Sharks Under McLellan IV – Systems and Tactics

montreal-canadiens-v-san-jose-sharks1While digging through a lot of the data, I spent some time looking at game footage of the Sharks and came away with the same observation as most: holy sh*t, this team is good. Thankfully there are very bright minds who have taken the time to break it down system-wise and provide some great insight.

Unique Team Traits: When the Sharks enter the O-zone, there’s a good chance they’re getting a shot – The Score (October 3, 2014)

This first article is on shot generation and really how quickly the Sharks shoot once they make a zone entry. Justin Bourne and Thomas Drance do an outstanding job explaining some of the Sharks tactics and how they’re able to control the play.

They also posted a league best mark of .77 shots per controlled entry (the Rangers were second with a .75 shots per controlled entry mark, and only eight teams managed a rate of .7 or better) and were also the most efficient dump and chase team in hockey, managing .37 shots for per dump in (the Kings were second best with a .35 shots per dump in mark, and only nine teams managed a rate of .3 or better). Source

I found in my last post that the Oilers rely more on their forwards for shot attempts and scoring chances compared to the rest of the league. I think we’ll see the defencemen taking on a bigger role, not only getting more scoring chances, but also making more passes that lead to controlled zone entries. This is where Andrej Sekera is going to shine, as he’s proven to be that type of player in the past.

Examining the Sharks’ offensive-zone forecheck – Fear the Fin (March 17, 2014)

This next one is from Patrick D. of Fear the Fin, who looked at how the Sharks forechecked the opposition and the role each player played to support one another. A very aggressive style, but one that controlled the play along the boards.

The Sharks’ defensemen are very active in this forechecking system, pinching in anticipation of a pass up the boards. If the opposition makes a successful D-to-D pass, and then rim the puck past the Sharks F2, the playside D will pinch down sealing that puck off. F3 will be recovering towards center ice when he sees the play is going away from him, and if the defenseman pinches, F3 will replace him at the blueline. Source

The Sharks were very good at not only generating shot attempts, regardless of the score, but also blocking shots. That indicates to me that they they didn’t let the opposition set up plays as often as other teams, thanks in small part to their effective forecheck. What’s become obvious is how much pressure they apply to puck carriers and position themselves to take away the options when they don’t have the puck. I think this will be the most difficult tactic to implement for McLellan.

San Jose’s Neutral Zone Backside Pressure – Pension Plan Puppets (December 5, 2013).

Lastly, J.P. Nikota of Pension Plan Puppets looked at how the Sharks’ forwards apply backside pressure (different from backchecking!) and force the opposition into either dumping the puck or turning it over.

There are a number of issues at play here, including the San Jose forechecking strategy and the way they kept sticks in passing lanes in the offensive and neutral zones. As Carlyle pointed out, they lined a three or four guys up at their own blue line if they could to head off rushes. This forces a lot of dump-ins, which we all know isn’t the most effective way to generate scoring chances, especially if you’re the Leafs. But when the Leafs rushed from their own zone, San Jose forwards often had to chase them (i.e. apply backside pressure), and they did so very effectively. Source

This is going to be critical for the Oilers if they want to continue getting contributions from their defence. We know Schultz took a high percentage of the grade-A scoring chances when he was on the ice, but it always came at a cost. The Oilers faced a lot of two-on-ones the other way with Schultz caught up the ice, with very little help from the wingers. If McLellan has the forwards applying effective backside pressure in this type of situation, we might see fewer grade-A scoring chances coming the other way.

Thoughts

We know that Todd McLellan is an elite coach, but it’ll be interesting to see how he works and transforms the Oilers roster into a legitimate, dare I say, NHL team. I think we can expect him to employ some of the tactics he has used in the past, but without the skill and experienced roster he had in San Jose, he may need to make some adjustments. The good news is it sounds like McLellan wants to pare down the roster quickly, probably because the players will need time adopting the new system and the expectations that come with it.

If there are other articles that are worth checking out, let me know.

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Sharks Under McLellan III – Contributions from Defencemen

Watching some of the Sharks games, I noticed how often the defenceman would make shot attempts. A lot of times, they would do a dump-in, and have  two forwards scrum to get the puck. Other times, the puck would be sent on goal, a rebound would come out, causing a lot of chaos and limiting their opponents ability to set up any sort of defensive scheme. It changed shift to shift, and was something to watch as they would often win battles along the boards and made smart, almost set, plays to lead to another shot attempt.

