Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Quick Hits - Thoughts on Pucks In Deep

There was a game last year - granted it was against Buffalo (and goalie Nathan Lieuwen) near the end of the season so it was more of an exhibition - where Zack Kassian had four assists. I remember John Tortorella refusing to give Kassian credit for the offensive outburst, instead focusing on doing the "little things" well. If I recall correctly, Torts singled out Kassian making more effective dump-ins.

I know for a fact that he singled out Brad Richardson helping Kassian "do the little things" because Iain MacIntyre quoted Tortorella saying so in this post-game article. I also know that Brad Richardson was a boat anchor at 5-on-5, and that zone entry guru Corey Sznajder indicates that Richardson was one of the most prolific puck-dumpers on the Canucks. These last two things are likely very closely related.

So why was a professional hockey coach not only blinded to the fact that Brad Richardson turned everything he touched at 5-on-5 into a steaming pile of doo-doo, but went completely the other way and determined that Richardson was having a positive effect? Because Brad Richardson likely did everything his coach told him to do with more frequency than other guys.

This is the most critical area where an unchecked eye test will fail you, and I think it's the reason why defensive defensemen like Brooks Orpik and Brad Stuart keep getting acquired: the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a blocked shot is a good thing, the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a hit is a good thing, and the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that getting the puck out of your zone and in to the opponent's end of the ice is a good thing.

Analytics don't really disagree with the basic mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey. Certainly, shot blocking is good. Hitting is good. And getting the puck into the offensive end of the rink is good. But by taking a step back and asking, "okay, what's really providing us value and helping us win," we've found that lots of blocked shots and lots of hits are actually symptomatic of larger, more important issues. It is kinda counter-intuitive on the surface. I mean, it's saying that adding lots of good little things together don't equate to a bigger good thing. One plus one plus one plus one doesn't equal four, it actually equals negative two and everything you learned in kindergarten is a lie.

So what the hell does this have to do with Brad Richardson? Richardson is 5'11 and didn't really hit guys. He had good defensive zone value, especially on the penalty kill, but didn't really get noticed as a shot blocker. What he did do was dump the puck in.

Good Ol' Canadian Hockey does call for offensive zone play, but this call has been bastardized and butchered into a shortened chant we've all heard a billion and one times: pucks in deep. "What do we have to do to turn this game around? Pucks in deep." "Gotta generate some scoring chances? Pucks in deep." "They're giving us trouble in transition? We just gotta get pucks in deep." The problem is that "pucks in deep" has been treated as an end unto itself, when what really matters isn't whether or not the puck gets in deep, but whether the puck gets to the goal.

The easiest and most direct way to get a puck in deep is to dump it in. It accomplishes the task you set out to do, and there's no risk of the puck not getting in deep. So, in line with the straightforward "pucks in offensive zone = good thing, and dump ins = pucks in offensive zone, then lots of dump ins = lots of good things," coaches are likely going to encourage what they think are good things, look for players that do what they perceive are good things, and praise players for these perceived good things.

Brad Richardson is likely a good listener. He's likely good at taking what coaches tell him to do and incorporating these things into his game. John Tortorella likely doesn't know that the good little things he'd been asking his players to do are actively detrimental to a given team's ability to win hockey games. John Tortorella likely doesn't know his instruction may have been ruining Brad Richardson and, by extension, everyone that Richardson played with. We can't know for sure, but this is the story that all available evidence (including numbers, quotes from Torts, and watching the games) seems to tell us.

The big underlying problem isn't Brad Richardson being a poor hockey player, nor is it even John Tortorella being a poor coach - it may very well be true that neither of these things is the case. The major glaring problem is that a certain way of thinking has permeated hockey to the point where it's treated as an absolute and unassailable truth. "Pucks in deep" is beyond a cliche in this day and age, it's a dangerous way of thinking, and it seems to have become an end unto itself. Tyler Dellow thinks that Randy Carlyle running dump-in plays hurt the Leafs this past season, and I can't help but think that this may have hurt some of Vancouver's depth players this season too.

The end game in hockey is and will always be "pucks in net more often than your opponent," and just firing the puck in for the purpose of getting it deep doesn't help in that regard. There's no magic that happens immediately proceeding "pucks in deep" that translates to scoring more goals. The continued insistence on getting pucks in deep for the purpose of getting pucks in deep is little more than groupthink at this point. Fortunately if you're a fan of more exciting hockey, and unfortunately if you're a team that's looking for small advantages in the next few years, the hiring of guys like carry-in proponent Kyle Dubas may signal that this unassailable truth is finally being assailed.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Quick Hits: Mason Raymond Appreciation Post

Extraskater made player stats for the 2010-2011 NHL regular season available this morning. I can't think of anything else catchy to say about 2011 because seriously, screw the 2011 Boston Bruins. Game 7 and the aftermath is pretty much the absolute worst thing a hockey fan can go through and I imagine that year is going to still sting for a while longer.

