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Random Thoughts: Why not play the best players more?

The NHL is so close, but still so far away as the regular season doesn’t begin for another month. Until then, there will be plenty of discussion about who looks good in preseason, debates over who will make the playoffs, which teams will struggle and who will be blessed with the opportunity to start the season on Connor McDavid’s right wing.

Before we get to those topics, I want to discuss some different scenarios. A few are outside-the-box, which means many won’t like it because they are different than what hockey fans are used to, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.

LESS IS MORE

Oct 24, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) skates with the puck as Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) chases in overtime at PPG PAINTS Arena. The Penguins won 2-1 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What if the NHL reduced the roster to ten or eleven forwards?

It would mean more playing time for the best players. The NHL used to have smaller rosters, so this is not completely new. In 1953 they changed the roster from 15 skaters to 16. For the start of the 1971/1972 season they increased the roster to 17 skaters and then prior to the 1982/1983 season the roster increased to 18 and remained that way since.

Wayne Gretzky scored an NHL record 92 goals in 1981/1982 — the last year with a roster of 17 skaters. It might just be a coincidence, because he scored 71, 87 and 73 goals the next three years on an 18-skater roster, but for me, having the best players in the NHL on the ice more is better for the game.

What would happen if Connor McDavid played 24 or 25 minutes a game instead of 21? I’d argue even if he was fatigued, he’d still produce more than the 12th forward would if that forward was 100% rested. Some have suggested the pace of the game would slow down because the best players were playing more. I’m sure that is true, but the best D-men in the league play 27-29 minutes a game, and many of them conserve energy on the ice at certain times. They aren’t always jumping up in the rush.

So what if you only dressed ten or eleven forwards? I’m guessing the back pressure wouldn’t be as intense all the time. It would allow more time and space for the best players to make plays. And I don’t think the “slower” pace would be noticeable enough that people would think the game is slow. Faster doesn’t always equate to more entertaining or skilled.

There are no bad skaters in today’s NHL. They can all move, and that means less time and space. So if every forward is playing two-five minutes more per game, in theory they will be a bit more fatigued, which could lead to more mistakes, and more scoring chances.

Seeing more of McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Brock Boeser and the other skilled forwards excites me. I’d love it.

I realize the NHLPA would strongly oppose this, because it would lead to fewer jobs. That is fair. However, if you had one or two fewer players on the roster, then the remaining players would all get a bigger share of the salary cap.

I believe it would make the game more entertaining, and ultimately that is what the NHL should want.

Would you be in favour of a smaller roster?

NURSE IN TOWN

Mar 17, 2018; Sunrise, FL, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers with defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) in the third period at BB&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Darnell Nurse, despite not having a contract yet, was on the ice this morning for an informal skate with his teammates. Nurse and the Oilers have been very positive throughout this negotiation. He wants to be here and they want (and need) him. I’d be shocked if he didn’t have a contact by next Friday when the Oilers step on the ice for main camp.

“it is good to be here skating with the guys. This in an organization I want to be a part of. Hopefully we get something done before the first day of camp,” Nurse said this morning.

Nurse spent much of his summer working on improving his offensive game. He’d love to get on the powerplay more, but if not he plans on doing more at even strength. He worked with skills coach Adam Oates this summer specifically on doing more in the offensive zone. I asked him to discuss specifics on what he worked on.

“Reading and reacting is one thing, but having more confidence in what I’m able to do offensively is the main thing. I have a toolbox I haven’t really tapped into. I’m looking forward to doing that,” said Nurse.

I then asked if it is about him trying different things once he is in the offensive zone this year?

“I’m not sure it is try, but more about making the right reads. When you first get in the league you don’t want to force anything, and that is the same now, but now it is about having the confidence to make the plays you see,” Nurse said.

So much of the game is between the ears for players. You need the ability to see and read the play, but then you need to believe that you can make the play when you see it. Nurse did a lot of repetitious drills this summer focused on puck movement, and what making the play when he sees it.

Nurse’s skating ability allows him to transport the puck into the zone better than many NHL defenders, but now he wants to become more dangerous once he gains the zone. Look for him to slow the play down, ever so slightly, once he gains the zone and let a play develop rather than force it.

Nurse had 26 EV points last season, tied for 34th with Colton Parayko among NHL defenders. He has the ability to score 30 EV points and if he does that will put him in the top-20 for EV scoring. That should be his goal.

