• Systems and scoring chances in the Habs-Pens series

    by  • May 17, 2010 • Uncategorized • 17 Comments

    Olivier of En Attendant Les Nordiques tracked the scoring chances for the Pens-Habs series. There were a pair of articles that prompted me to take a look at the quantity and quality of chances that the Pens and Habs were getting when Sidney Crosby was on the ice in that series. Roy MacGregor had an article in the Globe and Mail on Friday about what he sees as the silliness of the obsession with systems at the NHL level:

    “We’ll be all right,” the player smothered in a scrum of cameras and microphones will say, “so long as we stick to our system.”

    It has a heft unlike so many other meaningless hockey phrases – “Our best players have to be our best players”; “We can’t get too high and can’t get too low”; “We have to take it one game at a time”; “It is what it is” – in that the mere word “systems” has the air of a secret handshake, or else could conceivably be some plan so complicated that the pickled brain of the average hockey writer could not possibly comprehend its intricacies.

    Coaches speak of “time and space” as if it were quantum physics not merely a goofy new phrase for checking. They speak of “gaps” as if they could be as finitely measured and set as those on spark plugs.

    Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma actually said last week that he wanted his team to be playing “north of the puck” – whatever that means.

    The truth is that these so-called systems are about as complicated as going to the fridge for a beer between periods.

    “Let’s fact it,” says Bob Hartley, who coached the Colorado Avalanche to a previous Stanley Cup, “there’s not 25 ways to play hockey.

    “It’s really pretty simple.

    “You show me a good system and I’ll show you a good goaltender.”

    A day or two later, Elliotte Friedman published this:

    I really thought Pittsburgh had an excellent strategy in getting wingers to accept less money, knowing they would have a chance to win and put up good numbers alongside Crosby and Malkin. That strategy was exposed by the Canadiens, who refused to let Malkin/Crosby carry the puck through the neutral zone, daring anyone else to beat them.

    A few years ago, I attended the Roger Neilson coaches’ clinic. One of the featured speakers was Penguins assistant Mike Yeo, who gave a presentation about the Pittsburgh offence. (He didn’t give away any secrets, just explained it so idiots like me could understand.) Yeo talked about the area just inside the opponents’ blueline, and how his team liked to set everything up from there. (Maple Leafs assistant Keith Acton once said that if you can’t control that area against this team, you’ll get killed.)

    With The Big Two cocooned, the Penguins were forced to chip and chase. Montreal actually allowed them to win the races, choosing instead to set up a perimeter around Jaroslav Halak. It surprised and confused Pittsburgh, leading towards the epic Game 7 meltdown.

    I still like Pittsburgh’s strategy. Great players are hard to find; so long as you’ve got ‘em, you’re probably better off than you would be screwing around and trying to turn them into other players. To address a point Friedman made elsewhere in his piece, I think that they might have screwed up paying Malkin and Fleury the way that they did but that’s neither here nor there. What I’m taken by is the suggestion that refusing to let Malkin/Crosby carry the puck through the neutral zone was key.

    To start with, this doesn’t really make a ton of sense to me in that I don’t perceive the NHL in general as a league in which goals are scored off the rush. In general, Malkin seems like more of a threat off the rush to me than does Crosby. If you asked me what makes Crosby so great, I’d so that he’s so dominant and elusive below the goal line. In the Ottawa series, Pittsburgh scored about 8 goals off the rush – I’m defining this pretty charitably and including things like stretch passes, of which there were a couple; only one of these saw Crosby or Malkin carrying the puck through the neutral zone. I went back and looked through the regular season games – this was all I could find in terms of Montreal versus Pittsburgh:

    So, while I have no doubt that it’s preferable that Crosby and Malkin don’t have the puck on their stick, I’m still a bit doubtful with respect to the suggestion that Crosby and Malkin were cocooned. I have other things in my life, so I’m just going to take a look at Crosby. The argument seems to be about the quantity and quality of the chances generated – in effect, that Montreal was able to limit the quality and quantity of chances that Crosby was able to generate. I’m just going to look at even strength scoring; Crosby had a pretty miserable series, with just a single goal. Chance wise, Olivier had the Pens trouncing the Habs at 46-29 with Crosby on the ice. The quantity, I would suggest was there – 46-29 is a an awfully large spread.

    While we have no way of actually measuring the quality of the chances, I figured I’d go through the games and did screen saves of the shots that each team was generating when Olivier was recording a chance. It’s not as good as video, which seems damned near impossible to get, but it’s pretty useful nonetheless, in that it gives us an idea of where the teams were shooting from. I’ll probably roll this out over a couple of weeks, as it takes some time to get the pictures taken. As always, I’m looking at even strength only. Away we go:

    Game 1 (Pens with Crosby 1, Montreal 3)

    Two possibilities

    Picture 15

    Picture 16

    Olivier has just a single chance here and the Kunitz shot from the slot is the one he has marked. The second one – Crosby makes a nice little pass from behind the net into the slot – actually seems like a considerably better chance to me.

