Hurricanes Zone Exits: The case for adding a puck-mover

The term "puck-moving defenseman" has become a taboo topic among Carolina fans because most are sick of hearing about it at this point. Between the years of watching terrible defensive play and the rumors of the Hurricanes being interested of John-Michael Liles, the mere mention of the words "puck-moving defenseman" is bound to make any Carolina fan cringe. Personally, I think the term is kind of silly and misused among hockey fans. Being able to move the puck forward and advance the play is critical in hockey and almost every defenseman needs to be capable of doing this in today's game. Granted, you still have to be solid in your own zone and play a strong game away from the puck, but being a good skater and being able to lead breakouts is just as important.

Most people confuse "puck-moving defensemen" with offensive defensemen or power play specialists and make the assumption that they are terrible in their own end. There are some who fit this description and Carolina has been burned by a couple in recent history (see: Kaberle, Tomas & Babchuk, Anton) but you can never have enough defensemen who are capable with the puck on their stick, especially with territorial play being as critical as it is now. Do the Hurricanes need to add one, though?

Well, let's see. They currently rank 20th in the NHL in Corsi Percentage, controlling only 49.2% of the shot attempts during five-on-five play. The Canes also haven't received much offense from their defense corps aside from Andrej Sekera, Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy. On top of that, their power play has been an absolute mess this season, ranking 26th in the NHL in terms of shots created per 60 minutes. So yes, they could definitely improve their defense by adding another player with an offensive mindset, if anything to help them spend less time in their own end. 

On paper, the Canes look like they have enough guys on their blue-line who are capable of tilting the ice in their favor at even strength but the results just haven't been there and some of the problems stem from their inability to cleanly get the puck out of their own zone. The Canes poor shot-based metrics (Corsi, Fenwick, Scoring Chances, etc.) are a decent reflection of this, but a way to closer look at this is how each blue-liner has performed in terms of being able to successfully exit the defensive zone.

This is something that I have been tracking every game (and posting in my recaps) and now, we'll look at the numbers for each defenseman and see who is the best and the worst on the Hurricanes at leading breakouts.

Zone exits are a stat that is still in its beginning stages and with such little data available, I haven't been able to make any conclusions from my studies. I did manage to get a portion of the 2010-11 season tracked along with the entire 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it's still too small of a sample to make any real conclusions off of. That said, I still see breakouts as an important part of the game and believe that tracking them can lead to some interesting discoveries.

Here's what I have for the Canes so far:

Hurricanes Defensemen 5v5 Zone Exits

Overall, the numbers match up with the eye-test well. Ryan Murphy is the best "puck-mover" on the Hurricanes by a pretty significant margin. He still has a lot of issues keeping his head above water at even strength, but no one on the Canes blue-line has been better when the puck is on their stick. He is pretty much the only defenseman on the team who can frequently carry the puck out of the zone, giving them more speed in the transition game and increasing the amount of offense they can create. Unfortunately, it hasn't resulted in him becoming that good of a possession player, but I would attribute this to growing pains and his defense partners bieng mostly useless with the puck.

Another defenseman who has helped the Canes gain more traction in the neutral zone is Andrej Sekera. He isn't as dynamic with the puck as Murphy, but he has done a solid job at getting play out of his own end. In the games I have tracked from the last three seasons, the average rate for a defenseman to successfully advance the puck has been around 22-23%. Sekera is above-average in this regard and roughly average in terms of his ability to advance the play with possession of the puck. He is also trusted more at even strength than Murphy, which makes his performance slightly more impressive. Faulk's numbers are basically identical to Sekera's, the only difference being that Sekera resorts to dumping the puck in or banking it off the boards a little more often.

The bank-pass off the boards is something that Ron Hainsey utilizes a lot and it's been pretty effective. He isn't the best skater, but he makes a lot of good, smart plays out of his own end and that's helped him be a pretty solid defenseman at even strength for the Canes. Unfortunately, his offense is limited and he doesn't do a whole lot to help the Canes transitional game since a lot of his "signature plays" involve using a forward or having someone retrieve the puck rather than having him advance it on his own. Still, what Hainsey does is effective and the bar falls off dramatically after him.

Bellemore, Gleason, Harrison and Komisarek have all been below-average to bad at advancing the puck out of their own zone and it's a rarity that any of these four will get the puck out cleanly. Harrison & Bellemore are the only two who have been able to complete more than two breakout passes for every 20 minutes they've been on the ice during 5v5 play. That is alarmingly bad. Granted, players like Gleason & Komisarek aren't going to be relied on for this too much because moving the puck isn't their game. However, the fact that they are spending most of their ice time playing in their own end is a problem and Harrison & Komisarek's turnover rates are also very concerning.

Obviously, these stats aren't perfect but possession & neutral zone play has been a problem for the Canes this year and the numbers reflect that to an extent. They play a lot of dump-and-chase and some of that stems from them not being able to start plays from their own end or gain any speed as they enter the neutral zone. I don't think John-Michael Liles is the answer to this problem, but the Canes need someone other than Sekera, Murphy & Faulk to start breakouts more efficiently. I talked about how bad their third pairing has been in an earlier post and this, along with the terrible power play, gives them more reasons to look for an improvement there.