Which NHL Teams Are Using Their Players Most Effectively in 2013-14 Season?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IDecember 21, 2013

Which NHL Teams Are Using Their Players Most Effectively in 2013-14 Season?

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    There is a great new innovation that can evaluate how effectively coaches are using their players–Player Usage Charts. At the quickest of glances, they show which players are paired up with whom, against what level of opponents, in which zone and how effectively the team plays in such situations. Which team is using their players the best? 

    Player Usage Charts combine the percentage of shifts a player starts in the offensive zone (horizontal axis) and the average level of competition he faces (vertical axis), with a sized and colored bubble that's based on the team's attempted shot differential when the given player is on the ice.

    These charts put shutdown forwards in the top-left corner, offensive-minded stars on the right side and sheltered depth players along the bottom. There's a lot of information in these charts, which are introduced in more detail in the 2011-12 Player Usage Charts PDF.

    What follows here are the player usage chart for every team so far this season, with a few brief highlights of who is being used particularly effectively, and who isn't. Each slide also includes my personal take on the team's player usage overall. Let's begin!

    Player Usage Charts are via writer's own original research, with data sourced from Behind the Net

Anaheim Ducks

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Do you remember when Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry took on all the tough assignments? For the past couple of seasons, the Anaheim Ducks have had Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik and Andrew Cogliano taking on the top lines and doing so very well.

    Do you also remember when Cam Fowler was a defensive liability? Now he's the undisputed two-way star of the Ducks' blue line, well ahead of last year's fourth-place Norris finalist Francois Beauchemin. And when did Ben Lovejoy become a legitimate top-four defenseman?

    Finally, Mathieu Perreault and Dustin Penner have been highly effective free-agent signings and for just $3.05 million combined, according to CapGeek.com.

    Least Effective: 21-year-old forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Emerson Etem might be used a little too aggressively right now, although Kyle Palmieri is struggling just as much in a more appropriate role.

    What was the point of adding Tim Jackman, just to give him seven minutes a game of highly sheltered ice time?

    My Take: Solid usage overall, including a classic use of a shutdown line to unleash their top line's full power.

Boston Bruins

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Once again Patrice Bergeron stands out as a truly amazing two-way forward, and Zdeno Chara as a great shutdown defenseman.

    Loui Eriksson (who is out with a concussion) and Reilly Smith were excellent acquisitions. Brad Marchand also looks great.

    Least Effective: He may be their scoring leader, but David Krejci does not stand out among their top-six forwards. It's quite the opposite, in fact.

    Torey Krug has been effective in a pure offensive role but might have a greater positive impact in more of a balanced top-four assignment.

    My Take: There is a sharp contrast between the top lines and the depth lines. In general, the Boston Bruins have been at an advantage when their top-six are on the ice and a disadvantage when the secondary players are out there.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Marcus Foligno is one of the top-six forwards who stands out. And as far as fourth-line physical players go, Cody McCormick isn't bad.

    Least Effective: This one's hard to evaluate because Buffalo's player usage is all over the place, with very few clear assignments to be found.

    Mark Pysyk may not be ready for a top-four assignment. How about trying Jamie McBain?

    Matt D'Agostini has been given every opportunity to produce in his seven games so far, but it hasn't looked promising thus far.

    My Take: It's hard to make heads or tails of this lineup.

Calgary Flames

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: On the blue line, there's a huge gap between the offensive-minded pairing of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell, and the tough minutes pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. It nevertheless appears to be the correct usage.

    Matt Stajan is very effective as Coach Hartley's surprise choice of top shutdown forward. Lee Stempniak, Mike Cammalleri, Mikael Backlund and TJ Galiardi also stand out as effective top-six forwards.

    Least Effective: This sheds some light on why the Oilers let Ladislav Smid go so easily. He and Chris Butler might be better suited to be more of a depth assignment.

    Their young duo of Sven Baertschi and Sean Monahan have been carefully used in sheltered situations, but the Calgary Flames have still been outplayed when they're on the ice. That has left players like Lance Bouma with perhaps more defensive responsibilities than he can handle.

