In which James and Varada exchange emails about what changes Paul MacLean needs to make to Ottawa’s tactics to help them to be a successful, which is to say different, team of hockey players. Varada just kind of sets up the question and lets it hang there like a fart, but then James explores the studio space.
The point at which analytics guys have to sort of try to imagine what it’s like to play hockey
It’s been quite the summer for analytics. I’m not going to run through all of the events, because it’s August, and every post on every hockey blog is hashing and re-hashing these events and extrapolating on the seismic shifts they imply. Suffice to say that the summer of 2014 marks the pre- and post- point in the hockey timeline, the point at which teams started systematically referring to evidence and trends in data to inform their decision making. (And, as a result, the fan community no longer has access to great sites like MC79 or Extra Skater. The price you pay, I suppose.)
There are a couple of interesting things here for the statistically inclined to consider. First was that while the blogging community got to be a part of something genuinely culture-changing, we are now in the post-implementation phase. How do we define ourselves now? It’s a little like the baby boomers growing up and bringing their anti-authority perspective to the corporate boardroom. Maybe it shook up the way people did business, but it also made dissent a little less meaningful. You can say fuck the system right up until they sell you a fuck the system t-shirt, y’know? We already have our share of people with proprietary metrics, trying to sell NHL teams on their turnkey solution. It doesn’t really feel like us against the world anymore.
It’s also a challenge because we have to think about the next phase of our discussion about analytics. It’s no longer just about looking at outcomes and saying “player x and clearly better than player y, so they should use him more.” I once read with Taylor Hall where he said he understood the concept of possession metrics, but hadn’t encountered a person who could explain how he should play differently to improve on those metrics. I don’t envy Tyler Dellow here. He might be able to identify trends in data that will help management make a decision on one player over another, but it’s a real challenge to understand how to translate trends into tactics. (Let alone explain it to a superstar player who went first overall and makes $6MM a year.) It’ll happen – video technology and zone entries are a step in that direction.
This is important for Sens fans to think about because we have a team that needs to shift tactics to win, and we don’t necessarily have the literacy to say how.
Flash back to two years ago – the lockout shortened season. Ottawa has positive possession metrics, and the second best goals against average, despite allowing more shots on goal than most teams. They enjoyed a series of improbable comebacks that generated the moniker ‘pesky’ (when I guess it could have been ‘lucky’). People start describing them as the second best defensive team in the league. They make the playoffs (as a 7th seed – still a bubble team in my books), beat the Canadiens (who they match up well against) and are summarily executed by the Penguins. Good stuff.
Everyone taps them as a team on the up and up, even a team that will win the Presidents’ Trophy, and we’re all psyched.
The next year the team is essentially the same. They allow even more shots on goal, but manage to stay a positive possession team because they also take a lot of shots. People start to talk about them as an ‘event’ team, one that creates a lot of on-ice events, both for and against. The goaltending regresses to league average, and boom: we’re on the wrong side of the bubble. Now people are writing knowing articles about how the season before Ottawa wasn’t in fact defensively sound, they just rode unsustainably hot goaltending through a small sample size of a shortened season.
So here we are, in 2014-2015, and Ottawa has lost their best offensive player. Their defense remains largely the same. There are many young players peppering the lineup who can trend up or down – they’re unknown factors. As a blogger out in the world, feeling his way around, I wonder if this team can survive playing the same brand of event hockey.
To their credit, they’ve talked about needed to cut down on the shots against, being harder to play against in their own zone, etc. This team simply can’t replace Spezza’s production with what it has, especially when having Spezza’s production last year wasn’t enough to get them into the show.
But here’s where it gets tough, because I don’t play professional hockey: how? What, tactically, can the Senators do to cut down on the shots against, but maintain the shots for? And do they even have the personnel to make the sort of tactical changes they need to make? They’ve spoken at length about needing to ‘try harder’ and be ‘harder to play against,’ but you know every other team in the league is also doing those things.
This, to me, is the first real test of Paul MacLean’s coaching. He needs to either change something fundamental about the system or double-down on what the team has done to date, emphasize hard work (even more), and root for lucky comebacks and great goaltending. I don’t mean that sarcastically – it’s probably easier to do, and doesn’t risk alienating the dressing room. But if at the end of this season Ottawa is bottom five in shots against and on the outside looking in, it’s going to take a draft lottery win for people to overlook the tactical gaps in Ottawa’s approach.
James, what does Ottawa need to do to improve? What possible changes can they make to tactics?
Send Paul MacLean’s Evil Twin (creatively known on this site as Evil Paul MacLean) to a Dungeon in Grostenquin, France.
By reinstating Jack Adams winner Good Paul MacLean, he’d have the benefit of learning lessons from Evil Paul MacLean’s shortcomings such as:
Don’t put Neil and Phillips on the goddamn Power Play like, ever…fucking again. Even if the team is decimated by injury. Plz. & Thx. TTYL (not on the power play).
