Is It Better to Be Efficient or High-Usage? The Answer Is Coming Soon

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport

We as a hockey community are going to be inundated with as much knowledge as we can handle. The NHL has just unveiled its renovated stats pages incorporating more sophisticated statistics, and more intriguing features are forthcoming, including player-tracking technology, stat visualizations, stat-search filtering, a predictor algorithm, and real time, 3D digital recreations of NHL games. Troves of data will become available – thanks to the league’s partnership with SAP — to comb through and contextualize. Yahoo did a nice job unfurling the process in this article here.

Currently, we work off proxies, and that helps us gain the best possible insight into the big questions. For IH, the most galling problem in the NHL when scrutinizing players is an individual’s usage percentage. How many possessions does a player use to establish a quality scoring chance? Is being efficient really better? From IH’s vantage point, Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby are two superstars operating on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Kane’s dazzling ability when handling the puck and penchant for scoring timely goals explain some of his popularity, but another part of his appeal is that he is noticeably flawed. He is small and lacks the bulk of fellow diminutive winger Martin St. Louis. Also, he wears his emotions on his sleeve (which borders on iconoclastic in a stoic hockey world).

Chicago’s Kane does not have the undying support of the hockey intelligentsia because his possession numbers are unremarkable and his usage is soft. (Although he is not unilaterally unsupported by advanced stats, he ranks first in GVT among all skaters.) He is a high-volume possession player who dominates the puck, and the outcomes from his touches, especially in certain contests, are binary: a scoring chance or a turnover.

This extends beyond single touches or periods where he has possession. His shift-to-shift efficacy is inconsistent. But when Kane is on the ice, every single teammate who touches the puck immediately looks to pass it to Kane the second after they receive it. And that is because goals follow Kane around like the paparazzi follow the Kardashians. After all, he is leading the NHL in scoring. He scores prolifically at even strength and on the man advantage. If he fails ten times with the puck but generates a goal and an assist, while also being on the ice for a goal against, the Blackhawks are one goal ahead because of No. 88. But it is more than just the Blackhawks players looking to pass Kane the puck – it is that Kane always wants the puck.

Kane operates under the belief system that whatever he is going to do in the next sequence is better than what his teammates are capable of creating. He is the artist and his linemates happily hand him brushes. And frankly, Kane is right. His talent is overwhelming, and unless his linemates have extensive time and space to maneuver, which never happens in the tight-checking NHL where everyone plays two-way hockey, then Kane’s skill level allows him to manufacture valuable offense.

Kane’s choice is categorical: He is choosing himself over the alternative. Even if Kane fails on 75 percent of his possession attempts, what Chicago gains from the 25 percent that he succeeds on makes the Blackhawks better off. Coach Joel Quenneville knows this, which is why Kane is seeing more ice time than Toews and why Quenneville will double shift the winger or put him out with the fourth-line forwards. Everything runs through Kane. His value is that of a puck-dominant player with an incredible knack for triggering offense in a game where there is not that much scoring.

Penguins Center Sidney Crosby is cut from a different cloth than Kane. Crosby is not puck-dominant, and he is more efficient when he has possession. This is where efficiency in hockey becomes a polarizing topic. Is it better for a superstar to be prudent in his touches and opt for a partnership with his teammates? In that scenario, the superstar is a lower-usage cog and provides more creative opportunity for teammates. Crosby can find seams and open up room like few players in the NHL, but he also operates under the assumption that the best hockey play is always a team effort. Crosby wants his linemates involved, even if that means extended periods without him possessing the puck for more than a few seconds.

Crosby and Kane can both opt for the cross-ice seam pass for a one-timer instead of attack, but Kane is more eager to put his head down and try to strike individually in close games. Crosby decreases his individual forays if he commits a few turnovers; he will defer puck-handling duties to his linemates. Like Kane’s M.O., Crosby’s is also understandable. Crosby wants to establish a flow and rhythm with his teammates. He wants David Perron to feel comfortable attacking if he sees a skating or shooting lane. He wants his defensemen expecting a pass to the point so Pittsburgh can pressure from up high. Crosby treats his linemates like they are equals. He does not want one player doing the excess legwork. Crosby wants crisp passes, support, and lots of puck movement.

But this is where the efficiency thesis fails. Other than Evgeni Malkin – who is just as puck-dominant as Kane — no one on Pittsburgh is even close to Crosby in talent. Crosby’s vision of Pittsburgh’s best hockey is quixotic. Manage the puck well, move it around the zone, and shoot when the best opportunity presents itself. But that ignores the more important question: Why should Perron be given an equal opportunity when Crosby is better in every facet of the game? Is there a single person who would rather have Perron attempt a shot from a slightly better scoring area than Crosby?

There is less and less space to maneuver in the NHL. Back pressure allows defensemen to step up in the neutral zone and have good gap control. Moreover, opposing players are bigger, faster, and can close gaps quicker when they are hemmed in their own end. This allows teams to have five players sag on the cycle when the puck is below the circles and still jump out when the puck is dished to the point. Players and units front the defenseman and block the shooting lanes. The best teams keep the middle clean and aggressively chase opposing skaters along the boards. Players are smarter about how to close passing lanes and seal off shooting lanes. Most teams have at least one defenseman activate, but the window for scoring off the rush is limited because of back pressure and split-second recognition of assignments and more fortified defensive coverage that eliminates the slot. Basically, defense in hockey has gotten incredibly good.

The NHL is not the NBA. Nobody is scoring 100 points. Wasting possessions is moot if you help create a few goals and your team wins the game. In a vacuum, making the smarter hockey play makes sense, and that is what you are taught at the lower levels. But in the NHL that maxim becomes muddied. There is more value in the potential outcome if both Kane and Crosby possess the puck more and attack frequently. To be fair, Crosby records the same amount of shots on goals per game as Kane. But Crosby is also the best player of this generation and still in his prime years. In the playoffs, it would be nice to see Crosby try to be less efficient in his touches and a higher-usage player.

Of course, this is subjective analysis. From IH’s vantage point, Crosby could be more assertive and puck-dominant. From this lens, the puck runs through Kane, and he will lose it in dangerous parts of the ice, but he will also add more than he subtracts.

But the good news is that context is coming. Should Crosby hold onto the puck longer in his touches and be more aggressive? By utilizing his teammates so much is he detracting from his team? Do the Blackhawks rely too much on Kane and does his dominance of the puck hurt them? Or is he really creating home-plate area scoring chances that nullify the turnovers. Corsi and Fenwick help, the Player Hextally on war-on-ice is beneficial, but the NHL’s marriage with SAP should elucidate these questions in a way that we cannot right now.

Currently, IH is in the camp that hockey is not egalitarian. Too little possession usage is inefficient. It is better to be relentlessly aggressive – if you have the talent – than politic in your touches. Questions like these will be answered soon, and the possibilities of what can be illuminated from the NHL going headfirst into the digital age seem limitless.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusby feather

Posted in the Category of: Features

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: