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February 12, 2013
Zamboni Tracks
Dishing Out The Minutes

by Ryan Wagman

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In a normal season, the 12-game mark would signify absolutely nothing, as one sixth of the season is not nearly enough of a sample from which to draw conclusions. In a 48-game season, a 12-game sample is also pretty meaningless. The numbers compiled by players in this short span of time are not indicative of trends that should be expected to continue through the end of the season. Thomas Vanek, for one, has had the best 12 games of anyone's life, pumping out 11 goals and 12 assists, which give him a hand in 60.5% of all Sabres' goals thus far. In his case, the temporality of 12 games cuts both good and bad. On the downside, Vanek is not going to compile 92 points in 48 games. On the other hand, currently in last place with 11 points, the Sabres have plenty of time in which to right the ship and get some teammates—like the still goalless Drew Stafford—on the board.

There are relatively few takeaways we can draw from a season-opening slate of 12 games, something that we can assume will hold true for the remaining three quarters of the season—aside from serious injuries incurred, of course.

This season, general managers will have much less time in which to judge their rosters before the trade deadline, which will fall on April 3. In practical terms, that date is around the three-quarter mark of the season. While 36 games is rarely enough for a GM to complete the necessary due diligence before making a franchise-altering decision, he has no choice in the matter this season.

That all said, the statistics should have less bearing on those decisions. Rather, the scouting element will be more prevalent, with the general manager needing to decide whether or not his team is in contention for the playoffs, and how his pieces (players) fit in on the roster. While the percentages should even out over a more traditional trade season, a smart GM will recognize that flukes will be abundant in a sample of 35-38 games. He will need to rely on his eyes more, his eyes and those of his coaches. This does not mean that all numbers are suspect, but that we must be more careful when deciding which numbers to look at. With so little hockey having been played, perhaps the most noteworthy numbers to look at involve player usage. For teams with return coaching staffs, this is even easier, as we will have a usage sample of far more than 12 games to parse through in deciding how a player fits on the roster, and performs in the coach's system. For teams that turned over their staffs in the offseason, 12 games are all we have.

So we look at the four teams with the most roster uncertainty in the NHL. The Calgary Flames hired Bob Hartley, who had spent the past two seasons coaching in Switzerland, to be their new head coach on May 31. The Edmonton Oilers promoted former associate coach Ralph Krueger on June 27, mere days after selecting Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick in the draft. 34 days after being hired as the new GM of the historic Montreal Canadiens club, Marc Bergevin hired Michel Therrien to coach the Habs, returning to the club he had sewn his coaching roots with over a decade ago. Finally, the Washington Capitals brought newly-elected Hockey Hall of Famer Adam Oates on board as their new coach on June 26. Of these four teams, only Montreal is currently sitting in a playoff position, while Washington and Calgary are among the worst teams in the league at this early stage. What usage patterns can we detect in the four teams?

All statistics are up to games of Saturday, February 9, 2013

Calgary Flames

Much like last season, Jay Bouwmeester is picking up the lion's share of playing time, averaging nearly 20 minutes of even strength ice time per game. What is different, though, is the man standing next to him on the blue line. Whereas Chris Butler was his partner last season, Butler has now been demoted to the third pairing, playing with one of Derek Smith or Cory Sarich. In his place, Mark Giordano has been elevated to the first pairing at even strength. On the downside for Giordano, he has been replaced on the first power play unit by free agent signing Dennis Wideman. Curtis Glencross has also entrenched himself as a first unit power play contributor, taking over from the departed Olli Jokinen.

Speaking of Jokinen, his even strength role last year was centering the first line between Jarome Iginla and one of Glencross or Alex Tanguay. With Jokinen now playing for Winnipeg, Tanguay and Glencross are now both playing with Igninla. As that leaves the first line without a natural center, Tanguay and Iginla have been sharing the faceoff duties, with Iginla thus far proving far more adept at the function. The results of the newly-constituted top trio have not been promising. We can blame puck luck for their mediocre results, as the three forwards currently sit with PDOs between 923-963, while last year's first line ranged between 1010-1031. Considering the past success of the Iginla-Tanguay tandem, the solution would seem to involve replacing Glencross with a natural center, perhaps even Matt Stajan.

