While the reaction to the Conroy signing was mostly positive, there were a few voices raised in protest when the old man’s deal was announced. I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Flames seem to be once again squeezing the kids out of the equation this year (having made similar protestations in the past), but given his skill-set and the price, I think this signing is a clear win for the club.
Conroy’s counting stats were pretty much abysmal last year. He’s also creeping ever closer to the big 4-0, an age where most NHLers decide that getting fat in warm climates makes a whole more sense than blocking shots and losing teeth. That said, Conroy can still skate and remains a strong defensive option for the Flames even in the tail end of his career. Calgary lacks a true power versus power option down the middle (think Datsyuk, Crobsy or Thornton) meaning Brent Sutter is going to have manage things closely in order to put his scorers in the best possible position to put pucks in the net.
One way he’ll be able to do this is to pass off the dirty spade work to the affable one. By which I mean defensive zone draws. I’ve no doubt that Conroy will mostly skate with Jackman/Ivanans/Stone at ES, but there’s a good chance Sutter will deploy the old man as a "face off then get off" option. John Madden played this role frequently in Chicago last year: it’s one where the coach will put a center on the ice for defensive zone draws with quality line mates, against quality opposition. The center is there purely for the purposes of winning the puck and moving it out of the zone. Once the puck breaks the red line, the center switches off for the more offensively capable option. In the Flames case, this would manifest in Conroy take a faceoff with iginla/Tanguy in Calgary’s zone, pushing the puck north and then changing for Olli Jokinen.
It’s a labor intensive manner to manage the front-end, but it’s also potentially fruitful in that it puts the scorers in a position to succeed. Given the fact that the Flames can’t really hope to cobble to together a full on power or shut-down trio, shuttling around a guy like Conroy based on circumstance and need is probably the best hope Calgary has of upping their offensive bite at ES. This will be especially true if Daymond Langkow is out of the line-up for any length of time: the two centers who started in the defensive zone the most last year were indeed Conroy (49.1%) and Langkow (47.7%). With the other options being guys who are relatively inept at defensive zone stuff (Stajan, Jokinen and Backlund), Brent Sutter faced the uneasy position of having to choose one of those guys to bury prior to the re-inking of the Flames erstwhile captain.
This issue speaks directly to the protestations about Conroy potentially usurping Backlund’s place in the line-up. Although the two players will ostensibly be jockeying for a similar place on the roster (the bottom six) their skill-sets and utility are completely at odds. If you follow the link above, you’ll note that Backlund was gifted a 58% offensive-to-defensive face-off ratio during his time on the parent club last year. That accords with both his experience level and skill-set – most kids with "offense" on their resume are deployed in a similar manner when they break into the league because it puts them in a position to succeed. What that means, however, is that someone else has to be put out to fight the uphill battles. Langkow was mostly the guy who did it last year. I’d bet money that Conroy will get that assignment this coming season.
The issue of zone starts is one that is close to most NHL coaches hearts, but is largely ignored in contemporary analysis. The potential cumulative effect of starting more in the offensive or defensive zone is a big one, however: the more one starts in the offensive zone, the more shots/scoring chances one will likely generate over time (and vice versa). In terms of possession, a single zone start is worth about +/-0.8 corsi for each player. This is important from a coaching perspective because it means if you can give your big guns more offensive zone draws, it means an increased likelihood of a goal for.
A quick rule of thumb is: your most potent offensive weapons should be at or above a 55% zone start ratio (assuming you want to contend for more than 8th place in the conference). As an illustration, here’s the NHL’s top 10 ES scorers last year and their corresponding zone starts:
Henrik Sedin – 57.7%
Alex Ovechkin – 55.6%
Sidney Crosby – 56.7%
Nicklas Backstrom – 58.0%
Marian Gaborik – 58.6%
Illya Kovalchuk – 50.7%
Patrick Kane – 67.4% (!!)
Joe Thornton – 49.8%
Martin St. Louis – 59.6%
The only two guys outside the 55% threshold were Kovalchuk and Thornton and their PDOs (on-ice SV%+SH%) were 103.5 and 103.1 respectively (meaning luck was on their side).
Sutter’s goal this season will be to get Iginla/Tanguay/Jokinen/Stajan and whoever else that falls into the "scoring option" category as many offensive zone draws as possible. None of those guys are heavy lifters in terms of facing tough competition and forcing the play north, so it’ll take other, somewhat more subtle methods to put the big guns in a position to score. One of those methods will be to bury Craig Conroy with as much defensive zone work as possible and hope he can get the puck into the neutral zone and get himself off the ice; particuarly in the potential absence of Langkow to start the season. It’ll also mean that the old man’s stats line will probably look pretty ugly again come April, but here’s hoping his efforts will be reflected in improved results for Iginla and the team in general.