Dave Tippett And Thinking About Defense Differently

LAS VEGAS - JUNE 23: Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes poses for a portrait with the Jack Adams Award during the 2010 NHL Awards at the Palms Casino Resort on June 23, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Dave Tippett was fired by new General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk after missing the playoffs the year after the Stars lost to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals during the circus-like front office period of two general managers. When Joe came in he had his reasons for making the move. I'm not here to take a position on whether or not it was a smart move. I don't really care at this point to be honest. However, when the former coach is interviewed prior to starting his third straight playoff trek with the Coyotes my ears perk up.

Especially when he gets philosophical about hockey.

Tippett was interviewed by Dan Bickley of The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com on April 5th. It's almost like Dan wrote this article just for my eyes. His opening four sentences:

Every 10 games Coyotes coach Dave Tippett posts a report card on the wall. Players circle like hawks, eager to learn their score, where they stand.

These are not ordinary statistics. These are player-efficiency ratings, the evolution of a system born in Tippett's brain more than 15 years ago, a quantifiable look at how every member of the Coyotes spends his ice time.

So, that's interesting. Tippett goes on to wax poetic about his views on defense, and the implications of his statements can be seen in how Tippett used a few members of the current Stars roster.

Further into the article Tippett's hockey thoughts start coming out. He talks about an unnamed defenseman from his days in Juniors. This paragraph really sticks out when you look at it closely, and in the context of how the current Stars roster is constructed:

"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

Tippett is describing the impact of offensive zone possession time on the results that occur when a given player is on the ice. Player A can be a good defender, but if he is constantly defending instead of carrying the attack away from his net he is endangering the results of the team as a whole. Another implication of his statements is the value of defensemen with the ability to move the puck effectively.

A coach has the ability to control the first part of the equation to a degree by matching lines and appropriately distributing zone starts. During his tenure with Dallas Tippett pretty clearly identified players he wanted to shield defensively. Among them are two defensemen near and dear to our hearts: Mark Fistric and Matt Niskanen.

The first player that came to my mind when I read that paragraph was Mark Fistric. Fistric is in a weird place. Fans love him because of his proficiency at laying giant hits on unsuspecting opponents. These same fans also, more often than not, tout his hitting ability to a large extent when discussing his defensive ability (in fact, hitting a lot means you don't have the puck which isn't really a good thing) when the two aspects of his game aren't entirely related. He's an ok defensive player, but the above quotes by Tippett immediately made me think of Fistric because that is exactly how I would describe Fistric's game. So, how did Tippett use Fistric?

Fistric OZ% QoC Corsi Rel
2009 50.90% 0.266 -3
2008 59.70% -0.407 1.9

As a rookie Fistric was heavily sheltered by Tippett. In the dreadful 2008/2009 season Fistric was given more responsibility, and he struggled. He didn't play particularly difficult minutes, but the minutes he did play were tough enough to give him fits. This has basically been the story of his career thus far, and Tippett's usage exposed that fairly early on.

Marc Crawford never full trusted him defensively either, and so far Glen Gulutzan hasn't. And, they shouldn't. He's never proven to be good enough in transition to warrant significant responsibilities because of his inability to get the puck out of his zone regardless of any defensive ability he has. The same could be said for Matt Niskanen eventually under the Stars (after 2009 when he got the yips) except he actually got results for a little while.

Niskanen OZ% QoC Corsi Rel
2009 56.00% 0.178 6.1
2008 56.00% 0.63 -1.6

The main reason Niskanen was eventually able to produce (before falling off of a cliff) was his ability to get the puck away from the net. Sure, defensively he was never as good as Fistric was, but that didn't matter as much if he was able to skate or pass his way out of a defensively challenging situation. The collapse of the Stars forward defense after the run to the Conference Finals put a lot more pressure on the younger defensemen to perform. One of the problems arose after the Stars picked up Brad Richards from the Lightning. He was a catalyst for the playoff run, but he was an awkward fit in the lineup beginning with his first full season as a Star in 2008/2009.

During the 2008 season Mike Ribeiro took 70% offensive zone starts to lead the NHL. He put up a career high 83 points in 76 games on the strength of those zone starts and a 25.2% shooting percentage. He was an elite offensive player in the prime of his career at the time the Stars picked up Richards, and the Stars would have to find a way to maximize the production of both. Tippett decided to continue keeping Ribeiro away from the Stars net, but not to the same extreme degree. He got only 54.6% offensive zone starts that season compared to 46.4% for Richards. It didn't work, and the team defense struggled which made the defensemen look worse than they were.

The ultimate takeaway from this is that defense needs to be thought of differently. Fistric might have all the defensive ability in the world, but if he's forced to play defense more than someone slightly worse than he is then he's more likely to give up scoring opportunities. Defensemen like Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, and Philip Larsen can cause brain freeze at times, but they have the skating and passing abilities to get themselves out of perilous situations.

The same can't be said for the forward group as a whole, but that's a problem to tackle for another time. The same ideas can be applied to their play. If a checking line, or especially a prime scoring line, has difficulty getting out of their own end on a consistent basis they're going to produce significantly worse results than you would expect given their other abilities. This is a basic fact that Tippett recognized early on in his coaching career, and he put a plan of action in place to address the issues every step of the way.

The Stars somewhat tried to for a while this past season, but now they have an entire off season (and actual capital to spend!) to tailor the roster to the type of game they want to play. They would do well to take a page from their old coach and remember this one simple, but incredibly important lesson when constructing next years roster:

He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

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