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Playmaking in Transition

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Why Filip Forsberg Is The League’s Most Efficient Playmaker

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press

The older I get, the more I realize that my movie references go right over people’s heads. I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of the day talking to teenagers—ahh, the life of a teacher and a coach. Everyone’s going to recognize this one, though. If you’re over the age of 35, you’ve surely seen The Matrix. If you’re under 35, you’ve at least seen the “What If I Told You” meme featuring the character Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne. And if you still hadn’t, now you have.

So now that we’re all on the same page, what if I told you that last season Filip Forsberg led the NHL in primary assists per 60 minutes of 5v5? Sounds pretty outlandish, doesn’t it?

Every now and then you stumble across a number in sports that just makes you have to ask, okay, how the hell did that happen? For me this is that number. Ask any Predators fan what they think of when you bring up Filip Forsberg, and adept playmaking isn’t likely to make the conversation. After looking at all of his even strength primary assists from last season (22 in the regular season) it’s clear Forsberg is a very good playmaker, but he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a guy who passes up his own shot in order to set up a teammate—players like Nicklas Backstrom or Joe Thornton or Ryan Johansen. You’ll see that almost all of Forsberg’s assists fit a distinct pattern. It’s just a different one, not based on in-zone cycling.

The NHL is changing into a league built on speed and puck possession. In times past it was unheard of to draft defensemen who were under six feet tall, but that’s no longer the case. Just look at the draft from this past June. The old exploit of waiting for smaller, skilled players to slip in the draft is no longer a viable one. Most teams are choosing the best players now.

The Predators have also shown signs of that transformation in their game play, especially in how they attack in transition and off of turnovers. Nashville’s top line is a prime example of the evolution of the league. Of course goals were still scored off of transition plays 20 years ago, but rosters are now deeper with skilled players than they’ve ever been in the past. The transition plays and the goals are better—and the Preds are better at scoring them.

This chart shows the Nashville Predators are one of the highest scoring teams in the second period, which is characterized by transition play due to the long change.
Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp)

What remains to be seen is if this past season was an anomaly for Forsberg, or if Forsberg is rounding out his game as he enters his prime scoring years.

If we look at his four full seasons in the NHL, he hit a career high this past season in even strength P/60 at 2.53.

Natural Stat Trick

On the other hand Forsberg also had a career low in G/60, iCF/60 and shooting percentage. The low goal total was unlucky, but the sum of shots on net and shot attempt trends imply a maturation in Forsberg’s game. He’s becoming more selective with his shot, not satisfied just to enter the zone and wire the puck at the net. His selectivity and willingness to make a pass saw Nashville’s xGF/60 climb from 2.44 to 2.74 at even strength last season with Forsberg on the ice. It paid off in actual goals, too. The Preds’ goal differential at even strength with Forsberg was +25. Only nine forwards in the league finished the season with a higher on-ice differential.

Another sign of Forsberg’s changing game is that he’s trending towards more balance between passing and shooting.

Forsberg started out passing very little relative to how often he took a shot, but he’s rapidly approaching the middle of the pack.
Research on pass percentage done by @loserpoints. Data available here.

This trend could be indicative of his increased familiarity with his linemates, as well as their quality. He spent the majority of each of the past two seasons with Ryan Johansen at center and Viktor Arvidsson on the opposite wing. This line has grown into one of the game’s best.

Forsberg will always be a shoot-first player. In the games manually tracked by Corey Sznajder, roughly two-thirds of the league made passes that led to shots more often than Forsberg did. Most NHL data tracked manually is subject to small sample sizes, because humans are only capable of so much, but we still have enough data on Forsberg as an NHL player to know who he is at this point.

Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil. Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine.

This makes sense if we think of the Preds’ in-zone offense. Both Forsberg and Arvidsson are more likely to create a zone entry by carrying the puck than is Johansen (as seen below left), but once the puck is in the zone, both players will often defer to Johansen, who will set up the offense from the soft spot in the zone near the half-wall. Once on the cycle, Johansen is far more likely to act as the distributor and Forsberg as the trigger man (as seen below right).