Just to confirm what I was seeing, I looked at what percentage of the Sharks shot attempts at even-strength were from defenceman and compared that to how the Oilers defenceman have done. My only issue here is Brent Burns who has played wing and defence over the past few years, so I can’t stand by the numbers 100%. In this post, I’ve considered him a defenceman, except in 2013/14 when he appears to have been on wing full time. The numbers might be slightly off, since I could not find exact dates for when he might have played defence or forward.

We know the Sharks have been a strong possession team under McLellan, typically out-shooting their opponents at even-strength. The Oilers have been the opposite, often trailing in games and still struggling to generate shot attempts.  Below we see that the Sharks defencemen generate a larger proportion of their teams shot attempts compared to the rest of the league, which kinda confirms what I’ve been seeing in their games (Source: War on Ice).

TM3-CF

There’s a drop in 2013/2014 for San Jose, which might be because I considered Burns a full time winger that season. Regardless, we can see the Sharks get a higher proportion of their total shot attempts from their defencemen than the Oilers. If you’re an Oilers defenceman heading into training camp, you have to be liking this. If McLellan can instill the same game plan he had in San Jose and have the team buy-in to the system, there’s a good chance defencemen will be more involved in the play. I don’t think the Sharks had any big shooters, instead relying on simple shots towards the net that could lead to additional higher quality scoring chances.

I decided to take it another step and see what proportion of the Sharks individual scoring chances came from defenceman when McLellan was head coach. Scoring chances are defined by War on Ice as:

  • In the low danger zone, unblocked rebounds and rush shots only.
  • In the medium danger zone, all unblocked shots.
  • In the high danger zone, all shot attempts (since blocked shots taken here may be more representative of more “wide-open nets”, though we don’t know this for sure.)

Below are the results.

TM3-SC

Again, the Sharks get a higher proportion from defencemen, which tells me that the Sharks not only got their defencemen shooting more often, but they often got set up to make an impact. You can see the Oilers scoring chances from the blueline has increased over the past three season. We’ll call this the Justin Schultz Effect.

We can take it even one-step further and see how often the Sharks defencemen got individual high danger scoring chances. Below are the results.

TM3-HSC

Justin Schultz has a lot of these, as demonstrated wonderfully by Travis Yost, which is why he’s often caught up-ice, leading to an odd-man rush against. But it looks like the Sharks didn’t hesitate getting their defencemen involved in these high probability scoring chances either. I’ll have to dig in a little more to see which players in San Jose got to be involved here (my guess is Dan Boyle, who played in San Jose from 2008-2013) and how successful they were at converting on their chances.

This should be encouraging to someone like Justin Schultz who would probably love to continue getting regular deployment and the  sweet zone starts . We can’t say for sure that McLellan will rely on his defenceman the same way he did in San Jose when it comes to shot attempts and scoring chances. But we can at least start to see where he had success and the type of players he relied on to be a strong regular season team.

Sharks Under McLellan II

ThorntonI recently started looking at some of the underlying numbers the Sharks posted with McLellan behind the bench, mainly to get a sense of what we can expect next year from the Oilers. Without a doubt, McLellan is one of the elite coaches in the NHL, leading San Jose to a lot of regular season success.

What we know so far is that his club’s have been strong possession teams that took a lot of shots. The other day, I also found that his teams blocked a lot of shot attempts against, which shouldn’t be surprising considering some of the strong two-way players on the roster like Marc-Édouard Vlasic and Joe Pavelski.

I also started digging into how often the Sharks had their shot attempts blocked. Having re-watched some of their games from last season, it became obvious to me that the Sharks love taking shots as soon as they enter the zone and look for second chances. They make a lot of short passes moving up-ice and really don’t let the opposition set up defensively, creating a lot of havoc.

Here’s a graph showing what percentage of the Sharks’ shot attempts (i.e., Corsi For) were blocked when the score was close during McLellan’s tenure. I also included the NHL average as well as the Oilers performance.

