North America

The Holy Month of Sports Begins

For sports fans in Toronto, the end of March Madness is the signal for the holiest month of the year to begin. It is a sort of sports Ramadan: every night fans overeat while watching either a Leafs or Raptors playoff game. It is a bittersweet holiday, to be sure – the Leafs have not won the Cup since 1967 or even a playoff series since 2004, and the Raptors have never made it to an NBA Finals. But this year hopes are high, as both Toronto teams are possible contenders. That is, assuming the dominant teams in each league, Golden State and Tampa Bay, can actually be beat. And assuming the Leafs can finally get past their nemeses, Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins, in round one, which begins at the Toronto Dominion Garden in Boston tonight.

Of the 15 cities with franchises in both leagues, none has ever won a Stanley Cup and NBA Championship in the same year. This year, three or four cities may have a chance to do so: Boston, Toronto, Denver, and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose). If Boston were to somehow pull this off, it would then have won a World Series, Superbowl, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals this year!

But it is the Bay Area that has the best odds, of course. Not only are the Warriors the best team in the NBA, but the San Jose Sharks had this season’s second-best record in the NHL’s Western conference. These two teams are opposites, in some ways. Whereas the Warriors are aiming for their third championship in a row, which would be their fourth in the past five years and the last before they move across the Bay to play in San Francisco next season, the Sharks have long been considered (fairly or no) the NHL’s playoff “chokers”. They have never won a Cup and, despite being maybe the league’s best team in the past decade or so (perhaps only the Penguins, who beat them in the Finals in 2016, have been consistently as good or better), they have often been upset in the first or second round of the playoffs.

After another playoff letdown last season year, the Sharks added star defenseman Erik Karlsson to their roster during the offseason. This has given them probably the best defenseman duo in the league, Karlsson and Brent Burns. Burns is also one half of the best bearded duo in professional sports–the other half being his silver-haired captain Joe Thornton, who now leads the NHL in career points. Thornton is himself also part of a third duo that defines this year’s Sharks: the Big Joe-Little Joe one-two punch.“Little Joe” Joe Pavelski, the Shark’s top scorer, started the playoffs off the right way last night in a rematch against Las Vegas, getting the first goal with his face.

In contrast to these veteran contenders from California, this year’s Colorado franchises are stacked with young players. The Denver Nuggets, who finished second in the Western Conference, had the second youngest roster in the NBA this season, led by 24-year-old Nikola Jokic and 22-year-old Jamal Murray. The Colorado Avalanche meanwhile are the second youngest team to make the playoffs this year, led by 23-year-old Nathan MacKinnon and 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen. Jokic and MacKinnon both had breakout seasons – jumping from all-stars to likely superstars – but their teams could face tough matchups in the playoffs’ opening round, against the San Antonio Spurs and the Calgary Flames. The Spurs may prove they don’t need a Duncan, Ginobili or Leonard to succeed; Calgary may be Canada’s best hope of ending a 25-year national failure to win a Stanley Cup.

For Toronto and Boston, it will be only a week or two before one of the two cities’ hockey teams is eliminated. The Leafs and Bruins are playing one another in the first round for the second year in a row. Boston won last year’s series in seven games, scoring four goals in the third period of the final game. The two also faced one another in 2013: Toronto came back from down 3-1 in that series and took a three-goal lead late into Game 7 – including a two-goal lead with just over a minute left in the third period! – before losing to the Bruins in overtime in one of the biggest blown leads in playoff history. The Bruin’s captain Zdeno Chara (who, at 42, is a year older than Tom Brady and yet still nearly leads the Bruins in ice time) will be facing the Leafs in the playoffs for the fifth time this year. The Leafs will have now faced Chara five of the past seven times they have made it into the postseason, starting all the way back in Ottawa in 2001.