    Veterans Shane O'Brien and Brian McGrattan don't appear to be helping the club very much.

    My Take: The key takeaway is their usage of their top-four defensemen, which is unusual but effective.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Carolina's best-kept secret is how it has seriously upgraded its blue line. Andrej Sekera (Buffalo), Ron Hainsey (Winnipeg) and even Brett Bellemore (Charlotte) have all been excellent additions. Justin Faulk also remains excellent.

    Nathan Gerbe was another fantastic addition, joining Jordan Staal as an effective shutdown forward. 

    Least Effective: Beyond the top four, the blue line has been far less effective. Tim Gleason, Ryan Murphy, Jay Harrison and Mike Komisarek have all struggled to various extents in more depth-line assignments.

    One has to wonder if Alexander Semin is in the right role. As for Jeff Skinner, most nights he probably has to tell Manny Malhotra who the opposing goalie was, while asking him who the Canes had in nets.

    My Take: The Hurricanes have a highly effective and brand new top-four but still need a little more out of their veteran depth.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: It comes as no surprise that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are the team's leading forwards. Patrick Kane's role is more offense-oriented, which suits him well.

    Brandon Saad is a highly effective two-way forward, and Kris Versteeg has been a quality pickup. Andrew Shaw and Jeremy Morin could both be put to greater use.

    Least Effective: Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya gradually took over the toughest assignments from Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but things may have gone too far.

    Also going too far is the extreme split in offensive- and defensive-zone ice time. Marcus Kruger, Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith have all had their effectiveness limited by strict defensive zone usage. Beyond that, the only real question marks up-front have been Michal Handzus and Brandon Pirri.

    My Take: Chicago has so much talent that it's almost impossible to deploy in an ineffective way.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Though their services aren't cheap, the Colorada Avalanche are blessed to have two great shutdown forwards in Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny. Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and Alex Tanguay have also been effective.

    Least Effective: The concern in Colorado has always been the blue line. Beyond their top pairing of Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson there appears to be only defensemen who are more at the third pairing level. Perhaps Tyson Barrie could step up?

    Their forward depth could be called into question as well, especially with Tanguay's injury. P.A. Parenteau isn't bad, but Jamie McGinn has struggled, and Nathan MacKinnon is being somewhat sheltered. Perhaps Max Talbot could be used more.

    My Take: Colorado has been playing over its head so far, and its recent 3-3-1 stretch may be more indicative of where the team really is.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Ryan Johansen is Columbus' best-kept secret. He's the team's leading scorer and top shutdown forward, a role that doesn't seem to suit R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno nearly as well.

    Brandon Dubinsky has also been strong but is being underused. Cam Atkinson probably doesn't require as much shelter as he's been getting and could be tested in a legitimate top-six role.

    Least Effective: Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin don't appear to be working perfectly as the top pairing. Perhaps James Wisniewski and Ryan Murray could take on more. And why is Nikita Nikitin being used in a depth role?

    Obviously Marian Gaborik has been somewhat of a disappointment.

    My Take: There are a lot of success stories in Columbus but also some pressing concerns that need to be addressed.

Dallas Stars

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Tyler Seguin and rookie Valeri Nichushkin have been fantastic additions and have given top two-way forward Jamie Benn some company. Cody Eakin has also been developing quite nicely.

    Tough guys Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt have been effective on the checking line, especially compared with veteran Vernon Fiddler.

    Least Effective: The previously solid blue line can be called into question with the absence of underrated top defenseman Stephane Robidas and borderline top-four defenseman Trevor Daley. Highly paid veteran Sergei Gonchar, for instance, is fifth among Dallas Stars defensemen in ice time, is being sheltered defensively and is still struggling. Alex Goligoski also needs to step up.

    Upfront Erik Cole and his $4.5 million cap hit is the big goat and to a lesser extent his new linemate Rich Peverley.

    My Take: Dallas is a team with new players and a new coach, and it may take some time to get the player usage just right.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Detroit's top stars are well-known, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. They handle the tough assignments—and with incredible effectiveness.

