With the Olympic break coming to an end and the Hurricanes ready for action tomorrow, it's now a good time to look at their neutral zone performance. I've talked about some of their tendencies in my game recaps and in other articles, but it's been awhile since I last gave a comprehensive look at the Hurricanes zone entry numbers. The last time I did this, all the way back in November, the Hurricanes were playing a lot of dump-and-chase and not having much success with it. They were getting much more shots off controlled entries and to make matters worse, they were allowing other teams to carry the puck in at a high rate, resulting in the team getting outshot and losing the territorial battle on a nightly basis.
Since then, the Hurricanes 5v5 numbers have improved a little. They're above 50% in shot attempts and have been carrying the play in many of their recent games. Their play in the neutral zone is a reason for this. If you've read any work on zone entries, then you probably know that controlled entries usually correlate to stronger territorial play. Teams create more shots off carry-ins than dump-ins and while it's not impossible to be a good possession team through dump-and-chase, it's easier to dictate the play if you're a team that carries the puck in. frequently. For the Hurricanes, this hasn't exactly been the case.
While the Hurricanes are carrying the puck in slightly more than they were earlier in the year, their defensive play in the neutral zone is actually what has seen the most improvement.
As zone entry tracking becomes more popular, dumping the puck in is almost seen as a sin among those who are into hockey analytics. It's considered a "safe" play because there's less chance of a team committing a turnover at the blue line and having it result in a rush the other way. It's also an effective way to protect a lead late in games since all you're trying to do is drain the clock and make the opponent play 200 feet. The downside to dump-and-chase is that it doesn't result in a lot of offense from entries and can be counter-productive if you're a team that doesn't forecheck well and is built more for a speed or transitional game.
Personally, I always thought the Hurricanes were built more to play the latter style since they have plenty of skill in the top of their lineup and have enough horses up front to be at least an average possession team. They were trying to play more of a forechecking style where they send the puck into one of the corners and use their speed to win the race and set up a play in the offensive zone. This is the "North/South" brand of hockey you're probably tired of hearing about. I'm not sure if it's what everyone on the Hurricanes should be doing, but it's been a staple of their forecheck this year and they've had control on only 47-48% for most of the season. That hasn't changed much. What has changed is that they are allowing fewer carry-ins and they've made a lot of progress here from the beginning of the season.
Like I said earlier, dumping the puck in isn't the end of the world, but allowing your opponent to constantly gain your blue line with control generally isn't a good strategy. It's even worse if you're a team like the Hurricanes that has had trouble scoring goals. The Canes were allowing other teams to carry the puck in frequently for most of the year and this was while they were predominantly playing a dump-and-chase game. The result? A bad possession team that was treading water in the Metropolitan Division. Things have improved since about game 35 or so, as the Hurricanes are allowing fewer carry-ins per game and they have seen their possession numbers take a positive turn. They have been carrying the puck in more often, but their defensive play in the neutral zone is what has seen the most improvement.
With that in mind, there's still room for improvement.
Carolina's been entering the zone more than their opponents (possibly due to score effects) and have been allowing less controlled entries but they are still getting slightly outplayed in the neutral zone overall. It's not nearly as bad as it was earlier in the year, but they should be generating more than .5 shots per entry. Perhaps this relates to how often they dump the puck in because they don't generate a lot of shots off uncontrolled entries and they are roughly even with their opponents when they do carry the puck in. So, the Hurricanes are possessing the puck and creating more zone time than they were earlier in the season, but it hasn't been resulting in much. At least not yet. I'd like to see how things change if they can keep this trend going.
Now it's time to look at some individual standouts.
No real surprises here as far as controlled entries go. The Staal brothers, Semin & Sknner were theh team's strongest players in this regard last year and that has stayed the same. Guys like Tlusty & Gerbe have improved quite ab it from earlier in the season and Tuomo Ruutu is also contributing nicely here. Meanwhile, the entire bottom-six has stuck to a dump-and-chase game with the fourth line rarely carrying the puck in. I suspect that this is the same for most of the league, but I really thought Boychuk & Bowman would have more carry-ins.
Something else to note here is how often certain players are being relied on in the neutral zone, mainly the guys who dump the puck in a lot. Eric Staal & Alex Semin actually don't have a lot of entries relative to their ice time and Tlusty is above them in this regard. Patrick Dwyer has more entries per 60 minutes than any forward not named Jeff Skinner and Drayson Bowman is relied on more than any other regular bottom-six player. The Hurricanes seem to defer to their wingers for entries and with the exception of Skinner, they don't have one that can carry the mail through the neutral zone at least 4-5 times per game. Well, I'm sure Semin can but the hasn't been relied on that much to enter the zone on the first line, which is a little odd because he is easily the most skilled player on the team. I'm not sure if this relates to the system or what, but making Semin a key player for entries could go a long way.
Someone who I would also like to see more entries from is Elias Lindholm. He hasn't done a whole lot at even strength and wasn't promoted to a top-six role until recently, but he shouldn't be this far behind in entries compared to the rest of the team. He'll need to be more of a contributor in the neutral zone if he is going to stay on the second line, though. Dwyer was heavily relied on for entries on the second line and I was hoping that adding more skill to Jordan's line could be a nice touch, but it hasn't resulted in a lot. Although, Jordan and Skinner are no slouches when it comes to entries so I guess Lindholm may not have to do much if this line stays in tact.
I don't know if we'll see Ryan Murphy in Raleigh again this year, but this is one area where he is missed. The Hurricanes defense hasn't done a great job at rushing the puck up ice and that was pretty much Murphy's specialty. It resulted in some mistakes and a couple turnovers (not helped by him being paired with bad partners) but Murphy's skating and offensive upside are what makes him a dynamic player. I'd like to see him back in the NHL soon even though his shot-differential numbers suggest that he may have been over his head. Both Sekera & Faulk have been decent at joining the rush and moving the puck through the neutral zone, but Murphy's been at another level compared to them.
When Murphy was sent down, the hope was that John-Michael Liles could replace his offensive production but that hasn't happened yet. Liles has been good but from an offensive standpoint, he hasn't done a lot and has been playing really conservative in his own zone. Sure, he'll make a lot of smart pinches and go deep in the offensive zone when he sees an opportunity, but you'd like to see him advance the play on his own a little more. The Hurricanes traded for Liles because they needed another puck-mover and it feels like he is playing too conservative, which is fine but it hasn't made him stand out from the rest of the defense. The graph does a nice job of illustrating that.
Some might say that there's nothing wrong with trying to be too careful, but the Hurricanes defense could really benefit from taking some more risks. Aside from Sekera, Faulk & Murphy, it's a rare occurrence for them to carry the puck up the ice and they always try to make breakout passes from their own end to move the play forward. When it works, it's golden but this strategy hasn't done the Canes much good this year. They either end up passing it into skates, ice the puck or have it deflected into the zone while the forwards try to retrieve it and set up a play. There's only so much you can get out of this group of defensemen, but Liles & Hainsey can definitely do more to contribute in the neutral zone. Again, they have been good for the most part but the Canes need more offense right now and these two can help with that.
The last sentence sums up Carolina's neutral zone performance through 54 games well. Good, but not good enough. Some of it can come from the current roster, but they might also benefit by making a trade for a right winger to chip in on the second & third line. When you look at how much their wingers are relied on for entries, it makes you wonder what they can do with some more skill on the second line. It will be interesting to see how things trend over the next couple of months, especially if there are any trades.