Another story going into this year’s playoffs how big markets have been struggling. Of the 11 teams in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, the only three to make the playoffs will be the Clippers, Nets, and Islanders (not exactly these cities’ top-name brands). The Clippers will be facing the Warriors in round one. Brooklyn will face Philadelphia, which could be a raucous intercity rivalry yet will likely result in Brooklyn’s defeat. The Islanders, however, are finally back! They will have home-ice advantage in the incredibly loud Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where they won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, instead of in Brooklyn where they have been playing almost all of their regular season games. Despite losing their longtime top scorer John Tavares to Toronto in the offseason last summer, the Islanders finished second in a tough division, behind Alexander Ovechkin’s returning-champ Washington Capitals and ahead of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin three-time-Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.

Small market teams, conversely, have excelled both in the NHL and in the NBA this year. The Tampa Bay lightning dominated the league in the regular season, with 62 wins, the most of any team since the 1995 Detroit Red Wings. They may, however, be beatable: their top defenseman Victor Hedman is coming off a recent injury that was likely a concussion, and their opponent the Columbus Blue Jackets are going into the playoffs on a 9-1-1 (the third ‘1’ is OT losses) hot streak. The best record in the NBA also belonged to a small market, Milwaukee.

If the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks end up playing the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, it will be a rematch of their second-round series in the 2017 playoffs, when the Bucks lost to the Raptors in the final seconds of Game 6 after having carried out a 25-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the game.If, on the other hand, Philadelphia and Boston end up playing one another, it will be a rematch of last year’s hard-fought second round. All of these teams are of course rejoicing that Lebron James is finally out of the picture.

Indeed, the premier superstars of both sports, Lebron and McDavid, will be spending this year’s festive season with their families. So too, in fact, will the rest of us be spectating from afar; laughing, eating, and praying for a miracle.

 

 

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Goalies and Garbage Time

Top Goalies Should Play More Games, But Fewer Complete Games (And Their Backups Should Be Better at Playing the Puck Than They Are)

NHL coaches treat their goalies like baseball pitchers from the 1800s: so long as they do not mess up, they get to play a complete game. Yet these same coaches also sit their goalies about one in four games on average, in order to give them rest. No goalie started in more than 64 games last year; no one has cracked 73 in a decade. Goalies sit out games even though, for some, the number of starts they get might be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

Couldn’t these goalies start more games and get more rest by simply coming out of games once their team has built up an unassailable lead? An NHL team that is up by three goals going into the third period has a roughly 98% chance of winning*. Wouldn’t then, for example, be a better time to rest? Or what about a two-goal lead after the first period – giving you an estimated 80% winning probability – in order to allow the top goalie to start both games of a back-to-back ? Coaches would still have the option of putting the starting goalie back in the game if the score were to narrow. Backup goalies might even benefit too, since they would play on a more frequent basis (if only in relatively short bursts) rather than sit for a week or two between games.

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*[Obviously, this is just a generalization and rough estimate. In reality it depends on many variables beyond just the score, the time remaining, and whether or not it is a home game. Good teams, especially good offensive teams, will have a better chance of coming back than bad teams, etc].

The counterargument, or prevailing wisdom, would, I guess, be that goalies would be thrown off their rhythm if they were to be used in this way – perhaps especially backup goalies, who would be getting fewer starts than they currently receive. Or, that a goalie resting on the bench for a period or two at a time is not nearly as rejuvenating as is taking an entire game off. There may be a lot of truth to these arguments, but I am still skeptical that they justify the current system wherein top goalies will play hundreds of minutes of “garbage time” every season (to steal a phrase from the NBA), while also sitting out for more than a thousand minutes of close games.

The current system is perhaps especially questionable when viewed in comparison to the number of games that forwards and defenseman are allowed to play consecutively. Though goalies obviously play many more minutes than their teammates, still it might seem wrong that 39-year-old forward Patrick Marleau has been able to play in each of his teams’ past 777 games (taking an ice bath after the second period of each game in order to physically do so), whereas one of the most esteemed goalies, Carey Price, has already sat out 17 starts this season, even though his Montreal Canadians are in a tight wild card race. And Marleau is not the only iron man now at large: Phil Kessel and Keith Yandle are both also at 750-plus consecutive games and counting.