    Lesser known is Todd Bertuzzi, who has been one of their top shutdown forwards for two or three seasons, although obviously not performing at quite the same level as Datsyuk. Gustav Nyquist has also been effective in his 13 games in the top-six, though in a more offensive-minded role.

    The Wings have a great two-way top pairing in Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall, but the real question is whether they can fill out the rest of the top-four by getting more out of Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey and/or Brendan Smith.

    Least Effective: While Stephen Weiss is the most well-known of Detroit's disappointments, Danny Clearly has been struggling as well. Shouldn't they use Mikael Samuelsson, Drew Miller and especially Tomas Tatar a little more instead?

    It is beginning to look doubtful if Jakub Kindl can ever play his way into the top-four.

    My Take: Detroit have an amazing top line but has yet to construct a strong secondary threat from its wealth of options.

Edmonton Oilers

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: The big-name draft picks may get all the attention, but David Perron and Phil Larsen deserve credit as solid acquisitions. And give Ryan Smyth some due for transitioning into an effective shutdown forward in his twilight seasons.

    Further down the depth chart, Mark Arcobello and Anton Belov have earned their occasional stints in the top-six and top-four, respectively and should be considered as more permanent options.

    Least Effective: The big issue in Edmonton has always been the blue line. Andrew Ference has not been an ideal top-four defenseman, and it's not unreasonable to label Nick Schultz's play as a flat-out disappointment. The team also seems to be losing confidence in Justin Schultz (defensively, at least).

    It's surprising to see that Taylor Hall hasn't been as dominant as usual.

    It's also hard to see the logic in employing a bunch of forwards who can't handle regular shifts, like Luke Gazdic and Will Acton, and to a lesser extent, players like Ryan Jones, Ben Eager and Jesse Joensuu.

    Boyd Gordon is all alone handling the toughest assignments and could use some help similar to what Rob Klinkhammer and David Moss provided him last year in Phoenix.

    My Take: Edmonton neglected their blue line and had some bad luck in nets, both of which have affected the Oilers more considerably than I would have thought.

Florida Panthers

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Tom Gilbert and Brian Campbell are a very effective top pairing, and Dmitry Kulikov has been good at No. 3.

    As usual, Marcel Goc is a quality shutdown forward. He's got help this year, as Tomas Kopecky and Scott Upshall have had some success against the top lines and Jesse Winchester and Shawn Matthias against the depth lines. Sean Bergenheim has been uncharacteristically ineffective this year, however.

    Among those deployed more offensively, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau have been effective, as has Tomas Fleischmann in a more balanced top-line role, as always.

    Least Effective: Six and seven games, respectively, may be an awfully small sample size, but goodness gracious, Ryan Whitney and Mike Mottau! They're not the answer on the blue line. Neither is Erik Gudbranson. Mike Weaver handles the tough assignments and could use some help, which hopefully Dylan Olsen can provide.

    Despite their scoring, Brad Boyes and Aleksander Barkov stand out on the negative side of the ledger. And the Scott Gomez gamble didn't work out, but at least it was a low-risk and low-cost contract.

    My Take: Florida is almost there and could take a lot of teams by surprise.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Los Angeles has three particularly effective possession-oriented top-six forwards in Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams. Tyler Toffoli has been equally effective but in a far more offensive-minded assignment.

    Drew Doughty is perhaps the lone shining light on the blue line, although Jake Muzzin could perhaps be promoted up the depth chart.

    Least Effective: Coach Darryl Sutter will have to consider if Robyn Regehr and Slava Voynov remain capable of the top-end assignment he's given them and whether Dwight King truly belongs in the mix as a top-six forward.

    Sutter's greatest challenge is most certainly their ineffective depth lines. It would be fair to paint the entire bottom-six and potentially Jarret Stoll, too, with that same brush.

    My Take: Los Angeles is a very strong team but may no longer have depth that matches up with the league's elite.

Minnesota Wild

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: The talents of star forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu are finally being fully unleashed, thanks to having their defensive burdens taken over by Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak.

    Much has been said of Nino Niederreiter's transformative season and the wisdom of that gamble. Charlie Coyle and Jason Pominville are also solid top-six forwards.

