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.

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