Advanced statistics aren't for everyone, especially in hockey. While this isn't going to be a tutorial or an advertisement for them, one of the most interesting pieces of data being tracked by Gabe Desjardins over at Behind the Net is offensive zone start. Basically, offensive zone start is the percentage of time a player is on the ice for a 5-on-5 offensive zone faceoff.
What's interesting about zone start is that it not only puts almost every other statistic in context (Corsi, Fenwick, plus/minus, goals, etc.) but with a slight modification, it shows you what the coaches think of a particular player. With the help of Vic Ferrari's phenomenal Time on Ice site (which Broad Street Hockey links to after most every game), we're able to keep track of where players begin their shifts. From there, I have begun calculating non-icing zone starts to see how many times a player was selected by the coaches to begin his shift in a particular zone.
It is with this backdrop that we will look at Mike Richards. For the past couple of years, Richards has been the Flyers' best defensive forward, often drawing the tough minutes - playing against the other team's top line and starting in his defensive zone often. So far this year, his first without Simon Gagne, Richards has seen his role change. First, let's look at who he's been lining up against:
Game 1 (at Pit): Malkin, Kunitz, and Crosby
Game 2 (at STL): Boyes, Perron, and Steen
Game 3 (vs Col): Stastny, Galiardi, and Stewart
Game 4 (vs TB): Stamkos, St. Louis, and Downie
Game 5 (vs Pit): Crosby, Kennedy, and Cooke
Game 6 (vs Ana): Perry, Getzlaf, and Beleskey
Game 7 (vs Tor): Kessel, Grabovski, and Kulemin
It's here that we see a shift in how Richards' is being used:
Game 8 (at CBJ): Wilson, Clark, and Pahlsson
Game 9 (vs Buf): Grier, Ennis, and Adam
Game 10 (at Pit): Asham, Rupp, and Adams
Game 11 (vs NYI): Tavares, Parenteau, and Martinek
Game 12 (vs Car): Cole, Ruutu, and Sutter
Game 13 (vs NYR): Frolov, Prust, and Sauer
Through seven games, Richards was continually lining up against the other team's top line and/or best players. After the 7th game, that changed. Part of the problem is who Richards' linemates were. Through the first eight games, he was almost always with one of Jeff Carter or Claude Giroux. In game 9, however, Richards was paired with James van Riemsdyk and Nikolay Zherdev. In games 10 and 11, he was with van Riemsdyk and Andreas Nodl. Games 12 and 13 saw him with van Riemsdyk and Eric Wellwood.
What all of that has in common is that for the past five games, Richards has been paired with van Riemsdyk. The second common thread in there is that Richards is no longer playing against the opposition's best. Simply put, Richards is now being asked to carry his wingers in the defensive zone rather than being asked to anchor a top line that can both shut down the best players while simultaneously being asked to score on them.
This becomes even more evident when you look at how the coaches are utilizing Richards. And here is where we'll look at zone starts. Last year, Richards had a 46.8% offensive zone start. This year, according to Behind the Net, Richards had a 51.1% offensive zone start through 11 games. Using Vic Ferrari's numbers, Richards has a 49.5% offensive zone start through 13 games. Because Vic breaks his numbers down by game, I've used his calculations to determine the non-icing zone starts. So far this year, Richards has a 59% non-icing offensive zone start, over 4% higher than the Flyers as a team. In other words, rather than being used as the defensive forward, Richards is being sheltered in the offensive zone.
Not only is Richards on the ice for a higher percentage of offensive zone faceoffs than the team, only Danny Briere, Ville Leino, and Nik Zherdev have a higher percentage. That is extremely telling, since nobody will confuse those three with a Selke Finalist as best defensive forward. The difference is that those three players need to be in the offensive zone. They are your scorers, and they are the ones who you want to hide from the defensive zone, not because they're weak defensively - even though they might be - but because they are most likely to take advantage of time in the offensive zone.
I don't think it is a stretch to say Richards is still an elite shut-down, two-way, number one center in this league. In fact, Derek Zona crunched some numbers and proved that he is. Two separate times. In looking at how Richards is being used this year, however, suggest the coaching staff has decided that's no longer the best way for Richards to help this team win.
For the past six games, Richards is being used as an anchor on what could easily be considered a third line. After experimenting with Richards and Carter on the same line, the Flyers put Carter with Giroux and saw some success. That left Richards the leftover top-9 forwards on this team. Granted, the Flyers have better top-9 leftovers than a lot of teams in the league, but Richards has been left with a struggling, defensively suspect player in van Riemsdyk and one of Zherdev, Nodl, or Wellwood. With those as your wingers, you simply can't afford to play them against Crosby, Malkin, and Kunitz since they would get destroyed. Further, you certainly can't put them in the defensive zone often.
This is not the best sue of Richards' skillset, but the problem is how you would rearrange the lines. At this point, the Flyers are left without a line that can shut down other team's best forwards. Maybe this is best for chemistry, but having your best two-way forward and your best defensive forward playing with wingers who necessitate hiding them in the offensive zone against weaker competition is not utilizing the asset. Hopefully, someone steps up and lets Coach Laviolette use Mike Richards as he should - playing the tough minutes, against the best competition, in the defensive zone.
But if not, I can't help but think a Nodl - Richards - Powe line would be the best option. That's a line that you can trust against the Crosby, Ovechkin, and Stamkos lines. Will they lose more often than they win? Certainly. But you say to the rest of your team that Briere, Hartnell, Leino, Carter, Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and Zherdev that their job is to score. That's it. Score. Don't worry about matching up, don't worry about skating the length of the ice. That will be Nodl, Richards, and Powe's job.
You create a line that will play great defense against the best of the other team, and they can do it while being constantly put in a poor position. In addition, it frees up your scorers to make the most of the offensive faceoffs and lets them play against the other team's 2nd and third lines. Imagine van Riemsdyk - Carter - Giroux going up against Arron Asham, Craig Adams, and Mike Rupp. Or a very tired Jordan Staal due to being double shifted.
Use Richards the way he should be used: against the opposition's best, with the worst zone starts, and defense-first wingers. Until then, Richards is being wasted at 5-on-5.