Zone Entries on Jordan Staal’s lines

The other day, I wrote about the struggles of the Hurricanes “second line” and how some of it stemmed from Muller relying on the trio of Jordan Staal, Patrick Dwyer & Nathan Gerbe to play in a top-six role. This was a unit that was reliable and decent when it came to winning the territorial battle at even strength, but they were a glorified checking line and didn’t produce many goals. If you read further into the article, you’ll notice that Jordan was able to score at a higher rate when he was on a different line and his offense really took off when he was paired with Alexander Semin & Jiri Tlusty.

It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out why because both Semin & Tlusty have finishing talent while Dwyer & Gerbe are more suited for a third or fourth line role. That said, it was frustrating watching Jordan this year because even when he was stuck on the “Small-Medium-Large” line, he made an impact in the possession game and was able to elevate the play of both Gerbe & Dwyer. As I mentioned in the last article, both of them had some of the best seasons of their career and it’s doubtful that they would reach that level if they were on a different line for most of the year.

Did it come at Jordan’s expense, though? I think his offensive “potential” was overrated when the Hurricanes acquired him, but 50-points in 82 games aren’t outlandish expectations for him and he finished well below that. He’s also capable of carrying a line on his own and both Gerbe & Dwyer did just about all they could to help him. This line gets a lot of credit for playing a “straight-line game” and driving the net better than most of the Hurricanes other forwards. It’s a simple strategy, but how different is it from Jordan’s situation in Pittsburgh when he was playing with Matt Cooke & Tyler Kennedy? Whatever the case was, they just couldn’t get it going this year and it brought down the team’s forward depth because they were playing 15 minutes a night.

Nothing ever comes cheap in free agency and this is especially true when it comes to scoring, but the Hurricanes would benefit a lot from adding a skilled, tough-minute forward to Jordan’s line next season. Whether that comes from within, a trade or free agency remains to be seen, but we saw how much of an impact Jordan can make when he is used in a scoring role with skilled linemates like he was at times last season. How much of a difference does having skilled wingers make? You might be surprised.

The talent drop-off between Tlusty/Semin & Gerbe/Dwyer is pretty drastic but the interesting thing about Jordan is that his line won 5v5 territorial battle almost every night regardless of who was on his wings. The Hurricanes outshot their opponents when Jordan was on the ice in 52 of the 82 games he played this year and there were a few nights where he blew away his competition. Also note how almost every winger on the team was a positive possession player at 5v5 when they were on a line with Jordan. The only ones who weren’t were Drayson Bowman & Radek Dvorak and they played maybe 2-3 games with him at most. The question is why didn’t this translate into goals.

I think Jordan’s offensive potential was a little overrated when the Hurricanes acquired him, but he probably should have had more than 40 points in 82 games, especially since some of his even strength scoring woes were out of his control. This is where looking at zone entries & neutral zone play can come in handy. We usually look at this to determine who is doing the most to drive possession on their respective lines, but it might also be useful to look at which lines/players are effective at creating the most offense.

I went over the Hurricanes 5v5 zone entry numbers a week ago and noted how Jordan was taking on more of a burden in the neutral zone this year, but players like Gerbe & Dwyer were also playing a big role and that might explain why this line didn’t produce many goals. I mentioned earlier that the played a “North/South” game and their strengths were being able to win battles along the boards, cycle the puck and wear teams down in the offensive zone. Not a bad line from a possession standpoint, but creating dangerous chances wasn’t exactly their specialty.

The conclusion we’ve drawn with zone entries/neutral zone play is that carry-ins & other controlled entries leads to more offense (twice as many shots per entry) compared to dump-ins, so you want lines/players who carry the puck in on a higher percentage of their entries. However, something to point out in my last post on zone entries is that Jordan had a controlled entry percentage of 65%, which was the highest among forwards. He also had a prominent role in the neutral zone. Gerbe also had a big role in the neutral zone and a controlled entry percentage of 52%, so something doesn’t add up there in regards to the 14-11-39 line’s low offensive output.

