Tracking zone entries has been all the rage in the hockey analytics community this year and the main thing we look at is how often a team/player carries the puck into the offensive zone as opposed to dumping it in. That is generally how we judge which players are "winning the battle" in the neutral zone and creating the most offense off of zone entries. As important as this is, defending the neutral zone is just as critical because a team could easily lose the territorial battle if they are carrying the puck more often than their opponents or if they are forcing their opponents to dump the puck in more times than they would like.
This is one of the reasons why the Hurricanes had such a strong month of January because while they largely remained a dump-and-chase team at 5v5, their forwards doing a much better job of clogging the neutral zone and their defense wasn't giving up the blue line so easily. They ended up winning 10 out of 14 games and saw their possession numbers sky-rocket from where they were a couple months ago. Unfortunately, things have cooled down a lot since the Olympic Break. Carolina has only won three of their last 11 games and their underlying numbers have took a tumble. In English, that means they spending way too much time in their own end at 5v5 and they are getting outshot more often than not (six out of their last 11 games to be exact, and the few times they did outshoot their opponents were in blowout losses).
As you can probably guess, the team's play in the neutral zone is the cause of this. Not much has changed with how they enter the offensive zone (they're still carrying the puck in 47-48% of the time), but they have been terrible at defending the neutral zone.
If you've watched any hockey game, you'll probably notice that some teams have different strategies when it comes to defending their own end. Some teams like to clog up the neutral zone, give their opponents no space and force them to dump the puck in. Others like to have their forwards cheat at the line and force turnovers while the other team starts a breakout. Then there are the teams who like to give opponents respect by backing off at the line, allow them to carry the puck in and have them make the first move. It's a conservative strategy and understandable if you're a team that gets burned from trying to be too aggressive. The Hurricanes probably fall into this category because they give up a lot of chances on the rush and are probably content with playing a collapsing style of defense.
The only problem with this strategy is that by allowing the opposition to carry the puck in, you're giving them a lot of space to work with and they usually have enough time to set up a play and get a decent shot on goal, even if it's just a quick one off the rush. Hency why I call this strategy an "Open Door Policy." Allowing a high number of zone entries isn't a big deal if you're forcing teams to surrender possession of the puck & work for it, but if you constantly allow teams to carry the puck in, there's a good chance that you're going to be giving up a lot of shots & scoring chances along with it.
The Hurricanes have defensemen who can skate well enough to close gaps on forwards even if they do allow them to carry the puck in, but the team hasn't exactly been great at this since since the Olympic break.
As a whole, the Hurricanes have been hot-and-cold at defending the neutral zone but they've adapted an "Open Door Policy" since the Olympic break and it's not a surprise to see their 5v5 numbers tank along with it. They still have more entries than their opponents (60 per game vs. 56 per game) but they are allowing 30 carry-ins a game and eventually that catches up to you, especially when the team is allowing .71 shots per carry on the season.
What I want to know is what happened over the last 11 games. Prior to the Olympic break, it looked like this team had turned the corner and had a shot at making a playoff run. Then they just cratered and their play in the neutral zone illustrates that well. There hasn't been a significant injury that coincides with this drop (Liles & Faulk got hurt in the middle of this stretch), so I'm inclined to believe that some of this relates to coaching, especially since it looks like the defensemen are deliberately giving up the blue-line on a lot of nights. That said, it's entirely possible that Kirk Muller is just as confused & frustrated as we are watching this so I don't want to completely pin the blame on him.
It's always hard to differentiate what is poor coaching and what is bad execution from the players, but we saw a few examples of both during Sunday's loss to the Edmonton Oilers. During that game, the Hurricanes allowed 35 carries on 54 5v5 zone entries and 10 of them were by the Oilers young star Taylor Hall. He is generally one of the best players in the league at winning the battle in the neutral zone from an offensive standpoint and the Hurricanes did a very poor job at containing him. Here's a few examples of how he took advantage of Carolina's defense.
This starts in the Oilers zone where Taylor Hall is able to strip the puck away from Carolina forward Alexander Semin along the boards. The Oilers appear to have favorable numbers here with three forwards ready to go the other way and the Hurricanes having all three forwards caught deep in their own zone.
