The next season of Gopher Hockey is nearly under way as they’re set to play at Colorado College this Friday. With a young team and a lot of roster turnover there is some reason for optimism (only 7 upper classman one of which is transfer goalie Jack Lafontaine) as more of Bob’s recruits keep coming into the fold.
That said I’ve still yet to release the individual stats for last year due to how busy I’ve been with everything else. My hope is that with last year’s data we can possibly make some predictions about this year and gain a better understanding of what could be improved upon. I will be using my data that I’ve collected (9 games worth of passing data and zone entry stats) as well as drawing from Kyle Young‘s data to give a more complete picture of the individual stats of each player.
As noted in the previous post the team struggled with puck possession and consistently were out-shot and out-played at even strength by their opposition, especially when they played teams that were highly ranked in the Pairwise rankings. Despite that though they did put together a winning record in games vs teams that made the NCAA tournament going 8-4-1 and if not for some bad losses to teams ranked in the bottom of the pairwise, they would’ve made the NCAA tournament. This was mostly done on the back of Mat Robson and an elite power play unit made up mostly of upper classmen, none of which will be returning this year. For this post I intend to talk mostly about the even strength metrics of each player as that will probably tell us more about what we can expect next year from the guys who are returning. From Kyle Young’s data it’s pretty easy to see why the team got out-shot on a routine basis:
For frame of reference, in this graph 0.5 would mean a player was perfectly even in terms of shots for/shots against when they were on the ice, i.e. 50% of the shots were taken by the Gophers and 50% by the opposition out of all total shots when that player was on the ice. The only players that were above 50% were small sample aberrations, Cullen Munson only played a game, Robbie Stucker had the highest number of games played at 21, though that was mostly during the first half of the season and I think he might’ve been used as a 7th defenseman at times. Either way you get the picture, there weren’t many guys who weren’t getting out shot. The only guys who played regular minutes and were close to 50% were the 3 forwards on the GPS line (Gates, Pitlick, and Sheehy all about 48%) as well as McLaughlin (48%) and Sammy Walker (47%). For anyone who watched the games this probably isn’t terrible shocking, the GPS line lead the team in points and Walker was one of the most noticeable players on the ice due to his speed. Walker’s line (Walker, McLaughlin and Burke) generally looked good too and it was nice to see the all freshmen line looking as noticeable as it did.
The other part of that graph that stands out is the defensemen. The only Dmen on the team with a shot differential above 45% were Sadek and Phillips, the latter of which was a third pairing defenseman who seemingly didn’t see a ton of minutes (unfortunately time on ice stats are non-existent for college hockey). If one were to guess as to why the team struggled so much in terms of getting out-shot last year (and shots against was more the issue last year, they were a bottom 10 team in this category, they were average when it came to shots for), the guys on the blue line were likely the main contributing factor.
Beyond that there isn’t a whole lot that sticks out besides Sampo Ranta’s really bad possession numbers. Ranta has a great shot that he’ll hopefully get to use more often this year but last year his decision making seemed a bit slow and he seemed like a black hole at times when he got the puck. Hopefully we’ll see some improvement this year on that front.
Next, the zone entry stats:
For the most part this seems like it pretty closely resembles the possession stats, you have the GPS line looking solid and unsurprisingly Rem Pitlick is clearly a few steps ahead of the pack here. Given that it was his first full season playing center he really acclimated to his new role well and did a great job driving his line. What’s somewhat interesting is that Novak and his most common linemates look pretty solid here too. Given what we know about Ranta’s possession numbers and what we saw with our own eyes it’s interesting that his entry stats are pretty solid. My guess is either Novak was the impetus that created space for him to enter the zone more freely or it’s just a small sample aberration but hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come. The BMW line looks good as well and unsurprisingly Walker’s speed made it tough for defenders to deny him entry into the offensive zone. McLaughlin isn’t bad in this realm either, even if he didn’t gain entry cleanly more than 50% of the time he did at least attempt to carry the puck in more often than not. Burke didn’t attempt nearly as many entries (of any kind) as his linemates and mostly relied on them to carry the load but he opted to dump the puck often. As for the rest, it’s not shocking that nobody on the blue line attempted to carry the puck into the zone very often and this team has lacked a dynamic player at the blue line for a long time now. And while I don’t expect the fourth line to ever be phenomenally skilled, one would at least expect that finding a center who can carry it in more than 0% of the time wouldn’t be impossible (and eventually Motzko started benching Romanko toward the end of the season in favor of Reedy).
Finally we have the even strength passing data (passing sequences that lead to a shot):
Once again, Rem Pitlick was very good last year and replacing him and the rest of the GPS line won’t be an easy task. One thing I did find a bit surprising was that Sammy Walker’s pass totals weren’t as high as I would’ve expected. My only guess is that in the first half of the season when four of the nine games were tracked, Walker probably didn’t get as much icetime as he did towards the end of the year and therefore the raw totals wouldn’t be as high. The starting lines at that point also were also unrecognizable, some of Walker’s linemates included Sheehy, Ranta, and Wait for instance. This is one of the biggest limitations to this data, it’s hard to know what to make of it when you can’t factor in ice time.
Ranta being quite a bit lower in terms of pass totals than his most common linemates (Novak and McManus) isn’t terribly shocking given what I mentioned in previous paragraphs, that’s probably the weakest part of his game.
