Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Improvement Through Nothing

The Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup last year for various reasons. They had capable primary (Selanne, McDonald) and secondary (Penner, Getzlaf, Kunitz, Perry) scoring, a couple Norris winners on the blueline and a Conn Smythe winner in net.

They also had (have) one of the best checking lines in hockey. Casual fans in California probably call the Moen-Pahlsson-Neidermayer combination a "third line". Those a little more hardcore probably know them as a "shut-down" line. Recently, Gabriel Desjardins gave them a new, more appropriate monkier - The "Nothing" line.

It's interesting to watch this line play because they are expectionally good at forechecking and shutting down the opposing team's offense...they are all among the league leaders in preventing the other team from scoring, this despite facing the other team's top lines every night.

On the other side of the puck, they also produce next to no goals. All three players are in the bottom 2% among scorers this season. Moen, in particular, is in the 99th percentile, league-wide, both in preventing the other team from scoring and in not scoring himself.

A capable Nothing Line like the one above can both deter and promote scoring: deter, by suppressing the opposition's best scorers below their typical scoring rates. And promote by freeing their own team's best players from playing tough competition, thereby potentially increasing their scoring rates. In addition, this strategy sequesters all the team's offensive voids onto a single line, resulting in a natural congregation of the more effective scorers on other scoring units.

I think the Flames have a burning need for a Nothing Line of their own. Despite the current winning streak, they could stand to cut back on the shots/chances/goals against. Hell, we're heading into the 2nd week of January and Kipper doesn't have a single shut-out yet! The Flames have allowed the 3rd most GA in the conference so far this year (126), less than only Edmonton and LA. And while the team has certainly improved in this category since December first, they've still allowed 45 goals during that 17 game span (2.65 GPG). That's not terrible, but it certainly isn't great which makes their results over that period even more impressive (and unlikely) (12-1-4).

That the Flames have clearly been outscoring their problems during the recent upswing masks the fact that they have virtually zero secondary offense after the primary attack. During the same span as mentioned above, Jarome Iginla (19G, 26P), Kristian Huselius (13G, 28P) and Damond Langkow (7G, 18P) managed 72 points combined. In contrast, Craig Conroy (1G, 9P), Owen Nolan (3G, 5P), Alex Tanguay (3G, 10P), Matt Lombardi (2G, 5P), Eric Nystrom (0G, 1P) and Dustin Boyd (3G, 4P) have combined for just 34 points. Huselius alone had 28 points by himself. And that's despite the fact that Conroy and Nolan spent significant time skating with guys like Huselius, Iginla or Langkow.

I've chosen to focus on that period of games specifically because it's notable that so many forwards were struggling even though the team was winning games. The contrast between those excelling (Iginla, Huselius and Langkow) and those not (everyone else) is stark and telling. It also suggests this success is probably more a transient "streak" than permanent "correction".

As per the original premise: a Flames Nothing Line. Originally postulated by myself in the now somewhat infamous "STONEHANDS" post, I surmised then (and still posit now) that a Nystrom-Conroy-Nolan troika might possibly result in the two primary effects I detailed earlier: deter scoring by suppressing the opposition's top lines and promote scoring by freeing Calgary's other lines from the tough assignments (as well as sequestering the offensive voids onto a single unit).

First, the "void" part:

Conroy, Nolan and Nystrom have a combined total 13 goals and 38 points between them in 115 games played this year (Huselius - 28 points - 17 games - just sayin'). That equates to ES scoring rates of 1.87/60, 1.47/60 and 0.86/60 for each guy respectively. Stunningly, their PP rates are even worse: Conroy's rate dips a bit, dropping to 1.62/60 while both Nolan and Nystrom have yet to tally a single goal or assist on the PP.

The point here is...none of these guys can score. If you subtract Nolan's 2 empty net goals, his ES scoring rate falls to 1.22/60. That's David Mossian type production. Dustin Boyd is more efficacious (1.56/60), and he's a 21 year old rookie with lesser linemates. Conroy leads the pack here, but he's had the benefit of playing between 3 of the best players on the team (two of whom have been the hottest players in the entire league) for a majority of the year. Even so, his rate is barely above the somewhat maligned Matthew Lombardi, he who has been saddled with two rookies at ES for the last 5 weeks or so.

Nolan and Conroy have had the benefit of the doubt through the first half of the year. Both have been amongst the top 6 for a majority of the first 40 odd games and both have convincingly proven that neither can get the job done on the score-sheet anymore. There's no overriding contextual influence oppressing their abilities here: this isn't the 05/06 Flames. Tanguay, Iginla, Huselius and Langkow...if you can't produce with those players this season, you probably can't produce...

"I so very much want this square peg to fit into this hole!" The NHL coach screeched, pounding away with furious abandon, "but it appears that the latter is just so stubbornly and unyieldingly round!"

Indeed. Look, if these guys can't score, then it makes sense to a.) give them some other role to play and b.) put them together so their offensive dampening fields stop affecting the other players.

I guess the question remains...could Nystrom/Conroy/Nolan actually be effective at the shut-down role? Both Conroy and Nolan are strong on face-offs, meaning they aren't a big risk when it comes to own-zone draws. Conroy is still fast and strong on his skates while Nolan manages to a do a lot of little things right on the ice (forecheck, dump-ins, board-work), his performance in LA aside. Nystrom has a pretty ugly stat line, but has remained in the line-up and on the team thanks to his tenacious checking and ability to block shots. He's also pretty fast and strong on his skates and has the lowest GA/60 rate short-handed of any regular penalty-killer on the team (3.05). So, it seems some of the tools are there.

The ES stats for each player are less convincing but harder to interpret.

Conroy - 2.42 GA/60
Nolan - 1.96 GA/60
Nystrom - 2.25 GA/60

Not terrible, though they certainly don't compare to the "suppressor" figures of the Moen/Pahlsson/Neidermayer trio (.97/1.83/1.28). Keep in mind, however, we're using the best checking line in the league playing in front of a superior SV% AND Chris Pronger as a point of comparison. Anyways, I dont think the Conroy/Nolan/Nystrom combo would have to be as good as the Pahlsson line - just good enough not to get killed and allow Iginla, Tanguay and whoever else to beat up on their match-ups.

Break up the Kids -

Another happy side effect of the Conroy Nothing Line would be the abolishment of the Flames "Kid" line - Boyd/Lombardi/Nystrom. The youngsters are fast and eager and rambunctious. And, together, they are getting consistently beaten up at ES. It's a tough assignment for anyone to carry a couple of NHL rookies night in and night out. It's an impossible one for a guy like Lombardi, who I really like, but still has a few steps to take before he can be considered a difference maker in his own right.

Since he's played with Boyd and Nystrom, Lombo's stats have dropped like a stone. In November, he was actually one of the better Flames for a 10 games span. He had an ES scoring rate above 2 and was a healthy +10. He's now down 1.81 ESP/60 and is a negative player (-1). His linemates predictably have just 5 points since December 1st, with Nystrom managing a single assist in that 17 game span.

I've looked at that combination a couple different ways and I can't decipher what Keenan hopes to get out of it. Scoring? No - Lombardi is the lone "vet" and has only broken the 40 point plateau once. As for Nystrom, he didn't even manage to get 40 points at the AHL level. And while Boyd has scoring potential in him, he's still very young and very green - a 4th line+PP type assignment would suit him best. Softest possible competition is the more likely way to get numbers out of Boyd right now.

So, it must be checking then? Well, no - two rookies and a smallish center (who's better known for scoring off the rush than anything else) aren't going to challenge any competent scoring line most nights. In fact, the only thing the Lombardi unit resembles right now is a big, enticing "come get some!" sign to opposing coaches (particularly on the road). I've been watching this groups CORSI figures since they've been assembled, and they are consistently in the red most games. Near the onset of their seasons, both Boyd and Lombardi were positive players by this measure (Boyd did it while playing against shlubs with Yelle and Godard) but have fallen underwater since being paired (-7.5, -5.0 respectively).

Basically, as it stands, the Flames have two guys who can't score needlessly bunging up the scoring units (Nolan and Conroy), with a line of kids that can neither score nor defend getting the hell beat out of them behind them. Now maybe Keenan is waiting for Moss to return (though he's just a younger, slightly faster Nolan as far as production is concerned) or maybe he doesn't have any faith in Lombardi in the top 6. But I can't see how the current configuration helps the team or a number of the players succeed. The bottom 6 is currently a wasteland of suck and there's little chance of the 4th liners getting any better. The 3rd line, the kid line, is doomed to fail. They don't have enough experience or strength to properly check anyone and they don't have the offense to outscore anyone. Something has to change, because I dont see Iginla and Huselius putting up this torrid pace forever.

Huselius - Langkow/Lombardi - Iginla
Tanguay - Langkow/Lombardi - ? (Boyd)
Nystrom - Conroy - Nolan
Smith - Yelle - Godard

(Nilson, Moss)

Throw out the Conroy and/or Iginla lines against the toughest competition and save the softer underbelly for Tanguay's unit. The Conroy trio doesn't have to worry about scoring (since they can't) and Lombardi is in a better position to exploit his abilities. Boyd is tentatively penciled into the 2nd RWer position, though I still think that's a hole Sutter needs to plug. As mentioned, 4th liner minutes with Yelle plus some PP time is the optimal situation for Boyd right now.

Does this make sense to anybody else or am I a madman screaming obscenities at a parking meter? This all reads right in the echo chamber in my head, but maybe I've been squinting at the computer screen too long...