    Least Effective: The excessive load assigned to Ryan Suter and his partner Jonas Brodin has resulted in play that is still strong but not as effective as last year. The Wild really should use their other defensemen more, like Jared Spurgeon, who is one of the league's most underrated top-four defensemen, and Marco Scandella.

    Up-front Dany Heatley is a fairly well-known disappointment. Beyond that, Mikael Granlund is taking a little more time to develop than expected, and Justin Fontaine is perhaps being used too ambitiously.

    My Take: The Minnesota Wild initially started off very strong, but their play has recently tumbled closer to my more modest preseason expectations of them.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov are one of the league's most effective pairings, but they are surprisingly not assigned the toughest minutes. Raphael Diaz has also been an effective top-four defenseman.

    The team's other highlight is its collection of young possession-oriented forwards. In increasing order of offensive-minded assignments, the Canadiens have Lars Eller, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Alexander Galchenyuk. They also have strong veteran third-line options.

    Least Effective: Beyond their star top pairing, there are serious issues on the blue line. Alexei Emelin and Josh Gorges have not been ideal top-four defensemen, and it's fair to characterize the play of veterans Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray as a disappointment.

    There are not many concerns up front (except Ryan White), but they may be leaning on their top shutdown forwards Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec a little too heavily.

    My Take: The Montreal Canadiens have achieved an excellent balance of youth and experience, of offensive talent and defensive. Their problem is the blue line; an upgrade could make them contenders.

Nashville Predators

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Seth Jones has been able to immediately jump to the NHL and perform as a top-four defenseman. Thanks to him and Roman Josi, the defensive load is no longer Shea Weber's to bear alone.

    Up front, the Predators have a collection of low-profile, but effective, top-six forwards. The best among them, Patric Hornqvist, has always been a strong possession-based player, even against top opponents. The Matt Cullen investment has been paying off, and Gabriel Bourque's play has been a pleasant surprise.

    It is interesting that David Legwand is no longer taking on the top assignments, and he has used that freedom from defensive responsibilities to lead the team in scoring.

    Least Effective: Why such major shelter for Ryan Ellis and Filip Forsberg? And, to a lesser extent, why isn't Viktor Stalberg being used more aggressively?

    More was expected from defense-oriented third-line forwards like Paul Gaustad, Matt Hendricks, Nick Spaling and Eric Nystrom. Unlike top shutdown forward Mike Fisher, they haven't been taking on the top lines.

    Kevin Klein's struggles have highlighted their most serious issue, which is lack of depth on the blue line.

    My Take: Nashville invested heavily this offseason to regain its playoff team status, and while most of its moves are working out very nicely, the Predators' blue line is still too thin, and they are too dependent on their underachieving checking lines.

New Jersey Devils

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: The veterans are getting it done for New Jersey. Jaromir Jagr (41), Dainius Zubrus (35) and Patrik Elias (37) have all been effective two-way top-six forwards. Travis Zajac also deserves credit as the team's top shutdown forward.

    Andy Greene has carved out a role for himself as the team's top defenseman, and Mark Fayne is a highly underrated defensive-minded top-four defenseman.

    Rookie Eric Gelinas is indeed getting the job done this year but in a sheltered assignment, much like Adam Larsson's. Blue-chip prospect Jon Merrill, on the other hand, may have been used too ambitiously.

    Least Effective: Anton Volchenkov has continued his slide down the depth chart, now ninth among the New Jersey defensemen in average ice time and still barely able to remain effective.

    The other cause for concern is some of the underachieving depth forwards, including (but not limited to) Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Cam Janssen. How many games have been lost when they've dominated the top lines, but the depth lines got burned?

    My Take: I have very high expectations of New Jersey this season, but it's continuing to struggle despite excellent possession-based play. There is an answer here, and coach Peter DeBoer needs to find it—and fast.

New York Islanders

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: One of the keys to the success of New York's offensive-minded talents like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo is having top shutdown forwards Frans Nielsen and Joshua Bailey handling the tough minutes.

    The Islanders did a good job addressing their forward depth with Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin joining existing players like Michael Grabner, but they neglected their blue line. Trying out Thomas Hickey in the top-four has resulted in some success, and Matt Donovan shows promise. Lubomir Visnovsky and Calvin de Haan might also help.

