Not everyone likes hockey analytics. But when they suggest the Vancouver Canucks’ new top line should work perfectly, that’s a different story.
What has Vancouver Canucks fans most excited for the 2016-17 season is probably the new top line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson. An all Swedish line that was outstanding at the 2013 IIHF World Championship and one that should always work well if we trust analytics.
When talking about player types or roles, we mostly think of terms like “sniper”, “playmaker” or “power forward”. Those terms give us a general idea for what a given player will do in the offensive zone and what kind of impact he has on his team. A “sniper” is expected to shoot a lot and get a high number of goals rather than assists. A playmaker, on the other hand, gets more assists than goals; and a power forward usually shoots much and scores often, but is also physical.
So what about the Canucks’ new top line?
Henrik Sedin has 222 goals and 748 assists in his career — clearly a playmaker. Daniel Sedin, on the other hand, has 355 goals and 587 assists. In 2010-11, he had a career-high 41 goals — clearly a sniper. Loui Eriksson has 212 goals and 292 assists in his career, and is widely considered a two-way forward with great scoring ability.
A playmaker at center and two snipers on the wings is what hockey traditionalists will call the perfect line. So that’s a good start.
Neutral Zone Playing Styles
To get to the point totals above, the players first had to get through the neutral zone and start an attack. Hockey analyst Alex Novet of Hockey-Graphs.com analyzed exactly that: neutral zone playing styles.
From his article:
"One avenue to understanding neutral zone playing style is carry-in %, which measures how many of a player’s entries are carry-ins with possession. Carry-in % is a reflection of the player’s tendencies and also a measure of results since carry-ins tend to lead to more shots on net than dump-ins.Another avenue to measure style is individual entry share. Individual entry share (iES, also called burden) takes advantage of the fact that most neutral zone tracking includes both the player who completed the zone entry and his or her on-ice teammates. Using this, we can calculate the proportion of on-ice team entries where the skater made the play with the puck. A high iES player is a player who gets the puck into the offensive zone himself, no matter how he does it. This is not to say that players with low iES are bad in the neutral zone: they may provide strong defensive play, earlier passes, or savvy positional play to make the entry possible, they just don’t get the puck into the zone themselves."
Novet looked at two different statistics that were tracked by Corey Sznajder in the 2013-14 season — carry-in percentage (CI%) and individual entry share (iES).
The first gives us an idea for how a player tends to enter the offensive zone and how successful he is doing it. A player who often dumps the puck will have a CI% simply because he doesn’t try to carry it in a lot. A player who likes to carry the puck in has a higher chance of getting his CI% up, but it only really goes up if he is successful doing it.
The second metric measures the percentage of zone entries each individual player leads. A player who likes to just skate into the offensive zone and not get the puck until he is there will have a lower percentage here. A player who likes having the puck on his stick and driving the attack will have a higher percentage.
With that, Novet sorted players in five groups or roles: drivers, opportunists, dump trucks, passengers and balanced players.
From his article:
"Drivers: These players “drive” play in the neutral zone. They frequently possess the puck during entries and carry it in.Passengers: The opposite of drivers, these players rely on their teammates to conduct zone entries. When they do enter the zone, they tend to dump it in.Opportunists: These players don’t enter the zone often, but when they do, they do it well. They have high carry-in rates but do not enter the zone as often as their teammates.Dump Trucks: As the name implies, these players dump the puck in and dump it often. They are tasked with getting the puck into the zone, and they do so by giving up posession."
So, now that we have established how each tracked player is categorized, we can start thinking about what roles would likely work well together.
Novet used the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example. One of the best lines in the 2016 playoffs was that of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. In role terms, that is driver-passenger-driver. In other words, two fast-skating wingers who drive the play and carry the puck into the offensive zone, with a center who just let’s them do their work.
That, by the way, doesn’t make Bonino a bad player. It just makes him one who has good chemistry with “drivers”. That said, players like John Scott, Tanner Glass and Tom Sestito are also in the “passenger” category, and that doesn’t mean they would work well on a line with Kessel and Hagelin.
The Vancouver Canucks
What’s safe to say is that every line needs at least one driver. One player you know you can get the puck to on the breakout and he will make sure it gets into the offensive zone — and his team keeps possession.
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Of the Vancouver Canucks that were tracked in 2013-14, only Sven Baertschi and Emerson Etem qualify as “drivers”. However, Daniel Sedin, who qualifies as “balanced” is on the verge of being a “driver”. So, he gets that spot on the top line.
Now, his twin brother Henrik will of course be on the top line with him — it’s always worked, so there is no need to change it up. Henrik is categorized as an opportunist. His iES of 24 percent is quite low (Bonino’s was 20 percent), but his CI% is the highest of all tracked Canucks. Put into words, that means Henrik isn’t the go-to guy for zone entries, but he carries the puck in successfully when he does enter the offensive zone with the puck.
That gives us one player who is capable and willing to drive the play, and one who rather sits back on the rush, but gets the work done when he has to. Sounds like a good match.
Completing the top line is Loui Eriksson. His CI% of 47 percent actually pushes him into the “dump truck” corner a little, but he is “officially” considered “balanced”. This may sound like I’m simplifying things too much, but a “driver”, an “opportunist” and a “balanced” player with a great two-way game sounds like a great combination.
If we just assume that what I said is correct and driver-opportunist-balanced is a great combination, there are still a few problems with this whole model that were, of course, also acknowledged by Alex Novet himself.
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First of all, the data is from a single season. Statistics are always more accurate with a larger sample size. In this case, there are many factors that can influence neutral zone playing styles and therefore change the statistics. If we had access to, say, five tracked seasons, the player sorting could be much more accurate.
That also brings us to the next issue. There are many factors that can influence neutral zone playing styles. Different coaches want their players to enter the zone in different ways and different coaches want different players to do the job. There is no way of telling what a coach told his players regarding this matter.
Furthermore, players change line mates all the time, and they even switch teams every now and then. Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel all played on different in the 2013-14 campaign, and Eriksson wasn’t on the Canucks that year either. The twins usually playing together helps, but there is no way of predicting what neutral zone play will really look like when they play with Eriksson. Again, a larger sample size would help here.
Alex Novet’s model is still in its infancy, but it is a great start to determine player types/roles in a new way. We saw what the Sedin twins and Eriksson did in 2013 and I can’t tell you if their roles as outlined above are a reason for that. Fact is, however, traditional hockey wisdom combined with this statistical model suggest Eriksson and the twins should make for a great line.
The Vancouver Canucks are in desperate need of scoring. An elite top line isn’t all it takes to win, a good top line and a lack of secondary scoring is better than an average top line and below-average scoring.
A very new model on neutral zone play won’t change the line combinations Willie Desjardins will go with, and there is still reason to believe Eriksson would be great on other lines. However, Novet’s model might be enough to explain why a Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line works particularly well while others do not.
By the way, only 10 Canucks forwards were tracked in the 2013-14 season, with only four of them playing for Vancouver at the time. These are their neutral zone roles: