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The Passing Project: Tracking Passing Plays Highlights Individual Impact On Team Success

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Editor's Note: Last season, Ryan Stimson, from our frienemies over at InLouWeTrust, embarked upon an expansive manual tracking project focused around passing statistics. Through that project, and with the help of volunteer trackers, he was able to cull data from several teams, including the New York Rangers. The following article, written by Stimson, highlights some very interesting and thought-provoking data pertaining to what happens leading up to corsi events, scoring chances, zone exits/entries and the like. Passing is an absolutely vital individual and team skill. It is arguably the largest factor in game "flow" (tempo, puck control), an integral key to many modern puck-moving systems, and, as you'll see here, impactful on scoring success. Stimson, upon my request, highlights Stepan and the Rangers' top 4 defensemen in this piece. For more on the Passing Project, including vital background, definitions of stats, and volumes of data, visit InLouWeTrust. If you all enjoy this, let us know! With enough interest, we can do some more of these before the season starts.

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By: Ryan Stimson

Hello Rags fans. I write over at InLouWeTrust (Editor's Note: Maybe it should now be InRayWeTrust?) and have been leading a tracking project dedicated to isolating passing sequences that lead to shot attempts. Last summer I called out for volunteers to track other teams and, since no New York Rangers fan had the fortitude and discipline to track their games, another writer at ILWT, Brian Franken, volunteered to do so. The data I will go over in this piece is only possible because of his efforts. So, give him a shout out on Twitter (@onepasthunter) and say thank you.

I reached out to Nick to ask what were some players or topics that Rangers fans might have an interest in. He suggested anything on Derek Stepan as well as an analysis of the Rangers top four defensemen. So, I am happy to oblige.

Background

(Editor's Note: Start with the Volume I Data Release and work forward if you are interested in the entirety of the project)

Now, you can look at WOWY (With or Without You) metrics over at David Johnson’s site stats.hockeyanalysis.com or at Micah Blake McCurdy’s new site hockeyviz.com. I suggest you visit both sites if you are unfamiliar with them.

However, this will be a piece focused around a passing version of WOWY metrics as well as other passing metrics.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the Rangers analyzed through various shot differential metrics and other advanced stats, so I want to offer up my take using some of our own data. In short, we’ll analyze how well the team generates offense through passes as well as how well the opposition does the same thing.

Why focus on passes? Looking at the data for the six teams in which we tracked their entire season (Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, and your Rangers), if we compare the total number of goals scored from shots that did not come from passes to those that did, we found that, collectively, teams shot at 7.2% without passes and at 8.0% with passes.

This margin increases significantly when we look at shots generated from multiple passes – that is, a team completes at least two passes prior to a teammate taking a shot – the shooting percentage stands at 9.6%. Successfully generating offense from passing the puck increases the likelihood of your team scoring.

While we did track the Rangers full season, some of the data you’ll see below is only from their final forty-six games. Why those 46? We started including time stamps on our events in order to accrue on-ice data at that point.

There are several things to take into account with this data. Deployment for one, quality of competition (QoC) for another (though it’s likely not as important as many make it out to be), and quality of teammates (QoT), which is the more important of the two. There’s also recent research on zone starts and how much they matter that suggests that, like QoC, the larger the sample size we have, the less importance we should place on them. Considering this data represents a little over half a season for the Rangers, it’s fair to say that there is some impact present in this data. Just keep that in mind. (Editor's Note: Obviously hiding the first part of the season would likely positively impact a number of Rangers' underlying numbers, possibly amplify certain attributes in a shorter sample, and passing stats would likely be no different. I don't think Ryan would disagree with this generalized assessment).

Top 4 Defensemen

We’ll start by simply looking at the possession numbers for the Rangers defensemen. SAG% (Shot Attempt Generated Percentage) is basically the same as CF% (Corsi For Percentage, shot attempt differential), but focuses on just those shot attempts that come from passes. A2% (Secondary Passing Percentage) focuses on shot attempts generated by multiple passes.

Passing Chart 1

This chart is arranged left-to-right in order of greatest Time on Ice (TOI) to least. The sample size we’re working with here is the Rangers final 46 games.

