Miles Ahead: The LA Kings, Zone Start Freaks

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BvMn2ZPG1Q&w=420&h=315]

The Los Angeles Kings accomplished something very strange this year.

Every single one of their regular players had a positive zone start percentage.

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(note: all player usage charts via extraskater.com)

This means that on balance, all the Kings’ players started their shifts in the attacking zone. ALL OF THEM.

Even if you account for irregular players (players who only played 8+ games), they still all enjoy positive zone start percentages.

This is how dominant the Kings are. They control the possession game to such a degree that every single King starts his shift more than 50% of the time at other end of the ice. This is a team that reeks of offence and this chart illustrates exactly what Darryl Sutter means when he says

“The game’s changed. They think there’s defending in today’s game. Nah, it’s how much you have the puck. Teams that play around in their own zone (say) they’re defending but they’re generally getting scored on or taking face-offs and they need a goalie to stand on his head if that’s the way they play.”

It is difficult to emphasize how incredible this is as a team accomplishment (with a healthy dose of decision making by Sutter). One way to take note of this accomplishment, is to simply reflect on the fact that no other NHL managed it.

(Now, it’s fair to suggest here that one or two of the other dominant possession teams in the NHL may have been able to accomplish this feat, had their deployment philosophy mirrored Sutter’s. There appears to be many doors––Chicago––San Jose––Boston––into the same room of possession)

The Opposite Case Study

While no other NHL team managed to give all their players positive zone start percentages, two teams did manage to invert the Kings’ accomplishment.

Here’s the Toronto Maple Leafs

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Every single one of the regular players has a negative zone start percentage. EVERY SINGLE ONE.

Again, even accounting for irregular players (8+ games), every single player has a negative zone start percentage.

This means that, on balance, Maple Leaf players, all of them, started their shifts at the bottom of the waterfall and had to work that much harder just to break even.

Here’s the Buffalo Sabres in a similar predicament:

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Again, like the Leafs, every single one of their regular players has a negative zone start percentage (when accounting for irregular players, the Sabres actually do have a couple of players squeak through into positive territory).

Other than these two, the 28 other NHL teams managed to get out of their own zone enough to give at least a few players a positive zone start percentage.

On Zone Starts, a Reflection

Zone starts are a product of two things.

1. The players on-ice efforts insofar as they create faceoffs over the course of the season. A team creating a lot of offensive zone faceoffs is, in essence, driving the play and possessing the puck.

2. The coach’s decision to use certain groups of players in zone-dependent faceoff situations. For example, though all the Kings enjoy a positive zone start percentage, you can still make out, by the usage chart (or simply the raw data), that Sutter has commissioned the lines centered by Kopitar and Stoll to command a more defensive posture relative to his teammates. This kind of usage (especially when combined with quality of competition and quality of teammate information) gives us insight into Sutter’s view of his own players and what roles he feels they are best suited for. But, it also tells us something about Sutter’s deployment philosophy.

If we compare, for example, the Kings and the Bruins, both enjoy roughly the same percentages of defensive (LAK: 29.1; Bs: 29.2), neutral (LAK: 35.4; Bs: 36.1), and offensive (LAK: 35.4; Bs: 34.7) zone starts.

To point 1 above, these teams roughly come out even in their on-ice play in terms of their zone starts. That means, a coach making deployment decisions over these two teams would have basically the same opportunities available to him. That is not the case with all teams, obviously. The percentage of Maple Leafs’ zone starts––defensive: 38.2; neutral: 35.7; offensive: 26.0––illustrate how radically different the situation before a coach can be.

Returning to the Kings and the Bruins,

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then, we can say that coaching deployment philosophy makes up a non-trivial part of the extraordinary feat of the Kings’ zone start percentages. What Claude Julien is doing differently from Sutter (both starting from roughly the same on-ice situations) is pushing certain groups of players to more extreme zone starts, sheltering (or optimizing, as you like it) some and burdening others.

What remains of primary interest here, however, is the simple fact that the on-ice play of the Kings has created so many offensive zone faceoffs that Sutter can optimize (play in the offensive zone) HIS ENTIRE ROSTER. It is this base condition, not so much Sutter’s deployment, that is the marvel for me today.

This condition is simply not afforded to the vast majority of the NHL’s 30 head coaches. Indeed, as we’ve seen, a couple of coaches suffer the exact opposite situation, which is not to exonerate them from this situation as if it were entirely out of their control.

Simply put, the Kings are a dominant possession team. The Maple Leafs are not. One way to demonstrate this is by looking at the percentage of zone starts each team enjoys (or suffers, as you like it). This little chart speaks volumes:

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Concluding Remarks

Think of zone starts like a relay race between two teams. After the first lap, the two teams are never on par with each other. From the second runner on, one team is always gifted a lead, like an offensive zone faceoff. And, another team is always gifted a burden, like a defensive zone faceoff.

The LA Kings are like a relay team that is perpetually passing the baton to the next runner with a clear view of the track ahead. After the first faceoff of the game, their job is simply to maintain their advantage. They are miles ahead.

The Leafs and the Sabres are like a relay team that is perpetually trying to make up lost ground. They are playing catch up.


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