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?
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.
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.
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.