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The April Blues: What went wrong with player usage

This is the first part of a four part series breaking down the Blues 2014-2015 playoff debacle. Part one looks at player usage.

"Ott, you stay out on the ice as long as you want.  Got it?"
"Ott, you stay out on the ice as long as you want. Got it?"
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

I think enough time has elapsed since April for many of us to start talking rationally about the St. Louis Blues playoff loss this year.  This is the first of what should be four parts breaking down different elements of the Blues on ice performance during those fateful six games in April.  In part one we are going to take a look at player usage and more specifically, time on ice and comparing the Blues' player usage chart from the regular season against their chart from the playoffs.  Part two will take a look at how this usage affected the Blues' possession numbers.  Part three will take a look at goal scoring (or lack thereof).  Finally, part four will look at goaltending.

Putting away the whistle

When comparing time on ice for the players I first had to figure out if there is a difference in 5v5 ice time between the regular season and the playoffs.  We all know the refs put their whistles away during the playoffs, but does this actually translate to a difference in 5v5 ice time between the regular season and the playoffs?  The first tab of the dataviz below is your answer.  During the regular season the Blues played about 46 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game.  However, during the playoffs, this number increased to 50 minutes per game for their series against the Minnesota Wild.  That is an 8% increase in 5v5 time between regular season games and playoff games.  While it doesn't seem like much of a difference, it roughly equates to 3 or 4 extra shifts per game in the playoffs.  The important part is that it creates a baseline for comparing any changes in ice time for Blues' players between the regular season and the playoffs.  In case you were curious, the league wide average 5v5 time on ice was 48 minutes in the regular season and 51 minutes in the playoffs.


When the playoffs started there was some confusion amongst the fan base as to the logic behind Hitchcock's line ups.  Then there was the out roar of disbelief as a certain fourth liner started to see more ice time than usual.  When you look at the numbers some troubling points stand out.  In the second tab of the dataviz there is a bar chart showing the percent difference between the player's regular season TOI per game and their TOI per game during the playoffs.  As a reference, I marked the percent difference for the team between its regular season and playoff games (see the paragraph above).  Going down the chart, the first player that stands out is Steve Ott.  Steve Ott is not known as a good hockey player.  He is a fourth liner for life and was described as a "rodeo clown" for his performance during the playoffs.  Yet Hitchcock boosted his ice time in the playoffs compared to his regular season ice time.  Don't confuse this percent difference with actual ice time however.  He was still only seeing roughly 10 minutes per game compared to Tarasenko who saw 14 minutes per game during the playoffs.  However, it is still troubling to see Ott receiving an increase in his ice time, while a top six player like Tarasenko actually saw his ice time per game decrease compared to the regular season.  Keep in mind that with the additional 4 minutes of ice time available to play in the playoffs, a negative difference in ice time means the player was actually valued less by Hitchcock and spent less time than they could have even if they kept the same TOI per game as in the regular season.  Why would Hitchcock choose to give Tarasenko less of a role and a fourth line player more of a role in the playoffs?

Player Usage Charts

Finally we take a look at the player usage charts as developed by Rob Vollman.  These charts show you how a coach uses his players on the ice and the types of roles he assigns them.  This player usage chart is a little different in that it breaks out defenders from forwards (just to clear up the clutter) and also compares regular season usage to playoff usage.  Both axis are non-zero axis, so please pay attention to the the minimum and maximum values on each axis.  The reference line for zone starts is fixed at 50%.  The y axis is the Quality of Competition stat from War On Ice.  The reference line on this axis is the average value.  Typically since this is a corsi for % stat the line would be fixed at 50%.  However because the Wild were a "weaker" team, the usage for the Blues wasn't comparable between regular season and the playoffs.  Using the average provides a better reference point.

The usage chart is the third tab on the dataviz below.  For the most part Hitch continued to use the players in the playoffs consistent with how he used them during the regular season.  However, there are some interesting differences.  Both Steen and Porter had been used in "shut down" roles putting them up against tough competition with less offensive zone starts.  However, Hitchcock used both Steen and Porter in a "two way" role giving them more offensive zone starts than they had during the regular season.  This paid off for Porter whose on ice shooting percentage (the shooting percentage of the team as a whole when Porter is on the ice) improved in the playoffs.  However, Porter was one of the players that actually saw his ice time cut in the playoffs.  Steen on the other hand, saw both his on ice shooting and on ice save percentage drop even though he was given more offensive zone starts.

Reaves and Goc also were moved in the player usage chart from "less sheltered" roles to "sheltered" roles during the playoffs.  They both saw an increase in their offensive zone starts.  To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this and would like to see if any of you might want to take a guess in the comments section below.  It could be that Hitchcock was trying to match up players and that is just how Reaves and Goc lined up against who Minnesota was putting out on the ice in the Blues' offensive zone.  I don't think it worked though.  Goc's on ice shooting and save percentages both dropped while Reaves numbers essentially remained even.  Of course Goc was a trade deadline acquisition and his stats are influenced by his previous team.  Still, the numbers do not look good when compared to the regular season usage.

Finally, Pietrangelo also saw a bump in his offensive zone starts compared to his regular season usage.  And this is interesting because Pietrangelo definitely had a different role in the playoffs compared to regular season.  We will talk about this more in the next part of this series.

Hitchcock made some questionable decisions regarding ice time for his players during the playoffs.  I don't know how you can justify reducing Tarasenko's ice time while boosting the ice time of a fourth line player.  He also made some interesting changes to is on ice usage of the players.  One of which seemed to work out successfully.  The others not so much.  I think this only confirms what a lot of Blues fans were thinking while watching those six fateful games in April.  Hitchcock made some bold decisions regarding ice time and usage and that was part of why the Blues were bounced from the playoffs, yet again, in the first round.

In the next part of this series, I will take a look at how player usage and ice time impacted the Blues' possession numbers during these dreadful six games in April.

All data collected for this article came from War on Ice.