Zone matching, and how the Leafs are mis-using Grabovski and Bozak

The Vancouver Canucks shutting down Manny Malhotra is a more notable move than a lot of people made it out to be. Malhotra became a whole new kind of defensive centre than the NHL had previously seen, a centreman that took a lot of face-offs in the defensive zone, and nearly exclusively in the defensive zone. 

Malhotra wasn’t like the “checking lines” of the past, who would match up against dedicated opponents and prevent a singular line from scoring. What the Canucks started to do in 2011 after signing Manny Malhotra was pretty radical. I mention this on the Leafs Nation blog not because I suggest the Leafs should get involved with the strategy, but because they already are, and they’re probably doing it wrong.

The Maple Leafs have five National Hockey League centremen on their roster: Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Nazem Kadri, Jay McClement and David Steckel. With just three centremen and effective zone matching, a team like the 2011 Vancouver Canucks could become the best team in hockey. By starting Malhotra exclusively in the defensive zone and having him take face-offs and worry about the defensive end of the ice, this opened up space for the Canucks to send out Henrik and Daniel Sedin for offensive zone draws.

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(Should note the statistics that follow come from, an excellent resource for this kind of stuff)

Rob Pettapiece and myself did some research last year showing that even between players that equal in scoring in neutral zone start situations, the players that get a disproportionately high number of offensive opportunities get, surprise surprise, more goals

Hockey is an evolving game, and this season, more teams, notably the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, are beginning to match lines up by face-off zones and not by opposing personnel. Last year, beyond the Canucks, only a half-dozen or so other teams had notable differences in zone starts between their top offensive forward and top defensive forward. Those teams included the ones that were coached by Scott Arniel and Claude Noel, coaches who spent time with the Manitoba Moose when they were the Canuck affiliates.

I met up with Alain Vigneault at the NHL draft in June to disuss the phenomena:

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CC: When you get a guy into your line up like Manny Malhotra, do you know from the pro scouting staff that he’s a guy that can start, say, 90% of his shifts in the defensive zone?

AV: Well, the guys that are pro obviously I know a little bit more and I feel certain guys are better suited for different situations. I like my offensive players to, if I can, start them in the offensive zone and my more defence-oriented guys I’d start in the defensive zone. I just feel it gives us a better chance in such a competitive league.

CC: Is that your own individual belief? Because in the organization, it seemed that Scott Arniel and Claude Noel were doing the same things when they got their NHL jobs. 

AV: I think each guy has his own mindset and really, what his team can do the best. And then you just got to put the players in situations where they can succeed if that’s the case guys have confidence and they go out and they do their jobs. 

I don’t take Vigneault at face-value when he said that this was his idea. Mike Gillis is a Moneyball disciple, and one of the things I found interesting in that book was general manager Billy Beane’s effort to subvert manager Art Howe. Beane was so determined to get the under-valued players he signed in the summer in the lineup that he even traded one of the players Howe was starting ahead of them in the lineup. When Howe negotiated a contract extension after taking an un-talented team to the playoffs in 2002, Beane released him. I think Gillis works in that mindset.

Randy Carlyle though, is a bit different. He’s had a bit of a tendency to zone-match in his past, dabbling in it although not to the extent he is this season. He was the man who wanted to re-vamp the dressing room, and was a driving force in the Leafs signing Jay McClement in the summer.

The problem that Carlyle has run into is that there are so many centremen on the team, even after cutting Tim Connolly and trading Matthew Lombardi, that Steckel, who saw a lot of first line minutes last season, became a healthy scratch most nights. That’s interesting since last season, Steckel was the player who took the most face-offs in the defensive zone relative to the offensive zone: he took 342 defensive zone face-offs to 210 in the offensive end, a sizeable difference. 

Tyler Bozak, meanwhile, got 331 offensive zone starts and Mikhail Grabovski got 279. Those offensive opportunities helped those two centre the top two offensive lines, although the Leafs play so much in their defensive end that as a team, they generated a lot more defensive zone starts. Nonetheless, Bozak and Grabovski were each able to start 30 more times in the offensive zone than the defensive, thanks to the work done by Steckel, and to a lesser degree Tim Connolly, proud owner of 274 defensive zone face-offs. 

