Friday 23 October 2015

Defensive Pairings in the 1930s and Early 1940s

If you'd asked me yesterday when my last post here was, there's about a zero percent chance I would have said "well, nearly a year, obviously." It's amazing how little you actually get done when you have a half-dozen or so projects on the go at the same time. I can't promise to be posting regularly here again, but we'll at least have a little series of posts to work with, on the topic of defensive pairings in the 1930s and 1940s.

I've always found it a bit odd what while we keep track of which side wingers play in hockey (though not always quite accurately, just ask Alex Ovechkin), the same is really never done for defencemen. Bobby Hull played left wing, while Pierre Pilote just played defence. Actually, he mostly played right defence, but for some reason we don't seem to care about that. Red Kelly was a left defenceman, and Eddie Shore was a right defenceman. You don't find these details on any website or in any encyclopedia, however, because apparently it's not important enough to note.

But this distinction is, in fact, very important on the ice. Defencemen are not interchangeable. While many blueliners can and do play both the right side and the left, some defencemen are really only good on one side or the other, and this should be recognized. Generally speaking, right-hand-shot (RHS) defencemen have a significant advantage when playing the right side of the ice, due to being able to stop pucks along the boards, and to shoot pucks out of their zone along the boards, on their forehands, and also being able to receive passes from their defence partner on the forehand as well. Left-hand-shot (LHS) blueliners have similar advantages when playing on the left side. However, because most right-handed people shoot left, and the great majority of people are right-handed, there are more LHS defencemen available than RHS, which results in a significant number of LHS playing the right side due to there being an insufficient number of RHS blueliners.

But not every LHS player is adept at playing the right side. Since you will be playing on your backhand when you're on your off-side, generally it's the better stickhandlers and passers that are able to make the switch effectively. So with all this in mind, it's puzzling that we apparently don't pay any attention to who plays what side.

It wasn't always this way. From 1933 to 1943, for example, the voting for post-season NHL All-Star Teams was split up between right defencemen and left defencemen, just as it was (and is) for wings. That ended with the beginning of the "Original Six" era for some reason, and since that time the league has really paid no attention to it, with every blueliner just being listed as "D" since then.

As such it's worth attempting to reconstruct NHL defencemen's positions. And that's what I'm going to do, starting with the period from 1933 to 1943. I'm starting here for the reason noted above; we have voting records based on the left side and right side for the All-Stars, which should help to provide clues about which side a particular defenceman played. We can't just assume they're completely accurate. Even today, when the dissemination of information about hockey players is so much easier than in the 30s, the voters still considered Ovechkin to be both a right wing and a left wing in 2012/13. He used to play left wing, but had shifted to the right that season, and many voters presumably just assumed he was still on the left. And the same sort of thing could have easily happened 80 years ago, so we can't just take the voting results as gospel.

So what other information do we have to inform our analysis? Well, up until the 1950s, newpapers summaries of NHL games listed the full playing rosters of both team, divided into starters at each position and substitutes. Very occasionally, and I mean very occasionally (especially the later we go in time), the defencemen would be listed as right defence and left defence, and in those cases we know what position the starting defencemen were playing, at least.

But even though each starting defenceman's position was rarely listed, we do know who the starters were, and we know whether each was a RHS or LHS. As such, when a RHS is paired with a LHS, we should be able to assume that the RHS played the right side and the LHS played the left side, due to the advantages inherent in playing on your forehand side.

Or can we? Next time we'll look at some analysis to see if this is a reasonable assumption.
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