Vigneault’s Player Usage


If you’re a regular Canucks Army reader, you know that we’ve spilled gallons upon gallons of digital ink in an effort to breakdown Alain Vigneault’s radical deployment patterns over the course of this season. We’re always looking for new ways to help our readers visualize Vigneault’s preferred tactics, and seeing as it’s the Canucks head coach’s 51st birthday today, we figured, what’s another litre or two?

Click past the jump for more.

Last week, Rob Vollman of hockey prospectus, ESPN and the recently founded NHLNumbers blog put together "Player Usage Charts" for every team in the 2011-12 season over at his Hockey Abstract blog. Here’s how Vollman describes the OZQoC charts:

Player Usage Charts were first introduced in the 2011 off-season as OZQoC Charts after their two primary components: Offensive Zone Starts (OZ) on the horizontal axis and Quality of Competition (QoC) on their vertical axis.

OZQoC charts were quickly adopted by dozens of statistical analysts, and even some front offices, most of whom also made various improvements…

Those improvements included the introduction of the "Corsi bubble" and the simplification of the name "OZQoC Chart" to the more accessible "Player Usage Chart." 

Piggybacking off of Vollman’s excellent leg work, I put together a chart encompassing every NHL regular (more than 25 games played last season) in the hopes of illustrating just how unique Vigneault’s tactical deployment has become. The below chart features every NHL regular, non-Canucks skaters are denoted by blue bubbles, while Canucks skaters are differentiated from the field with the colour red.

Check out the far right and the far left of the chart and it’s clear that Vancouver’s top-line, and their fourth line are significant outliers in terms of player usage. Vigneault has in effect "specialized" half of his forward group, generally speaking he line-matches his first and fourth lines based on face-off location, and uses his second and third lines to try and take advantage of favorable match-ups.

While many teams feed defensive liability types (Thomas Holmstrom) or "enforcer" types (like Shawn Thornton, or George Parros) a steady diet of offensive zone starts to protect them, Vigneault relies on his fourth line to win defensive zone draws and clear the puck. This by the way, is why Malhotra’s team low plus/minus number is totally irrelevant, his job on the Canucks this past season was unique and unprecedented. 

On the far right side, the extreme way the Sedins minutes are "optimized" is similarly unique. The only player in the same usage stratosphere as the twins and Alex Burrows, their regular triggerman, is Tampa Bay’s Marc-Andre Bergeron. Some teams do use similar strategies to some extent (Columbus, Winnipeg, Chicago and Detroit, for example) but no one was consistent and disciplined with their specialized deployment last season as Vigneault was.

Here is the the Canucks team usage chart this season (only skaters who played over 25 games played with the team are included), so we can better illustrate exactly what’s going on. Note that this data is Vollman’s via but I created my own chart:

One way of understanding these "player usage charts" is to separate the four corners into groupings. The "tough minutes" are on the top left, the "optimized minutes" are on the top right, "sheltered minutes" are on the bottom right and "bottom-six/bottom-pairing minutes" are on the bottom left.

This past regular season, Vigneault leaned on his fourth line to soak up defensive zone starts, so he could give the bulk of those advantageous territorial draws to his top-offensive players. While the degree of separation between the top-line and the fourth (along the x-axis) is totally unique, the zone usage of the 2nd and 3rd lines wasn’t particularly irregular last season. The clump of forwards in the middle were the Canucks most regular second and third liners (Hansen, Higgins, Hodgson, Kesler, Raymond, Booth), and their usage was typical.

One curious thing to note is that Higgins and Hansen played against the top-competition among forwards, while Raymond and Booth played against relatively softer competition. This is consistent with what we know about Vigneault’s preferred approach to utilizing forward lines: he likes to trust his third line to neutralize the opponents best forwards, and then try to get his second line out against inferior competition, in an attempt to take advantage of the weak underbelly of opponent’s rosters. 

In terms of how the Canucks marshall their blueliners, Hamhuis and Bieksa played against the toughest competition this past season while Edler and Salo were fed the highest rate of offensive zone starts among Canucks defenders. Vigneault doesn’t shelter his third pairing situationally, as they start their fair share of shifts in their own end of the rink, but he clearly avoids matching the likes of Ballard, Rome and Alberts against the opposition’s top-six forwards.

One thing I’m interested in exploring is how Vigneault’s deployment has radicalized and evolved over the years. Here’s last season’s (2010-11) player usage chart:

A couple of things to notice. First off, the Sedin’s offensive zone start rate was lower in 2010-11 than it was this season. While it’s fair to describe Vigneault’s territorial deployment approach as having radicalized this season, we should note that the Canucks were not as good a possession team in 2011-12 as they were the season previous. The overall number of offensive zone starts the Sedins were given this season was consistent with their deployment the season previous, it’s just that Vigneault had to work harder to get them those plum zone starts this past season.

The other thing to notice is that the third line played more difficult situational minutes in 2010-11. This past season, the likes of Higgins (Higgins was functionally Torres’ replacement) and Hansen played against the toughest competition among all forwards, which, is basically what they did in 2010-11 as well. The big difference, however, is that the plethora of third line defensive zone starts were given to the fourth line in 2011-12, whereas they were given to the third line in 2010-11. This is partly because Malhotra, one of the leagues premiere face-off winners, was dropped off the third line and onto the fourth; and it’s partly because the team spent a third of their season sheltering the living hell out of the third line as part of the "Cody Hodgson showcase."

Finally, and here’s an important point: while Vigneault’s forward deployments become even more radical this past season in comparison with the season previous, Canucks defenders were used in a less specialized fashion this past year than they were in 2010-11. As you can see in the above chart, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis stood alone as the "tough minutes" defenseman on the team in 2010-11: they started a lower percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone that year, and they faced considerably more difficult competition than Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler did. Ehrhoff and Edler, were designated "Sedin caddys" and their minutes were relatively sheltered both in terms of zone-start location, and the quality of competition they faced. 

It has become all but certain that Alain Vigneault will return to coach the Canucks roster next season, and I’ll be curious to see how his deployment strategies continue to evolve going forward. I suspect that the Canucks will attempt to add a puck-moving defenseman to play with Alex Edler, and if that’s the case, then we could well see Vancouver’s head coach return to a more specialized deployment with his defenseman.

Similarly, the radical approach to the Canucks first and fourth line usage probably isn’t sustainable, and I expect the deployment gap between those two specialized units to narrow next season. To some extent the two month Hodgson show-case skews the numbers (Malhotra had only one offensive zone start in the entire month of January, for example), and the Canucks were a woeful puck possession team during that stretch. If the Canucks bounce back as a puck possession team next season (something I expect will occur so long as they don’t enter into a two month Jordan Schroeder showcase), Vigneault won’t have to work as hard to get the twins their Ozone starts, and that will bring their "Ozone start rate" down somewhat.