Colorado Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche: The Importance of Mobility on Defence

The Samuel Girard-Cale Makar Pairing On Defence For The Colorado Avalanche Continually Prove The Value Of Mobility

 

Everything we’ve known about defencemen for a long time in the National Hockey League is that you have to be big and strong.  You have to be physically punishing on forwards in the corners and in the slot.  You have to block shots; you must have the size and reach to break up plays and you have to focus on defending. But the demands and essentials needed by NHL defencemen today are changing.

I’m not saying that this mindset and these attributes are useless now; these can still be bonuses or luxuries for teams to have.  However, most of these shouldn’t be considered requirements and necessities anymore.

As the game has changed and certain rules have been interpreted differently and changed, the mindset needed to be a defenceman has changed and evolved over time because of it.

Hockey has seen a huge decrease in obstruction in terms of holding, slashing, hooking and other ways that defenders took advantage of offensive players.  Also, the increase in suspensions in order to try to remove dirty hits or plays out of the game that would have been acceptable in previous decades.  These changes have resulted in more room for playmakers to be more effective and games being decided by teams playing skilled and smart rather than who can cheat the best or who can outlast the other.

From the Dead Puck era, to the Obstruction era to now, the game has changed and evolved for the better, making a much more entertaining product on the ice for fans.  The big thing that has also come with this is that it has opened more doors for a variety of different types of players, including smaller, faster players getting more of an opportunity and playing bigger roles on teams that used to depend on the larger, stronger player.

Since defenders can’t slash or hold opposing forwards as part of defending, it has become extremely important that defencemen are able to have the skill-set required to be effective in all three zones.  One of the biggest skill-sets that every player needs to have now is mobility.

There are different elements to mobility then just speed. Players need to have quick, two-step acceleration to create and close down space.  They have to have good edges in order to pivot, turn or make quick cuts to stay with an opposing player.  Having the endurance to maintain consistency and play many minutes throughout a game and a season.  Skating and mobility both influence all different aspects of the game, and there are different ways that skating impacts any play or any situation that players find themselves in during a game.

Defense

Without the use of obstruction, defencemen need to be able to defend using their mobility and smarts to be able to shut forwards down.

Being able to defend the blue line off the rush, having the skating skill to maintain gaps on players and step up on them as they’re approaching your zone.  Either creating a turnover at the line or forcing them to dump the puck in rather than skate it in and set up.  When they do dump the puck in, defencemen have to have the skating and smarts to retrieve pucks quickly, evade forechecking pressure and skate it out or make a clean pass to exit the defensive zone cleanly.

If the opposition has offensive zone time and pressure, mobility helps. This helps cut down the amount of possession time for the opposition when they can’t get into the zone with control and set up as easily.  It also cuts down the high danger chances off the rush when they don’t enter the zone with possession as often.

Offense/Transition

When players can exit their zone and enter the offensive zone by rushing the puck, they are providing great value. Puck rushing might not necessarily be a necessity but it’s a big advantage for teams to easily transition from defense to offense.  Mobility helps create separation from opposition, which can stretch the other team out and even open passing lanes for forwards to get the puck going in the right direction.

Being able to move the puck efficiently by passing or skating it out can jump-start a team’s offense and it also impacts the teams’ defensive game.  When defencemen are getting the puck up to their forwards quickly and with space, the puck is moving 200 ft away from their own zone and net, which will obviously help with a team’s goals against.

A defense pairing that has so far been a great example of the evolution of defense is Samuel Girard and Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. They are perfect examples of new age defencemen because they don’t really have any old school aspect in their games.

Girard was acquired from the Nashville Predators in the Matt Duchene three-way trade last season.  You can see why Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic aggressively pursued Girard in the deal when making it.  Standing at just 5’10”, Girard is not a big guy. But his skating and puck moving ability allows him to flourish in the game today.

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He makes up for lack of size and reach with elite smarts, and he uses his skating and passing ability to evade forecheckers and efficiently move the puck to forwards consistently at a high level.  As you can see from CJ Turtoro’s (@CJTDevil) graphic below, Girard’s zone exit/entry results are fantastic the last two seasons.  One area he maybe could still improve upon is defending the blueline, but he has shown to be a valuable player for Colorado.

