Carolina’s Neutral Zone Play Through 13 Games

Over the last few months, I've discussed the importance of neutral zone play and tracking zone entries and today, we are finally going to take a look at how the Hurricanes are performing in that regard. Anybody who reads this blog already knows that I am a big follower of the statistical side of hockey and I've been tracking scoring chances for the Hurricanes (among other teams) for the past year or so. Scoring chances and shot-based metrics such as Corsi and Fenwick do a good job of showing which teams are controlling possession and tracking neutral zone play enhances this. 

Think of it this way one of the goals in hockey is to spend more time in your opponent's zone than not, and winning the battle in the neutral zone is a necessary step to accomplish that. Shot-based stats tell you who is spending the most time in their opponent's zone and making the most of their opportunities, but tracking zone entries and neutral zone play can build on this in a number of ways. Being able to control the neutral zone is what leads to teams having more extended time in their opponent's end and in turn, leads to more shots and goals against.

So how do we track neutral zone play? The process is very simple, we look at which players are entering the offensive zone and whether or not they are doing it with control of the puck. It's been shown in past studies that teams who enter the zone with possession are more likely to create shots and scoring chances than teams who just simply play dump-and-chase. Not that dumping the puck in is always bad, but it's essentially giving possession to the other team in most cases and getting the puck into the zone with possession usually leads to more offense, more goals and usually more wins. Tracking neutral zone performance can tell us which players help their teams win more by seeing which ones are the strongest at driving the play forward. It can also tell us who creates the most offense off of their entries, reveal why some players struggle to move the puck forward and who might be a passenger on their line.

I've been tracking zone entries for the Hurricanes and two other teams this season to help expand on this study and see which players are the strongest in terms of neutral zone play. I did this by re-watching every game this season and noting which players got the puck into the offensive zone and if they did it via carry-in, dump-in, pass, tip or another method. It's a simple but time consuming process that can reveal a lot of interesting things about many players and teams in the league.*

After the jump, we'll take a look at what the Hurricanes neutral play says about them and their players.

* I did not count dump-ins where players went off for a line change because the team is obviously not trying to create any offense off those.

Team Performance

As a team, the Hurricanes are getting the puck into the offensive zone more by owning 52.7% of the total entries and have had control of the puck on 53% of them. They are also winning the territorial battle overall with a 53.2% team 5v5 Fenwick on shots that come off of zone entries. Both of those are a good sign in regards to the Hurricanes controlling territorial play but they've had problems with defending controlled entries against. The Canes are getting the puck into the zone more often than their opponents but they've owned only 48.8% of controlled entries and have allowed their opponent's to have control of the puck 61% of the time they've entered the zone. This could be evidence of the team's defensive struggles because even though they've been a positive team territorially, they are still giving up a lot of shots and chances against. The fact that they are allowing other teams to constantly carry the puck into their zone could explain why.

Looking at their neutral performance game-by-game shows that they have been improving a little, though.

Opponent % Entries % Control Entries
at Florida 64.6% 64.7%
Tampa Bay 51.0% 49.1%
Buffalo 53.4% 49.2%
at Buffalo 47.0% 44.1%
Boston 45.5% 42.3%
Ottawa 58.6% 46.3%
at Philadelphia 56.3% 60.0%
at Toronto 49.5% 43.8%
at Ottawa 47.2% 44.4%
at Philadelphia 56.8% 50.0%
at New York 53.6% 50.8%
at New Jersey 54.9% 52.2%
Toronto 53.0% 52.2%

The Hurricanes overall neutral zone performance is boosted a little by that Florida game where they were playing from behind for at least 45 minutes (score effects!) and they struggled to own the neutral zone in the games following that. However, things have been looking up the last four games or so as the Canes have been getting the better of the neutral zone play and are slowly owning more of the controlled entries. Hopefully this continues.

I'd like to point out that the Hurricanes have been controlling over 50% of the even strength scoring chances despite not being great in the neutral zone so I'm not sure what to make of it. However, they are still generating more shots when they carry the puck in (0.73 per entry) compared to when they don't (0.35) so their performance this year does support the hypothesis that entering the offensive zone with possession leads to more offense.

Next we'll look at which players on the Canes are performing the best in the neutral zone.

Individual Puck-Handling: Forwards

The players who are strongest in the neutral zone can be found in the upper-right hand part of the graph, meaning they are the ones who have most of the team entries AND are carrying the puck into the zone more often than not. Going by that, Carolina's strongest neutral zone players have been the Staal brothers, Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner, the latter having more controlled entries (49) and more total 5v5 entries (87) than anyone else on the team. Skinner is an interesting case because while he lead the team in controlled entries, he also dumps the puck in a lot. This could be due to him having such a high number of entries, though because he's usually the one leading most of Carolina's offensive rushes and generates a ton of offense as a result.

I'd also like to point out that one of his common linemates, Jordan Staal, is  responsible for a high amount of Carolina's 5v5 zone entries and he is doing it with control of the puck over 70% of the time. Combine that with Skinner's numbers and the Hurricanes have themselves a very dangerous combination on their second line.

