Early Returns: Forwards

Kevin McCartney
October 17 2013 03:11PM

 

Just two weeks into the season, the team and fans alike are trying to understand the complex and compounding problems of the Jets. Among them, the role of Claude Noel has taken centre stage, as struggling veterans, slow starts, and questionable on-ice organization plague the 3-4-0 club. 

We only have a few ways to evaluate coaching as fans. Our Systems Analysis work will continue, and we have aggregated team stats. Neither have been friendly to Noel. The Jets once again sit in the bottom third of the league for powerplay effectiveness, and just 17th shorthanded. They rank a meager 18th in 5 on 5 goal differential, and have a very low winning percentage when outshooting their opponents - which speaks to the garbage-time rope-a-dope played by Dallas and Montreal. 

Another tool we have is how the lineup is used. Noel has often been criticized in his tenure in Winnipeg for putting players in positions to fail, and not adjusting to clear-cut problem matchups. Has the move West cured him of his stubborn streak? 

Forward Usage

Below we'll look at a Player Usage Chart, this one from Ninja Greg. Normally, these charts would look at RelCorsi accoring to the context of quality of competition and zone starts. Instead, we're going to look at Corsi-On numbers, and the context will employ Relative Quality of Competition. There are two seasons for the change - one, the incredible range of corsi scores on the Jets has made RelCorsi a bit wonky for them. And two, the quality of competition statistic is badly skewed by the poor play of the Jets because everyone has a good corsi score against us. This lets us see a more raw corsi score (expressed as per 60 minutes) relative to their assignment.

 
The chart is pretty easy to read, honestly. Each bubble is a player. Blue bubbles are positive corsi (good), orange is negative (bad), larger bubble means bigger number. Higher the bubble is on the chart, the harder the competition they face. The further left the bubble is, the more often their shifts start in the defensive end. For example, Mark Scheifele is facing relatively easy competition with the most offensive zone faceoffs on the team, and yet he is deeply in the negative for corsi.

The stats are dead simple: Corsi-on is just like plus minus but for shot attempts (on net, missed, or blocked). In this case, we've normalized for ice-time by expressing that number as per 60 minutes of five on five ice time. Relative QualComp is just how good the opposition is as judged by their corsi success, relative to their teammates. And zone stats is how often a shift starts with an offensive zone faceoff versus a defensive zone faceoff. Changing on the fly and neutral zone faceoffs are taken out to see how the coach is using a player.

Analysis

As you can see from the amoung of orange, things are not going well. When we pay attention to the names on those orange bubbles, it gets worse. Apart from Evander Kane, the top two lines are in the red. The fourth line is being hung out to dry. There is a confound there, so early in the season. That teams have obliterated that threesome skews the stats of the players they play against, so it appears as though our fourth line is playing the toughest competition available. To my eye, they are playing a variety - from 1st to 4th lines - and are being beaten by all of them. Your mileage may vary.

Thorburn is an odd one, but has only played about 12 minutes of hockey this season, so we won't bother to read much into it. 

On the other hand, the Jets third line success is somewhat revealed. Tangradi often manages this success by math. He's an excellent neutral zone player, and a simple defensive zone player. He gains zone entry extremely well and often wins the corsi battle. But he can't score or generate scoring chances, and the moment he crosses the offensive blue line, he puts his head down and stops thinking the game. Math tells us he's a player. Our eyes tell us he's a 4th liner. Frolik, Jokinen, and Tangradi are being matched against soft opposition according to this chart, and while the same confound exists as above, their success is not so dramatic as to create much of a skewing. We've been clamouring for more ice time for Frolik, but the truth is that he's barely winning his shifts against the softest opposition available. We know Chicago played power-vs-power, and boast two of the best out-scoring, two-way forwards in the league in Toews and Hossa. Is it possible Frolik is not the defensive stalwart we've been led to believe?

Serious Problems

There are four bubbles on that chart that should give us pause. 

  1. Matt Halischuk is getting feasted on. Worse, the coach is putting him out as a shutdown man when we know that in all his time in the NHL, he's never played that role, and never even hinted that he was a two-way player. He doesn't have the sort of flash that would get him into a top-6, but he's always bled scoring chances and shot attempts against. He's a tweener and a specialist. He got cut from the cellar-dwelling Predators, after all. I still strongly prefer him to the stick-optional types, and his speed is useful on a very aggressive penalty kill unit. But the coach has to find him some shelter.
  2. Speaking of needing sheltering, James Wright is going out of his way to prove he needs it... while playing on an AHL squad. He's -30 in shot attempts - 6th worst in the NHL among forwards with 5 or more games. Among the 5 players worse than him, only one is facing quality of competition at a level at or above his (Jiri Tlusty) and only one is facing similar or harder zone starts (Zac Dalpe). Tlusty has a positive history with his club to suggest he should be given a chance to play out of his funk. James Wright does not. Worse still, coach Noel is letting it happen with this assignment. With so many veterans struggling, there isn't much shelter to offer these two, but maybe that's a reason not to have them on the NHL roster.
  3. Struggling veterans brings us to Blake Wheeler. Give Noel credit here, he's giving Wheeler a zone-start push to let him start in the offensive zone. He's squandering it more than a little - getting wholloped at shot attempt differential and watching as the puck gets pushed the wrong direction while he's on the ice. Hey - this team could really use the player Frolik was said to be so that Blake Wheeler could find his range against some third and fourth liners.
  4. Mark Scheifele also needs to find his range. We saw yesterday what his numbers look like without Kane. It's not a lot better in total. He's very young, just 18 professional games to date. No one is asking him to be Mario Lemieux. But his deficit is massive, and he's facing easier opposition with a huge zone start push. He has as much sheltering as the team can find for an offensive player who lines up with Kane or Ladd, and the results are poor. 

Early Returns

This team badly needs depth. Olli Jokinen and Eric Tangradi can't be expected to face more difficult opposition, and the fourth line is a disaster. A rookie in the 2C spot and a struggling Blake Wheeler are enough to completely unravel the forward group in terms of possession and territory. 

If we think about it, these numbers are flattering. The games against Dallas and Montreal included 40 minutes each of rope-a-dope hockey by the opposition which inflated the Jets' corsi totals. The James Wright experiment is long since over, and the jury is not left deliberating on what Matt Halischuk is. Ten minutes a game, Coach Noel is choosing to ice players who rank among the worst in the league at keeping the puck away from their net. All the while, he preaches 60 minute efforts and the need for momentum. 

Draft Street

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Kevin is the Managing Editor of Jets Nation. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, and around the Nations Network. An enthusiastic over-analyst, his background and interests are diverse, but you might notice he's obsessed with hockey. Track him down on twitter @kevinmccart or @nhljetsnation
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