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CBJ 2013 Image

To date I’ve covered some positive aspects of the CBJ 2013 season (my picks for MVP and best forwards, my reflections on how getting Gaborik is a good sign for the future). Today’s consideration is a more ambiguous one, something that trends to the negative but is complicated by the makeup of the entire team. Today we look at what to make of the short-season work of Todd Richards.

For some in the media, Richards seems like a surefire Jack Adams candidate. There’s this grand narration of how Richards brought a team from the very bottom of the NHL to merely one point shy of the second playoff berth in franchise history. And to be fair, it is a compelling tale on the surface. Lowly Columbus, lifted from the chaos, made to be culturally positive and focused on the task at hand. Surely he has to be granted some credit, right?

Unfortunately I don’t think the results line up with that kind of inspirational theory. Yes, Columbus was lifted out of the basement. But the move was done on the back of the presumptive Vezina winner. In fact, if we’re going to observe the facts of the case, Columbus finished worse this year in one of the most predictive statistics in hockey. But this leads to some even more intriguing questions that cut deeper than what Todd Richards might be capable of. Let’s start with the team’s performance.

Possession Setup // (If you’re familiar with Fenwick Close %, feel free to skip ahead to “Questionable Results.”) With the Fenwick Close % statistic, we get a measure of a team’s shot differential at 5-on-5 in situations where the score is tied or close. This score stipulation is introduced to remove score effects from the value (that is, when a team is leading they tend to have more shots against as they no longer need to play as aggressive a style of hockey). Fenwick Close % gives us a look at the puck possession of a team and is a very powerful tool in evaluating likely outcomes versus luck and goalie contribution.

Let’s say a team has a season long Fenwick Close % of 50.0%. That means that in close situations at 5-on-5 for the year, the team has an equal number of shot attempts for and against (not including blocked shots). If a team has a 55.0% they direct 55% of shots in any given game toward net, and their opponents only get around 45%. It’s a season-long statistic so a small sample can and will render it difficult to use, but over the long run it gives strong insight to the possession ability of a team: more shots implies more possession implies greater success.

One way teams can overcome low possession ability or further enhance good underlying numbers is if they have better than average goaltending to deal with the shots on net. You can still win while being outshot or outchanced if the goalie is stopping all those chances. Secondly, if puck luck is in your favor your players can outperform their usual shooting percentages. Getting more of the shots to go in than usual can certainly overcome low shot totals and can make a high Fenwick team seem unstoppable.

One of the best introductions to Fenwick can be found at the SB Nation blog Habs Eye on the Prize. Here, author Chris Boyle made an incredible set infographics depicting the postseason appearances and successes by teams based on their Fenwick Close % values. His charts are extremely compelling and are perhaps the clearest case for following Fenwick with context.

Questionable Results // Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, in a year in which much praise has been thrown at the progression of the club, their Fenwick performance has dropped. It’s somewhat jarring to consider, right? So what has their performance been in the past two years? Let’s take a look at the CBJ season-long and post-trade-deadline Score Adjusted Fenwick values for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons. The 2011-12 data comes courtesy of Eric T of Broad Street Hockey, and the 2012-13 data from Patrick D at Fear the Fin.

SAF Values

Score Adjusted Fenwick Values and Ranks for the Columbus Blue Jackets

I present both the full-season and post-deadline numbers as a way to see if the team significantly improved through additions (or subtraction of poor players). Also, an improving team would likely see a SAF bump simply due to growth. The ranking is place in the NHL overall (out of 30 teams).

Quite frankly, the team wasn’t very good in puck possession metrics either of the past two years. The bump in SAF ranking post-deadline for the Jackets in 2013 is due more to other teams slipping than Columbus improving. I will concede that a shortened schedule in 2013 limits the full power of shot differential evaluation, but the poor performance in either year is not encouraging. A Jack Adams winner should be able to coax a better performance out of a lesser squad, right?


The Players or the Coach? // This is where the situation becomes muddied. The only thing proven by shot differential observation is that the team’s skaters were generally bad (excepting the previously noted Dubinsky, Atkinson, Calvert and honorable mentions). Is there any proof that the coach is worsening the team, or is it merely a case of a guy trying to manage a bad situation?

To provide some perspective to Richards’ coaching contribution, I’d suggest we look at usage charts and time on ice from certain players. Usage charts are a tool created by Rob Vollman of Hockey Abstract. They are a graphical representation of player data, plotting offensive zone start percentage on the x-axis, and quality of competition on the y-axis (based on Corsi data). Each point is then made into a circle or bubble with the size of the circle proportional to the relative Corsi of that player.

If the player’s circle is situated far to the right they are most often deployed in offensive situations, to the left defensive. If a player is higher in the y-axis they are trusted to face tougher opposition, lower and they face weaker opponents. Through observation of usage charts we can get insight into the coaching styles.

