Hey all, it’s been a while. After finally getting through my (actual job’s) busy season and taking some time to settle in to a normal 40 hour work week again, I finally have some time to post something.
Like I’ve said in the past, I’m more interested in observing larger trends than covering any single game or series. Hockey is probably the least predictable and most random of the major sports and so observing or dwelling on small samples can be very misleading and leave people an emotional wreck. This team has been pretty up and down this year and that’s why it’s good to look at the bigger picture.
So far for the 2017-18 season I have compiled the data for 13 games, unfortunately all of which occurred during the first half of the season (i.e. before the break/Army series). Those games include the UMD/Union icebreaker, PSU home series, North Dakota series, Friday OSU road, WI home series, Notre Dame road Saturday (the Friday game isn’t available to stream), Michigan road series, and Michigan State Friday home game. It’s a fairly even split of home/road games in which they went 5-7-1. I might track a few more games just to get at least 2 for every B1G conference team (minus Michigan State because I don’t want to fall asleep from boredom) as well.
While the team has undergone some changes during the second half, most notably the emergence of Mat Robson as the starting goalie, one long term trend remains the same. Other than a very good offensive showing against the Badgers in Madison a couple weeks back as well as 7 goals in the series vs a bad Michigan State team, the Gophers’ offense has mostly struggled all year and not much on that front has changed since I wrote about it in a previous post. The Gophers goal totals in the other series were 3 vs SCSU (plus an empty netter to make it 4 on the weekend), 4 against Michigan, 2 against Notre Dame, 3 vs OSU, and 3 this past weekend. Amazingly they managed to split (as well as a win and a tie vs OSU) all but the Michigan series with that offensive output. More recently against Penn State they scored a whopping 3 goals in the first series and then had an offensive outburst today to get to 8 goals on the weekend. While last night’s game an anomaly, the team did show some improvement offensively.
It is worth mentioning that there have been some notable improvements in terms of puck possession on the year and the team is no longer a horrible possession team getting badly out shot every night like they were back during the earlier parts of the season. They have since moved up to being mediocre in that area and are now 28th out of 59 NCAA teams in even strength shot differential. While this isn’t exceptional by any means it’s definitely an improvement from what it was earlier and it is worth noting that this team has played the most difficult schedule of any NCAA team this year. This improvement as well as the emergence of Robson, who has posted a .943 sv% on the season, is probably the biggest factor in this team’s success during the 2nd half of the season and the recent 6-1-1 run they had before the PSU series. Based on Don Lucia’s comments this team seemed to have embraced a defensive style of play (so much for that these last two weekends) and their reward is a high percentage of making the NCAA tournament, even after the recent debacles against Penn State.
For the most part the data I track is probably best used for shedding light on the neutral zone play as well as the offense and that’s what this post will focus on. So without further ado let’s get into the data for what’s been tracked this year.
Here are the zone entries for this year as well as a breakdown of shot attempts and scoring chances generated off those entries.
A few things jump out from this data. Unsurprisingly Casey Mittlestadt leads this category by a wide margin and with his speed, playmaking, and vision, it’s not all that shocking that he generates a lot of clean entries as well as shots and scoring chances off of them. We can also see that there’s some correlation between getting clean zone entries and shots per entry. The guys in the top tier certainly average more shot attempts and chances per entry than the bottom tier, though it obviously doesn’t explain everything as Romanko and Szmatula aren’t getting many dangerous scoring chances from their entries (more on that later). On average though this team is still far below what they were last year in this area averaging a controlled entry on 41.1% of all entries.
The last column also highlights some big differences from last season for a few players. Pitlick, Sheehy, and Bristedt are all significantly worse in terms of generating controlled entries than they were a year ago. While there are definitely some variables and possibly some variance due to the small sample size of data (last year’s sample only contained 8 games), it isn’t all that shocking to me that 2 of these 3 players are producing less offense than they were a year ago and Pitlick hasn’t taken a step forward yet. These guys are speedy players who did well to generate rush chances last year and this year that’s gone by the wayside. It’s hard to tell if this is a symptom of anything Lucia is teaching the players but it does seem like the rush chances both for and against have been less common this year and based on some of his comments this seems likely.
