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Red Wings 2018-19 Power Play Wrap-up

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After a weekly series tracking the power play this season, here’s the season end edition.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Wings season has come to an end, and so has the weekly power play update series. This last article in the series will summarize the positives and negatives for Detroit on the man advantage in 2018-19.

Format

I’m writing this for an audience that didn’t necessarily read the power play series throughout the season. Here’s how the article is set up:

  1. Team Statistics: A final look at the metrics I tracked this season for the team.
  2. Individual Statistics: How did individual players do?
  3. Shot Locations: Where did individual players shoot from, and what can that tell us?
  4. Face-Offs: How did the team do on face-offs at 5v4, as well as the players who took the most for Detroit?
  5. Let’s go to the Videotape!: Each week, I broke down clips of both positive and negative play. This will feature the biggest positive and negative aspects of the season.
  6. Wrap-Up: Just like Kyle on South Park, I’ll ask “So, what did we learn today?” I’ll answer it too.

Team Statistics

The article series followed several metrics to keep tabs on how the Red Wings were doing at 5v4 this season. Each week, the article featured several charts that showed how the team had improved or decline from the stats through the previous week. Below you’ll find animations that track each stat from week to week, along with the NHL minimum, average, and maximum values for each week for context.

Up first is Time on Ice / Game Played. Detroit spent the entire season below NHL average, and were at or near the league minimum for the last 10 weeks of the season.

Next is Unblocked Shots For per 60 Minutes, also known as Fenwick For (FF). After doing pretty well the first few weeks of the season, Detroit never went above league average and had a steady decline for the rest of the season.

Last is the stat that actually makes it on the scoreboard, Goals For per 60 Minutes. While Detroit was still not that good at this stat, it was better than their FF60.

Individual Statistics

Throughout the series, we looked at different ways to evaluate how the team and its individual players were producing. So, let’s take a look at some of those for the entire year.

(For all 5v4 individual statistics, the dataset was limited to the top 93 defensemen in 5v4 Time on Ice (3D x 31 teams) and the top 248 forwards (8F x 31 teams). The exception was individual shots, which was limited to players with 15 or more unblocked shots at 5v4.)

Before getting into some individual metrics, it’ll be helpful to get an idea of how much each of the players we’ll be looking at played on the power play.

The following chart shows 5v4 Time on Ice for the Defense that made the TOI cutoff described above. The number at the end of the bar is TOI per Game Played.

Niklas Kronwall led all Detroit Defenders in TOI at 5v4. While this likely won’t be surprising, we’ll see as we continue on why this was not a good idea. Part of the reason for this is injuries. After Kronwall’s 79 games played (which led the entire team), the next highest games played for a blueliner is 52 (Dekeyser and Ericsson). I had to double check to make sure I didn’t miss something, but that is correct.

While Dennis Cholowski definitely had some trouble in his overall game prior to being sent down to Grand Rapids, he showed himself to be at least a capable point man on an NHL power play.

The chart for the forwards shouldn’t be too surprising for anyone who watched the team this season. Possibly the only real surprise is that Thomas Vanek averaged more time at 5v4 than Dylan Larkin. For readers of the power play series, however, that shouldn’t be too surprising, since Thomas Vanek’s creativity was a major contributing factor to the periods of success Detroit had this season at 5v4.

The first individual metric we’ll look at is unblocked shots per 60 minutes. This is measuring the unblocked shots taken by the team while the player is on the ice.

Just for clarity’s sake, Fenwick For (FF) is just a different way to say unblocked shots: Shot attempts logged as a shot on goal, a missed shot, or a goal. Corsi is all of those, but adds shot attempts logged as a blocked shot.

Detroit had a noticeable increase in FF60 when Mike Green was on the ice. Filip Hronek was second, and Niklas Kronwall and Dennis Cholowski were nearly the same.

Anthony Mantha was the highest forward on the list for Detroit, and there’s a pretty clear separation between him and the rest of Detroit forwards. Andreas Athanasiou, Thomas Vanek, Dylan Larkin, and Tyler Bertuzzi were fairly close together, with Frans Nielsen clearly lower, and Michael Rasmussen ahead of only about 10 players out of the 248.