Left: how the Preds entered the zone last season, where the blue areas are controlled entries and the yellow areas are uncontrolled entries. Right: how the Preds generated offense last season, where the green areas are shots at goal and the blue areas are passes leading to shots.
Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil. Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine.

All of that changes in transition though, and this is where Forsberg’s skill set is dangerous.

I don’t think we can classify Forsberg as a dangler, but he has enough moves to make the defense respect his ability to get the puck to the net on his own. Think of that goal against Colorado in the first round. Think about how it was created—off a turnover near the defensive blue line, with a clean zone entry by Forsberg. If the defense sags back and doesn’t maintain a tight gap, passing windows open for Forsberg to exploit.

Forsberg relies almost exclusively on his wrist shot, accounting for over 60% of the shots he takes...

Viz: Sean Tierney/@ChartingHockey. Data: moneypuck.com

...and virtually all of his goals.

Viz: Sean Tierney/@ChartingHockey. Data: moneypuck.com

When a shooter can get the puck off his stick as quickly as Forsberg can, that forces the goalie to overplay the shot, leaving opportunities for other players to cash in if the primary shooter does in fact pass. We see some of those effects in the heat map below. When Forsberg is on the ice, the Predators create a lot of offense from the right side and in the slot below the dots.

hockeyviz.com

NHL goalie coaches have become good enough at their scouting techniques and working with players on tracking the puck that many of the players’ idiosyncratic tendencies, unnoticeable to fans, become tells for goalies.

All players have reputations for what they do with the puck and when they do it. Forsberg is a shooter, so when he does something that goes against his profile, like make a play for a teammate, it makes it much harder for the goalie to make the ensuing save. Contrast that with Ryan Johansen, a player far more likely to create for his teammates. He becomes more effective on the rare occasions he does decide to shoot because he can catch the goalie expecting him to pass.

To figure out just exactly what is going on, I headed over to the NHL’s site to watch the video for each of Forsberg’s even strength primary assists from last season. There were 22 in total. I’ve included 15 of those, plus two from the playoffs that fit the same profile. Let’s dig in and identify the patterns which contributed to his outbreak.

I classified them into the following categories: neutral zone turnovers, controlled entries in transition, across the royal road, behind the net, one-timers, and on the forecheck. Some of the assists fit into multiple categories, but I included each in the one I felt was most emblematic.

Neutral Zone Turnovers

This early season goal against Dallas came off a turnover near the offensive blue line. Arvidsson whiffs on a rebound attempt to start the sequence off. Alexander Radulov tries to break the puck out and carry it through the neutral zone, but Forsberg picks his pocket while Arvidsson applies back pressure. The two Preds forwards quickly turn back the other way, creating a 2-on-1 situation.

Here, the OilersZack Kassian carries the puck through the neutral zone, which was a bad idea for the Oilers. Forsberg uses a quick poke check to free the puck, then moves it quickly to Arvidsson, who returns the favor on a give-and-go. Arvidsson deposits the rebound.

Controlled Entry In Transition

An Alexei Emelin blocked shot springs the JOFA line back up the ice. Forsberg drives wide, exposing the defender and leaving Arvidsson alone on the backdoor where he dekes out Semyon Varlamov for the goal.

Here, you see Forsberg moving through the neutral zone, carrying the puck into the offensive zone in transition. He drops the puck to Craig Smith, who beats Darcy Kuemper on the far side.

Forsberg pressures the defenseman on the point, disrupting the D-to-D pass. He knocks the puck free to the neutral zone. After the entry, he dangles Benoit Pouliot near the dot to take the puck across the goal mouth, completely exposing Anders Nilsson and leaving a yawning cage for Calle Järnkrok.

A failed hold at the Oilers blue line once again springs Forsberg and Arvidsson up the ice. Another 2-on-1 in transition, another royal road pass, another goal.

Here Forsberg blows out of the zone, giving himself space to carry the puck through the neutral zone. Now take a look at Forsberg’s eyes just as he hits the top of the circle. He glances at the goalie to try to get Josh Manson to move his stick out of the passing lane, and Arvidsson roofs the subsequent pass.

