Welcome to the first in a three-part series intended to take a closer look at the six most important topics of the hockey season thus far. In case your attention and time were siphoned by football and basketball, this year’s hockey team is in a similar place to last year’s at the same point. That squad limped into the GLI at 7-7-2, then lost in the first round of that tournament to Bowling Green. I remember thinking after that game that the season was more or less over, so of course they went on a Frozen Four run.
This year’s team has a fairly similar record (6-7-4) and has taken a step forward in its execution of Mel Pearson’s possession-oriented system. Though they’ve been adept at hanging onto the puck and generating attempts they haven’t been able to turn those attempts into high-quality scoring chances, and the roster composition is such that the list of candidates for a second-half breakout isn’t as long as it was last season. This team seems to be a more fully formed one, for better and worse. They are one of the nation’s best teams at generating shots at even strength and on the power play, and the first unit power play has to be one of the best puck moving squads in the nation. Michigan’s desperately needed them to be that, too, as they can’t find a way to score five-on-five despite a bevy of shot attempts. Just how good is Michigan’s power play, and what’s going on at even strength? We’ll use some of the shot-tracking data David’s been diligently inputting after the break.
[After THE JUMP: Quantifying the difference one guy makes]
The numbers aren’t bad on the whole: 34 even-strength goals over 17 games for an average of 2.0 per. Things get decidedly more iffy when you start digging down, though. Michigan has played one team outside the conference (Western) that would be in the tournament if we use the current PairWise, and Michigan put up one of their two most offensively impressive series of the year against them with 10 total goals, including six at even strength. Those were the second and third games of the year, though, so for the purposes of this segment we’ll look mostly at conference play.
Michigan’s next offensive explosion came on a road trip to Happy Valley in the middle of November. Michigan notched 12 total goals that weekend, nine of which were at even strength. Michigan collectively shot 20% and 17.6% in those two games, far outpacing their season average of 8.4%. They have scored 11 even-strength goals in their other eight conference games for a cool 1.375 per contest. Last weekend’s series against Minnesota was a sort of miniature offensive surge, as five of their 11 EV goals came against the Gophers. In six games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, Michigan scored an average of one even-strength goal each game.
We can say with certainty that possession isn’t the culprit here. Michigan’s system is working: the lowest number of shot attempts (goals+saves+blocks+misses) they’ve had in conference play is 46, which they’ve recorded twice. One of those 46 attempt nights was the first game against Penn State in which Michigan shot 20%, scored two on the power play, three at even strength, and tacked on an empty netter for good measure. Their second lowest number of attempts is 63, which they recorded in the second game of the Notre Dame series and the home game against Michigan State. Other than that, they’ve been putting up 70+ attempts.
So, if Michigan is throwing the kitchen sink at the net every game, why aren’t they converting? A lot of that comes down to not having the playmakers to finish chances or generate high-quality looks. The next section is about the puck-moving skill and chance generation of the first-unit power play, but that skill is evident at even strength as well. Excepting them, there have been a few even-strength standouts. Nick Pastujov has six EV goals, including five in conference play. Jack Becker has done a really nice job around the net and has four EV goals to show for it (three in B1G play). M. Pastujov has two EV goals (one in B1G games); Luke Morgan, who got a little preseason buzz as a possible boost to the offense, has two EV goals, both in conference games; Dakota Raabe also has 2 EV, his one in B1G play a conversion near the net set up by a great pass from Quinn Hughes. Nick Blankenburg, Garrett Van Wyhe, Griffin Luce, Adam Winborg, and Jack Olmstead each have one EV goal. All told, Michigan has 21 even-strength goals not by their top unit over the course of 17 games; 15 of those goals have been scored in Michigan’s 10 conference games. Statistically, Michigan’ second-through-fourth-line forwards and second-and-third-pair defensemen have actually increased their output by about 0.64 even-strength goals per game in conference play.
David has been diligently tracking shot data whenever it’s available, and with that we’ve been able to build a database that gives some insight into how Michigan’s shooting by area of the ice. The House area that he mentions in his recaps extends from the top of one faceoff circle to the other, down to the faceoff dots, and on a diagonal to each goal post. Others call it the home plate area because it looks like home plate; whatever you call it, it’s the area where the most dangerous scoring chances occur.
Our data set is missing the Michigan State road game and one of the Wisconsin games, but it allows us some insight into how Michigan compares to its opponents at even strength in terms of dangerous opportunities. The greatest disparity in Michigan’s even-strength shot attempts and their opponent’s comes in attempts that find the back of the net; Michigan turns a shot attempt into a goal from home plate on 2.97% of their total attempts, while their opponent is scoring from home plate on 4.62% of their total attempts. (Goaltending will be discussed in a future post.) Otherwise the numbers are relatively close, with 20.0% of Michigan’s total attempts from the House and saved versus 19.95% of similar opponent chances; 8.11% of Michigan's total attempts are from the House and blocked while 8.64% of opponent attempts are from the same area and blocked; 9.7% of Michigan’s total attempts are House attempts that miss the net, while 9.26% of their opponent’s total attempts are from the House and go wide.
We’ll start with a quick clip of the top unit (plus Becker, but you get the drift) and their puck movement at even strength. Looks like a power play, with that cross-ice movement. They’re excellent at creating dangerous chances because they pull defenders all over the place.