This chart shows my way of calculating “zone matching”. It’s the difference in offensive and defensive zone starts by the top defensive centre subtracted by the difference in offensive and defensive zone starts by the top offensive centreman on each team. I’ve compared the Leafs each year to the Canucks since 2010, to show the Canucks’ meteoric rise in ‘zone matching’ and to show that the Leafs are catching up to the Canucks in strategy: 

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The 2013 numbers are based on an 82-game schedule since the starts are considered cumulative.

In 2011 and 2012 for the Canucks, the top defensive centreman was Malhotra and offensively, it was Sedin. The Leafs have been all over the map this way.

If the season were to go 82 games at the rate each Leafs centreman is starting in the offensive and defensive zone, this is what it would look like:

  Offensive Defensive Difference
Nazem Kadri 353 299 54
Tyler Bozak 369 402 -33
Jay McClement 297 467 -170
Mikhail Grabovski 254 549 -295

Something’s not right here.

How come Mikhail Grabovski, who has led Leafs centremen in even-strength scoring for the last two seasons the primary defensive option?

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I’ve talked about the defensive unit of Grabovski with Nik Kulemin and Jay McClement on his wings soaking up tough competition. Obviously, it has restricted the offensive output of that line, Grabovski’s current hot-streak aside. Bozak plays 20:43 a night and has a 56.4% face-off rate. Grabovski plays 16:51 a night and has a 51.0% face-off rate.

Would it not make more sense to simply flip the roles of those players, play Bozak on the line with McClement and Kulemin as a tight checking line that plays lighter shifts? I think Grabovski, who is a better shooter, skater and passer than Bozak, would be much better off playing alongside Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, or you could move Nazem Kadri up to the that line and give Grabovski second-line minutes with Clarke MacArthur.

It’s lineup optimization, and while there’s a tendency to ignore the Leafs’ struggles because they’re 12-8 this season, that’s mostly because of their goaltending. The team is third worst in the NHL in overall puck possession as measured by Fenwick Tied, a statistic that is better at predicting final standings than record is after 20 games.

There are improved components of the Leafs forward lines, and even with the fourth line that sees five minutes a night and only rare, rare shifts in the third periods, there are three good forward lines. Carlyle is using a better offensive player in Grabovski to shelter a worse offensive player in Tyler Bozak, despite Bozak’s face-off abilities, arguably his strongest asset, mirroring those of Manny Malhotra who was so instrumental in helping the Sedins producing into their 30s.

Bozak has impressed me with his defensive ability this season, but Grabovski is the better offensive player and ought to be playing as such. The words “lineup optimization” are more often thrown around by the marketing guru that runs our sister site Canucks Army, but they’re easily-transferable concepts that could be applied to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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Let Grabovski play offense, let Bozak play defence, and the Leafs will improve as an overall unit.

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  • SkinnyFish

    Every time there is a late/early change and Grabovski and Kessel are on the ice together, I find that they are creating great scoring opportunities.

    Who said they can’t play together? Wilson? It needs to be tried.

  • Back in Black

    Bozak also sucks in the other end. If he can’t handle the post-faceoff defensive duties, and that’s a real possibility, then he needs to be traded and have the faceoff job given to Steckel.

    Cam’s point is right on. If you are determined to balance your lines, you might as well give them balanced usage and take advantage of being able to roll them over. If you want to heavily match the lines to zone starts, then you should specialize your lines accordingly.

  • Back in Black

    How do you actually get offensive zone faceoffs if you put bad possession players in the defensive zone to start off with?

    I agree that Grabovski is the better offensive player between he and Bozak, but he’s also better at moving the puck in the right direction. I suppose my theory would be that the Leafs need to find a way to have a more even split of offensive and defensive zone faceoffs. Does flipping their zone starts accomplish this? It might, if Bozak can convert the added handful of faceoff wins per game into getting the puck out of the defensive zone or if the added o-zone starts for Grabovski lead to more covered pucks by the opposition goalie but I do worry about the team getting buried in our own zone given Bozak’s possession numbers.