Of course, goalies still play more minutes in total than their teammates. Last season, the league leader in minutes among non-goalies, the perfectly-named defenseman Drew Doughty of the LA Kings, played all 82 games while also leading the league in average minutes per game, at 26 minutes and 50 seconds. Doughty was on the ice for 2201 minutes in total, 1476 fewer than his goalie, the also-well-named Jonathan Quick, who ranked sixth in overall minutes despite only playing 64 games. Another one of their teammates, Anze Kopitar, led the league in minutes by a forward (trailing 31 defensemen) and also played 82 games, for a total of 1811 minutes on the ice.

The best player in the league, Connor McDavid, played more minutes (1767) than any forward other than Kopitar last year. He too played all 82 games. McDavid’s goalie, Cam Talbot, led the league in starts, with 67, but only ranked fifth in total minutes, as their team’s struggles meant he was often pulled from games. Neither of their efforts was enough for the Oilers to make the playoffs.

The goalie who led the league in minutes, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, with 64 starts, 3 backup appearances, and 3966 total minutes played, played almost twice as many minutes as Doughty’s 2201. He also had the most wins (44), and the best save percentage of goalies who played at least 60 games. (The Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne, of the Nashville Predators, only played 59 games). Hellebuyck is again on pace to lead the league in minutes this season.

Out of curiosity, how does Hellebuyck compare with superstars in the NBA? Last season Lebron James, who has already played more career minutes than anyone else in the league, led the league in minutes per game and was one of only eight players to play all 82 games. Lebron was on the court for a total of 3025 minutes in the regular season, compared to Hellebuyck’s 3966. Since NHL games are more than 60 minutes long on average, whereas NBA games are shorter than 50 minutes, this means Lebron played close to as high a share of his team’s total minutes as did the NHL’s busiest goalie. By doing this he was able to carry a very bad team to the fourth seed in the East, on the way to the Finals.

Goalies might be wise to follow NBA stars in sitting out more during garbage time in order to play more during crunch time*. Sitting when your team is way ahead in the game is one way of doing this. But there is also the question of when to pull your backup goalie during games your backup goalie is starting. If your backup goalie starts a game and quickly lets in a bunch of goals, should you pull him to put the starting goalie – who is supposed to be getting a night off – back in? Even more interesting, if your backup goalie starts, plays decently, and the game is tied after two periods (for example), should you put in a Vezina-quality starting goalie into the game to play the decisive third period ahead?

*[This would especially be the case if goalies were more likely to get injured late in games when they are tired, or to experience an increased rate of wear and tear late in games when they are tired, or to get injured more in garbage time situations when the opposing team is desperately gambling for offensive chances in order to mount a comeback].


The Comeback Kid

 The most interesting implication of this way of thinking, however, is also perhaps the craziest; namely, the idea of having your backup goalie be just that: a backup-only goalie. More to the point, if your backup goalie is no longer actually starting many, or any, games – if, for example, even in the event of your starting goalie getting injured you rely not on your backup goalie to start, but instead call up your top prospect goalie who is getting regular starts in the AHL rather than languishing on an NHL bench – then what skills might you want for a backup goalie playing this new, more specialized role? One possible answer: have your backup goalie be a comeback specialist.

Since a backup goalie of this sort would be playing mainly, or only, at times when his team has either a solid lead (to let the starting goalie rest) or is behind in the score (because the starting goalie has been pulled), he should ideally be a goalie who is good at helping his team to mount a comeback. In other words, he should – all else considered – be exceptionally good at playing the puck when his team is behind in the score, particularly as his team becomes more desperate towards the end of games.

Such a goalie could be useful even in situations in which backup goalies currently do not play. Consider, for example, a situation in which your team is down by one goal, with five minutes left in the third period and an offensive zone faceoff following an icing by an opposing line that is tired from having just playing a long shift. Putting in your comeback specialist backup goalie at such a moment might be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it would be more difficult for your tired opponents to dump the puck to get a line change in against a goalie who excels at passing the puck. Second, an aggressive puck-playing goalie might help your team score a goal in general during the remaining few minutes of the game*. Third, you would eliminate the risk of your starting goalie getting injured; a risk which would maybe be increased by your team gambling offensively to catch up, which could lead to more odd-man rushes and so, perhaps, injuries.

*[Also, if your backup goalie were later able to get to the bench for the extra attacker a second or two more quickly – or maybe even a half-second more quickly – than the starting goalie is able to (either by being a faster skater than the starting goalie or by being able to play further from the crease before heading to the bench than the starting goalie), this might help your team to score a 6-on-5 goal by making it more likely that the extra attacker will make it into the action before the opposing team has a chance to dump or clear the puck out of their own defensive zone.

…Indeed, to get even crazier here for a moment, what if this goalie were to sometimes attempt a back-and-forth strategy in late-game situations: for e.g., you pull the goalie with two minutes left when you are in the offensive zone, but, if the opposing team immediately clears the puck out of their zone, then you quickly put your goalie back in so that you don’t give up an empty net goal trying to gain reentry into the zone. If you pull your goalie early enough, you might perhaps be able to try this a number of times before the final minute of the game, so that your net might only be empty when your team is already in the offensive zone. Pulling your goalie early and temporarily might, at least, be a useful strategy to employ at times when the opposing team’s players on the ice are exhausted during an especially long shift].

Another example could be a short 5-on-3 power play when your team is down a goal late in the game. Putting in a goalie who can aggressively and excellently pass the puck could help your power play unit avoid wasting critical time on the 5-on-3, while also making it more difficult for tired penalty killers to get in a line change. To a lesser extent, this may also be useful in desperate 5-on-4’s.

A backup goalie’s puck-playing skills might also be well suited for the times when his team is well ahead in the score. If, for instance, the opposition begins to gamble more to create offensive odd-man rushes, passing opportunities for a skilled-passing goalie might open up. Or if the opposition becomes disheartened and begins trying to dump and chase more often, a puck-playing goalie might be able to help thwart some of these attempts. As such, a goalie who is used primarily or exclusively in situations when his team is either behind or ahead in games could perhaps possess puck-playing skills that would be useful in both of those types of situations.

Of course, this comeback-specialist-backup-only goalie plan might be a terrible idea. But the idea from which it is indirectly derived, namely that certain goalies should start more games than they do now, nevertheless appears to have merit. The question may not be whether some goalies should sit more in order to start more, but rather only who should do this and when should it be done.

 

 

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2 Radical Goalie-Pulling Strategies

In recent years there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies. Goalies are now being pulled much earlier in games than they used to be. There has been no revolutionary change, however. Goalies are still being pulled at the very end of games. Once pulled, they tend to stay pulled until a goal is scored or there is a face-off outside of the offensive zone.

This begs the question of whether any radical change to the strategy of goalie-pulling could still be worth trying. Here are two such ideas:

  1. Pull earlier than usual in order to take advantage of exhausted opponents stuck on a very long shift

The risk/reward ratio of pulling a goalie might be far more favourable when an opposing team’s players are exhausted from being stuck on the ice in the middle of an especially long shift. 

There are five reasons this may be the case:

First, the ability of players to score into an empty net will decrease when they are exhausted. 

Second, you greatly reduce the risk that, immediately upon pulling your goalie, the opposing team will manage to clear the puck out of their zone before your extra attacker is even able to get himself involved in the game.

