Canucks Zone Entries Through 11 Games

Zack Kassian with one of his sixteen zone entries
Zack Kassian with one of his 16 zone entries.

Hockey analytics has taken a big step forward in the blogging world these last few years, as we’ve had many fans track game events such as scoring chances to get a closer look at their favorite teams. Another thing that is beginning to be tracked by bloggers is zone entries, or the number of times each team or player enters the offensive zone during five-on-five play. This is done to evaluate a team’s level of play in the neutral zone and is generally regarded as one of the more important studies going on in the analytics community right now. Why, though?

To put it simply, teams who are able to control the neutral zone are more likely to win the territorial battle and thus, win more games. What does "controlling the neutral zone" mean, though? One might think that it means to enter the zone more than your opponent and while that’s part of the equation, simply entering the zone more isn’t enough. Studies done by Broad Street Hockey and the incomparable Eric Tulsky have shown that teams who enter the zone with possession of the puck are the ones who dominate their opponents in the territorial game and have a better chance of creating more offense. This means that by carrying the puck into the zone or passing it to a teammate, they are likely to create twice as much offense compared to when they dump the puck in, as indicated by Tulsky’s studies.

I have been doing zone entry tracking for the Carolina Hurricanes on my own blog for the last two seasons and will be tracking Vancouver games for Canucks Army this season. So how has the Canucks neutral zone play been through 11 games?

Team Performance

For the most part, Vancouver has been a pretty strong team at even strength early on in the year. They are a top 10 team in terms of Shot, Corsi & Fenwick percentage and have outscored their opponents by two. However, their performance in the neutral zone could use some improvement going by these numbers. Vancouver had the better hand of zone entries, but they’ve only gained the line with control of the puck 43.7% of the time.

Despite that, they are creating an average amount of shots per entry and are outshooting their opponents overall. However, one thing that does align with previous studies on zone entries is that the Canucks are creating more offense when they gain the line with control compared to when they dump the puck in. The Canucks dump the puck in a lot, but when they do carry it in, they are making it count and they are defending their opponents well enough to outplay them overall.

One thing I’ve noticed from tracking 200+ games is that a team’s neutral zone numbers can be more indicative of their system rather than each player’s ability, mainly when it comes to how often they carry the puck in. For instance, there are some coaches who instruct their third or fourth lines to dump the puck in while other coaches instruct their whole team to play dump-and-chase, especially while they are defending a lead.

In the case of John Tortorella, my observations indicate that he wants his defensemen to play a conservative style in the neutral zone and thus, you will rarely see them jump into play or carry the puck into the zone at even strength. This was evident in the Ranger games I tracked from the last few years and the same can be said for his brief time with the Canucks.

Pretty big difference, isn’t it? Vancouver’s forwards haven’t had much of an issue with gaining the line with control but their defensemen usually opt to just slam the puck into the zone and let their forecheckers win the battle down low. So far, this strategy hasn’t worked too badly, as the Canucks are generating only slightly fewer shots off entries by their defensemen even though they’ve barely carried the puck in. They could be creating so much more offense but their body of work thus far isn’t too bad.

Individual Performance

Forwards

The small sample of games for Jeremy Welsh, Alex Burrows and Jordan Schroeder kind of skews the graph a little but the results for Vancouver’s forwards has been promising thus far. With the exception of Chris Higgins, everyone in their top-six has been able to gain the line with control of the puck at least 50% of the time. Some players with surprisingly impressive numbers are Zack Kassian and Mike Santorelli, both of whom have had control on over 65% of their zone entries. Santorelli had a brief stint with the Sedins earlier in the year and his strong puck-handling skills definitely helped take some pressure off the Twins in the neutral zone.

Another player who has been very impressive is Jannik Hansen, who has taken on a pretty big role in the neutral zone (more entries than Henrik Sedin) and he has had control on 57% of his entries. Like Santorelli, he also spent some time on a line with the Sedins and his zone entry numbers suggest that he was more than just a passenger on that line. Although, playing with the Sedins can open up some more space for any player, as those two draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses.

Speaking of which, the player taking on the greatest burden in the neutral zone is Daniel Sedin, which was a little surprising to me at first because I always thought of Henrik as the team’s main puck-carrier, but Daniel has been leading most of the forwards’ zone entries. These two have been separated at times this year, though so I’m not sure what their numbers are like when they play together. Either way, Daniel has been doing a solid job this year when taking his workload into account, although having control on 53% of his entries seems kind of low for his standards.

The only Vancouver forwards who are dumping the puck in an obscene amount are Dale Weise and Tom Sestito, the latter of whom has as many failed controlled entires as he does carry-ins (2). I suspect this is the case for most fourth liners, though.

