Alright, confession time: I can get a bit obsessed with statistics.
Can you blame me? Numbers are just so... solid. There's no wiggle room - four is greater than three, 75 percent is more than 70 percent, and so on. Digits are evidentiary, eye-opening, hunch-confirming (or -disabusing) and inarguable (even when they're not). They'll take "he's great" and tell you just how great, and help to establish reasonable expectations going forward so that drop-off doesn't catch you by surprise.
But they can also obscure the forest as you stare intently at a single tree.
Case in point, the matter of "zone starts." Last June, I had it all figured out - Brooks Laich would take the lion's share of the defensive zone starts that Nicklas Backstrom had been forced to take, freeing up the top line for all the offensive-zone starts they could handle. After all, Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin had seen their O-zone starts and offensive production drop dramatically in 2010-11, and surely one way to goose the latter was to increase the former. Neil Greenberg posited that "an extra offensive start per game could lead to 9-10 more points scored over the course of an 82-game season" - get 'em two more starts in the offensive zone per night and that's 20 points apiece! Next problem?
Except it's probably not that simple, and that becomes apparent when you look at the raw numbers, which we'll do after the jump.To begin with, we need to define terms - when we're talking about "offensive zone starts," we're talking about five-on-five, non-neutral zone face-offs. Here are Ovechkin's for the last three regular seasons (via the absolutely indispensable BehindtheNet.ca; click to enlarge):
For 2011-12, Ovechkin has been on the ice for 241 (106+135) offensive zone draws at five-aside and 218 (97+121) draws in his defensive zone. Take that 241 and divide it into 459 (241+218) and you get 52.5 - Ovechkin offensive zone start percentage on the season (which, again, doesn't include the 274 neutral zone draws for which he's been on).
To put that in perspective, the Sedin Twins, who are essentially the gold standard for offensive zone start percentage, clock in at just over 75%, and the top Caps are John Erskine (really?) and Mathieu Perreault, who are both a shade under 55% (what this means, among other things, is that the Caps' bench bosses haven't been nearly as aggressive in matching their personnel to zone starts as Alain Vigneault has).
In Ovechkin's most O-zone-heavy season, 2007-08, he had an O-zone start percentage of 58.1, but let's say we want to crank Ovi all the way up to 62.5%, an increase of ten percentage points over his current 2011-12 rate. What would that look like if we went back and replayed the season-to-date?
Obviously there are several ways to go about it, but if we hold his total non-neutral-zone draws constant and give Ovechkin 46 more offensive-zone draws while someone else takes 46 of the d-zone draws off his hands (what are they paying Joel Ward for, anyway?), that gets Ovi up to 62.5%. Heck, lets crank him all the way up to 64%, a number that would put him right around top-10 in the League in the metric, and would only require shifting 53 of his d-zone starts to the other end of the ice.
Fifty-three. One per game.
But let's not stop there - let's look at those 53 draws. Since this is all in our little fantasy world, let's say Backstrom has centered Ovi for all 53 of those games. [Pauses, pours a little out] At a 51.3% face-off percentage, that means the Caps would win 27 of those draws. So really, we're talking about one extra O-zone possession every two games. Does that matter? Perhaps, when you consider that "[f]or several seconds [after losing a defensive-zone draw at five-on-five]], the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3." Then again, let's think about that statement for a moment. It sounds impressive, but is the shot rate on a typical five-on-three really all that high (or do teams, for example, tend to work the puck around for a perfect, quick pass and shot)?
Prior to last night's games, the League-wide median five-on-three shot rate was right around twice the median five-on-four shot rate at just over 90 shots per 60 minutes, or one every 40 seconds. So what are teams likely to get in that "10-15 second" window? Moreover, in a five-on-three, the offense tends to be set up in roughly the "home plate" area - nearly every shot is a scoring chance. Off a faceoff, that's obviously not the case - the attacking team is pushed much further out. And finally, when faced with a defensive-zone draw, a coach is likely to put out his best available face-off man and defensive unit to counter the obvious territorial disadvantage as best he can. For the players taking the offensive-zone draw, they may have the positional upper-hand, but these aren't necessarily going to be "easy" minutes.
So there's a lot going on there, but it boils down to this - if the Caps had been aggressively starting Alex Ovechkin in the offensive zone all season to a degree which they'd never before used him and which would have him among the League leaders in offensive zone start percentage, a best-case net result would be roughly 27 more face-offs won in the offensive zone to date (far fewer if Marcus Johansson was taking them) and an additional seven-to-nine shots at a five-on-three rate (but not nearly as likely to generate a scoring chance as on an actual five-on-three) against tough defensive opponents. If one more offensive zone draw per game is equal to nine or ten additional points over the course of a season, we're talking six more points or so for Ovechkin. Does all of the above sound like it would generate six more goals? I'm not so sure (and neither were we at the time).
The last thing I'd note circles back to the big problem the Caps have had with possession that we discussed last week. As Cam Charron noted then, "[W]ith [Bruce] Boudreau, Washington had 21 more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive zone.... Since [Dale] Hunter’s arrival, there have been 100 more offensive zone faceoffs against Washington." That number is down to 98 now, but that's still a swing of plus-one per game to minus-three - that's not helping matters.
All of this isn't to say that zone start management isn't important and can't generate strategic advantages; it can (given the right personnel). And lord knows the Caps could use every little bit of help available to them. But it is easy to overstate the actual impact of some of these seemingly significant changes, like going from starting 52.5% offensive zone starts to 64%. After all, that's an increase of 11.5 percentage points, and 21.9%, and those are big numbers. Big, beautiful numbers.