A proficient and prolific faceoff artist, Stajan has largely disappointed since coming to Calgary as a key component of the Dion Phaneuf trade three years ago. The former Maple Leaf has been victimized by ghastly on-ice shooting percentages since moving west, topping out at 8.88% in 2010-11. Coincidentally (or not), Stajan played a fair bit with Iginla in that season, which also saw the superstar pot 43 goals, the third-highest total of his excellent career.

Struggling to get going this season has been Mike Cammalleri, who has yet to score in his seven games. He has been mostly lining up alongside Mikael Backlund and Lee Stempniak, a trio which tends to skew towards the right, as Stempniak has taken exactly half of the 54 total shots on goal taken by the three. With such an overwhelming tilt, they may be making it easier to defend against them.

Solving those issues will not save the Flames, whose biggest shortcoming has been, by far, putrid goaltending. Miikka Kiprusoff, who has played in at least 70 games in every season since the last lockout, was able to stop only 87% of all shots before succumbing to a sprained knee. Whether or not Leland Irving will be able to pick up the slack is unknown, as the 2006 first rounder has only appeared in 10 NHL games since going pro in 2008-09. All of the line combination optimizing in the world will not bring Calgary into the top eight in the Western Conference unless they can improve upon a save percentage which is currently 29th in the league.

Edmonton Oilers

As a rookie last year, the electric Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was sheltered in the extreme by the coaching staff, starting 62.5% of his non-neutral zone starts in the offensive end—highest on the team—while playing against below-average competition. Ralph Krueger has taken the reins off a bit, with RNH seeing only 53.2% of his zone starts in the offensive end so far in the young season. The early results have not been promising, with the youngster failing to score in his first ten games, while his most frequent linemates, fellow former number one overall draft pick Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, combining for only five goals in their first 11 games, with only three coming at even strength.

Looking at the PDOs of this trio will not illuminate the issue, as all three have benefited from stellar goaltending behind them with on-ice even strength save percentages ranging from .946 to .974. On the other hand, when it comes to shooting the puck, they have each been snakebitten, with on-ice even strength shooting percentages ranging from 5.21% to 5.88%. They are all shooting the puck as much as they should, so we should expect those numbers to rise as the sample size grows.

Of further note with the Oilers is their blueline situation, which has been atrocious for several years, likely the primary reason for their three-year run of first overall draft picks. Last year, according to the average time on ice given to blueliners, the top two pairings included the since-traded Tom Gilbert, along with Jeff Petry, Ryan Whitney, and Ladislav Smid. Nick Schultz, who was the primary return in trade for Gilbert, was the fifth-most used defenseman on a per-game basis. On this young season, the ice time leader among Oilers' D-men (and it's not even close) has been Justin Schultz, the much-hyped college free agent who selected Edmonton of his own volition this past summer, after failing to come to terms with the team that drafted him, Anaheim. The former Badger is playing 23:25 per game, far more than Gilbert's team-leading figure of 22:49 of last season. Justin, paired up with Nick Schultz (no relation) has proven to be worthy of heavy usage, as the pairing are the only Oiler blueliners with positive Relative Corsi scores through 11 games. In fact, both currently sit in the top 20 league-wide. With seven points through 11 games, Justin Schultz is also on pace to score more than any Oiler backliner did last season, on pace now for 31 points in 48 games. Petry led the way last year with 25 points.

As for Petry, he is still paired up with Smid, and both are still somewhat below average in their ability to keep pucks away from their own goaltender. That said, they have both been seeing an inordinate amount of time in their own zone. On the other hand, Whitney has been marginalized, coming a distant fifth in even strength ice time among his peers, while trying to make his mark primarily on the power play, currently ranking sixth in power play ice time among Oilers skaters.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are more prone than most to small sample size uncertainty, even in terms of ice time contributions, due to the holdout by star blueliner P.K. Subban, who missed the first six games of Montreal's season before coming to terms on a two-year deal with the club. While we would expect Subban to be among the top two in ice time on a per-game basis, he currently sits fourth among defensemen after playing five games, behind Andrei Markov (who is healthy for the first time since the 2008-09 season), Josh Gorges, and Alexei Emelin. If we restrict our look to even strength ice time only, Subban has also been used less than Francis Bouillon and Raphael Diaz in addition to the aforementioned trio. Markov's health is also skewing any comparison to last year's player usage figures. Looking at the man advantage, Subban has stepped right into a leading role alongside of Markov and has contributed three power play points in his first five games back.