Cale Makar has burst onto the scene in a big way in this year’s playoffs for Colorado.

After coming over from the NCAA UMass Minutemen where he played in the Frozen Four this season, Makar has jumped right into the NHL with no problems whatsoever.  His skating ability and skill with the puck is so incredibly dynamic.  He creates so much space for himself and his teammates by separating from opposing players and using his skill to create scoring chances.  He and Girard have combined to make a terrific pairing as they compliment and read off each other so well.

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Also, an important part of offense and what Girard and Makar do so well is in-zone movement.  Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) on twitter, tweeted about this a couple of days ago and I want to follow-up on it.

When defenders are stagnant and staying in a certain area in the offensive zone, the other team has an easier time defending what they are trying to do.  Coaches and teams game-plan well against this because they can stay in a defensive structure easier without having to constantly move and interchange with each other. There’s not as many moving parts and it becomes less complex to defend the zone.

When you’re moving around the way Girard and Makar are in this twitter video above, you’re forcing the other team to constantly move around as well. Doing this will also increase the odds of an opposing player losing an assignment or it will open up passing lanes to the slot, or possibly create angles for the offence to attack or take advantage of.

Another graphic below from Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), shows the line combinations and defense pairings of all the playoff teams and shows where they rank in terms of expected goals for and against.

Expected goals is basically looking at how many shots and high-quality shots your team generates and what your shooting percentage is when you’re on the ice.  If you’re in the 55-60% range in shots and scoring chances, you should have an expected goal % of around the same.  It’s broken down into 4 categories, Good Defense/Poor Offense (Dull), Poor Defense/Offense (Bad), Poor Defense/Good Offense (Fun) and Good Defense/Offense (Good).

As you can see from the graph, the Girard-Makar pairing is one of the best in the playoffs, ranking well into the good category in terms of expected goals.  According to Natural Stat Trick, they have controlled 58.49% of shots, 64.52% of scoring chances and have an expected goal share of 65.17%.  It’s not a hug sample size yet, but the early signs of this pairing are extremely promising.

You don’t need to be big and strong to defend well and impact the game in all three zones.  Playing that way is not the most efficient way of play because it results in a lot of wear and tear on the body.  It can result in consistently playing through injury or illness and it is taxing on a player throughout a long season and playoff run.

Playing skilled and smart results in impacting the game the same way but with less wear and tear.  Players need to have the skill set required to drive the play when they’re on the ice and they need to have the smarts in order to take advantage of situations and use their skill set to the best of their ability.

Girard and Makar don’t physically wear down opponents or punish them with strength.  They wear players down by making them spend most of the game trying to chase the play and by using their speed and skill to come in waves and not letting their opponents regroup or rest.

They are so good at possessing the puck and creating high danger chances.  According to ThePointHockey, Girard is fourth among all skaters in the playoffs in puck possession per game entering Game 4 of their series against the San Jose Sharks. Ever since Makar joined the team in round 1 against the Calgary Flames (and being paired with Girard), the Avalanche have been a different team and they are a big reason why the Avalanche are where they are in the playoffs right now.  They don’t spend a lot of time defending because Colorado always has the puck when they are on the ice.

We have seen this trend start to develop over the years with more skilled, dynamic defencemen playing the biggest roles on a team.  There are other examples of this with Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg in Dallas, and Seth Jones and Zach Werenski in Columbus.  The mindset and philosophy of defense will continue to change, and these types of pairing will start to be considered the new age “Elite #1 Pairings” in the NHL.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals

Stats and Visuals are found from

www.naturalstattrick.com

www.nhl.com

https://www.thepointhockey.com/

https://public.tableau.com/profile/sean.tierney#!/

https://public.tableau.com/profile/christopher.turtoro#!/

https://twitter.com/DimFilipovic/status/1122943080343072768

Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights: Are They A True Cup Contender?

It was a big night for the Vegas Golden Knights’ top line as Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith combined for 10 points in the Vegas’ 7-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Monday night. 