DO ANALYTICS ALWAYS HAVE TO BE NEGATIVE?

Hear me out. We can learn a lot from analytics. Of course they don’t tell the whole story, neither does the eye test, but when presented properly I believe they can really make you think about different aspects of the game. That is great. I love learning.

My concern is I find too many who write with an analytics-only background focus much more on what a player can’t do, rather than what they do well. Remember that NHL players are the best in the world. There isn’t a long list of players who could just step in the league and perform better. I understand critiquing them, it is part of the business, but I’m perplexed why some feel the need to be so negative.

One of my favourite reads is Murat Ates. I like his attention to the small details. He wrote many excellent articles on the Winnipeg Jets last year. His hard work, and insightful articles, landed him a full-time gig covering the Jets this season for The Athletic. Ates does a great job of incorporating analytics and system play into his articles. He doesn’t just applaud players, but he also doesn’t write about them like they are terrible.

Analytics has added a lot to sports. It is great, but those who rely on constant negativity and borderline insults of players makes little sense to me. It is always easier to rip a person when you never have to face them. We all know people who make comments online, that they would never say to a person’s face. I don’t believe that is necessary in covering sports. You can critique a player, without degrading them.

I read Dom Luszczyszyn’s article on the Oilers preview. He made some valid arguments about why the Oilers could struggle, but it was the subtle sniping at players that surprised me.

“Ryan Strome and Kyle Brodziak don’t bring much to the table.”

Brodziak has played 11 NHL seasons and 847 games. He produced 33 points as a 4th line centre, who got some 3rd line time. He is a solid PK player and faceoff guy. He is not flashy, but you don’t stay in the NHL that long by “not bringing much to the table.” Strome transitioned to centre last year, and not surprisingly, took awhile to adjust. He is not a dominant force, very few NHL forwards are, but how many other NHL players are clearly bringing more?

“Jujhar Khaira is fine on the fourth line, though still mostly replaceable.”

Mostly replaceable by whom? I don’t see a long list of players who can just slot in and score 11 goals and 21 points in their first NHL season. It is a very difficult league to score in, now more than ever.

Is he proven? Nope. And he might never be, but I find some who do a lot of analytical research on the NHL have forgotten how difficult it is to play in the NHL, never mind produce at a high rate.

It is easy to rave about McDavid and what he can do. He is a supreme talent, and in a very rare group. It is great to applaud and be amazed by what the highly skilled players do, but remember that the other 70% are still in the top 1% of what they do. It requires a lot of skill, determination and hard work to get there, and I understand part of the job is to criticize them — I do it — but I find lately it seems the criticism has become harsher than ever.

Analytics adds a lot to hockey, but it doesn’t always have to come with an underlying tone of negativity and snark. Ates has proved it can informative and critical without being demeaning.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I see it. **I don’t the need comment section to turn into insulting Dom or other writers. He does a lot of research and uncovers some very unique things.**

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Himynameistaylor

    I think some best players play about 60 minutes a night Jason, but I’d have to check. I’m unsure if Price, Holtby, Vasilevsky, Rask, and Murray all play the full 60 but I could be wrong idk i’m not a corsi math nerd

  • Rob...

    Jason, are you suggesting that those experts who use their ‘gut’/eye aren’t just as capable of unfairly commenting in a negative way? Just as stats can gloss over the intangibles that don’t make the sheets, the lack of those intangibles can make an impactful player hated by some. Calgary just shipped away a supposed top 2 Dman after claims that he wasn’t a team guy, or being ‘stupid as ~puck’ as one media guy put it on air. Pretty callous statements regarding a top 2 player.

    Both methods of evaluating a player shouldn’t be used in a vacuum.

  • Cambridge

    Reducing roster sizes is never going to happen, so let’s look elsewhere to see about increasing scoring, emphasizing star players, and creating a bit more space on the ice. The simplest solution is to get rid of the rule that allows a penalized team to ice the puck. Penalties will become more punishing, so their will be a bit more space on the ice, power play scoring will increase, and the best players will play a bigger role than they do now. Why not?

