3/22/18 – What the Hell Part 3: Ken Hitchcock’s Impact on the Forwards

I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be. 

Several weeks ago I tried to optimize the lineup using expected goal predictions based on player styles observed by Ryan Stimson. If you missed it, this article is a good starting point for what I’m going to get into here.

What came out of the 2016-17 data was essentially that the Stars had five players who fit the playmaker mold: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Alexander Radulov, and Martin Hanzal. A team full of playmakers, were it possible anywhere but the Olympics (in years when the NHL doesn’t destroy the tournament) would dominate most, if not all, games. Players who fit the shooter and balanced molds are perfectly fine too.

Really, as long as you avoid too many dependent players you’re going to be doing alright.

Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) threw the data into a blender to determine and visualize player styles for the 2018 season based on the data tracked so far.

I thought it would be interesting for many reasons, chief among them was to see how much of an impact playing under Ken Hitchcock had on the individual Dallas Stars forwards. And, well, there’s a noticeable change from 2017 to 2018. This image is from a Tableau Tierney put together.

Styles

….where did all of the playmakers go?

Four of the playmakers dropped down a notch into the shooter category and Hanzal dropped all the way down to being dependent. I guess what sticks out to me the most here is that it looks like all of the Stars forwards drifted up or down away from more extreme positions (except Hanzal) to a middle of the road path.

Hasn’t that kind of been the point though? This is what Hitchcock wanted. He wanted a more responsible game at even strength. Well, he got it. It isn’t going to be fair to blame or credit playing under Hitchcock for all of those changes. Players age and regress and improve all of the time, but the trajectory the bulk of the Stars forwards took certainly matches what Hitchcock wanted: bland.

What does that look like on an individual level? CJ Turtoro put together a tool that allows players to be compared across the two seasons where there exists significant data. What I did for these images is put the 2018 season data on the left from the tool and the 2017 data on the right.

In English: bigger numbers on the right equals good.

Jamie Benn

Benn

The 2017 version of Benn was an elite shot generator. He made plays. This year? He’s merely good. All of his zone entry and exit numbers plus his offensive contributions are down.

I still have a hunch that it partially has to do with too much ice time with Alexander Radulov. Benn’s numbers go down with Radulov on the ice at even strength. Benn is entering the zone with the puck significantly less than he was last year. How often do you see Radulov skating the length of the rink with the puck? He always has it.

Pet theory: Benn isn’t crossing the blueline with the puck on his stick so he isn’t creating as many opportunities for Tyler Seguin or whoever is with them (mostly Radulov) and the focus on being more careful with the puck and not turning it over has made these numbers come down.

Jason Spezza

Spezza

If you’re under a certain age and grew up with bad cartoons this reference may not mean much to you, but do you remember that old cartoon shtick where the character’s eyes would bug out when an absurd situation popped up? Then some little smart ass character would walk up through the chaos with a giant pistol, pull the trigger, and a little flag saying bang would come out?

Yeah, that’s what the Spezza image is.

Jason Spezza, the guy generating more offense than Jamie Benn but getting buried on the depth chart, is going to go somewhere like Pittsburgh or Toronto next year and win a Stanley Cup as a dominant second line center.

Tyler Seguin

Seguin

He’s still Seguin, but enters the zone with the puck more frequently (again, pet theory: because Benn isn’t giving it to him so he’s getting it earlier from Radulov or taking it himself from the defensive zone).

Alexander Radulov

Radulov

This season Radulov’s playmaking ability has been neutered at even strength. He was a high level set up guy with the Canadiens who didn’t generate much in the way of his own shots. In his first year in Dallas he’s shooting the puck more and doing quite a bit less to generate shots for his linemates.

The entries and exits stick out like a sore thumb here too. Radulov still enters the zone with about the same frequency, but his success rate has dropped by 25%. That’s almost certainly because of the Stars insistence on dumping the puck into the offensive zone, but I’ll check the numbers later when I have a chance.

Let’s extend the pet theory a little further here. If Radulov is dumping the puck in, and Seguin is playing deep in the defensive zone to support the breakout, take a guess who is being expected to skate his ass off doing grunt work in the corners to retrieve the puck?

Yep. 14.

