Defense pairings and zone exits

I was just as shocked as anyone to see that the Jamie McBain-Tim Gleason defense pairing was kept together in Thursday night’s game against the Canucks because of how poorly those two played as a unit until then. While they had a respectable outing that game, I thought Kirk Muller would have decided to reunite Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason since they were going up against a strong offensive team and McBain has struggled in a shutdown role thus far. That’s when I began to thought to myself the negatives of the Allen-Gleason defense pairing. Both guys are studs in their own zone and the best defensemen on the team in terms of preventing chances against but neither are that good of puck movers.

There is a lot of pressure put on defensemen to get the puck out of their own zone with break-out passes that you need to have a puck-moving defenseman on almost any pairing. One of McBain’s strengths is being able to move the puck well and with Joni Pitkanen on the shelf indefinitely, that makes him an attractable option for the top pairing. Allen and Gleason, on the other hand, are not known for their puck-moving skills but are both so bad that they can’t play on the top pairing?

This is where looking at zone entries and exits will come in handy. Derek Zona of Copper and Blue looked at this for the Oilers and the folks at Broad Street Hockey have been tracking zone entries for the Flyers all season. The latter part is what we’re the most concerned with here because having a defenseman that can get the puck out of the zone is crucial for establishing any kind of offense. To compare McBain and Allen’s puck moving skills, I watched each of their shifts from the last game they played on a pairing with Gleason (Thursday vs. Canucks for McBain and Nov. 26th vs. Florida for Allen), recorded what happened each time they touched the puck in the defensive zone and logged how they advanced the puck. Did they make an outlet pass to a forward in the neutral zone, rely one of the forwards to exit the zone, make a big slap pass around the boards and hope for the best or do it the old fashioned way and exit the zone themselves?

Find out the answer after the jump

The table below shows the zone exit data from McBain/Gleason against the Canucks and Allen/Gleason in the last game they were a defense pairing, which was Kirk Muller’s first game as the Hurricanes head coach in late November.

4/6 5/6
Touches 35 31
Advances 28.6% 29.0%
Forwards 40.0% 32.3%
Failure 17.1% 25.8%

This shows how many times each defenseman touched the puck, the percentage of times they advanced the puck into the neutral zone successfully, the percentage of times they used a forward to advance the puck and the percentage of times they failed to advance the puck.

Interestingly enough, Allen/Gleason were able to move the puck at about the same rate as McBain/Gleason but they seemed to rely on forwards less to carry the puck out. They also had more failed zone exits, which was mostly due to Allen icing the puck or Gleason using a hard slap pass which  resulted in a change of possession. Despite that, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between the two units in terms of zone exits other than McBain/Gleason being slightly more relient on using forwards to exit the zones. I’ll touch on that later, but to get a better idea of how each player performed, let’s look at their individual statistics.

McBain Allen Gleason 1 Gleason 2 Gleason combined
Touches 22 15 13 16 29
Advances 31.8% 26.7% 23.1% 31.3% 27.6%
Failure 4.5% 26.7% 38.5% 25.0% 31.0%

I didn’t record the number of times they used a forward to exit a zone, but I’ll definitely remember that in the future. Anyway, here you can see how much better McBain is at exiting the zone than Allen. Gleason obviously knows each player’s skillset because there were numerous instances where he passed the puck to McBain to exit the zone whereas this didn’t happen as much when he was paired with Allen. McBain was able to advance the puck at a higher rate than Allen and Gleason and that shouldn’t be too much of a shocker considering what we know about each player’s skillsets. McBain also touched the puck a lot more in the defensive zone because he was more trusted with exiting the zone than Gleason and Allen were. The interesting thing is the data presented in the previous table where it shows that neither pairing were able to advance the puck at a superior rate despite McBain being more skilled in that area. Could this be due to Gleason relying on McBain too much when they were paired together? The work was split pretty evenly when he was with Allen and their success rate wasn’t much different from McBain/Gleason as a unit. I’m sure this data will look a lot more valid once we get some more games tracked.

The other thing I wanted to touch on was how much both pairings relied on forwards to get the puck out of the zone. This is very common when you have two shutdown guys playing together but it can lead to bad things when you have players that become over-reliant. Let’s take a look at a recent occurence in Thursday’s game against Vancouver.

