Zone Shifts: The Battle for Field Position


For the past couple of days, we've talked alot about where Caps skaters started their shifts and how that may or may not have impacted what they did on the ice. Today, we're bringing it all together a bit by looking not just at where shifts started, but where they ended. If the previous discussions were about "field position," this one is about sustained drives.

We touched on this a bit back in January, and there's no need to re-invent the wheel today, so here's a quick recap - as The Falconer put it then, "assuming they don't score, a good offensive shift often results in a) the opposition icing the puck; b) the goaltender freezes the puck; c) the opposition deflects the puck out. All three of these non-scoring outcomes results in a face-off in the offensive zone.... If we look at the LONG RUN of a full NHL season, the better players are going to have more shifts that finish in the offensive zone compared to the number that began back in their own defensive zone. Zone shift captures this basic intuition--players with positive numbers usually are better at shifting the puck out of the D Zone and into the O Zone over the course of a season."

So how do we calculate these zone shifts? To quote myself, the methodology here is pretty simple - look at how many times a player is on the ice for an even strength face-off and where those draws are, and look at how many times a player's shift ends with an upcoming even strength face-off and where those take place, and go from there. I've also added an offensive zone face-off for each plus a player has and added a defensive zone draw for each minus (less those caused by shorties in both cases), since ultimately successful (or unsuccessful) shifts should be accounted for.

But as a picture is worth a thousand words, here's the image that will launch those thousand words in the comments (click to enlarge):


What this chart shows is each player's zone shift on a per game rate. Here's an example of how these numbers are calculated: Shaone Morrisonn started 273 even strength shifts in his own end and 323 in the offensive zone for a +50. Of his shifts that ended with a whistle and a faceoff, 247 ended in his own zone and 324 at the other end for a +77. Account for even strength goals and shorties for which he was on the ice, divide by his games played and you wind up with .417, which you see represented on the chart above. Cool?

So what jumps out at us? First of all, Sergei Fedorov really did drive the bus when he played. For a guy who started 52.7 percent of his non-neutral zone even strength shifts in the offensive zone to end up with a zone shift of nearly one is pretty impressive. Eric Fehr is in a similar boat (and had an even higher percentage of his shifts start in the offensive zone).

Boyd Gordon - who started 58.6% of his non-neutral ES shifts in his own end - did a great job of getting the puck out of there. The same can be said of Tom Poti, who led the defense in D-zone draws per game.

At the bottom of the chart, we find Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov embarrassing themselves (as we did here), and a handful of players who are probably the worst puck-movers on the team.

But what is Mike Green doing there? And what are Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom doing on the wrong side of zero? The knee-jerk answer is that because they take so many offensive zone draws, there isn't as much opportunity for them to skate positive shifts with respect to zone shift. As satisfying as that answer might seem, though, it's dead wrong, because these stats are based on actual shifts - whether a shift starts in the defensive, neutral or offensive zone, if it ends up with the opposing goalie freezing the puck, for example, everyone on the ice for the team with the upcoming offensive zone draw gets a plus-one. Frankly, I don't know what to make of the trio's relatively poor showing here (but when in doubt, blame shift length!).

As we noted the other day the 2008-09 Caps' "territorial advantage at even strength was pronounced, with play starting in the offensive zone 33% of the time, as opposed to just 27% of faceoffs occurring in their own end. The result was that the Caps outshot their opponents by a 33.5 to 29.5 margin overall (despite opponents having 15% more power plays), which led to the eighth-best five-on-five ratio in the League, 50 wins, and so on." It would appear from the chart above that the team owes a lot of that territorial advantage to a handful of guys who carried the water in terms of zone shifting (and clearing some dead weight from the bottom of this list makes up for the loss of the guy at the top of it, to say nothing of what the new additions will hopefully do).

Ultimately, things like shot quality for and against, scoring chances, turnovers, etc. impact winning and losing more than zone shifting does, but don't discount this metric - the more a team plays the game at the opponent's end of the ice, the better their chances of scoring and not being scored upon, and at the end of the day, that's the name of the game.

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