    Least Effective: Until the team gets them some help on the blue line, handling all of the team's toughest minutes is going to keep limiting the effectiveness of their celebrated top pairing of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic.

    The only other serious issue is with their checking line of Matt Martin (mislabelled as Martinek), Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald.

    My Take: The Islanders made great improvements up front but chose to enter the season without shoring up the blue line or their goaltending. That's a decision that they've been paying for in full.

New York Rangers

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: There's not a lot of line-matching among the forwards in New York but a great deal of zone-matching. Players like Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards, for example, are used almost exclusively in the offensive zone.

    It's the opposite on defense, where Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have one of the toughest jobs in the NHL for the third or fourth season in a row. Anton Stralman and Marc Staal (when healthy) form an effective defensive-minded pairing that should be used to ease some of that pressure.

    One other player stands out, and that's Chris Kreider's unexpectedly exceptional play. Only Rick Nash takes on a tougher level of competition.

    Least Effective: Being buried in the defensive zone is obviously going to limit the effectiveness of forwards like Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett and Taylor Pyatt. But that's the price coach Alain Vigneault chooses to pay in order to keep his high-paid offensive stars at their most effective.

    On the blue line, Justin Falk certainly stands out as particularly ineffective.

    My Take: Classic Alain Vigneault! The former Vancouver coach is very well-known in analytic circles for tailoring very specific roles and deploying players in certain zones almost exclusively. It could take time for this to succeed in New York.

Ottawa Senators

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Clarke MacArthur was an excellent offseason acquisition. He and Kyle Turris have been effective shutdown forwards. Bobby Ryan was another great pickup and is potentially the Ottawa Senators' top forward this year.

    Mike Zibanejad is playing well and probably doesn't need to be sheltered this much. Why is Erik Condra on the depth lines facing weak opponents?

    On defense they've got Erik Karlsson doing a fantastic job in an offensive-minded role, and Eric Gryba playing effectively in a more defensive-focused assignment.

    Least Effective: The big disappointment is obviously Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, the most ineffective scoring duo in the league. While they're not the only players failing to play up to their potential (Joe Corvo comes to mind), they are certainly the most prominent.

    My Take: I was actually expecting really big things from Ottawa, but they've really taken a step back defensively. This team should be much better than it is.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Claude Giroux may have started off slowly scoring-wise, but he is a great possession-based player who handles huge minutes. He also makes frequent linemates Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek look absolutely amazing.

    The top shutdown forwards are Sean Couturier and Matt Read, whose fine play allowed them to deal away Max Talbot for quality pickup Steve Downie. His grit should hopefully reduce the need to use valuable bench space on players like Jay Rosehill and Zac Rinaldo.

    Braydon Coburn has been impressive as the No. 1 defenseman, but other than him and veterans Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit, the latter of whom is awfully sheltered, the Philadelphia Flyers are looking thin on defense.

    Least Effective: It's unexpected to see high-scoring forwards Brayden Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier with big, bad red circles and facing below-average competition. A low-profile player like Adam Hall who is always assigned time in the defensive zone can be excused a red circle, but Schenn and Lecavalier should be able to handle a tougher assignment and more effectively.

    Speaking of tough assignments, Nicklas Grossmann has historically handled them better than he has so far this season. The Flyers certainly need more out of him and their depth defensemen like Luke Schenn, Erik Gustafsson and Andrej Meszaros.

    My Take: Just as the Flyers resolved their scoring drought, they slipped into some defensive woes. They need more out of the bottom half of their lineup.

Phoenix Coyotes

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Mike Ribeiro is leading the team in scoring but in a very offensively tilted assignment. Likewise, Keith Yandle gets a lot of minutes, but it's generally against below-average competition and in the offensive zone.

    Antoine Vermette is the team's top shutdown forward. David Moss and Rob Klinkhammer, who worked with Boyd Gordon on last year's shutdown line, are doing very well after being shifted to more typical assignments.