My best guess as to why the numbers are the way they are despite the first GIF is shown in the GIF above. Tally it up and that GIF has two attempts, including a home plate attempt, and a lengthy amount of offensive zone time. The strategy for Michigan’s lower lines and pairings seems to be get the puck deep, try to fling it to the middle if there’s a chance, and work it back to the point if there’s not. There was nothing particularly dangerous there—the skater in the slot was well covered—but they drew a penalty, which gets the top unit back on the ice and in effect makes this a successful shift.
Here we see the same general strategy, but with the addition of speed. Warren’s skating allows him to slip a defender, which creates an odd-man situation for Michigan. The strategy remains the same, though: throw it on net and hope somebody cleans up. This isn’t the worst strategy in the world when you don’t have a bevy of dynamic scorers. Sometimes that centered puck is going to get deflected in and other times you’re going to draw a penalty by way of clutching and grabbing or out of frustration (like the cross check above). I think there’s a chance that a second scoring line (or at least most of a line) emerges in the second half, but I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the way ahead for the bottom-six forwards and second and third pairs.
Again, we start with how things look on the whole. Michigan’s power play has 17 goals, though just seven have come in their 10 conference games. Even so, the difference between what’s happening at even strength and on the power play is picked up by the eye test. The power play’s top unit is a scoring deluge in wait, what with Quinn Hughes’ puck movement, Norris’ zone entries (and, of late, one-timer), Lockwood’s netfront work, Cecconi’s steadiness at the point, and Slaker sniping. Michigan can also trot out Becker, Nick Pastujov (three of his nine goals have come with the man advantage), and Nick Blankenburg and maintain a fairly dynamic second unit.
Breaking down their opportunities further, Michigan has scored on seven of 43 in-conference chances and 10 of 43 non-conference chances. In other words, they were averaging 6.14 chances per non-conference game and are now averaging 4.3 chances per in-conference contest. With almost two full additional power-play opportunities per game, it’s not hugely surprising that Michigan potted three more goals in three fewer games; Michigan converted 23.2% of non-conference opportunities and 16.2% of conference chances. According to College Hockey News’ stat page, they lead the nation in power-play shot attempts with 263.
Above is a good look at the zone entries from Norris I mentioned above. He has a tendency to come in on the right side and cut across the ice, which sucks in defenders and opens up his pass. The other thing worth mentioning in this clip is the threaded-needle cross-ice pass, which few guys outside of Quinn Hughes can pull off. He does it with some regularity, though, and it’s particularly impactful with Norris waiting on the wing to one-time it. Michigan didn’t convert here, but they created two high-quality opportunities on three attempts. Not bad for an offense that’s otherwise had difficulty generating good chances.
Here’s another example of Norris going side-to-side to gain the zone and keep the defense from stepping up on him. Another cross-ice pass, this time from Norris, creates an excellent deflection opportunity for Lockwood as Cecconi sees that he has an opportunity to bank the puck in off Lockwood’s blade. From there Michigan resets, with Hughes pulling across one of the upper two defenders on MSU’s box. The other defender doesn’t switch, which leaves Norris open for a one-timer. This is another quality opportunity because Slaker’s screening the goaltender. Michigan got two high-quality scoring chances in the 18 seconds, turning one into a goal.
The excellent power-play puck movement mentioned in the article’s opening is on display here. They move the puck side-to-side and use the Cecconi at the point as the quarterback, and then Hughes’ skating is its own two-defender threat once he decides to come down. That sets up an attempt from Lockwood, and though that’s broken up it’s the threat of Hughes being able to pick a quick pass to Lockwood for an on-hand attempt or a cross-ice needle that would give Slaker a wide open chance that’s the threat. Hughes is able to get the puck back to Cecconi, and even though his shot is a long bomb, it’s a quality chance that finds the back of the net both because he has Norris setting a screen and because he wrong-foots a snap shot while still skating to his right.
More than any one player, I think Michigan’s power play is poised to have a breakout second half, and it’s the one element that could most easily open up the road to additional conference points. Michigan scored at a goal-per-game clip in the first half, which on the whole made them responsible for nearly a third of the team’s offense. There’s a clear downside to that, as Michigan will have to maintain its current level of puck possession and fight the whim of the whistle. The puck possession piece doesn’t seem like it should be an issue, as they’ve faced every Big Ten squad save Ohio State and won Corsi by a healthy double-digit margin in every game except the two against Penn State (M had 10 fewer attempts in game one and one more in game two). It’s also a system that lends itself to drawing penalties, which Michigan has had no trouble doing all season. For example, the number of penalties drawn in conference games for which we have shot data: 5, 3, 5, 1, 4, 7, 5, 5, 2, and 6.
We have Michigan with 92 shot attempts on 31 power-play opportunities for an average of 2.97 attempts per opportunity. They are scoring on 7.6% of power-play shot attempts during the Big Ten season (minus the Wisconsin and MSU games for which we couldn’t get shot data). Our numbers have Michigan with 112 attempts on 33 chances during the non-conference slate (we don’t have data for the Lake State series that cost $30 to stream), which averages out to 3.39 attempts per opportunity and a goal on 8.0% of attempts. Our numbers differ a bit from CHN’s, but even if we use their whole-season data and the 263 attempts listed on their site, that has Michigan scoring on 6.5% of power-play shot attempts. It seems like the road ahead for a team scoring on just 3% of their even-strength attempts from the most dangerous area of the ice is continued reliance on the power play, as well as their skaters’ ability to draw penalties.