For those who are into hockey metrics, it is very important to take context into consideration because it is going to have an impact on a player's underlying numbers & on-ice performance. Conext is usually found by looking at where a player started the majority of his shifts or the quality of opponents he is matched up against. The first stat is relatively easy to find, as any player's offensive zone start percentage can be found at Behind the Net, but quality of opponents is trickier. The popular method to quantify this is a stat called "QualComp" or "Corsi Rel. QualComp" which looks at the combined Corsi Rel. ratings of the opponents that a certain player is matched up against at even strength.
In theory, this stat makes sense because it gives an indication how good your opponents are at driving the play, but it can get messy at times. Since Corsi Rel. is based on how good a player's team is at driving the play wtih him on the ice compared to when he is not, there are some instances where a good player might be rated negatively because he has strong teammates. Likewise, a mediocre player on a bad team could look incredible through this stat because of how weak his teammates are. Corsi Rel. is also prone to have a lot of anomalies when dealing with a small sample of games like last season.
Thus, an alternative to the "QualComp" statistic has been devised where the difficulty of a player's opponents is judged by their ice time instead of their combined Corsi Rel. In most cases, a first liner is going to be matched up against another team's best defensive players while someone playing a "shutdown" role will spend most of their minutes against the other team's best offensive players, who are guys that will get a lot of ice time no matter what. Much like a team's best defensive players will get more ice time than those who are held to a lesser role. Given that, it makes more sense to look at the opposition's ice time to judge a player's "quality of competition" instead of shot-based metrics.
I always liked looking at this kind of data to get an insight of how coaches deploy their lineup because while there are some coaches who don't pay attention to matchups, some are very careful about them. Many coaches like to use a "shutdown line" to send out against the other team's best forwards while others are content with leaving their top players out in any situation. Since the Hurricanes have gone through three coaches since 2007, I thought it would be interesting to see how each of them rolled their lineups using opposing time on ice as a gauge for quality of competition instead of the old "QualComp" stat.
We know that Peter Laviolette, Paul Maurice & Kirk Muller have their own different way of doing things, but how were they different in terms of how they deployed their troops? Who paid more attention to matchups? Which players were trusted the most and who has consistently gotten the big assignments even with different coaches? Thanks to Muneeb Alam of Red Line Station, we can find out the answers to this by looking at each player's TOIComp numbers from the last six seasons.
A little hint on how to read these charts: The horizontal axis shows the ice time of opposing forwards, so the further to the right a player is means that they got the "tough" forward matchups. The vertical axis shows the ice time of opposing defenders, so the players in the upper part of the graph are the ones who other team's coaches were targeting by putting their best defensemen out against them. This year, those players were Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu, Cory Stillman & Ray Whitney, who were also among the Canes better scorers this season.
In terms of forward matchups, Peter Laviolette didn't pay that much attention to them as the team's other coaches, but he did like to send Justin Williams & Rod Brind'Amour out against other team's first lines. Brind'Amour was one of the best two-way centers in the league over his career, so him getting the toughs shouldn't surprise anyone, but it's worth noting that Staal also saw plenty of time against the opposition's best forwards. He also played against their top defenders, which freed Brind'Amour & Williams to play more against second defense pairings. Williams spent most of the season on IR, but he did a pretty amazing job at driving the play forward when he was healthy and also had 30 points in 37 games. Makes you appreciate how underrated he has been for his entire career.
On the subject of underrated players, Bret Hedican was 37 years old this year and played on the top pairing for the entire season while taking on some of the league's best forwards. He managed to post some respectable underlying numbers that year, which is impressive when taking his age into consideration. Playing with him on the shutdown pair was Tim Gleason, but you can see that Hedican faced much more difficult competition. Wallin, Wesley & Seideberg did handle some fairly tough minutes on the second & third pairings, although Wesley didn't play that much at even strength. Still, the coaches weren't afraid to use him against skilled forwards, unlike Corvo & Kaberle who stayed in a more sheltered role for the entire year.
With Brind'Amour in the latter stages of his career and the Hurricanes undergoing a mid-season coaching change, Eric Staal began to take on more of a "power-vs.power" type role. He drew the tough defensive assignments and Paul Maurice didn't feel the need to shelter him at all. He had 40 goals and one of his best seasons in the NHL this year, so the strategy worked out pretty well. Brind'Amour was still effective with 51-points but it's easy to see that his role decreased from what it was before. Also getting the hard matchups this year was Tuomo Ruutu, who had his best season to date while playing an incredibly tough role. Maybe he likes the challenge?