The other thing that’s obvious is that none of the defensemen generate many clean zone entries but Zuhlsdorf is leading the pack there. The thought when he was recruited was that he was a good puck rusher who could generate these kinds of plays for us and contribute offensively. It’s good to see his improvement in that area and hopefully he can continue to grow there and become an offensive presence. But as noted plenty of times by various people who cover the Gophers, this team clearly doesn’t have a guy like Mike Reilly who can really rush the puck or generate consistent offense.
For zone exits we have the following:
On the team level this isn’t all that far off from last year, for last year’s team 52.5% of zone exits were controlled, this year it’s 50.6%. Sheehy once again sticks out like a sore thumb here for his difference compared to last year. At the very least earlier on in the year it was really obvious that Sheehy was making significantly fewer controlled plays with the puck at both ends of the rink. It wasn’t all that shocking to see it in the data once it was finally compiled. Lindgren has gotten slightly worse this year though his role as the top defenseman on the team has increased from last year and he is essentially replacing Bischoff as the leader of the top D pairing. It’s also worth noting that he was injured before the season, recovering much of the offseason, and one can assume that it put him at a bit of a disadvantage early on. Sadek and Johnson improved slightly in teams of controlled break outs and although it’s a tiny sample Rossini does look good in this area. From what I’ve seen and the data shows, Sadek is probably the best puck mover on the team and while Nanne has his share of turnovers and defensive mistakes, he is pretty solid at moving the puck up ice and transitioning.
Finally we have the passing data from this year. I haven’t talked much in the past about passing data but essentially I started tracking this due to the work done by Ryan Stimson (who initially started the passing project research), Corey Sznajder (the inspiration for much of the tracking I do), and Matt Cane who assisted Ryan with the research in the upcoming link. Passing data is important because at a higher level it examines how you set up your offense and examines your offensive chemistry. This research by Ryan Stimson and Matt Cane shows that shots preceded by a single pass are more likely to end up scoring and shots preceded by multiple passes are even more likely to find twine.
As you can also see they show that passing is a repeatable skill and not just something that has a ton of random year to year variance. While it’s pretty intuitive to anyone who watches hockey that passing is a skill, it’s good to know that someone has done the work to prove this scientifically.
Ryan and others have also shown that shots that originate from a pass from behind the net (defined as behind the goal line), or a pass across the center of the slot (i.e. the royal road) are more likely to score. Tracking these plays can tell us more about the playmaking ability of the various players on a team and tell us more about who is creating the dangerous chances.
As such I wanted to do the same thing for the Gophers. See below for a breakdown of the 5 on 5 passing data. The data I have for passing is broken down by strength (5v5, 5v4, 4v4, etc.) and for this piece we’ll just focus on 5 on 5 because it explains the majority of most hockey games while also comparing apples to apples. Not every player gets time on the power play and special teams are essentially their own separate entity.
First, the passes column in beige basically tracks the total number of passes (either the primary, secondary, or the third pass of a passing sequence that lead to a shot). Unsurprisingly guys like Mittelstadt and Novak are leading the team in this category, on defense Sadek and Lindgren clearly are the top pairing on this team and get the most ice time so it’s not surprising that they’re up there in this category. Interestingly enough, Nanne is second among defensemen and you can kinda see why the coaches would prefer to play him on the back end despite some of his turnovers and defensive gaffes, he’s clearly one of the best puck moving defensemen this team has. This combined with the zone exit data above give you a good sense of which defensemen are good at moving the puck from the back end as well as facilitating offense.
While Casey Mittlestadt and Rem Pitlick are clearly both first liners who likely get a lot of ice time, Scott Reedy is very high in terms of the number of scoring chances and 2nd on the team overall (third grey column). That column is calculated as anyone who took a shot attempt in the area generally defined as the scoring chance area (i.e. the home plate area of the offensive zone). Reedy has bounced around the lineup from Mittlestadt’s line to even the fourth line at times and yet he’s finding a way to create a lot of scoring chances in the minutes he gets. I think during most of the games I tracked he was playing a lot of minutes on a line with Mittlestadt and Pitlick but you can also see from the number of passes and shot assists that he isn’t merely a passenger on that line.
