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Adapt or Die: Building a Team in the Modern NHL (Part One)

Welcome to the new age, people.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Carolina Hurricanes
Why do we see players like Austin Watson in the bottom of NHL lineups so frequently? I want to investigate this, and also offer a (relatively) new way of thinking about the way we construct an NHL roster.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is a skill and speed league now. Despite what people may say about the “physical winning” pattern that teams like the Bruins and the Blues followed, the undeniable trend towards smaller, faster, and more creative players is there.

Though teams like Tampa, Toronto, and Carolina haven’t won anything of note in the postseason yet, they’ve effectively turned around their teams with rebuilding strategies predicated on acquiring playmakers that are overlooked for a variety of reasons. The top 6 forwards and top 4 defenders of any team in the league commonly contain players that would once have been considered undersized, which shows that at least most of the NHL recognizes the need for skill over everything in your key roster spots.

With that being said, there is a group in the NHL that remains mostly in the time of the dinosaurs, with the old-head mentality of toughness equating to ability. That group in question is the bottom of the lineup, who more often than not are just there to play on the penalty kill, bring a physical edge, and fill space on the roster. In a cap league, where depth is everything, why do teams continually fail to optimize their lineups? Why do players such as Matt Irwin and Austin Watson get relatively regular NHL time, while skilled youngsters like Frederic Allard and (previously) Yakov Trenin languish in the AHL?

Well, I aim to investigate both sides of the matter. In this two-part article, I want to explore how I think the modern bottom six and bottom pairing should be built, and why that’s the case. This is all so the reader can draw their own conclusions about their team’s cap structure, personnel management, and coaching. In my mind, when it comes to this debacle, there’s only one way to look at it: you either adapt to the modern game, or you die.

In the rest of this multi-part series, I’ll break down why some people feel that players who are commonly maligned are valuable, and where I find myself diverging from them and why.

Building In a Cap League

The cap introduces a new, exciting set of challenges to owners and GMs when constructing a roster. Over time, there have been a few different ways that teams have won: by heavily investing in top end talent and supplementing it with decent prospects and free agents (the Blackhawks’ dynasty), building through the draft (LA Kings), and the newest group, who have won on a blend of depth, “physicality”, youth, and top-end talent (Bruins, Blues, Capitals). The outlier in this group are the Penguins, who won with sheer speed and top-end ability (as well as absurdly hot goalies).

So why am I decrying the supposed “playoff hockey” build, with physical players and such? Well, actually, I’m not. There is some level of truth to the whole idea of needing a team that can sustain through the rougher, looser rules of playoff hockey; that much has been evidenced by some teams wearing down as the postseason drags on. But I can’t call to mind any time where a team lost purely based upon the physical battle, or even when it was the #1 contributing factor.

The Flames lost last year because the Avalanche had good depth, excellent top-flight forwards, and a massive speed advantage (as well as solid goaltending). The Lightning lost because of a lack of coaching adjustments and a sudden drop-off in play that cannot be reasonably explained, even with effort takes. What I’m suggesting a modern bottom-of-the-lineup depth chart should look like is not just purely based upon analytics, or the old way of thinking; it’s a blend of what I think is necessary to win. Here’s a list of them, in order of importance, with explanations.

Ingredient 1: Play Driving

What does that even mean?

”Play drivers” are players who generate a significantly greater amount of shot attempts than they allow. By the numbers, that means they have a positive differential in RAPM stats (regularized adjusted plus minus) like CF/60. This is basically to say that your bottom six and bottom pair don’t need to be a “shutdown” line (as that is rarely actually accurate when used to describe a group of players), and they don’t need to bring a ton of physicality; they just need to keep the puck on the other end of the ice until the guys whose job it is to score consistently can get back out there.

If you have the puck, the other team can’t score; so a possession-based structure is actually the primary way for you to help out your goalie, while also getting the most out of a group that typically lacks skill in the current format.

Examples of players who this is true for:

For a long stretch Craig Smith, Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi were all stellar play drivers, and their line was almost inarguably the best on the team over the course of the year. Why? Because they dominated territorial play, and have enough of a mix of skill, speed, and smarts to score pretty well.

While Smith hasn’t scored a ton, he’s driven play and given the team a territorial advantage. Bonino has been excellent in all phases of the game, and while I doubt he can maintain this type of play (with his recent slowdown), his early season stretch was exemplary of what a great bottom-sixer can look like. Grimaldi doesn’t score a ton, but he’s blindingly fast and produces a ton of controlled entries and rush chances that otherwise wouldn’t be there, in addition to winning the possession battle.

The Predators had what I would say is an excellent third line, but recent drop-offs in play from Bonino and Grimaldi have changed that a little bit. Let’s have a look at some charts, courtesy of Evolving Hockey, to visualize all of this.