The Oilers advance the play forward with Hall going down the left wing and he has a clear lane into the zone with the two Carolina defensemen (Faulk & Sekera) putting their focus on covering the center lane. The turnover in the offensive zone put them in a bit of a vulnerable position here, so making an aggressive play at the line might result in a turnover and the best that they can hope for is for the Oilers to get one shot on goal and that's it.
Both Faulk & Sekera give Hall respect and back up onto their own zone while he has the puck and the Oilers have enough room to set up a play on the rush. They also have a 3-on-2 with David Perron wide open on the right wing and Jordan Staal trying to hustle back into the play.
Hall hangs onto the puck a little too long, but he is able to get the pass over to David Perron on the other side of the ice and he gets a pretty decent scoring chance on goal. Anton Khudobin hung onto the shot and didn't give up a rebound, so the Canes lived to fight another day but this is just one example of Carolina almost getting burned in transition. It started with a turnover in the offensive zone and was magnified by the two defensemen backing up at the line and giving Hall all the space in the world to work with.
This play started while the Hurricanes had possession in the Oilers zone, here's an example of them trying to defend a controlled breakout by the OIlers.
The Oilers are attempting to start a breakout and the Hurricanes are playing it very aggressive with three forwards putting pressure on Martin Marcin and Jef Petry.
Marincin slides the puck over to Petry and Patrick Dwyer is able to block the pass with his skate. This is a good situation for the Hurricanes because they could potentially start a break the other way. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen.
After going off Dwyer's skate, the puck ricochets into the neutral zone and Drayson Bowman (circled) can't handle it. Instead, the puck goes to David Perron and with two Carolina forwards caught up on the play, he can move it to the other side of the ice where Taylor Hall is wide open.
Perron has no trouble getting the play over to Hall and the Oilers forwards has a clear lane into the zone with every Carolina player having their focus on the wrong side of the ice. Brett Bellemore has to hustle over to defend the play, but his skating is no match for Hall's so the Oilers are likely going to have another controlled entry here.
Despite what looked like a bad situation, Carolina manages to recover by swarming around Hall. They are likely forcing him to either turn the puck over, dump it in or take a low-percentage shot. The Oilers forward had other plans in mind.
Hall has help coming and he makes a nifty drop pass to defenseman, Martin Marincin. Now, the Hurricanes have to back off and watch the play develop since the Oilers aren't as outnumbered as they initially appeared.
Marincin works the play back over to Hall and Sam Gagner is also on the scene to provide some puck support as the Hurricanes try to win a battle along the boards. You'll also notice Perron parked in front of the goalie, so the Oilers have a designed play set-up and another outlet for the puck if Hall decides to go along the boards.
This is exactly what Hall ends up doing and the Hurricanes are now in a bit of a vulnerable spot here with defenseman Bellemore falling down. Sam Gagner recognizes the situation and goes to the other side of the net and the Oilers have a bit of a two-on-one with Bellmore down and Sekera guarding the front of the net.
Perron takes advantage of Bellemore down by taking the puck to the front of the and the Hurricanes forwards have to converge on him to prevent a scoring chance while Sekera has his eyes on Gagner on the other side. This doesn't end here, though.
The Hurricanes survive that, but the Oilers maintain possession and set up a play at the point with Jeff Petry. They have enough guys in the lane to block the shot, though so Petry's chances of getting anything on net are low.
Instead, Petry works the play to the right faceoff circle where Hall is able to get a shot on goal. Thankfully for the Hurricanes, it's from a terrible angle and Sekera blocked the shot. The play isn't over yet, though.
The Oilers eventually come away with the puck and Perron appears to be well covered a the other side of the ice. However, you'll notice that there are five Hurricane skaters in the picture and only two Oilers. Which can only mean one thing…
Hall is once again left all alone in a prime scoring position and gets a decent scoring chance on goal. This team has a bad habit with watching the puck and forgetting their assignments and here's a perfect example of it. They've been hemmed into their zone for almost 30 seconds, so breakdowns are going to happen, but this all started with mistake at the Oilers blue-line that led to Edmonton getting a controlled entry. This is a play that they could have set up on a dump-in, but being able to gain the line with control made things easier. Having someone with the skill of Hall also helps, since he drew in four Carolina defenders on the entry and made a creative pass to keep the play alive. This wasn't the only time Hall took advantage of a miscue by the Hurricanes.