Martin Hanzal

Hanzal

You can say what you want about the Hanzal signing, or his injury history, or his prospects for the future given the spinal fusion surgery he just had, but it wouldn’t be fair to say he was a bad player in 2017.

Hitchcock has stated that the injuries he has dealt with have really limited him all year. They certainly have to play in here to some degree. He exited the defensive zone so infrequently prior to his injury, and the times he did he was so unsuccessful, that it almost seems like he was never in the defensive zone at all.

We know he was though. Hitchcock made sure of it. When he did get out I’m not convinced he could make it up the ice to even join the offense with his injuries. This was a good player who, through injuries and system, was able to bring virtually nothing this year outside of some faceoff wins and penalty killing.

Tyler Pitlick

Pitlick

Pitlick has seen his offensive game grow significantly with the Stars as his entry numbers have collapsed. With the Oilers, Pitlick entered the offensive zone with possession 75% of the time and entered with the puck often.

He’s doing exactly what Hitchcock wants him to do. You can see it in his success percentages of exits and entries. Dump it in, chip it out, retrieve it. It makes you wonder how much more value he could contribute if he were able to combine this years offense with the zone entry efficiency of 2017.

Radek Faksa

Faksa

Again: all of the offensive contributions and zone entry success shrunk. Dump it in, chip it out, retrieve.

Devin Shore

Shore

He’s about the same offensively, less effective at entering the zone, but more successfully exits the zone with possession. The fact that he can exit the zone effectively makes me believe he could just as easily enter the offensive zone with the puck instead of dumping it and killing the offense.

Well, that and the fact that he was really good at entering the zone with the puck last year under Lindy Ruff.

Brett Ritchie

Ritchie

Ritchie was an elite shot volume generator in 2017. Under Hitchcock he has evolved into a more well rounded player offensively who helps set up teammates for offense.

Visually we’ve seen how bad the Stars have gotten offensively, and it isn’t just one player regressing. Damn near every forward is worse offensively, some significantly, and many by their own doing from not gaining the offensive zone with the puck. One thing all of the forwards have in common is the system under which they play.

Maybe blaming Jamie Benn or Jason Spezza doesn’t make any sense? Or, if it does, maybe it’s really far down the list.

I guess in summation, maybe wait for the water level to fall before plugging one tiny potential hole in the over-worked dam. Whether you plug that tiny hole or not the dam is going to collapse and wipe out the town anyway.

3/2/18 – Optimizing the Dallas Stars Lineup Using Player Type Data

I’ve been beating the drum for keeping Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Tyler Seguin apart for a while now to follow in the Pittsburgh Penguins mold. Spread your stars out and complement them with useful players to maximize the offense. It’s an idea that has been out there for a little while now, and I remembered hearing a lot about roster construction optimization when the Passing Project information really started getting out there in force.

Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) has tracked a ton of data: zone entries, zone exists, defenseman touches, and a lot of other important microstats. Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp) led the Passing Project to get a better idea of how passing impacts scoring. Both sets of data were put together to give a more complete picture of players across the league.

One of the resulting conclusions drawn from the data was the existence of four “Player Types” at forward. Stimson put this excellent piece together at hockey-graphs.com detailing what he found.

Teams are incentivized to spread their best players throughout their lineup. This is due to a fact that a team can only have so much success with a stacked line (looking at you, Boston). Furthermore, with hockey being a strong link game, ensuring that the best players are on the ice as much as possible at different times gives you an advantage, or at least doesn’t put you at more of a disadvantage. The final piece is identifying which players can complement those elite forwards the best.

Emphasis mine.

He found that the four player types are Playmakers, Shooters, Balanced, and Dependent. Dependent is a nice way to say plugs. The other three showed to be useful, with playmakers being the ones who drive scoring the most which makes sense.

So as we watch the Dallas Stars struggle through a tough stretch I thought “hey, I wonder how optimized lines for the Stars based off of the most up-to-date data available would look.” Let’s find out.

For future reference, this is what the Stars rolled out last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning:

(All data is from 2015-16 and 2016-17 which poses a problem: players age or get worse for whatever other reason. I’ll note where I think this could show itself as a problem.)

First lets see what roles are currently on the Stars roster.

