Jarret Stoll Changing 4th Line Philosophy in Minnesota

A common complaint about the arrival of Jarret Stoll in Minnesota was that his presence indicated a change in the direction of the team’s roster construction philosophy. In previous years there have been solid possession players deep in the lineup with offensive upside like Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder, Kyle Brodziak and others.

With that kind of talent on the roster there was regularly a call for a dynamic fourth line with speed players like Schroeder and Haula at the helm.

Following the departure of Brodziak, with Fontaine and Schroeder struggling and Haula playing an inconsistent game, the fourth line has fairly steadily become Stoll, Chris Porter and Ryan Carter. But as I talked about when Stoll arrived, his usage may not be all that driven toward the possession play he exhibited years ago, but a relief role that gives coach Mike Yeo an ability to push his three scoring lines into better offensive opportunities.

The Gaustad Effect

At the time I likened his usage with the Rangers, to some extent, and what he could do in Minnesota to how Nashville used Paul Gaustad last year. In the absence of an elite-offensive force and three lines of decent offense, Gaustad was deployed in the defensive zone to an incredible extent.

Paul Gaustad
Nashville Predators center Paul Gaustad (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

A big part of that was his dominance on the faceoff dot. If you can throw his line into every defensive zone faceoff and he wins 60% of them, you’re able to get his line off the ice quickly and put out a more offensively skilled line with the puck in a favorable position. Not only is that line starting with the puck in favorable position for the 40-50 seconds they’re on the ice, you’re avoiding deploying a top forward line in the defensive zone and getting stuck since those top center win at a lower rate than Gaustad.

Last season Gaustad had a league low -51.75% offensive zone start percentage relative to teammates. The next closest was a frequent Gaustad linemate Eric Nystrom at -43.89% and then Boyd Gordon at -42.51%. Gaustad was last by a significant amount.

In all he was starting 11.25% of his shifts in the offensive zone.

He saw just 79 faceoffs in the offensive zone last season, while taking 744 in the defensive zone and 274 in the neutral zone. But he was reliable in that situation, having won 56.4% of his faceoffs or more in each of the last seven seasons.

Gaustad’s short shifts are notable here because it reinforces the idea that he’s taking a draw and then getting off the ice to make this system work. Last season his average shift length was 36.3 seconds.

There’s a game plan at work there.

Jarret Stoll in Minnesota

Similar things are happening in Minnesota where they weren’t possible before. This kind of fourth line philosophy wasn’t possible when Erik Haula was the fourth line center because Haula can’t be trusted on the dot the same way Stoll can. Haula’s career faceoff percentage is 47.4%. You can try to put Haula in the defensive zone, but if he’s frequently losing the draw you’re not necessarily giving relief to top lines and putting them in a better position to succeed.

With almost no center hitting 50% with regularity besides Mikko Koivu, that means when an important draw is happening in the defensive zone, Yeo has to deploy Koivu in the defensive zone, either centering a depth line or starting a top six line in the d-zone.

So far in the Jarret Stoll-era, things have changed. On the season, split between two teams, Stoll has taken just 55 offensive zone draws and has taken 183 in the defensive zone. Stoll’s shift length hovers just a couple seconds above what Gaustad was doing last year and he’s averaging more faceoffs per game than Charlie Coyle, despite Charlie Coyle averaging an extra three minutes per game.

In fact, Stoll is taking only slightly fewer faceoffs than Mikael Granlund, who plays over six minutes more per game. And a huge number of those faceoffs are in the defensive zone. In the offensive zone with the Wild, Stoll is averaging 1.7 faceoffs per game, fifth on the team. In the neutral zone it’s 2.8 faceoffs per game, third on the team. In the D-zone it jumps to 7.5 per game, which is the most.

This is all having the intended effect on deployment.

For Koivu, that has meant far fewer defensive zone draws. Before Stoll arrived Koivu took 7.4 defensive zone draws per game. Since then he’s down to 5.1.

