Other Teams are catching up to the Canucks on “zone matching”

Harry How, Getty Images

Last night I was reading Thomas Drance’s bit on Manny Malhotra’s matchups, and it got me thinking about what Malhotra’s role is with the Canucks right now. David Johnson pointed out in a piece over at his indispensable website HockeyAnalysis that while Malhotra gets a lot of defensive zone face-offs, he gets them against very weak competition.

That much is true, and Malhotra, as much as I’d love to say differently because I absolutely love the guy, hasn’t been very good since coming back from that eye injury sustained in the first year of his three-year deal. That’s a shame because since then, the third line centre spot in Vancouver has been open to all comers meanwhile Malhotra has the distinction of being the highest paid fourth line centreman in the league.

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This is the basis of Johnson’s point:

Using a rigid zone start system like the Vancouver Canucks do actually makes it easier for opposing teams to line match on the road as they know who you are likely to be putting on the ice depending on where the face off is. If the San Jose Sharks want to avoid a Thornton against Malhotra matchup, just don’t start Thornton in the offensive zone.

I call it “zone matching“, by the way, the process of setting up your players in certain zones on the ice. I can see it being effective in road games where you don’t get the last change—while Johnson is right in that it makes your lineup and deployments more predictable, it also allows a road coach to control a situation. Read on past the jump.

If a coach wants to match up first lines, but wants his second line out against the other teams’ third line, he has to guess when he’s on the road which one they’re going to send out, or make a desperate change after the face-off to get the right personnel on the ice. Some coaches are good at guessing, some coaches are good at deploying a set of three rested players for each situation. I’ve watched some Toronto Maple Leafs games this year and Randy Carlyle has situational “offensive” and “defensive” three-men units that differ from his regular first and second lines.

The Canucks and the Leafs both have a centreman who can handle hard minutes in their own defensive zone, even on the road when the other coach can counter with a top line player. But the opposing coach wants to avoid matching up its top line against a player like Ryan Kesler or Mikhail Grabovski. Having the centreman out in that situation acts as insurance.

I think effective zone matching on the road and personnel matching at home is a good way to go about it, at the very least players know their assignments going into a game. There’s not a whole lot of data available to know the absolute effects of matching, but our initial guesses is that getting a lot of extra offensive zone starts will lead to a lot more offensive opportunities.

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The problem with zone matching from Alain Vigneault’s perspective is that everybody knows about it now, and about a third of the teams in the NHL are really getting into it. I mentioned Toronto earlier, but Nashville, Phoenix and the Tampa Bay Lightning are also starting to dally in it along with the Canucks, obviously, Chicago, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets.

Last season about part-way through, in an effort to demonstrate Manny Malhotra’s role, I wrote a post accompanied with a graphic that showed the disparity in extra offensive zone starts between the team’s top offensive centreman and top defensive centreman. Here’s the graphic:

To determine “offensive zone starts” it’s essentially offensive zone starts minus defensive zone starts. Henrik Sedin at that time was a +400 or so at the expense of Malhotra’s -300, creating a large gap between them. As you can see, no team even came close to matching what the Canucks were doing.

I looked at the same thing through a quarter of the 2013 season, just to get a sense of what teams were doing with matching now. We’re early on, but going by the same criteria, it looks like the Canucks are no longer alone in their ways:

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Stats through games played on February 11. From Behind the Net of course, and I looked at centremen who were top four on their team this season in faceoffs taken according to NHL.com.

We should note here though that, while Manny Malhotra has a 25.5% offensive zone start rate (offensive starts divided by total starts in either the offensive or defensive zone) and has taken 27 more defensive zone draws than offensive zone draws, it’s actually Maxim Lapierre who has the most defensive zone starts. He’s taken 15 in the offensive end and 53 in the defensive end, for an overall Ozone% start rate of 22.1%.

John Tortorella is really getting into it this season, thanks in part to Glen Sather’s decision to add Rick Nash to his already stacked top line of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Richards’ traditional Ozone% is 69.4% while Brian Boyle is at 29.2%. That’s Vigneault-esque right there. Sedin and Malhotra were about 70-25 in Vigneault’s first season of zone matching in the 2010-11 campaign.

Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay doesn’t have a lot of offensive zone starts with a poor possession team. As a result, Adam Hall has just a 15% offensive zone start rate, while Stamkos has milked up every possible minute at the other end with 60%. Toronto has Mikhail Grabovski helping Nazem Kadri’s offensive statistics. Oddly enough in Chicago, Dave Bolland has the bulk of the offensive zone draws with a 55.7% offensive zone starte rate on a top-six line with Patrick Kane. Marcus Kruger (27.0%) has done the sheltering work for those two.

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It’s stil early, but there’s very little separating the Canucks and Rangers or Lightning or Penguins in zone-matching. It’s becoming more standard. As simplistic as it is to start offensive guys at one end and defensive guys at the other end, it was just one of those areas the Canucks appeared to be ahead of the rest of the NHL. Craig MacTavish has criticized Mike Gillis for thinking perhaps too aggressively for any competitive advantage, and this is why: the league catches onto his ideas.

Of course, the Canucks’ procedures have changed. Malhotra appears to have vacated his role (so this seaso he may have actually lost his job) and Max Lapierre is stepping in and centring the primary checking line. I always twitch a little when I see Sedin taking a draw twenty feet to the left or right of Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider and I’m beginning to see more when depth players get an offensive zone start. It’s one of the things I look for now when watching hockey, after an icing call to yell at my screen “throw out your scorers!” no matter who is playing.

More and more, coaches are listening to me (or following Gillis and Vigneault’s lead, more likely). Who knows if this is just to do with early season sample sizes or if the NHL is now doing what the Canucks were experimenting with a couple of years ago.

  • JCDavies

    Interesting stuff.

    Ben Wendorf did a similar analysis last November with very different methodology that produced fairly different results. From his results, I would have expected the Islanders to be much higher on your lists than they are. Do you think the difference arises from him using line combinations in his analysis and you only using centers or do you think it is simply a sample size thing? Something else?

    Wendorf’s article is here:

    As for Johnson’s point, from the Canucks point of view, I’m not sure having Thornton start the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone is such a bad thing (assuming the Sharks are line matching). Just because this happens doesn’t necessarily make it a negative.