CorsiForBlockedScoreClose

What we can see here is that the Sharks were quite good at getting their shot attempts through. It could be that the team was good at setting up their plays and creating smart lanes to the net. It also confirms what I saw in some of their games: the Sharks were getting their shots in quickly before the opponent could set up, increasing their chances of their shot making it through.

On the flip side, you can see that the Oilers were brutal at getting their shot attempts through and were often one of the worst in the league when the score was close. This will be area that McLellan has to focus on, but it’s anyone’s guess if the current Oilers roster can handle the new attack plan.

I don’t think it’ll be as easy as just shooting more often. The plays that a team uses to advance the puck through the neutral zone and then gaining the zone will one of the critical factors. The good news is McLellan has a successful formula, but it’ll be up to him to deploy the right players at the right time to execute those tactics.

Sharks Under McLellan

oilers-sharks-14-12-09aBringing in an elite level NHL coach is going to go a long way in turning this franchise north. The addition of Todd McLellan and his coaching staff, along with the continued development of the young core, is worth getting excited for heading into the 2015/16 season.

Over the past seven years, McLellan posted some very nice possession numbers, as the Sharks consistently out-shot their opponents and won a lot of regular season games. One thing to note is that the Sharks were a bit of a high event team when it came to shot attempts. In the last four years, the Sharks finished in the top four when it came to the total number of Corsi events (for and against) per 60 minutes at even-strength (score adjusted).

San Jose Sharks (Even-strength, Score adjusted)
Metric 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
CF% 55.1
(5th)
51.6
(11th)
54.5
(1st)
51.9
(9th)
51.4
(11th)
54.6
(4th)
51.5
(14th)
CP60 98.8
(27th)
104.9
(16th)
107.3
(13th)
107.9
(4th)
107.3
(8th)
109.8
(4th)
110.6
(3rd)
Shot Attempts Blocked 23.2%
(19th)
21.4%
(29th)
25.3%
(15th)
27.5%
(4th)
26.6%
(10th)
26.6%
(5th)
26.2%
(9th)

I don’t think this is too concerning since they would still win a lot of games  (except for the most recent year). What’s also worth noting is that the Sharks blocked a high percentage of shot attempts against, typically finishing in the top 10 league-wide.

Team - SA Blocked

What does it all mean?

What I’m thinking is that the Sharks block a high percentage of shots because they cut off passing lanes and forced teams to take weaker shot attempts that the defenceman anticipated. And when they’re on the offensive, they’re either shooting early or finding their shooters and getting as many pucks towards the net as quickly as they can.

Watching the Sharks beat the crap out of the OIlers every year, I’ve noticed that they never have a lot of pinching defenceman and quite often let their forwards shoot the puck on net as soon as they enter the zone. If McLellan brings along some of his set plays, we should see the centers take on a more prominent role and have defenceman playing, you know, defence. If McLellan had his players blocking a high percentage of shot attempts against, it’s likely because players stay in position and read the play.

The Oilers have historically been a high event team but for the wrong reason. It’ll be interesting to see how McLellan will generate shot attempts and which players he’ll rely on to drive the play. And if he is successful, we should expect the Oilers blocking a higher percentage of shot attempts than they have done in the past. It’s obviously a big part of McLellan’s game plan, so I’d expect to see it happen in Edmonton.

We know that the Oilers have really lacked some of the key fundamentals to being a decent possession team. A combination of poor roster construction (especially on defence) and weak coaching tactics have made the Oilers an easy team to play against. With McLellan behind the bench, we should see an improvement in the team’s possession metrics and (hopefully) see the results on the score sheet and standings. This will of course depend on how well the current group of prospects develop, especially when it comes to defence.

Curious to hear what others think and what tactics/plays we should expect next season with McLellan. This will likely be part one of a series of post as I dig into the numbers and get a better sense of McLellan’s coaching style. Feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email at sunilagni23@gmail.com.

Thoughts on the Oilers: Leadership, Goaltending and Schultz

Oilers-V.-YotesIt’s been a pretty busy off-season with a lot going on in almost every facet of the Oilers organization. And with that comes a staggering amount of speculation on coaching, defense and goaltending. It really seems like everything  and anything is possible, thanks in large part to Connor McDavid. All the speculation and analysis can be overwhelming, but it’s a key part of being a fan. And now that the team has a well qualified management group, I think there’s a lot more brainstorming among fans and media members.

Coaching and Leading

I really expect big things with Todd McLellan behind the bench. The roster still has to be flushed out, no question. But having a legitimate coach with NHL experience is going to do wonders for this club going forward. I really didn’t mind the hiring of Dallas Eakins. I thought he would bring some new ideas and tactics. But we knew there would be a learning curve as he adjusted to a new team and the gring of the NHL. The club had to surround him with coaches that knew the Oilers roster and experienced people like Craig Ramsay to provide guidance. That’s all good. It’s just with McLellan, not only is he experienced, but he can have a positive impact on the coaches that surround him., rather than the other way around.

In an interview last year, Mike Babcock talked about how he selected assistant coaches (like McLellan) and how he developed new ideas using their input. To me, that was a sign of a franchise’s maturity: a club that has a coaching staff so good that they can work on new ideas on a regular basis. When you’re new to the league and organization, you’re often getting guidance rather than really leading the charge. This isn’t to say that a rookie coach is a bad idea. You just have to have a strong franchise with managers that know what they’re doing.

Goalies and Information Overload

I’m pretty sure I can now put together a case for and against every single goalie option out there. There’s been an absolute flood of discussion around the goaltending situation. It’s overwhelming at times to parse through the data and trends to zero in on a goalie, but it’s definitely increased my own understanding of the evaluation metrics.

There is some information overload happening, but it’s encouraging to see a larger, more intellectual discussion about goalies. Thanks to the data sets available through War on Ice and Hockey Abstract, we can get past the high priced UFA goalies and look for some hidden gems that haven’t had an opportunity. What’s also become apparent is the wide range of value people put on goalies. Some would give up high picks for a goalie, while others like me, would rather spend pennies on them. I’m sure the range of opinion on goalie value is just as diverse in NHL head offices.

Whoever the Oilers acquire, it’ll be interesting to look back at some of the pieces written this summer to validate some of our predictions.

Schultz

Quick note on Justin Schultz. Without a doubt, he has struggled mightily as a defenceman. The club absolutely rushed him  into the NHL, boasted about his offensive potential and then handed him a ridiculous contract. In my opinion, there’s still a player there, but one who may have to leave Edmonton to have success.

The coaching staff did their best to put him in a position to succeed, handing him way too much ice time and offensive zone starts. Two reasons why they had to do that: the team trailed way too often at even-strength and secondly, he was seen as the only option. If the Oilers really wanted to utilize Schultz properly, they would’ve surrounded him with experienced players, including a top pairing. And they would’ve had enough strength throughout the rest of the lineup that would limit how often they were trailing. In my opinion, he wasn’t ready for the NHL and was not put in any position to succeed. That’s the fault of the player and the management team. The contract however, is on management.

It’d be great if he could bounce back, but it’s hard to tell at this point. He was in over his head and it’s shown in his performance and stats. But if the Oilers can solidify their top pairing and move Schultz further down the depth chart, the young defenceman might have  a productive career as more of a 2nd/3rd pairing, powerplay specialist.

Oilers’ Coaching History

renney

Source: Edmonton Journal

I thought it’d be interesting to compare the past five seasons to assess how the team has done under different head coaches. I’ve learned more about War On Ice’s “score-adjusted” filter recently and think this’ll be how I analyze possession stats from now on. If you’re looking to understand how score adjusted is calculated, definitely check out Micah’s article Adjusted Possession Measures.

Basically, it factors in the score throughout the game. Teams play differently when they’re leading or trailing, and their possession stats (Corsi/Fenwick) reflect that. Trail, and your game plan changes to attack more. Lead, and you might shut down a bit.

Just to give a sense of how often the Oilers were tied, trailing or leading over the past five seasons, see below. Source: Puck on NetOne quick note: I consider Nelson’s coaching reign to have started on December 30th, 2014. That was his first game without MacTavish with him behind the bench.