Still, the 2010-2011 Vancouver Canucks, despite all recent dialogue about doing the contrary (#bostonmodel), is the team that the current management group should strive to build. They were a fantastic team that year, and one that was an absolute joy to watch as well. Daniel Sedin led the NHL in scoring with 104 points, with a league-leading 57 of those coming at even strength. Henrik's 75 assists alone would have placed him 15th in the league in scoring, and Ryan Kesler scored 41 goals in a campaign in which he won the Selke trophy.

And yet, because we're idiots that can't appreciate what we have in this city until it's gone, that team still came under fire for some ridiculous things. Most notably in my memory, the play of Mason Raymond. Raymond was coming off a breakout 25-goal, 28 assist season and was expected to build off of this performance. In retrospect, it was an insane thing to expect. Raymond would never get 1st-line TOI or 1st-line PP time with Daniel Sedin on the team, and saying "60 points is reasonable second line production" is batshit crazy in this day and age. 1st liners score ~55 points per 82 games. 2nd liners score ~30 points per 82 games. 3rd liners score ~20 points per 82. That's the reality of today's NHL.

And yet Mason Raymond did improve on his pretty spectacular 2009-2010 season in 2010-2011, but he did it in ways that weren't immediately jump-out-and-punch-you-in-the-face visible. He became an elite puck possession player, an elite penalty drawer, and a 1st-line calibre rate scorer. Raymond increased his individual shot rate by almost 2 shots per 60 minutes between 09-10 and 10-11, and saw his 5v5 points per 60 increase from 1.75 to 1.95 - a rate comparable to Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, John Tavares, Patrik Elias, Mikko Koivu, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, and Jakub Voracek. He also jumped to a 56% Corsi player away from Ryan Kesler compared to a still very good 51.2% Corsi player the season prior.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Raymond's 2010-11 season is that he managed to increase his 5v5 scoring rate while his on-ice shooting percentage actually fell by almost 10% (6.9% in 10-11 vs. 7.53% in 09-10) and his individual shooting percentage fell by almost 40% (6.1 % in 10-11 vs. 9.88% in 09-10). That's pretty phenomenal.

What really killed Raymond's boxcars was his great PP luck running out. He not only spent significantly less time on the PP in 10-11, but his individual 5v4 shooting percentage regressed in a big way. He scored on nearly 1 out of every 4 shots at 5v4 in 09-10, but that number fell to a much more reasonable 1 out of ever 9 shots in 10-11. His on-ice PP Sh% also fell by nearly 27%. Combining these factors meant Raymond's powerplay production in 2010-11 was just 1/3rd or what it was in 2009-10, and there's really not much that Raymond could have been reasonably expected to do about this.

All of this is to say that in 2010-2011, Mason Raymond was an elite 2nd line/fringe 1st line left winger, not the disappointing player that the Vancouver MSM and fanbase characterized him as. And for his $2.5 M/yr cap hit, Raymond was a massive bargain and no small part of the best offense that Vancouver has ever seen.


An aside to the Raymond appreciation: it's a damn shame that his back was broken by Johnny Boychuk and Raymond has never quite been the same player since, but I think it's a bigger shame that he was run out of town amid criticisms that he was too soft, played on the perimeter, and "his hands never caught up to his feet," which is just a bullshit way of saying "you skate as fast as Pavel Bure so I don't understand why you aren't Pavel Bure."

Raymond's perception in this market is a real sore spot for me. It really is. He was one of my favourite players because I thought he was tremendously effective at generating offensive chances (it turns out he really was - I didn't follow fancystats at all until midway through the next season but as you can see, his fancystats were fantastic), so all the "lol raymond fell down again" and the "soft perimeter player" stuff really, really aggravated me. The point of hockey is to score more goals than your opponents, and it was blindingly obvious that Mason Raymond helped the Canucks do just that. If someone couldn't see that from just the eye test, I don't know what sport they were watching.

The whole Raymond situation was also one of the things that convinced me that Vancouver mainstream media does not have a clue how hockey works, and also can't do basic second grade math. Around the 60th game of the season or so (Raymond's 50th game since he'd missed 10 due to injury), the TEAM 1040 was doing their usual "Mason Raymond is soft" routine so I sent this email:

It's not even that difficult an argument. There's no Corsi or Fenwick or unfavourable percentages (mostly because I didn't know those were really things yet), it's just points. I was, uh, "fortunate" enough to get both an on-air response and an email response from Barry MacDonald. I don't have the audio, but his on-air response was something snarky and condescending. He claimed that Raymond was on pace for 40-ish points that season and chastised me for my math skills, adding something along the lines of "if this is the type of student our education system is producing, we're in real trouble!"