Third, the ability of tired players to reach the bench for a line change will decrease when the opposing team pulls its goalie. Typically, players that are exhausted by a long shift are able to escape to the bench either by having their goalie stop play or by getting a lucky bounce off of a missed shot, blocked shot, errant pass, or rebound, which then allows them to clear the puck out of their zone and complete a line change. When playing 5-on-6, however, the likelihood of a goalie being able to force a stoppage of play by making a save decreases, because the goalie’s vision is more likely to be obstructed and the shots that the goalie faces are likely to be harder to save. The likelihood of getting a lucky bounce also decreases, as there is less open ice and there is less likely to be a blocked or missed shot. Plus, even if there is a lucky bounce, it will still be difficult for tired players to clear the zone against six attackers. As such, the tired team may be unable to change lines, and so become even more tired, making the situation even more favourable for the trailing team. And, even if the tired team’s goalie does succeed in stopping play, the trailing team could simply choose to put its goalie back in net for the ensuing face-off.

Fourth, the willingness of players to even attempt to score an empty net goal will decrease the more tired they become.  The reason for this is that if such a scoring attempt fails, it will most likely result either in an icing (which will lead to an even greater tiredness imbalance between the two teams, especially now that there has been a rule change that prevents coaches from using their timeout after an icing) or in an odd-man rush (because tired players will be much less able to get back on defence).  As a result, rather than try to score, the tired team may instead focus on trying to get a line change in. During any such line change, the trailing team will usually be able to put its goalie back in if it wants to do so. 

And fifth, pulling you goalie can allow you to bring your own best offensive player fresh off the bench, at a time when your own players already on the ice are  likely to be somewhat tired themselves.    

As a result of these factors, I suspect that it would sometimes be in a team’s interest to pull its goalie earlier than it normally would, in order to capitalize on situations in which the opposing players are exhausted from being stuck on an especially long shift. The question is: how much earlier?

A related question is this: how many goal behind does your team need to be to make such a strategy worth trying at a given point during the second period? Most of the opportunities to score against tired opponents stuck on a long shift occur in the second period, because of the long change.

2. A “5.5-on-3”: introducing a goalie-defensemen hybrid during a desperate two-man advantage 

Most 5-on-3 power plays last much less than two minutes long, and on average the odds of a team scoring on a 5-on-3 only become better than the odds of scoring on a typical 2 minute 5-on-4 in cases where the 5-on-3 lasts at least a minute long.

So, not wasting time is crucial. If the penalty killers can kill time by dumping the puck down the ice, or if the power play wastes too much time trying to get the perfect shot (which they often do, as they know that if they do not get a perfect shot, the penalty killers might grab the rebound and dump it down the ice), then that 5-on-3 will be unlikely to score.

In this strategy, then, the goalie on the power play is pulled near the end of the 5-on-3,  and replaced with a “safety”: a player who stays near to his or her own empty net in order to protect against long empty net goals,  quickly respond to any dumped puck so as to minimize the amount of time the opposing team can waste, and allow his or her own team to avoid wasting time searching for the perfect scoring attempt. This “safety” specialist should excel at being able to serve, in effect, as a player-goalie hybrid.

As an added bonus, by quickly responding to pucks that are dumped or chipped out of the offensive zone, the safety will also make it more difficult for the penalty killers to change lines, which may lead the penalty killers to become fatigued in cases where they have been on the ice for a long time.

The goalie will be put back in the net before the 5-on-3 comes to an end.

In cases where the team is more desperate to score (if they are trailing late in the third period, for example), then this “5.5-on-3” strategy could also be used earlier in the power play.

 

A Hybrid Strategy 

There might also a be a useful hybrid of the two strategies above: A “5.5-on-4”, used in desperate situations against exhausted penalty killers.