Down 2 Down 1 Tied Up 1 Up 2
  Time Spent Corsi Time Spent Corsi Time Spent Corsi Time Spent Corsi Time Spent Corsi
Renney
(2010-11)
22.9% 55.7% 22.0% 47.7% 32.2% 44.2% 13.2% 38.6% 9.6% 42.5%
Renney
(2011-12)
15.3% 52.6% 18.7% 52.5% 38.6% 47.4% 15.5% 41.1% 12.0% 39.0%
Krueger
(2012-13)
17.3% 50.7% 19.3% 47.8% 33.6% 42.3% 13.3% 41.0% 16.4% 42.6%
Eakins
(2013-14)
22.1% 50.6% 20.8% 46.4% 33.3% 44.0% 14.6% 40.2% 9.2% 38.0%
Eakins
(2014-15)
23.6% 54.7% 22.1% 53.6% 39.3% 51.2% 12.4% 39.9% 2.6% 36.3%
Nelson
(2014-15)
17.3% 51.5% 17.7% 53.5% 35.3% 45.5% 22.1% 43.0% 7.6% 43.9%

Here we see that Eakins’ club was trailing more this year, so they might have been playing more aggressively, thus inflating their overall possession metrics. He still did a good job suppressing shots, which we’ll get to in a minute, but we should apply the score-adjusted filter to get a true sense of his team’s performance.

Below is a high-level breakdown for each coach at even strength. Consider this a starting point, since there are some obvious factors such as the actual roster and individual player performance.

2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2014/15
  Renney Renney Krueger Eakins Eakins Nelson
Number of games 82 82 48 82 31 46
Pts% 0.378 0.451 0.469 0.409 0.306 0.456
PDO 99.1 100.2 100.7 99.4 97.1 98
On ice shooting % 7.8 8.2 8.3 8.0 6.7 7.4
On ice save % 91.3 92.0 92.4 91.4 90.4 90.6
Offensive Zone Starts 49.8 50.4 47.4 44.3 50.8 49.6
Corsi For % 45.1 47.0 44.2 43.2 49.1 46.4
Goals For % 42.1 47.6 47.1 41.8 39.3 41.1
Goals +/- -46 -14 -10 -50 -25 -33
Goals For/60 1.9 2.1 2.1 2.0 1.8 2.0
Goals Against/60 2.7 2.4 2.4 2.8 2.8 2.8
Shots For % 44.8 47.0 44.9 43.6 48.0 47.1
Shots +/- -364 -213 -218 -466 -56 -128
Scoring Chances For % 44.2 46.4 44.2 44.9 49.0 43.7
Scoring Chances +/- -396 -246 -252 -360 -26 -280
Scoring Chances For/60 23.8 24.7 25.8 24.5 24.4 24.9
Scoring Chances Against/60 30 28.6 32.5 30.1 25.4 32.2

Source: War on Ice

Couple thoughts:

  • Tom Renney made some very nice improvements in his second year as head coach. At the time, I thought he was going to be back for a third year, but Tambo had other plans. I thought he would’ve made a good long-term coach considering what he was able to accomplish with such a brutal roster.
  • I know there’s this perception that Ralph Krueger was a great head coach and should not have been fired to make way for Eakins. I think people tend to forget about some of the losing streaks that year, including the brutal April they had. I really think the hiring of Eakins, who wasn’t liked very much by the local media, increased Krueger’s popularity.
  • Eakins somehow managed some decent possession stats this season and had a way of suppressing shots and scoring chances. I’d be interested in how he did it and where the weaknesses were from his point of view.
  • Nelson did an okay job given the roster he had and the lack of experience on the blueline. He’s done an excellent job with guys like Lander and the other OKC grads. Based on his past experience at the minor league level, he should definitely be considered for a head coaching spot somewhere in the NHL, if not in Edmonton.
  • That goaltending this year. Just. Brutal. Worst save percentage at even strength in the NHL.

Something  to consider when reviewing these stats is how poorly the rosters were built each year. This year, for instance, it was obvious that the Oilers were going to struggle as they didn’t have enough centermen to start the season and the lack of experience on defence. Each coach hired came to the team with decent resumes and experience. Eakins and Nelson both coached for a few years in the AHL and had assistant coaching experience at the NHL level. Krueger was the head coach of Swiss Hockey and played a key role in the national teams growth. And Renney had just finished four seasons as head coach of the Rangers, making the playoffs each year. Unfortunately for all of these coaches, the management failed to provide them with a complete and balanced roster.

