Are Offence And Defence Equal In Modern Hockey?

Late in last night’s Toronto Maple Leafs / New Jersey Devils game, Chris Cuthbert on TSN made a remark about Devils forward Travis Zajac that has been made many times about him before:

“He used to be more of a playmaking centre, but now he’s more of a defensive specialist”

I went to Twitter, as I usually do when I feel a little loudmouthed, and translated that into “was once good, but is now bad”. Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it delivers the core point – that players don’t stop scoring to “focus on defensive play” by choice.

Take Steve Yzerman, for example. His sacrifice of his offensive game is ingrained in hockey folklore as the type of action that a leader of his calibre had to make for the good of his team, and the big reason why the Detroit Red Wings went from regular season powerhouses to three-time Stanley Cup Champions under his lead.

This misses a few key caveats, though. While Scotty Bowman did ask Yzerman to sharpen his defensive toolbox at the midway point of his career, Yzerman was already a player who had received Selke Trophy votes for his two-way play in the past, and more importantly, was at a crossroads in his career where he had to make that commitment. When Bowman came to Yzerman with the suggestion in 1993/94, the centre was going through an injury-riddled season as a 28-year-old, which we now understand to be the start of one’s offensive decline, not the prime of their career as we once believed.

Yzerman’s shift had more to do with not being able to dominate in the same way as he could in his youth as it did any sort of believe that “defence wins championships”. It also coincided with the start of Sergei Fedorov and Niklas Lidstrom’s primes, and the addition of several other support stars in Detroit, lessening the burden on Yzerman. I’d wager that if we had Time on Ice for the early 90s, we’d see that Yzerman saw a dip in his time, and that the Per-60 gap in production isn’t as stark as the raw totals. Also worth considering is the drop of scoring and run-and-gun offence across the league in this era; his dip coincides pretty well with the start of the Dead Puck shift.

Realistically, Yzerman was one of the game’s top offensive players in a high-scoring era, had his prime end just as the game was shifting to a slower pace, and stepped back in importance as his team became a Goliath of legendary proportions. It was a perfect storm that masked the offensive decline of a Hall of Famer and a league, which was great for Yzerman’s legacy, but terrible for hockey. Since then, the given solution to every highly skilled player not winning the Stanley Cup in a given year is to stop scoring and try to block more shots.

Look at Alex Ovechkin; everyone from the fans, to the media, to his own coaches tried to slow him down and make him “well rounded” after the Capitals lost to Montreal in the first round of the 2010 Playoffs. What came next were the two worst years of Ovechkin’s career, which effectively wasted the end of his high-pace prime. By the time he was allowed to go back to scoring, he was approaching his own decline, and shifted his game in his own way – not to be a shutdown player, but to be a trigger man in order to replace his slowed-down first step.

Ovechkin finally got his Stanley Cup last year, in a season where he set career lows in Blocked Shots, Hits per Game, and takeaways per game. Ovechkin has not surpassed 50 takeaways or received a Selke vote since before the “defensive conversion”. He has, however, gotten a ring by going back to doing what he loves, and returned to chasing the all-time goals record.

Zajac is a case of a player riding his defensive side because the offensive one has tapered off – a very low budget example of the Yzerman scenario. His offensive prime, like many others came in his Age 23 and 24 seasons, which is also when he had his first flirts with the Selke race. He hasn’t hit sniffed the 50 point mark since that 67-point peak in 2010, meaning that this taper started nearly a decade ago. It makes sense that a career middle-six forward’s most evident highlights will comes from chasing the puck rather than making dazzling plays in his Age 33 season.

This all leads to this question brought up by a follower amidst my Twitter ranting:

Billy’s question makes intuitive sense when you look at it from its base. Goal differential is the name of the game, and one goal for and one goal against should theoretically carrying the same weight, right?

As many of you know, I jokingly call myself a “defence abolitionist” on a pretty frequent basis. The reality here isn’t that I don’t see a value in defensive traits and qualities in players, but would rather shy away from building a team that focuses on shutting teams down, instead favouring an uptempo pace.

That could change over time as the asset value of certain play style changes – a good example of this is how Theo Epstein managed to build his World Series-winning rosters in Boston (acquiring undervalued offensive batters) and Chicago (acquiring undervalued defensive fielders) in the span of a decade, taking advantage of two eras of analytical corrections in baseball.

Maybe there is a time where defence becomes hockey’s inefficiency once again, but it will likely take longer to get there. For now, I’m definitely all in on offence, and here are few reasons why an offensive talent remains more valuable to me than an “equally good” defensive player. We won’t go data-heavy here – we’ll mostly stick to hockey theory.

