Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Habs: Pencil Eller in as Third-Line Pivot

Switch to centre key to improved playoff performance

Tom Pyatt's team-low defensive-zone risk/reward rating will not be part of the mix this season

Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller is in a great position coming into training camp. Despite undergoing off-season shoulder surgery, the third-line centre position is his to lose. Eller's play made huge strides during last season's playoffs. He not only increased his offensive-output during the series against Boston, he also solidified his defensive-game. His play in the defensive-zone was consistent, with the occasional jump into the spectacular.

The picture becomes clear when we compare Eller's numbers from the regular season with his numbers from the playoffs. The 22-year-old Eller increased his grade, as well as his risk/reward ratings in 3 of 4 categories.

Eller's average grade during the regular season was 60; three percentage points below the team average. During the playoffs his overall grade jumped to 69;  four percentage points above the Habs' playoff average and second-best among the forward group.

His overall risk/reward rating jumped from 0.69 during the regular season to 1.59 during the playoffs. We can also express this by saying Eller average 1.6 successful plays for every mistake or lost battle during the regular season, but improved that to 2.5 successful plays for every mistake or lost battle during the regular season. He was more involved in the play during the post season; increasing his events per-minute of ice time from 2.59 to 3.56. The increased events were buoyed by his full-time employment at centre during the playoffs. The move to centre brought more defensive-zone responsibility; and along with that came more opportunities to be involved in the play.

The quickest way to Jacques Martin's doghouse is to give the puck away in the neutral-zone (see Benoit Pouliot).  That said, Eller was able to increase his playing time, by improving his play through the neutral-zone. He nearly doubled his neutral-zone risk/reward rating in the playoffs; from 0.26 to 0.44. He was successful with 76% of his attempts to skate the puck into the offensive-zone, and 73% of his attempts to dump the puck into the offensive-zone. He also notched 7 neutral-zone takeaways. Good enough for fourth-best among forwards.

Eller's defensive-zone risk/reward rating also improved. It went from  0.18 during the season to an impressive 0.55 in the series against the Boston Bruins. This translates to 1.67 successful plays to every mistake or lost battle in the regular season, and 2.25 successful plays for every one mistake or lost battle during the post-season. He was substantially more involved during the Boston series as well; going from 0.75 events per-minute to 1.42 events per-minute. Eller's play in the defensive-zone definitely contained some "wow factor". He notched an incredible 20 takeaways in the d-zone; eight more than any other forward.

Eller's offensive-zone playoff numbers dropped slightly. He went from a 0.15 risk/reward rating during the season to a playoff rating of 0.11.  He also had fewer offensive-zone events during the playoffs. This means that the young centre averaged less time in the offensive-zone during the playoffs than during the regular season. This number is difficult to explain, as he actually averaged more powerplay time during the playoffs.                          

The biggest question mark heading into the upcoming season revolves around the faceoff circle. With Andreas Engqvist as the potential fourth-line centre and Eller the third-line centre, the onus will fall on Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez to win faceoffs; both of whom were under 50% during the playoffs. Plekanec led all returning centres during the season with an unimpressive success-rate of 50%.  Eller was in the 43% range during both the regular season and playoffs, while David Desharnais had an average success-rate in-and-around 48%.

Breaking the regular season numbers down even further, we find Plekanec with the top faceoff success-rate in the defensive-zone (55%), while Eller has the next-best success-rate at 52%. Desharnais follows (51%), and Gomez trails the pack with a frightening 45% defensive-zone faceoff success-rate. It gets flipped slightly in the offensive-zone, where Gomez leads with a 56% success-rate, followed by Plekanec (50%), Eller (44%), and Desharnais (42%). For those interested, Ryan White has a 39% success-rate when taking offensive-zone faceoffs, and a 50% success-rate when taking defensive-zone faceoffs.

Faceoffs will be an interesting statistics to track during preseason games. Success in the faceoff circle could go a long way to determining the Habs third and fourth line pivots. That said, Eller remains the player to beat. His strong play and obvious progression during the Boston series has earned him at least that honour.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Habs: Engqvist Early Favourite as Fourth-Line Center

Swede's defensive play fits role perfectly

The Montreal Canadiens rookie camp is right around the corner. Barring any last-minute moves, training camp could be more about defining players' roles than earning spots.