Thanks to Eric Tulsky of Broad Street Hockey, we can dive deeper into this by looking at how many entries each player was on the ice for and what percentage of them were with control. This will give us a better idea of how big a player’s role was in the neutral zone and how much he elevated the play of his linemates. So Jordan may have been able to carry the puck in at a high rate, but how much did he help when taking his linemates contributions into account? This is where the smoke begins to clear.

Hurricanes On-ice Forward Entries

So this answers the question about how much of an impact Jordan is making in the neutral zone. He might be doing a lot to help drive the play on his own, but the Hurricanes are playing a lot of dump-and-chase while Jordan is on the ice and that hampers his offense a little. They are also playing a lot of dump-and-chase while Gerbe & Dwyer are on the ice and to explain things a little more clearly, let’s take a look at the Canes zone entry numbers while this trio was on the ice.

14-11-39 5v5 Zone Entries

There you have it. 14-11-39 was largely a dump-and-chase line and Patrick Dwyer was given the largest burden out of all forwards on that line. They were still a respectable territorial unit despite that, but it does help explain why they had so much trouble with turning possession into scoring chances. They spent all of their time working along the boards, trying to force turnovers and setting up plays that they never had much of an opportunity to create much offense and when they did, it was a low-percentage shot with one of them driving the net or a quick play that happened off a turnover.

To help illustrate this point, here’s an example of one of their shifts from a game against the Flyers early in the season.

The Hurricanes are attempting a rush into the Philadelphia zone, but the Flyers have it defended well, so Dwyer does the smart thing by getting the puck deep into a retrievable area. He has Nathan Gerbe (circled) and Jordan Staal helping him chase down the puck, as usual.

Dwyer gets the puck to the corner and does his best to use his speed to his advantage against Flyers defenseman Nick Grossman.

Grossman beats him to the puck, but Dwyer has support in the form of Gerbe to help him keep the puck in and force a turnover to keep the play in the zone. Puck support is one thing this line has always done well and possibly a reason why dump-and-chase is encouraged whenever they are out there.

Gerbe does a good job of obstructing the breakout attempt by trying to force a turnover and Grossman delivers a check on him to force him out of the play. This is where Dwyer swoops in and gives the Hurricanes possession. He is in a tough position, though as the Flyers have favorable numbers with Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Vincent Lecavalier & Andrej Meszaros all in the picture.

Since no outlet along the boards is available, Dwyer reverses the puck to the other side of the rink hoping that either Staal or Gerbe can beat the Flyers defenders. Again, puck support is a key element with this line and their forecheck, so it’s common for them to make plays like this.

Jordan does his job and beats Read to the puck to keep the play alive. Carolina has now maintained possession in the Flyers zone for almost 20 seconds but hasn’t been able to create a shot on goal or generate much pressure at all. Will that change?

Well, not yet. Jordan reverses the puck along the boards and the play gets broken up, so the Flyers have a chance to clear and escape without any harm.

Thankfully for the Hurricanes, Brett Bellemore keeps the play alive at the point and sends the puck to the right corner where Dwyer can easily get to it and help the Canes finish what they started.

Bellemore does just that and Dwyer has to out-hustle Lecavalier. He has a pretty good angle, so the Hurricanes should be in good shape here.

Despite that, this somehow turns into another board battle that is won by the combination of Gerbe & Dwyer and they work the puck around the net where Staal is lurking.

Staal tries a wrap-around but Grossman is able to get his stick on the puck before he can get it on net, so this attempt didn’t quite work.

Jordan stays on the puck, though and gets it back to Dwyer in the high slot where he sends a fairly harmless shot on goaltender Steve Mason.

Mason makes the save and the play is over. This line did a good job of hemming the Flyers in for a good 40 seconds or so, but they created maybe one dangerous opportunity out of it and weren’t really much of a threat. This was a typical shift for the 14-11-39 line. They worked hard, kept the puck in the zone, supported each other well but the only time they could create anything was when the other team made a mistake in coverage or turned the puck over. That’s far from terrible, but it’s only going to take you so far and they need Staal to be more of an impact player.