So, we see that Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal all struggled in passing possession. All were below 50% except for McDonagh’s Secondary Passing Possession, which was right at 50%. Kevin Klein also posted similar numbers to McDonagh. There’s a clear split between these four defensemen and the other four on the New York blue line: Dan Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Keith Yandle, and John Moore. Why the difference?

Let’s take a look at how involved each defenseman is in the team’s ability to generate offense.

Passing Chart 2

Okay, so now we start to get an understanding of some of the reasons why specific Rangers defensemen have higher possession numbers. Having both Yandle and Boyle on the blue line is a luxury in terms of puck-moving defensemen. Moore is now a Devil and will likely continue to feast on his competition. Klein and McDonagh would be next. Hunwick is a Maple Leaf, and Girardi and Staal are the least involved in the offense.

The blue bars represent the total number of shot attempts a player contributes to per sixty minutes. These can be their own shot attempts, the result of setting up a shot attempt as the primary passer, or setting up a shot attempt as the secondary passer. The red line represents the percentage share of the team’s on-ice shot attempts that the player is involved in. So, if the team attempts fifty shots with Yandle on the ice, and he attempts five himself, sets up ten as the primary passer, and five more from secondary passes, he has contributed to twenty of those fifty attempts, or 40%.

These two metrics tell us how often a player is directly involved as well as how much influence they have on the team’s offense while on the ice. Now, naturally, each defensemen has a partner and certain pairings are more successful than others. Let’s take a look at Passing WOWYs.

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I apologize for the rather plain nature of this table, but there wasn’t a quick and easy way to chart it. I wanted you to be able to interact with it and sort by specific players and this seemed easiest.

What you see are the pairings that were on the ice for at least 100 total shot attempts that came from passes. What

Pairing Staal and Girardi together is a horror show. Based on their production, in what world are Girardi and Staal top four defensemen?

can we extract from this? Well, pairing Staal and Girardi together is a horror show. Now, Girardi spent very little time apart from McDonagh, but it tells us more about Staal than anything. Both Staal and Girardi did better apart than together, but you’ll notice that of Staal’s other partners in this chart (Klein and Boyle), he was slightly worse apart from both – considerably so from Boyle. If you look at Staal in the "Partner" column, you can see how well Girardi, Klein, and Boyle did apart from Staal. It’s a little scary.

Moving onto McDonagh, we see that Girardi dips far without him, but Boyle plays about the same without McDonagh. McDonagh sees an increase in passing possession without Girardi, and a decrease apart from Boyle. It’s no surprise that McDonagh succeeded away from Girardi, but it was surprising to see Boyle’s production stay consistent both with and without McDonagh. I imagine the two of them might complement each other better than the "shutdown" pair of Girardi and McDonagh.

What’s interesting about Boyle is just how successful he was with Hunwick and Moore, who are both no longer with the team. Over 60% passing possession with both, which is dominant. What’s also important to note is how equally impressive Boyle’s success if away from Staal (48.1% with, 60.8% without).

Based on their production, and I’m sure this is nothing new to Rangers fans, but in what world are Girardi and Staal top four defensemen? As a Devils fan, I can only rejoice that Girardi was the one extended and not Anton Stralman. However, the bigger picture concerning the Rangers blue line is that with a full season of Yandle and Boyle on two separate pairings, the team does have two exemplary passers on the back end. McDonagh is the logical choice to pair with one of them on the top line. However, that fourth spot will be a question mark heading into the season. Staal, Giradi, or Klein? What say you, Rangers fans?

Derek Stepan

Moving on from the defensemen and focusing specifically on one Derek Stepan, he of the recently signed six-year deal worth $39 million. Stepan hasn’t always had the best Corsi numbers, yet still manages to produce. This isn’t surprising as the Rangers as a whole were one of the better passing teams we tracked last season (they shot 12% on shots preceded by multiple passes. They generate lots of quality sequences and Stepan is very much involved in all aspects. However, a lot of forwards are involved. (Editor's note: I suspect a lot of Stepan's underlying corsi numbers are "role-in-system" impacted. Potentially system and/or personnel flaws. I will break down some of these issues with Stepan in my report card on him. Suffice to say, he is a top-end boxcar producer, regardless).