Despite the loss of Jeff Halpern, the Canadiens have four returning centres from last season; Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez, Lars Eller and David Desharnais.

Plekanec is the incumbent number 1 centre, and will likely centre a line between Mike Cammalleri and new-comer Erik Cole. This leaves everyone's favourite wipping boy, Scott Gomez to centre the second line. Number 11 will likely be flanked by team captain Brian Gionta, and Max Pacioretty.

The third line will likely be determined by which player is punched into the fourth line centre role. By slotting Andreas Engqvist into the fourth line pivot spot, it allows us to move David Desharnais to the left wing. This moves an offensively-gifted Desharnais from a role that doesn't fit his abilities to a role on a line that could potentially add some much needed offensive-depth to the Habs lineup. Lars Eller would centre this line, with Andrei Kostitsyn on the right wing. 

Why Engqvist in that spot? I'll let the numbers explain.

Despite playing in only 3 NHL games last season, Engqvist had the Habs' fifth best overall risk/reward rating (0.76). In terms of ratio this means that number 63 made 2.17 good plays for every mistake, or lost battle. This rating equals that of Max Pacioretty, and trails only PK Subban, Mathieu Darche, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta.

An important ingredient in any fourth-line centre is their ability to eat up minutes without becoming a defensive liability. Engqvist fits this role perfectly, as he had the team's very-best defensive-zone risk/reward rating (0.38). As a ratio, this means that the 6'4" centre makes 2.66 positive plays for every mistake or lost battle within the defensive-zone.

He also had the best neutral-zone risk/reward rating. His rating in the n-zone was the product of his puck-management skills. Engqvist was successful with all 8 of his attempts to dump the puck deep into the offensive-zone, and his lone attempt to carry the puck into the offensive-zone.

Engqvist can also help kill penalties; relieving the pressure on Tomas Plekanec. He blocked 5 shots in 3 games. Pro-rated over the course of a full season that translates to 137 blocked shots. Good enough for fourth-best on the Habs roster, and more than double any other forward. He also led the team with a 69% success-rate when engaging in defensive-zone puck-battles.

Based on the numbers, Engqvist will not be able to fill Halpern's role in the faceoff circle. The young Swede won only 30% of his faceoffs, and only 43% of his defensive-zone draws. His winning percentage was equally low in the AHL where he won only 33% of the faceoffs he took during a game I scouted.

Why move Desharnais to the wing?

Desharnais struggled winning puck-battles in the defensive-zone. He won only 54% of his d-zone puck-battles, while Eller won 62% of his d-zone battles. Many of Desharnais' losses were strength related. He had much better numbers when making plays along the half-wall; where his defensive-zone passing success-rate was 69%. This would put the bigger, stronger Eller in a position to battle opposing centres down-low in the defensive-zone.

Desharnais has a better faceoff % than Eller, thereby creating a situation where, depending on the zone and situation, Jacques Martin can go with the hot-hand in the faceoff dot. This line would also place two strong puck-handlers and passers with scoring-threat Andrei Kostitsyn. Eller's 83% offensive-zone passing success-rate was the team's second-best mark, while Desharnais' 76% mark was third.

Obviously, training camp has yet to take place. Performances during exhibition games, as well as the physical development of younger prospects could dramatically change the situation. That said,  at this very moment, using last season's statistics and player evaluations, Andreas Engqvist remains the best possible fit as the Montreal Canadiens' fourth-line centre.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Habs: Spacek with Top Defensive-zone Passing Percentage Among Defensemen

Subban with lowest success-rate

The Montreal Canadiens are successful when generating offense off of the transition (takeaways in the defensive or neutral-zones). They play their best hockey when their defensemen and goaltender are able to move the puck up to the speedy forwards quickly and accurately. The famous "first pass" is essential; whether it takes place in the neutral or defensive-zones.

*I began tracking passing percentage late in the season, players without any regular season numbers were either injured or did not play substantial minutes late in the season*

1. Jaroslav Spacek
(81%) Regular season
(74%) Playoffs
This is a great example of where statistics dispute perceptions. When questioned, many Hab fans would question Spacek's ability to make a strong first-pass. In fact, his regular season success-rate is tops among Montreal's returning defensive-core.

