I only saw the last half of last night’s Oilers game, as I had tickets to the Leafs-Sharks game. All sorts of interesting stuff happened but one of the things that caught my attention was the length of Phil Kessel’s shifts. I don’t watch a ton of Maple Leaf games, but I’m familiar with beer league hockey players who stay on the ice too long and I recognize the signs – standing away from the scrum for the puck and just sort of hoping that it will pop out in your direction, resulting in a scoring chance. It’s not a great tactic, as if the other team has fresh legs out there, you end up with the opposition winning more pucks.
I went and looked after the game and, sure enough, Kessel is amongst the league leaders in shift length for forwards, with an average length of 52 seconds. Then I noticed something weird: the list is decidedly skewed in favour of the Eastern Conference. So far this year (min. 40 GP), the Eastern Conference has 26 of the top 30. Only Brad Richards, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Jarome Iginla prevent the sweep. Lots of guys who aren’t stars take long shifts too – Doug Weight, Kyle Okposo, Brendan Morrison and Brooks Laich are all taking long shifts.
Turns out that this is something of a trend. In 2008-09, the East had 24 of the top 30 spots (Mike Ribeiro, Richards, Getzlaf, Iginla, Steve Ott and Loui Ericksson; Dave Tippett was out of step with the other Western coaches). In 2007-08, the East had 26 of the top 30 (Ribeiro, Iginla, Joe Thornton and Brenden Morrow); Sam Gagner was actually tied for thirtieth). In 2006-07, the East had 24/30 (Ribeiro, Petr Sykora, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Iginla and Jonathan Cheechoo). In 2005-06, the East went 24/30 again (Nikolai Zherdev, Doug Weight, David Vyborny, Petr Sykora, Sergei Fedorov, Rick Nash). There are some ties at the bottom of the top 30 but the trend seems to be pretty clear. Interestingly, if you look at TOI/G, the split is smaller. Counting backwards from 2009-10, I get the East with 17/30, 15/30, 19/30, 18/30 and 22/30.
It seems to me that there are a couple of potential reasons for this. These could include Eastern coaches letting their players stay on the ice longer or Eastern players tending to have more defined roles – it seems to me that long shifts tend to really occur on the power play and if you only play ES and the PP, your average shift length may well be longer than someone who plays the same amount of ice time per game but who kills penalties – purely on the basis of observation, it seems that penalty killers are more aggressive about getting changes.
I am inclined to think however that, for whatever reason, Eastern coaches are more permissive when it comes to shift lengths. I’m also inclined to think that it’s a bad idea. There’s some interesting work that could be done here to see if anything good happens when players have been on the ice at evens for more than a minute. My guess would be that the numbers fall through the floor, for everyone – if the other coach is getting his changes, and you’re out there with a minute’s worth of lactic acid in your legs, it seems to me that even if you’re Alexander Ovechkin and better than the guys who just came over the boards, that difference is going to be swamped by the fact that you’ve been skating for a minute and they haven’t.
One wonders (this is the speculative part of the post) whether this might account for some of the difference between the East and West. If the Eastern teams all play this way with one another, there’s effectively no cost to them for doing so – Kessel’s 1:30 shifts are balanced by Ovechkin’s, in a manner of speaking. If they then go west and try to do the same thing, with coaches who don’t play that way, it might start to bite them a little bit. I’d be very interested to see the data on this but it seems to me that being on the ice after a minute is sort of like being in a bar after 1:00 a.m. – there’s no guarantee that something bad will happen, it’s possible that something good will happen but the odds are slanted heavily in favour of something bad. It’s an interesting area for someone to dig into.