Developing Competitive Advantage: A Guiding Framework for Hockey Strategy

This article is being co-posted on Hockey Prospectus as well as on my own site, Find me @michael_zsolt on twitter.

 I often write about concepts tied to finance valuation, forecasting, salary cap management, player transactions, and contract negotiations – all of which are extremely important in a salary-capped league. However, when driving towards every team’s ultimate goal – wins – maximizing value will only ever be one part of the solution. Many other factors also play integral roles: coaching, systems, team management, culture, work ethic, among many others. Although these factors are all essential to a team’s success, I believe there is a single, over-arching element that ties them all together: a team’s strategy.

Although this sounds straightforward, it is very far from it. In the simplest sense, a team’s ‘strategy’ represents how it intends to win, and what broad competitive advantages it can develop and maintain over time against other teams. To be clear, ‘strategy’ does not mean ‘systems’. Systems are extremely important and closely tied to strategy, but a team’s strategy is closer to its ‘identity’ – who it wants to be and how it wants to win – while its systems are the scenario-specific on-ice tactics it uses to help win games.

Naturally, having a clear and well understood strategy will directly impact all elements of running that team. A team’s strategy should be guiding its day-to-day (and year-to-year) priorities, how it invests its time and resources, and be the consistent thread connecting everything from its coach selection to its player evaluation and how practice time is spent. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.

 ‘Corporate Strategy’

Although everyone tends to have an intuitive grasp of the concept of ‘strategy’, many (especially corporations), frequently fail to pin down exactly what it is. Many corporations have ‘strategic visions’ such as ‘Becoming a $500M company’. While this phrase sounds glamorous, it actually is an objective, not a strategy (and dozens of books have been written about discerning the differences here). ‘Strategy’ relates to exactly how they plan to achieve that objective, and how they will be different and better than their competitors in order to be successful.

The most succinct description of a ‘true’ strategy I have heard, in a business sense, is answering the questions of ‘Where to play?’, and ‘How to win?’. Practically, this will segue into questions like: What industries/sub-industries should a company participate in? Should that company target the mass market, and win by using its large scale to provide the lowest cost product to consumers? Or should it target a specific ‘niche’, become a specialized provider, and sell a high-priced premium product to those who care about it most?

The most important decision coming out of this type of analysis for companies is how to invest their resources (people, dollars, etc.) across all of the activities they are involved in (product design, manufacturing, marketing, sales, R&D, etc.). Resources are inherently scarce, and different strategies will get greater value out of emphasizing and investing in different areas.

Applying Strategy to Hockey Operations

Now, as mentioned, in hockey, ‘strategy’ represents how a team intends to win, and how it can develop and maintain systemic advantages relative to the rest of the league. If a team is choosing to use a heavy, defensive shut-down style such as that of the LA Kings, they are going to select different players, coaches, and systems than if they were trying to use a fast, offensive ‘run & gun’ approach like the Dallas Stars. Once that strategy is determined, many other aspects of decision-making change – for example, I think most of us agree that Dean Lombardi and Jim Nill probably use different criteria to evaluate players, and how well those players fit into their team’s needs.

The most important aspect of effective strategy is making all hockey operations decisions work towards the exact same aim of fostering this on-ice identity. Just like in business, teams that try to be ‘good at everything’ will never be ‘the best’ at anything. Finally, because resources are finite, a true strategy is just as much about defining what a team is NOT going to focus on as it is about determining where it should be investing its time, energy and resources.

 One side note – every NHL team also happens to be a for-profit corporation of its own – so they should each also have a separate, profit-maximizing ‘corporate strategy’, focused on ticket sales, advertising revenue, etc. ‘Hockey operations strategy’ and ‘corporate strategy’ are closely connected – but not the same – and this article will be strictly focusing on the hockey side.

Now – a very important question for strategic analysis is what ‘levers’ are in our control? What factors can a team actually focus on in order to develop sustainable competitive advantages on the ice?

A Guiding Framework to Hockey Strategy

 In order to help think through the components of hockey strategy, I have created a basic framework that deconstructs wins into all of the major sub-components that create them. Naturally, winning starts with scoring more goals than your opponent, so goal differential % (goals for – goals against / total goals) was my starting point.

 Guiding Framework

 The framework above should be pretty objective. Teams win by scoring more goals than their opponents, with PP/ES being the main offensive game states and PK/ES being the main defensive ones. I have tried to further deconstruct each element into its sub-components, before getting to the final blue-shaded oval ‘levers’. For one example – a team could focus on driving goals-for by increasing its conversion rate (shooting %) or by increasing its volume (shot attempts/scoring chances). As I said – this isn’t rocket science.

