13 January 2014

The shutdown line: we need more Condra and less Neil.

If ever there was a real-life example of the sad fact that puck possession on a player level does not always translate to points, it would be Erik Condra. However, the very point that he isn’t a scoring machine testifies to another aspect of his game: his defensive value.

Probably the most distinguishing factor between top lines and bottom 6 lines is that the bottom 6 are expected to score far less; this goes hand-in-hand with the common conception that top 6 players are skill-laden, while bottom 6 players are more specialized. So, expectations for Condra fit the shutdown line description. But a shutdown line can’t successively shut down and prevent shots from the opposition if they’re always in their own DZ, and this is where Condra excels.

For a long while, Paul MacLean had settled on Greening – Smith – Neil as a “grit” line that pandered to the idea that size and strength would do some good versus mid-to-top-quality opposition. But Neil went down, and in went Condra. Out the other way went any notion that a slimmer player like Condra, at 6’0” and 190 pounds (the 3rd-lightest forward, after Pageau and Conacher), might not fit in a shutdown trio. The objective of a shutdown line is to contain and minimize the opposition’s taking shots or possessing one’s own zone. As mentioned above, puck possession also happens to correlate directly to that. After all, it comes back to the foundation of puck possession: if you’re taking shots at the opponent’s net, the opponent can’t also be doing the same to you.

Essentially, size and strength might bruise and weaken the opponent, but a player like Condra who mysteriously drives possession like some kind of mythical beast—albeit one who can’t score—is evidently doing the job just as well, and probably much more effectively, on a consistent basis. And until we’re able to accurately quantify “physicality” (while we’re at it, let’s try and quantify “energy” and “grit”, too), it seems the smartest route will be to go with the guy whose possession numbers are high, as opposed to someone like Neil, who's toting around a 49.9% Corsi For, 5th-worst on the active team. (Condra's hanging out at 52.8% CF, 6th-best. Quite a difference.)

The idea of a “do you even lift?” shutdown line could be a staple of the game in old-school circles, and some might even go so far as to state that physicality is part of the right way to play hockey. But so far, it’s Corsi and Fenwick that have been shown to have correlations with winning, and it seems pretty basic that winning is also a large part of the right way to play hockey. When you have lines whose defensive soundness can be ascertained confidently, line-matching and controlling the opposition becomes evidently much easier. And every aspect of the game is one more step towards winning.


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