This is part two of my Justin Schultz Zone Zone Transition post. The previous post is here and it is recommended reading to make sense of this one.
Till now, we’ve learned Schultz isn’t too bad at zone transitions but is quite poor at puck retrieval. Next we explore what I think the real problem is.
Defensive Zone Passes and Turn-overs
Early on in my tracking, I knew that I was missing a key component in all of this. Turnovers. By tracking zone exits, I’m really only tracking successful events, but ignoring all the negative events.
However, I struggled with how to capture this. Do I record only turnovers when a defenceman is trying to make a zone exit pass? I started doing this, but found these were relatively rare and didn’t capture the majority of defensive zone turnovers. Simply counting all defensive zone turnovers skews the data as well. Defencemen who handle the puck more will turn the puck over more. I needed to capture both the positive and negative events.
So, starting in game 5 of my tracking, I recorded all defensive zone passes by d-men. I excluded all routine ‘D to D’ passes, since they tended to drive up the total while D-men were just playing pitch and catch in the defensive zone before a breakout. I also was pretty liberal with my definition of a ‘pass’. Basically, if the defenceman clearly had the puck on his stick, I counted it. I didn’t include tips or stick-checks, but everything else was fair game. A “pass” was when the defenceman got the puck to another player on the Oilers. A “turnover” was when the next person to touch the puck was the opposition.
Most players are hanging around the 70% mark with Davidson and Klefbom leading the way about 5% higher. Meanwhile Sekera and Fayne are about 4% lower. I suspect Fayne is low because I excluded all routine D-to-D passes. (Next year I’m thinking of including all D-to-D passes separately as I had a particularly hard time making a call between what’s a ‘routine’ and ‘non-routine’ D to D pass… there was a little too much grey there for my liking.) Sekera really does turn the puck over a lot, though he also gets it back a lot. If you include all zone exits, passes, and turn-overs, Sekera touches the puck in the defensive zone more often than any other Oilers d-man.
Schultz, though, lags behind even Fayne and Sekera by another 5%. Compared to Klefbom, Schultz is 15% less successful in defensive zone passes!
This is where, I suspect, most Oiler fans’ frustration with Schultz lies. He turns the puck over a lot… and I have the evidence for it. It’s not just because he’s a puck mover and so handles the puck more. A high percentage of his defensive zone passes end up being intercepted.
In Defence of Justin’s Defence
One of the arguments made in defence of Schultz is that the Oilers played him too high in the order. Perhaps he would be a perfectly serviceable 3rd pairing defenceman with PP time.
Quality of competition is a hot button topic in analytics right now. I tend to think the competition defencemen face matters. I’ve used a fairly simple proxy… the percent of a defenceman’s time on ice spent against the opposing team’s top point producer.
Klefbom and his partner (mostly Schultz and Fayne) are at the top. Once Klefbom went down to injury, Sekera and Fayne took on top opposition, but rarely as strongly and consistently as Klefbom. Schultz moved down the line-up at times and back up at other times.
Would we view Schultz differently if he played more consistently lower down the line-up, getting something akin to Gryba’s minutes?
In the games I tracked, the average Oilers defenceman spent 29% of his even-strength TOI against the other team’s top forward. In Schultz’s 11 games, 6 of them were against tougher competition (averaging 39% against the top opposing forward) and 5 of them were less so (averaging just 21%).
Turns out, there was a difference in how well he did in these two sets of games.
Now, this is a pretty small sample size. By no means is this a conclusion. However, I found the splits interesting. Those “tougher comp” games were around Fayne-level competition and the “softer comp” games were closer to Gryba. There is a small improvement in controlled zone exits (and a big one in total zone exits) but where you see a drastic difference is in allowing controlled zone entries. Against tougher competition, Schultz allowed controlled zone entries at a 50% higher rate than against softer competition.
Here’s the same Zone Entries Against chart from Part 1, with those numbers inserted.
Pay close attention to the “times targeted” column. The top opposition forwards saw Schultz and attacked the blue line often, targeting him at the same level they targeted Nurse. The softer competition laid off. My current believe is the “times targeted” stat is partly due to the opposition’s tactics and partly due to the defenceman’s ability to hold the offensive blue line (if the other team breaks out on that side, they’re likely to attack on that same side).
Now, not all of Schultz’s numbers show this kind of drastic difference between soft and tough competition.
His puck retrievals were actually worse against softer competition (maybe those bottom six wingers were better at dumping the puck in and retrieving against Schultz, which may explain the low times targeted).
What’s more damning, his defensive zone passes did not get any better against softer competition either (in fact, they got a little worse). However, he did turn the puck over more frequently in games with tougher competition. That probably makes his turnovers stand out even more. When you’re regularly turning the puck over in the defensive zone to Thornton, Sedin, and Kane, that’s not going to end well. I suspect I noticed that and I didn’t quickly forget it, hence the angry tweets and the frustration.
By eye, Schultz’s defensive zone turnovers appeared to be egregious. By these stats, they’re also incredibly frequent.
I recognize I can’t make sweeping conclusions about a defenceman based on 11 games tracked. However, the data I’m presenting is not, as far as I’m aware, available in the non-proprietary sphere and it does shed let on the phenomenon that is Justin Schultz.
His ability to exit the zone is reasonably good, though not elite. Surprising to me is that he’s actually okay at preventing zone entries, in the ballpark of the other Actual NHL Defencemen on the Oilers (Davidson, Sekera, Klefbom), and he was quite good at denying the zone. These things help explain why he’s held his own in possession for the last couple years.
He has elite ability in the offensive zone. This wasn’t tracked here but we know he contributes to a high number of high danger scoring chances for. He can join the rush effectively and often sneaks down from the point to receive a back-door pass. His puck retrievals off dump-ins are poor, but that alone shouldn’t sink him.
Where he gives it all back is in turnovers. Turnovers in the defensive zone at a high rate that aren’t explained by simply handling the puck more. On a team with poor defencemen, Justin Schultz is the worst among regulars at defensive zone passes… and those in-zone giveaways can kill you. They also aren’t forgotten easily by people watching. Hence the vitriol and the anger from fans, building up over years.
So we have a defender with significant skills but who is flawed. Clearly the best thing to do is take him and throw him into the deep end with heavy minutes! Breaking an 11 game sample into half isn’t ideal, but it is revealing the Schultz did significantly better when he spent more time away from the top opposition.
The Oilers needed Schultz to be a top pairing point producer and talked about him as such (“Norris Potential”). They traded the only defenceman they had above him on the right-sided depth chart (Petry) and never replaced him. They fed Schultz big minutes and didn’t back off. Meanwhile, Schultz didn’t do himself any favours, turning the puck over egregiously and often.
Some team is going to get Schultz much cheaper this summer. That team is going to find a flawed, but potentially useful defenceman. Sheltered from the best offensive forwards, I suspect he’ll find success. He’s got reasonably impressive offensive skills and awareness. He can move the puck, though not at the elite level you’d hope for and there are a lot of uncontrolled exits. So you don’t want to pair him with a poor puck-mover (Ference & Nick Schultz had <44% corsi with him) but rather with someone who can help out (Klefbom & Davidson had ~50% corsi with him). He can defend the blueline to a reasonable degree. You might have to pair him with someone who can retrieve the puck off dump-ins (again, Klefbom & Davidson).
You’ll have to live with the turnovers, though. So many turnovers that will make your blood pressure rise and will make you shout at your television set. If Schultz can find a way to cut down on those (or produce enough offensively to make up for them), he could become a very effective defenceman.
Even then, I don’t think Justin has Norris Trophy potential, and I don’t think there are too many who disagree with me in that regard.