The Effect of Zone Starts on Offensive Production

Cam Charron
May 22 2012 05:05PM

(--NOTE-- This piece was written by Rob Pettapiece of The CIS Blog , known also for his work on players who claim to be in the the best shape of their lives  and he is also the man behind the significant discovery that Canadian teenagers age . Visit his more general sports blog here . Primarily a baseball guy, I often joke with Rob that he knew about Corsi and advanced hockey stats before he knew anything about hockey.)

We know that players with more offensive zone starts tend to have better offensive numbers. But are those players given these OZone starts because they are better offensively, or do they merely appear better offensively because they are given these zone starts? In other words, we know there's a correlation, but where is the causation, if any?

The Canucks' justification for trading Cody Hodgson suggests that you can inflate a player's statistics if you give him more offensive zone time, so at least one team (and many of its fans) believe that it's the zone starts that make the player, to some extent. But how can we figure out just how much a zone start is worth to a player's offensive numbers?

The Study - Ozone and Dzone groups

To start, we will simply take out the offensive and defensive zone starts completely.

We went through the play-by-play for both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 regular seasons and extracted, for each player, the number of goals and shots on goal recorded by his team while he was on the ice -- but only in a specific situation: following a neutral zone faceoff, with the score tied, at 5on5.

This removes the advantage of an offensive zone start (or the disadvantage of a defensive zone start) from that shift for that player. It also removes score effects. We didn't count up blocks or missed shots due to arena discrepancies, and we counted the total shots, rather than just his own, to get a bigger sample. (Note: we only looked at players with at least 500 minutes played across all 5on5 situations in a season.)

As a result have, for every player: time on ice, shots for, and goals for in that specific situation - in other words, a zone-start-independent measure of this player's offensive output.

With this method to evaluate players independent of zone starts, we can then match two skaters who are similar by that measure (and thus assumed to be generally equal offensively), but otherwise different in terms of their distribution of offensive and defensive zone starts. In particular, players with an 82-game zone-start differential of +50 or greater (offensive zone starts minus defensive zone starts, expressed per 82 games) were put in the "OZone group", and those with a differential less than -50 were put in the "DZone group".

For example, in 2011-12 Manny Malhotra played about 104 minutes following a neutral zone faceoff (again, score tied, 5on5), with the Canucks recording 22 SOG and 2 goals in that time. He is safely in the DZone group, with the most extreme negative differential of any skater, at -516 zone starts per 82 games. We want to match him as closely as possible to someone in the OZone group, someone who (ideally) has 104 minutes, 22 SF, and 2 GF.

As it turns out, his best match among the OZone players is Yannick Weber (+68 zone-start differential), who played just under 100 such minutes, with the Canadiens recording 30 SOG and 2 goals. Malhotra's total time on ice at 5-on-5 was about 762 minutes, 104 of which we've already covered here, leaving 658 minutes following an offensive or defensive zone start (or a neutral zone start where the score wasn't tied). In those 658 minutes, Vancouver scored 23 goals, or 2.1 goals per 60 minutes. Weber, on the other hand, played 584 other minutes, in which Montreal scored 20 goals, or 2.05 GF/60. So in this case we don't see a zone-start advantage.

Of course we're not just basing this on one pair of players. There are actually 245 matched pairs of players across the two seasons ('10-11 and '11-12), and we followed the above procedure for all of them. The average results are below:

Discussion

It's the last two columns we're most interested in and they suggest the OZone players were on the ice for seven more goals, or an increase of 0.44 goals per 60 minutes. This increase is not a surprise given that they averaged 202 more net offensive zone starts, which we’ll round off and call +100 vs. average.

The OZone players already had a very small (+0.02) advantage in the zone-start-independent situations, which reflects the fact that we matched on three things (time on ice, shots, goals) and not just goals. That difference (0.44 minus 0.02) means our zone-start effect is estimated to be about 0.42 extra goals per 60 minutes of this kind of ice time, given 100 extra offensive zone starts vs. the average.

