Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lack of Elite Left Wingers

One thing that jumps out at me when I look at the NHL Awards is that the left wingers who made the post season all star teams had worse seasons then did any other positions on the team. The highest scoring left winger in the NHL last season (and first team all star selection) was Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. He finished 13th in scoring in the league. The second highest scoring left winger (and second team all star selection) was Thomas Vanek of Buffalo. He finished 19th in scoring in the league. Vanek was outscored by 10 centres and 7 right wingers. Has there always been such a lack of elite left wingers? And why does it exist today?

When we list the greatest centres of all time, we list Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Jean Beliveau etc. When we list the greatest right wingers of all time, we list Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur etc. At left wing we list Bobby Hull, Ted Lindsay, Frank Mahovlich etc. While the left wing group is a good group of Hall of Fame players, they are the weakest of the three groups. Left wing has the weakest group. It is a common circumstance that the best left winger in the NHL is a worse player then the best centre or right winger. That is certainly the case right now in the NHL.

Sometimes, this is not true or at least the distance between the best left winger and the best other forwards is not as significant. For instance in 2005/06, Alexander Ovechkin was the third highest scorer in the league and Dany Heatley of Ottawa was fourth highest scorer in the league. They were the two post-season all star left wingers. This season, Ovechkin had a bit of a sophomore jinx year in Washington where he scored 14 less points and showed some bigger defensive lapses at times. Heatley moved from left to right wing and was first all star at right wing. None of the other top left wingers in Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Zetterberg or Simon Gagne managed to have a successful enough year to make up for the loss of Heatley or the drop in Ovechkin.

The best puckhandlers at a young age are often turned into centremen. This is because in the centre position they can have a bigger effect on the play. Thus the best players are often preferentially chosen to play centre, but there is no clear reason why left wing and right wing are differentiated such that right wingers tend to be better. The left and right wing differentiation is not merely because of the differences between shooting right and left in hockey (which is a much smaller difference in percentages then with left and right handed people in more common everyday activities). This is further complicated because it is quite common for players to play on their "off wing" where a left handed shooter plays right wing (or vice versa). This is because it gives a better angle for quick shots on goal. I think that the differentiation is mostly for historical reasons. Traditionally, a forward line consists of a puckhandling centre and sniper at right wing and a grinder on left wing. There is no reason that left and right cannot be switched, but usually they are not. Usually, a more talented goal scorer will become a right winger instead of a left winger. Teams usually play defensive schemes that rely on the left winger forgoing some offensive opportunity for the system (i.e. the left wing lock).

I think that new European systems will challenge this traditional way of doing things. Russia has produced some of the best left wings in the game currently (Ovechkin and Kovalchuk). Austria produced Thomas Vanek. Sweden produced Daniel Sedin. These European systems may lead to more elite left wingers in the NHL in the future, but right now, left wing is the position most lacking in elite players.

A few comments:

- Henrik Sedin is actually a pivot, it's brother Daniel who is the left winger.

- I suspect that handedness plays a role in streaming players to certain positions. If a pivot is a lefty, than his natural passing tendency would to be a right winger (his forehand side) rather than to the left winger.

- The handedness of the defense pairings you play against may also play a subtle role as far as what kinds of passes are more likely to be sucessful, which turns they are going to find more difficult for the defense to execute, etc.

- How can you write an entire article on left wingers and not mention Luc Robitaille even once?

- Heatley is a universal soldier. As far as I can tell he is equally adept at playing centre and either wing, and frequently lines up at different positions throught the game as needed. Personally, I'm waiting for the Sens to make him the #2 pivot behind Spezza as a way of spreading out the offense.
I should add that the handedness of goaltenders might also be a factor, i.e. Right wingers who are left handed score more often on goaltenders who tend to be right handed...

Anyway, it's making my head spin trying to figure out all the influences.
Has it been taken into consideration that some of the best "right wingers" in history were left handed shots? Maurice Richard was a right-winger who was a lefty. So too was Yvan cournoyer. And Mario Lemuix during the Canada Cup (although officially a 'right winger' was blasting one timers from the left side of Gretzky as he was able to open his body to the pass. Brendan Shanahan is also playing on his wrong wing.

I am thinking that perhaps the shortage of elite left wingers is a result that many left handed scorers (focusing strictly on one-timing passes) moved to the right side.

If the majority of centers are left handed... then this would enable them to more accuratly feed passes to those players on their right... as apposed using the back hand to feel the left wingers on thier back side.

I don't know. Just a thought.
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