With Hedican now in Anaheim, Gleason & Corvo were the ones forced to take on the shutdown role on the defense corps. Although with the exception of Tim Conboy, most of the team's defense corps wasn't exactly sheltered either. Seideberg, Kaberle, Pitkanen, Wallin & Babchuk were rarely used against other team's first lines, but they didn't spend all of their minutes against grinders either. Pitkanen & Seidenberg were also on the ice whenever the opposition's big-minute defensemen were, which probably comes with the territory when you play behind your team's first line.
Not much changed in Paul Maurice's "first" full year as the Canes bench-boss. Eric Staal still received the toughest matchups with his linemates supplementing him. Those players being Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen this time. This was also Brandon Sutter's 21-goal season and you may notice that he wasn't being sheltered like he was during his rookie year. He wasn't getting the hard matchups either, as most of those went to Staal's line.
Tim Gleason was basically carrying the entire defense corps on his back and this was him missing over 20 games. Pitkanen also played big-minutes, but Maurice never used him in a shutdown role according to this. He had to play those minutes at some point, though because the Hurricanes didn't have much else to turn to at one point. He was the only defenseman on the team to play 70+ games that year and there had to be at least one stretch where he played the toughs, especially after the trade deadline. I do recall him being used with players like Aaron Ward & Brett Carson for part of the season, so perhaps that backs up what we're seeing here. Gleason still carried the defense.
Here's where we start to see a change in things. Staal was no longer being forced to play a power-vs-power type role, as Brandon Sutter began to take on those minutes against other team's first lines. Staal was still doing a lot of heavy-lifting, but not nearly as much as he did in years past. Drayson Bowman, Patrick Dwyer & Jiri Tlusty also began to play bigger minutes, which is probably due to Sutter's role increasing. Another observation here is that Tuomo Ruutu was much more sheltered than he was the previous two seasons. He was moved to a scoring line with rookie Jeff Skinner that year and with that came easier assignments. He had a big offensive year as a result. Zach Boychuk's place on the chart is also interesting, considering that Maurice constrained him to fourth line minutes for most of his time in Carolina.
Gleason & Corvo assumed the shutdown role while Pitkanen played a boatload of minutes, most of which came against other team's second lines. Pitkanen usually plays with the Canes first line, who were bumped off a tough-minute role this year so Pitkanen saw his difficulty of minutes decrease even though he was used more at even strength than any other blue-liner.
Both Paul Maurice & Kirk Muller deployed Sutter & Dwyer against other team's first lines for the entire year. Dwyer's role has progressively gotten bigger with each year and he really cemented a permanent spot in the lineup with his play on the Canes third line this year. It's also worth noting that Staal received basically all of the attention from opponents and Muller tried to take advantage of his by constantly using Skinner & Jokinen on the second line. Maurice tried to get away from this at the beginning of the year by putting Staal with Skinner & Ruutu, but eventually went back to this method once the team had trouble scoring. Ruutu was also used on that second line, but he spent the majority of the season with Staal.
Allen took over Corvo's spot on the shutdown pair and while he was a defensive upgrade, you can tell that he had his limitations. Allen didn't have the endurance to play top-pairing minutes every night and was eventually relegated to third-pairing duty after Muller took over. Pitkanen's role stayed the same while Justin Faulk & Jay Harrison emerged as a good second defense pairing.
Last year, Muller returned to using more of a "power-vs.-power" strategy as the tough minutes were spread out among the top-six. Staal's line continued to receive all of the attention from other team's defenses and they pretty much had to play against the best competition no matter what. Jordan Staal's line usually got the tough forward matchups when the Canes had the last change, but Muller wasn't afraid to use Eric in this type of role either.
Justin Faulk is slowly beginning to take over Tim Gleason's role as the team's top shutdown defender and he will probably have that title within the next year. Gleason still had a pretty big role, though since neither Pitkanen, Harrison, Corvo or McBain could take on the minutes he normally commands. If one trend has remained constant it's that none of the Hurricanes coaches have trusted Pitkanen in a shutdown role. Muller & the coaching staff didn't trust Sanguinetti in anything but a limited role either.
I'll be interested to see what Kirk Muller does with the lineup next year. The Canes don't really need a shutdown line with the Staal brothers in the fold now, but I would expect Jordan to do more heavy-lifting a the years go by. He played that role in Pittsburgh and Eric's workload could decrease as he gets older. Elias Lindholm could take over one of their roles in the not-so-distant future if he lives up to his potential, though. I would also expect Gleason's workload to go down within the next couple of years because he has taken on a lot of mileage in the last four years alone. Both Maurice & Muller seem to trust him more than any other defenseman, though.
Big thanks to Muneeb Alam for providing the data.