This was the second half of a back to back after a dominating 6-3 win over Edmonton the night before. In addition, it was the second straight time that they swept a back to back situation and the fourth time this season that they’ve done it.  Everything is clicking for Vegas at the right time of the season, they are the hottest team in the league, having gone 9-1-0 in their last 10 games.  Ever since the trade deadline and bringing in Mark Stone, Vegas has looked like a powerhouse that is ready to make another run in the playoffs. And that has led me to question if this team a legitimate cup contender?  Here are some reasons why they could be and why they might not be.

They Could Be A Legit Contender

Let’s start with why they could be.

Since the trade deadline, the Golden Knights have been one of if not the best 5v5 team in the league during that time.  From February 25th to March 19th, Vegas has had the best 5v5 Goal Share in the NHL at 67.44%, outscoring teams 29-14.  Most teams can’t handle Vegas’ aggressive style of play, when they are transitioning the puck up ice and when they have possession in the offensive zone, it’s hard for teams to get the puck back.  They had miserable luck at the beginning of the season with so many key injuries and having a really low team shooting percentage.  As of March 19th, they are currently 5th in the Western Conference and tied for 11th in the NHL with 87 points, despite going through that slow start to the season.

Robust Offensive Depth

Their forward core has been clicking, their top two lines have dominated every time they’ve been out on the ice.  The line of Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith have a combined 11 goals and 33 points in the last 10 games.  They have a 57% shot share and a 59% goal share, they’re also controlling 59% of scoring chances as a line.  The Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Stone line has been arguably the best second line in hockey since being put together.  They have a combined 11 goals and 25 points in the last 10 games.  They have a 61% shot share and a 67% goal share, also controlling 61% of scoring chances as a line.

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This has really given Vegas a double threat and has made them a very difficult team to match up against.  With those two lines playing they way they are, this has given Vegas the ability to have guys like Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin on their third line.  Tuch was Vegas’ leading scorer until Stone was acquired and Eakin is having the best offensive season of his career.  There may be a slim chance that Erik Haula returns this season, but if he does that legitimately gives Vegas three really good lines, which you need in order to win and go deep in the playoffs.

Don’t Forget About Vegas’ Defense

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Vegas is currently 8th in the league in goals against and they’ve allowed the 2nd fewest goals in the league since the trade deadline.  Their defense has held up very well this season, having Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Colin Miller on three different pairings has really helped Vegas’ blue-line as well as each of their defense partners.  They have the smarts to recover pucks and they have the skating and vision in order to move the puck up ice and transition extremely well.  Brayden McNabb and Jon Merrill have also been good in the roles that they play and have done a good job of complimenting their partners.

Why They Might Not Be A Contender?

While there is a lot in favor of Vegas being a contending team, here are a couple things that could make it tough for them and could get in their way.

Calgary and San Jose

Vegas’ path through the Playoffs will be very difficult, as they will likely have to go through both Calgary AND San Jose in the first two rounds.  Calgary and San Jose are the top 2 teams in the West for a reason, Vegas is good enough to beat both of them, but it will not be easy at all.  Getting through them both will take a lot of wear and tear and if they do manage to beat them both, who knows how much they will have left in the tank for rounds 3 and 4.

Goaltending

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Also, the workload of Marc-Andre Fleury this season is something that Vegas must keep a close eye on.  Fleury has played in 59 of Vegas’ 73 games this season, he is also 34 years of age with almost 800 NHL games under his belt.  Fleury also expends a lot of energy with the style that he plays, maybe not quite as wild as when he was younger, but it’s still up there.  To play that many games during the season at that age and having to probably go through the two best teams in the West, he is going to be burnt out at the most critical time for Vegas.

5 of Vegas’ remaining 9 games are against teams that are currently outside the playoff picture.  It would be in the team’s best interest if they play Malcolm Subban in as many of the remaining games as possible.  Have Fleury rest for most of the games over the next week or so and then have him play in the last 2 or 3 to get a rhythm going into the playoffs.  If they do this it will help them a lot in the long run, you can’t go far without good goaltending and Vegas will need him healthy and rested.

Recap

No one said it was going to be easy for Vegas, especially considering how much hockey they’ve played over these past 2 seasons.  If they manage their ice time and energy right, they should be fine.  Vegas is too good and too deep not to be a serious threat in the Western Conference.  I believe they are a true contender and that Vegas fans have a good chance of seeing another good playoff run come April.

stats from naturalstattrick.com and NHL.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals

Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights: Giordano And The Flames Are In Town

The Vegas Golden Knights and the Calgary Flames will play their third of four meetings against each other this season as Vegas welcomes Calgary to T-Mobile Arena tonight. 