This is after a defensive zone face-off win, Tim Gleason retrieves the puck and his first instinct is to pass the puck to Drayson Bowman who is on the right part of the picture. He doesn’t have much of an option as he is being pursued by Mason Raymond (21 in white) and his momentum is carrying him towards his left. This is a pretty safe and reasonable play by Gleason.

Bowman has the puck and has a few options as to what he can do with it. He can either pass the puck to one of the defensemen on the left side of the picture. This would be the safe and easy play for him since there isn’t much risk involved and it would allow the team to set up a play. He could also make a riskier play of making a pass to a streaking Eric Staal on the bottom part of the picture. With Henrik Sedin skating away from Staal (33 in white) and Alex Burrows (14 in white) skating towards Bowman with the puck, this also appears to be a pretty safe option. Unfortunately for Bowman, he doesn’t have much time to make a decision because of the danger that lurks about.

That danger comes in the form of Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis (#2 in white) who converges on Bowman and forces him to act quicker than he would like. Bowman’s safest option might be to send a pass to Staal (circled) as the risk of a turnover there is a lot lower. Burrows is skating in a different direction and Sedin is too far away from him to make a play. Bowman’s other options are to pass the puck to Patrick Dwyer at the blue line or advance it himself, both of which will likely result in a turnover with two Canucks players surrounding him. Of course, he could always give the puck back to one of the defensemen who are not pictured here but that would be safe and…boring. Bowman has only a half second to react on this so the result here will likely be unfavorable.

Bowman tries to chip the puck forward to Dwyer in the neutral zone but he is hit by Hamhuis which causes a turnover. Bowman is now taken out of the play and with Dwyer in the neutral zone, Staal too far away from the puck and Burrows in perfect position to retrieve it, this is going to end bad for the Canes.

Burrows now has a free pass at the puck and the Canucks now have possession of the puck and more than enough time to set up a new play. Since this occurred less than 10 seconds after a faceoff, they don’t even need to make a line change to set things up. Their top unit has all of their players in the Carolina zone while the Canes have one of their forwards stuck in the neutral zone. I shouldn’t even need to tell you what happens next.

Ward is forced to make a save because of the turnover by Bowman and the Hurricanes scrambling to get back in their own zone while Vancouver is ready to attack the net. The Canes are lucky here because Ward was able to deny Sedin but they aren’t so lucky the second time.

Vancouver was able to keep up the pressure and score a goal because Carolina was unorganized in their own zone after a turnover. One that could have been avoided if we didn’t have a forward try to exit the zone on his own power. Is it Gleason’s fault for putting him in that position? No, because he had no other option at the time. However, Bowman had at least two other things he could have done with the puck and he picked the worst option and a goal against resulted from it. This is where being over-reliant on forwards can get you into trouble. The next example might illustrate this point better, though.

Pretty simple here. McBain is retrieving a clearing attempt in his own zone and is looking to set up a play. However, thanks to FS-Carolina’s close ups, it doesn’t show that he bumps the puck to Brandon Sutter behind the net in the next picture, which is why I’m explaining things here.

Sutter has the puck now and with one Vancouver player approaching him, his best option would be to go behind the net and set up a play from there, which is what he does. It’s what happens after this is where the miscues begin.

Even with a Vancouver player approaching him, he tries to take the puck out himself behind the net. He’s got a few guys in front of him to pass to in Jiri Tlusty and Jamie McBain. 

Despite the other outlets, Sutter still tries to take it out himself and with two Canucks behind him along with Tlusty by his side, this should end well, correct?

Wrong. This results in a turnover after Sutter fumbled the puck and ran right into the Vancouver player who now has the puck. What happens next? 

Just a goal by Alex Burrows after Vancouver was able to set up another play, create a scoring chance and put in the rebound. Another case of the risks you take as a forward trying to advance the puck.

Like I mentioned earlier, this will all seem clearer once we get more data but for now, we can see the pressures that are put on defensemen for zone exits and the risks they take when relying on forwards to advanced the puck into the neutral zone. I will be watching this closely over the next few games and hopefully track zone exits and entries along with scoring chances so we can get a better idea of the performance of this team.