Are coaches any good at identifying defensive players?
A while back I came up with a stat which at the time I called LT Index which is essentially the percentage of a players teams ice time when leading that the player is on the ice for divided by the percentage of a players teams ice time when trailing that the player is on the ice for (in 5v5 situations and only in games in which the player played). LT Index standing for Leading-Trailing Index. I have decided to rename this statistic to Usage Ratio since it gives us an indication of whether players are used more in defensive situations (i.e. leading and protecting a lead and thus a Usage Ratio above 1.00) or in offensive situations (i.e. when trailing and in need of a goal and thus a Usage Ratio less than 1.00). I think it does a pretty good job of identifying how a player is used.
I then compared players Usage Index to their 5v5 tied statistics using the theory that a player being used in a defensive role when leading/trailing is more likely to be used in a defensive role when the game is tied. This is also an out of sample comparison (which is always a nice thing to be able to do) since we are using leading/trailing situations to identify offensive vs defensive players and then comparing to 5v5 tied situations that in no way overlap the leading or trailing data.
Let’s start by looking at forwards using data over the last 3 seasons and including all forwards with >500 minutes of 5v5 tied ice time. The following charts compare Usage Ratio with 5v5 Tied CF%, CF60 and CA60.
Usage Ratio is on the horizontal axis with more defensive players to the right and offensive players to the left.
Usage Ratio has some correlation with CF% but that correlation is solely due to it’s connection with generating shot attempts for and not for restricting shot attempts against. Players we identify as offensive players via the Usage Ratio statistic do in fact generate more shots but players we identify as defensive players do not suppress opposition shots any. In fact, Usage Ratio and 5v5 tied CA60 is as uncorrelated as you can possibly get. One may attempt to say this is because those defensive players are playing against offensive players (i.e. tough QoC) and that is why but if this were the case then those offensive players would be playing against defensive players (i.e. tough defensive QoC) and thus should see their shot attempts suppressed as well. We don’t observe that though. It just seems that players used as defensive players are no better at suppressing shot attempts against than offensive players but are, as expected, worse at generating shot attempts for.
Before we move on to defensemen let’s take a look at how Usage Ratio compares with shooting percentage and GF60.
As seen with CF60, Usage Ratio is correlated with both shooting percentage and GF60 and the correlation with GF60 is stronger than with CF60. Note that the sample size for 3 seasons (or 2 1/2 actually) of 5v5 tied data is about the same as the sample size for one season of 5v5 data (players in this study have between 500 and 1300 5v5 tied minutes which is roughly equivalent of how many 5v5 minutes forwards play over the course of one full season).
FYI, the dot up at the top with the GF60 above 5 is Sidney Crosby (yeah, he is in a league of his own offensively) and the dot to the far right (heavy defensive usage) is Adam Hall.
Now let’s take a look at defensemen.
There really isn’t much going on here and how a defenseman is used really does’t tell us much at all about their 5v5 stats (only marginal correlation to CF60). As with forwards, defensemen that we identify as being used in a defensive are not any better at reducing shots against than defensemen we identify as being used in an offensive manner.
To summarize the above, players who get more minutes when playing catch up are in fact better offensive players, particularly when looking at forwards but players who get more minutes when protecting a lead are not necessarily any better defensively. We do know that there are better defensive players (the range of CA60 among forwards is similar to the range of CF60 so if there is offensive talent there is likely defensive talent too), and yet coaches aren’t playing these defensive players when protecting a lead. Coaches in general just don’t know who their good defensive players are.
Still not sold on this? Well, let’s compare 5v5 defensive zone start percentage (percentage of face offs taken in the defensive zone) to CF60 and CA60 (for forwards) in 5v5 tied situations.
Percentage of face offs in the defensive zone is on the horizontal axis and CF60 is on the vertical axis. This chart is telling us that the fewer defensive zone face offs a forward gets, and thus likely more offensive face offs, the more shot attempts for they produce. In short, players who get offensive zone starts get more shot attempts.
The opposite is not true though. Players who get more defensive face offs don’t give up any more or less shots than their low defensive zone face off counterparts. This tells me that if there is any connection between zone starts and CF% it is solely due to the fact that players who get offensive zone starts are better offensive players and not because players who get defensive zone starts are better defensive players.
You might again be saying to yourself ‘the players who are getting the defensive zone starts they are playing against better offensive players so doesn’t make sense that their CA60 is inflated above their talent levels (which presumably is better than average defensively)? This might be true, but if zone starts significantly impacted performance (as would be the case if that last statement were true), either directly or indirectly because zone starts are linked to QoC, then there should be more symmetry between the charts. There isn’t though. Let’s look at what these two charts tell us:
- The first chart tells us that players who get offensive zone starts generate more shot attempts.
- The second chart tells us that players who get defensive zone starts don’t give up more shots attempts against.
If zone starts were a major factor in results, those two statements don’t jive. How can one side of the ledger show an advantage and the other side of the ledger be neutral? The way those statements can work in conjunction with each other is if zone starts don’t significantly impact results which is what I believe (and have observed before).
But, if zone starts do not significantly impact results, then the results we see in the two charts above are driven by the players talent levels. Knowing that we once again can observe that coaches are doing a decent job of identifying offensive players to start in the offensive zone but are doing a poor job at identifying defensive players to play in the defensive zone.
All of this is to say, NHL coaches generally do a poor job at identifying their best defensive players so if you think that guy who is getting all those defensive zone starts (aka ‘tough minutes’) are more likely to be defensive wizards, think again. They may not be.