Measuring NHL Team Defense - Part III
In the third and final installment of Measuring NHL Team Defense, we will briefly review Part I and Part II and bring together what should the first step in assessing Team Defensive Proficiency. The next step involves looking deeper at individual player performance and team defensive system on the way to improving Overall Defensive Proficiency.
In Part I Measuring NHL Team Defense, we noted the most complete measure of team defense is the amount of offense a team concedes to the opposition (Offense Against = Overall Defensive Proficiency) . Through a combination of a great system and or great players, strong defensive teams will suffocate opposition offense and make it very difficult to move the puck. For the past several years the Kings have been a league leader in limiting Offense Against even though they have shown signs of sliding this past season.
Once we know a team’s Overall Defensive Proficiency, the next step is a play-by-play analysis to get a clear picture of how, where, when and who is making Defensive Plays. This creates a detailed picture of individual player contributions and how they fit together. In the past few years, Nashville and Minnesota have consistently been among the league leaders in Defensive Plays.
It would be easy to assume that teams making the most Defensive Plays would also be the best at limiting Offense Against, but as we noted in Part II Measuring NHL Team Defense this is not necessarily true. Why would these two not always move in sync? The answer lies with a team's Defensive System.
Team defensive proficiency is made up of two basic contributors (not including goaltending), the players a team deploys and the defensive system the coaching staff implements. (Defensive Proficiency = Players + System)
Great defensive players make great defensive plays. They stop two on one situations, dive to block shots, close dangerous passing lanes, use their speed on the back check to negate outnumbered situations, etc. Not all players can make these type of defensive plays on a regular basis.
Great defensive systems reduce the need for great defensive plays, with emphasis on ‘reduce’, not eliminate. Effective systems focus on positioning, paths and support, allowing players to accomplish more together than as individuals. The ability to defend as a unit is the equivalent of throwing a blanket over the opposition, providing resistance wherever they go.
Defensive plays are much easier to track and measure than the fine nuances of a defensive system, but if we know a team’s level of Offense Against (Overall Defensive Proficiency), and account for their Defensive Plays, the remaining can be attributed to the team's Defensive System. (Team System = Defensive Proficiency – Players)
We ranked the 30 NHL teams per their regular season Offense Against and Defensive Plays, then compared the two rankings. The ranking spread indicates whether a team's Overall Defensive Proficiency is more dependent on Systems or Players.
Biggest spread favoring:
Systems: Kings 15, Wings 13, Blues 12, Blackhawks 12
Players: Devils 17, Canucks 15, Flames 13, Flyers 12
Systems: Wings 21, Jets 16, Penguins 10, Hurricane 10
Players: Coyotes 21, Blue Jackets 17, Islanders 15, Devils 14
It is no coincidence the 14/15 System results highlight some of the most respected coaches in the game, but the highest Team spread is not necessarily the most desirable. The ideal combination of Players and Systems will depend on the make-up of each team, including coaching and players ability to function in a system. Ultimately a team wants the lowest Offense Against, how they get there will depend on the resources available to them.
In each of the 14/15 and 15/16 seasons, 11 of the top 15 defensive teams lean towards Systems, while 12 of the bottom 15 defensive teams favor Players.
If Offense Against is low (ideal) and Defensive Plays are mid to low, the defensive system is operating efficiently. If Offense Against is high (not a good thing) and Defensive Plays are high, then a team’s System is not operating efficiently. A high level of Offense Against (not good) and low Defensive Plays indicate both system and players need improvement.
Teams that implement a more man-on-man focused system, if executed well, will often eliminate time and space before significant plays are required to stop the offense. This can reduce defensive plays and push their System spread up. We adjust for these and other variables, including offensive proficiency as it contributes to limiting Offense Against, but have not done so here.
Part I, II and III of Measuring NHL Team Defense can be summed up in the simple equation:
Defensive Proficiency(Offense Against) = Players + System
With reliable data, this equation is the first step to understanding Team Defense.
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