The Playmakers

This group is the guys that move the needle the most. The names mostly aren’t going to surprise you. All the visualizations are from this awesome Tableau.

Jamie Benn

Benn

I mean, yeah. Obviously.

Tyler Seguin

Seguin

I said they weren’t going to surprise you.

Alexander Radulov

Radulov

This dude was such a bargain.

Jason Spezza

Spezza

Spezza has had a long career of being a quality player. We’ve seen him struggle to fit into the system under Ken Hitchcock at times, but he’s still Spezza. He still drives the play, but he’s been hampered by an aggressively low PDO driven by a really low on-ice save percentage.

Is it more likely that his numbers have gone down because he’s terrible, or because there has been an inordinate amount of puck luck going against him? I’m willing to let him stay in the playmaker category until data exists to prove it wrong.

Martin Hanzal

I shit you not.

Hanzal

He may not be in the Benn, Seguin, and Spezza category, but over the sample period Hanzal has been really good. You have to ask yourself if he has regressed this year, or if the role he is being asked to fill has killed his numbers off. Like Spezza he is the victim of an aggressively low PDO, but his is driven by both low on-ice shooting and save percentages. He legitimately is a bottom six anchor, but, like, a good anchor.

The Shooter

Brett Ritchie

Ritchie

One thing Ritchie does do is pump shots on net. I’m not going to try to argue that he’s elite or anything, but he isn’t as useless as many would like to think.

The Balanced Guys

These guys don’t fit into the top two categories, but they make useful contributions.

Radek Faksa

Faksa

I think I would be willing to argue that Faksa is more of a playmaker this year, but without data to support it I want to keep this as fair and realistic as possible. You could make a case for he and Hanzal flipping types here based on a 2018 season eye test and I wouldn’t try to argue against it.

Mattias Janmark

Janmark

After missing a year Janmark is getting jobbed by PDO like Hanzal and Spezza, but he has been visibly impressive all season.

Antoine Roussel

Roussel

I’m not going to lie to you, this one surprised me. Roussel is just a good all around depth player. You can see him making solid plays all over the ice, but he doesn’t jump out as this decent. Math is fun.

Devin Shore

Shore

Shore has been nothing special, but he isn’t a plug either.

There is currently no data for Tyler Pitlick, Gemel Smith, Jason Dickinson, or Remi Elie. I want to be as fair as possible and assume there are some plugs somewhere on the roster up front, but none of these guys strike me as drains. I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest that every forward in the Stars lineup contributes something useful.

Optimized Lines

So, how best do the Stars increase their odds of scoring?

fwd_lines

Stimson included this expected goal chart in his story. Let’s use it.

The Stars have the ability to use a playmaker on every line, and a second one on one line. Down the middle it makes a lot of sense to go with Seguin, Benn, Spezza, and Hanzal.

If you split Seguin and Benn apart you have to figure out where Radulov goes. I have to wonder if some of the consternation people feel about Benn this year has to do with Radulov. When they’re on the ice together Radulov’s production lags. Seguin and Radulov hum along just fine.

Seguin-Radulov-BalancedF for your first line is the second best combination available at 57.2 xG%.

A playmaker, a shooter, and a balanced forward work well together too. Jamie Benn, Brett Ritchie, and a balanced forward of your choice would slot in at 55 xG%.

The final two lines would each feature a playmaker and at least two balanced guys, with the chance of Janmark or Faksa being in a higher “type cluster”.

Your third line would still be all balanced players which is still effective. A playmaker with two balanced lines goes for 52.2 xG%.

Those Stars lines from the Tampa game? They’re ok, but with all three of the alpha scorers lumped together the Stars minimize their offense to a degree.

Should the Stars ever use Benn, Radulov, and Seguin together?

Yes. Late in games when the bottom of the lineup is generally used less frequently the Stars would increase their expected goal output by throwing those three together. A line of three playmakers could expect an xG% of 58.9%. This is the most deadly line possible, and late in the game you aren’t hurt as much by throwing your top guys together.

Late in the game they could also throw Jason Spezza, Martin Hanzal, and Brett Ritchie together to optimize a second unit. That line would, based just on player roles, look at a 55.1 xG%..

How do you most appropriately use Hanzal?

