.
As coaches and GMs and scouts adjust their expectations according to the flow of today's game, they'll shy away from guys who routinely get filled in possession-wise. We're still seeing the stubborn refusal to admit that "shutdown" guys don't help teams win games. Hockey people still think Orpik "played good for us" at the Olympics even though he played entire minute-long shifts in his zone, "defending." (He was also scored upon at EV more than every other player on the team prior to the bronze game, but I mean, he did great!)
Stay-at-home guys will always have a role, but they won't be the be-all of defensive play. Smart hockey minds will shift toward puck movers and positional defenders as they realize that offense can't be shut down anymore, but it can be suppressed, controlled, and then turned back up ice against.
Thank you Brooks, for cementing what should have been evident to us all sooner.