2. Hal Gill
(78%) Regular season
(63%) Playoffs

Gill's success-rate in this metric dropped 15 percentage-points during the playoffs. Gill's drop is a product of playing against Boston's top players, while being an important cog in the Habs' penalty-killing unit. When Gill's minutes are dropped into the 15 to 17 range, his defensive-zone passing percentage will return to last season's regular season range.

3. Carey Price

(76%) Regular season
(80%) Playoffs
When Price is unsuccessful with a pass attempt in the defensive-zone it usually results in either a phenomenal save or a goal against. That said, Price's high success-rate is a testament to his defensemen's ability to communicate,"target-up" (position themselves for an easy outlet pass), and number 31's puck-handling ability.

4. Andrei Markov
(75%) regular season
(N/A) playoffs

Markov's return will certainly help the Habs transition game. His vision, and tape-to-tape passing ability will also help the Habs powerplay. He has a nearly unequaled ability to find the cross-ice seam while coming out of the d-zone, skating through the neutral-zone, or on the powerplay in the offensive-zone.

5. Josh Gorges

(73%) Regular season
(N/A) PlayoffsGorges passing ability is often underestimated. Fans and media alike speak of Gorges good stick and warrior mentality. People wince at the hits he takes while recouping loose pucks, but few recognize his ability to find the open man coming out of the d-zone. Gorges passes are usually short and on the tape. He resists the urge to make the long, exciting pass; choosing instead to make the low-risk, high percentage play.

6. Alexei Yemelin
(73%) World Hockey Championship
(N/A) Regular season
(N/A) PlayoffsMost of Yemelin's successful passes come from using his defensive-partner. That said, he's shown himself to be willing to take a hit to make a play. His vision is good, but the question that needs to be answered is whether the smaller ice and quicker tempo will allow him the time needed to make the right pass at the right moment. 

7. Yannick Weber
(71%) regular season
Limited minutes on defense in playoffs 

Weber didn't play enough minutes on the back-end during the playoffs to create a tangible grade in this metric. He did, however have the seventh-best success-rate among defensemen during the regular-season. his regular season total equalled the team's average.

8. PK Subban

(67%) Regular season
(62%) Playoffs
PK had the lowest passing percentage in the defensive-zone in both the playoffs and regular season. This is due in large part to strength of opposition and a lot of penalty-killing minutes. PK does everything on the ice quickly. However, a strong first pass is often about patience. Waiting and recognizing the right moment for that first pass should become Subban's main focus of improvement this off-season and through training camp.

The Prospects

Mark Mitera

(100%) AHL regular season game (limited viewing)
Mitera remains the only defenseman I've scouted who has played significant minutes and produced a perfect defensive-zone passing percentage. Even more impressive is that Mitera's success isn't simply the product of some easy d-to-d passes while setting up the transition, but comes from some perfect tape-to-tape passes to forwards while they were moving quickly through the neutral-zone.

Nathan Beaulieu
(78%) QMJHL/ Memorial Cup/ Canadian Junior evaluation camp
Beaulieu enjoyed most of his passing success in the Memorial Cup and QMJHL playoffs. His success-rate dropped significantly during the junior evaluation camp. I'm hoping he sees some action during exhibition games in order to determine if his struggles at that camp were just an anomaly.

Jarred Tinordi
(62%) OHL/ USA junior evaluation camp
Tinordi has all the tools; he's big, he's strong and he has a solid hockey IQ. That said, there are still some aspects of his game that concern me; and his passing percentage is one of them. Tinordi often stops skating when he has the puck. Because of this he is unable to create seams for his outlet passes. He has the wheels to create these lanes, it's up to him to find the confidence.

Morgan Ellis
(59%) QMJHL (limited viewing)
Ellis is a difficult player to evaluate. He's yet to have the opportunity to play with quality players. Because of this it's hard to determine whether his passing percentage is the product of his ability, or the product of the inability of his teammates to target-up. More viewings are necessary. A trade to Shawinigan wouldn't hurt either.

Darren Dietz
(43%) WHL (limited viewing)
Dietz was scouted early last season. At the time he was only 17-years-old and visibly nervous. I look forward to scouting multiple games of his this upcoming season. Confidence and experience should see his passing percentage and overall risk/reward numbers increase substantially.