I think there is a good argument that the Stars already are doing that, but the results aren’t there due to some bad luck. What he is doing isn’t showing up on the standard or advanced stat sheet without more data available, but I’ve seen enough to think he’s more useful than he appears at times.

Now he just needs to stay healthy.

Are the Stars getting the most out of their powerplay?

When Stimson put his story together he pointed out that there were about four playmakers and shooters per NHL club. The Stars have six, and two of them park themselves in front of the net on the powerplay.

This may make sense for Ritchie conceptually since he’s a shooter, but it doesn’t for Hanzal. It minimizes his ability to make plays by reducing him to a glorified crash test dummy hoping to get drilled with a puck. Maybe try to get him more space to make some plays on the second unit, or make him net front on the first unit.

For the record, this is Max Pacioretty.

Pacioretty

For those of you who want the Stars to have a shooter, but don’t want Brett Ritchie near the top six, there’s your guy. If only he had been available and attainable at the trade deadline.

Hey, click these:

2/26/18 – Kick The Window Open
The Dallas Stars Need to Trade for Max Pacioretty, and Here’s Why
2/22/18 – David Freese, Brett Hull, and Arby’s
2/21/18 – Carmax, Priorities, and Ben Bishop
2/20/18 – Heiskanen Scored a Goal

2/5/18 – Tyler Seguin’s 25th Goal

It’s flattering that as of 4 pm there have been over 120 visitors to this site on the third day of it existing without me doing anything more than tweeting a couple of links in the middle of the night.

I initially posted that this was about not caring about an audience because ultimately it isn’t. I think worrying about who will read something over a long enough time period stifled what I wanted to say and made me dread writing at times. It is nice to see that even a few people clicked on something they didn’t have to. I do appreciate it.

I also appreciate Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov. Opposing teams pretty clearly do too. The Dallas Stars laid the wood to the Minnesota Wild last night 6-1, but I keep thinking about Seguin’s goal in the middle of the 2nd period. The more I watch it the more ridiculous it is.

Here it is again. It starts out with a simple breakout.

Seguin1

The three Stars in the picture are Benn, Seguin, and Radulov. The Wild aren’t in bad shape here.

Seguin2

The Stars turn the puck over and the Wild defender chips it blindly up the boards. From here the Wild lose their minds. The same defender drops back at least 15 feet as Radulov picks the puck up. Seguin is already on the blueline ready to join the attack.

Seguin3

Even NOW the Wild still out number the Stars four to three. All four Wild players are in position to guard the center of the ice. Notice where Seguin is. Within five seconds he’s going to be on the opposite side of the rink wide open.

Seguin4

Two seconds later the Wild are completely screwed. Two of the Wild go to attack Radulov in the corner. Two Wild players go to Seguin to prevent the tap in goal. No Wild players have any idea where arguably the best player on the ice, Benn, is located. Benn, being who he is, goes right into the undefended area in the faceoff circle.

Seguin5

The Wild STILL have a chance here now that the forward Realizes What He Has Done and goes to front Benn. Seguin still isn’t wide open, but he may as well be. Mike Reilly of the Wild is staring at Benn. The high forward is watching Benn instead of looking at Seguin, but his responsibility isn’t either of those guys.

Still, Seguin is a right shot. His stick, at this point, will end up closer to the forward than Reilly, but Reilly is in a position to make a play as of now.

Seguin6

Not even one second later look how much separation Seguin got because no one is watching him. This is the same thing Brett Hull and all elite goal scorers have an ability to do that mortal humans like us will never understand. They just know how to get open. Reilly made it easier, but it takes high quality hockey intelligence to know how to get just enough space to make a goal a tap in.

You may notice that this was the fourth goal of the game. It made me think of this Ken Hitchcock quote from after the game:

This is the first goal after the moment Hitchcock claims to have noticed it looked like they played last night. He’s probably on to something.

So I think there’s something to having one of each of these guys on three different lines. Then I see goals like that happen and realize I don’t care because sometimes it’s fun to watch a dominant line dominate even if they aren’t together all the time.

Hey, click these

2-4-2018 A Hockey Rink is a Hockey Rink and a Game is a Game
2/3/18 – The Conservative NHL and Mooterus Culture
2/2/18 – A New Hope