How Is Glen Gulutzan Managing His New Offensive Toys?

Glen Gulutzan coaching up a storm.

Sitting at 4-1, the Stars look like they're a well-oiled machine that has been together for five years, but we all know that isn't the case. Glen Gulutzan is still very early in his NHL coaching career, and despite how crisp the club looks, what do we really know about them? We know in general what the system he wants to run looks like, but we have a difficult time knowing how he wants to utilize his players. We can conceptualize how they should be used, but fortunately now there is data available that can help us develop a clearer image of how Gulutzan is deploying his guys early on.

I've been thinking about doing this post since game one of the season. I've procrastinated some, and then actual roadblocks came up like the return of Grossman (when I was going to cover both defense and offense). But, I've been called to action today by a quote Brad had earlier today: 

"I don't know what first line you're talking about. We've got some discrepancy there," Gulutzan quipped slyly after the game on Saturday. "We've got some internal battling going on."

I don't know how Gulutzan actually views his lines, but I know how he's using them, and I think he does have one clear cut first line. Follow the jump to see Gulutzan's player usage broken down using the Rosetta Stone-like power of stats

DBD Glossary

*Due to the pair shifting early this season we'll leave the defensemen alone until there is more data, but I will leave you one note: Alex Goligoski is awesome. He's getting more defensive starts this year than offensive starts, but he's still generating a ton of chances.

In case you haven't caught a Stars game so far this season for whatever reason, or you just need a refresher, the following are predominantly the lines Gulutzan and co. are rolling with:

Morrow-Ribeiro-Ryder/Ott-Benn-Eriksson/Burish-Fiddler-Dvorak/Petersen-Dowell-Wandell

The definition of what a top line is can vary wildly from person to person. Some prefer an all offensive top line used purely in prime offensive situations, but others want a solid two-way line. Both of the Stars' top two lines fit into one of these categories.The Ribeiro line is purely together for offensive purposes while the Jamie Benn line is strong in both ends.I listed the Ribeiro line first above because they're the generally accepted Alpha Line for the Stars, but I'm ready to declare that the 2012 Stars are being led by the Benn-Ott-Eriksson trio.

First, let's look at ice time for the Stars top six forwards.

Name TOI/G ES TOI/G PP TOI/G SH TOI/G
Ott 20:24 14:01 3:29 2:54
Eriksson 19:24 13:23 3:22 2:39
Ribeiro 18:55 13:29 4:17 1:09
Benn 17:38 13:30 3:24 0:44
Morrow 16:46 11:50 4:06 0:49
Ryder 16:22 12:05 4:12 0:04

I am going to safely assume that most people reading this didn't expect to see Steve Ott as the king of the Stars ice time mountain five games into the season. I didn't expect to see that myself. What stands out to me is that three of the top four guys in ice time are the supposed second unit. The only thing keeping Jamie Benn from being ahead of Mike Ribeiro is the difference in special teams ice time.

The chart of ice time doesn't necessarily mean that the Benn line is the de facto top unit. It's a piece of the puzzle, but it doesn't tell us anything about what situations the players are being used in. Zone Starts do though. We can see if Gulutzan is confident in the defensive abilities of a player by looking at a players faceoff splits. The idea here is that you would keep your players that aren't particularly good defensively away from your net when you can, and you want guys you trust defensively close to the net. To find the guys Gulutzan trusts we're going to use OPCT which is the percentage of faceoffs a player is on the ice for in the offensive zone. We won't consider neutral zone faceoffs because, well, they're neutral. Thus, OPCT is offensive zone faceoffs divided by all offensive and defensive zone faceoffs.

Name O Starts D Starts OPCT
Petersen 10 7 58.8
Ryder 17 16 51.5
Morrow 17 16 51.5
Ribeiro 17 17 50
Dowell 12 13 48
Wandell 10 11 47.6
Burish 12 15 44.4
Fiddler 15 19 44.1
Dvorak 12 15 44.4
Benn 13 19 40.6
Ott 14 22 38.9
Eriksson 12 19 38.7

The zone start distribution chart reads almost like a clinic on classic NHL ice time distribution/line roles. Almost. The six forwards with the highest percentage of offensive zone starts are a combination of the Stars fourth and top offensive lines. You want your pluggers to stay away from the net, and you want your top offensive/questionable defensive players to stay away from the net also.

The six guys with the fewest offensive zone starts buck the trend though. You would expect the third "checking" line to have the worst average starting field position, to steal a common football phrase, but alas...they don't. The Jamie Benn trio pulls the most difficult zone assignments thus far, and when you reflect on that for a moment it doesn't seem as crazy as it does at first glance. Ott and Eriksson are two of the Stars top three penalty killers. Ott is the Stars top faceoff taker, and despite playing on a wing with Benn for three games now, he has 24 even strength faceoffs. As you can see by the faceoff reports for the previous two games, here and here, Benn is no longer taking defensive zone faceoffs. Ott appears to have assumed those duties.

*Quick tangent here: I'm fairly confident that Jamie Benn's faceoff ability is why Tomas Vincour is in the AHL right now. Ott has been the Stars most valuable forward so far this season, and he's the Stars top faceoff man. Gulutzan moved Ott up, has him taking impotant draws, and then shifts him to the wing so Benn can keep developing at center. (Click here to read a preseason description of why the line is working as well as it is now.) As for Vincour though, before the season began we said that if Vincour isn't playing meaningful minutes he should be in Austin. With Ott shifting up to the second line, and the return of Burish, Vincour would've been relegated to the fourth line. Thus, Benn's faceoff ability got Vincour sent to Austin.

Its obvious how Gulutzan is using his guys, but he's human. He could be wrong. The usage pattern he has developed for his team suggests that the Benn line is his top line, but how are they playing relative to the other units? They're generating significantly more offense than any other unit despite playing the most difficult minutes of the four units (Yes, the Ribeiro unit's QualComp is higher, but I think that's a small sample size fluke. The Benn line was matched up against the Carter unit, Columbus' top line, against the Jackets for instance). The Benn line has a Relative Corsi of about 18, meaning if they were on the ice for the full 60 minutes of a game they would generate 18 more shots than the rest of the team. The Fiddler line is a heavy negative in that department. The Ribeiro line, despite very favorable zone starts and generally decent matchups. is somewhere in the -17 Relative Corsi range as a unit.

Jamie Benn's unit does literally everything. They win faceoffs thanks to Ott. They are dynamite defensively with two of the top three penalty killers on the Stars roster. They are incredibly skilled with Benn and Eriksson. They also have a big physical presence in Ott and Benn. Gulutzan might want to be coy, or to suggest that there is some competition, but there isn't. The Benn line is the Stars best overall line, and they're getting the ice time to suggest that Gulutzan thinks so too. 

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