This is part of a series looking for reasons for the Oilers Corsi% collapse in 2012-13 by examining things on a shift-by-shift basis. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here. Part 5 can be found here. Part 6 can be found here. Part 7 can be found here. Part 8 can be found here. Part 9 can be found here. Part 10 can be found here. Part 11 can be found here.
I think I’m going to move on from talking about Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner for a while after this post but I wanted to hammer home something that I’ve kind of danced around in previous posts. As is pretty well known, Hemsky and Gagner suffered a Corsi% collapse during the past season. Hemsky went from 50.4% in 2011-12 to 44.1%. Gagner went from 48.9% to 43.1%. The consequences of this are significant: the Oilers were never really in the playoff hunt on merit, Hemsky’s going to be traded, Steve Tambellini and Ralph Krueger got fired.
I’ve been fooling around with breaking the game down into pieces over the last few months. One of the pieces I’ve looked at is what happens in the 45 seconds after an offensive zone faceoff win at 5v5. The Oilers, as a team, improved at this very slightly this year – they went from a 64.4% Corsi% to a 65.8% Corsi%. They’re still behind what the opposition do against them in the same situation – they improved from 69.6% to 70.8% – but they’ve narrowed the gap ever so slightly.
The weird thing is that Hemsky and Gagner completely went in the toilet this year following OZ wins. Gagner went from a 65.7% Corsi% to a 55.2% Corsi%. Hemsky fell from 66.7% to 54.5%. If you back what happened when Gagner was on the ice out, you come up with a Corsi% of 70.5% for the rest of the team – basically equal to the opposition. If you back out Hemsky, you get to 68.9% for the rest of the Oilers, a big narrowing of the gap between the Oilers and their opposition. Yakupov posted a terrible number too – lots of time with Gagner and Hemsky – while MPS, who also played a lot with those guys, didn’t post a terrible number but suffered a big fall from last year.
What we’re doing here, of course, is trying to narrow things down. Isolate the areas where things went to hell for the Oilers. I think we can go a little further here with Hemsky and Gagner and identify an even smaller, more concentrated area of rot. If I split things into the first fifteen seconds after an OZ win and then the 30 seconds after that, the problem becomes clearer.
There was actually a slight uptick in the Corsi% in the first fifteen seconds after an OZ win for Gagner and Hemsky and then just the end of the world in the thirty seconds following that. Massive drops for both of them. I’ve expressed it another way in the table below – you can see that they basically generated the same volume of shot attempts for in the first fifteen seconds this year and then tanked in the next thirty seconds.
I’ve taken a look at the OZ faceoff wins in 2011-12 and 2012-13 with both Hemsky and Gagner on the ice to see if I can’t tease out some more info. In 2011-12, the Oilers won 62 OZ 5v4 draws with both players on the ice. In 2012-13, they won 42 of them. I managed to get video for 61 of the 62 from 2011-12 and 39 of 42 this year although, Sportsnet’s problems being what they are, I don’t always get the actual faceoff.
Still though, I was able to tease out some information that I found kind of interesting. My almost complete dataset tells me that the amount of time the Oilers spent in the OZ before the puck was cleared following a 5v5 faceoff win with Gagner and Hemsky on the ice collapsed this year – from 13.1 seconds in 2011-12 to 9.4 seconds this year. The median fell from 11.5 seconds to 8 seconds. In 2011-12, it took more than 15 seconds for the opposition to clear the offensive zone after an OZ faceoff win 18 times out of 62. This year, it was 5 out of 42. Interestingly, the rate at which the Oilers generated shots before losing the offensive zone in these situations actually increased. This suggests to me that when the Oilers won an OZ faceoff with Gagner and Hemsky on the ice, they’d generate a shot more quickly than last year and then be unable to recover it and the puck would exit the zone.
I hope it goes without saying but this is problematic because’s there’s some truth to the argument that the best defence is a good offence. The best defensive team in the world is one that never plays defence because it spends the entire game in the other end of the ice. For some reason, Gagner and Hemsky spent a lot less time doing that this year than they did in 2011-12.
This much is fact. What follows is supposition. What changed? That’s a tougher question to answer. Essentially, it requires poring over video and identifying what was different between this year and last year that may have reduced the Oilers ability to maintain pressure in the offensive zone. I’m not entirely convinced that I have the technical ability to do this but I’ll take a stab at it; other guesses are welcome. My thoughts are in the video.
If you can’t be bothered to watch the video and just want to take it on faith that I’m not the sort of guy who talks about illusory nonsense cloaked in faux-technical language, what I noticed is this: the Oilers made a change this year with Hemsky’s positioning on offensive zone faceoff wins (and, presumably, offensive zone faceoff losses). In 2011-12, he generally lined up as a right winger, regardless of where the faceoff was. In 2012-13, he almost invariably lined up on the inside – if the faceoff was on the right dot, he became the left winger.
