Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Does Stamkos Get Scoring Chances?

Everyone knows that Steven Stamkos is probably the most prolific sniper in the NHL right now. 60 goals last year speaks for itself. However, out west, we don't get to see Tampa play that much, we see Stamkos' goals on the highlights sometimes, and everyone knows about his "spot" where he'll one-time a pass home from the top of the left circle, but game-to-game and shift-to-shift we don't know a ton about him. I thought I'd investigate a little further into what makes Stamkos such a sniper, and how he's able to insert himself into such an abundance of opportunities at both even-strength and on the powerplay. I watched a few Lightning games —against the Rangers and Leafs at home and against the Devils and Panthers on the road— and collected clips in order to determine how he is able to generate those chances.

1. Off the Rush
When creating chances at even-strength, one of the most dangerous places for Steven Stamkos is off the rush. His top-flight speed, explosiveness, agility combined with terrific puck control allow Stamkos to dart up the ice for chances using his speed, oftentimes going through all three zones. May it be via a pass while he's in motion, or taking the puck himself all the way to the other end, he's simply amongst the most explosive skaters in the league. He can literally create a chance out of nothing to break a game open if he catches a defenseman asleep at the wheel. His incredible acceleration is able to catch defensemen flat-footed when he gets the chance, and once he gets by them he is able to rip off one of his wicked shots.

2. In the Zone
As great as Stamkos' speed is, it's not always possible to get all your chances in transition. You have to able to create chances when you're already in the zone, where there is less room to move and use that explosive skating ability. In watching these games, I noticed that Stamkos loves to go to open spaces or dead ice to get a chance to touch the puck. His linemates changed throughout these games, but it was typically either Conacher or St. Louis doing the work in the corners (with Purcell), while Stamkos fought to find his position on the ice, typically in front of the net.

Stamkos differs from a player like Crosby or Datsyuk in this aspect, as he is almost always parked in front of the net seeking open ice or a scoring position. He rarely goes digging in the corner or along the boards for pucks or engages in dirty work down low. Boucher seems to recognize Stamkos' strengths, considering St. Louis or Conacher were his linemates. In that, St. Louis and Conacher appear to be excellent matches as linemate for Stamkos. Terrific motors and great skating allow them to both keep up with Stamkos' explosiveness and be first in on pucks for forechecking and while sustaining pressure. To not have Stamkos paired with Crosby in the 2014 Olympics could be constituted as a national crime.

Stamkos is not averse to going into the corner for battles, but it seems his primary duty is to seek out areas of the ice where the puck can come to him easiest — may it be for a pass in the slot for a quick one-timer, a pass from the point at the goal-line, a tip from a point shot in the slot, or sniffing out a position in front of the net so he can use his hands to grab a rebound. He's actively seeking out open ice where he can do as much as he can to optimize his strengths. There is no doubt he is looking to shoot first every time he receives a pass, it's clear he has a pure sniper mentality. The puck is rarely, if ever, on his stick for more than half a second. He knows his job out there is to score, and he does it as good as anyone by mixing it up in a variety of ways.

3. Powerplay
Tampa's powerplay with Stamkos on the ice operates much like the Penguins' PP I detailed in an earlier post. They use an umbrella set-up with Stamkos floating around in the high slot for shot opportunities. My earlier post went into more detail about the strategy, but it is clear Tampa wants to utilize Stamkos' one-shot sniping ability as much as possible by placing him in the middle of the ice ready for shots. In the third clip in the video, Tampa is on a 4-on-3 and Stamkos scores after moving back to his "spot" at the top of the left circle. They also do this on 5-on-3's, and I suspect they have him in that spot only when the opposing team is on 3v5 or 3v4 situations because teams have adjusted to that play in regular 4v5 situations.

So no earth-shattering or groundbreaking findings were revealed in examining Stamkos' shifts a little more closely, but it is still very interesting to see how elite snipers position themselves throughout games in order to capitalize on their talents. It's fascinating to observe how quickly a game can change once they sieze one of those opportunities. Much of this is instinctual, and of course your shot has to be pretty damn good for you to be allowed to float around in the offensive zone without much regard for the corners.

Stamkos is obviously elite and a top-10 player in the league, but he is still young and his game is evolving. If I HAD to present a qualm about his game, it would probably be his board play could use improvement and his defensive value isn't very high at the moment. He seems to bounce off guys when he tries to get involved in the corners or in his own zone defensively. The effort is there, as his speed allows him to backcheck well after transition turns the other way, but he can be caught cheating a little at times once the other team establishes control in the zone or getting on the wrong side of the puck. Currently, his offensive zone start percentage is 58%, a combination of Boucher trying to capitalize on his talents and Lecavalier growing into his role of a hard minute eater. It makes sense for Boucher to be utilizing Stamkos' sniping abilities as much as possible as he remains in his goal-scoring prime. It will be interesting to see how Stamkos' game evolves as he grows older. We will see if he begins to round out his game as Kovalchuk has done in New Jersey, sacrificing some of his offense in order to provide more defensive value, or maintain his sniper identity and continue to hone his instincts and quick strike abilities to poach goals like Marian Gaborik in New York. Much of that will be contingent on coaching and teammates in the future, but it should remain both interesting and exciting to observe.

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