A couple side notes:

  • Feel free to substitute the final ‘levers’ for whatever metric fits your own analysis; for example, some may prefer to further segment ES Goals-For into chances by Danger Zone, and Danger Zone conversion rates
  • I have listed that PP for and PK against ‘may or may not be influence-able at a team level’ – I personally think this could go either way (e.g. players like Nazem Kadri certainly can and the 2016 SJ Sharks seemed able to). As such, if anyone is aware of a study that shows penalty differential to be a repeatable talent at a team level, please send it my way

OK – we have a framework. How do teams turn these levers into a competitive advantage? Which strategies focus on which levers? To answer these questions, let’s take a look at some of the top teams from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs as case studies.

Core Strategies Displayed in 2016 Playoff Teams

The table below is a summary of four major strategic approaches I have observed in the NHL that hopefully reflect some of the more common and successful strategies that teams use.

Core strategies

As the chart above shows, in a hockey context, the ‘where to play’ and ‘how to win’ questions fall into four major ‘strategic approaches’ existing in the league today. Two of the approaches are singularly offensively or defensively-focused, and two strategies represent more balanced styles of play.

Before getting into the detail, some caveats:

  • This is merely one way to try to categorize potential strategies – I don’t think of this list an exhaustive nor necessarily the ‘best’ way
  • There are likely other effective strategies employed within the league today – for the sake of simplicity I have focused on teams from the 2016 playoffs
  • Some of the teams not listed may either (i) not have a clearly articulated strategy (ii) be executing their strategy ineffectively, or (iii) have chosen a strategy that doesn’t fit well with their player/system/coach choices, (or (iv) I simply haven’t watched enough of their games to know)
  • Please feel free to comment/tweet if you have some ideas for other categories, or additional teams that fit into each bucket

Despite these points of clarification, I think it is safe to say that the 11 teams listed here do have a clear vision of how they want to compete. These teams know how they are trying to win, and when facing an opponent that is trying to be ‘all things to all to people’, I would argue the teams listed have a distinct advantage against any of their less-focused opponents.

In order to understand exactly how these core strategies are used, in the next section I will walk through the fundamental aspects of all four. To do so, I will use the original framework to illustrate the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of each.

 Defensive Shut-Down Strategy (DSD)

 Below I have tweaked my ‘Guiding Framework for Hockey Strategy’ in order to highlight the (typical) strengths and weaknesses of a team employing a DSD Strategy.

Defensive Shut down

 Looking at the chart above:

  • As mentioned, the DSD strategy focuses on using heavy-style players with a very strong fore-check and frequent dump-ins, all in an effort to pin the other team in their own zone, and to prevent any counter attack
  • As you would expect – defensively-minded strategies have the majority of their green-shaded strengths on the bottom half of the framework: suppressing goals/shots
    • LA and ANA epitomize this, finishing 2016 at #1 and #4 in CA/60 in the league
  • The chart above suggests this archetype would be strong in both reducing shot attempts against as well as shot quality against (e.g. improving Sv%, or increasing the proportion of Low Danger shots against); however, some teams may emphasize one of these levers over the other

One thing to keep in mind looking at these charts – I have applied the strengths of the strategy in a general sense, and made the assumption they would apply to both even strength and special team play. In reality, many teams will not necessarily be equally strong at employing their strategy in both ES and special teams situations.

Defensively Responsible, Balanced Strategy (DRB)

 I have omitted the chart for this category, as it looks very similar to the one above, and it can tend to be highly dependent on the specific team. As you would expect however, this strategy is used by teams that take a balanced approach but that still are ‘defense-first’. Teams with a DRB Strategy have very strong defensive cores and play a balanced game, with excellent shot suppression, puck possession, and controlled zone exits. If you think about the defensive ‘core’ embodied on each of the three teams listed (St Louis, San Jose and Nashville), you come across some well recognized and very successful defenders:

  • Alex Pietrangelo
  • Kevin Shattenkirk
  • Jay Bouwmeester
  • Colton Parayko
  • Brent Burns
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic
  • Paul Martin
  • K. Subban
  • Roman Josi
  • Ryan Ellis
  • Shea Weber (formerly)
  • Seth Jones (formerly)

Hopefully this list serves as an example of the type of defensive strength and depth required to succeed with this strategy. That said, there are definite overlaps between DRB and the second ‘balanced’ strategy, below.

