One of the most overlooked stats in hockey is zone starts. NHL coaches go to great lengths to get the correct players on the ice at the right times, but when examining stats, very rarely will you see a nod to a player’s zone starts.
When judging defense we like to use stats like +/-, Corsi, goal percentage, and defensive point shares. However, it’s important to consider deployment when taking all of this into account.
It’s become especially crucial when breaking down the statistical seasons of the Golden Knights blue liners. Looking at the numbers without zone starts involved it appears as though Shea Theodore has emerged as Vegas’ best defenseman. He leads all defensemen in goals, assists, points, shots, offensive point shares, defensive point shares, Corsi, Corsi relative, expected goals, expected goals percentage, and expected +/-.
There’s no question that Theodore has become the Golden Knights’ most effective offensive weapon from the blue line. That’s why the coaching staff have used him in a role much different than that of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb.
The Golden Knights are 2nd in the NHL in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone. In Golden Knights games this season, 35.6% of draws have been in the offensive zone, 32.7% in the neutral zone and just 31.7% in the D-zone. Vegas has taken 648 offensive zone draws to only 577 in the defensive zone. That means the Golden Knights baseline zone start percentage is 52.9%.
In other words, any player getting less than 53% offensive zone starts is being deployed in a defensive role, while anyone above is in an offensive role. Here are the Golden Knights primary defensemen’s offensive zone start numbers this season.
The difference between the top of that list and the bottom is massive. Hague and Theodore are drawing offensive zone shifts more than 6% more than the team average while McNabb and Schmidt are finding themselves starting in the D-zone around 6% less than the average.
Plus, Vegas likes to deploy Schmidt and McNabb against the opposing teams’ best player. They’ve drawn the lion’s share of minutes against Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Elias Pettersson, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane over the past few games.
So, when you look at Schmidt’s 50.7% Corsi For compared to Theodore’s 55.1% it’s easy to say that Theodore has been the better and more impactful player. However, adding in zone starts and strength of competition should change the narrative a bit.
Ryan McGill, the Golden Knights assistant coach who runs the bench for the defense, is doing everything in his power to place Theodore and Hague in offensive situations and Schmidt and McNabb in defensive situations, and it’s working, especially since the change to VGKD 2.0.
Theodore’s offensive game is starting to shine through, Hague has been excellent in the offensive zone despite being snake-bitten, and Schmidt and McNabb are holding down the D-zone.
The roles are defined and the players are starting to thrive in them and that’s just how the Golden Knights like it.
Even if Schmidt’s stats don’t.