Obscenely dedicated former hockey stats blogger and current mystery team employee Corey Sznajder (@shutdownline) undertook a gargantuan project – called the “All Three Zones project” – this past summer, wherein he tracked zone-entries and exits (and zone-entry defense) for every game played by all 30 NHL teams last season. Though Sznajder is now a private in-house employee for a shady corporate entity, he’s still making the results of his tracking project public (to those who helped crowdfund the project).
The ShutdownLine data isn’t quite complete yet, but it’s close, and luckily one of the teams he’s tracked in full is the Vancouver Canucks. Let’s briefly highlight some of his more interesting findings after the jump.
The idea of tracking zone entries and extrapolating inferences from entry data was pioneered by former stats blogger and current mystery team employee Eric Tulsky (sound familiar?) about three years ago. You can read more about the goals and hypothetical conclusions of the project here, but the basic idea is to track how efficient clubs are at gaining the blue and generating offense.
As a team, the 2013-14 Canucks managed .48 shots per entry over the course of the entire season, and while the data for some other teams is still incomplete, that’s a solid number. The 2013-14 Canucks weren’t very good and they were brutal to watch, but they were actually probably a bit better than average at generating shot volume off of entry attempts, as they were in many areas.
One type of entry that the Canucks were particularly good at was retrieving the puck when they dumped it in. The club managed .31 shots per dump in during the John Tortorella era, which isn’t a huge surprise considering Tortorella’s insanely aggressive 2-1-2 forechecking schemes, detailed at length by Justin Bourne and myself here. From the start of the regular season through January 19th, only four teams were more efficient when generating shots off of dump-ins: the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings, and (oddly) the Florida Panthers.
The Canucks were similarly above average at generating shots off of controlled entries – as the club managed .69 shots per entry attempt when they stepped over the blue-line with possession of the puck. Comparing Vancouver’s full season results with Sznajder’s data through January 19th, only 7 teams managed a better ratio through the first 50 percent and change of the 2013-14 season.
By individual entry numbers the Canucks’ best dump-and-chase forward last season was… Daniel Sedin!?
Daniel isn’t exactly the first player who comes to mind when the words “dump-and-chase” are uttered, but the club managed to generate shots off of pucks Daniel dumped in like they were the Los Angeles Kings.
While Daniel did well to get pucks in deep in a precise manner and squeezed all possible offensive juice from such situations, it’s worth noting that controlled entries accounted for just 55% of Daniel’s total entries during the 2013-14 campaign. Considering how some of the league’s elite offensive players are in the mid-to-high 70s (or in certain cases the mid-80s), and also that dumping the puck in is a relatively inefficient way to generate shots, that’s a very low number for a top-line winger.
Point of Entry
Coming into the season Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa spoke at length about the club’s new approach to in-zone defensive coverage, and how he thought it might help the team’s blue-liners key the rush a bit better and more aggressively. Through two games it would appear that the defense is much more involved on the rush this season, but then again, it’s hard to be any less involved than they were last year.
By Sznajder’s data, the leader among regular Canucks defenders (so not counting Raphael Diaz, or Yannick Weber, whose numbers are probably skewed by his occasional stint as a forward) in percentage of total entries with control was Dan Hamhuis, who entered the puck with control just 21 percent of the time. Everyone else was at an even lower rate than that including Bieksa (20 percent), Ryan Stanton (19 percent), Chris Tanev (17 percent), Alex Edler (17 percent) and Jason Garrison (8 percent).
Looking over the All Three Zones project data through January 19th, there’s no other team in the league with a defense that was as totally uninvolved in the controlled entry process as Tortorella’s Canucks were last season. I simply can’t find another team that didn’t have at least one defenseman in the high 20s (and most teams seem to have multiple defenseman well north of 25 percent).
New Canucks president Trevor Linden has occasionally spoken about the club’s need to move away from a system that rigidly differentiates between the offensive responsibilities of forwards and defenders on the rush. For all his lack of experience Linden appears to have a keen eye, because that observation is backed up in a major way by the data.
