Evgeni Nabokov tries to get a better visual on the puck during a game against the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
If there was ever a phrase destined to be the most played-out and overused this season, it is “puck possession.”
It’s a simple concept, though not one for the lazy: If you have the puck, your opponent does not and therefore, you cannot be scored upon. If your opponent does have the puck, go get it. Right now. Your constant pressuring should lead to turnovers, which you will convert into juicy, juicy goals.
The strategy the Detroit Red Wings used to snag their latest Stanley Cup naturally inspired countless other NHL teams to play follow-the-leader, but a move up hockey’s ladder provided the Wings with an automatic rival in the strategy war.
In hiring a former Detroit assistant to man the bench in San Jose, the Sharks bought themselves an expert in puck possession hockey in Todd McLellan and so far the results have been excellent.
The Sharks are the best team in the NHL right now, with 33 points in the standings and zero regulation losses through 11 home games. They lead the league in offense as well, with 73 goals, nine more than the second-place team in that category – the Detroit Red Wings (who have three games in hand).
Watching these two teams cruise to victories the other night and knowing the sports world never met a stat it didn’t like, I had an idea: Why doesn’t the NHL track puck possession time?
To me, this would be a fairly easy thing to do. If the home team has the puck, you push a button on your computer’s keyboard, which starts a clock. When the other team gets the puck, you push a second button that stops your clock and starts a counter for your opponent. Simple. The NHL essentially counts ice time for each individual player in a game right now in the same manner. Not only that, but the stat is already part of professional soccer (albeit a much slower game, but still, the technology is there).
Granted, with icings, scrums on the boards, etc., the system wouldn’t be perfect to the second, but you could get really close.
The benefits are obvious. When the Sharks and Wings are playing their system perfectly, I would estimate they have the puck 65 percent of the game, which is actually quite a lot if you think about it. As a comparison, look at the best faceoff men in the league right now; Pittsburgh’s Mike Zigomanis has a 64.2 percent winning percentage, while perennial drawmaster Rod Brind’Amour of the Canes sits second at 62.3 percent.
It’s not an overwhelming majority, but it’s enough of an edge to make a difference should the Pens or Canes need to win a crucial faceoff at the end of a game.
Similarly, I would think coach McLellan and his former boss with the Wings, Mike Babcock, strive for that 65 percent puck possession a game, even if they have never put a numerical value on it. And as I said before, if there’s a stat to dissect out there, sports minds will dissect it.
The benefits for teams would be great, and not just puck-possession squads. Defensively-oriented teams such as Boston and Minnesota, both of whom lead their divisions thanks to a lack of goals-against, may not mind if their opponents out-possess them, but will strive for a 50-50 split, knowing their goaltending, shot-blocking and defensive positioning will carry the day.
Either way, a tangible number to laud or harangue one’s troops with would be a nice arrow in any coach’s quiver – not to mention something else for fans to debate about.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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