Look, I suppose to a degree I get what Evil Paul MacLean was trying to do there. It was early in the season, the team was really struggling to put it together and the coach got all, “If you’re not going to stand in front of the net like I asked, I’m going to put a guy out there who will [and I’m taking you all to hell with me].” If there’s one thing I appreciate about Chris Neil it’s that he WILL stand in front of the net. It’s a terrible but important job. Remember when Shea Weber injured two of our players in one shift with those deathclappers of his (one Cody Ceci sent off bleeding from the head despite wearing a helmet and the other Craig Anderson WHO’S A FUCKING GOALIE)? Celebrate the moments of our lives.
Anyway, I get that there might not be a list of volunteers snaking around the block to get in front of Erik Karlsson point bombs – though you could make a hell of a living doing it! But even still, just by merit of being on the ice, by reputation alone Neil is likely to be the first guy to take you OFF that power play than to score on it.
The use of Phillips is even more perplexing. He actually has an okay shot but it’s no secret that Big Rig haaaaates having the puck in his possession and as such has an underrated first pass due to making his exit passes lightning quick so the puck doesn’t have to be on his stick anymore. Hot potato hands is not exactly a fetching quality to have in your point man.
*Looks at post it note* Oh cool, Patrick Wiercioch scored more power play goals in his 53 games than Phillips did in the last two seasons…but that’s just me, boring old fashioned “I like goals on the power play James” (That’s what they call me).
Probably too late to mention this but I’m not even trying to turn this into a throw Phillips and Neil under the bus session. If MacLean’s going to tap them on the shoulder during the power play, it’s their job to hop over the boards and play. My problem is that our entertainment value suffers in order to “punish” the high skill players. In the end I felt our eyes were the ones truly punished.
Heyyyyyy the top line of Turris, Ryan and MacArthur has great chemistry!
Cool, cool…very cool…now if you can just go ahead and give the other players a chance to develop some chemistry by…I don’t know, how about letting them have more than a couple of periods to gel with each other. Yeah, that would be really great.
No one bore the brunt of musical chairs more than Jason Spezza did last year. I mean, look no further than the year he played the whole season with Greening and Michalek. Michalek is a good if inconsistent winger and Greening is…a human being.
Result of a season together: Milo a career high 35 goals (I know right? 35. That would be a career high for Bobby Ryan!) and Greening got a stupid contract earning 17 goals. Where was I going with this? Good luck in future endeavours Jason Spezza…I mean oops wait…Call me a crazy but allowing the players a chance to adjust to each other could posit results on the score sheet.
That goes for defensive pairings too. I feel like the only set defensive pairing the team had last season was Phillips-Ceci which, hey, makes perfect sense. Keep the rookie with the 36 year old with 1100 games under his belt. But despite carrying 8 defensemen, it seemed like pairings should have been sorted out by the end of the season but it still felt psychedelic. Of course the shuffling had something to do with players like, and I’m not going to name names here: Jared Cowen playing nowhere near where you’d expect a guy who held out for a new contract despite being offered 8 years (Bullet of committing a near decade status: Dodged).
Methot went from playing pretty much exclusively with Karlsson one year to what I like to imagine is Paul MacLean taking a huge hit from a bong and exhaling through his nose and saying, “You know what would be so trippy? Gryba-Methot…think about it man…it’s sounds like “Grabbin my thoughts” which is like, what the NSA is trying to right now, man. See, check it out, I was reading this article on Prison Planet…” And it goes on like this till the pizza guy gets there. Methot is speedy, left handed and defensively minded. PLZ play him with speedy right handed and offensively minded Karlsson. Crow all you will about EK’s defensive shoddiness, Cowen was the worst defensive player on the team last year…punish him, don’t promote him to the top pairing with a guy who takes a lot of risks. If it was up to me, I’d have swapped Cowen in and out of the lineup with Wiercioch depending on who was playing better. Then again, the goings on of Patrick Wiercioch’s love life are none of my business.
Don’t Have Last Year’s Schedule This Year.
Funny, because as rough as it was to start the season on a road trip and facing a host of powerhouse Western teams, the Sens did come back home with a .500 record. If that same road trip took place in say January, I’d think that a .500 finish was pretty acceptable. For the team, however, that’s got to be a pretty lukewarm way to start the season off morale-wise. What was worse was soon after they were back they had to play a bunch of those powerhouse West Coast teams again…and heyyyy, they lost to all of them. On top of that they blew a Saturday afternoon home game to the Oilers sparking a season long tradition of not showing up to very, VERY winnable HOME games because something something afternoon?