Looking at the forwards, Therrien has kept the top two lines intact from last year, using David Desharnais in between Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty ,with Tomas Plekanec centering Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta. Like Markov, Gionta is also returning from a season largely lost to injury, so his usage has naturally been higher than previously. While this may be related, the Plekanec line has been receiving more even strength ice time than the Desharnais line thus far, although the differences are not excessive. The emergence of rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher has allowed the Canadiens to forego wasting ice time on the likes of Scott Gomez, Michael Blunden, and Mathieu Darche.

Improved health and stellar play from netminder Carey Price (Saturday's shellacking at the hands of the nemesis Maple Leafs notwithstanding) have put Montreal in a position to feel very good about the change in organizational leadership. If the former top line of Desharnais, Pacioretty, and Cole can regain their scoring touch (only five goals combined thus far), the Habs may retain their current grip on a playoff position. All told, considering the relative stability among the players and their usage rates, last year's failures seem less attributable to any mismanaging by coaches Jacques Martin or Randy Cunneyworth, and more due to horrible luck with injuries striking down some of their most important players.

Washington Capitals

While the three teams already discussed were all coming off of horrible seasons almost necessitating a new mindset, the Capitals were actually relatively successful, overcoming a slow start to make the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston in the first round. With Hall of Fame playmaker Adam Oates having taken over the helm of head coach, the most noteworthy change he has made to player usage (at least insofar as hype is concerned) has been the shift of superstar Alex Ovechkin from left wing to the right wing. While Ovie spent much of his even strength ice time last year lining up alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer, this season he has been alternating linemates at a record pace, spending the majority of his time with Wojtek Wolski and Mike Ribeiro, both newcomers to the Capitals.

Not only have the arrivals of Wolski and Ribeiro pushed Backstrom and Brouwer away from Ovechkin, but they have also indirectly curtailed the effectiveness of young Marcus Johansson, who has fallen from fourth among Capitals' forwards in even strength ice time down to ninth, currently under 11 minutes per game. The Capitals have been further hampered by the absence of heart-and-soul center Brooks Laich, who is yet to play due to a groin injury.

On the blueline, whereas we might have expected improved play with the return to health of former Norris Trophy nominee Mike Green, the opposite has instead occurred. Green has split up the young tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, as Oates has taken a page out of the book used by last year's Cup winners from Los Angeles, pairing defensemen such that each unit will have one offensive and one defensive blueliner. Green plays the up-role to Alzner's defensive role. Carlson has spent the plurality of his time lining up alongside the defensive-minded John Erskine. The third pair has generally consisted of Tomas Kundratek, who has some offensive flair, with Jeff Schultz, who does not.

Like Calgary, Washington has been victimized by subpar goaltending, as neither Michal Neuvirth nor Braden Holtby have been able to take on the role of number one for the Caps, as neither netminder has been able to stop even 89% of shots against. Unfortunately, goaltending may have been a valid excuse if the rest of the team was clicking, but outside of Mike Ribeiro (14 points in 12 games), they are not. Ovechkin has struggled to adjust to life as a right winger, and most of the roster, with the possible exceptions of Backstrom, leading scorer Joel Ward and Mathieu Perreault—who has already requested a trade—have struggled to drive play away from their own end.

Summary

Looking back at the four profiled teams, it seems fair to say that Edmonton and Montreal have experienced the least turbulence in terms of player roles and systems when compared to the previous season. It seems only natural, then, that those two teams are doing far better than was expected coming into the season. Montreal, as mentioned, is currently in the playoff picture while the Oilers are only a tiebreaker out of the playoffs in the West. The Flames, who are rolling a first line without a natural center, and the Capitals, who have not just shaken up the personnel of their top line, but have moved their most dynamic player to his opposite wing, have been struggling mightily. This is not to say that these are the causes of the horrid goaltending that both clubs have experienced, but they have certainly not helped, either.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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Flashback (02/13)

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