The top four forwards all saw most, if not all of their time on the top unit. Athanasiou started the season on the second unit, but spent about the second half of the season with the top one.

While the first two charts showed unblocked shots taken by any Red Wing at the time a player was on the ice, Individual FF60 shows how often each individual player took an unblocked shot at 5v4.

Mike Green still leads defenders, but Hronek is not far behind. Kronwall is nearly at the bottom of the league. When you look at the context of the rest of the NHL players, you can see that no Detroit defender was above the middle of the pack.

This isn’t really that surprising, since Detroit doesn’t have a weapon from the point like some other teams do. This is an obvious area for improvement, since the more weapons a team has on the power play, the harder it is for the penalty killers to focus on all of them. The reason a team doesn’t just assign a player to cover Ovechkin full time on the PK is that Washington has other dangerous players on that unit.

On the other hand, Anthony Mantha was near the top of the league for forwards. Overall, Mantha, Athanasiou, and Larkin are all in the top half of the league. The other notable aspect of this chart is that Rasmussen is noticeably higher on the individual chart than he was on the the previous one.

Near the end of the season, this series started looking at expected goals for each unblocked shot attempt using data from Evolving Hockey. In case you’re not quite sure what that means, Expected Goals on the shot level is the average probability an NHL shooter scores on a shot based on the factors a model considers. League average at 5v4 for all shots (forwards and defense) is roughly 8%.

First up is the defense. Combining this with the iFF60 chart above, Filip Hronek was the best defenseman on Detroit this season at taking quality shots. Kronwall is clearly the worst on Detroit in this area. He takes the fewest shots per 60, and his average shots are the least dangerous on the team. This means that having him on the power play hurts the team overall, since a team can compress their penalty killing structure because they don’t have to worry very much about a point shot when Kronwall is out there.

Combining the previous two charts makes it clear that Hronek and Dennis Cholowski were the most dangerous on the team this season shooting from the blueline. Mike Green’s shots were about as dangerous as league average, although none of the defensemen came anywhere close to league average in quantity of shots. Kronwall’s time on the power play has clearly passed him by.

Switching to the forwards, it might be surprising to see Michael Rasmussen highest for Detroit forwards, but when you consider that a major factor in EW’s expected goal model is the distance of the shot from the goal, that shouldn’t be surprising. The next two highest, Thomas Vanek and Tyler Bertuzzi spend most of their time close to the opponent’s net on the power play.

It also might be surprising to see Athanasiou at the bottom, but much of that is due to how many shots he takes. Since the team often doesn’t have a right handed shot on the left half-boards for one-timers, many of the one-time options ran through Athanasiou (although Mantha filled that role closer to the end of the season).

Putting both total shots and Mean xG on the same chart shows that the most dangerous forwards were Athanasiou, Mantha, Larkin, and Vanek (in no particular order). No Detroit forward was above average in both total shots and mean xG, but Larkin was the closest. Rasmussen was far above league average in mean xG, but the low number of shots indicates that it would be premature to put too much stock in that number.

The last of the individual charts compares individual Goals per 60 and individual expected Goals per 60. The charts are arranged in descending order of actual goals scored per 60 (blue). Dennis Cholowski was by far the team leader on defense in goal scoring/60, but he greatly outperformed his expected goals. Filip Hronek led the defense in expected goals, and his actual goal rate was nearly identical. Even though Mike Green didn’t score a goal at 5v4, his expected goals were just ahead of Cholowski.

For forwards, Larkin, Mantha, and Bertuzzi all outperformed their expected goals. Rasmussen, Vanek, Athanasiou, and Nielsen all underperformed their xG. Just like some shooters consistently have a shooting percentage higher than league average, outperforming xG is not necessarily unsustainable.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the above charts is that Niklas Kronwall and Frans Nielsen should have seen their last power play shift for Detroit. Assuming Cholowski is on the roster next year, he and Hronek should be the top two choices at the point for Detroit, with Mike Green the other defenseman who should get those minutes.

