Thursday, December 19, 2013

Point/Counterpoint: CD-R as top line

Welcome to another spirited and irregular edition of Point/Counterpoint, a resurrected series first found over on Flyers Faithful and now transplanted to the Phanatic.

This time around, Bob and Nick spar over the question of whether the Couturier-Read-Downie line should be given top billing over the struggling first line and how that determination should be made.

Nick: The line of Sean Couturier, Steve Downie, and Matt Read has been downright excellent in the last month and they deserve to be promoted to at least second-line minutes. First of all, let’s look at some "real-time stats" as NHL.com calls them. Between the three of them, they have 51 takeaways and 176 shots and 17 goals, while giving the puck away just 30 times total. Their average time on ice at even strength per game? All of them are playing under 14:25 per game.

Since the Downie acquisition on Halloween, the three have combined for 35 points (14G, 21A) in 18 games. That’s 18 percent of the team’s goals.  If you take away the lone short-handed goal scored by Couturier, that’s 13 goals, which means these players are responsible for roughly 28% of the team’s 46 goals scored at even strength. If we take it a step futher, and look at 5-on-5 goals, they’ve scored 10 of the team’s 45 goals, or 22%. All while skating just 13.3 minutes per game at 5-on-5. That’s a pretty big deal, wouldn’t you say?

Bob: Of course it is. But why would you want a bottom-six pairing, which is used to 45 second shifts every third change, logging more minutes in any situation?

Sure, without all the fancy stats, you can see that this new line, darling of the masses, has been key to the Flyers pulling themselves out of their first-month funk. Still, third lines by their very nature are built to do fairly specific things: provide a checking antidote to the opposition's first line, kill penalties, and provide an energetic spark when needed. If you try and stretch that any further, you risk physical breakdown and the mental mistakes which accompany that. And unlike the top two lines, which are supposedly built to give scoring punch, third-liners don't have that automatic snap-back if they're on for a goal against.

In an old-school sense, you can't make a soldier into a general very easily, so attempting to stretch those three guys beyond their assigned roles in their assigned minutes can invite disaster. The Flyers' margin of error this season has been pretty slim, and this is not the way to tip the scales.

Nick: This line’s production is even more interesting when you take into consideration where the play begins most of the time for them.

Adam Hall starts more often in the defensive zone than any Flyer forward at 51.5% of his even strength ice-time. He also averages just 6.0 minutes a game at even strength. Sean Couturier and Matt Read are the next closest forwards at 36.5% and 35.9% respectively and they see 13.8 minutes per game at even strength. Steve Downie starts in the defensive zone 27.3% of the time during his 13.3 minutes of even strength play per game, but he also starts just 25.2% of even strength plays in the offensive zone, while Sean Couturier starts 25.7% of the time in the offensive zone, and Matt Read is slightly higher at 27.4%. To put all of that in perspective, Claude Giroux starts 31.2% of his even strength play in the defensive zone, Jake Voracek clocks in at 27.8%, and Scott Hartnell is currently at 28.2%. Their offensive zone start percentage? 37.5%, 38.5%, and 40.5% respectively. They have comprised the team’s top-line for much of the season, but have much less ice to travel from the faceoff on most occasions.

What all of this means is that the Couturier, Downie, Read line starts more of their even strength plays in the defensive zone than any other line not counting the fourth line. It’s important to note though, that this line plays considerably more minutes at even strength as a unit than the fourth line. It’s pretty impressive that they’ve been able to generate as much offense as they have over their last 18 games considering they’ve had to travel the length of the ice more often than any of the other lines that see regular ice time in even strength situations.

Bob: Amazing that the above pretty much proves my point. Conditioning of a typical NHL player aside, you don't want to put added pressure to produce offense and wear out a line which, by necessity, starts inside its own defensive zone more often than it does in the offensive zone.

You constantly hear about coaches wanting players to work two ways and in all three zones, but that does tend to get tiring if time is collectively consumed having to work an extra 100 feet, and given more time per shift and more shifts, means that's collectively more than 1000 feet per game traversed in order to be both offensively proficient and defensively sound.

The best way to maximize the third line's effectiveness if given more ice time and given more scoring responsibility, is to work the line changes to their advantage, i.e. start CD-R only after the puck is frozen inside the offensive zone or somewhere else on their side of center ice.

Nick: What about how this line is used? This trio usually gets deployed against the top line of the opposing team. Courtesy of ExtraSkater.com, Sean Couturier and Matt Read both see 27.1% of their ice-time at 5-on-5, and Steve Downie is seeing 26.9% of his ice-time against the toughest forward competition of the other team. Those are the highest percentages of any forwards on the team. In terms of the top competition of the other team, including both the best forwards and defensemen, Braydon Coburn is at the top of the list for the Flyers at 29.6%.

The next three names? You guessed it: Matt Read (29.5%), Steve Downie (29.4%), and Sean Couturier (29.4%), right in a row. So this line sees the toughest competition, with the most ice to travel to create offense, and scores 28% of the team’s goals at even strength. If they faced lesser competition occasionally, and started in the offensive zone more frequently, maybe they’d be able to generate even more offense. Doesn’t it make sense to reward them with top-six minutes as a unit?

Bob: Nick, you ignorant slut.

As soon as Craig Berube makes the decision to bump the third line up to greater status and responsibility, they're not going to be matched as intently to cancel out the opposition's best line. That can only mean better things going forward for all three guys, who are more likely to skate against counterparts who wish to use speed and skill rather than dump-and-chase, bump-and-grind in the corners.

In that sense, you're going to have a better chance for impact than the historical Sutter-Sutter-Tocchet, Klatt-Otto-Podein, Kapanen-Radivojevic-Somik lines. But what made them so special is that they were given a set role, certain times to execute that role, and did so to the best of their abilities to provide supplemental scoring. The thought of any of these four lines being above the Kerr-Propp-Poulin, Legion of Doom, Blackhawk Down or Ginger Lines is unconscienable.

Whatever struggles are happening on this year's #1 pairing, they must be worked through in the natural course of the season, and the third line needs to play within itself for maximum effectiveness.

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