Across the Royal Road

Here Ryan Johansen picks the puck off of Evander Kane, leaving Forsberg and Arvidsson alone for a 2-on-0. This one was an easy one, but Forsberg makes that one extra pass for the tap-in.

This play starts with a controlled entry by Forsberg. After Mattias Ekholm pinches and holds the puck in, a scrambly Avalanche defense leaves four guys on the same side of the ice and Colton Sissons finds himself wide open in the slot. Forsberg feeds him the puck and it ends up in the net.

Here is another example from the playoffs. P.K. Subban holds the puck in on the near blue line. Forsberg knocks the puck down and makes a short pass to Johansen in the slot. Johansen buries it. Another goal that comes quickly after a chaotic play.

Behind the Net

This goal from back in November might be the only one that was created from a puck dump. Here the puck gets rimmed around the boards. Arvidsson wins the race for the puck and dishes it to Forsberg below the goal line. Forsberg makes a heads-up play to find Johansen moving to the far post and Johansen buries the feed.

One-Timer

This is one of Forsberg’s only primary assists stemming from sustained zone time. P.K. Subban holds on to the puck on after the save by Carter Hutton. The puck skitters behind the net where Forsberg picks it up near the hashmarks and finds Johansen alone inside the circle for the one-timer.

On this one Matt Irwin tried to dump the puck into the corner, but donks it off Robert Bortuzzo’s shin pad. The puck comes right to Forsberg above the circles. Notice how he squares his shoulders and puts the puck in a shooting position before making the pass to Järnkrok. It looks as if he’s going to put his weight on his inside foot to loose a wrister at the net. When Forsberg makes the pass he doesn’t turn his shoulders at all, holding Jake Allen on his line as long as possible. Judging by Allen’s reaction he was thinking shot from #9 the whole time.

This one looks discombobulated from the start. The Sharks are just finishing the power-play and I can’t even find their fifth skater in any of the replays. The Sharks fail to hold the puck in the Preds’ defensive zone, which allows a clean zone entry by Arvidsson. Both Sharks players converge on him but there is nobody in the middle of the ice for Forsberg. Marc-Édouard Vlasic follows the pass; nobody marks Ekholm enter as the third man high. Yet again, another goal in transition.

On the Forecheck

The last set of goals comes off the forecheck. This first one comes in a game just before Thanksgiving against the Jets. The sequence begins when Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba fails to corral the puck behind the net. Forsberg applies pressure below the goal line and comes out of the corner with the puck. He quickly finds Johansen, who puts home a wrister past a helpless Connor Hellebuyck, who’s being screened by his own defender.

Pressure by Arvidsson forces Jonathan Quick into a poor decision with the puck. After Johansen retrieves the carom off the boards, he finds Forsberg in front of the net making himself available for the pass. With the goalie out of position, Forsberg makes a second pass to Arvidsson for the gimme.

Who could forget this one? One of the league’s best players retreats to his own blue line to pick up the puck. The Predators are completing the change, so Forsberg is only applying token pressure to the puck carrier. Erik Karlsson tries to move the puck to the winger along the wall but finds Forsberg’s stick instead. What’s amazing about this goal is how quickly the puck finds the back of the net after it’s knocked down by Forsberg. He doesn’t even turn around to make the pass. I’m sure Arvy was calling for it!

If you look at all the above goals together, some general characteristics become apparent.

The JOFA line and Forsberg in particular created dozens of scoring chances off of turnovers. Whether those turnovers were created on the forecheck, in the neutral zone, or after some gaffe by the opponent in the defensive zone, Forsberg and his linemates attacked the net directly with speed in transition. Every goal except for one was created with a controlled zone entry.

Forsberg also used his reputation as a shooter to open up lanes for teammates. Granting that Forsberg isn’t a playmaker in a traditional sense, due to his preference for shooting the puck, it’s still evident that he used his proclivity for attacking in transition to become the league’s most efficient playmaker.