• Off Wing

    by Tyler Dellow • March 5, 2013 • Uncategorized • 4 Comments

    There’s an interesting note in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts this week:

    15. Had a terrific conversation with Oates last week about his dislike for players lining up on their off-wing. He is 100 per cent against it and explains why with an MLB analogy. “You look back through the history of baseball and every shortstop throws right. Why?” “Because it’s too hard to make the throw left-handed,” is the reply. “Right,” he says. “How many plays won’t be made because a left-handed shortstop isn’t able to turn, get set and make the throw with strength or speed?” He believes the same theory applies to a winger on the wrong side.

    16. One play he uses to illustrate this theory is Alex Burrows’ 11-second overtime winner in Game 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

    Watch Andrew Ference off the draw. “He takes two steps, is closed off and has no play,” Oates said. He then pointed out something very interesting. Look at Boston’s roster now: four left-shooting wings. Four right-shooting wings. Two right-shooting centres. Two left-shooting centres. Three right-shot defencemen. Three left-shot defencemen. (It’s true, you can look it up.) That’s going to be the blueprint in Washington.

    I don’t really have a firm opinion on whether or not Oates is wrong, although I tend to agree with him when it comes to defencemen. It strikes me though that this is an issue of cost versus benefit. A left handed shortstop would have an advantage making throws to third base; that benefit just doesn’t outweigh the cost of slower throws to first and more difficult double plays as he deals with being left handed.

    Oates (a fine son of Blackpool) has correctly identified part of the cost of defencemen on their off-side; there’s more cost when to trying to win pucks along the boards with their forehand being on the other side of them. The benefit would come mostly when shooting I think – they’ll be in a position to one time pucks without having the puck cross their body first.

    What still surprises me is that there’s really no reason to be stuck debating these questions by way of reference to examples. This would be an awfully easy question to answer with data if the correct data set existed. Basically, you’d simply need a database of all touches occurring in an NHL season that permitted you to query the results of touches occurring when players were on their off-side versus not being on their off-side. It’s hard to imagine that this would cost that much in the context of an NHL team – with a proper piece of software, it’s data entry that can be outsourced to a low cost jurisdiction. The few hundred thousand dollars that it would cost to assemble this data is easily covered by the value of a single standings point for a team on the bubble. Odd that nobody’s done it.

    Email Tyler Dellow at mc79hockey@gmail.com

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    4 Responses to Off Wing

    1. Brad
      March 6, 2013 at

      For what it’s worth, I believe Oates has made the point that the Caps are heavily keeping track of “touches” as a focus for their video work this year. I don’t think it’s specifically in the context you’re describing (he was mentioning it wrt Ovechkin’s offensive chances on the left wing vs. the right wing), but it’s not a stretch to believe he’s looking at something similar for the D as well.

      It would certainly be interesting to see what sort of data that work produces.

    2. Tom Benjamin
      March 6, 2013 at

      I think we know the answer to the question. There can be a defensive cost and there can be an offensive benefit, although as you point out with your shortstop example, there are easier plays for a left handed d-man on the right side too – probably not just enough of them.

      The problem is that any results of the study won’t be actionable. All that we would likely learn is that, on balance, with an average player, it is better that he not play on his off side. Perhaps even significantly better on average. Definitely significantly better for some individuals.

      That would not make Oates right. Would Oates insist on moving Orr to the left side? Would he really move Bure from the right wing? In both those cases, the defensive loss – if any – was surely trivial relative to the offensive gain. When the Soviets first came to North America all of their players shot left. All of the “offside” players on that team were quick enough and skilled enough on the backhand to mostly negate disadvantage. Until someone pointed it out to me, I didn’t even notice that everyone on the right side was wronghanded.

      Since most players – about 70% the last time I checked – shoot left, a lot of lefthanders would lose their job to a right hander if every coach tried to do what Oates apparently wants to do. Everything else being equal I’d prefer my right side d-men to shoot right, but things are seldom equitable. I’m putting the best player available out there and if a left hand shot plays better as my sixth d-man on the right side than a righthander, I’m playing him. Given the split in the population, most coaches who adopt that approach will have lefthanders regularly taking shifts on the off side.

      The Canucks do have a right-left problem on their defense because they only have two right handed d-men and none of the other six is nearly as effective on the right side as on the left. They need another right handed defenseman. Or they need a left handed defenseman who plays well on the right side. Many of them do. Either solution solves the problem.

      I do like the idea of counting touches as an indicator of player quality, but I have to believe that the Canucks, at least, have a guy spending hours on every game video evaluating every shift of every player, kind of like you did with Ryan Whitney a few posts back. How many routine plays? Good plays? Mistakes? When Keith Ballard got benched for a couple of games, Pass it to Bulis looked at the film and it was pretty easy for anyone to see why AV chose to send him a message.

    3. Saj
      March 6, 2013 at

      I don’t think you can say that nobody’s done it, because presumably if a team has, they wouldn’t publicize it. I think we can safely say that the Oilers haven’t done it, though. To the Oilers it’s much more important to know whether a guy has poise, grit and mental toughness.

    4. Dan
      March 6, 2013 at

      I’d say there is also a flaw in Oates baseball analogy. What percentage of plays made by a shortstop are to first or second base? My guess would be along the lines of 85-90 of throws so putting a left handed player in a awkward throwing situation makes no sense. If Oates reference is purely for defensemen it makes more sense because plays along the boards, either defensive battles or keeping the puck in at the point in the offensive zone, handedness affects more plays.

      Forwards, on the other hand, to me it depends on the role of the player.
      Players who have a third or fourth line role where offense is more limited it makes much more sense as it makes it more often easier when playing in a defensive role.
      Star players like Ovechkin and Messier, on the other hand, who have had success driving to the net from the wing keep a better shooting angle coming down the offwing the closer they come to the net, not having to shoot across their bodies.
      With offense being hard to come by, why force your star offensive players into a position which limits their opportunities to create offense. I realize this is a select group of players but when you do have such a player, why take them out of their comfort zone unless you are trying to get them out of a slump or unless they are unable to outscore the opposition in any event.

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