Jordan's brother is no slouch himself when it comes to neutral zone play either as Eric Staal has had control of the puck on 76% of his 5v5 entries and is accounting for a high amount of the team's entries, too. This shouldn't be a surprise, though because he is obviously going to be a huge part of the offense on the first line. Staal is obviously a good enough puck-handler to take advantage of holes in the defense, leading to him having a lot of carry-ins. The same can be said about his linemate, Alexander Semin, who might be the Hurricanes best neutral zone player. Skinner has more overall entries, but Semin is getting the puck into the zone with possession more often.

I find it a little interesting that both Patrick Dwyer and Jiri Tlusty are right next to each other on this graph. Both have been spending time on the top-two lines and while neither have been bad in the neutral zone, maintaining control of the puck on over 50% of their entries, they are clearly inferior to their linemates. I don't want to say that they are passengers on their respective lines but they have definitely benefited from strong company.

All three of the Hurricanes regular third liners have posted some brutal underlying numbers this season, but Drayson Bowman has been a small bright spot here. Bowman leads Carolina's third liners in total zone entries this season and he's been pretty good in the neutral zone with control of the puck on over 60% of his entries. His linemates, however, have struggled a lot. Chad LaRose has had control of the puck on less than 50% of his entries and Jussi Jokinen is barely above 50%. Both have accounted for less than 6% of the Hurricanes total entries and that isn't good considering the ice-time they've been receiving. I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here but I'm not sure what their problem is. LaRose was a strong neutral zone player last year and Jokinen is a good enough play-maker to be creating more offense than he is now. For whatever reason, these two just can't get it going in the neutral zone and simply resort to dump-ins at least half of the time they enter the zone.

Tim Brent is the only fourth liner here to play significant time and he has been a pretty poor neutral zone player this season, dumping the puck in more than 70% of the time. Same goes for Tim Wallace but he hasn't played that much at all. I didn't even put Kevin Westgarth on here because he has only four total entries on the season and none of them were with control.

If you want to make a conclusion about the Hurricanes neutral zone play from the forwards this year, it's that the top-six is getting the job done but the bottom-six needs to be better. A player who might be able to provide a boost is Zac Dalpe, who has been getting the puck in with control on over 60% of his entries and that was when he was playing on the second line. He might be up sooner rather than later with Skinner's injury but the kid has been able to create offense whenever he's in the lineup.

Entries Relative to Ice-Time

This chart pretty much reiterates what was stated above. Those who are carrying the puck into the zone more are the ones creating more offense. Jeff Skinner is pretty much on a completely different level here with the high amount of entries he's had so far. Dwyer also looks a little more impressive here as he has a  healthy amount of entries relative to his ice-time and the Hurricanes are creating a decent number of shots off them. The entire second line actually looks very good going by this.

Semin looks slightly less impressive here as the team isn't creating that many shots off his entries compared to some other players. There are a lot of times where Semin enters the zone, dangles around a lot and then has the puck taken away from him so I guess that could be a reason why the team hasn't been creating that many shots off his entries. 

I'd also like to point out that the Hurricanes have been creating about the same number of shots per 60 minutes off LaRose, Tlusty & Jokinen's entries as they are off Tim Brent's. Either Brent is better than I'm giving him credit for or those three haven't been playing well in the neutral zone. Could be a little of both.

Individual Puck-Handling: Defense

Joni Pitkanen is the Jeff Skinner of the defense corps. He has more entries than any other blue-liner by far and he manages to do with possession of the puck more than anyone else, too. He he still only has possession on less than 50% of his total entries, but 45% is very good for a defenseman since they are more likely to dump the puck in than forwards. Pitkanen is known for jumping up into the play and is the team's best offensive defensemen, so this isn't too surprising but I didn't expect him to be so far ahead of the rest of the defense corps. It makes his injury very tough to deal with because the Hurricanes don't have another blue-liner who is this good at controlling the neutral zone. Faulk, McBain, Corvo and Sanguinetti all have good offensive instincts but they haven't been leading many offensive rushes this year. Pitkanen not being in the lineup might encourage some other defensemen to join in on the action, though.

Entries Relative to Ice-Time

This basically reiterates how good Pitkanen has been in the neutral zone compared to the rest of the defense corps. Although, Joe Corvo is also creating a lot of entries compare to how many minutes he's been playing. The team just isn't' creating much offense off them. The latter part of that statement can be applied to the rest of the defense corps, as a lot of them are going to have to step up a little the next few games if Pitkanen is out for awhile. Justin Faulk has been fantastic this season but neutral zone play hasn't been one of his specialties.

That about wraps things up here. The Hurricanes neutral zone play hasn't been as great as I hoped it would be to start the year, but things are getting better and it's no surprise to see they won most of their games where they owned the neutral zone. It also shows that the Hurricanes are playing well, but they haven't been as dominant as some of their underlying numbers indicate. I'm hoping things continue to improve but it will be tough if the injuries to Pitkanen, Gleason and Skinner are serious since two of those players are among the Canes best possession drivers. Hopefully they won't have to go too long without them, but if they do, it will be a good test of this team's depth

Big thanks to Eric Tulsky from Broad Street Hockey for introducing me to this project and providing the script to track zone entries.