Effort vs. Strategy: Neutral Zone Play

If there is one thing that gets tiring about following an under-achieving team, it’s the idea that everything can be solved with a little bit of hard work, grit and leadership. That’s seems to be the general analysis with the Carolina Hurricanes lately. All of their problems, whether it be scoring goals or preventing them, stem from the team having no heart and not giving an “honest effort” every night. I can understand this line of thinking because the Hurricanes have an expensive roster and have gotten career lows in goals & points out of almost everyone. Hockey is also a very difficult game to play so it is obviously takes a lot of hard work to succeed but that’s only part of the solution.

Working hard and busting your ass on every shift will only take you so far if your team has a flawed roster or a system that doesn’t fit the players strengths. I’ve talked about the Canes depth issues and while there isn’t much after the top 5-6 forwards, most of those players had down years in terms of goals and points. “Effort” is always pointed to as the problem with these players because of their salaries and the narrative hasn’t changed much over the years. Both Eric and Jordan Staal have been under fire by fans for their leadership this year and Alex Semin has been called out numerous times for not scoring at the level that was expected from him.

Whenever I see this going around, all I can think of is when the Hurricanes replaced Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller as head coach. The Hurricanes were short on talent and Muller wanted to establish their identity as a “hard working team” so that they would at least be in every game. “Kirk is Work” became a motto around Raleigh and most seemed to buy into his system after the Canes had a strong showing in the latter half of the 2012 season and the first half of 2013. Now, the honeymoon period is over, the roster has been upgraded but the wins haven’t been coming, so you have a lot of folks questioning his system and if the Hurricanes need to make another coaching change this off-season.

Some are apprehensive to this because it’s been stated that work ethic, bad habits, effort and execution as the problems plaguing the Hurricanes right now and a coaching change won’t solve that. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t reflect well on the coaching staff since it’s their job to prepare the players for every game and put them in the best position to succeed. If their message isn’t getting across and “work ethic” is a problem every night, then that might speak of some deeper issues this team needs to resolve. Still, the coaches are responsible for developing a system & a game plan that works, building around their team’s strengths and getting the most out of the roster. Has Muller’s staff done a good job of that? The results say no, but what exactly is he doing wrong?

Since he took over, the Hurricanes territorial play could be a lot worse, but that’s muddled by the fact that they are always playing from behind (-21 goal differential in first periods this season, -9 in first periods last year) and have ranked in the middle or bottom-half of the league in Fenwick Close under both of his years as head coach. Meaning that the Hurricanes tend to pile up a lot of shots on goal while trailing and struggle to dictate the play at even strength when the game is actually on the line. There are stretches where they’ve been decent, but they’ve largely been mediocre and inconsistent under his direction. When looking the roster, the Hurricanes should probably be an average possession team even with their forward depth issues, especially since they have a lot of guys up front capable of driving the play.

How much of this relates to coaching is tough to figure out because the Hurricanes are such a reactive team and don’t really have an identity that they build their system around. Their game plan is always based on what they can do to stop their opponents and they don’t really have a common strength to focus on. On paper, they should be a team that rallies around their offense and uses their skill to their advantage but we never see them execute this on a nightly basis. If they did, they wouldn’t be in the bottom-ten in goals for per game and a negative possession team.

This is where analytics can come in handy. Stats can’t capture everything, but as research gets more detailed, we can find out more about a team’s tendencies and how well they play in certain areas of the game. The most important study going on right now is zone entries, which shows how well a team attacks and defends the neutral zone. We all know that possession is important, but looking at neutral zone play gives us an idea of why a team is exceeding or struggling in this area and which players might be causing it. Neutral zone play can also help reveal some more details about a team’s system and how well they execute it.

For the Hurricanes, neutral zone play is one area they have always struggled with under Muller and it goes back to even when they were winning the territorial battle at even strength.

If you’ve done any reading on zone entries & neutral zone play or have been keeping up with my recaps, then you probably know that more shots are created off controlled entries (carry-ins) as opposed to uncontrolled entries (dump-ins, tips, chip-ins, etc.). Therefore, teams who carry the puck into the zone more often than their opponents have a better chance of winning the possession battle, scoring more goals and winning more games than they would if they played a lot of dump-and-chase. It’s not impossible to be a good possession team while playing a dump-and-chase game, but it’s a lot more difficult and more suited for teams who have sizable and can wear opponents down on the forecheck. Going by their roster makeup, the Hurricanes are not one of those teams so they should at least be trying to play more of an up-tempo style game.