    Least Effective: Zbynek Michalek and Oliver Ekman-Larsson handle one of the league's toughest assignments and could use some help carrying that load. That help could come mostly from Yandle but also from a number of Phoenix's secondary defensemen who are performing well, like Derek Morris and David Schlemko.

    There are no major disappointments in Phoenix, though the bulk of their forwards, like Mikkel Boedker, Martin Hanzal and Lauri Korpikoski, haven't been quite as effective possession-wise as last year.

    My Take: Dave Tippett is very well-known for getting the most out of his lineup, something that will have to continue if Phoenix is to make the playoff with this roster.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Sidney Crosby's offensive talents are well-known, but he's currently the Pittsburgh Penguins' top shutdown forward, too. He makes stars out of Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, not to mention defensemen Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen.

    With Player Usage Charts you can really see the difference between a generational talent like Crosby and a "mere" superstar like Evgeni Malkin.

    Jussi Jokinen and James Neal have also been solid, but that's partly thanks to playing more exclusively in the offensive zone and against slightly more average competition.

    Least Effective: Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are the team's shutdown pair and might be more effective if they got a little more time with Crosby, too.

    If Pittsburgh has a weakness, it's on the defensive lines manned by Chuck Kobasew, Brandon Sutter, Craig Adams and Tanner Glass.

    My Take: The team's fate is tied to Sidney Crosby and how effectively he is used. Right now he's fantastic, and so is it.

St. Louis Blues

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: The big story is that of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie (missing from the chart), who are certainly make up the league's best shutdown line. Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo could equally be considered the league's best top pairing.

    In terms of usage, there is a big gap between these five and the rest of the team. Youngsters like Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk have used that extra space to their maximum advantage.

    Least Effective: Maxim Lapierre and Magnus Paajarvi perhaps didn't work out as good depth-line acquisitions, and there are probably more effective third-pairing defensemen than Roman Polak and Ian Cole. That's about it.

    My Take: It's hard to find fault with this lineup or its deployment.

San Jose Sharks

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: While Joe Thornton's line, which includes Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns, is certainly a sight to behold, the great seasons of the San Jose Sharks' two top shutdown forwards Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau might be the real story.

    Marc-Edouard Vlasic and his frequent partner Justin Braun are an effective shutdown pairing, especially since the top-four is rounded out by a pairing led by responsible two-way defenseman Dan Boyle.

    Least Effective: The Sharks do have some less effective forwards in their top-six, and it's quite a surprise to see Joe Pavelski among them. It's less of a surprise to see Martin Havlat, Tyler Kennedy and Tommy Wingels, the latter two of whom are almost definitely in too ambitious a role.

    Another surprise is to see defensively respected veterans Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan potentially no longer capable of serving as strong top-four defensemen.

    San Jose's depth lines are a mixed bag. Andrew Desjardins, Mike Brown and John McCarthy haven't been effective, but James Sheppard and Matthew Nieto have. Granted, Nieto has been assigned an extremely offensively-tilted role.

    My Take: San Jose is a stacked team, but there's still a little room for improvement.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: There's usually at least a few long-term, high-priced free-agent signings that work out, and this year one of the biggest success stories has been Valtteri Filppula.

    Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone are also having good seasons, but in far easier and more sheltered assignments. Though their other rookies are getting more attention, J.T. Brown is the one who stands out as among the more effective.

    Sami Salo and Victor Hedman have been the team's most effective top-four defensemen.

    Least Effective: Tampa Bay's No. 1 defenseman Matt Carle's effectiveness has been limited by the difficulty of his assignment. Hard-hitting rookie Radko Gudas might be in over his head as a top-four defenseman.

    While most of the team's rookies have room for growth, Richard Panik stands out as someone who is being used too ambitiously against top opponents.

    My Take: The Tampa Bay Lightning have been relying heavily on a group of rookies, most of whom are handling the top assignments. Based on the information above, the success of this approach may start to cool off.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Though they lost Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, the Toronto Maple Leafs did make some useful pickups this offseason. Mason Raymond is one of the league's best value signings, for example.

    While the overpaid David Clarkson's play has been much-maligned, it has been primarily in the defensive zone, with possession-based results not dissimilar from Dave Bolland's (another fine addition).