Shot Locations

Most editions of the weekly series included a plot of the team’s shot locations for the previous week. With the large number of shots involved over the course of an entire season, I’m going to use Micah Blake McCurdy’s charts from Hockey Viz. What follows are two animated gifs of 5v4 shot heat maps for the defenders and the forwards featured in the charts above.

First is the defense.

Cholowski had most of his shots from the left point, although as the season went on, he took shots from other areas of the ice. Watching Cholowski, he defaults to the left side of the ice, which makes sense since he’s left handed, but he’ll want to avoid shooting so much from one location.

After Cholowski went down to Grand Rapids, Hronek spent a lot of time on the power play. Looking at his shot locations matches up with the eye test, which saw him spend more time in the center of the ice at the point. Green and Kronwall also took the majority of their shots from more towards the middle.

For the forwards, shot locations should track with what we saw this season. One interesting thing to look at is the difference in Mantha’s shot locations and Athanasiou’s. They both took a lot of shots from the right circle area, but Athanasiou was far lower towards the goal than Mantha. The location of the bulk of Athanasiou’s shots is close to the net, but at a pretty sharp angle. Additionally, it’s a much harder pass to make than the pass to get the puck to where Mantha took most of his shots from.

When you take a look at the below gif, what jumps out at you? In the next paragraph, I’ll tell you what jumps out at me.

Only one forward took the majority of his shots from the left side, Frans Nielsen. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the dearth of right shot forwards on the Red Wings, but it makes the Detroit power play easier to defend against than it otherwise could be.

Face-offs

Another aspect of the power play that the series spent time on was face-offs. While face-off win percentage is not always an accurate way of looking at which players provide the most value from face-offs overall, the consequence of losing a face-off on the power play is different than at 5v5, in the offensive zone especially.

At 5v5, a team winning a defensive zone face-off can’t just clear the puck down the ice, since their reward would be another defensive zone face-off after the icing call rather than taking at least 10 seconds off the penalty clock, which is what happens at 4v5.

So, face-off win% on the power play gives a good approximation of which players are helping their team more on face-off draws.

The following animation shows the team face-off percentage at each dot, along with the face-off win percentages of the team’s three players who took the most face-offs.

The team as a whole had a better winning percentage from the left offensive face-off dot than the right, which is not surprising given that all three players taking the vast majority of draws are left handed. An obvious issue is that more face-offs were taken on the right side.

On the individual level, Dylan Larkin was easily the best from the right side of the three players, then Athanasiou, then Nielsen. It’s the same order from the left side as well (in the offensive end).

Let’s Go to the Videotape!

Each week, this series has looked at both positive and negative aspects of the power play. For this wrap up article, I’ll put a representative clip illustrating these aspects.

Negatives

First the negatives. These negative aspects weren’t present all the time, but when they were, they greatly contributed to poor outcomes.

Quick note: there will not be as many negative clips as there will be positive ones. That’s because while there were only a couple categories, there were many examples, and showing the same mistake repeatedly seems pointless.

Lazy passing

This was the most frustrating negative aspect of the power play. While every player was guilty of this at some point, Mike Green was the biggest culprit. We’ll get to an example of Green in a second, but first is a representative example of an often repeated type of lazy pass.

Justin Abdelkader tries to make a bank pass back to the point, but he should be able to clearly see that it’s not going to work. Other players made this type of pass often enough for it to be frustrating to have to watch.

Here’s another example, this time by Tyler Bertuzzi, who played very well overall this season on the power play. Here, the team has tried this pass repeatedly, and Tampa is ready.

Since Mike Green was the biggest culprit, I had to include at least one example. Green made a lot of these passes that I think can best be described as lackadaisical.

Lack of puck / player movement

This was often more prevalent when Detroit had a 4-on-3 or a 5-on-3, but it also happened occasionally on a 5-on-4.

These two clips are from the same 4-on-3 in overtime against Nashville. Watch how little Nashville’s defense has to work.

In this second clip, even though Kronwall and Larkin switch places at the blue line, it doesn’t make the PK have to work any harder.