Carolina is attempting to start a pressured breakout with Justin Faulk & Jordan Staal trying a give-and-go pass.
The designed play is for Faulk to return the pass to Staal, but an Oilers play has the passing lane cut off. Take note of how Alex Semin is open on the right wing, but Faulk has his mind set on the original play. You probably know how this is going to turn out.
The pass is broken up and the play is moved to the boards and Faulk is trying to pry the puck away from Sam Gagner. Notice Hall circled in red ready to pounce on the loose puck and that's exactly what he does.
Hall is in a battle with Justin Faulk and while he may not win it, he does his best to move the play back into the Carolina zone and possibly set up a scoring opportunity.
Hall wins the puck battle and carries the puck into the zone with a lane right to the net. Faulk was able to recover and make a good stick play on Hall to deny a scoring chance, but the Oilers still managed to keep possession of the puck for a good 20-30 seconds and get another shot on goal. Faulk had a good game in terms of zone exits, but this wasn't one of his finer moments and it led to yet another breakdown in the neutral zone.
Some might say to themselves that this is just typical Canes hockey but the graph above showed that they were doing a fairly good job of defending the neutral zone prior to the Olympic break. I'm not sure what changed so much during that time and it's frustrating to watch because there have been games where they did a good job of making it difficult for other teams to come up the ice. The most recent example of them doing this came in their game at San Jose, which they won in overtime. This was one of two games after the Olympics where they allowed the opponent to carry the puck in less than 50% of the time and they were excellent at clogging the middle of the ice even after making a mistake in the offensive zone.
We are presented with a similar situation to the first example from the Oilers game where the Hurricanes lose a puck battle in the offensive zone and the Sharks trying to start a rush up the ice. The difference here is that defenseman Andrej Sekera is up on the play and all over Sharks forward, Tommy Wingles, right as he receives the puck.
Wingles responds to this by going to the boards and working the play back to the middle of the ice where defenseman Dan Boyle is lurking. Carolina is still in good position with Drayson Bowman keeping his eye on Boyle and two defensemen back on the play.
Boyle, an excellent skater, swerves through the middle of the ice but his options are limited because the Canes have three players back and neither are giving him much room to work with.
Boyle tries to carry the play forward by himself and Sekera meets him at the blue-line to deliver a check and force Boyle to get rid of the puck. The play ended up being blown dead offsides, but the Hurricanes forced the issue by clogging up the neutral zone and not allowing Boyle much time or space. They may have turned the puck over in the offensive zone, but they reacted to the situation well and made it difficult for the Sharks to do much with the puck. Something they didn't do against Edmonton.
Another thing they did well in this game was turning defense into offense by forcing turnovers at the blue line.
The Sharks are trying to start a pressured breakout after the Hurricanes failed to come away with a loose puck. However, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic doesn't have much space to work with because Carolina has a forward covering him and his passing lanes are blocked.
Despite that, Vlasic works himself out of the situation and is able to get the puck to big Joe Thornton in the neutral zone. Carolina's defense is playing much closer to San Jose forwards (this is what hockey people talk about when they mention gap control) so Thornton doesn't have as much space to work with as he would like. He also has to deal with Alex Semin, who is right behind him on the back-check.
Thornton is surrounded as he tries to enter the zone with Mike Komisarek performing a roadblock at the blue line and Jay Harrison covering Joe Pavelski. He panics and tries to pass the puck to his left where he thinks a teammate is, but he actually ends up turning it over to Semin.
Semin goes the other way with the puck and while he doesn't get much of a dangerous away, he still prevented a potential scoring opportunity for the Sharks top line and created more zone time for the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes did an excellent job of clogging the neutral zone and forcing the Sharks into making bad plays with the puck all game and unfortunately, we haven't seen much of this all month. Most of it comes down to the players not executing, but the San Jose games makes me wonder if coaching also plays a role in this. They drew up a game plan to shut down San Jose's speed and they did a pretty good job with it. So why is it so difficult for them to adjust to almost everyone else? It's definitely worth looking more into as the season's end (and likely Kirk Muller's coaching tenure) draws near.