The average player in our OZone group played 824 such minutes, so that’s about 5.7 goals in a season. Of course, the player in question doesn't score all of those goals himself, but we can estimate how many more points he gets: among all players in our OZone group, they picked up a goal or assist on 58% of their team's goals. 58% of 5.7 is 3.3 points per season.

In other words, the average skater, when given 100 extra offensive zone starts over the course of a season, can be expected to score three more points than he otherwise would. This result is more extreme, of course, for a Sedin: in 2011-12, Daniel Sedin had a differential of +423 per 82 games, in about 876 zone-start-affected minutes. For every extra 100 zone starts, the above says he would gain 3.3 points, so our results suggest he gained about 14 extra points over the whole season from zone starts alone - or 20% of his even strength point total. For Henrik, it’s about the same.

Those numbers seem incredibly high - earlier this year Gabriel Desjardins estimated that Daniel Sedin “would have 7-9 fewer EV points this season if he got 50% o-zone starts”, not 14. It’s possible that our estimate is off - we’re only using, on average, 160 minutes per player to establish his zone-start-independent scoring rate, or as little as 8% or 10% of his overall ice time. Unfortunately, that’s about as much as we can use given how few shifts begin in the neutral zone, not to mention the score differential and even-strength requirements as well. Including ice time after zone starts would defeat the purpose of trying to isolate them.

We could also look directly at points scored by the player in question, rather than goals scored by his entire team, but that introduces more sample size problems of its own. Besides, even if a Sedin doesn’t record a goal or assist himself, he still benefits from the offensive performance of his linemates, no matter what version of Corsi/Fenwick/scoring chances we’re using.

Conclusion

Going back to the questions we asked at the beginning:

1) It certainly appears that you can pump up a player’s offensive stats with more offensive zone time. That is, it’s not simply that better offensive players get more OZone starts, but that the favourable zone starts do indeed affect a player’s point total.

2) This effect is probably at least a couple of points per season for the average player, and while maybe not 14, certainly quite a bit higher for those who benefit from the "Sedin treatment".

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Kent Wilson
May 22 2012, 08:02PM
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Very interesting to see the number that high. It's also amazing more coaches don't endeavor to give their scorers the high ground to this degree, although AV's ability to do so is somewhat predicated on having centers like Pahlsson, Malhotra and Kesler elsewhere on the roster.

Besides the increase in scoring, of course, there is less exposure to the defensive end, less shots/chances against and an improved perception of the players abilities (and vice versa for guys who get buried).

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#2 ChinookArch
May 23 2012, 06:38AM
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It's somewhat intuitive that better ZS would provide better scoring results for players, but quantifying it here as you have is really interesting. Are you planning on revisiting this next season, or looking at this overs a are larger sample of time? It will interesting to understand if you can repeat the results again.

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#3 David Johnson
May 23 2012, 07:58AM
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Interesting analysis though it differs significantly from what I have observed which was the real world effects of zone starts being even less than what Gabe estimates. In February I estimated that Daniel Sedin's offensive zone start accounted for at most 2 points and in previous years he has only been on the ice for 3-4 goals per season directly attributable to an offensive zone faceoff (see http://hockeyanalysis.com/2012/02/21/zone-starts-why-we-shouldnt-care/). I believe someone else (probably Neil Greenberg) looked at Ovechkin and found very similar results.

It would be interesting to take a look at your pairings to see if a relatively small number of possibly poorly matched pairings are really driving the differences. Which pairings produced the largest differences?

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#4 Rob Pettapiece
May 23 2012, 05:51PM
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@ChinookArch - Yes, I/we plan to look at this every year. I was thinking to get a larger sample we could combine two years' worth of data, but that may introduce other problems like a player's role or ability changing over time.

@David - I think we're both right (though I am happy to be proven wrong) because we're looking at this from different perspectives. Suppose for a second we replace "zone start" with "clean breakaway." Clearly we expect players to score more if they are given more breakaways, but it may be the case that one or two do not.

In other words, yours is a more empirical approach, and we took a more probabilistic view by isolating zone starts and then averaging out the results.

As for the pairings, the Malhotra/Weber example given is actually among the "worst" matches, but even if you take out the worst 20%, the overall difference stays about the same.

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