It doesn't take a freaking math genius to go "0.62 points per game times 82 games = 50.8 points per 82 games!" and I'm fairly sure that most first graders can understand "82 game season." And the "our future is in danger" crack is just a ridiculous thing to say. I got this email response:

That would be a great mic drop had he not been completely wrong about Raymond's scoring rate.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Quick Hits: Don't Play Zack Kassian With The Sedins

Well, at least don't have Kassian penciled in as the #1 RW on the Canucks now and in the future. Lines are fluid and guys move around all the time, and I do think that Kassian was deserving with more than the paltry 46:31 he spent at 5v5 with Henrik Sedin last year, so I'm not saying don't ever play him with the Sedins. Although I acknowledge that that's essentially what I wrote here:
But, as always, arguments about anything involve more nuance than bullshit stuff I blurt out over Twitter, so that's why I have a blog. Here, I can qualify the dumb stuff I say with significantly less dumb stuff and overall have not-dumb opinions on things. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyways.

I digress. This is an article about Zack Kassian.

I admit, the "Zack Kassian is a playmaker" argument is very much one born from *gasp* watching the games. I see Kassian play, and I just see a guy who's more Joe Thornton than Cam Neely. That is to say he's nowhere close to either and never will be, but he just looks more comfortable as a guy with the puck on his stick looking to create offense rather than a guy with the puck off his stick looking to create mayhem and drive to "scoring areas."

I googled Zack Kassian images. It was a fantastic decision.
He'll just be playing the game, then get the puck on his stick, hang on for what feels like a second too long, then find an open passing lane (he likes hitting the weak side D pinching into the slot with a pass from the corner it seems), and you're like "shit where'd that come from?" It just looks like his particular offensive toolkit lends itself better to protecting the puck along the boards and down low and using his hands and plus-level vision to find shooting options other than himself, than it does to barging to the front of the net and hoping to jam in a rebound. I mean, his struggles away from the puck are the part of the game that have so far been maligned by his coaches, so why does it make sense to play away from the puck more often?

Kassian is not known for his shrewd decision making without the puck.
It's also worth noting that Kassian and Henrik Sedin were unusually poor together on the ice last year, posting just a 48.1% Corsi. Barring injuries, the Sedins are still elite possession players and still among the most effective 5v5 players in the NHL, so I doubt that number would remain that low over a larger sample. Still, Henrik has traditionally been better off without Kassian on his RW than with him.

"Oh god Henrik I am so sorry."
It also shouldn't really come as a surprise that Kassian probably found his best success as a Canuck when paired with David Booth. Stylistically, Booth and Kassian couldn't really be more different - Booth is a serious shoot-first play-driving winger who I suspect is dynamite through the neutral zone. Booth is good at freeing up pucks, and he is good at going into high-traffic areas without the puck in hope of hacking and whacking away. Essentially, he's everything that every coach who's ever had Zack Kassian wants Kassian to play like. Chip and chase, go to the net, compete, etc. etc.

"David's gone...? Is he ever coming back?"
The two most important points to make about Zack Kassian last year though are as follows:

  • He was deployed in a very unfavourable role in terms of offensive production. Between Brad Richardson and a 43.3% ZoneStart rate, Kassian's deployment was primarily defensive for some reason, which seems like an odd use of assets to say the least if you're concerned about his D. One would think that Torts would use him like Bruce Boudreau used Pat Maroon if there was a legitimate concern about Kassian's defensive game. Here's Kassian's PUC from last year:
Since Kassian is capable of offence relatively on his own, it may not be the best idea to play him with the Sedins at even strength. There's not really a stylistic fit there as they're all pass-first guys, and Vancouver is kinda shallow in terms of offensive punch up front. I would prefer to see Kassian on a second line with a play-driver like Alex Burrows and hope that Nick Bonino is legit and not a PDO mirage and try someone like Linden Vey at 1RW to try and spread the wealth around a bit.

*goes to proofread post*
*about to hit "Publish"*

Well now, this whole argument is kinda moot. Vrbata is a bona-fide top-line RW who's a shoot-first guy. Since 2011, his Goals/60 is good for 45th in the NHL, nearly identical to Alex Burrows. He wasn't as good this past season, but, much like Burrows, that's largely percentage-related as he shot just 5.11% at ES. His Shots/60 was fairly constant with his career norms this past year, while his individual shot attempts actually saw a jump.

Vrbata's also an elite shot producer and a better PP scorer than Ryan Kesler traditionally has been. This acquisition should insulate Kassian a bit at RW, and provide a better fit for Daniel and Henrik than Kassian would. At the end of the day though, Kassian is likely a legitimate top-6 forward, and deserving of better deployments, more talented linemates, and hopefully, hopefully, some PP time as well.