Arguably the secret behind the Sedins' success

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.

David Bolland, doin' work!

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?

Comments (7)

  1. I like the angle you took on this, but I would argue that it’s not about protection and more about trying to score. Don’t think AV is trying to protect the Sedins +/- as much as trying to get them in a favourable position to score.

    • That’s a good point, Jamie.

      I did some work in the summer where I concluded that the two-way forward (good at offense and defense) was extremely rare. I would point to the Sedins in particular as players who have limited defensive ability.

      So while you’re also helping them score, you’re also preventing them from situations where they have to play defense. Toews is an interesting bit of work, since I think he’s the only two-way centre who gets real protected shifts like he does. It makes it tough to gauge his defensive value.

  2. I think the protection works for both cases. Protect your players in terms of having to do the heavy lifting moving through the dangerous areas of the ice – as well as protecting their energy in terms of focusing on scoring and not scrambling to make a zone clearance.

    I can’t help but think of this in terms of my team – the Habs. Tomas Plekanec is arguably the team’s most dynamic forward, and yet the lack of a faceoff winning defensive centreman on the team means he has a team-worst offensive zone start of 42%. People are on him big time this year for a lack of production – and I can’t help but wonder how his stats might look if he enjoyed the same kind of offensive starting position as Teows. He would spend so much less energy getting to the offensive zone that I imagine he would have far more success. It also shows that sometimes you don’t need to spend mega dollars to improve your offense – since it seams that cheaper players like Malholtra or Bolland can give your offensive players the advantage that they need to produce at elite levels.

    • Spot on in regards to Plekanec. Desharnais is getting (relatively) cushy zone starts and is doing quite well for himself, while Cole handles any heavy lifting needed on that line, when they start in their own end.
      IMO if Cunneyworth had any form of inkling how to coach, he’d use Gomez as the d-zone ‘specialist’, with Kostitsyn and Moen or Darche as wingers – Gomez is actually a pretty good two-way center and is half decent on draws (BLASPHEMY! Gomez can be a useful player? I’ll surely burn in Hell…).
      Sure it’d be better to grab a purely defensive guy like Malhotra, with a salary a fraction of what Gomez makes, but I feel there’s really room to improve the team just by better using the available resources.

  3. I’d go a step further. I’d say that zone starts are far less about “protecting” superstars and far more about protecting your own net by having a guy who wins a higher % of faceoffs than said superstars. Losing a faceoff in the O zone is not a big deal. Losing it in the D zone is. Malhotra doesn’t lose faceoffs at the same clip as Henrik does.

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you checked high-zone starts among top offensive players and found some teammate plugger who wins a high number of faceoffs picking up the slack in the D zone every or almost every time.

    I’ve checked 3 teams on this; Van, Pitt and Tor. Each time, D-zone-starts are dominated by a low-minute player who wins faceoffs at a very high clip.

  4. I think you’ve fallen into the correlation = causation trap. The best teams’ superstars start more in the O-zone, yes- but is that what makes them the best teams, or that they have superstars to put out there in O-zone situations?

    I understand you’re just advancing a theory, but I don’t know if the conclusion really follows from the data.

  5. FIRST!!!111111!!!!!!!!!!!1

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