    Nazem Kadri has also been effective, but it's thanks to more advantageous playing conditions and against more average opponents than the team's other top-six forwards.

    On the blue line Jake Gardiner is doing well and is second in average ice time. He could be used against top opponents more often, relieving some pressure on the top pairing. Paul Ranger could also be shuffled up the depth chart a little bit.

    Least Effective: Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson are taking on all the tough assignments, which is somewhat limiting their effectiveness.

    The Maple Leafs are clearly trying to sort out their depth lines, struggling to find an effective combination of players like Jerred Smithson, Carter Ashton, Trevor Smith or Troy Bodie. The Player Usage Chart even had to be stretched to crazy proportions to include bruisers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.

    My Take: The Leafs have been consistently outshot and outplayed for a while now, often playing in their own end and without the puck. Identifying such teams and their inevitable struggles is one of the more reliable predictions coming out of the world of analytics recently.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: There are several big surprises in Vancouver. Chris Higgins is the top shutdown forward, Mike Santorelli's one of the league's best value pickups, and Chris Tanev is an effective top-four defenseman. Jannik Hansen has also been highly effective against the top lines. 

    Less of a surprise is the continued effectiveness of Daniel and Henrik Sedins on the top line, who have continued to enjoy an offensively tilted assignment with coach John Tortorella.

    On defense Dan Hamhuis has been their most effective defenseman. Kevin Bieksa is close behind but doesn't take on the top lines quite as often as Hamhuis.

    Least Effective: The depth lines have really struggled, including most famously David Booth. There's virtually no one beyond the top lines who has been effective, with the possible exception of rookie Ryan Stanton.

    Also surprising are the struggles of defensemen Jason Garrison and Alexander Edler, especially since the latter leads the team in average ice time.

    My Take: Because of the coaching change from a famous zone-matching coach like Alain Vigneault to John Tortorella, Vancouver is one of the more interesting teams to study. On a team full of surprises, the disparity in effectiveness between the top lines and the depth lines is the most stunning.

Washington Capitals

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin form the core of one of the league's most effective offensive lines, and that's largely from getting assigned very advantageous minutes.

    Mike Green has excelled as the Washington Capitals' primary defenseman, along with surprising rookie Nate Schmidt. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are meanwhile two of the league's best shutdown defensemen.

    One forward who stands out is Mikhail Grabovski, who has really excelled since being freed from the peculiar assignment he had in Toronto last year. Magnus Johansson also looks great, as does key shutdown forward Joel Ward.

    Least Effective: Shutdown forwards Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer are getting loads of ice time but haven't been at their most effective this year.

    Washington may want to review its less effective depth-liners Aaron Volpatti, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta and struggling rookie depth defenseman Alexander Urbom.

    My Take: Washington's player usage is built around getting the most offensively out of Alexander Ovechkin. In that regard, they've been quite successful so far.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Hockey Abstract

    Most Effective: The Winnipeg Jets have a collection of effective top-six forwards, led by Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Devin Setugochi. Bryan Little gives them an effective two-way shutdown forward, while Blake Wheeler serves a purpose in a more offensive-minded role.

    Dustin Byfuglien is consistently one of the league's best two-way defensemen. Both Toby Enstrom and Grant Clitsome have supported him as solid top-four defensemen.

    Eric Tangradi also stands out as an effective depth line forward.

    Least Effective: There are a few holes a little further down the depth chart, including Matt Halischuk (who is out indefinitely) and rookie Mark Scheifele. Also, Michael Frolik appears to be less effective than Olli Jokinen in more defensive-minded assignments.

    The currently injured Zach Bogosian has been troublingly ineffective as a top-four defenseman, but it doesn't appear that either Keaton Ellerby, rookie Jacob Trouba or especially Mark Stuart would be any better.

    Depth forwards like Anthony Peluso, Chris Thorburn and James Wright have been largely ineffective.

    My Take: The Winnipeg Jets have a lot of good players and are deploying them effective, with a few notable exceptions. It's unfortunate for them that they're in the powerhouse Western Conference.


    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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