Under Muller’s direction, they haven’t been able to do this effectively.

Year Entries/60 Carry/60 Control% Opp Entries/60 Opp Carry/60 Opp Control%
2012-13 74.8 36.6 48.9% 69 38.5 55.8%
2013-14 74.7 35.17 47.1% 73.3 36.2 49.4%

Carolina is entering the zone more often than their opponents, but they are playing a lot of dump-and-chase and allowing their opponents to carry the puck in more often. That’s not a recipe for success and could explain why the Hurricanes get outchanced on almost a nightly basis. It certainly helps explain some of what went wrong last season when the Hurricanes went on their April/March collapse. They would get the puck deep, try to get a forecheck going and created some decent zone times out of it but not many good chances. Meanwhile, they would give up a lot of rushes the other way and surrender countless chances in transition. Their forecheck strategy wasn’t bad, but their defense was awful and playing in front of AHL-quality goaltending for the last two months didn’t help matters either.

This year, the Hurricanes have tightened things up in the neutral zone and are allowing fewer controlled entries. Muller stated that the “team’s forecheck is the same” but he was working on improving the team’s play away from the puck. The numbers agree with that, as the Hurricanes did a much better job of defending the neutral zone than they did last season. The problem is that they were still relying on dump-and-chase play for a lot of their offense while allowing more controlled entries to their opponents, resulting in them being on the wrong side of the possession battle & the scoreboard on most nights.

To add to that, the Hurricanes neutral zone defense has been pretty up-and-down for most of the season. The Canes did a good job of defending their own blue line and forcing other team’s to dump the puck in for part of the year but since the Olympic Break, it’s been open season.

defending the line

I’m not sure what happened around Game 61 or so, but the Hurricanes neutral zone defense went completely out the window and they gave everyone a free pass into the offensive zone. Their forecheck & entries has stayed pretty consistent, but they haven’t been able to effectively defend their own blue-line at all. Carolina had a stretch from about Game 41-61 where they defended well but outside of that, they’ve been an open door. The fact that they’ve played a dump-and-chase game for most of the year makes this worse because it shows they struggle to defend even when forcing their opponents to come 200 feet the other way.

This begs the question, though. Why are the Hurricanes playing a dump-and-chase game? They might have a couple of big bodies up front, but the strength of this team is the skill of players like the Staal brothers, Semin, Skinner & Tlusty. These should be the players they rely on for zone entries with how well they handle the puck and for whatever reason, it hasn’t been the case for the last two years.


2013 zone entries


2014 zone entries

There’s some interesting things going on for the Hurricanes as far as neutral zone responsibility goes. Skinner being the top puck-handler is no-brainier and they’ve done a nice job of playing to Andrei Loktionov’s strengths, but Eric Staal & Alex Semin having such a low burden is strange. They are the two best puck-handlers on the team and are given the least amount of neutral zone responsibility on their line for whatever reason.

This isn’t a new thing either, as you’ll notice that Tlusty was second on the team in entries/60 last season and had more entries this year too. You can make the argument that the Canes don’t rely more on their wingers to enter the zone while having the center drive the center lane, but that doesn’t explain Jordan having more of a role here than he did last season. It also doesn’t explain Semin having such a small role in the neutral zone compared to the rest of the top-six forwards. With how good of a puck-handler he is, you’d want him to have more responsibility in the neutral zone than anyone else, but the Canes don’t appear to rely on him as much as they should.

How much this relates to the system and coaching is up for debate, but the Canes neutral zone play does help explain some of the team’s offensive woes. They have some great puck-handlers, but you’re only going to create so much offense when guys like Pat Dwyer, Nathan Gerbe & Drayson Bowman are relied on this much for entries, especially compared to Staal & Semin.

Then again, if the goal of the Hurricanes forecheck is to “get pucks deep and outwork the opposition,” then that would explain this a little more since it doesn’t matter who enters the zone if that’s the case. I wouldn’t call that playing to the team’s strengths, though because the Canes live and die by their top-line and the two best players on that unit have the smallest role in the neutral zone among top-six forwards. Something doesn’t add up there.

If you want an answer to the Canes problems, their neutral zone play is a good place to start. Whether it’s entering the zone or defending their own blue line, there is a lot of dysfunction here. Some of it is definitely related to poor execution, but there’s definitely something strategically wrong here, too.