I really only have two observations from this week, and the one I’m going to discuss seems either pretty mundane or excessively political.
I’d like to start with a Vancouver beat-writer, actually, who criticized Manny Malhotra’s team-low minus-10 rating. Think about this, being a writer of a team, an expert who watches every single game and is in the locker-room occasionally, never having noticed that Malhotra takes on a different role than almost anybody in hockey. Criticizing Malhotra’s +/- rating is equivalent to criticizing Clay Matthews for being on the field for more touchdowns against and for; whether or not you believe that defensive zone starts have an effect on player production, you can certainly appreciate that Malhotra’s role. He starts at the defensive end more than any other player in hockey and takes the key face-offs.
Since Malhotra’s role is purely defensive, he should be out for a bunch goals against since there’s much, much less room for error than for Henrik Sedin or Ryan Kesler, who get a lot more offensive leeway thanks to the way the Canucks deploy their centre men. It’s not so much a secret on the blogosphere as to how notorious the effect is, but it’s pretty amazing that none of the writers who cover the team for a living have bothered to notice that Malhotra has a deeply-specialized role.
But he’s not really the only one. I looked at a few of the other players who have Manny Malhotra’s role. Zone starts are an interesting hockey statistic because we do quarrel on occasion about players who start 55% of their shifts in the offensive zone as opposed to 52%, but Malhotra is beyond that. From a numerical perspective, he has started 454 more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone, which has to contribute somewhat to his team-low +/- rating.
As for the rest of the league, there are a few players (listed below) who have a start rate that is almost as extreme as with what Malhotra had to work with last season. I checked all the +/- ratings of these players and, sure enough, they’re in the bottom third on their team as far as this useless, useless statistic goes.
Having a low +/- can be a product of different things. It can be due to variance contributing to a low goaltender save percentage when a player happens to be on the ice, or it can have to do with the way the player is utilized by his coach. “The Malhotra effect” per sé, can explain why certain players do worse relative to their teammates: they play defence and are counted on at a single end of the ice. I think that a lot of coaches will begin to catch onto this trend, as its gaining popularity in the NHL.
Using Behind The Net and adding up the defensive and offensive starts for every centreman in the league with a Corsi Rel QoC of over 0.200 (the best quality of competition metric we used) I found three players who are victims of the Malhotra Effect:
Jim Slater, Winnipeg
Winnipeg won a wild game against Washington last night on a third period game-winning goal by Dustin Byfuglien, but let’s not deny the contribution of the point-less (that sounds weird when you read it out) Jim Slater, who is the centreman in the league next to Malhotra in defensive zone starts. All-in-all, Slater, the centre on Winnipeg’s “GST” line with Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn, has a 54.5% face-off percentage, 178 offensive zone starts and 437 on the defensive end, according to Behind The Net.
Last night against Washington, Slater saw nearly six minutes of action against Alex Ovechkin and, of Winnipeg’s 12 defensive zone face-offs at even strength, took eight of them, a team-high. You can’t tell me this isn’t by design.
Brian Boyle, New York Rangers
A lot of people credit Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonaugh for seeing the real tough minutes for the Rangers, which makes a lot of sense given their role, but from a forward perspective, Boyle is also forced into many tough situations as well. Boyle a +1 on a team that has a +39 goal differential and is fourth in the league in 5-on-5 scoring rate, has started a whopping 240 more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive (390 to 150).
Again, you can’t tell me that John Tortorella doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing with Brian Boyle. He’s won a more modest amount of face-offs, just 51.7%, but he’s a reason for New York’s league-low goals against rate (Not THE reason, but A reason).
Dave Bolland, Chicago Blackhawks
With Jonathan Toews out, the Blackhawks have had a difficulty putting the puck in the net, scoring just 20 goals at 5-on-5 in the 12 games since Toews left the lineup indefinitely. Nobody else has really picked up the slack, but Dave Bolland, who opened up space for Toews last season with his deployment at one end, hasn’t seen much of a change in his role, having been out on the ice for a team-high 91 of the team’s 186 defensive zone face-offs in that span.
Overall, Bolland is another victim of the Malhotra Effect. At minus-7 on his team, Bolland has started 362 shifts in the defensive zone compared to just 162 in the offensive zone.
So these are just three centremen who best emphasize the Malhotra Effect, and I’m betting that next year we’ll see a few more. I reckon about half the teams in the league really pay attention to their team’s zone starts, given the way player usage has changed over the last year, having seen the success the Vancouver Canucks had with Ryan Kesler once his role changed from being a defensive player to a more two-way guy.
Maybe the difference between 10 or 11 starts in a season won’t be tangibly noticeable, but even the most ardent skeptic of advanced hockey statistics can see that zone starts provide a wonderful picture into how players are used by their coaches.