There has been some discussion in the Oilers community about Coach Kruger’s decisions during last Friday’s game vs Detroit in general and the third period in particular. I was lucky enough to witness the 3-2 OT loss in person, and wrote a fairly impassioned (see: a few drinks consumed) rebuke of Krueger’s decisions when I returned home that night. I thought his use of Smyth and Brown in the third period was not, shall we say, smart. I also accused him of getting schooled by Detroit coach Mike Babcock in his matchups against Datsyuk, especially during the third period. Let’s explore this further.
First, we must ask ourselves, does line matching even work? I hope to share my work on this topic in detail in the future, but I can say that there is a statistically significant relationship between apparent line matching strategies and standings points. For now you’ll just have to take me at my word on this one.
Second, we must ask what line matching strategy Coach Krueger should have pursued against the Red Wings. We’ll need to establish who Detroit’s most dangerous players are. Let’s have a look at how Detroit’s forwards are performing so far this season in even strength Corsi percentage in close game score situations:
You can see that Datsyuk is 3rd on the team, but very close to the leader Eaves. This score doesn’t provide the context around the competition they face — Datsyuk faces Detroit’s toughest competition by a pretty decent margin while Eaves and Andersson face some of the easiest competition on the team. Datyuk’s most common linemates in this game situation are Abdelkader, Cleary, Filppula, and Franzen, all of whom generally rank high here because of the influence of playing with Datsyuk. All of these men perform worse when apart from him.
You’ll also notice that Henrik Zetterberg is fairly far down this list, 8th out of 12 qualifying forwards. All of Zetterberg’s most common linemates play better when away from Zetterberg, presumably because they’ll spend those minute playing with Datsyuk.
It’s my contention that, in this season at least, the forward to really worry about on Detroit’s lineup is Datsyuk. His line is one of the most dangerous in the league, while Zetterberg’s line is fighting to stay above league average. It is Datsyuk’s line that you should be matching your best line against.
So which players are Edmonton’s best in even strength close-game situations?
I had to use Fenwick here instead of Corsi because Horcoff is 4 minutes shy of the 50 needed to display his full stats at hockeyanalysis.com, but I’m sure Corsi would be fairly close to this. Horcoff has been Edmonton’s best ‘close-game’ forward, along with Eberle, Hall, Hartikainen, RNH, and MPS. Every other player on the roster is a 6% step down from MPS, which is to say, not very dependable at pushing the play. All of the top tier also face the opposition’s best except for Harski and MPS.
How have certain members of the Oiler’s top six performed against Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the past?
The above table compiles the respective players’ zone adjusted even strength Corsi% against Datsyuk and Zetterberg for the two seasons between 2010 and 2012. RNH and Smyth only include last year. Keep in mind that the Oilers were 30th and 29th in the league when these scores were posted.
It seems that the Oilers who perform best historically against Datsyuk are Horcoff and Hemsky. Meanwhile, it seems the members of the RNH kid line along with funky ol’ Ryan Smyth seem to do ok against Zetterberg.
The quick musings made in my game report seem to be borne out by these numbers — the Horcoff line should have been matched against the Datsyuk line, while the RNH line should have been paired against the Zetterberg line. It seems that Gagner is a decent 2nd option against Datsyuk, but simply not advisable versus Zetterberg. Paajarvi’s results against either so far in his career have been abysmal, but I’d also guess his play has elevated the most this year out of this entire group.
So just how good is Horcoff historically versus Datsyuk? Here’s a list of all centres who have played at least 20 minutes against Datsyuk in close-game situations over the last two seasons and Datsyuk’s Corsi% against them:
Datyuk’s 46.8% versus Horcoff is the 4th worst of the 30 qualifying opponents — only Sobotka, Kopitar, and Legwand have played Datsyuk better in close games than Horcoff.
To me, this is the crux of the entire critique of that game — Krueger should have been matching Horcoff against Datsyuk, but either decided not to or was out-maneuvered away from the matchup. Let’s have a look at Datsyuk’s game shift by shift:
Now, there’s a lot of detail here, so I encourage you to click the image above to enlarge it. Here I show Datsyuk’s shifts by period, start time, end time, Corsi result, game state, primary Oiler centre opponent, timing against that opponent, how the matchup started, which Oiler centre played before the shift, and which Oiler centre played after the shift. All of the clear-cut even strength shifts are in grey. Shifts that ended in goals are bolded. The game states are all from Datyuk’s perspective (PK, PP, etc).
So what jumps out at you immediately when looking at this chart? For even strength shifts, Datsyuk sure did play Gagner a lot. If you count up the number of Datsyuk shifts by opposition centre faced (giving half points for split shifts), his night looks like this:
Out of 23.5 total even strength shifts, Gagner faced Datsyuk in 14 and a half of them, or 62%. The player that we’ve established probably should have played the most against Datsyuk, Horcoff, played 3 shifts against him at evens, or 13%, the third highest among the Oiler centremen.