Burke also has really low pass totals though it’s slightly misleading because he didn’t play in 3 of the games in this sample. It will be interesting to see whether Motzko keeps Burke with Walker and McLaughlin or opts to do what he did in the most recent exhibition game in which they played with Brodzinski, one of the new freshmen on the team. Motzko might be better off trying out someone else on a line with Walker and McLaughlin, especially if they’re going to be the top forward line this year playing against other teams’ top units. Burke did a lot of the dirty work for that line grinding it out in the corners, he seemed to be an effective forechecker and two way player but it might not be a bad idea to get someone more well rounded in terms of their playmaking and shooting ability on that line. If that fails they can always go back to Burke as he did seem to have solid chemistry and facilitate play with those two and it might allow for more depth throughout the lineup if they don’t load two lines with all of the most talented players.
Finally I thought I’d also include another stat from Kyle’s data, game score, which is basically a player’s overall impact on the games they played in. This is probably the most all encompassing stat for evaluating a player’s impact.
The first column is their cumulative impact in the games played and the second is the score per game average (which is what I sorted it by).
For the most part this data also echoes some of what we already know, Walker was excellent last year and extremely noticeable from the beginning. While he has big shoes to fill in replacing Pitlick (who in my estimation was the best player on the team last year that doesn’t play goalie) he’s got a lot of the tools necessary to be successful in that role, most notably his speed but he seems to have the hands and vision for the role as well and he plays aggressively at both ends of the ice. He’s definitely one of the biggest reasons to feel some optimistic going into this next season despite the fact that we lost our best center and goalie.
Seeing McLaughlin and Burke up on the list is good to see as well as they’ll be returning and the former will likely be in a top 6 forward role. It’ll be interesting to see how McLaughlin progresses as he’s a speedy player who can keep up with Walker but also seems like a good playmaker as well. I think it’s reasonable to predict he’ll pretty easily surpass his goal total from last year and play a bigger role. With Burke it seems like they finally have a utility/depth player who can shift around the lineup as needed and either play on the first line allowing another player to shift down a line and create matchup concerns for the opponent or he could play more of a 3rd/4th line role and excel in those matchups. Part of Motzko’s model is to get some older freshmen in the mix and Burke is definitely a useful player who fits that mold.
And finally from the game score, we can glean just how little it’d take for some of the incoming freshmen to have more of an impact than the guys they’re replacing. The fourth line of recent years under Don Lucia and last year under Motzko (a year in which he had mostly Lucia’s guys in his system) hasn’t been effective at all and while you don’t expect your fourth line to put up a ton of points, you at least expect them to chip in from time to time and energize the team by having effective shifts where they don’t get dominated in their own end the entire time while chipping in nothing. It won’t take much for some of the new guys like Sorenson and Jaxon Nelson to be more effective than Ramsey and Romanko even as freshmen.
The same goes for the defensemen, Zuhlsdorf quite clearly has not panned out how he was projected to when he was recruited. He doesn’t produce much offense, he isn’t all that effective at carrying the puck or on the breakout, and he isn’t particularly effective on his own end of the ice either other than connecting on a few cool hip checks. The problem is him and Sadek probably got the most minutes among defensemen last year (Nanne/Brinkman might’ve been the top pair by the end of the year) due to a lack of any other options. This year the Gophers have first round draft pick (31st overall) Ryan Johnson in the mix and Jackson Lacombe who was drafted shortly after (39th overall). While it takes a while for freshmen defensemen to get acclimated to some of the finer parts of college hockey, it wouldn’t take much for these guys to immediately have a more positive impact than Zuhsldorf, Rossini or Phillips. It’ll be interesting to get a feel for how Johnson/Lacombe look tonight and how Motzko opts to use them because that could potentially be the biggest game changer for this year. Having those two finally stabilizing the blue line allowing it to play a more dynamic game for 40 minutes a night could theoretically make up for some of we lost last year in terms of our best player, an above average goaltender, and the seniors that made up a power play unit that was top 5 in the country for most of the year.
Admittedly, going into this season, I’m a bit skeptical as to whether this team can easily replace a well above average goalie as well as their entire top line that formed much of the top 5 power play unit from last season. But as I’ve thought about it more and outlined above, it’s not unrealistic to imagine the 2 freshmen D coming in and at the very least providing a little bit more offensive impact and mobility in terms of carrying the puck both on the break out and through the neutral zone, which would theoretically improve the even strength play of the team considerably, even if they’re a bit green, might have some defensive lapses, and haven’t played against fully matured 25 year olds. It’s also not difficult to imagine the fourth line being more productive and the team being slightly less top heavy in terms of its scoring and having a more balanced output among the four lines. And as good as Robson was it’s not like this team has never found someone as good as him or Wilcox in the past to come out of the gate and be an elite goalie right off the bat. And given how much the power play improved in a single year under Motzko (I intend to look more into this in a future post) even with all the same guys that Lucia had at his disposal (minus Casey Mittlestadt*), it’s possible that there won’t be a huge drop off on the power play even if it doesn’t end up being as elite as it was a year ago. It will be interesting to see whether these conditions are met or not as that will likely be the difference between an NCAA bid or just being barely on the outside like they were a year ago. Either way I’m excited that Gopher Hockey season is finally upon us and look forward to see how some of these predictions pan out!
*Big shoutout to Kyle Young, his data provides a much more all encompassing look in terms of individual advanced stats and provides a sanity check for my own work.