passing chart 4

What you’ll see is that Stepan’s contributions don’t differ that much from other Rangers forwards. I have a suspicion that Alain Vigneault’s systems might be "forward friendly" in terms of production. That and the Rangers simply have a great group of forwards, so it’s not as difficult to look good on this team as opposed to the Devils. (Editor's note: But more difficult to stand out amongst teammates. I agree with Ryan and suspect this to be the case). Let’s dig a little deeper on Stepan in the next two charts.

passing chart 5

Stepan does well at generating controlled entries. He is the best forward at linking play from the defensive or neutral zones and generating a shot attempt on controlled entries. (Editor's Note: As I mentioned above, this has to do with role-in-system and his adept outlet passing. He often plays much lower in the DZ than other centers, facilitating outlets and helping transition play up ice. However, I also suspect this is why his line is under water in shot attempt differential. They concede more shots by giving up more space higher in the DZ, for better or worse. But, led by Stepan, they counter with controlled progression from the DZ to the OZ once possession is gathered. Generally a good thing).

The smaller blue bar in the chart above shows the expected assist rate based on the type of shot sequence that Stepan generated. Similar to the above numbers, he’s good, but doesn’t separate from his fellow forwards.

passing chart 6

With some of our more specific data, we tracked how many Royal Road or One-Timers a player set up for teammates. The idea in doing this was that there’s inherent value in forcing the goalie to move laterally as well as allowing the recipient of the pass to not have to settle or corral it before shooting. Also, based on our data, Royal Road shots result in a goal 26.5% of the time, and One-Timers result in a goal 11.7% of the time. (Editor's Note: I did a breakdown of the Rangers a while back, highlighting their success at generating such chances when they were at their best last season. Read it here. Also, it was interesting to see that Zucc did not differentiate himself in the area of one-timers but did in the far more successful Royal Road chances. Warrants further review, but keeps in line with his ability to generate extremely high quality scoring opportunities for his teammates once in the zone). Stepan was solid at setting up one-timers, which implies a degree of precision with placing his passes. He was stuck in the middle of the forwards with respect to Royal Road setups, however.

So, we’ve looked at how Stepan compares to his teammates, but what of forwards that have similar salary cap hits? Stepan will now carry a $6.5 Million AAV going forward. Who else does? Well, from War-on-Ice I pulled all forwards that made between $6 and $7 Million AAV last season and included Stepan as well. I then left out any player we didn’t track over 200 minutes of last season. Let’s take a look.

passing chart 7

So, from Stepan’s primary and secondary passes, we see the total passing rate at which he contributes to attempts falls just behind the likes of Joe Pavelski, Jason Spezza, and Patrick Marleau, and ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Matt Duchene, and Patrice Bergeron. Now, this is the total number of passes that led to shot attempts. We know Stepan scored a bunch of points, so we can refine this a bit to look at just scoring chances set up from primary passes.

passing chart 8

Here, Stepan sees a decent jump up behind Anze Kopitar and Henrik Zetterberg, and ahead of Ryan O’Reilly and Duchene. So, he has some ability at generating offense that is commensurate with his pay grade. However, we also saw that many of his teammates had similar contribution rates. So, are the Rangers simply flush at forward and playing in a solid, pass-friendly system under Alain Vigneault?

Conclusions

So, what can this tell us about the Rangers defense and Derek Stepan? For starters, Stepan is a skilled passer compared to similar cap hits, but with how close all the top-six forwards are in terms of generating offense, you do wonder if Stepan might be overpaid. He may be more a product of Vigneault’s system than anything else. Stepan does do well in transition as far as linking play and has some passing ability, but he doesn’t do any more or less than the Rangers other top six forwards to warrant a significant contract.

As far as the defense, well if the Rangers continue to insist on icing Giradi and McDonagh, you’ll never see the full potential of the latter while continuing to placate the former with ice time. (Editor's note: AMEN).

Defensemen generally need a partner they mesh well with. Apart from the select few that are head-and-shoulders apart from the rest of the league, defensemen need a steady partner that can complement their own skill set. The Rangers may be in need of some serious evaluation when it comes to their back end.

That brings us to end of this piece. Or, as we say over at ILWT…Henrique! It’s Over!

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