In my first post on zone entries, I went over the basics of this new stat, why it’s important, and how the Canucks have been performing as a team this year. 20 games have passed since then and we’ll look at what has changed since then and who has been performing the best in the neutral zone for Vancouver.
For those who are new to zone entries, I highly recommend reading my debut post on the subject and this piece by Eric Tulsky of Broad Street Hockey, as they cover the subject very well. The general idea behind tracking zone entries is attempting to find out which players are driving possession and thus, helping them win the territorial battle (ultimately giving their team a better chance at winning). Previous studies by Tulsky indicate that teams/players who carry the puck into the offensive zone regularly, as opposed to simply dumping the puck in, are more likely to be stronger possession teams. Although, more recent work done by other blogs show that this may not be true, as there are a few teams who are very good at controlling territorial play at even strength despite playing a lot of dump-and-chase. The Los Angeles Kings are one of these teams and the Vancouver Canucks are another.
Through the first 11 games, the Canucks had control of the puck on only 43-44% of their 5v5 zone entries but they managed to be a top-10 possession club despite that. Not much has changed since then, as the Canucks zone entry numbers are roughly the same as they were at the end of October.
The Canucks have gotten a little worse in terms of how many shots they are creating off entries and they are still creating much more offense off the rush than they are off dump-ins, but it hasn’t affected their overall performance too much. They still rank in the Top 10 of the NHL in Fenwick percentage and are 10th in the league in terms of Fenwick For per 60 minutes and are in terms of how many shots attempts they give up per 60 minutes. What that means is that the Canucks are still winning the territorial battle and keeping opponents plugged into their own end while taking a conservative approach with their zone entries.
This goes against the belief that carrying the puck in makes you a stronger possession club, but, as I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, I think it relates to John Tortorella’s system more than anything. He doesn’t instruct all of his players to get the puck deep, but he usually forces his defensemen to dump the puck in any chance they can get. Vancouver’s defensemen account for 30.3% of the team’s total 5v5 zone entries and with only 15.8% of them being carry-ins, they really drag down the team’s overall numbers. This isn’t the worst thing in the world though because while dumping the puck in restrict the amount of offense a team can create, it is a smart play at times. Tortorella usually employs this strategy when the Canucks have a lead and his team hasn’t been allowing their opponents to get much traction in the neutral zone, allowing them to carry the puck in only 47.4% of the time during five-on-five play. This has helped the Canucks remain a strong even strength team despite their neutral zone stats not being overly impressive.
Now let’s look at the individual numbers.
Chris Higgins is really having an awesome season. It might be easy to write off his great possession numbers to him playing on a line with Ryan Kesler, but his performance in the neutral zone suggests tha the is doing a lot to contribute on that line. He is actually responsible for more of the Canucks entries than Kesler and Vancouver has been creating a lot of offense on the times he does enter the zone. Alex Burrows is the only regular forward with a higher shots per entry rate than the former Yale star. With him finally making more of an impact on the scoresheet, Higgins looking like a very good top-six player in Vancouver.
Henrik is a great puck-handler, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has one of the highest controlled entry percentages on the Canucks. He isn’t responsible for as many entries as his brother, but he has been able to gain the line with control of the puck at higher rate and the Canucks are creating more shots off his entries. He does seem to defer to Daniel, Kesler or Burrows in the neutral zone quite a bit, but I think that also relates to the Canucks system. Seeing how their wingers have a higher percentage of the team’s forward entries than centers.
Kesler played on the wing for a good chunk of the season and as a result, he was given a more responsibility with the puck in the neutral zone and he performed very well with it. He has one of the highest control rates on the team and the Canucks are producing over .5 shots every time he enters the zone. Kesler’s had to deal with a lot of changes with him being moved around the lineup, but he is proving to be very effective no matter what role he is playing.
It’s unfortunate that Burrows has been sidelined with injuries for most of the year because he has been very effective when healthy. He keeps it simple in the neutral zone, as less than 50% of his entries have been carry-ins but Vancouver is producing more shots off his entries than any other regular forward. I’m sure a lot of this relates to him playing with the Sedins, but he has been one of the team’s main contributors in the neutral zone when healthy.
I’m not sure what’s more impressive; the fact that Santorelli has the highest controlled entry rate among regular Vancouver forwards or the fact that the Canucks got him for next to nothing in the off-season. What a steal.
Vancouver’s defensemen dump the puck in a lot and Dan Hamhuis is no different. What makes him stand out here is that he has a bigger role than any other defenseman and the Canucks are generating nearly .5 shots per entry. That last stat is probably speaks more of his teammates than Hamhuis, but he is still having a very good season.
Garrison is an interesting character. He has only carried the puck in once all season, but it hasn’t affected the Canucks ability to generate offense that much, as only two other defensemen have more shots per entry than him.
If there was any Vancouver defenseman I would expect to go outside of their system, it’s Alex Edler. If only for the fact that he is a great skater and has enough skill to be a defenseman that jumps into the play regularly. That hasn’t been the case, as Edler has only nine carry-ins all season. I’m not sure if this is Edler playing a more restricted style of a product of Tortorella’s system, as the control entry rate for every defenseman is very low.
There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, but 30-35 games is a decent enough sample size to tell us how the team is playing and what the rest of the season could be like. For the Canucks, they have posted some strong underlying numbers at five-on-five even after dealing with some injuries earlier in the year. That should lead to some good things later in the season, but a closer look at their performance in the neutral zone suggests that they have some room to improve, especially when it comes to creating offense off the rush.