Here’s hoping the next coach of the Oilers will be put in a situation to succeed by management. That means adding experience to the blue line, adding a centermen or two, and finding good goaltending this summer.

Thoughts on the Oilers: Goaltending, Coaching, Personnel, Mo’ Money

Source: Edmonton Oilers

Source: Edmonton Oilers

This season can’t end soon enough. The Oilers are 24-43-13 with two games remaining, and are destined to finish 28th.

Goaltending

The Oilers will be looking for a new goaltender this summer with Fasth heading to free agency and Scrivens settling into a backup role. I thought Fasth would be the guy to take over, but alas, the Oilers will likely dump a pile of money at someone like Antti Niemi. His numbers are nothing great, but because of his experience and Stanley Cup ring, the Oilers, or another desperate club, will make a pitch for his services.

Good/average goaltending is really all a team can ask for from their netminder. It’s really more important to have an experienced defence core, which to me, makes or breaks a goalies career. If the Oilers want average goaltending, they really should save the money and avoid someone like Niemi. Instead the club should pursue someone younger with upside like Cam Talbot (NYR) or Martin Jones (LA). Unfortunately, MacTavish tried this last season with Scrivens and Fasth, and failed, so it’s likely he’ll chase an experienced goalie. I’m hoping the Oilers’ analytics team can uncover a goalie whose career has been good, but value has dropped because of a poor year. Darcy Kuemper (MIN) comes to mind.

Coaching

This is going to be a tough decision for MacTavish. Do you go with Nelson who has done an okay job as interim head coach or do you chase one of the top coaches who might be available after their respective playoff runs? MacTavish struck out once going with a younger coach, so my guess is he’ll make sure his next hire is a veteran guy. Not to say that Nelson or Eakins aren’t good candiates. Both have done excellent work at the AHL level providing guidance to developing players, and are worthy of NHL positions. I just imagine MacTavish going down a safer route, so he faces less criticism if/when things go south.

Size

It seems every time the Oilers lose, I come across comments online and the radio about how the Oilers need to be bigger.

Chasing a single trait like size, or even speed or skill, is extremely short sighted and is often influenced by our own personal biases and experiences. When assessing anything, whether it be a player or a car or an idea, it’s critical to remain open minded. The Oilers, for whatever reason, have chased size (i.e., coke machines) drafting or acquiring players who had limited potential (JF Jacques and Brad Isbister immediately come to mind). It’s easy to find size..just sort the list by weight and height. But it’s harder to get a big player with strong complementary traits like skating, puck control and endurance. It’ll be interesting to see how the scouting staff does this summer.

Katz

A lot has been made of how terrible the Oilers have been since Katz officially took over the club in 2008. David Staples from the Cult of Hockey put some numbers to it to highlight just how bad they’ve been relative to the rest of the league.

At the end of the day, there really is nothing we can do with who owns the team. The NHL, and other professional leagues are just a time-filler for owners. They all have other legitimate businesses running, and pro-teams are really just for fun for them. It always makes me laugh when someone refers to hockey as a “business”. It’s a cartel. Similar to the drug trade. They have their own rules, their own measure of currency, and their own economy and operational structure. So to hope that another owner comes along and takes the game more seriously is just wishful thinking. You can hope Katz can hire the right managers and staff, but it’s clear that he goes with people he knows personally and has an attachment to. Can’t do much about that, so we kinda have to roll with it.

Side note: I’ve come across a lot of interesting research on social behavior and norms, cognitive psychology stuff. One thing that’s apparent is how money impacts our decision making, the norms that guide our behavior and our relationships with others. It’s possible that Katz’ deep pockets, and early promises to spend to the cap,  may have altered how the Oilers assess and acquire players. There was a time when the Oilers actually pieced together a nice roster (see 2005/2006, Oilers). But something changed along the way where they now rely heavily on free agency and less on true scouting and asessement. Just a thought.

Recommended Links

Don’t Worry, It’s Almost Over – The Copper and Blue

The Character of the Oilers – Oilers Rig

Patience and Prudence in Development – Lowetide

Edmonton Oilers Player Grades, Game 71-80 – The Cult of Hockey

Corsi Didn’t Help Tyler Dellow or Kyle Dubas – Hockey in more than 140 Characters

Money Changes Everything – Dan Ariely