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Canucks, Hockey

Advanced Pedantics: Aidan schools Brian on zone starts and economic theory

Henrik Sedin and Zack Kassian

"Umm... Shouldn't you be backchecking right now?" "Nah, I'm good, thanks." (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

A quiet night at the Beitz house…

Aidan: Hey Brian, let’s play a quick game of word association.
Brian: Umm… OK.

A: Trevor Linden.
B: Hockey god.

A: Of course. Hockey play?
B: Spine board.

A: Right… Zdeno Chara?
B: $#!£ Giant.

A: Fair enough. The Sedins.
B: Soft minutes.

A: Woah, woah. Soft minutes? I’ll admit that the Sedins get a lot of offensive zone starts but—

B: Because they’re not great at defending, right? I’ve read that’s why they get the generous zone starts.

A: Yes, zone starts. It seems that hockey stat-heads are reluctant to praise the offensive production of Daniel and Henrik because they are given the advantage of starting nearly 80 per cent of their 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone. These stats prove, according to the narrative, that the twins are “sheltered” and defensively unsound.

B: Well if they were good defensive players, then why wouldn’t they begin more of their shifts in the defensive zone?

A: I’m glad you asked, Brian…

***

A: The answer lies in the concept of comparative advantage, developed by classical liberal economist David Ricardo about 200 years ago to show that specialization and trade can improve the welfare of both traders.

B: Of course! When does hockey not rely on 200-year-old economic theory?

A: Well, Glendale, for starters. But I do think there is some application to the Sedins. Let’s say that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the best offensive players on their team, and can produce 4 goals per 20 minutes of ice time when starting in the offensive zone.

B: So they’re playing the Leafs in this example?

A: Indeed. Further suppose that they are the best defensive players too, and can produce 3 “defensive stops” per 20 minutes when starting in the defensive zone, and that a defensive stop is as good as a goal.  Are you keeping up?

B: Like Tambellini on a backcheck.

A: Good. Now let’s say the Canucks have another pair of twins—the Pahlhotras—who can produce 1 O-zone goal or 2 D-zone stops per 20 minutes. Finally, suppose no line can play more than 20 minutes per game. Now, what combination of offensive and defensive zone assignments provides the best production for the team?

B: Well, since the Sedins are the team’s best scorers and defenders, I’d think it would be best to balance their offensive and defensive zone time.

A: Yes, you would think that. If you were over 200 years old.  Not to worry. I’ve prepared this helpful graph to show you the possible combinations.

Production rate /20 min

Sedin O/D split


Goals

D stops

20/0

15/5

10/10

0/20

Sedin

4

3

4

3 + 0.75

2+1.5

3

Pahlhotra

1

2

2

0.75 + 1

0.5+1

1

Total Goals and D-Stops

6

5.5

5

4

B: Umm… I get this, but why don’t you just explain it a little further so I’m sure we’re on the same page?

A: Right… Well, as you can see, the team gets the best result when starting the Sedin line entirely in the offensive zone and the Pahlhotra line entirely in the defensive zone, even though the Sedins are better than the Pahlhotras at defending (in this fanciful example). The important thing is that the Pahlhotras are better at defending than scoring, the Sedins are better at scoring than defending, and they are most efficiently employed in their respective areas of comparative advantage.

B: Like employing Brad Marchand in a crouched position near the corner boards?

A: You may want to talk to someone about this resentment you feel… Anyway, this conclusion rests on the assumption that a player’s ice-time per game is finite. The Sedins are going to play about 20 minutes per game, and every minute they spend defending is a minute of lost offence. It’s what an economist would call an “opportunity cost”.  Because the twins are better at offence, the cost of the lost scoring is greater than the (hypothetically) gained defending. Deploying the Sedins for more defensive zone time and cutting back on the Pahlhotra line’s ice time could produce short-term gains, but these could be wiped out as fatigue sets in in the long run.

B: I think I get it, but economics is hard for an English major like me. Do you have another way of explaining this that’s less “bull market” and more “all beef frank?”

A: Sure thing, Brian. Speaking of Franks, let’s cross Griffiths Way and head into BC Place. BC Lions slotback Geroy Simon does not play cornerback because the team is saving him for offensive reps. Khalif Mitchell might make a great O-lineman, but the Lions would lose some of his defensive prowess by playing him on both sides of the ball. In football, the coaches have the luxury of changing the entire on-field personnel when possession changes, which has allowed specialization to flourish. Teams have completely different player groups for offence, defence, and the transition between each. Hockey coaches don’t quite have that luxury—every player needs to be able to defend—but they can still make the most of the same principles when it comes to faceoff deployment.

B: But I think people don’t necessarily argue that the Sedins are terrible defenders or that if they were truly elite players they would be deployed in the D-zone more; they just suggest, as I might, that their offensive stats are flattered by their specialized deployment.

Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks

"The Rushin' Rocket"

A: It’s a fair argument, but it assumes that all players are best positioned to score goals when starting in the offensive zone. I think this applies to the Sedins, with their penchant for cycling, but a player like Pavel Bure—who seemed to score all of his goals off the rush—might actually have had fewer scoring opportunities with offensive zone in the high 70 percents.

B: I thought most of Bure’s scoring opportunities came on Granville…

A:

B: But I get your point. The Sedins are primarily deployed in the offensive zone not only because it can boost their production, but because it’s the most efficient way to deploy the team’s offensive and defensive assets.  Hmmm… Their minutes aren’t “soft” or even really “sheltered”—they’re managed to the point of maximum efficiency. Yeah?

A: Exactly! You’re picking up what I’m putting down.

B: OK, but one more question.

A: Yeah?

B: Can you get out of my room now?

A: Class dismissed!

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About aidanbc

Aidan has been a Canucks fan for (just) over 20 years. It was a 11-0 Vancouver victory over the trashy Calgary Flames on March 1, 1992 that made him realize this was the team for him. When not yelling at Henrik to shoot, Aidan can be found completing his graduate studies in Advanced Bureaucratic Red Tape and Pencil-Sharpening.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Advanced Pedantics: Aidan schools Brian on zone starts and economic theory

  1. Fascinating. Funny. And enlightening. Thanks.

    Posted by Charlene Fairchild (@cefair) | March 8, 2012, 10:59 am

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