Another thing that jumps out is the combination of Leon Bristedt and Mike Szmatula who have mostly played on the same line this year. For Bristedt, who has 75 shots on the year in all situations, it’s interesting to see him next to Romanko (a fourth liner not particularly known for his playmaking or scoring ability) in terms of shots and primary assists at 5 on 5. Leon seems like a guy who could do alright on the wing of a more talented playmaker like Kloos or Mittlestadt (or last year’s version of Vinni Lettieri whose line he played on much of the previous season) but he’s kind of one dimensional and dependent on the talent around him for his production. Leon isn’t an elite sniper but when he puts up a ton of shot volume he can still be a productive player as shown in year’s past. This year his shot volume is significantly down, by over 25 shots in fact, from last year and down from the year before that as well. This year being on a line with Szmatula for most of the year it’s not all that surprising that his production is down from a year ago (see Szmatula near the bottom of the chart above). These guys are both very low on the chart in terms of passes that lead to a shot, primary shot assists, and dangerous passing sequences (Szmatula is better in the last area, Leon not so much). Obviously these stats aren’t adjusted for ice time and I have no way of knowing how much any player gets per game but it’s not all that shocking that neither of these guys have been all that productive this year. Neither seems capable of carrying a line and when put together it’s just not very pretty.
Another column to look at is the beige column that shows the shots + primary shot assists (i.e. shots + 1A column). Basically this column contains any shot attempt either taken by the player himself or instances where that player passed the puck to someone who took a shot. This column also subtracts the number of solo shots (i.e. the number of shots taken in which a player just took a shot and never passed the puck or received a pass) because the percent chance of scoring on a solo shot is generally very low as shown from the screenshot from the Sloan Analytics conference above. This is another area where the usual suspects of Mittlestadt, Novak, and the rest of the forwards who regularly get top 6 minutes (Sheehy, Pitlick, and Gates) are higher up on the list. Reedy once again seems to shine here as well. Seeing Gates as high as he is on the list is interesting and I do feel like his playmaking ability did improve this year and he’s one of the few guys that I would argue improved offensively since last season. It seemed from what I watched that he was better at making both simple and dangerous passes to either get to the offensive zone or help finish once they got there.
Seeing Sadek, Zuhlsdorf, and Johnson up there isn’t all that shocking either as they’re the most likely guys to be actively involved in the offensive zone.
So putting all of this together what does this tell us? We already know that this team has struggled to score goals this year and at 41st in the nation in scoring (even after this past weekend), this is clearly a huge drop off from last year in which the team was 5th. While it can’t be ignored how much better the power play was last year (I plan to look into this year’s PP data more at some point), Lucia has lamented the lack of 5 on 5 scoring all year as well. Looking at how much worse this team has been in terms generating clean zone entries compared to a year ago, it’s not all that shocking that the team is creating less offense at even strength. The Gophers historically have generated a lot of chances off odd man rush situations but that has mostly dried up this year. The other factor here to consider is the forecheck, while I don’t have any great way to measure the forecheck, based on what I’ve seen this team just hasn’t been all that effective at it and often times goes back into a passive trap trying to create counter chances through the neutral zone. Having seen this team have a really effective aggressive forecheck back during the more successful years from 2012-2014 (I went back and watched some of the highlights from the regional vs North Dakota) and as someone who watches the Pittsburgh Penguins regularly, I feel like I know what a fast effective forecheck looks like. I don’t think its been a strength of this team and unless the team is down a goal it doesn’t seem like it was all that aggressive, at least earlier in the season.