Phun Phakt: Ottawa didn’t win any of their weekend games in October. Period. The result? 4 wins on the month…CAUSED BY BAD BABYSITTING. As a big believer that the points you bank in October push you into May, Ottawa’s slow start may indeed have cost them a Wild Card spot. They ended the season only 5 points back of Columbus and Detroit. Who knows how it would have shaken in out in this alternate universe but had Senators managed 3 W’s in their 5 weekend games in October, things would no doubt have been a hell of a lot more interesting come April.
Analytics Are So Hot Right Now But the Sens Can Also Be Trailblazers By Being One of the First Teams in the NHL to Practice the Shootout.
Maybe it’s just a smoke screen in order to keep Don Cherry from publicly making fun of them for being a “BUNCHA SEXY FANCYBOYS” (his words) but that the Sens and a host of other teams claim to not practice shootouts regularly is a mystery to me and frankly kind of pisses me off as a fan. The shootout is new (not really) and controversial but like it or not it is AN ACTUAL PART OF THE GAME THAT LITERALLY DECIDES WINS AND LOSSES.
No stats available (sorry but it’s summer and I’ve got BBQing to get to. Thanks for reading tho!) but safe to say we got dummied in the shootout last season and lost out on a lot of points as a result. I pray to Jah that at least goaltenders get a pre-game rundown of their opponent’s top players’ shootout tendencies. If not, to me, that would be like a pitcher not studying batters’ swing tendencies pre-game.
On the bright side, Ottawa being one of the youngest teams in the league could bode well for them in this respect going forward. I tend to think that most forwards born in the 1990s or who hail from the Continent of Europe are at least half decent at the shootout (Proof: Jarrko Ruutu was pretty good at shootouts so…). The Sens have a few youngsters, Euros and even Euroyoungsters on hand who have some moves, so I don’t get why the coach wouldn’t devote some time for his shooters to sharpen their skills. Or for their goalies to sharpen up at stopping them (RobinLehnerRobinLehnerRobinLehner).
Summed up: Fancyboys = W’s
Actually Beat the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yes, yes, yes, this one sounds petty and I can own that but you cannot lose every game of the year to a division rival that is actually worse than you and expect to be successful as a team. Especially when Ottawa already seems to have a tough time beating Boston, Tampa and Detroit. BTW for those of you currently hitting the Comment button (j/k, Spam only), no, I do not count Ottawa beating Toronto 1-0 in the 2nd last game of the season when both teams have been mathematically eliminated from the post-season as a win. I’m a tyrant like that. Beating this very mediocre crew at least half or more than half of the time (Dare 2 Dream) would do wonders for not only the Sens place in the standings but also my ears listening to dickheads in Phil Kessel jerseys* down at the rink who are forever talking a gang of shit like the team they like isn’t a complete embarrassment.
Idea: Have coach force Sens players take the bus from Scotiabank Place all the way back downtown after losing to Leafs to illustrate the shit they are putting their adoring fans through until they can start getting the job done.
*Note to Kessel jersey fellas: Hi, I know we like different teams and all but when we’re out there playing on the same side, try your best to remember that even though his name is proudly displayed across my shoulders, I’m not actually Erik Karlsson and it’s okay to pass to me when I get open in the slot instead of passing back to the constantly out of breath dude at the point because he is wearing a Van Reimsdyk jersey. You do it every time and it’s getting very weird. Have a great summer and see you in hell, James.
How about you, dear reader? What tactics can Ottawa employ? Feel free to hit the comments with, you know, actual hockey stuff about zone entries and player tendencies and such.
I’m too blitzed/fat to talk about zone entries so succintly:
1)No more fucking Neil/Phillips ever in any situation that doesn’t involve other players being healthy;
2)Ultimate fighting match to determind starting goalie, Lehner can use piranhas;
3)Give the puck to Karlsson;
4)Get Lazar in there so he can facewash Kadri.
“Facewash Kadri” is your solution to everything.
We will accept that answer.
Varada, your “we have stats but how to implement them??” problem is one that I think is really key at this point — and one that, like you said, is really up to coaches to figure out. In my mind, that’s where the newly-hired stats guys come in; they communicate with the coaches the observed data and trends they’ve noticed in the players, and the coaches figure out what’s causing that and how to change it/how to get the players to change it. (That Taylor Hall anecdote reminds me of this old piece on how players can’t really use stats themselves: http://thestoriedsens.blogspot.ca/2014/02/players-stats-coaches-and-we-fans.html.)
Dear lovely James: I would like to officially join your “why do NHL teams not practise the shootout” cheer/pep team and would like to apply for the position of treasurer. Also, there be dudes who don’t pass to you even when you’re on the same team??? Ridiculously annoying, yo. ]:/
Returrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn of Yahong! I’m going to make you Captain/Food and Beverage Coordinator of the team. Treasurer we can talk about after your probation period.
Oh, yes, Ottawa based Leafs fans, self-loathing dudes with a family sized bag Sour Cream and Onion Chips on their shoulder.