Imagine, for example, that your team is trailing by a goal with five minutes left in the game, and is a minute into a power play in which the opposing team’s penalty killers are becoming tired. Ideally, you want to prevent these tired penalty killers from being able to make it to the bench for a line change. By putting in an extra “safety” attacker at this point, but positioning him in the neutral zone, you might be able to help prevent the tired penalty killers from being able to change lines, while still preventing the tired penalty killers from having an easy shot at an empty net.

Plus, having the extra attacker already on the ice means that you could have the option of having him quickly move up into the offensive zone for a conventional 6 on 4 or (once the penalty ends) 6 on 5, as the clock ticks away and your team’s desperation increases. So, for example,  you could try a 5.5 on 4 with a minute left in the power play against tired penalty killers, then a 6 on 4 with thirty seconds left in the power play against exhausted penalty killers, then either put your goalie back in or keep the extra attacker on for a 6 on 5 (which, if the exhausted ex-penalty killers are still stuck on the ice, could be useful even if there are still a few minutes left in the game).

…Yes, I realize how crazy that just sounded.

 

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Unconventional NHL Strategies, continued

  1. Playing 5.5-on-4 

    Pulling your goalie tends to be less beneficial on a power play, since icing calls can’t be called against penalty killers (so they can attempt a long shot at an empty net goal without a consequence if they miss) and since the marginal benefit of the extra attacker is smaller when you compare the difference between 6-on-5 and 6-on-4 to the difference between 5-on-5 and 6-on-5. As such, while trailing teams will still usually pull their goalie during the last minute or two of the game if they are on a power play, they tend not do so on a power play with, say, three minutes left in the game.

    But what if, instead of pulling the goalie to get an extra attacker, a team instead uses its sixth man as a safety: positioning the sixth man around centre ice, so that he can help prevent a long empty net goal, while also being able to jump forward into the play as needed, in order (for example) to help prevent the puck from clearing the offensive zone, or to take a point shot. The sixth man would be playing, in effect, as both a goalie and a defenseman. And when he does jump into the zone at one point, a teammate from the opposite point could fall back to fill his safety position.

    This strategy could perhaps even be usable at some times when not on a power play, in order to take advantage of having the puck in the offensive zone (or in order to take advantage of tired defenders) at a time earlier than the coach would otherwise be willing to pull the goalie. If, for example, a coach is not comfortable with pulling his goalie with 2.2 and 20 seconds left in the game, but would rather wait until the 2 minute mark to pull his goalie, he could have the option of using a 5.5-on-5 strategy for 20 seconds first.

    2. Power play specialization and trade

    Power plays arguably consist of two different skill-sets. One is getting the puck set up inside the offensive zone, the other is scoring a goal. Many of the league’s star players or power play specialists are excellent at both of these skill sets. But there is unlikely to be a clean overlap between the two. Getting the puck inside the zone on a power play, for example, depends more on skating, while scoring on a power play depends more on skills like passing, shooting, obstructing the goalie’s vision, and winning face-offs.

    As a result, teams that do not have many great stars or power play specialists might want to think about a different strategy than the conventional “top power play unit, second power play unit” division of duties that NHL teams generally use. Instead, they may want to use a “specialization and trade” strategy: have one lineup optimized to getting the puck set up inside the zone, and then another lineup (some star players can play on both lineups) optimized for scoring a goal once already in the zone. The latter line would be subbed on the ice whenever there is a face-off inside the offensive zone on a power play. The former line could be subbed on (sometimes) on the fly when the opposing team shoots the puck down the length of the ice. This type of one-two punch strategy might also be useful at times playing 5-on-5.