Score Situations: This should be one of the more obvious ones. There is a reason why “most goals wins” is a better description of a scoring-based sport than “fewest conceded wins”, even if they both describe a positive goal differential. Adding a goal both increases your odds of victory and prevents your odds of defeat from increasing.

Preventing one doesn’t necessarily do that; making a defensive play that prevents you from trailing further in a one-goal game is obviously beneficial, but you can’t shut down your way to victory when you’re already trailing. You can keep scoring your way to victory when you’re up, and it’s also a way of rallying when you’re down. A team that maximizes goals for has more opportunity to improve their potential outcome than a team that minimizes goals against.

Randomness: Hockey is, by a pretty solid margin, the “luckiest” of the team sports. That’s not to say that there isn’t any talent in the game – quite the opposite, it might be the most talented it’s ever been, but that the design of hockey means that the game won’t always provide victories in a game, or even a season, to the best team.

Lower scores mean that games outcomes can be influenced more significantly by a single goal, a 20-skater rotation means that you’re not always playing with your best players, and with the game designed around converting on less than 10% of all shots, hot and cold streaks for both skaters and goaltenders can change games much more they would in sports with more shot opportunities and higher average odds of success; regression takes much longer to kick in.

That’s why even a best-vs-worst scenario in the NHL can’t be ruled out for either team, why teams will go on PDO (Shooting+Save Percentage) benders and exceed their talent level in the standing for weeks, if not months on end, and why the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as much as we’d like to pretend that they’re decided by skill, are usually won by the team that has a hot goalie and a few hot shooters over an eight-week span.

I don’t think it’s entirely possible to eliminate randomness in a game that goes back and forth so often with no result, and one that relies so much on *extremely hockey player voice* “the bounces”. But, if you were to increase the pace, and increase potential goals, you’re improving your odds at a regression of the results to reflect the talent level.

While many say that defence wins championships and that you can’t win a Stanley Cup through 7-5 games, such tropes are likely the opposite of the truth. While you definitely don’t want a goalie that allows five goals per game in the playoffs, trying to make important games into first-to-two slugfests puts a lot in the hands of fortune, and a game that has 12 goals is more likely to hand the victory to the team with more total talent than a game that has three. There’s a reason these mantras are usually brought up by the underdog teams; they’re doing what they can to survive games, not to overwhelm their opponents.

Double-Actions: Back to something more simple, we’ll take a similar approach to this as we did in the score situations point. Playing with and without the puck have different potential influences on outcome. Someone who is creating offence is, in essence, creating defence at the same time; every second they spend in the other team’s zone is time spent out of their own. Goal creation, by effect, is also goal prevention. On the other side of the ice, if you’re trying to retain the puck, it can eventually lead to that offensive process, but it isn’t as directly delivering a two-headed purpose. This is more obvious when talking about a team’s all-around style – a slow, defensive team isn’t exactly trying to suppress their opponents with the immediate objective of turning it into a goal.

Chemistry & Individualism: I’d also consider the process of a goal when comparing the value of two equal players. Often, a goal against comes from a string of breakdowns. Goals for are a chain-link of successes as well, but it’s inherently easier to go 1-on-3 on the offensive than it is on the defensive. It’s also easier to hold up and find a partner when outnumbered with the puck than it is to summon someone when the other team is storming down on you. Essentially, while hockey is a team sport in every situation, you have more options and potential influence available to you as an individual when trying to score than you do when trying to prevent. Two equal talents in opposite directions will get a very different opportunity to show their abilities.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

Hockey is a fast-paced sport that involves a lot of randomnesses to get to its final results. But how do you tilt them in your favour?

Presently, it’s still through cranking up offensive talent. It’s easier to influence the result by scoring goals than it is by preventing them, offensive play has the byproduct of preventing the other team from trying to score, the odds of the best team winning increase as the pace increases, and one person can save the day better with the puck than they can without it.

Teams have been slowly recognizing this, realizing that “stay at home” play has diminished in value as teams become faster and more systematically sound. The bottom of the lineup has never been deeper for the average NHL team. Defence corps are better at skating with the puck than they’ve ever been – especially on the right side, where the league’s most elite defencemen tend to be transition-heavy play drivers who were originally developed as forwards.

It will take time to shift the public mindset all the way to understanding this evolution; so much time, in fact, that the game might be ready for a correction back the other way by the time it’s figured out by the average joe. But if I’m running a team, especially one with top-end talent, my focus would be on trying to make the games as high-octane as possible, while keeping the defence talk to teaching little skills that can be used on the counter-attack, rather than the entire nucleus of our system.

Oh, and your favourite player didn’t sacrifice anything for the good of their game. They got old, someone mistakenly yelled at them, or a little of both.

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