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Pick up the Pace, Win the Race?

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A look at the Caps, "pace" and percentages

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you were a hockey coach and you thought that your team could out-possess a given opponent (or every given opponent, for that matter) and thought that your advantage would persist regardless of the pace at which the game was played, would you want to play a faster game or a slower one when tied?

The answer is pretty obvious - you'd want to play at a higher pace. To hammer home the "why," imagine a team that takes 55% of the five-on-five shot attempts in its games (i.e. a team with a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 55.0). Over twenty events, that team would have an 11-9 edge in shot attempts, over forty events that edge is up to 22-18 and so on - the more shots attempted, the greater the raw edge, so if the span over which these shots are attempted is equal, the higher-paced version of the team is going to have a bigger shot advantage.

How about a concrete example? The Detroit Red Wings have a 53.7 five-on-five CF% and the Chicago Blackhawks are a tick behind at 53.6%, per war-on-ice. But that's largely where the similarities end - the Wings play at the second-lowest pace in the League (that is, the combined rate of shot attempts-for and -against) while the Hawks are the circuit's sixth highest-paced team, with nearly 15% more shot attempts per unit of time at five-a-side. The result is that Detroit has a (very impressive) plus-444 Corsi differential and, despite a slightly worse percentage, Chicago has a (more impressive) plus-514.

So what do those "extra" 70 shot attempts get Chicago? (Stats through Sunday's games.)

SAF

Somewhere just shy of three goals, and with roughly 2.9 goals being equivalent to a point in the standings this year, that's a point.

Think Detroit wouldn't want an extra point right around now?

Of course, it's not as simple as simply deciding to play at a higher pace if you're on the good side of 50 percent in shot attempts (though it's certainly easier to slow things down if you're on the wrong side). There's no reason to think that possession numbers will necessarily hold as pace increases. Going back to the Red Wings, if they up the pace but lose some of their percentage edge, it becomes a net loss pretty quickly. And even if the percentage holds, if upping the pace opens a team up to more scoring chances-against without also increasing their scoring chances-for, that's obviously a losing proposition. Regardless, the raw differences aren't huge.

But what if, hypothetically, a team did decide it wanted to play "faster," conceding more shots-against to get more out of their presumed advantage in attempts overall? How would that team go about it? A few (high-level) thoughts:

  • More controlled zone entries and exits. We know that controlled zone entries result in far more shot attempts than dump-ins and that not giving the puck to the other team when attempting to exit your own zone will also result in more shots-for. But coaches are risk-averse and these aren't necessarily the "safe" plays. On the whole, though, the increase in Corsi-For should outpace the increase in Corsi-Against, especially if skill forwards (on entries) and defensemen (on exits) are being strongly encouraged to carry the puck more, even if there are the occasional turnovers - gotta crack some eggs to make a cake. (And the same holds true of more aggressive in-zone schemes, not only in transition, especially with the right personnel.)
  • More aggressive forechecking. Another risk/reward proposition (and reason to salivate over forthcoming tracking data that will paint a fuller picture of that trade-off), forechecking systems run the gamut from conservative to the point of non-existence to aggressive puck-hounding. Obviously the closer a team is to the latter end of the spectrum, the more shot attempts they'll generate... and allow.
  • Personnel decisions. Some players are more capable than others of playing the game at a high pace and maintaining strong possession numbers. John Tavares, for example, is second in the League in pace (minimum 100 minutes) while sporting a cool 55% CF.

All of this, naturally, brings us to the Caps, who are middle-of-the-pack in pace and possession (but on the right side of 50%). So should they actively be trying to increase the pace? They've got a trio of good puck-moving defensemen and a handful of skilled forwards who shouldn't be turning the hard-earned puck over to the other team while exiting or entering zones. They've got good forecheckers (Eric Fehr and Tom Wilson come to mind) and a strong defense to allow for some more risk-taking in puck-retrieval. They've got non-regular personnel who can play a faster game - Andre Burakovsky is currently tops on the Caps in pace while also boasting the best Corsi-For percentage (54.2) and Goals-For percentage (61.1) among the team's forwards. (If there's a good reason Burakovsky shouldn't be playing every night, it's not apparent from the numbers.) And they've also got the League's most dangerous goal-scorer and a Vezina-caliber goalie in net. Go ahead, Barry, loosen it up a bit.

Back to Tavares for a moment, the Islanders, it's worth noting, play at the second-highest pace in the League (Dallas is first), so if the Caps draw New York in the first round - as seems likely - expect to hear a lot about the Caps wanting to slow the game down. Should they? Maybe not. Here's how the four head-to-head match-ups this season shook out (typical caveats regarding the small sample, lack of context and so on apply; click on date for more detail on individual games):

Date Score-Adjusted 5v5 CP60 Score-Adjusted 5v5 CF% Results
November 26 104.1 40.3 L, 3-2 in overtime
November 28 123.5 55.1 W, 5-2
December 29 119.0 42.8 L, 3-2 in overtime
February 21 116.9 47.2 W, 3-2 in shootout

In their highest-paced game against the Isles, the Caps dominated shot attempts; in their slowest game, they were dominated. And the difference in score-adjusted five-on-five Islander shot attempts between the two games was roughly five; for the Caps, it was 23. Something to think about. But if you're thinking that this is all headed towards a "play at a higher pace" conclusion, here's the non-relationship between pace and shot-attempt percentage over the past eight seasons, with a couple of notable points of reference (and this isn't a true regression, given that shot attempts for and against are components of pace and percentage, but you get the point):

Pace

Of course, that's a bit misleading - this year's Sabres and Blackhawks, for example, are playing at the same score-adjusted five-on-five pace... but one of those teams is dominating while the other is being dominated. The question is whether a good team should push the pace. For the Caps, there is a slightly positive relationship, but, really, there's no "there" there:

Caps Pace

The Caps have had some solid games at relatively low pace and some stinkers at high pace and vice versa, and have had those games against good and bad teams. Have a look:

So what's the point? First and foremost, "pace" isn't in and of itself a desirable end, of course - shot-attempt percentage matters more. The Caps' pace over the last handful of years has been relatively constant, actually (which probably comes as a bit of a surprise to those of us who snored through "Hunter Hockey"):

Coaches Pace

The differences between this team and the Hunter/Oates Caps is possession, not pace (and again, note that the difference in pace between the "fastest" and "slowest" teams on this chart really isn't that much).

But the Caps - these Caps - shouldn't be afraid to open the game up a bit, especially with its top-six forwards. They've got the tools for it and by doing so they might be able to get more out of the possession advantages they've been able to establish under Barry Trotz. Every little bit helps... especially this time of year.