Nobody in the league can agree on just how to quantify puck possession. But everybody knows that hockey's most elusive statistic is essential to winning the Stanley Cup
This is an article from the May 30, 2011 issue
After his Canucks dropped a 4--3 decision at San Jose last Friday in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, forward Henrik Sedin attributed the loss to Vancouver's dismal showing in the first period, when the Sharks zoomed to a 3--0 lead. "Well, they outshot us 15--1 [in the first 14:53], scored three times and didn't let us have the puck for 12 minutes," he said. "When you keep the puck to yourself, that's a good formula for success."
As the outcomes of the Stanley Cup playoff games continue to prove, puck possession is what matters most these days—even if there is no tidy way to quantify what it means. Football has quarterback rating, basketball has offensive efficiency and baseball minds meditate on imposing acronyms like BABIP, VORP and WAR. But for the one pro league that has Sabres, the NHL is short on mainstream sabermetrics.
"It's funny because our game looks at numbers just like other games," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, "but as much value as we assign to puck possession and how essential it is to winning, we really don't have a numerical value for it that everyone can agree on. Remember when [A's general manager] Billy Beane started emphasizing on-base percentage in baseball? It wasn't just a curious number; it changed the game. It redefined the type of player you wanted on your team. It's coming in hockey; we just have to figure out how."
In the meantime teams will believe that simply holding the puck will soon have them hoisting the Cup. In evaluating the showdown with the Canucks, San Jose forward Ryane Clowe says, "The greatest strength of both teams is that they really know how to manage the puck. Same with Boston and Tampa [in the Eastern Conference finals]. Whatever scheme, whatever type of game you play, any team that gets this far has to."
TODAY'S HOCKEY cognoscenti refer almost constantly to the Red Wings teams of the late 1990s—stocked with swift, puckhandling European players—as the template for today's elite puck-possession teams. The hallmarks of Detroit's style have endured: win a high percentage of face-offs; carry pucks into the offensive zone when possible, but turn and regroup if necessary; employ mobile defensemen capable of joining the rush; increase takeaways; cut down on turnovers.
"When Scotty Bowman put five Russians on the ice at once, they did things differently," says Holland, who took over from Jim Devellano as Detroit's G.M. in 1997. "If they hit a wall at the blue line, they didn't shoot the puck around the boards; they circled and tried it again, but they didn't give up the puck. In the offensive zone they cycled and didn't give up the puck. They had skill and balance, and they frustrated people. Soon our energy players, our grind lines, they could hold on to it too. You see that today. In the old days you banged the other team's D; today you make them chase you so they're too pooped to make a play at the other end."
Sharks captain Joe Thornton, among the game's best passers—as well as, at 6'4" and 230 pounds, one of its toughest skaters to knock off the puck—acknowledges the Wings' influence on his own play. "My game totally changed," says Thornton, who entered the league as a Bruin in 1997 with a dump-and-chase mandate. "Watch this series [with Vancouver]. We do a middle drive, where the center drives to the net [with the puck]. I never used to do that. I'd be in the corner."
The crackdown on obstruction fouls after the 2004--05 lockout further rewarded aggressive offensive play. "And it's kept games interesting," says San Jose G.M. Doug Wilson. "Teams used to sit on leads. Now because defensemen can't slow down the other team without getting penalized, if you go into defend mode too soon, you're more likely to lose the lead." Take Tampa Bay's 5--3 home win over Boston in Game 4 last Saturday, which squared the series at 2-all: The Lightning scored five unanswered goals in the game's final 34 minutes after falling behind 3--0.
Says Tampa G.M. Steve Yzerman, "Without the red line and with relaxed rules on icing, the puck can go from behind your net into the other team's end in an instant, so there's not much playing in the neutral zone anymore. The more you have the puck, the more you can attack and generate offense. That's the way I believe you defend a lead now: attack and make the other team defend."
Possession starts with winning face-offs. "If you establish control," says Thornton, "the other team is on its heels for maybe 30 seconds, almost a whole shift, because of one draw." The face-off is the rare ingredient in hockey's possession stew that actually comes with its own numbers. The Canucks and the Sharks ranked one-two in face-off percentage during the regular season, supporting the mantra, Own the dot, own the game. Some coaches would widen that maxim to include owning the whole face-off circle. After the Predators lost 40 of 66 draws to the Canucks in a 1--0 defeat in the opener of their second-round series on April 28, Nashville coach Barry Trotz called out his wingers as much as his centermen for the failure. The majority of face-offs—75% is Trotz's estimate—are not won cleanly and remain up for grabs in the circle after the initial clash of sticks. "How can you win," the coach asked, "if you never start with the puck?" At their next practice the Predators ran face-off drills for the majority of the session. Adequately chastened, Nashville won the face-off battle 51--38 in Game 2 and pulled out a 2--1 overtime win.
