The idea behind developing new or better analytics is essentially the same in all sports - they are designed to catch what our eyes can’t see in service of constructing the best roster possible. Our own biases blind us; analytics help remove the blinders. Ideally, teams would like to figure things out before their opponents so they can use any knowledge gained as an advantage.
One key area of research in hockey has been neutral zone play, with Eric Tulsky’s great work at the forefront. To completely over-simplify his findings (for brevity’s sake): it’s better to carry the puck across the blueline than it is to dump it in. It creates twice as much offense, to be more specific.
When I grew up within the game, the opposite logic was everywhere, and it killed me. My talent was having the puck, not chasing it, so giving it to the other team when we already had it drove me crazy. Watching my Dad play alumni hockey made me hate dumping the puck even more. The “old-timers” that played NHL hockey would play a bunch of 20-and-30-year-olds going 10,000 miles a minute, and they’d dominate them because they never willingly gave the puck away. If they encountered a wall of defensive players, they turned around, ran it back to their d-men (or even goalie), and started up again.
Taking it to such an extreme isn’t feasible, but it is closer to where the game seems to be moving. It’s braindead (or at least pointlessly extreme) to suggest never dumping the puck (sometimes the D just has good gap and there’s nothing wrong with putting 190 feet between your own goalie and the puck), hopefully we get to the point that doing so for no good reason goes down as a turnover.
I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for an assistant coaching role last summer by the coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Sheldon Keefe. Keefe and the GM of the Greyhounds, Kyle Dubas, are very much thinking along the same line about the direction of hockey offense.
And, it’s working.
Keefe came to the Soo in the middle of the 2012-13 season, leading the Greyhounds to a 23-12-4 record under his watch. This year they went 44-17-2 and finished first in the OHL’s West division, giving the duo a combined record of 67-29-6 for a .686 winning percentage. That starts with that puck possession mindset.
Once again via transcriber-extraordinaire @Hope_Smoke, here is Kyle Dubas’ mindset on making plays versus dumping the puck in:
“There’s nothing more that makes me or our staff cringe than when we’re watching players in Bantam or at the Minor Midget level and the parents are yelling and the coaches are yelling to get the puck off the glass or to dump it in and chase when they’re on the attack. I think for the most part we cringe because we know we’re probably going to have to correct those things to try to reset or rewire a player after a playing style like that was ingrained in them for 10 years, and it’s difficult.
I think every single player that plays the game, deep down and innately wants to have the puck on their stick. Myself and Sheldon told them that we weren’t going to be mad at our players if they tried to make a play and turned the puck over. That’s what every player in hockey wants to do, if they know that they have the grace of the staff.
If the staff can show them success from the NHL or our seasons of controlling shots and creating chances they’re generally more receptive. We look at it as our job to develop them for the NHL and if they can’t process and make a play with the puck their chances for success are probably limited.”
(Listen to the full interview from the "Macko and Cauz" show here.)
I read those quotes and had a few reactions about how this fairly new “keep keep keep” mentality is best used.
If I were a parent trying to give my son or daughter the best chance to develop, I’d read Dubas’ words and my eyes would light up. Very little improvement is made when you tell players they have to unload the puck within seconds of having it.
Not screaming at players who try to make plays at the blueline (whether it works or not) is one thing, clearly stating this is how you want your team to play is something else completely. You put the puck carrier in a position to not just making a decision between “dump” or “carry”, but to look “carry” first. This is a gift to forwards, the type of system they play in when they get to heaven.
It’s really not that hard to find somewhere to keep possession of the puck across the blueline, whether it be a pass under a defenseman’s stick (or a stickhandle under the same spot), lateral movement, or an attempted drive. Being asked to do it would make you better in those situations the more you did it, which I believe would help players make huge gains. I love it.
Maximize Creativity...Within Reason
Again: It’s one thing to not yell at players who try to make plays at the blueline instead of giving the puck to their opponent...but it’s another to give them carte blanche. I expect that Keefe and his staff encourage play-making, but also want their players to not be reckless with the pill at the blueline. While that freedom is good for some players, allowing everyone to get dangly, particularly late in the season, seems like it could result in some trouble.
The Big Picture
When I look at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the best teams remaining all have stars who can handle the puck. Their defensemen can (Doughty, Keith, Chara, Subban, Letang), and their forwards can (Kane, Kopitar, Crosby, Getzlaf, Bergeron). You can go pretty far down most lineups before coming across a name that makes you skeptical. You have to be able to handle the puck to play in the NHL today (very few exceptions), and it’s going to be more important going forward.
If you want to make players better, if you want to make teams better, you have to understand that possession is at a premium. Players are too good these days to just give them the puck and assume that they’ll lose it back to you shortly.
When you have it, keep it. That’s the way it’s going to be in the new NHL.