After looking at Michigan’s even-strength scoring last week, I’m now convinced that the simplest explanation for why they sit a shade under .500 and fourth in Big Ten points isn’t so much an anemic 5v5 offense as a 5v5 defense that has allowed more goals than most predicted considering the roster composition, namely the experienced corps of defensemen. Quinn Hughes is an elite talent offensively, but his defensive game is often overlooked due to his size. His quickness and edge work allow him to make up for that as well as the plurality of risks he takes activating offensively. Joseph Cecconi is a steadying force and a great first-pairing defenseman and partner for Hughes; he’s assignment sound and intelligent with the puck. Nick Boka, a senior, is cut from the same cloth as Cecconi and a good partner for freshman Nick Blankenburg, who’s dynamic and should develop into a puck-moving defenseman once he gets a better handle on the position (he played forward in high school). Then there’s the Luke Martin-Griffin Luce pairing, two guys with over 75 games of collegiate experience each. A defense, though, is about more than just the defensemen you can ice; the forwards have to pull their weight as well.
Michigan outshot opponents 930-722 at even strength through 17 games, which is along the lines of what you’d expect given the possession-dominant system they play. But whereas they’ve scored 34 even-strength goals, opponents have netted 44. The goal-scoring disparity is perhaps best illustrated when we switch to percentages: Michigan is scoring on 3.7% of all even-strength shot attempts, while opponents are scoring on 6.1% of their even-strength shot attempts.
The shot data that MGoHockey beat writer David Nasternak has been keeping is down a few games (no shot charts were available for the LSSU series, one Wisconsin game, and one Michigan State game), but it’s not far off the aggregate data; ours has opponents scoring on 5.8% of shot attempts. Our data is broken down by zone, and the zone with the most activity happens to be the one right in front of the goaltender. Across 13 games, 27.1% of all shot attempts have come from what we’ve termed zone 1; draw a line between the faceoff dots and then at a 45-degree angle to the goalpost and that’s the area where most of the shot activity allowed by Michigan is occurring. The second-most active region is a small rectangle just above zone 1 formed by drawing a line up from the faceoff dots to the top of the faceoff circle and across, where 16.6% of shot attempts took place. Excluding zone 8 because nobody’s Gretzky and the numbers bear that out (0.3% of all attempts, both saved), the least dangerous zones on the ice are the ones that are the furthest from the goaltender. Michigan’s allowing 35.3% of all attempts from those three zones combined. Of that subset, three of 202 attempts found the back of the net (1.5%). Compare that with just zone 1, where 25 of 155 attempts beat the goaltender (16.1%). That follows logic, but it doesn’t help win the proverbial race to three goals.
[After THE JUMP: Systems issue or something else?]
A good amount of the time the defense looks like the above but there's also been a tendency toward...[James Coller]
Even-Strength Defensive Miscues
The easiest assumption to make based on the numbers is that there’s some systemic problem that Michigan needs to address in how their defensive structure handles netfront threats, but that’s not what I’ve seen this season. David has mentioned time and again that the primary issue with the defense is inconsistency. From his recap of the home shootout loss to Michigan State at the beginning of December:
The issue with Michigan really comes down to consistency. They have enough individual skill, but the defensemen get out of position or lose their man too regularly. It didn’t come back to bite them tonight, but it has enough throughout the year
We start with a somewhat understandable example of a defender losing their man. Minnesota's able to beat pressure from the forecheck and get through the neutral zone thanks to a nice touch pass. Once they've gained the zone everyone is marked except for the hard-charging far-side winger. He gets the puck near the top of the zone, which draws the attention of both Martin and Nick Pastujov. Pastujov sells out for a block at the same time Martin switches and tries to get his stick on the skater but the pass gets through and is only kept out due to an outstanding save by Strauss Mann. There's a rebound, though, and that's where Martin lunging at the guy with the puck and either losing track of the one he was marking when entering the zone or consciously choosing to go to the side of the net comes into play. He's watching the puck, and it's as he sees the rebound that Martin realizes he needs to do something about the skater who's on the doorstep of the crease. He gets a stick out but doesn't recover enough to alter the shot in any way.
Breakdowns are fairly common when an opponent gets extended time in the offensive zone and even more so when there's a goalmouth scramble, but here there's one particular piece of the goal that stands out to me as unusual. Will Lockwood does an excellent job locking up a Minnesota player and making sure there's no backside tap-in available off the slapshot around the four second mark, but he lets the skater go behind the net without following immediately after said shot. I'm not sure whether Lockwood should have followed or whether he thought a Slaker on the opposite side would switch onto #22. Slaker has to step out and try and get into the shooting/passing lane at the point, and there's #22 just hanging out alone in the corner. He walks in and gets an unimpeded shot attempt-- and goal.
This next one's about as easy to explain as they get, but it fits with the theme: an individual makes a single mistake and puts the goaltender in an untenable position. Here Blankenburg hits the ice to take away the pass on a 2-on-1 but he hits a second too early, and that allows the Minnesota skater to walk around him.
And here Martin makes the right choice in coming off his guy to try and get in the way of the free winger as the cross-ice pass arrives. That turns into a free grade-A opportunity as Pastujov again dives at the puck carrier, a choice where you have to appreciate the effort he gives but is more frustrating as this time Martin has the puck carrier more covered than the last time and thus the dive is even less necessary than before.
I don't think this is a system issue. They don't come out that far when the puck's above the faceoff circle, which makes sense as a way of trying to bait longer, lower percentage shots. They also are generally okay at switching; here Michigan survives 41 seconds of time in their defensive zone against what is probably the best offense in the nation and the only time there appears to be anything resembling a slip up is when Slaker steps up to the point after it looks like Norris was injured blocking a shot, which results in that area being double covered and a winger wide open on the backside. Slaker's trying to help his teammate, though, so I'm not going to dock him for that.
And here good gap control by Luce and Boka in the neutral zone allows Slaker time to catch up while the defensemen handle the nearest threats, turning a 3-on-2 back into a 3-on-3. From there, Boka tries to tie his man up and, though he does get a shot off, slows him enough that Mann can easily read the puck.
Michigan does well in the defensive zone when they get numbers back. This is just one clip, but I could have pulled a slew of these from the Penn State series where Michigan has everything covered, guys get into position to support each other on the boards, and the puck is moved out of the defensive zone with relative ease.
In all of these there's one link in a chain snapping on either a quick rush the other way or a slip-up after extended possession. Effort isn't an issue, but there seems to be a tendency to go for the puck when things fall apart and that leaves guys uncovered. As seen above, Michigan tends to give up quality shot attempts in bunches when they start chasing in the defensive zone, and that could in part explain the shot volume issue from zone 1 despite a concerted effort to play below the dots.