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Introducing Zone Starts

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks

The NHL unveiled its Enhanced Stats site section on Feb. 20, featuring dozens of new statistical categories that help illuminate the game even further for fans of all persuasions. The new platform offers a starting point for casual fans trying to learn about the finer points of hockey.

Advanced metrics are nothing new to the sport, but in recent years they’ve gathered a mainstream following, with more fans tuning in to metrics like Corsi, Fenwick and PDO. It can seem like a daunting task to learn all of these new acronyms, but BHTV’s new series, “The Numbers Game,” will break them down in a way so that Blackhawks fans can relate.


How do advanced stats account for players who play an important checking role, but don’t necessarily drive possession or generate scoring chances? The most basic way to illustrate the difference between offensive and defensive players is to look at offensive zone start percentage, or ZS%. Excluding special teams, this stat is a simple percentage calculated using the NHL’s faceoff data, which is provided in chart form for every game.

ZS% = offensive zone starts / (offensive + defensive zone starts)

Zone starts tell us how players are deployed and gives us context for possession numbers. For instance, when comparing two players like Jonathan Toews and Marcus Kruger, we would expect Toews to have a higher ZS%, for the simple reason that putting him on the ice in offensive faceoff situations maximizes the team’s chances of creating goals. Along those lines, we’d also expect Kruger’s ZS% to be much lower, since he is known to be an effective checker who is trusted by Head Coach Joel Quenneville to handle defensive responsibilities.

The following chart breaks down ZS% for Blackhawks forwards and defensemen through 64 games in 2014-15. Note that linemates who share a lot of ice time (highlighted in the table below) tend to have similar numbers. Numbers via behindthenet.ca.

Forward ZS% Defenseman ZS%
Bickell 70.2 Rundblad 68.7
Richards 69.2 Rozsival 57.4
Sharp 68.3 Keith 55.0
Kane 67.7 Seabrook 52.3
Versteeg 67.6 Oduya 52.0
Shaw 66.5 Hjalmarsson 48.0
Toews 57.9
Saad 55.6
Hossa 54.9
Carcillo 40.5
Kruger 25.1
Nordstrom 14.7

At first glance, we can see that the Blackhawks are averaging more offensive zone starts than their opponents, evidence of a very good possession team. Niklas Hjalmarsson is the only defenseman logging under 50 percent. Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom (and Ben Smith, prior to being traded) noticeably draw the vast majority of defensive zone faceoff assignments among forwards; both rank in the top eight in the league in that regard.

One of the reasons VP/GM Stan Bowman gave up a first-round pick and a defensive prospect for Antoine Vermette at this year’s trade deadline was the veteran center’s two-way ability. Here are Vermette’s ZS% going back to the 2007-08 season:

Season ZS%
2007-08 (OTT) 45.0
2008-09 (CBJ) 47.9
2009-10 (CBJ) 44.3
2010-11 (CBJ) 55.3
2011-12 (ARI) 43.1
2012-13 (ARI) 53.1
2013-14 (ARI) 44.1
2014-15 (ARI/CHI) 52.4

Vermette’s numbers indicate that his coaches have not hesitated to utilize him in both offensive and defensive situations, as his ZS% isn’t heavily skewed in either direction, and he hasn’t had the benefit of playing on many great possession teams over his career. On the Blackhawks, fans can expect Vermette to take some of the defensive zone burden off Kruger’s line as well as contribute offensively, which could be a highly valuable asset come playoff time.

Zone starts, in addition to demonstrating player usage across a team, helps provide context for possession stats. When looking at SAT percentages, it’s helpful to take other metrics such as ZS% into account, in order to get a more accurate picture of a player’s role or performance.

Previously introduced: Shot Attempts

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