The face-off totals mirrored the scoreboard in the first four games of the Eastern Conference finals. In Tampa Bay's opening 5--2 victory the Lightning outdrew Boston 41--26, and normally reliable Bruins center David Krejci was an anemic 3 for 18 on the dot. In winning the next two games the Bruins won 78 of 138 (56.5%) face-offs.
They also outfoxed Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher's ballyhooed 1-3-1 forecheck by shooting pucks on goal from long range, which kept the trailing Lightning defenseman from knowing which way to go to retrieve the puck. Boston then entered the zone with speed and used aggressive forechecking to keep Tampa's defense from moving the puck to its forwards. It wasn't a case of amassing puck time as much as it was a concerted effort to prevent giveaways in the neutral zone. The Bruins also used soft chips past the Lightning's three-man wall, a maneuver Wilson says his Sharks often employ too, as the modern game has once again embraced the old-time—and oft-derided—offensive tactic of dump and chase. "It used to be that if I pushed the puck ahead of you, a self-chip, to try to retrieve it, if I didn't put it in deep, I was giving up the puck, because you could hold me up and stop me from getting it back unless I had time to fight through your check," he says. "Now the defenseman can't hold you up unless he takes a penalty, and he has his back to the puck you're about to retrieve... . [The self-chip is] a possession play now."
In the West the battle for possession began even before the first puck was dropped, as Thornton challenged Canucks center Ryan Kesler to a fight at the opening face-off. Kesler, who was matched against Thornton for most of the first two games in Vancouver, demurred. "When Joe has the puck," Kesler says, "he's so strong on his skates, it's pretty useless to play him; I have to play his stick. We really have to start with the puck because then we play at our pace and they have to play our game—and Joe can't have the puck."
Kesler's efforts have been even more crucial because both Henrik and Daniel Sedin have hinted that they are playing through injuries. Though the twins have combined for 15 points in leading the Canucks to a 3--1 series advantage through Sunday (when Vancouver beat the Sharks 4--2), their three goals have all come on the power play. If they are not healthy, it would explain their struggles while playing at even strength, when they have a combined -12 rating for the postseason. Both have had trouble establishing any sort of puck-control cycle in the offensive zone. In Vancouver's 3--2 win over the Sharks in Game 1, it was the Canucks' third line, which got a goal from center Max Lapierre, that earned much of the postgame praise. "You saw how much they had the puck in San Jose's end, like every time they were on the ice," goalie Roberto Luongo said after the game.
The NHL kept a form of time-of-possession statistics between 1997 and 2004, tracking the amount of time a puck spent per game in each third of the ice, but never accumulated them over a season to consider their value. "There wasn't much demand for them," says Benny Ercolani, the league's chief statistician. But in the new postlockout world, demand seems certain to increase. One obstacle to getting a standardized number is that many of hockey's newer stats—such as giveaways, takeaways and hits—are at the whim of hometown scorekeepers. It's a case of one man's strategic dump-in morphing into another man's giveaway.
As a result teams are on their own to compile and break down numbers differently—including every one of the conference finalists. "Hockey is a game of flow," says Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis. "No, we don't keep a numerical evaluation. We keep time in their zone, time when our defense participates in the play... . Hmm, well I guess we do [keep a numerical evaluation]. It's possible, but it's not always very useful." Says Yzerman, "I'm not aware that we keep time of possession. We keep scoring chances, quality shots, scoring chances against, things like that, as a reference." Bruins G.M. Peter Chiarelli says his club emphasizes the location of its scoring chances. "You could have good time of possession and be on the periphery," he explains. And Wilson is coy about whether the Sharks tabulate their own possession stats. "Maybe," he says. "I can't tell you."
Blame Holland's Red Wings for the lack of uniformity. Most of Detroit's scouting staff has been in place for more than a decade, and its sense of what constitutes effective possession play is intuitive rather than codified or numerically defined. "You just have a sense," Holland says. "The type of player you want, the type of situation you reference for your next game, you see it."
If the definition of puck possession remains hazy, its resonance is clear. The Stanley Cup champs are likely to be the ones who best master it.