  • Jim Niekamp

    May I suggest, in the pre-season, experimenting with three forward lines and reserving the three remaining spots on the roster for specialists? They might play some spot shifts but would mostly focus on special teams. Ethan Bear needs to works on his defensive positioning to fit in the top-six, but he may be the organization’s best right-handed option at the point on the power play. Perhaps Scott Upshall no longer has the speed or stamina to play 15 minutes even-strength, but he could help out with penalty killing. Each period of an NHL game includes three timeouts for television advertising. That, along with line changes, should offer enough opportunities for an elite athlete to recover his breath. Football and baseball have specialists on the bench: the extra DB who takes the field on second-and-long or the ninth-inning pinch runner. Perhaps the Oilers coaching staff could be more creative than just rotating four sets of forwards and three pairs of defencemen.

  • Just facts

    Jason you are exactly right. I’ve been in leadership and coaching leaders for many years, as well as running complex analytics functions. The best leaders, in this case coaches, focus on what people do best and find ways to utilize those strengths. They don’t ignore weaknesses but they don’t dwell on them. They try if possible to neutralize those weaknesses and then build on the strengths. In business, just like in hockey, there are lots of analytics you can use if you want to drag someone down, just as you can find ones that can help you build an effective team. And just like in hockey, the analytics don’t tell you everything, a good leader can identify the player that will make the team stronger, irrespective of the numbers. One of the biggest challenges is finding people that are comfortable with the numbers and who understand the context of how best to use them. It seems like too many in the hockey analytics world are stuck at the level where you keep them in the back room to crunch the numbers but never let them engage a client.

  • kelvjn

    Not so long ago teams carried a dedicated fighter who plays 4min a night and makes league min 700k. In practice this is 50% between having one less skater(1982-ish roster) an having one who plays 10min a game(2018), in terms of minutes available to the top players(or other players on the team).

    It took a while but teams that switch away from there set up tend to be more successful because each player is 5/60 =(1/12) less fatigue on average.

    Hockey is a team sport.

    Modern NHL has very high sv% at evens compared to in the power play. These additional minutes made available are evens(how many pp time John Scott gets?), so reducing a 12 th forward doesn’t generate more offense on its own. However, it makes everyone a little more tired so a star that is allowed to conserve energy(float) by the coaching staff has a comparative advantage against the other players, given the stars teammates are good enough not to crater playing with additional fatigue.

  • MrBung

    Winning will solve most of the negativity. Easy to be critical of an Oilers team that has been downright awful do as long as people can remember and missed the playoffs again with the world’s greatest player.

  • Coaltrane

    I’m with you Jason. I’ve enjoyed Dom’s work breaking down teams this far, but I was put off by his analysis of the Oilers. In particular Strome, Brodziak Khaira. Good writer, knowledgable hockey person, probably only looking at numbers with respect to the oilers lesser players. Khaira has significant upside, Brodziak and Strome bring value to the team. I’m a little bullish on the oilers this year, so long as the blue line stays relatively healthy and Klefbom bounces back.

  • Billy Charlebois

    I don’t disagree about the thought of reducing the roster, but it’s probably a non-starter from the NHLPA’s perspective. I think the Oilers should experiment with dressing 11 forwards and 7 defencemen. Use McDavid, Draisaitl and Nuge to fill the extra spot, giving them a bit more ice time.

  • Total Points

    The Oilers should have have more ice time to the top players. For example if the top 4 defensemen play 100 minutes then the 5th and 6th only play 10 minutes each. Same scenario for the forwards. this would increase the skill level per minute by quite a bit

  • Jaxon

    Nurse didn’t get as much 4v4 or 3v3 as many other offensive D. His 24 5v5 points is 21st in the NHL and only 3 points behind Seth Jones’ and Drew Doughty’s (and Hamilton’s and Provorov’s) 27 pts for 13th overall. For example, Doughty got 12 of his 39 ES points at 3v3 and 4v4. That’s a big deal. Nurse is in very good company at 5v5.

    Rank Player 5v5 Pts
    13 Drew Doughty 27
    14 Dougie Hamilton 27
    15 Seth Jones 27
    16 Ivan Provorov 27
    17 Nick Leddy 26
    18 P.K. Subban 25
    19 Torey Krug 25
    20 Dmitry Orlov 24
    21 Darnell Nurse 24
    22 Deryk Engelland 23
    23 Marc-Edouard Vlasic 23
    24 Tyson Barrie 23
    25 Morgan Rielly 23
    26 Shayne Gostisbehere 23
    27 Josh Morrissey 23
    28 Noah Hanifin 23
    29 Zach Werenski 23