One of the growing developments in hockey analysis is tracking zone entries to gauge a team's performance in the neutral zone. Why is neutral zone play important? I've gone over this a few times, but I don't have a problem repeating myself. A recent study done by Eric Tulsky and some other hockey bloggers & researchers have shown that being able to win the battle in the neutral zone leads to a team outshooting their opponents more often and in turn, getting more scoring chances and possibly winning more games. However, the team who wins the battle in the neutral zone isn't the one has more entries, but rathers who gains the offensive zone with possession more often.
This was an interesting discovery because dump and chase play is something that's often encouraged by coaches, ex-players and analysts and it kind of makes sense in theory. Simply getting the puck deep is a safe play and often considered a good strategy to use if the other team is playing a trap-style defense that would increase the risk of a turnover if you attempted to carry the puck across the blue-line. Although, how effective dump and chase play is depends on how strong of a forecheck you have because you are essentially giving up possession of the puck and the only way to get it back is to beat out the opposing defense to it or force turnovers. Because of this and many other factors, it has been determined that carrying the puck into the offensive zone is what leads to more shots and in turn, more scoring chances and goals as opposed to entering the zone without possession.
You may remember that I started posting the Hurricanes zone entry stats in my post-game reports later in the season and that I was making note of how often the team gained the blue line without control of the puck. The statements made above as well as in the articles linked should tell you why I was frustrated with that. However, there were some games where the Hurricanes were getting a fair amount of offense off uncontrolled entries and it made me wonder if dump & chase play can also be successful if done with the right players. For instance, a dump-in by Jiri Tlusty would have a better chance of leading to a shot or a scoring chance on goal as opposed to one by Tim Brent because Tlusty plays with better linemates who would likely win the race to the puck. Kirk Muller's system seems to rely on dump & chase play quite a bit and while it worked with some players, it's impact as a whole wasn't great.
We'll explore this more after the jump.
We know that entering the zone with control is what leads to more shot attempts, but how much of an impact does it have on the number of scoring chances a team gets? A couple weeks ago I posted a graph comparing the Hurricanes Shot Attempt percentage with their Scoring Chance percentage and it showed that while the Hurricanes were getting shots & zone time, they were losing the scoring chance battle for most of the latter half of the season. When you look at how their neutral zone play relates to their struggles in the scoring chance department, it's easy to see some relation.
I want you to pay special attention to the red and purple lines because those show the percentage of zone entries where the Hurricanes had control of the puck and their scoring chance percentage respectively. Early in the season, the Hurricanes were able to gain the blue line with control of the puck on more than 50% of their entries and were winning the scoring chance battle by a pretty healthy margin. This changed around Game 27-29 and they fell below 50% in both departments for whatever reason and it's also around the time where their horrendous losing streak began.
Despite the team falling under water in both of these categories, they got the better of shot attempts & entered the zone more often than their opponents during five-on-five play. The problem was that most of the shots were not coming from dangerous locations and they were giving up a lot of chances in transition, so opposing teams didn't need a lot of zone entries to create dangerous shots against Carolina. This relates back to the whole shot quality issue that's been discussed many times before and while it is an issue with a lot of teams, whether or not it is sustainable on a year-to-year basis hasn't been proven.
What perplexes me a little is how much the team's numbers declined around Game 25-31 because the only players who got injured during that time were Cam Ward & Justin Faulk and neither had a huge impact on the team's neutral zone play. Maybe not having their starting goaltender & top defenseman made the team play a more cautious style & dump the puck in more? That's my initial thought, but I'm still not sure what was the exact cause for it. Either way, the team's play in the neutral zone wasn't great despite it starting off well.
When you look at who exceeded and struggled to gain the blue line with control, the results don't yeild too many surprises as most of the Hurricanes top forwards had no issue carrying the puck into the zone.
The top right part of the graph shows who excelled at neutral zone play and the three names up there shouldn't surprise you one bit. Along with the Staal Brothers, Alexander Semin not only had more zone entries than any other Carolina player, but they also gained the zone with control on a higher percentage of their entries than anyone else. There's a bit of a drop after them, though. Jeff Skinner had a ton of entries but he also resorted to dumping the puck in on nearly half of his entries and the same goes for Jiri Tlusty. Although, an interesting note about him is that he was responsible for a higher percentage of the team's forward zone entries than both of his linemates. Semin wasn't that far behind but it's still interesting to see that Tlusty was leading more rushes into the zone than anyone else on the first line.
Another interesting observation here is that Patrick Dwyer had roughly the same percentage of the team's forward zone entries as Eric Staal, only a much smaller percentage of his were with control of the puck. That shows the difference between a top-liner and a third-liner. Dwyer still had possession of the puck on 50% of his entries and seemed to fare much better than anyone else in the bottom-six, though. Drayson Bowman had plenty of controlled zone entries, as did Jussi Jokinen (before the trade) but the rest of the top-six had some poor numbers. Nash & LaRose both dumped the puck in a lot and just aboute veryone on the fourth line played dump & chase whenever they were used. Everyone in the lower left corner of the graph was a regular fourth liner on the team at one point and you can see that they didn't do a whole lot to help the team's neutral zone play. The only one who did was Andreas Nodl and he played only eight games.
Having Tuomo Ruutu for the entire year could have helped the Canes neutral zone play a little since he had some good results when he was healthy. Ruutu had control of the puck on nearly 60% of his entries and that would have been a great fit on the second line with Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner, since both of those players were at least above average in the neutral zone & Staal was excellent. Ruutu & Staal are both two pretty big players and this, along with their ability to carry the puck in frequently, helps back off the defense and creates more space for players like Skinner to take advantage of these gaps. It's why I think this line can be very successful next season and why I'm in favor of keeping Skinner on the wing.
Zac Dalpe was also very successful at carrying the puck in but with a much smaller sample size so I don't know if any conclusions can be drawn from it, other than he played well when he was with the Hurricanes and that sending him down probably wasn't a good idea in retrospect.
So basically the entire top-six had no issue with carrying the puck in but the team's depth forwards were another story.
I'm still not completely sure how to evaluate the neutral zone play of defensemen because they generally don't have a lot of controlled zone entries, as many of them are instructed to just "get the puck deep" and nothing more. However, one blue-liner who was clearly above the norm on Carolina was Joni Pitkanen. He is easily the best puck-handling defenseman on the team and is capable of creating a lot of offense because of his ability to join the rush & gain the blue line with control. This is why he is so important to the team and possibly a reason why the Hurricanes neutral zone performance suffered late in the season.
The Hurricanes have a lot of "puck-movers" on their defense corps, but you probably wouldn't know it going by this chart because other than Pitkanen Murphy & Bergeron, not many of the Hurricanes defensemen carried the puck into the zone often. I'm not sure if it's fair to evaluate them based on this alone because they are trusted to do a lot more, but isn't one of the responsibilities of a "puck-moving defenseman" to lead zone entries and jump into the play? You would think that McBain, Faulk, Sanguinetti & Corvo would have more controlled zone entries than they did this year. Although, Faulk is trusted with a boatload of defensive responsibility so that may have impacted his numbers but still, it's a fair question to ask and I'm going to do some more studying on it over the off-season to see how Carolina's defensemen compare to the league average.
The growth of hockey statistics has really come along way in these past few years because it allows us to look at the odds and ends of a team and find where some of their holes are and this is a perfect example of that. Taking a closer look at Carolina's neutral zone performance shows why they struggled to control scoring chances despite being a pretty good puck-possession team for most of the year and it also revealed that the problem could either lie in the bottom-six and the defense corps. There are no definitive answers, but we have a better idea of what can be done to improve this team over the off-season.