Nick Bonino has had a great year from an RAPM perspective, correlating directly with his incredible spike in on-ice production.
Image via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)

Here are Bonino’s RAPM numbers. He’s positive by all league-wide differentials at 5v5, and has been comparable in these numbers to guys like Sean Couturier. While I think we can all recognize that Bonino doesn’t have Couturier’s level of ability and never has (his numbers from the past few years clearly reflect that), he has been comparable to Couturier this year at driving play, creating chances, and suppressing them. This is what an excellent 3C looks like on paper, and you’ve seen the results on the ice if you’ve watched Bonino play; he looks like a completely different guy from the rest of his tenure in Nashville.

The numbers for the third line as a whole. While Grimaldi may have some defensive deficiencies (which anyone who’s watched his game could tell you), his linemates more than make up for it.
Image via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)

Create an entire line of players like these, and you get a group that crushes the opposition in shot totals, goals, and chances, all of which have been true for the Nashville third line.

Again, to show how these “fancy stats” conflate with your eye test, this line has been the best by RAPM metrics all year; by my eye test and the observations of many others, I’d say that the third line have been the most consistently great set of forwards all year, and their output of goals and points also supports this. Craig Smith is another key example of a play driver; he may frustrate you with his inability to finish on chances sometimes (what separates great players from good), but he consistently has tilted the ice in favor of the Predators throughout his career with his speed and hard forechecking.

Teams that do this:

Carolina is a perfect example of a forward-thinking organization, so I’ll be using them a lot in this piece and future ones as a model. Despite getting below average goaltending (Petr Mrazek sits at 57th among 74 eligible goaltenders in GSAA), the Canes have a good record and sit at 8th and 6th in GAA and goal differential, respectively.

The Hurricanes are the most analytics-focused team in the NHL, and have managed to build a contender with smart drafting, asset management, and the edge that analytics have provided, despite their goaltending woes and lack of attractiveness to free agents. A third line with smartly acquired guys like Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula with proven ability to tilt the ice will help any team boost their offensive output and win matchups against other lineups.

Ingredient 2: Chance Generation

What does this mean?

Players create scoring by producing chances on the net. A characteristic that has been discovered about chance generation is that there’s an area between the two face-off circles and the high slot that accounts for the majority of NHL goals scored, aka the home plate. By winning the shot quality and quantity battle, a bottom of the lineup group can have massive scoring impact on a game, and will likely win the scoring battle at 5v5 over the course of the season.

We’ve seen the impact of taking higher quality shots as of late with John Hynes bringing in a quality-over-quantity approach to the Predators’ locker room, and the effects have been pretty positive, so imagine the entire lineup producing lots of shots from in close rather than only the top two lines producing in that respect. That’s what you look for from a player, and if they’re effective at pushing opposing play to the perimeter, they’re probably a good defender as well.

Examples of players who this is true for:

Not a bottom six guy, but Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens has been one of the most consistent generators of high-quality shots since he entered the league. Just watching Gallagher, you can see how much emphasis he puts on pushing the puck down low and getting to the dirty areas consistently. Producing rebounds, rush attempts and slot plays so frequently is how Gallagher has managed to become an effective and sometimes dominant presence in the offensive zone, despite his lack of an outstanding physical trait (small stature, decently quick shot, quick but not elite foot speed). Gallagher is undersized, but he shows what the modern “net-front presence” looks like.

Getting players like this in the bottom six is crucial, and actually quite realistic; players are overlooked for a variety of perceived flaws (as stated in the famed movie Moneyball) when in reality they’re quite acceptable and even exceptional in terms of overall value.

Teams that do this:

The Canadiens come up yet again here, as they have pretty strong xG players throughout the lineup. Nick Cousins has decent xGF and great xGA RAPM stats, and Xavier Ouellet brings a similar resume to their bottom pair. Yanni Gourde, Patrick Maroon, and Carter Verhaeghe of the Tampa Bay Lightning are another example, with each having strong xG shares and putting up excellent years in arguably the best bottom-six in the league.

Noticeably, both of these teams are quite good; Montreal is very much in the playoff race despite a horrible losing stretch earlier this year and an outbreak of injuries, and Tampa is in the President's Trophy conversation (as always). It’s no coincidence that Tampa’s rapid rise to the top of the standings has coincided with their xG shares tilting from being pretty mediocre by their standards to easily the best in the league, as shown by this chart from Sean Tierney of chartinghockey.ca:

While the Bruins, another successful team, rely on slowing the game down to a snail’s pace and winning via their top line, defense, and goaltending, the Lightning create a ton of chances and allow very few, hence why they’ve done so well this year and in years past.
Chart by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), data via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)

This concludes the first half of this article. You’ll find the second half, where I delve into the role of youth, importance of versatility, and the waning emphasis on physicality, posted tomorrow.