    MTL 2 4:24 94 20 21 41 44 91 94 9 24 29 44 58 87 5v5

    Gomez shot from slot

    Picture 17

    MTL 3 19:37 13 13 14 26 32 41 75 13 14 29 44 55 87 5v5

    MTL shot from slot

    Picture 18

    A very generic looking scoring chance

    Slapshot from point, deflected

    Picture 19

    This is only a scoring chance because of the deflection I think. Pretty harmless looking otherwise.

    All in all, Montreal can probably claim to have shut Crosby down in this game. It probably bears mentioning that Pittsburgh led most of the way and Montreal didn’t really seem to be pressing so much as they were just kind of hoping for power plays.

    Game 2 (Pens with Crosby 8, Montreal 2)

    Dump-in takes a bounce, leading to Montreal shot from high slot

    Picture 2

    Pass to Gionta in the slot who scores

    Picture 3

    Crosby backhand pass out of the corner to Kunitz for shot

    Picture 5

    Pass that Crosby lets go, Eaton gets a shot

    Picture 6

    Picture 7

    The best thing about doing this is you get a chance to see all of the smart little plays that Crosby makes. I did two pictures here so that you could see the play Crosby made. The pass comes to him and he has the presence of mind to realize Eaton is in a better spot to shoot. Rather than try to make a play on the puck, he lifts his leg and lets it go through. Eaton gets a good chance.

    Shot from the slot

    Picture 8

    Guerin/Kunitz in the slot.

    Picture 9

    It doesn’t really show up in the picture but Olivier was probably charitable in only giving a single chance here. All three Penguins forwards, including Crosby, got whacks at the puck with complete chaos in front of the Montreal net.

    Guerin from behind the net

    Picture 10

    I might not have labelled this one a chance. Guerin threw it out front from behind the net but Halak got there first.

    Crosby pass to Malkin

    Picture 12

    This, I suppose is, why you don’t want Crosby and Malkin carrying the puck. Malkin carried it over the blue line, dished to Crosby and went to the net for the deflection.

    Backhand chance in front

    Picture 13

    This was a better chance than it looked – Halak had to move quickly. Note the bodies in front. Kennedy, who is to Malkin’s right, took the shot from his backhand.

    Crosby floats puck through the crease

    Picture 14

    You can see the puck going through the crease here. If Geno is a step or two further ahead or if Tyler Kennedy is a few feet closer, there’s an excellent chance that back ends up behind Halak. It’s hard to see what the Canadiens are doing, systems wise, that prevents that. Looking at the game as a whole, the Gionta chance was probably the best chance of the night but I see about four Pens chances that are in that ballpark – the Guerin/Kunitz assault, Kennedy’s backhand, Crosby to Malkin off the rush and Crosby sliding the puck through the crease.

    Games 3 and 4 to come, most likely next weekend.


    17 Responses to Systems and scoring chances in the Habs-Pens series

    1. May 17, 2010 at

      The lack of numbers in this post is disappointing. At no point in reading it did I need to fish a protractor or a table of cosines out of my pencil case.

      The pass that lets Crosby through really does seem illustrative of the good player/great player distinction. He gets the right-side D to come straight at him (no choice), but somehow he knows without looking back that Eaton has separation.

    2. May 17, 2010 at

      So everybody is second guessing my work now. Great, just great.

      Seriously, Crosby is a beast. The habs could play him 82 games a year I wouldn’t mind.

      That being said, the only thing I heard that made sense, looking and listening around, is that the habs are supposedly doing everything they can to prevent the cross-ice/cross crease pass. They’ll let Malkin walk in there instead of giving him a passing lane across. My understanding is that the habs put a premium on limiting Halak’s lateral movment, thus allowing him to go further out and better cover angles.

      That may be complete horshit, mind you, but of all the things I’ve come across, this is the one making the most sense, even tough I find it pretty extreme.

    3. R O
      May 17, 2010 at

      I kinda know what those guys mean about the area inside of the blue-line. When Crosby’s coming into the zone that’s an area he will sometimes slow down in to cut across or take a shot.

      Of course that’s only one trick in his bag, so those guys are taking the piss too, more than a little bit.

      And it’s not like this trick is special to Crosby, other than the fact that he’s so good at putting the puck from that part of the ice into the scoring area or along the boards where it can be won.

      Crosby just owns the low slot area and below, it’s pretty amazing to watch.

    4. Tyler Dellow
      May 17, 2010 at

      Olivier – Yeah, I’ve gone through all the chances now and I don’t see a lot of cross-crease passes. How many do you expect though? I don’t know that I see a ton of them at ES usually.

    5. NewAlgier
      May 17, 2010 at

      The cross-ice pass is so dangerous that I have to assume that every team realizes that it has to be shut down. That’s peewee level hockey, no? I wouldn’t think that “shut down the cross-ice pass” rises to the level of a system, anymore than “pull the offense offside” can be considered a system in soccer.

    6. BRIdub
      May 17, 2010 at

      I agree, limiting cross ice passes is basic hockey. I would say that probably a quarter of cross ice passes that make the goalie have to slide and get one timed end up in the net, even when the shot isn’t particularly accurate.