Every forward on the team who isn’t on Stoll’s line — with the exception of Haula and Fontaine, for separate reasons — has seen an increase in their offensive zone starts relative to teammates since the arrival of Stoll. The team is putting that line in the defensive zone so often that the other players are able to get more consistent usage skewed toward the offensive zone.

Here’s each player’s ZSO%Rel (relative offensive zone starts) before and after the arrival of Stoll.

Pre-Stoll ZSO%Rel Post-Stoll ZSO%Rel
Mikael Granlund 11.10% 14.80%
Zach Parise 13.80% 15.90%
Jason Pominville 14.20% 20.90%
Mikko Koivu 4.50% 14.80%
Nino Niederreiter 4.50% 14.80%
Jason Zucker 3.20% 7.20%
Thomas Vanek 10.50% 21.70%
Charlie Coyle -3.90% -0.91%
Justin Fontaine 7.70% -9.50%
Erik Haula -23.20% -22.14%
Chris Porter -20% -26.71
Ryan Carter -23.80% -28.33%

But Does it Work?

The intended effect on individual player usage is happening. But the team is in a skid, close to falling out of playoff contention. Is this usage shift a part of that skid? Or is this giving the slumping forwards their best chance to get out of their funk?

It’s hard to know for sure. There are certainly questions about Stoll’s growing role. He spent some time centering the third line recently, he was used in a 3-on-3 overtime to disastrous results and even saw time as the extra man recently when the goaltender was pulled. These aren’t playing to his strengths.

If his short shifts can noticeably shift the ice for the more talented players that’s great. But Stoll hasn’t had a great effect on possession. That’s certainly in part due to taking very heavy defensive zone deployment with short shifts (something that zone-adjustments should take into account). His 35.23 CF60 (shot attempts for per 60 minutes of even strength play) is the worst mark on the team. His 59.75 CA60 (shot attempts against per 60 minutes of even strength play) is also the worst mark on the team. Deployment goes into it, but it can’t account for all of it.

Whether or not the team really gains much with this system is a worthy question, particularly because Koivu’s line has struggled to produce lately, when they had started the season as one of the most dominant possession lines in the NHL. He, Zucker and Niederreiter where an incredible force and not only were they good in the defensive zone, they were producing offensively.

When you break out the team’s defensive performance, the increased offensive-zone starts haven’t equalled better results. We can’t control for every variable and with how bad the Wild have played lately, it’s not easy to point the finger at any one factor, but a vast majority of the players who have better zone starts since Stoll arrived are allowing more shot attempts against despite what should be giving them an advantage in their Corsi Differential. (The exceptions being Niederreiter, Coyle and Pominville, the first two of which have played some very good hockey lately.)

Additionally, Porter and Carter, who see more defensive zone starts now, but were still getting heavy d-zone deployment, are exhibiting much worse defensive numbers flanking Stoll than they were earlier in the season when they were predominantly playing with Haula as their pivot. That’s not entirely on the slight shift they’ve seen toward worse zone starts.

Pre-Stoll CA60 Post-Stoll CA60
Mikael Granlund 56.1 56.9
Zach Parise 54.2 62.8
Jason Pominville 56.7 54.6
Mikko Koivu 42.7 54.7
Nino Niederreiter 45.5 41.1
Jason Zucker 44.1 59.4
Thomas Vanek 56.2 62
Charlie Coyle 55.7 53.9
Justin Fontaine 52.6 48.8
Erik Haula 51.4 61.1
Chris Porter 48.7 59.3
Ryan Carter 52.6 59.1

Whether or not it’s working, the acquisition of Stoll represents a shift in philosophy, but maybe not the one many thought. His presence gives Yeo the opportunity to try and roll three dangerous forward lines and to put each of them in a position to succeed offensively. At least on paper.

Non-faceoff stats via War on Ice. Face-off stats via Faceoffs.net. Special thanks to Craig Tabita of faceoffs.net for providing additional data.