The Hemsky/Gagner OZ faceoff win season basically breaks nicely into three segments: one, four wins long, where Hemsky would cut through the circle below the centres and then circle towards the net. Two, which lasted from about the first Phoenix game to the start of the long road trip, where Hemsky would cut up above Gagner, as would Yakupov, and Gagner would try and make his way to the net eventually. Finally, there was a third chunk, starting with the first game in Chicago, during which Yakupov was no longer on the line and someone, generally MPS, would try to get to the net from the outside when the puck was dropped.
I’m kind of skeptical of what the Oilers are doing with Hemsky here, having him abandon the middle of the ice and come up through the circle. I think you kind of need to think beyond the faceoff win and ask yourself what comes next. Hemsky coming to the boards from the inside hashmarks was pretty constant in the final two segments – there’s the odd faceoff that Gagner basically picked out of the air and sent backwards where he’d just go to the net. Yakupov had a tendency to drive up as well, towards the slot. The rotating cast that followed (MPS, Ben Eager and Ryan Jones) tended to drive the net from the outside position, although they were vulnerable to a faceoff being won right at them or opposing players holding them up as they tried to get to the net. If that happened, you’d get the same thing you were getting with Yakupov on the line – three guys, clumped closely together in a small area, with nobody down low.
The constant though is Hemsky coming through the circle and going high on the boards, leaving the presence down low to come from basically nobody when Yakupov was on the ice or the winger on the boards, when it was someone other than Yakupov. I wonder about the effectiveness of this as a tactic. There don’t seem to me to be a lot of good options there, other than trying to make a play to get out of the box that you’ve created for yourself. A shot towards the net will find nobody there. A play into the corner will find nobody there. I’m speculating but this much seems undeniable to me. The question is whether it has a price in terms of making your possessions shorter.
There’s an old English football manager by the name of Sam Allardyce, who was discussed in this Financial Post piece that I’ve linked before:
Few would suspect it of West Ham’s new manager “Big Sam” Allardyce, and yet his somewhat neolithic appearance also conceals a professorial mind. (ed. Big Sam and West Ham are thugs who, if there was an ounce of justice in this world, would have lost the 2012 promotion playoff to Blackpool.) As a player, Allardyce spent a year with Tampa Bay, Florida, where he grew fascinated with the way American sports used science and data. In 1999 he became manager of little Bolton. Unable to afford the best players, he hired good statisticians instead. They unearthed one particular stat that enchanted Allardyce. “The average game, the ball changes hands 400 times,” recites Chelsea’s Forde, who got his start in football under Allardyce. “Big Sam” would drum it into his players. To him, it summed up the importance of switching instantly to defensive positions the moment the ball was lost.
More concretely, stats led Allardyce to a source of cheap goals: corners, throw-ins and free kicks. Fleig, another Allardyce alumnus, recalled that Bolton would score 45 to 50 per cent of their goals from such “set-pieces”, compared with a league average of about a third. Fleig said, “We would be looking at, ‘If a defender cleared the ball from a long throw, where would the ball land? Well, this is the area it most commonly lands. Right, well that’s where we’ll put our man.’”
I guess what I’m wondering is whether, if you did something similar for hockey, what you’d find for where the puck tends to be four or five seconds after an offensive zone faceoff win. I suspect that “in the corner” or “on the far side of the rink” are probably high on that list – a team with its players nowhere near that area is going to have a heck of a time maintaining possession and pressure in the offensive zone. I’ve got a hard time thinking that players gathered in a box between the dot, the blueline and the boards is a recipe for continued pressure and possession – the Oiler with the puck has very few outs that don’t involve a probable turnover when that happens.
A final tantalizing datapoint: in 2011-12, with Hemsky and Gagner on the ice and an offensive zone faceoff win on the right side of the ice (ie. essentially, with Hemsky not abandoning the middle of the ice and skating through to the boards), the Oilers averaged 15.5 seconds in the offensive zone before the puck was cleared. With the same conditions, but a faceoff on the left side of the ice, they averaged 11.9 seconds in the offensive zone before the puck was cleared. The medians were 12 seconds and 8 seconds, respectively.
This year, the averages in those two situations fell to 10 seconds and 8.8 seconds, with medians of 9 seconds and 7 seconds. I would expect the right faceoffs to be longer on average regardless of how the players line up because Gagner, a right handed centre, pulls the occasional faceoff right out of the zone on the left side. Still, there’s a difference there, and you wonder.
A proper investigation of this would require a database of faceoffs across the league, coded by what the wingers do. If you had that, like Sam Allardyce (an otherwise despicable man who I have not forgiven for calling Ian Holloway naive in 2010), you could start to get very good answers to questions about whether or not a certain faceoff formation is likely to lead to less zone time. For now, we can only theorize.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org