Offensive Play-Driving Strategy (OPD)

Next is one of the strategies most loved by the analytics crowd, emphasizing speed, skill, puck possession and dynamic offense – while often sacrificing or de-emphasizing size. See below for the core strengths of the Offensive Play-Driving Strategy.

Offensive Play Driving

Looking at the chart above:

  • This is one of the strongest archetypes for driving ‘possession’ (shot-rate) stats such as corsi, at both ends of the ice
    • Three of the most successful teams in the last half decade seem to have employed this strategy: Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh
  • These teams excel at all aspects of puck possession, including controlled zone exits and entries, and use their pace and skill to retain and recover pucks in all three zones
  • CHI/TBL/PIT also have among the fastest and most skilled players in the league – with multiple top 3 overall picks in each lineup – signifying the type of high-end offensive and two way talent that OPD requires to succeed
  • While there is not much red in the chart above, I would stop short of saying teams using this strategy ‘don’t have any weaknesses’ – however, it does tend to be one of the most balanced and well-rounded styles, and its weaknesses will largely be team-specific

Earlier I mentioned that teams won’t necessarily fit perfectly into these boxes, and I think the Stanley Cup winning 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins are a great example of this. Although I would argue the 2016 Pens do fit in the Offensive Play-Driving Strategy, Pittsburgh also took a distinctly physical approach to it – emphasizing an extremely aggressive, hard-hitting fore-check. This physicality factor, in conjunction with their incredible speed, was a strong differentiator in the Pens’ cup run that made it very difficult for others to compete.

Offensive Run & Gun Strategy (ORG)

 Last, below is the summary table for the Offensive Run & Gun Strategy:

Offensive Run & Gun

Finally, with respect to the Offensive Run & Gun Strategy:

  • Although out of favour for the analytics community, this is definitely a strategy teams have employed for some time
    • The 2016 Capitals and Stars are arguably two of the most successful versions of this approach
  • Teams employing this strategy are characterized by their high-risk, high-reward approach, playing a very up-tempo and highly skilled offensive style
  • Although the Run & Gun Strategy de-emphasizes defensive structure and shot suppression, teams employing it often make up for this in shot quality, demonstrating some of the highest shooting %’s around the league
  • When compared to the Offensive Play-Driving Strategy, Run & Gun teams differentiate with their back-and-forth style of attack, outplaying teams on the transition, and by capitalizing on increased odd-man rushes throughout each game

Last, for the ORG strategy to work, often it requires an ‘elite’ level goaltender to shore up the defensive side of the equation for his team. This was demonstrated in 2016 both by Holtby’s consistency helping Washington be a legitimate contender and how the lack of consistent net-minding in Dallas was seen as the biggest barrier from them being able to do the same.

Final Thoughts: Strategy & Player Evaluation

Although this is already 2000+ words, there is of course much more to be said on the topic of strategy. Deciding on a strategy is simply the first step in a very long, difficult process of managing a team towards it, and implementing it effectively. A team’s strategy will impact coach selection, practice time usage, game planning, the decision of investing in analytics (or not), and all other aspects of its operations. Above all, it should be one of the most significant factors driving a team’s roster construction decisions, and the characteristics of players they are prioritizing.

A great example of this was last years win-win trade between PIT and ANA, swapping David Perron for Carl Hagelin. Perron was an under-utilized asset in Pittsburgh’s fast system, and Hagelin didn’t have the size that ANA wanted to play their heavy, slower style. After the trade, both players clearly hit their stride, substantially increasing each of their production rates on their new teams. I think this tells us an incredibly important and under-appreciated point – that player evaluation is never an ‘absolute’ exercise – rather, each player’s value will be in part based on his innate capability, and also in large part based on how well he fits in and contributes to the strategy, identity and system of his team.


To wrap up, I will point out that I personally haven’t commented or concluded that any of these strategies are the ‘best’. Just like in business, no strategy will ever be perfect, but there will always be one that is the best fit for each team based on its current roster, resources, strengths and weaknesses, and financial situation. I believe that one of the most significant factors in a team’s success is how cohesively and clearly the strategy, capabilities, and end-to-end decisions made across a team’s hockey operations fit together – and how disciplined they can be in maintaining their approach over 5+ year horizons. The only thing worse than not having a clear strategic direction is to attempt to pick one, second-guess it, and then continually turn an organization upside down every 1-2 years.