    7. Hawerchuk
      May 17, 2010 at

      One of things I saw in watching all those chances is that there are a lot of times where somebody has a completely open opportunity. The backside winger will sneak in and no one will have him covered; somebody will make a quick pass from the corner for a one-timer in the slot and the D will be frozen.

      Crosby also had two great hard backhand passes almost through this own feet tape-to-tape to guys who were completely open. I know it’s gimmicky, but nobody else did anything even remotely like that.

      The only system I could see on Montreal’s part was to not forecheck or cycle the puck around the boards in the O-zone. They allowed a ton of great, undefended chances in the slot or below the dots.

    8. dawgbone
      May 17, 2010 at

      The cross-ice pass is so dangerous that I have to assume that every team realizes that it has to be shut down. That’s peewee level hockey, no? I wouldn’t think that “shut down the cross-ice pass” rises to the level of a system, anymore than “pull the offense offside” can be considered a system in soccer.

      Clearly you missed Smid’s first 3 years in the NHL.

    9. E
      May 17, 2010 at

      i know that hyperbolic praise is not especially productive, but in this case i’m going to do it anyway:

      this is the best thing ever and i love you.

    10. David Staples
      May 17, 2010 at

      Tyler, why don’t you perceive the NHL as a league where goals are scored off the rush?

      From my own observation, I’d say at least half of all goals happen after a mistake at one end that leads to a quick change in momentum, and that leads to a goal against at the other end within no less than 15 seconds, and often in five-to-ten seconds.

    11. David Staples
      May 17, 2010 at

      By the way, excellent idea.

      This is the way to do it, in-depth analysis of each scoring chance to see what’s going on, what player is up to what action.

    12. Vic Ferrari
      May 17, 2010 at

      Colby Cosh,

      A request, cap in hand. Could you ask Ron Smith (Current Carolina scout and long time scoring chance tracker for Roger Neilson) how he defines a scoring chance? How many per game on average? Does he qualify scoring chances at different levels (A, B, C, etc.)?

      I don’t know Ron Smith, never met him, but he strikes me as someone with a keen knowledge of the subject who also has little to gain from spinning an alternate version of reality.

      I don’t know if your regular readership would find the topic particularly interesting, but you would get a whack of traffic from this side of the internet. That’s for sure.

    13. Vic Ferrari
      May 17, 2010 at

      Just read through a couple of strikingly similar posts/comment threads at Desjardins site. A poster using the pseudonym sisu made the releveant comment to my mind.

      I think that people confuse ‘outliers’ as an English word with the mathematical term. Bad teams often beat good teams. I’ve had money riding on MTL through both series so far, not because I believed they had the better team, coach or system, but because I know that bad teams regularly beat good teams,and I liked the odds. For all the Avs fans that hate me … take heart in the fact that I lost a whack beting on COL over S.J in the first round. I didn’t for a minute think that they were the better team, or even a good team, hell they are a long way from being a mediocre team. But lady luck gets the last say, and I liked the price.

      The best team doesn’t always win, in fact often they don’t. And the coach who wins as an underdog is unlikely to be a genius. Shit happens, underdogs win in the right measure. It’s astounding to me that we even have to discuss this.

    14. Hawerchuk
      May 17, 2010 at

      Vic – you’ll have to take my word for this, but this year’s scorers as a group credit chances up to around what gets called B-/C+ in the league.

      And I agree – I dug myself a deep hole by even thinking about whether shit happens or not. The school of thought that says the team that won the series played better is unmovable. Going forward, I will focus on what shit happened, not that it happened.

    15. Triumph
      May 18, 2010 at


      that school will not be entirely unmoved. it just takes years and a very sound top-to-bottom argument to remove those biases, and that’s just from reasonable people. most people hate assigning ‘chance’ or ‘good/bad fortune’ to any event because they don’t really know how to do it properly, and because ‘luck’ sounds so wishy-washy and ineffectual.

      i think you should stop trying to prove your case to the haters – it’s taken years in baseball, a game where the mathematical principles are pretty obvious, for advanced stats to even get some mainstream acceptance. hockey’s not so easy, obviously.

    16. May 18, 2010 at

      Well, I still want to read what that scout has to say about scoring chances.

      Rebounds are the shit; habs scored at a 12.5% rate this year on scoring chances, but around 24% when the SC was less than 5 seconds away from another.

      Oh, and by my account, they are allowing more rebound chances in the playoffs than in the regular season. Damn.

    17. May 18, 2010 at

      I do think part of the resistance is semantic. Call it “bounces,” and it sounds exactly like what you hear on SportsCentre and in interviews, and is no less accurate to what happened on the ice.

      Plus, if you want to argue bounces with someone who doesn’t believe in them, don’t argue numbers. I think it’d be much more compelling simply to point to the increased size and speed of the players, the shittier ice, changes in the style of play that create more chaos (intentional deflections and more shot-blocking), and the decreased talent disparity relative to previous generations. Take that, point to a few examples over the course of the game, and I think you can make a great case to a non-believer that a) shit happens, and b) it has a very relevant effect on the outcome of games. It’s how I convinced myself of it.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *