Here’s a thing I keep hearing from Leafs fans:
“Phil Kessel needs to go to the net.”
“Phil Kessel will have more success if he goes to the net.”
“Goals are scored from the front of the net, Phil Kessel can’t keep relying on his shot.”
This is a theme that’s constantly plugged by guys like Doug MacLean and Nick Kypreos on intermission panels. I tend to listen to them while I’m off during intermissions compiling the notes I took during the period. I only listen sort of off-hand but do realize where people generate these theories about player success.
I only have one question to direct to the people who think Kessel needs to go to the net: Who will get Phil Kessel the puck?
The eye test tells me that Kessel is the primary play-driver on the Leafs first line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. You can tell who is the play-driver based on which guys move the puck from the defensive zone to the neutral zone, and from the neutral zone to the offensive zone. Once the puck is in the offensive zone it’s a bit of a free-for-all and offensive talent generally doesn’t show.
Darren Dreger went on the radio this morning and said that some general manager is going to pay Tyler Bozak $5-million. This will be an awful deal. Bozak does two things: a) win faceoffs, and b) put his stick on the ice in front of the net and score a few goals. He’s judged by his disproportionate point-production, helped by the three years he’s played with Kessel, who may be one of the best wingers in hockey.
I don’t want to rag too much on Bozak in this space, but I do want to turn your attention to a key bit of hockey research done over the summer by Eric T. of NHLNumbers and Broad Street Hockey. They published a paper that was presented at the MIT Sloan Analytics Sports Conference last month.
The key takeaway was that it isn’t performance in the offensive zone that drives success: it’s in the neutral zone. When a team carries the puck in, they’ll generate nearly twice the amount of shots than they would if they dumped the puck in. People who track entries even disregard dump-ins that immediately result in a line change. Essentially, skating the puck in 3-on-2 or 3-on-3 is going to lead to more opportunities to score.
What does this have to do with Kessel going to the net? Because Kessel is the player on his line who carries the puck in. Corey S. of Shutdown Line has tracked five games for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. The Leafs first line has carried the puck in 59 times with possession. Kessel has been credited with the carry 36 times:
|# of entries||Shots generated from player’s entries||Shots per entry||# of controlled entries||Shots generated from controlled entries||Shots per controlled entry||% of entries with control|
|James van Riemsdyk||27||18||0.67||14||10||0.71||52%|
If you want to see the disparity in shots for controlled entries vs. uncontrolled, I made up this quick graph. I would recommend reading the paper when you have a few moments, if you haven’t already:
This flies in the face of some conventional hockey wisdom, where the goal is to “get the puck deep and establish the forecheck”. Hockey success derives more from having the puck as opposed to not having the puck. It seems simplistic, but mostly we find that the statistics that indicate which teams have possession, whether it be shots on goal or zone entries, correlate more with winning than things like hits or blocked shots. Even a stat like “giveaways” syncs up with winning higher than “takeaways” albeit only so slightly. But the point is that players and teams that give away the puck have the puck more, and those fighting for takeaways, hits, and getting blocked shots are trying to take it back.
Just to satisfy the need of a few people who need to see Kessel go to the net, here’s one zone entry I found for Bozak. With just 11 of them, it’s tough to find a common theme.
Here comes Bozak, getting a shot away from outside the scoring area:
Kessel had broken through his man and cut to the net, but Bozak wasn’t patient enough to get him the puck:
The turnover, by the way, was created in the neutral zone by a Phil Kessel check on Matt Carle:
So to Doug MacLean, Nick Kypreos, and others, the reason Kessel doesn’t go to the net is because Kessel is the one carrying the puck. It’s on the other guys on the ice to go to the net. He can’t do it all, but nobody can.
Again, thanks to Corey.
UPDATE: Labelled a couple of things wrong on the graph. The information is correct but was presented poorly at first. My mistake.