Last week I spent some time putting the NHL’s top scorers in context using a few advanced statistics. One of those statistics was zone starts, which has been shown to have a profound influence on an individual player’s results. Understanding zone starts is simple: you just need to know who is on the ice during a faceoff and whether that faceoff is in the offensive, neutral, or defensive zone.
I enjoy looking at zone starts because they make a certain amount of intuitive sense even to those not well-versed in advanced statistics: of course players who start in the offensive zone tend to get more offensive opportunities. Of course players who start the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone will face more shots from the opposition and struggle to make an impact offensively. These truths are, as it were, self-evident.
What I’m curious about is team zone starts, which doesn’t seem to have been investigated as much as individual zone starts. Which teams tend to force faceoffs in the offensive zone? Which teams end up having to take a lot of defensive zone draws? How does a team’s overall zone starts impact an individual player’s zone starts?
The team that most radically uses zone starts to their advantage is the Vancouver Canucks. The top three players in OZone% (offensive zone starts vs defensive zone starts) are Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows, the Canucks’ top line. The bottom four players are also Canucks: Manny Malhotra, Dale Weise, Aaron Volpatti, and Maxim Lapierre. Alain Vigneault consistently sends his top offensive players out to start in the offensive zone, giving them a head start on creating offensive opportunities. In order to do this, he buries his fourth line, which is as defensively responsible as many team’s third lines.
If you’re wondering how important all this really is, I point you to this article from a couple years ago by Gabriel Desjardins of BehindtheNet.ca, where he illustrates that “when you lose a faceoff in your own end, opponent shots on goal go up so quickly that it’s as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3.”
The opposite is also true: a won faceoff in the offensive zone is equivalent to a brief powerplay. Given how deadly the Sedins are on the powerplay (1st and 5th in powerplay points last season), it should be clear that giving them significantly more offensive zone starts and the equivalent of 10-15 seconds of powerplay time on every won offensive zone faceoff would have a significant impact on their point totals.
I have seen it asked, however, whether certain players see more starts in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone because their team simply starts in the offensive zone more often. A team’s checking line, for instance, is frequently praised when they can start in the defensive zone and create an offensive zone faceoff for the team’s top line. Teams that are able to create more offensive zone faceoffs create more offensive opportunities. Of course, the opposite is also true: teams that create more offensive opportunities will create more offensive zone faceoffs by forcing a goaltender to make saves and freeze the puck.
I started wondering about team zone starts and whether some of these questions could be answered and, well, there’s no easy way to say this, but you’re about to be slapped in the face by a table:
Team Zone Starts at 5-on-5
|Team||OFF ZS||DEF ZS||NEU ZS||Total ZS||OFF FO%||DEF FO%||OZone%|
All of this data was mined from Behindthenet.ca using the individual players to tabulate the team zone starts. This is why you see the oddity of fractions of faceoffs as the NHL’s data from which Gabe pulls these statistics can sometimes have minor errors. Fortunately, it’s not enough to make the results invalid. All of the data is at 5-on-5, so no powerplay, penalty kill, or 4-on-4 play is included.
Some quick observations can be made:
- The Detroit Red Wings, well known as a possession powerhouse, comes in at the top of the chart with an OZone% of 58%. Not only do they rarely have defensive zone faceoffs, they win more of them than any other team in the league other than Boston, as they both have a 57.6 faceoff percentage in the defensive zone at 5-on-5, preventing their opponents from creating offensive opportunities when they do manage to force a defensive zone faceoff.
- Last week I was checking each team’s OZone% and noticed that the Red Wings were the only team in the league with no players below 50% in OZone%. That’s no longer true as Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, and Chris Conner now fall just below 50%, but their high team OZone% explains why the vast majority of their players start more often in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. The entire Red Wings team seems to create more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive zone faceoffs with their puck possession game. Either that or Jimmy Howard never covers up the puck.
- This is yet another way to show that the Minnesota Wild are struggling when it comes to puck possession: their OZone% is worst in the NHL by over 4%. Even more stark is that they are the only team in the league who have started more shifts at 5-on-5 in the defensive zone than in the neutral zone. To their credit, they win 52.9% of their defensive zone faceoffs, but unless they are able to start shifting possession into the offensive zone more regularly, their league-high defensive zone starts will come back to bite them.
- The Canucks are just about an even 50% in offensive zone to defensive zone starts, showing that the Sedins’ abnormally high OZone% is entirely dependent on how they are used by coach Vigneault and not because the Canucks force more offensive zone faceoffs.
- A big reason for the Boston Bruins’ league-best even-strength goal differential would appear to be their faceoff percentage in the offensive and defensive zones at even-strength, which is higher than their overall faceoff percentage. Though their number of offensive and defensive zone starts is about even, they make the most of their offensive faceoffs with the second highest offensive zone faceoff percentage in the league and limit their opponents’ opportunities with the highest defensive zone faceoff percentage (tied with Detroit).
- The team with the highest offensive zone faceoff percentage is the Chicago Blackhawks at 57.4%. They also have the third highest OZone%, so they frequently start shifts in the offensive zone with possession. It seems likely that this is part of the reason they lead the league in goals-for at even-strength, but it might be a little early to draw that conclusion.
- One team that I did not expect to see so high in OZone% is the Ottawa Senators, who are currently last in the Northeast Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference. The issue hasn’t been scoring goals for the Senators, who are currently 5th in even-strength scoring, it’s been preventing them. The Senators have allowed the second-most goals at even-strength and it seems fair to place a little bit of the blame on their goaltending. Craig Anderson has one of the worst save percentages in the league at even-strength. Actually, that might explain why they have so few defensive zone starts: Anderson hasn’t been making enough saves.
I feel like this is just scratching the surface of the analysis that could be done with team zone starts. For instance, it would be interesting to see how well zone starts correlates with Corsi and Fenwick. Unfortunately, I don’t have those numbers handy for teams, just for individual players. It would also be interesting to see how score effects impact zone starts: when teams are down by a goal or two they tend to shoot more and by consequence have more faceoffs in the offensive zone. Simultaneously, when a team is ahead they tend to sit back and not press play into the offensive zone and thus end up with more faceoffs in the defensive zone.
As a preliminary look at team zone starts, however, this may still prove useful to some of you. Do any other interesting results jump out at you from the table of team zone starts?