I guess a lot of this comes down to philosophy. You might just throw your hands in the air and say Krueger didn’t have much of a choice. But review this shift chart and you start to realize that he did. On 9 of Gagner’s 14.5 ES shifts against Datsyuk, the Oiler centre who just got off the ice was Horcoff. To me, this means Babcock’s simple shifting heuristic starts to become apparent — if you want to keep Datsyuk away from Horcoff, wait until Horcoff has a shift and then put Datsyuk on immediately afterwards. It worked like a charm and got him the matchup that he wanted. It was the matchup that ended the game in overtime.
But is Babcock really that smart? This comment in his post-game remarks stuck with me:
Mike Babcock on Taylor Hall after Wings OT win: “that’s best I’ve seen him play since he’s been in NHL.”
— Jim Matheson (@NHLbyMatty) March 16, 2013
Now you could interpret this as a throwaway line in a post-game presser, but I think there’s something deeper here. It sounds like Taylor Hall was someone that they had identified as being a key in-game matchup — after all, wouldn’t you want to keep the most effective Oiler away from Datsyuk, when Datsyuk could be playing against a LW that he’s had remarkable success against in the past (MPS)? And it just so happens that Hall was playing with the two most historically effective Oilers against Datsyuk: Horcoff and Hemsky. It was a perfect coaching imperative to keep Datsyuk the hell away from the Horcoff line, and Babcock certainly succeeded in doing so.
6 of Gagner’s ES shifts against Datsyuk started on faceoffs — with Krueger having the last change, he has his pick about who to play. On three of those faceoffs, Horcoff wasn’t the centre coming off the ice. In any case, even if Horcoff was just coming off the ice, you have to follow the logic up to the beginning of each period to get the real story. In all four periods of the game, Datsyuk’s first shift comes against the Gagner line. This isn’t some freak happenstance — Babcock was waiting to get Datsyuk out there until AFTER Horcoff’s line was finished. Only in the third period did they take the opening faceoff, and this is the one that really blows my mind. Krueger has a chance to set the pacing of the period himself, to take advantage of Datsyuk finally taking an opening draw by sending out Horcoff’s line, but seems to *want* the matchup — he sends Gagner out there to face him, and sets off the sequence of shift changes and matchups that end with 3 goals in the 23:39 of play that followed.
Look at the last 5 minutes of the third period. At 15:07 Gagner starts a shift against Datsyuk, and then Horcoff actually joins him on a mid-shift faceoff. Why not send Horcoff’s line out there in full? In any case, Krueger then cycles fully through RNH’s line, and then Horcoff’s line, until it’s finally time for Gagner’s line to come out again. Guess who hits the ice one second later? Datsyuk. With 5 minutes left in the game, Babcock held back Datsyuk through almost 2 minutes of play with the game in the balance waiting until Horcoff’s line got off the ice again — he knew who Krueger was going to send over the boards, and exploited it.
So, if you want evidence of both Krueger’s strategic and tactical shortcomings, there it is. I’d hope the Oilers would study these matchups before each game to case out who should be playing against who. I also wish he’d had the wherewithal to outwit Babcock with last change. Don’t just throw Horcoff out there to start every period — hold him on the bench until you see Datsyuk jump over the boards, and *then* ice that line. Let Babcock keep Datsyuk on the bench with less than 5 minutes left waiting for his matchup — when he finally breaks while waiting, then get Horcoff out there. This isn’t some helpless process — as a coach at home, you should have the upper-hand in getting these matchups.
As for Krueger’s use of Smyth, consider how much Smytty played in the last 15 minutes of the 3rd period:
In a span of 9:06 between 5:01 and 14:07, he plays 8 shifts, for a total 5:05 or about 56% of that span. During this entire time he was either killing penalties or taking a regular shift with RNH in place of Hartikainen while the Oilers were clinging to a one-goal lead or trying to preserve the tie. At 14:07 of the third, while he was killing a penalty, and had played 56% of the previous half-period, the Wings tied the game 2-2 on the Petry own goal. You can’t directly tie Smytty to that goal, but you can say his 37 year old lungs are probably sucking wind at this point. Look at some of his rests, most lasting no more than one shift. Yes, in a sense, if you really squint your eyes, you could say that he was being “double-shifted”, for whatever that term is worth. And a reasonable bystander might think that the culmination of that heavy shifting may have somewhat led to the tying goal. I still say it’s piss-poor bench management, when you could have given Smytty a rest instead of barreling him out again and again when fresh legs and lungs in Hartikainen sat idle on the bench, even if only to spot him some time.
I don’t have the effort to get into Mike Brown, but I still believe it was the wrong decision to sub him into Yakupov’s spot on the Gagner line. At the time, Smytty was already being subbed into the RNH line, meaning the 4th line for all intents was essentially done for the game. To me, the decision still reeks of a stereotyped desire to get a ‘defensive’ type guy into the game in place of the ‘offensive’ type guy, showing a lack of understanding of what those terms mean. It looks to me as if those Brown minutes with Gagner were their first shifts together, *ever*. I hope you’ll forgive me for wondering why the hell Krueger would try this stunt with less than 10 minutes to go in a one-goal game versus the Red Wings while Datsyuk had been hard-matched against that Gagner line nearly the entire night.