Compare this to what Staal did with Semin on his wing and it’s confusing why the Hurricanes kept this line together for so long.

14-11-28 & 19-11-28 5v5 Zone Entries

Here’s how much of a difference a skilled winger can make. As a unit, Jordan & Semin carried the puck in at a high rate and it didn’t matter which defense pairing was behind them or who was on the left wing. Semin is probably an extreme example because he is the best puck-handler on the team, but I’d like to think that another skilled winger could have a similar impact. Staal & Gerbe had no trouble with carrying the puck in consistently, but finding a right winger who could do this was a challenge because Semin spent most of the year with Eric and Jeff Skinner just didn’t seem to mesh with Jordan for whatever reason.

What exactly does a player like Semin do to help Jordan, though? Personally, I think the zone entry numbers speak for themselves because having someone that can back the defense up and give you more space to work with in the offensive zone is invaluable. Semin is probably the best on the team at doing this. As much as he gets criticized for playing too much of an “East-West” game, sometimes you need a little creativity in your arsenal to beat a stingy defense. This play against the New York Rangers is a good example of that.

Carolina’s in a similar position to where they were in the Flyers game. They have two forwards entering the zone with the right winger (Semin) carrying the puck. The center, Jordan, is trailing the play as always. The Rangers have this defended well, so Semin would be best served to get the puck deep like Dwyer did earlier, right?

Getting the puck deep isn’t Semin’s game, so he decides to challenge the Rangers defense by using the extra couple of feet to his advantage and carrying the puck over the blue-line. The Rangers defenseman (Marc Staal) still has this defended well and they have a forward backchecking to break the play up and go the other way if they can force a turnover.

Semin breaks out of this by cutting to the inside, completely faking out Staal, and hits Tlusty with a nice pass as they run a crossing play in the offensive zone. The Rangers defense is now scrambling and Tlusty has a clear lane to the net. Unfortunately, he can only get a shot off on his back-hand so he’ll need to elevate the puck to have a decent chance of scoring.

To help out, Semin stays with the play by going to the net and Tlusty hits him with another pass as they complete a quick passing play to create a scoring chance. Semin has to get the shot off quickly, though because Staal is breathing down his neck, but he has a good chance of scoring if he hits the net.

Semin ends up missing the net, but the play is kept alive by him staying with the rebound and he works the puck back to the point. The common criticism against controlled entries producing more offense is that it’s often a “risky play” and their shot totals are boosted from “one-and-done” opportunities. Well, the Hurricanes just created a decent scoring chance by Semin carrying the puck into a well-defended area and are likely going to create another because they maintained possession from getting to a rebound.

Moving on….

Semin continues to work the play back to Andrej Sekrea and draws three Rangers defenders with him, leaving an 0dd-man situation in front of the net with Jordan Staal & Jiri Tlusty surrounding Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman. All Sekera has to do is hit one of them with a pass and the Canes should have a good scoring opportunity.

Sekera finds Staal….

…and Tlusty does what he does best, which is finish off easy plays like this. Semin didn’t even earn a point on this play, but the whole thing was set up by his controlled entry at the blue-line, his cross play with Tlusty and his willingness to stay with the play after missing the net on the first opportunity. It really makes you wish that the Hurricanes used this line more often because they were dynamite in the short time they were together and were excellent with creating plays like that.

The question is can the Hurricanes roll a line like this next year? The roster is prone to some changes and I’m not sure what will happen, but I’d like to see Jordan used more in a scoring role like this because there is definitely some untapped potential here. That might require finding a third line center to play the tough minutes, but finding a winger who can do that might be just as valuable. Personally, I think Semin is capable of doing that but then that leaves a hole on Eric’s line and I’m not sure how the team plans to replace that. It’s something else to think about this off-season, that’s for sure.