The Utility of Craig Conroy

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 13:  Craig Conroy #24 of the Calgary Flames faces off against R.J. Umberger #18 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the game on October 13, 2009 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)


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.

  • MC Hockey

    Conroy isn’t one to gripe that type of work, so it will work well for both parties. I’m honestly just glad he’s back because I have a feeling, his presence is more influential than even Steady Steve in the locker room.

  • I’m very happy with Conroy coming back at league minimum. It is hard to complain about a signing like that. So I hope no one confuses that with the fact I am taking contention with the “Face-off and get-off” utility of Conroy.

    Connie, is great, love him across the board, but, and it’s a big but, guys like John Madden are 53.0% face-off winners (20th in the league). Guys like Brind’Amour (40 years old) are 58.8% good for fighting for best in the league year after year. I would argue that face-offs aren’t even Madden’s greatest asset.

    Old man Connie is at 51.5% (33rd), and a 50.9% zone start. Which isn’t that bad, sure.

    However, looking down the Flames roster last year, (disregarding Kotalik in top spot..cause he took about 8 draws) you had:

    Mayers – 55.6 (64/115) – 27gms (for comparison)
    Backlund – 53.4 (102/191)-23gms
    Stajan – 52.0 (212/408) – 27gms
    Conroy – 51.5 (453/879) – 63gms
    Jokinen – 49.3 (364/739) -56gms (49.6 in NYR)
    Iginla – 43.6 (152/323) – 82gms
    Langkow – 43.5 (492/1130)-72gms

    Connie’s previous three years are 52.8, 51.4, 50.3 for an average of about 51.6% so his last year seems to be about career numbers.

    Sure, Backlund is unproven and a small sample, but Mayers was a noticed improvement in the area last year and his numbers correlate.

    Stajan, Connie, and even Jokinen are all floating in that middle group for me, with a slight drop off to Joker.

    Iggy and Langkow (301st total, 82 of 84 for leaders) especially are awful.

    If this is true: “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.”

    Then you’re stating a big distinction between Connie and Joker.

    and if that is true

    there is even a more massive distinction between Joker and Langkow.

    The point is, Calgary is not a team with great face-off men, and I don’t think Joker makes that much worse, and I don’t think Connie is going to make that much better. As well, Langkow may be a great two-way player, but it could be an evolution out of necessity vs otherwise.

    A 47.7% zone start combined with a 43.5% face-off win rate is the stuff nightmares are made of.

  • Lawrence, taking own zone face-offs has a lot more to do with what your abilities are after the puck is dropped, rather how often you win the face-off itself. That’s why Langkow was tapped more often than any of the other centers last year, despite the fact he is demonstrably awful at winning draws.

    Winning the draw is definitely a boon, but it’s nowhere near as important as a guys ability to read plays, win puck battles and generally compete against other NHLers once the face-off is over. That’s why I didn’t really mention F/O percentage: Conroy and Jokinen are close in that regard, but the former is way more accomplished than the latter when it comes to playing a responsible, defensive game.

  • “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.”

    Why’d you have to go and remind me of that. Ruined my day.

  • I think it is good of Sutter to be loyal to older players but is it good for the team?Because of the age of this team they have to get off to a good start or they could be in big trouble. I hope I’m wrong but……

  • I think we can probably all reasonably agree that Jokinen is a line-killing centre. He just sinks whatever trio he happens to be on.

    I don’t kow if we can quite say the same for Stajan though I am leaning towards that.

    In any case, the Flames have a lot of nice dependable wingers. Having Conroy on board gives us two complete lines, probably enough so that Sutter (if he coaches capably) can actively pursue the soft matchups with Jokinen without giving too much to the other coach.

    I am slightly worried about why the deal is 2-way as it counts for 400k even if he’s demoted. It must be a money thing, which is something the Flames have NEVER worried about. We kind of need them not to worry about it to the tune of $5.2MM come October though.

  • I will cry if I see Conroy take another shift on the first line. I will also cry if FN insists on doing yet another feature on the wrinkly old Mr. Happy. Give him his nine games and lets be done with it. The Flamers will be better off without him because the upside of a Kid making the roster will eventually be greater. Sutter has the potential to be a career #3 center so why not give him his reps? If you don’t believe this team can compensate for that then i see your arguement but i really think they are better than people are estimating. Our D core is rock solid, and our systems will cover for the demotion of Conroy. Stajan was never forced to develop any utility in Toronto, so it’s going to take some good coaching to mould him if he plans to play in the league 5 years from now. Thats the reality beyond this year anyways. We have to find it within our roster or trade for it so why not look past Conroy when the time has clearly come to do so? Move on people the love affair can continue when he’s in the front office.