If this Gophers team had a rock solid blue line I think sitting back and playing more of a counter attacking trap style would be effective. If we’re being honest with ourselves though I would say that this blue line is inconsistent at best in terms of its ability to play shut down defense and we saw that the past 2 weekends against a team that knows how to score goals (3rd in the nation). I know some of these defensemen were known for their puck carry ability coming in, specifically Zuhlsdorf and yet none of them are doing that as you can see from the zone entry data. Reading between the lines I don’t think the coaches want these guys doing that very often, and this was extremely obvious after the team lost the first game to Duluth after a denied carry-in attempt by Zuhlsdorf wound up in the back of their own net in OT. While I get that coaches want to minimize mistakes that result in a goal against, you sometimes have to wonder if this staff is trying to hide its flaws rather than playing to its strengths. Making controlled plays can sometimes carry more risk but I would argue the potential reward significantly outweighs the risk. Johnson, Sadek, Zuhlsdorf, and Lindgren have all shown that they can be competent puck movers and yet the coaching staff seems like it’d rather just have them throw it away and try to create turnovers with their ineffective forecheck. Some of their comments after last weekend referred to the players getting “too cute” with the puck. While I can’t say I know exactly what they meant by that, I feel like they’d rather see their guys make the safe zone exit or entry even if that means just throwing the puck away. As I’ve heard Ryan Wilson say, writer/podcaster for Hockey Buzz who covers the Penguins, “you work so hard to get the puck from the other team, why would you just throw it away and potentially give it back to them?”. That’s not to say teams should never dump the puck but the Gophers have done it somewhat excessively in the games I’ve tracked and significantly more than they did in the games I tracked last year.
The other thing that you can see from the passing data is that this team seems pretty top heavy and especially so when the lines are assembled like they have been at times this year. Putting all your eggs in one basket with Mittlestadt/Pitlick/Reedy on the same line makes for one really good line but they can only play 20 minutes a game at most. Spreading that out and having at least one guy who can carry each line has been shown to be more effective. The problem is that not many of these guys can really carry a line outside of those 3. Novak is a guy who can do it but after him you don’t have much in terms of centers with playmaking ability and realistically Szmatula needs a solid winger to help carry his line. Don tried this briefly switching Bristedt to Mittlestadt’s wing and Pitlick on Szmatula’s but it didn’t last long. Along these same lines you kinda wonder what the deal is with Luke Notermann, a guy who showed some promise last year in the third line minutes he played last season and the data I tracked. He seemed like a speedy guy with decent vision who could make controlled plays and seemed like an ok passer (I didn’t track passing data last year but he was decent at zone entries at least). At this point it’s too late to just throw him in the lineup and see what happens but would it really have hurt to get him in the lineup more? We kind of know what we have in Ramsey and Norman at this point and there’s no rule that says you have to play traditional 4th liners.
While this team will still likely make the NCAA tournament despite 4 straight losses to the same team, it’s hard to see this season as any kind of improvement over what we saw a year ago both in terms of success and entertainment value. Luckily the NCAA tournament is formatted in such a way that favors underdogs, the amount of variance in a single hockey game is very high and last I checked higher than any of the major North American sports. If there’s any hope for the Gophers to salvage this season by doing well in the NCAA tournament, it’s due to the small sample nature of it. It’ll be interesting to see how this team plays as the season winds down and what adjustments the coaches will make moving forward. While losing 4 in a row to Penn State is obviously disappointing, all is not lost yet (the Gophers chances of making the NCAA tournament are still above 90%) and the team has shown some signs of improvement offensively at least in terms of the eye test and scoring. If they play Robson and the offense/power play plays anything like it did last night (Mittlestadt was phenomenal) then this team could potentially make some noise in the NCAA’s.
But even if they do it’s hard not to look at the bigger picture of this season, especially as compared to a year ago and especially when compared to where this program was when I was just entering college (the 2006 squad that had a 19 game unbeaten streak and won the final five on Wheeler’s iconic goal), and wonder what exactly the plan is going forward with this coaching staff and the various other issues the program faces. Don Lucia has one more year left on his contract after this season, there isn’t much excitement around the program (season tickets and actual attendance are significantly down), and it’s becoming increasingly clear that something needs to change. I hope for the best in the NCAA tournament and look forward to watching this team (assuming they get there) in a few weeks but it’s easy to see why people are frustrated.
Thanks for reading!
Quick notes: Big shout out to Corey Sznajder and Ryan Stimson for responding to my emails which allowed me to track this data and compile it. Without them this isn’t possible.
Most of this post was written before the Penn State series this weekend and some of it even before last weekend’s series against the same team. I edited it a bit to reflect what happened this past weekend. It’s amazing how quickly some of the narratives can change, especially after your team concedes 21 goals in 4 games and to that point had previously let in that many in 10 games.