These two teams haven’t seen each other since mid November.  Vegas is starting to get on a roll since adding Mark Stone at the deadline with 4 straight wins. 

Calgary has lost their last 2 games and are coming off a disappointing 6-2 loss to Toronto Monday night.  They are also coming into their first game of a back to back situation, they’re flying to Vegas for an 8:30 PM MT start and then flying to Arizona after to play the Coyotes the next night at 7:00 PM MT.

Team Stats Comparison

Here are the numbers for each team heading into tonight’s matchup:

Record

CGY: 41-18-7 (2nd)

VGK: 36-26-5 (14th)

Last 10

CGY: 7-2-1

VGK: 5-4-1

GF/Game

CGY: 3.55 (4th)  

VGK: 2.95 (17th)

GA/Game

CGY: 2.85 (10th)

VGK: 2.76 (7th)                                                                                                                                                    

PP%

CGY: 22.2 (9th)        

VGK: 17.4 (21st)

PK%

CGY: 79.2 (21st)

VGK: 82.8 (6th)

5v5 CF%

CGY: 53.16 (5th)

VGK: 54.3 (3rd) 

5v5 GF%

CGY: 53.03 (9th)        

VGK: 50.38 (14th)

Vegas and Calgary are both high tempo, high event teams in terms of shots and scoring chances.  Vegas has outscored teams 11-6 at 5v5 over the last 5 games, but it’s their special teams that they need to improve as their PP is 18.1% and their PK is 54.5% over the same stretch.  Both teams split the first 2 meetings with Calgary thumping Vegas 7-2 on November 19th and Vegas shutting out Calgary 2-0 on November 23rd.

Starting Lineups

Vegas

Jon MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith

Max PaciorettyPaul StastnyMark Stone

Brandon PirriCody EakinAlex Tuch

Ryan CarpenterPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Nate SchmidtDeryk Engelland

Brayden McNabbShea Theodore

Jonathon MerrillColin Miller

Marc-Andre Fleury

Calgary

Johnny GaudreauSean MonahanMatthew Tkachuk

Andrew MangiapaneMikael BacklundElias Lindholm

Sam BennettMark JankowskiAustin Czarnik

Michael FrolikDerek RyanGarnet Hathaway

Mark GiordanoRasmus Andersson

Noah HanifinTravis Hamonic

T.J. BrodieDalton Prout

David Rittich

Players to Watch

Calgary: Mark Giordano

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One of the top candidates for the Norris Trophy all season long, Giordano has 62 points in 64 games this season.  He’s averaging 24:39 of ice time/game and is currently 3rd in defenseman scoring, behind Brent Burns and Morgan Rielly.  He also comes into this game on a 4-game point streak with a goal and three assists in Calgary’s last 4 games.

Vegas: Mark Stone

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Stone leads Vegas in scoring with 63 points in 63 games coming into this game and has fit right in to the team.  He hasn’t lit up the score sheet yet, but he’s not far from breaking out.  As a line, him, Pacioretty and Stastny have been destroying competition at 5v5 so far.  It’s only been 4 games but in those 4 games, that line has yet to give up a 5v5 goal against.  I expect Stone to start finding the score sheet very soon.

My Expectations

I expect both teams to come out and give their best performance in this game.  Vegas has been rolling and will look to extend their win streak, they will be the more rested team with two days off between last game and this one as well as two days between their next game on Saturday.  This will be Calgary’s 2nd game of 3 in 4 nights, they’re going to look to bounce back after their performance on Monday.  It looks like both teams will be going with their starters in Fleury and Rittich as this is an important game for both teams.  Vegas needs to keep playing the way they are at 5v5 if they want success but in a game like this special teams could make a difference.  Their PK is 6th in the league but it has struggled lately and their powerplay has been inconsistent all season.  Maybe this could be the game that helps as Calgary’s PK has been below average, but Vegas’ PK will have to be ready for Calgary’s 9th ranked powerplay. 

