Anyone who has taken a basic economics class is familiar with the concept of the division of labor. For those who haven’t taken such a course, or need a refresher, here’s a summary; the division of labor is the specialization of individuals who perform specific tasks with the objective of completing one, common goal. Think of a factory line; instead of each factory worker assembling an entire car by themselves, each is in charge of making one part of the car. The group as a whole will be able to make many more cars than they would if they each tried to make the entire car from start to finish, on their own.
This can easily be applied to a hockey team; each player has a role while on the ice. Instead of all five skaters chasing the puck, or trying to go coast to coast everytime they gain possession of the puck, teams set up in defensive systems with each player having a specific responsibility, and they usually stay in these positions while on offense in order to make moving the puck up ice easier (either through passes, or designed dump and chase plays). Regardless, these types of specialization are in order to achieve a common goal (outscoring the opposition).
The concept of specialization in hockey is being applied beyond on ice tactics, however, and into line/roster construction.
Some of the NHL’s most successful teams over the past couple of seasons have already bought into this ideology, and one could argue that a portion of their success comes from the way that they have specialized their players.
Consider teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, and Detroit Red Wings. All five teams have several common traits: a shutdown center/line that receives the toughest zone starts, and a line that thrives while playing in a sheltered role.
All five teams also made the playoffs, and played well; Detroit and Nashville lost to the eventual Cup finalists in seven game, first round series, while the Rangers fell in the Conference Finals, and the Bolts and Hawks ended up in the Cup Finals.
Though anyone of these teams could serve as a focus point for this piece, I’m going to dive deeper into the Nashville Predators, because our own Matthew Coller has taken a look at their deployment strategies before (in relation to Shea Weber’s poor relative Corsi). Also, Paul Gaustad is a player for which Corsi doesn’t seem to be an accurate measuring stick, due the unique nature of his play; more on this later.
Out of skaters who played at least 500 minutes last season, Paul Gaustad’s relative zone start percentage of -51.8-percent was the lowest in the league. The next closest forward to that number (besides Eric Nystrom, who played with Gaustad on Nashville’s first line) was Boyd Gordon, who had a RelZSO-percentage of -42.5-percent.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mike Ribeiro had the second highest RelZSO-percentage in the league, behind only David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. (Ribeiro played on a line with Filip Forsberg and James Neal for most of the season, and all three are in the top ten in the league for RelZSO-percentage.
The reasons for this kind of drastic split can be found from the players reputations, as Ribeiro isn’t known as a defensive player, and Gaustad is known to have a high face-off percentage and the ability to play defense well.
Over the past four years, Mike Ribeiro’s defensive ability (and defensive usage) has been on the decline. From Null Hypothesis Hockey, here’s a graph of his dCorsi against, showing how he has allowed more shot against than expected, and done so while experiencing a declining defensive role.
Still, as a player who had put up 47 points the prior season, Ribeiro was at least bringing some offensive ability to the table, and Peter Laviolette recognized this. Enter Paul Gaustad, and his unique role as defensive zone specialist.
Gaustad was one of 31 skaters who played at least 300 minutes at 5 on 5 last season and averaged less than 40 seconds per shift. This is because, on the vast majority of his defensive zone starts, his job was to simply make sure that the puck left the zone. As soon as it did so, Gaustad’s job was to get off the ice and let the offensive players take over.
He wins the defensive zone face-off, makes sure the puck leaves the zone, and then hurries directly off of the ice.
As a result, there are often times where Gaustad could stay on the ice, and experience a better Corsi rating. The lack of offense that he produces partially stems from the fact that his job appears to be getting off of the ice just before his team creates shot attempts.
When Gaustad loses the face-off, he gets stuck in his defensive zone, but this isn’t too much of an issue. The big center is able to use his size to clear the middle of the zone, keep opponents out of the slot, and eventually clear the puck out of the zone. Once the puck is out of the zone, Gaustad hauls butt off the ice, and lets his more offensively gifted teammates pick up the slack.
In the above GIF, Gaustad has lost the face-off, and now must play defense. The puck gets cleared out of the zone, but his team doesn’t have control, so he stays on the ice. Minnesota re-enters the zone.
Some time passes, and Gaustad showcases his defensive skills, clearing the puck from his crease.
When the opportunity arises, he boxes out the opposition, and allows his teammate to pick the puck up and skate it out of trouble. Gaustad immediately gets off the ice, as well.
His replacement, Mike Fisher, slides in behind the defense unnoticed. A quick pass, a quick dangle, and the puck is in the back of the net.
Specialization at its finest. Each player does what they are better at, and the result is a positive outcome for the team.
Gaustad’s Corsi percentage takes a hit because of this; he’s on the ice for his team’s shots against, but is off the ice for his team’s shots for. Here is where we see how Corsi can fail in evaluation’s of specific players; the 33-year-old’s style of play seems exactly like one that could possibly elevate save percentage, and sure enough, his Sv% RelTM (courtesy of Puckalytics.com) in the past three seasons has been nothing but positive. As a result? His GA/60 Rel TM over the past three seasons is -0.63. The Predators are less likely to give up a goal with Gaustad on the ice, and with his unique, specialized deployment, his lack of offensive ability rarely hurts the team.
Instead, it frees up offensive responsibility for other players.
One such player was Ribeiro, who flourished in an offensive role where he was free from major defensive responsibility. Looking at Ryan Stimson’s passing data, Ribeiro’s Corsi Contribution per 60 minutes of ice time was the eighth highest in the league. That large offensive output was influenced by the play of James Neal and Filip Forsberg (each were in the top 35 of CC/60, but out of skaters with only 100 minutes of ice time tracked), but it also wouldn’t have been possible without the heavily offensive usage that Ribeiro and company received.
Overall, the combined Corsi of Ribeiro and Gaustad was 52.6%, which can be assumed to be higher than if the two had each received equal deployment. Ribeiro is weak defensively, while Gaustad is weak offensively; together, when specialized in specific roles, they can cover for each other’s deficiencies and give their team above average play.
There are many other examples of specialization helping teams maximize results. In Tampa Bay, Brian Boyle is the shutdown center who takes on difficult usage, and frees up Stamkos and the Triplets to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. In New York, Dominic Moore helps open the door for the top six of the team to run up the points.
There’s no guarantee that Ribeiro and Gaustad will again be as effective as they were in 2014-2015. Percentages can be highly volatile, and Gaustad may not have such a positive impact on his net-minders SV% in 2015-2016. Ribeiro, on the other hand, is 36-years-old, and age may start to take its toll, resulting in a decline from the veteran center.
There is no denying that NHL teams are complex systems. Finding ways to specialize roles and maximize output is just another way to find increased success, especially when resources are limited. Nashville was able to take two players with completely different skillsets and make them both effective. Specialization is just another way for general managers or coaches to take advantage of market deficiencies, and make their teams better.