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On Pulling Your Goalie: Unconventional Factors to Consider

NHL teams generally look at three factors to determine when to pull their goalie: the score of the game, the amount of time left remaining the game, and the location of the puck (i.e. if it is in the defensive zone, the goalie will not usually be pulled). It seems to me that two extra factors are needed:

  1. the exhaustion level of the opposing team’s five on-ice players
  2. the purpose of pulling your goalie

1. Exhaustion Level of Opposing Team’s Five On-Ice Players

Here’s a riddle: 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 may be 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. 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 (some much more than others, obviously), I suspect 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 riddle. 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. 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 may actually gain a significant 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). If successful, the benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason could far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. The Purpose of Pulling Your Goalie  

We assume that the purpose of pulling your goalie must be to score a goal playing 6-on-5. But what about pulling your goalie to increase your odds of scoring a goal 5-on-5? Consider the following scenario: your team is trailing by a goal with 3 minutes left in the game, and is in control of the puck in the offensive zone. Some or all of your players on the ice are physically exhausted, and your best offensive player is on the bench. You would like to swap out one of your tired players to bring your star on the ice, but you don’t want to change on the fly because you are worried the other team might take advantage of the brief swap to try to gain control of the puck and clear the zone. Well, maybe you should think about pulling your goalie for a few seconds to bring him in, and then, once he joins his teammates in the offensive zone, have another player exit the game as quickly as possible so that your goalie can reenter the game. (This plan also works better if the players on both teams are tired, as at best they are only likely to get a chance to score an empty net goal from behind centre-ice, so they would be risking an icing). If done smoothly, you might be able to improve your odds of tying the game by trying this move.

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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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 If I was commissioner of the NHL… (Three ways to make the game better, and make lots of $$$)

 

  1. Overtime

    First off, some reasons why the current regular-season overtime structure arguably should be changed:

  • Shootouts are anti-climactic after the excitement of the 3rd period and 3-on-3 OT
  • Shootouts are a silly “skills-competition” way of determining a winning team
  • It seems wrong to give half as many points for losing the game (in OT) as for a win
  • Relying on shootouts too much is a waste of a good opportunity: if they were rarer, they would be very exciting. Similarly, too many shootouts even makes penalty shots less exciting – a shame, since a penalty shot used to be a highly exciting event in a game

Here’s what I would do. Instead of going to a shootout, the home team’s coach would be given a choice: end the game in a tie, end the game in a shootout, or play a second 5 minute, 3-on-3 OT. If a tie, both teams get 1 point. But losing teams in OT or shootouts get no points. If the second OT ends scoreless, the same choice would then be given to the away team’s coach; and so on, ad infinitum*.

(*If you are afraid that the coaches are too timid to make their decision happily in the face of thousands of people in the crowd chanting “more OT, more OT”, then you could have the coaches make their choices earlier instead, in private – perhaps before the start of the game even. But much more fun would be to have the coach to decide in real time. It could be like a Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down to determine a gladiator’s fate in the Coliseum. Thumbs up would mean another OT, thumbs down would mean a shootout, thumb to the side would be a tie. …If you are still worried about too much OT, you could tweak things further. You could make it so the coaches have to be unanimous in their choice – resulting in a tie if they do not both agree to another OT or shootout. Or you could make any OT after the first OT only 2-3 minutes, instead of 5…).

  1. All-Star Weekend

The all-star weekend should be the most exciting part of the regular season, but instead it is the least exciting. Here’s how to fix it: you have all the NHL teams compete in a 1-game elimination, March Madness-style tournament, where the winning team gets 10 points in the regular season standings. On the final day of the tournament, you have two games played: the tournament Finals in the evening, and the All-Star Game in the afternoon. Any all-star players on teams participating in the Finals game would simply not participate in the All-Star Game. Plus, to spice things up even more, you would have the All-Star Game be Team Europe versus Team (North) America.

Here’s how the tournament could work. On Thursday evening, you would have one player from all 31 NHL teams compete in a last-man-standing shootout competition, with the winner’s team getting a bye in the first round of the tournament, and the results of the shootout in general determining the shape of the tournament bracket. (Ordering the tournament bracket by regular season standings would not be fair, since some teams’ regular season schedules at this point will have been much easier than others’). This will only be necessary until the league expands to 32 teams.