More insight can be found in Vollman’s brilliant 2011-2012 team-by-team breakdown. In it, we find that teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver start their top offensive players overwhelmingly in the offensive zone. It’s not a surprising tactic necessarily, but it’s an effective one. Without the need to deal with defensive liabilities in the defensive zone, the Sedins, Kane, and Malkin can use their high talents to terrorize netminders. This kind of team style is largely dictated by the coach.

For Columbus, the team usage isn’t overly impressive. Using the Usage Chart Generator from Greg Sinclair, we can see just how the Blue Jacket players were used at even strength this season. I encourage you to visit Greg’s site and play around with the tools to see what you can find. I used his tools to generate the 2013 Usage Chart for Columbus using all players with 20 or more games played:

CBJ 2013 Usage Chart

CBJ 2013 Usage Chart, generated at somekindofninja.com/nhl/usage, developed by Greg Sinclair. Usage Charts originated by Rob Vollman

Make sure to click on the picture itself to go to the linked page. You’ll notice that most of the players are bunched between around 45 and 55% for zone starts with. Realistically, the only two who are appreciably above the 54% bound are Prospal and Gaborik and we can probably ignore Gaborik as most of his data was established with the Rangers before he arrived in Columbus (that is, New York used him in the offensive zone).

Now let’s be clear: there is a slight degree of separation. Atkinson, Dubinsk, and Johansen see OZ% at 52, 50.7, and 50.6, respectively. This compares to Anisimov, Calvert, and Letestu with 45.6, 46, and 47.1. But these aren’t overwhelmingly different. In Pittsburgh this year Malkin and Neal got 63.6 and 58.9% OZ% versus Brandon Sutter’s 37.8. It’s perhaps the starkest contrast, but it leads me to a few questions about the Columbus team.

Is there less separation between players simply because there is no clear-cut offensive weapon for the team? Or, are top Columbus shooters (Atkinson, Anisimov) not being afforded the chance to dominate at the offensive end by being forced into more equivalent roles with the rest of the club? I don’t have the answer to this one, but it’s something that raises questions for me about Richards. If he’s not making the most of his offensive “stars” now, can we be sure he’ll change when new talent comes in?

History for Richards seems to indicate that, yes, he can establish the sort of zone start separation that is to be expected from good coaches. In both 2009-10 and 2010-11 with Minnesota, Richards does seem to see his players separate, but the degree of o-zone opportunities is still comparatively small. It remains to be seen just what he’ll do with an elite talent and Gaborik may well become the test case for the years ahead.

Player Time and Linemates // Another area of concern is the length of deployment for players. The prime offences for Richards are Jack Johnson (leading skater with average of 25:58 TOI per game, or 18.33 min/60 at even strength) and RJ Umberger (leading forward 18:29/game, 13.98/60 min at evens). I’ve covered this to death and others have done it in even more emphatic fashion (like here, here, or here) but Jack Johnson is awful. This season was no exception and in fact he’s going to get a 2013 CBJ Review Article all of his own. But in short, he sucks at defense and he doesn’t generate all that much offense to make up for it. Meanwhile, RJ Umberger took a reasonable nosedive in possession metrics this season coupled with a lower shooting rate per game, more time on ice, and fewer points per game than he has had since 2006-07 with Philly.

Yet the reward for both players? Logging generally large minutes at even strength and on the powerplay. And both players were made to face better than average competition and start most of their shifts outside the o-zone at even strength. Johnson even got the added bonus of playing the most minutes on the penalty kill!

Frankly, these are indefensible decisions. Yes, injuries made the occasional long game for one or the other necessary, but these weren’t isolated events. The last bit about Johnson as the leading penalty killer is particularly terrifying to me, but Umberger’s ineffective play all season should not have seen high ice time as the result.

Line combinations managed to raise a few final questions in my evaluation of Todd Richards. Particularly, the development of a questionable third line left me scratching my head to end the year. Why is a young, talented forward like Ryan Johansen spending less than 15.5% of his even strength ice time with Dubinsky, Atkinson, Anisimov, or Prospal? Why is he playing overwhelmingly with Foligno and Umberger? If he’s the future and the team isn’t scoring much, why not get a possible playmaker like him with the goal scorers?

What Comes Next? // I hope I’ve established my concerns with Todd Richards’ coaching contribution to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team was a poor possession performer and the club was not aided by player utilization (see in the usage charts), large ice time for bad players, and line combinations that seem to stifle at least a few young skaters. These are all things within the coach’s power, and they’re all things that weren’t executed very well.

But the question remains, is it the coach or the players? At this point it’s unclear. There are enough bad possession contributors that I don’t believe Bylsma or Vigneault could have entirely righted the ship on their own. Even so, I can’t help but ask, would that little bit of improvement have been enough to ride the Bobrovsky wave into the postseason? And then, what happens when talent finally arrives in Columbus? Will Richards bury that in favor of his perceived best players?

It’s not necessarily a strongly pretty or ugly picture for Columbus going forward, especially if the new management can improve the team. Improving the quality of the players is paramount to improving the chances at sustained victory. But for now, I can’t help but think that the club might be better served by another coach if a proven commodity comes available soon.

Image via the Columbus Blue Jackets website at bluejackets.nhl.com