The Mike Ribeiro line is generating a lot of buzz lately. He, Loui Eriksson, and Michael Ryder are scoring goals, lots of goals. They've been a dominant force for two to three weeks now, and when a given group of players is producing tangible results the way they have been it's inevitable that much of the praise will head their way (Kari Lehtonen, too). In the process the little guys making their success possible are being overlooked.
It's easy to get enamored with goal scoring, but the act of shooting the puck into the net is equivalent to the new car rolling off of the assembly line. How did the puck get into scoring position? Where was the faceoff? Does a particular player help generate offense above what one would normally expect without actually scoring the goals? All these questions go unanswered when looking purely at point totals.
The Stars recent winning streak had me wondering what is actually happening. Have the Stars lucked their way to a winning streak, or are they legitimately performing at a high level? Goal and assist totals aren't really going to tell us anything about that so I did some digging to try to find out who among the Stars forward group is driving the play. Some of the results are guaranteed to surprise you.
At this point the tactical changes Glen Gulutzan made after the All Star break are a relatively common discussion around here. Because of that I'm not going to devote much space to discussing them further now. If you are unfamiliar with them click this link to see my post about the topic from the 17th. During the winning streak Gulutzan has (thankfully) stuck with the strategy of sheltering Ribeiro and Ryder from defensive zone work. The responsibility for taking those difficult defensive minutes has fallen predominantly at the feet of Vernon Fiddler, Eric Nystrom, and Radek Dvorak. Subsequently that line has rightly been referred to as the checking line. Unfortunately, they haven't been a particularly good checking line. In the February update of Stars scoring chances it's clear as day that they've routinely been overwhelmed defensively. Enter Tomas Vincour and Tom Wandell.
ES TOI/G: Even Strength Time On Ice Per Game OZs %: Offensive Zone Start % OZf %: Offensive Zone Finish % OZ F-S: Difference Between OZ Starts And Finishes Adj Corsi/15: Adjusted Corsi Per 15 Minutes SC%: Scoring Chance %
|Name||ES TOI/G||OZs %||OZf %||OZ F-S||Adj Corsi/15||SC%|
With Jamie Benn out of the lineup Gulutzan put Wandell, Vincour, and Steve Ott together as a unit. Adam Burish has been impactful lately so he played some minutes with Ott and Wandell too. For the purposes of this we're going to focus on the three primary guys though. What I initially wanted to see was how Gulutzan has been using the forwards during the winning streak. As you can see in the third column, Wandell, Ott, and Vincour have gotten most of the defensive zone draws during the streak. Four out of every five faceoffs Wandell has been on the ice for during the streak have been in the defensive zone. Manny Malhotra weeps.
The fact that they've taken so many defensive zone draws doesn't tell us much other than that the coaching staff must trust them to some degree defensively which could be a coincidence since Ott is the Stars top faceoff taker, and you'd want him in the defensive end of the ice. Perhaps, but if it was a coincidence they've hit on something. After looking at the zone starts I wanted to see what they've done with the ice time. So I looked at Offensive Zone Finish %, Zone Start Adjusted Corsi, and Scoring Chance % (scoring chances for/total scoring chances). What these statistics do is basically tell us whether or not the players in question are pushing the puck to the offensive end of the rink. Are they generating more shots than they're allowing, are they ending their shifts in good scoring areas more often than not, and are they generating more scoring chances than they're allowing, etc
What becomes apparent pretty quickly is that Wandell, Ott, and Vincour have been very successful in transition. They finish more of their shifts in the offensive zone than they start, and they've generated more scoring chances than they allow despite the difficult minutes. They aren't being used strictly as a checking line though. Against Vancouver the Fiddler line was matched up against the Sedins. Against Chicago they saw a ton of Patrick Kane. This suggests that Gulutzan is putting the Wandell unit on the ice to take the defensive zone draws, transition the puck, and get out of the way so Ribeiro can generate offense.
It's very strong in game management. The Canucks exploit this more than any other team in hockey. The Stars have done it lately, but the guys they're using in that capacity are generating some level of offense. Over these four games Vincour has the highest scoring chance % of any forward on the Stars including the Ribeiro line. Those three guys as a unit (Ott, Wandell, and Vincour) are generating more offense than the Fiddler line even with the easier ice time Fiddler's group has had over the past few weeks.
The Ribeiro line deserves praise for scoring the goals, but they aren't scoring those goals without help from Gulutzan and the inspired play of the Wandell, Vincour, and Ott trio. They've driven the play to the offensive end of the rink to set up the rest of the Stars game plan while being criticized for not scoring enough goals. Ideally more goals from that trio would be nice, but take a moment to recognize the value they're generating. They're just as responsible for the winning streak as the Ribeiro line.