On Friday you would have the opening round, in which each team would play one 20-minute period of 4-on-4 hockey, followed by a 20 minute, first-goal wins 3-on-3 OT period, followed by a shootout.

Since there will be 15 games in total in the opening day, each one running between about 20 minutes and an hour (with intermissions) in length, it would be possible to host the tournament using only two venues. It should be co-hosted by two neighbouring cities—one city will get the Finals, the other will get the All-Star Game.

On Saturday, you have the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8, with the same rules as the opening round. On Sunday, you have the Final Four, again with the same rules. At the end of the Final Four, the two teams going in to the Finals will have each played between 60-160 minutes (likely, closer to 100 minutes) over 3 days. And they will only have played 20-40 minutes (likely, closer to 20) on the day before the Finals, so they will be well rested.

Finally, on Monday (of a holiday weekend) you have the Finals and the All-Star Game, each of which will be played like a playoff game: three 5-on-5 regulation periods, then continuous 5-on-5 OTs.

One more thing: at the Finals, all of the all-stars would sit together, watching the game live at the arena in the “All-Star Box”.

I think this would be great – a hell of a lot of fun, a great treat for fans and a way of attracting new fans, and a way to see some more 4-on-4 hockey again (which was always high-quality). One-game elimination tournaments, whether it is the NFL playoffs or NCAA March Madness, are the most successful events in the sports world. And it would not take away any of the prestige of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rather it could be an ideal pre-shadowing of and advertisement for the playoffs.

 

  1. Expansion

We know that the three largest untapped hockey markets by far are Toronto, Southwest Ontario (and its neighbouring cities in Michigan, northern Ohio, upstate NY, and upstate Pennsylvania), and Europe. The problem, of course, is that Toronto already has a team, Southwest Ontario does not have any cities with populations and arenas large enough to support a team, and Europe is in Europe.

There might be some ways around all of these problems, if we are willing to get creative:

The London Knights, a team split 75-25 between Canada’s 10th largest city, London (population 475,000) and Europe’s largest city, London (population 13.5 million). It would play at least some of its playoff games in a location accessible to Londoners and Londoners: the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Of course, the obvious problem comes up: while London, England already has arenas that could be suitable to host a dozen or so NHL games per year, and while the ACC could handle at least some playoff games (the Staples Centre in LA, after all, hosts playoff games for the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings), and while London, Ontario is in some ways the best-located city in the country (it is 100-200 km from urban areas like Toronto-Hamilton, Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-St Catharines, and Cleveland-Erie; it is relatively warm and sunny in the winter; and it does not border a Great Lake or ocean, so it has room for future growth in all directions), London, Ontario does not have an NHL arena. It also does not have a population large enough to justify building a typical NHL arena – particularly not an arena that would only be used for a few dozen games per year.
The question is, then, is there an atypical NHL arena that London could build instead?

Here’s one crazy idea: “The Tower of London”

For London to build a worthwhile arena, it must be able to get a good use of the arena for close to 365 days per year, instead of only a few dozen evenings per year. The only way that seems possible to me is if the arena were to double as conventional real estate: in other words, it should consist mostly of boxes, which can double as offices/hotel rooms/restaurants/co-working spaces/ etc. (The hotel room aspect could be especially useful if fans from other cities in Ontario, or even from London, England, wanted to visit London and catch a game while in town). The arena could have a lower bowl of normal seats, but then instead of any upper bowls, it could be a “tower” of boxes. If it were 100 metres tall (the height of the Skydome), and had a lower bowl that could sit 10,000 people (the same as the lower bowl of the ACC holds), the arena as a whole could then seat 20,000, though ½ of the fans would be in boxes (and many of them would be quite high up). And because the lower bowl seats would probably sell out, the arena would never look empty on TV–like, for example, the Ottawa Senators’ arena looked empty during last year’s playoff run.

So, those are three things I would try to do, if I was king commissioner. What would you do?

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