Positives

Larkin and Athanasiou Zone Entries

Pairing up the duo of Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou was a huge step forward for the consistency of zone entries for the top unit, especially when they were joined by Filip Hronek.

Each of them has the speed and shiftiness to carry the puck in solo, but they combined particularly well (most of the time) to find ways to get the puck in the offensive zone with possession. Here’s an example.

Quick puck / player movement

Especially when the top line was all healthy, Detroit did much better overall this season of moving the puck quickly. This is a positive sign going forward because it’s clear that the coaching staff is pushing the right ideas.

Athanasiou made a big step forward on the power play from last season in terms of passing more. He still certainly took shots when he had the opportunity, but he often made quick passes like the one in this clip.

I had to include this next one, even though it likely still haunts Anthony Mantha. This is the best passing play all season, and everyone on the unit played a part. It also highlights how good Thomas Vanek was at making that quick one touch pass from the side of the net.

Finding the seam

As the season went along, the team was more aggressive at looking for the cross-ice seam pass. In the series, I wrote about how I am a big fan of this as opposed to passing the puck around the perimeter for 30 seconds, which was not unusual to see in the prior season. The pass has more of a chance of being intercepted, however I think that the added danger of a shot after such a pass is high enough that it ends up being worth it.

Here are two examples. The first is a beautiful look and pass by Athanasiou to Anthony Mantha. AA does an excellent job of getting this pass through a defender in a position for Mantha to shoot before Malcolm Subban can get across.

The second one is one of the best passes of the year. Vanek gets it to Athanasiou, and even though Dubnyk makes an incredible save, this was a great example of what Vanek brought to the power play this season.

Setting up below the goal line

The team seemed to experiment with setting up with two players below the goal line a few times this season. The only negative aspect of trying this was that even though it always resulted in a good scoring chance, the team then stopped doing it for the rest of the game.

In the two clips below, focus on how the defenders have to keep moving their heads to follow the puck behind the net. It clearly makes their job much more difficult, and Detroit should do this much more often next season.

Vanek in general

With the amount of writing I did highlighting how great Vanek was typically on the power play this season, it felt only fair to have a short segment showing a couple of his best plays.

Vanek is certainly a liability at even strength, to put it mildly, but the one place he consistently added value this season was on the power play.

First is an example of his deflection ability. It seemed like he made at least one insane deflection every game, and this was among his best.

The last clip highlights his creative passing ability, especially from behind the net. He made a similar pass to set up a Dylan Larkin goal in a different game.

Wrap Up

So what did I learn this season from doing this power play series? Here are a few takeaways.

  • Thomas Vanek was so much better on the power play than he was at every other aspect of the game. I don’t think the team should bring him back because of that second part, but it was very fun to watch his creativity. I also think he helped Michael Rasmussen in learning the net-front role at the NHL level.
  • Niklas Kronwall and Frans Nielsen should have played their last power play shift (at least when the team is healthy). As someone who’s liked Nielsen for years, it was hard to watch how much his play dropped off this season, but it certainly did. You can include Abdelkader in this list, although he was typically only on the power play due to injuries.
  • For the most part, it seems like the power play coaching has the right ideas. It looked like the team was being coached to move the puck quickly and to be in motion as well.
  • The one major complaint I have is Kronwall’s deployment. Near the end of the season, he was put back on unit one over Hronek, which I think was an awful decision. Assuming Dennis Cholowski is on the roster next season, he and Hronek should be the team’s top two choices for the PP, with Mike Green third on the depth chart.
  • I want to see the team shift into having two men below the goal line more often, certainly at 5v3, but also at 5v4. It’s a fairly easy shift to move from the standard 1-3-1 to having two men below the goal line and back. Shifting formations while play is going on obviously makes it more difficult for the PK, but forcing them to have to look behind the net is a huge deal.
  • Lastly, but one of the biggest takeaways is that the team needs more right handed shooters who can play on the power play. When Frk was on the power play this season, just having the possibility of a one-timer from either side made the power play more dangerous. Now if he could only get it on target more...

Thanks for reading this series throughout the season. While it was difficult and time-consuming to write, it was also rewarding. I hope that you got something out of it.