Elite forwards can be complete game-changers, but since they come in different types and with different styles, the trick is in using them in the most effective way.
While watching a typical NHL game, especially in the closing period, certain elite players are more likely to be seen in certain situations. Some, like Patrice Bergeron or Pavel Datsyuk for instance, will be seen most often when protecting a late lead, while players like Henrik Sedin or Alexander Ovechkin are more commonly seen when their teams are chasing one.
Whether they're snipers, playmakers or power forwards, some stars, like Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, are more often used to neutralize and exhaust top opponents, while others are used to offensively dominate secondary lines, like John Tavares and Evgeni Malkin for instance. Some are used in a whole variety of different situations, like perhaps Claude Giroux and the incomparable Sidney Crosby.
Today's elite forwards ultimately fall into roughly three groups, usually as a result of not only their own strengths and weaknesses but also the needs and goals of their respective teams. The players within these groups often share many of the same traits and experience many of the same results, and moving them from one group to another has similar consequences to both them and their teams.
Player Usage Charts
What are these groups, and how can we tell which player is which? Both of these questions can be answered with player usage charts, one of the most exciting new tools coming out of the world of hockey analytics.
Simply put, player usage charts reveal how players are being used at just the quickest of glances. Take, for example, a player usage chart that includes all of today's elite forwards and their 2013 NHL data, which all comes from Behind the Net.
What does this chart tell us about how players are being used? For starters, players who start a high percentage of their (non-neutral zone) shifts in the offensive zone are on the right side of the chart, while those deployed more defensively are on the left.
Secondly, those who more commonly face top-line competition are at the top of the chart, while players on depth lines find themselves way at the bottom (obviously not shown here).
As for the bubbles, they indicate how well a team does with the given player on the ice. There's obviously a little complexity behind the scenes, but basically a big blue bubble is good and a red bubble (like Patrick Kane) is bad.
Visit Hockey Abstract for more information on player usage charts, including a tool where you can design your own. Warning: You will lose all track of time!
As demonstrated on the player usage chart, elite forwards are divided into three basic types, and each one includes several excellent examples of players that share common traits, results and reputations.
Type 1: Power vs. Power
When they're on the ice: against opposing top lines, in almost any situation or zone.
Where they appear on a player usage chart: along the top.
These players are used against the opposing team's top players in almost all situations. Whether chasing a lead or protecting one, when the other team's stars hop over the boards, so do they. These elite players therefore need to be complete, disciplined two-way players and are usually featured prominently in Selke voting as the league's best defensive forward.
Teams that are deep offensively, like the Boston Bruins for example, tend to focus their power-vs.-power matchups in the defensive zone. Teams that don't have as many scoring alternatives, like the Minnesota Wild, will deploy such players more frequently in the offensive zone instead.
Even in the latter case, the superior nature of their opponents generally prevents them from winning any scoring races, both leaguewide and occasionally even their own team's.
Young elite players sometimes slowly evolve into this role, at which point their scoring totals may start to plateau (fair warning, Taylor Hall). Conversely, players handling these types of assignments can experience scoring boosts when an effective checking line relieves them of some of these responsibilities, much like Anaheim's Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf this past season.
Examples: Zach Parise, Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron
Type 2: Traditional
When they're on the ice: Whenever their team needs them most.
Where they appear on a player usage chart: Central, but above the line.
The classic deployment of elite forwards is to assign them a balanced variety of responsibilities, all depending on their opponents and the game situation. Sometimes it means a power-vs.-power matchup as above, but at least as often, it means getting worn down by the checking line to open up the ice for the team's other lines.
Players used in the more traditional fashion are generally (but not always) on teams with the luxury of both a reliable checking line and a secondary scoring line. That gives their coaches the freedom and flexibility to use them against any opposing line and in almost any game situation.
Examples: Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos
Type 3: Tilted Ice
When they're on the ice: Against secondary lines, in the offensive zone, whenever goals are needed most.
Where they appear on a player usage chart: On or below the line, toward the right.
The winner of the Art Ross and Hart Trophies is normally found among the group of elite players who are fortunate enough to play on teams where another line is capable of handling top opposing players, allowing them to dominate the secondary lines.
These players are not necessarily weak defensively but merely so dominant offensively that deploying them any differently could be simply a waste of resources. The true litmus test of their value to the team is therefore whether or not they take full advantage of such situations and generate offense when their teams need it most urgently.
Chemistry with one's linemates is obviously key for players in this category and can often make the difference between feast or famine, scoring-wise.
Examples: Alexander Ovechkin, John Tavares, Evgeni Malkin
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.