Strengthening Our Forward Depth from a Possession Standpoint >

by Michael DeNicola

Monday, August 04, 2014 --

We still have plenty of time before our players begin reporting to training camp, but as the Summer slowly closes, we're seeing Clubs round out their rosters with some 'low risk, high reward' type player contracts; mainly the Toronto Maple Leafs who've recently hired a 28-year old Kyle Dubas to manage their analytics (advanced statistics) department. It's a huge win for the "Fancy Stats" enthusiasts who have otherwise focused their numbers movement from blogsites and underground journalism outlets. More and more we're seeing the underbelly of possession metrics trickle its way into how hockey organizations operate free agent acquisitions and trades. For a guy like me who subscribes from both sides of the argument -- let's call it a neutral blend of new and old school -- it's actually quite exciting to see Billy Beane's Money Ball tactics steer its head into the NHL's war rooms.

The numbers game tends to bore the ol' fashion fan, and it's very easy to see why. "I was told there'd be no math," as we turn on our television to watch some puck. But times are changing. Don't get frustrated; it's not like there are only two sides to this coin. Many a professional mind have spoken out about analytics, and have said that the key to using this approach to their advantage is keeping an open mind and an unprejudiced eye on both advances.

For me, even though I haven't completely bought into the world of Corsi-based conclusion, advanced statistics have opened me to a new brand of interpreting a player's effectiveness and/or weakness. And in turn, it's helped me develop a stronger sense of team building..... ya know, from an Armchair GM's perspective. After all, I'm still some schmuck with a blog and no professional ties to the National Hockey League. 

Getting back to the Leafs, since hiring Dubas, Toronto has bulked their bottom six by signing free agent forwards Daniel Winnik and David Booth: each inked a modest one-year deal, so there's no long-term commitment whatsoever. Each skater has experience from a role player's perspective: Winnik has a scoring upside, and Booth brings an effective two-way speed game while also harboring the possibility of returning to his earlier career's scoring form. But what they inconspicuously have in common is a history of somewhat positive possession metrics, meaning each of them and their teammates have a tendency to keep possession moving in the right direction while on the ice. 

Sure, if you watch these players all season long, you'd have a rudimentary understanding of that observation. But recorded advanced statistics actually hand you that evidence in statistical categories. Keep in mind, it doesn't prove that each player is a scorer, or dominates the game on every level. After all, the only tangible statistics that remain and ever will remain are goals and assists. But the world of analytics allows our interpretations to step outside the real-time stats that could otherwise misguide our final verdict on any one player(s).  

"What? Player A only had 20-points in 82-games last season? Forget him!"

Well, was Player A receiving heavy-lifting minutes through the majority of his ice time? Or perhaps Player A skated a majority of his shifts with a linemate that was a possession black hole? What about Player A's opponents; was he deployed against the opposition's best talent in defensive situations? Which zones did Player A start most of his faceoffs?

These questions cannot be answered by simply looking at his points categories. Advanced statistics exist to shed a little light on those open-ended questions, and only then is it up to each of us to interpret those numbers and percentages moving forward. It's all about possession -- you win hockey games by scoring more goals than your opponent, and typically you score more goals by possessing the puck just a little more often than your opponent. 

In 2013-14, the Philadelphia Flyers ranked in the bottom half of the League in possession at even-strength. Even-strength remains to be an achilles heel of ours; last season, the Flyers had a -3 differential in goals-scored. Without our success on special teams, it's safe to argue that we would have been in the Aaron Ekblad sweepstakes with our name on a lotto ball. 

That simply cannot continue. It's not sustainable. 

Since the Flyers don't have the cap space to table any competitive offer to a pure-goal scorer, added to the fact that certain contracts are tough to trade because of blatant over-payment, Ron Hextall is going to have to find a way to strengthen possession with virtually the same personnel and some very minor, cost-effective tweaks. 

This very much includes cutting dead weight, or in the case of Adam Hall, letting the dead weight walk...

Hometown fans didn't like this news. Adam Hall is/was a serviceable 4th liner, recorded one of our team's better percentages on the draw, and was a good penalty killer. He did what he was told, and visibly poured his guts out on every shift. The Flyers faithful love that in a player; we love the blue collar skater who's willing to lay it out on the line to earn one of the three remaining roster spots. And to boot, Hall came at cap-friendly $600K AAV. 

What's there not to like about Adam Hall?

Although Adam was all of those things, I leverage advance statistics to state my case: Hall is more than replaceable, he's the most replaceable player on this roster.

Other than Rinaldo (and I'll get to him later), there wasn't one Flyer on this roster last season who faced lesser quality of competition than Adam Hall. The diagram above shows us that despite receiving heavy-lifting minutes (meaning his faceoffs were more often in defensive situations than offensive) Hall managed to still record a very lousy possession rating against our opponent's worst players.

But possession is also relative; you could say that it's tough to record positive possession when you're stuck with either Zac Rinaldo or Jay Rosehill the majority of the time. That's a very valid point, however is it just coincidence that virtually every Flyer that Hall skated with at one point at even-strength played a better possessive game without Hall on the ice?

I'm not questioning Hall's heart or will to win. As I mentioned before, it was blatantly obvious that Adam gave 110% out there. But the NHL is a business, and these fancy stats aid an organization's interpretation to make better business decisions. 

With Hall walking, this organization has an opportunity to retool our bottom two combinations. Instead of deploying serviceable platoons as a filler solution between our scoring lines' shifts, Hextall and Berube have the chance to configure a possession-friendly bottom six; a blend of speed, two-way play, and forwards who can manage finishing offensively from defensive situations while not solely being used against our opponent's weakest players. 

