The Toronto Maple Leafs do it.
The Edmonton Oilers do it. Every team in the NHL does it.
In the last 20 years the NHL, like all sports, has undergone a sea change caused by the analytical analysis of statistics. During this time, strategy has also evolved significantly (though, at the NHL level, much more slowly than at the amateur level).
Still, NHL teams put their players on the ice in the same way they always have, more or less.
That is to say there are 12 forwards, on four lines, and there are six defenseman, who play in pairs, and who generally play more minutes relative to forwards.
Even though the game has evolved (short-passes, focus on possession, less dump and chase, behind the net power-plays, when to pull the goalie, the use of enforcers, skilled players on the fourth line) there has been almost no change in the construction of lineups.
Could it be that every single NHL team makes a tactical error every time they step on the ice for a game because the traditional way to allot ice-time is incorrect?
Changing How We think of NHL Lineups
In his soon-to-be-classic book Tape to Space: Redefining Modern Hockey Tactics Ryan Stimson argues convincingly that hockey should be organized by five-man units. That defenders should be called “backs,” and seemingly dozens of other ideas that only seem zany because of tradition.
The book is well worth reading, and it’s well worth thinking about all the different ways you could change the game of hockey if you had the inclination, but the one thing I want to talk about today is ice-time.
I think if there is one way in which the NHL will definitely change in the future, it will be how coaches allot ice-time. Eventually, teams could decide that traditional tactics and strategy lead to very weird outcomes.
What rationale could there possibly be for the Edmonton Oilers to play Cody Ceci (a player you could replace with any AHL player and get the roughly same level of contribution from) an average of 17:35 (on average) during 5v5 play, while playing Connor McDavid ( the best player in the world) for 16:56?
And why would you accept such a rationale? Whatever reason there is for this, it has led to it being not just acceptable, but common practice, to give more ice-time to worse players if they are defenseman. And to do so even when we’re talking about the best forward and the worst defenseman.
And it’s so common it goes pretty much unquestioned.
Why Do Bad Defenseman Play More than Good Forwards?
When McDavid is on the ice at 5v5, the Oilers are expected to score 57% of the goals, making them, pretty much, the best team in the NHL whenever this is happening.
When he leaves the ice, they are not only not the best, they are below average.
It is self-apparent that playing Cody Ceci more than Connor McDavid cannot be the right tactical decision.
If defenseman are THAT important, why isn’t McDavid a defenseman? And if that isn’t the case, why doesn’t he play more?
If we look at total ice-time, we see that McDavid plays more overall than Cody Ceci, but only because Ceci isn’t deployed on the power-play. The Oilers routinely give Darnell Nurse more minutes than McDavid. How does that make any sense?
What McDavid does on the power-play can be mostly replicated by other players, because he makes a much larger relative impact 5v5 than he does on the power-play. If he played more 5v5 and less on the power-play, the Oilers would win more games.
Literally every single team in the NHL could make this same adjustment. They pretty much all play their mid-range defenders more than their best forwards at 5v5.
It seems pretty obvious that the best players should play the most, regardless of position.
Or teams could think about other things: there is no reason an NHL team shouldn’t deploy three five-man units; no reason why they might not have nine forwards and eight defenseman.
The thing I keep coming back to is that all the rationales for playing bad defenseman more than good forwards at 5v5 are stupid. There is no good reason for it. This is something that only happens because that’s how it’s always been. If hockey was brand new today, no way would there ever be situations where the #4 defenseman plays more than the #1 centre.
What if, at the end of every game, it wasn’t the four best defenseman who played the most, but the team’s four best players?