North America

If I were an NHL coach…

3 unusual strategies I might try: 

1) Specialty Pull   

Here’s a question: if your team was trailing by one goal, would you rather have the goalie pulled with 2 minutes left against a relatively well-rested defense or, instead, pulled with 3 minutes against a defense that is utterly exhausted as it is being caught on the ice during a really long shift?

There is no empirical evidence by which we can attempt to answer this riddle, because coaches almost never pull their goalies when down one goal with 3 minutes left. My guess, however, is that playing 6-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left is better than playing 5-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left and then waiting until around the 2 minute mark to pull your goalie (at least, in cases when the team that is leading has no time outs left). Here’s why:

  1. an exhausted defense is less likely to clear the zone and/or score an empty net goal
  2. if an exhausted defense tries to score a long empty net goal and misses, resulting in an icing, then they will pay a big price for it: the other team will be able to bring on fresh players, which will make the difference in tiredness between the two teams even greater.
  3. an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is less likely to get a lucky bounce or turnover that would allow them to clear the zone (or, if they do clear the zone, to clear it enough to get many of its players to reach the bench)
  4. an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is more likely to have its goalie screened, so the odds of the goalie making a save to stop play and allow a line change is reduced.
  5. by bringing a 6th attacker on the ice, you have the opportunity to seamlessly bring on a top player on who is fully rested himself.
  6. pulling your goalie early means that the exhausted defense has less of a chance of winning the game by simply running down the clock. From a psychological perspective also, it may be more difficult for an exhausted player to muster his remaining energy when he knows he is not closed to being ‘saved by the bell’.
  7. the exhausted players may not be that team’s best defenders; whereas with 1 or 2 minutes left in the game to play, a team normally has their best defenders on the ice. Moreover, if they cause an icing, you can bring on your own team’s best players
  8. If the opposing team knows you might employ this strategy at some point during the game, they will be less willing to use their ‘coach’s challenge’ and so risk losing their time out. They will also be less willing to use their time out earlier in the game, even at times when they may need it. Your team gains an advantage by them being less willing to use their time out or coach’s challenge.
  9. If the other team does manage to clear the zone and change lines, you can then use your own time out in order to rest your top line so that it can stay out on the ice for the rest of the game.
  10. If you are playing a division rival or wild-card rival, and would like to deny them the chance of getting a point from an OT loss, this strategy gives you a (small) chance of winning the game in regulation

For all these reasons, my suspicion is that, if you are facing a scenario where the opposing team’s line is exhausted with 3 minutes left and you are down a goal, you may be better off pulling your goalie then rather than waiting to do so with 2 minutes left against a better(-rested) line. If I were an NHL coach, I would try to simulate this scenario in practice during the offseason in order to try to answer this question. The reason I would run such an experiment is this: if it is true with 3 minutes left, what about with 4 minutes left? What about with 10? What if you were down by more than one goal? In other words, how exhausted do the opposing team’s players need to be, and much time left does there need to be, and how many goals down in the game do you need to be, to make this strategy worthwhile? We don’t know, as teams never try it.

We do know, though, that teams get caught out on long shifts fairly frequently — at least once a game, it seems to me. And we know that players’ effectiveness tends to drop dramatically when being caught on a long, tiring shift. So, if the strategy really were to prove effective, whichever team discovers it and implements it first could gain a not insignificant advantage. (If it proved really effective, there may even be a case for waiting until the playoffs to deploy the strategy for the first time, in order prevent other teams from adopting the strategy themselves after seeing you use it). The potentialy benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason may far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. Specialty Backup

If you count a shootout victory as an overtime game-winning goal, then a fairly high percentage of all goals and all game winning goals are scored on the power play or in overtime. For goalies, a power play (but not the penalty kill), overtime, and shootouts have three main things in common: 1) they are all extremely different from regular 5-on-5 hockey; 2) they all involve making saves against breakaways or fast breaks; and 3) passing and skating is much more important for a goalie on a power play or during 3-on-3 (or 4-on-3) overtime. It stands to reason that, at least for a few teams, they might become better if they have a backup goalie who can specialize at subbing into games for power plays, overtimes, and/or shootouts. Another benefit of the overtime specialization is that it gives the goalie a chance to warm up for the shootout, which single-handedly decides the fate of the game and bears very little resemblance to goaltending in general. There is, for sure, a crop of backup goalies who, if they practiced it a lot, could become better than most starting goalies at shootouts. There may even be some who could become better than any goalies at shootouts. Ditto for playing 3-on-3, 4-on-3, 5-on-3, or 5-on-4.

3. Specialty Line 

Of course, you want to have your best players on the ice during key moments like a power play, penalty kill, or overtime. But, there is are a few catches here: your best penalty killers may be in the penalty box during a penalty kill; your best players in general may be injured during a game; and your best players may be tired at a key moment in the game. A specialty line, which acts as a team’s third or fourth line in general but then doubles as either the first or second unit of the team’s power play, penalty kill, and 3-on-3 overtime, could be useful, in part because this unit  would play less and therefore be less likely to be in the penalty box, or injured, or exhausted, at key moments. Moreover, power plays, penalty kills, and 3-on-3 overtimes are all so different from general hockey that some level of specialization is almost certainly worthwhile: in other words, there are almost certaintly at least three players in the NHL right now who would be far more useful to a team if they were to stop focusing the vast majority of their energy and practice on playing normal 5-on-5 hockey, and were instead to specialize at playing together on power plays, penalty kills, and 3-on-3 overtimes (and, perhaps, shootouts too; particularly since penalty shots are more common during 3-on-3 overtimes). This strategy also dovetails closely with the strategy backup goalie: the specialty line will specialize at playing alongside that goalie, which could be very useful during 3-on-3 overtimes when an accurate and anticipated stretch pass from a goalie could lead to the game winning goal being scored.

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