Before I go any further with this article, you may have already thrown up your hands over the Hartnell-Umberger trade. I'm preaching possession and its metrics, and from that trade's standpoint, we've taken a step backwards; Hartnell does bring a very positive possession game, and it influences his linemates (namely Giroux and Voracek) more than we've cared to admit. Umberger, on the other hand, is almost the opposite in respect. 

Ron Hextall has brought up discipline. He wants the Flyers to spend less time in the box, and more time on 5-on-5 and the Power Play. In his last four seasons (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14) Scott Hartnell has failed to record a positive Penalties Taken/Drawn differential. In other words, Hartnell put us on the PK much more often than he was ever responsible for putting us on the man-advantage. 

The team cannot conquer a possession game if they're too busy being shorthanded. 

RJ Umberger has successfully recorded a positive Pen +/- differential in all the four aforementioned seasons, meaning from that standpoint.... Umberger is not an undisciplined liability.

Keeping our salary cap woes in mind, also retaining the assumption that our prospects spend next season in the lower leagues for developmental/pro-experience purposes, I propose the following forward line combinations for Day 1 of the regular season:

B.Schenn - Giroux - Voracek

Read - Couturier - Simmonds

Umberger - Lecavalier - Akeson

Bellemare - Raffl - Andrew Gordon / Blair Jones / Brandon Alderson / Petr Straka

(Zac Rinaldo, Jay Rosehill scratched)

I'd like to start off by saying that I don't expect this lineup to win us hardware. But at this point, unless Hextall makes a surprising trade or free agent pickup, I'm simply working with what we have. 

Each of these line combos offers a blend of speed, a two-way game, offensive flare, and a positive penalty differential. The new names may make you nervous, and believe me... I'm there with you. But success next season, from a forwards standpoint, is contingent on Giroux continuing his climb to elite stardom, Voracek improving his shooting percentage, our fourth year forwards continuing their annual progression, effective forechecking and disciplined backchecking, even-strength production from our scorers, and, for once, staying out of the Top 10 in Penalty Minutes.......... okay, Top 5. Baby steps.

To me, none of those preconditions involve Zac Rinaldo -- another forward (as seen in the diagram above) who's essentially useless on possession, and an incredible liability on the transition and defensively. 


Believe me, the team will harness energy by staying outta the sin bin, scoring even-strength goals and going on the man-advantage. 


That's Jay Rosehill's job, who can easily be plugged into the lineup on a needed basis. 

"What about a shutdown line? We're missing that."

Who exactly was Rinaldo shutting down? Who was Adam Hall shutting down at even-strength? The absence of these two skaters doesn't render our lineup without a shutdown line. In fact, our shutdown forward pairing is still very much in tact.

Sean Couturier and Matt Read received almost 40% of our team's defensive load last season. The two of them faced our opponents' best skaters, in defensive situations, lifting the heaviest minutes, and still managed to neutralize the threat and finish offensively through the majority of their usage. 

[evidence link: Matt Read, the Orange Prophet]

No two players in orange & black kept our foundation from crumbling more than Matt Read and Sean Couturier, and the two of them together are our shutdown combination. The thrilling part is, they are only... getting... better. 

Looking at the goals and assists categories, you wouldn't really be able to tell. Read still hasn't surpassed his 47-points from his rookie campaign, and Couturier netted a moderate 39-points this past season.

For the sake of perspective, I'll use an analogy: Picture a swimmer swimming in a river against the current. He's keeping the same speed the whole time. As time progresses, the river's current gets stronger and stronger, but the swimmer controls the same speed. Technically, that swimmer is traveling up river faster than when he started, but the current is stronger, thus hiding the fact that his performance is only getting better. 

That applies to Couturier and Read; they're producing similar offense from seasons past, but the adversity is only getting stronger. Their defensive responsibility is growing from every level, and it's up to them to manufacture offense from such impeding situations..... and they're doing exactly that.

I believe adding Wayne Simmonds to their fold compliments both parties. I have pegged Simmonds as a power play specialist, and unfortunately he's produced even-strength points at a 3rd liner's clip. But skating next to Coots and Read strengthens the scoring threat from all angles, especially by adding a guy who prospers in high percentage areas like Simmonds does. And Couturier and Read's defensive sorcery could fill that liability on Simmonds' end. 

If #14 and 24 can make Jason Akeson look decent on the transition, Simmonds is not far fetched. 

Taking a look at that bottom six leaves butterflies in your stomach, but the salary cap and idiotic contractual obligations generate such an imperfect world on Broad Street. We know what Rinaldo is, we know what Hall was. We know Lecavalier struggled in this system last season, as well as battling through injuries, yet he still managed to pot twenty pucks. We know Akeson's defensive game needs more work than Joan Rivers' face, and we're not quite sure what he is yet. We know Umberger was a healthy scratch in Columbus, of all places. And we know that fourth combo is built with more question-marks than the Riddler's wardrobe.

Constructing this roster and keeping them competitive within the salary cap's boundaries will need genius intuition and luck.... probably a dash more of the latter. But what we have on our side is a fusion of speed, experience, discipline, and positive two-way hype

If possession is a result, and becomes a universal strength of the Flyers in the 2014-15 tour, then theoretically... not one of these forward lines is constrained to situational play. We're deploying four skill lines whose minutes grow and drop depending on successful match-ups. These match-ups are dependent on our opponent's composition. We're relieved of one-dimensional play, and have given ourselves an opportunity to adapt quicker and more effectively. 

There are gonna be potholes. We're going to have to dodge these potholes, or grab our nuts and power through them. When Hextall took his seat, he invoked patience; considering our present options, it's best we do what we can with what we have, and adopt composure in the face of conflict. 

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