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Mike Johnston and the Importance of Shift Length

Mike Johnston says the Penguins had more energy because of shorter shifts, quicker changes

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2-0 win against the Senators, Mike Johnston talked about shift lengths in his post game comments:

"That's the look of what we want in the first period. We had the jump. We had the energy. A lot of it came from quicker changes, coming fast to the bench, getting shorter shifts, quicker changes. I thought that's the type of first period we need."

Yesterday, Travis Yost from TSN wrote an article about how important short shifts are to Mike Babcock. Yost quoted this from an ESPN article:

Detroit assistant coach Paul MacLean is never without his stopwatch, clicking it each time the Wings make a line change. "We use our own time," says Babcock, eschewing the arena stat sheet. For playoffs, he wants short shifts -- 40 seconds, tops -- making sure stars like Henrik Zetterberg stay fresh enough to sustain the tempo his two-way game demands. Quick, smart line changes are so crucial that the Wings devoted an entire practice to them during an unexpected layover in St. Louis last season. Bonus benefit: Quick changes prevent positioning breakdowns that result in odd-man rushes.

In his piece, Yost looks at the impact Babcock had on the Leafs’ players shift length so far. Most of them have gone from around an average of 50 seconds per shifts in 2014-15, to 40 seconds shifts now.

While a lot of shifts can get extended due to players getting hemmed in their own zone, you also have players that spend most of it in the offensive zone. Some of them use that time effectively, some of them don’t. Jen Lute Costella wrote on this topic here:

Teams spending long periods of time in the offensive zone, or possessing the puck, is good right? Not necessarily. It’s certainly better than constantly being hemmed into the defensive zone, of course; however, simply having the puck in the offensive zone (passing, running the cycle, i.e. what many term as "puck possession") is not what has been established as having a high correlation to success. Shot generation (creating shots toward the net) and shot suppression (preventing shots toward the net) are actually the metrics that have been linked to success.

On the one hand, you want to have your best players out there as much as you can. On the other hand, if those few long shifts negatively affect every other shift due to them being more fatigued, are they worth it?

If one of your top forward lines has a a couple 1+ minute shifts in the offensive zone, but doesn’t manage to score on any of them, would it have been better to have them fresher in all 20 shifts they skate?

A look the shift lengths in last night’s game

long shift: 1+ minute
short shift: 40-50 seconds, or less

Shift length Opposition
Maatta - Clendening mostly short shifts Lazar - Pageau - Michalek
Dumoulin - Lovejoy mixture of long and short shifts Hoffman - Turris - Stone
Cole - Letang mixture of long and short shifts 2nd line + 1st & 2nd pair
Farnham - Cullen - Rust mixture of long and short shifts Bottom 6 + 1st & 2nd pair
Porter - Bonino - Sprong mostly short shifts 1st line + 1st & 2nd pair
Perron - Malkin - Hornqvist mostly short shifts Chiasson - Zibanejad - Ryan
Kunitz - Crosby - Kessel mostly long shifts Hoffman - Turris - Stone

Shift length is affected by a multitude of factors - among them special teams, and what opponents the players face. This tries to only look at even strength shifts, but every PK/PP shift influences the even strength shifts that follow them.

The Crosby line stands out because almost every second shift they took was 1 minute or longer.

The Crosby line had a very good 1st period, generating 7 shot attempts for at even strength, and only allowing 3 against. But in the 2nd and 3rd period, they only managed 4 shot attempts for, and 8 against. As a line, they finished the game with 11 shot attempts for, 11 against. While that can be in part explained with the Penguins sitting back due to the 2 goal lead they had at that point, maybe fatigue also played a role. The amount of special teams in the 2nd and 3rd period makes it hard to judge the even strength results, though.

On that topic: a week ago at the RIT Hockey Analytics Conference, Brad Stenger said this on the fatigue that players experience during a game :

Mike Johnston seems to want short shifts. For the most part the Penguins managed that against a tired Senators team. It will be interesting to see what kind of trends they establish as the season goes along.