In tracking zone exits, Sznajder tracked quite literally every time any player recorded a “touch” in the defensive end. From those touches, Sznajder then tracked the result. A ‘successful’ touch was counted any time a player touched resulted in the puck leaving the zone, a turnover was a touch that directly lead to the other team winning possession, and an icing was counted any time a touch led to the puck going the length of the ice.
One thing that stands out immediately about Vancouver’s zone exit data matches closely with what you likely observed on your own while yelling at your television during Canucks broadcasts last season. Basically the club struggled enormously to exit their own zone with control of the puck.
At the moment, the All Three Zones data doesn’t include the percentage of exits with possession for all 30 teams, but that data is included for just over 10 NHL clubs during the 2013-14 season including the Canucks. Vancouver ranks second last among those teams in percentage of zone exits with possession, tied with the Philadelphia Flyers and only just ahead of the woeful 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s pretty awful.
It’s particularly awful when you consider the quality of Vancouver’s blue-line relative to Philadelphia and Toronto. There’s just no reason a club with four bona-fide tough minutes defenders and two legitimate top-six centerman should struggle to exit the zone with possession to that extent. The Flyers and Maple Leafs can use personnel as an excuse, unfortunately for John Tortorella’s future NHL coaching prospects, the Canucks can really only blame the system.
Dan Hamhuis, and this might shock you, was far and away Vancouver’s most efficient defenseman when it came to exiting the zone last season. The tough minutes defender led all Canucks players in defensive zone touches by a wide margin last season and managed a 28.7 percent zone exit success rate on those touches. Nearly 30 percent of the time if the puck found Hamhuis’ stick, it was getting out.
Oddly enough, Alex Edler managed the second best success rate among Canucks defenders on exits, but turned the puck over at a much higher rate than Hamhuis.
Where 6.9 percent of Edler’s defensive zone touches resulted in a change of possession, Hamhuis was the best Canucks release valve and his 4.5 percent turnover rate led all Canucks defenders (Hamhuis’ most regular partner Tanev also excelled at this, managing just a 5.1 percent turnover rate).
Also, no, Kevin Bieksa didn’t have the highest zone exit turnover rate. He was actually second last (7.9 percent), behind Ryan Stanton (9.2 percent).
It’s perhaps worth noting that neither Kesler nor Henrik Sedin managed a zone exit success rate above 40 percent, which is sort of what you expect from a very good two-way centerman (which I would suggest that Kesler and Henrik are). I’m not sure if this reflects poorly on them, so much as it’s a team effect.
While the Canucks breakout was damn painful to watch last season, a good number of Canucks wingers posted extremely solid zone exit numbers. This is a group that includes Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Zack Kassian, David Booth, and even Zac Dalpe.
Here’s a .gif I cut a few weeks ago when looking at Canucks exits as a possible angle for the Unique Traits series (we ultimately looked at the Canucks forecheck instead). Obviously it’s funny because it’s a Brad Richardson to Tom Sestito outlet pass attempt that fails emphatically, but the thing to note is how deep in the zone Richardson is on this play with Sestito the lone strong side outlet target:
It’s clear from the data that something was going on systems-wise that led to Kesler and Henrik posting such pedestrian zone exit numbers last season, especially relative to the gaudy success rates posted by Canucks wingers across the board.
I’d posit that it’s not something altogether that complicated: John Tortorella employed a rigid defensive system in which the center played deep on in-zone defensive play and often dropped below the goal line to support defenders on the cycle. As a result, when the puck was won and the strong side winger looked to provide an outlet, they didn’t have a tonne of support. Is this maybe part of why the club so often got bogged down in their own end of the rink?
Perhaps. But regardless, the contrast with what a good zone exit team like the Dallas Stars did – and once again the Stars don’t have nearly the quality of personnel that the Canucks do on the back-end – isn’t flattering.