At one time, protection may have meant a Dave Semenko for your Wayne Gretzky, or an Ulf Samuelsson for your Mario Lemieux. I can also remember a day when Vancouver Canucks’ Mike Gillis brought in Darcy Hordichuk for Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Turns out, that’s the old way of thinking. Protecting your stars through toughness is no longer something that the top teams in the NHL, or, at least in the Western Conference, do. At the end of his career, Dave Bolland won’t be remembered quite as fondly as Dave Semenko or Dave Schultz. He may not be anything other than a footnote on the team page of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions, but his current role is instrumental in the Chicago Blackhawks successes this season, at least, when Jonathan Toews is on the ice and healthy.
When Toews is in the lineup, he’s started 62.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone. It’s a help to his game, allowing him to collect 50 points in the 49 games he’s played so far this season. It’s also allowed him to earn Selke Trophy consideration for last season, thanks to a high +/- rating that may be propped up by starting more shifts than average at the offensive end of the ice.
You’d think that this is an obvious point for coaches to make, but the reality is that we haven’t really seen a huge separation between players at the top end and bottom end of the zone start spectrum, but it’s an effect particularly noticed for the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings, and the aforementioned Blackhawks.
Success in the NHL isn’t guaranteed, if you have terrific scouting or even if the team has a proficiency in advanced stats. But one of the things the statistical movement has done is allowed us to use statistics to see what successful teams do well. While the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers have rocketed to the top of the Eastern Conference standings thanks to size and speed, the deployment of resources among, arguably, the three best Western teams for the last few years, is very telling in the philosophy of Western Conference teams.
Heck, for a while, even the Edmonton Oilers were sheltering their rookie line with Taylor Hall with Shawn Horcoff in a similar fashion to the way that the Canucks deploy Manny Malhotra, to rack up a tonne of goals against, as a benefit to the Sedin twins, who are the poster boys for sheltered shifts in the NHL. Their offensive zone-start rate this season is approaching close to 80%, while Manny Malhotra’s is a historically low 13%. This isn’t a coincidence: obviously, the Canucks have decided that they find success when the Sedins, powerhouses in the offensive zone, start more shifts there. You’d think it’s an obvious concept, but it’s one that’s only slowly been permeating the NHL in recent years.
(Zone start numbers are available at the indispensable BehindTheNet.ca, here)
For Detroit, they have a much easier deal because they don’t often have to deal with faceoffs in the defensive end, but Henrik Zetterberg, Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula are able to secure a high zone-start rate for not only the Red Wings’ fourth line and limit the amount of times they get caught, but also for Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Jakub Kindl.
It’s a new way of thinking, and a different way at looking at superstar protection. But for a defensive forward who plays the bulk of the defensive minutes for a team, maximizing a forward’s time in the offensive zone, that qualifies as protection too, no?