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Andrighetto, Thomas and coaching with analytics

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What can quality of competition, zone start percentage and relative Corsi tell us about the future of coaching?

Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey Club

One of the best things about the EOTP community, in my opinion, is the amount of reader comments posted on our articles. Discussion generates better ideas, and we’d be hard-pressed to find the same quality of discussion anywhere else in the hockey blogosphere.

Some of the comments on the Christian Thomas Top 25 Under 25 article I found particularly interesting. Several readers contrast the 5’9" Thomas with the 6’5" Michael McCarron, and suggest that the latter is a better prospect due to his prodigious size. I have no trouble accepting that hockey is a physical game, that 5’9" is quite small by NHL standards, and that a 6’5" guy who can play is a rare gem indeed. Still, it would be unfair to sell guys like Thomas and Sven Andrighetto short using that logic, as you’ll see below.

Shoot to thrill

Over the past few months, I’ve been honing my programming skills by combing through AHL individual stats since 2007 and attempting to find metrics which correlate with future NHL success. Points-per-game remains the simplest and most robust precursor to scoring in the Big Leagues, but another promising statistic is something I refer to as Age-Adjusted Shot Share.

Shot Share being the percentage of a team’s total shot taken by one particular player, adjusting for age allows one to ignore minor-league veterans as such Brian Willsie, Nigel Dawes and Martin St. Pierre and focus on younger prospects while being able to work with a larger sample size than goals and points.

Recent Bulldog grads who have scored well on AASS include: Max Pacioretty, who posted some of the highest recorded scores across the AHL in his last 2 minor-league campaigns, Brendan Gallagher, who, despite not having the finishing ability of Pacioretty, is almost as good of a volume shooter and Michael Bournival, who seemingly came out of nowhere to make the Habs’ roster last season. Going back a few more years, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostsitsyn, Mikhail Grabovski, Matt D’Agostini and Maxim Lapierre all rated well, while most of the famous draft busts (such as Kyle Chipchura) did not. The only forward to become an NHL fixture with a sub-par AASS rating is David Desharnais, which is not too surprising given his pass-first style and the identity of his left winger. There were just a few false positives - guys who have high AASS ratings but have not had consistent NHL success: Ben Maxwell, Aaron Palushaj and Louis Leblanc, who shot at Pacioretty-levels in his first pro season but saw his numbers absolutely crater in the next two years before being dealt to Anaheim.

In any case, looking over the current Hamilton roster, two guys stick out as having the ability to consistently put pucks on target: Christian Thomas (closest comparable: Matt D’Agostini) and Sven Andrighetto (closest comparable: Andrei Kostitsyn). As rare as a 6’5" power forward is, it seems to me that these two could be the real gems currently in the Habs’ minor-league system. Whether in Midget A or in the NHL, You have to shoot the puck to put up goals, and beyond these two, there are no shooters in Hamilton right now.

The ideal coach

Let’s switch topics and talk about the importance of coaching for one second.

Last year, while in Ottawa to cover a Habs vs Senators game for Canadiens.com, I had a conversation with the team’s four radio broadcasters: John Bartlett and Sergio Momesso of TSN 690, and Martin McGuire and Dany Dubé, who call the game in French for Cogeco. We were all freezing our butts off in the Senators’ frigid practice facility, waiting for media availability, when Dany said suggested that NHL coaches manage their players in a fundamentally different way than those in juniors – NHL coaches ask you what you can bring to the team right now, instead of taking the time to work with you to improve your game. Not too surprising a statement considering the win-now mentality in the pro game, but perhaps there is a better way for coaches to get the most out of their players.

Fundamentally speaking, coaches at any level make any kind of adjustments for two reasons: 1) to improve his team’s odds of winning in the current game, or 2) to improve his team’s odds of winning in a future game. For developmental coaches (such as those in juniors or an NHL minor league affiliate), a third objective could be added to the list: to improve the odds of his players successfully moving up to the next level of competition.

Examples of the first may be to switch to a defensive scheme to protect a late lead, or pulling the goalie in the dying minutes of the third period in an attempt to tie the game. Examples of the second may be to send rookies out on powerplay duty, or trying new line combinations in a game whose outcome is all but assured.

In the third situation, minor league coaches could be well-served by manipulating a prospect’s Quality of Competition and Zone Start ratio in order to simulate an NHL environment while tracking their players’ possession and scoring stats. For players like Andrighetto and Thomas, whose main question mark revolves around whether their offensive skills can translate to the NHL, it could very well be possible to test out how they would fare against NHL competition by playing them against the opposition’s top line, with a fair share of defensive zone starts, in the AHL.

An AHL team’s top players are, by definition, replacement-level NHLers, so if a player like Christian Thomas can maintain a good Corsi rating and score at a 0.5 point per game clip while playing shutdown minutes for the Bulldogs, then we could assume that he could, at the very least, play fourth-line exploitation minutes with good success for the Canadiens. All this hinges on the tracking of key metrics such as QoC, ZS%, CorsiRel and Even Strength Points/60minutes. Beyond aiming to win the next game, the coach’s duty in an analytical hockey organization is to collect large enough sample sizes in order to test hypotheses and come to conclusions. The best developmental coaches should be equal parts leader, teacher and data journalist.

Integrating advance stats with coaching would take away some of the uncertainty associated with prospect development while identifying young, skilled and cheap players who could play a depth role effectively at the NHL level. Once in the NHL, we would then have enough analytics tools at our disposal to see whether a guy like Christian Thomas could be the next Michael Ryder, or the next Matt D’Agostini.