This is an important game for both, and it will surely be a fast, entertaining game tonight at T-Mobile Arena, puck drop is 10:30 EST, 8:30 MT.

Stats/Info retrieved from:

www.nhl.com

www.naturalstattrick.com

www.dailyfaceoff.com

 

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals

 

 

Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights: A Breakout Season For Alex Tuch

A Big Part Of The Golden Knights Success This Season Belongs To Alex Tuch

The Vegas Golden Knights have battled through injuries and suspensions all season long.  Nate Schmidt missed the first 20 games after he was suspended for violating the National Hockey League’s performance-enhancing substances policy. Erik Haula has been out since November 6th after having right knee surgery. And Paul Stastny missed 30 games with a lower-body injury earlier in the year.

They had a slow start to the season but have fought through the injuries and poor luck and yet have still held down a playoff spot for months.  The Arizona Coyotes have put on a push recently, but Vegas has been comfortably in a divisional playoff spot since around December. 

Vegas has been able to have success despite these  setbacks because several of their players have stepped up and elevated their game this season.  One of the best examples of that has been the play of Alex Tuch and the season he has had.

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Tuch currently has 43 points in 56 games this season, which is six more points than he had all of last year in 22 fewer games.  He’s seen almost a two-minute increase in ice time-per-game from 15:15 last season to 17:05 this year and has taken advantage of the added opportunity with guys out of the lineup.  He leads the Golden Knights in 5v5 Points/60 at 2.56 (well over 1st line rate) and before Mark Stone was acquired, he led the team in total 5v5 points with 33.  A couple notable names that Tuch is ahead of are Nicklas Backstrom (32), David Pastrnak (30), Mathew Barzal (29), and Vladimir Tarasenko (28) who have all played the same or more games.

Everything Coming Together 

Tuch has always had the raw skills and has shown them in the past, but he’s really put it all together offensively this season. A big man at 6’4”, he is smooth with the puck and moving up ice.  He’s got great speed and agility as well as hands that work with his feet.  He’s aggressive on the forecheck and uses his size and reach to break up plays by the opposition. 

Vegas’ aggressive puck possession style and strong transition game fit perfectly with what Tuch brings to the table.  Transitioning the puck up ice is always something he’s been good at and he’s continued to get better.  The sample size is a little small in the graphic I linked to below, but he has averaged more controlled exits and entries per 60 minutes this season.

He has a very good shot and he’s finding ways to use it even more this season.  His shots per game is up from 2.19 last season to 2.41 this year at all strengths.  When Tuch has been on the ice at 5v5, Vegas controls 53% of shots, 56% of goals and 55% of scoring chances.  His most frequent linemates this season have been Max Pacioretty and Stastny.  That line controls 56% of shots and 59% of scoring chances, though they’ve had some bad luck for stretches this season, with a 45% goal share and a 0.952 PDO. 

Another part of Tuch’s game that has improved is his penalty differential.  Last season at all strengths, he drew only five penalties and took 12 (-7).  This year, he’s drawn 11 penalties while only taking three (+8).  He’s putting Vegas at an advantage way more often than he’s putting them at a disadvantage, which will obviously increase your chances of out shooting, outscoring and winning each night.

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George McPhee made a lot of brilliant moves at the Expansion Draft and his agreement with Minnesota to take Tuch so that they would pick Haula (who’s also had a great season prior to injury) was one of if not McPhee’s finest transaction. Haula had 29 goals last season, and this year had seven points in 15 games before getting hurt. McPhee took advantage of Minnesota’s cap situation and in return they got two top-six forwards for the price of one. 

Alex Tuch’s great season has given Vegas more options in terms of scoring when everyone is healthy.  When Haula is back, and now that Stone has been acquired, it will be interesting to see how Tuch’s role changes in terms of ice time and usage.  However, Tuch’s been a beast this season and he’s played a big role in Vegas’ success and with guys coming back, he’s made them an even deeper team going into the playoffs.

 

All stats found from:

www.nhl.com

www.naturalstattrick.com

Where I found Tuch’s zone entry/exit numbers:

https://public.tableau.com/profile/christopher.turtoro#!/vizhome/2-yearA3ZPlayerComps/ComparisonDashboard

Featured Photo Image Credit: Josh Tessler