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Short Shifts and Long Runs

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Detroit assistant coach Paul MacLean is never without his stopwatch, clicking it each time the Wings make a line change. "We use our own time," says [Head Coach Mike] Babcock, eschewing the arena stat sheet. For playoffs, he wants short shifts -- 40 seconds, tops -- making sure stars like LW Henrik Zetterberg stay fresh enough to sustain the tempo his two-way game demands. Quick, smart line changes are so crucial that the Wings devoted an entire practice to them during an unexpected layover in St. Louis last season. Bonus benefit: Quick changes prevent positioning breakdowns that result in odd-man rushes. - ESPN The Magazine

En route to winning the Stanley Cup last year, the Detroit Red Wings didn't have a single forward who averaged as much as 50 seconds per shift during the playoffs, and only a pair of defenseman who were above that mark... by one second. Last year's runners-up had one forward and one blueliner above 50 seconds, both of whom were under the 55-second mark. In fact, of the 48 players who averaged 50 seconds or more per shift in last year's playoffs, 29 - or 60% - of them played seven games or fewer.

Is there a correlation? Sure. Causation? Unclear (cue one of XKCD's greatest). But it's interesting (if not concerning) when you consider that three of the four forwards skating the longest shifts so far this spring are Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, and that the two Alexes are leading all skaters in average shift length.

Now, it's commendable that the team's best players want to give almost everything they have on every shift (as any given shift could be the difference between winning and losing), and it's certainly hard to argue with the results so far, but consider some data from the Caps' first round series against the Rangers:

  • The average length of an even strength shift for both Ovechkin and Backstrom that resulted in a goal was 38 seconds. That's it. (Semin's was 56 seconds, thanks to a monster 1:36 shift that wound up with the lamp lit.)
  • Of the 18 individual even strength shifts that AO, Backstrom and Semin skated that ended with the Caps scoring, only three were longer than 54 seconds.
  • The average length of one of Alex Semin's shifts that ended in him taking a penalty in the Rangers series? One minute ten seconds.
  • AO, Nick and Semin averaged 1:00, 0:48 and 0:51 seconds per shift, respectively, in wins and 1:09, 1:04 and 1:00 in losses.

The length of Ovechkin's average shift is so long, in fact, that it forces opponents to game plan specifically around (or at least be well aware of) it:

“We have two lines on them in any one shift,” Rangers forward Fred Sjostrom said of the line of Ovechkin, Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. “Ovechkin stretches to the far blue line, and obviously if you make a bad change, it could be bad for you.”

Tortorella said that the Rangers’ philosophy was not to try to match lines against Ovechkin’s line. “They do take long shifts, and everybody has to contribute,” Tortorella said.

But while that may sound like a positive - getting away from opposition line-matching - it isn't, necessarily. As E.J. Hradek pointed out after the Game 1 loss:

In their first-round series loss to the Flyers last season, Washington's stars had a tendency to overstay their shifts. In Game 1 against the Rangers, I noticed the same thing. Alex Ovechkin's average shift time was 78 seconds. That's about 30 seconds too long for most players during the playoffs. I know he went very long on each of their power-play chances; that ratchets up his average shift time. Still, I don't know how you can be that good for that long during a playoff game that's being played at a very high tempo.... A.O. is a special player, but 78 seconds per shift is too long; so is Alexander Semin's 68 seconds per shift and Mike Green's 61 seconds. They'll want to shorten that up in Game 2.

Taking a look at Saturday's Game 1 of the second round series with Pittsburgh, Ovechkin took five even strength shifts of 1:15 or longer, none of which resulted in Caps goals and one of which ended when Mark Eaton beat Simeon Varlamov to tie the score at two. Backstrom and Semin did the heavy lifting on the game-winning goal early in the third period, and, at the time, they had been on the ice for 33 seconds combined. On the afternoon, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin averaged 1:00, 0:48 and 0:54 per shift, respectively (though those numbers would have been a lot higher with more than 3:01 of power-play time, you'd think).

These are small samples, more anecdotal evidence than anything else, but the point here is two-fold: 1) in general, the longer the shifts, the less likely something good is going to happen at the end of it, and, perhaps as a predictable result thereof, 2) there seems to be a correlation between keeping players fresh (both in the in-game short-term and in the deep-run long-term) and winning in the playoffs. Whether it's the difference in the third period or in overtime of a game in this round or still having gas in his star players' tanks (lord willing) a round or two from now, Bruce Boudreau and his staff might be wise to rein in their thoroughbreds a bit now, especially given how well the third line (charming as it is) has played of late.

A final thought here, and one that brings it back to John Tortorella, who was known to ride his big three forwards back in his days behind the Bolts' bench: when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup five years ago, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier averaged 48, 45 and 43 seconds per shift, respectively. Let's hope that Gabby can step up and out-coach the Torts of five years ago just like he did the Torts of a week ago.