Defensemen

There isn’t a lot to take in with these numbers because the Canucks defensemen don’t have a lot of zone entries and most of them dump the puck every chance they get. Kevin Bieksa is really the only defenseman who has been joining the rush when the puck is on his stick and even he has had control on less than 30% of his five-on-five entries. Andrew Alberts also has a high control rate, but it doesn’t mean much because he has only three total entries on the season.

I expected Alex Edler to have a higher control percentage because he is more active offensively than any other defenseman on the team but it appears that he has been playing it safe when it comes to entering the zone. Again, I think this has more to do with coaching and Tortorella’s system because Edler has more offensive talent than the numbers indicate here. Also of note here is that Jason Garrison has yet to enter the zone with control of the puck, which I thought was interesting and amusing.

So that’s all she wrote for the first 11 games of the season. It will be interesting to see how these number change as the season goes on.

  • Dimitri Filipovic

    I don’t get it. What do these numbers mean? Context would be great.

    You make this statement:

    “To put it simply, teams who are able to control the neutral zone are more likely to win the territorial battle and thus, win more games.”

    What evidence do you have? Do solid zone entries show a correlation to win percentage?
    No evidence is given in the article.

    Colour me a skeptic based on the information presented in this article.

      • JCDavies

        Perhaps ‘you’ should actually read the article by Eric critically and carefully before
        denouncing the thoughtful and obvious questions raised by @spamhuis and dogmatically pronouncing the certainty of the ‘carry in’ strategy.

        “While the carry attempts on average are much more successful than trying to set up the offense by dumping the puck in, this
        is still not sufficient data to say conclusively that teams should be trying harder to carry the puck in at every opportunity”

        The truth is neutral zone analysis is clearly in it’s infancy stage. This is the ‘context’ that needed to be stated.

        The used of advanced stats has more to do with an ‘advanced way of thinking’. Using advanced stats dogmatically and surrendering the scientific method and a critical approach
        is a sign of ignorance.

        The best part of this post is the authors’ recognition that neutral zone stats highlight the style of play or system that the team is employing.I have found similar results in my early research on zone starts
        Dan

  • JCDavies

    I’m curious to hear more about the flipside of this stat — what’s the defensive cost of trying to control the puck across the blue line? In other words, why does Tortorella think it’s a good idea to have his D dump the puck in?

    Presumably if you get the puck in deep you’re at an offensive disadvantage because you have to retrieve it. But defensively you’re in good shape because the other team has to go 200 feet to your goal and through all 5 of your skaters.

    If you turn it over trying to enter the zone, now not only is the opposition closer to your goal, your players are moving the wrong direction and the opposition is in a much better offensive position.

    So two questions: 1) what is the downside relative to the upside of trying to enter the zone with control, because obviously it’s a two way street.

    And 2) how does a stats approach deal with the fact that situations are different. Sometimes entering the zone with control is easy, so why dump it in? Other times the opponents defensive set up is well entrenched and it’s a risky proposition. I would expect that the relative trade-off between offense and defense for a controlled entry vs. shoot in will depend a lot on the particular situation.

    That means it would be prescriptively difficult to say something sweeping like carry it in at all costs, but it might be possible to suggest that becoming more conservative or liberal with decisions to enter the zone with control may make sense. Still, you would need to adjust to the way your opponent is playing.

    For example, if you refuse to dump it in, your opponent will stand up at the blue line and you’ll be at a disadvantage. Vice versa if you always dump it in. Much like passing vs. running in football it probably makes sense to mix things up some so as to avoid becoming predictable.

    I’d also expect differences to emerge when you’re playing with the lead vs. from behind, particularly as you approach the end of the game. Not sure if those sorts of stats are readily available.

    What it comes back to, though, is that a simple number like the relation between controlled zone entries and offensive chances is an interesting one, but it doesn’t mean all that much on its own. How does a team or a coach make use of that number (and the other relevant ones I mentioned) to adjust their strategy?

  • JCDavies

    Thanks so much for tracking and posting this data, I’ve really been looking forward to seeing it.

    also, to the first commenter: have you ever used the internet before? you’re supposed to click on the links.

  • JCDavies

    Thank you for the information. I’ve been intrigued by the zone entry tracking, and have been waiting for a chance to see Canucks-related data on it.

    Would it be possible for the data to be posted in table format, so that we can see the sample size and actual % for each player, as well as maybe a total entries/60 column, etc?

    • JCDavies

      I was thinking about presenting the data in table form but I usually prefer going with a scatter plot since it’s easier to visualize. I’ll remember to include a table next time, though.