Over this past season, @BSH_EricT of NHL Numbers and Broad Street Hockey watched every single Flyers game and counted every time the team brought the puck across the offensive blue line, then marked down who gained the zone for the team and how that player did it (dump in, carry in or pass, I presume).

Once you get past how insane that undertaking is, you arrive at the conclusion that he probably compiled some interesting data. Those numbers would allow you to see who’s the most successful at gaining the zone with possession, who’s more inclined to dump it, the success rate of the two strategies and more

While I’ve had a little grin at Fancy Stat-ers having their double rainbow moment over the fresh pile of data they get to mine (not to be condescending, they’re just really excited about this), I thought I’d weigh in on the thought process of players approaching the offensive zone, the strategy, and why Eric’s numbers likely turned out the way they did.

First off, the numbers he compiled will definitely be able to tell us a few things (how certain players choose to gain the zone), but I’m skeptical that the information will allow us to help teach players or coaches anything, given the reactionary nature of breaking into the offensive zone from the neutral. You usually take what’s given, so it’s hard to say “don’t dump it, the numbers say…” to a guy who’s about to get plowed. That said, it could be useful to GMs trying to analyze players further down the road, once the measure becomes more widespread and refined.

But back to players: the only time you ever have set plays when breaking into the offensive zone are on 3-on-2′s (with teams utilizing the mid-lane drive/triangle 9.6 times out of 10), and off neutral zone draws, the most common of which is seen below.

(Standard way to avoid allowing the other team a clean breakout: center wins it to board-side D, who goes D-to-D, who breaks for the red line. The middle winger holds up his winger just enough to buy that d-man time to get the line – without interfering, of course! – who hammers a hard wrap around the boards, which will end up right where his centerman and board-side winger are crashing. The middle winger then becomes F3. The d-man who dumps it will likely be pressured by the opposing middle defender – if he’s not, he can carry it into the zone.)

Instead, you have “principles.” If your teammate has more speed than you and you have the puck, you’re expected to lay him a soft chip and not put your team offside (most people blame the skater who’s offside, not the puck carrier – those people are usually wrong)

But if the situation is any different from that, you have to consider a couple of factors, and read the play.

A) Am I under immediate pressure? 

If you are, the puck is going in deep, barring there being a wide-open immediate pass that you have time to see. “Immediate” implies you likely don’t, so instead of risking a turnover at the blueline – which is easily the most commonly preached no-no by coaches out there – just get it deep and get a hard forecheck going. (Immediate also means you’ll probably get hit, so it’s up to your linemates to be F1 and F2.)

Still, this isn’t a situation with many options. You take what’s given.

B) Do we have numbers?

If you have more guys than your opponent on a particular rush, a dump-in is a total failure – you should be able to create a shot. So whether that means a short pass under the d-man’s stick, a mid-lane drive, a delay, something, if you have numbers you want to try to carry the puck into the zone.

Here’s where talented players get infuriated when they have to play with grinders, who are pre-programmed to dump it. “How did he not recognize we have an odd-man rush?” Instead of trying to create little 2-on-1s all over the ice, which is what you do when you have numbers, you’re suddenly forechecking.

C) Who am I?

Maybe the data shows that fourth-liners are as successful offensively when they carry the puck into the zone, but there’s a reason guys like Zac Rinaldo dump it in the majority of the time – they’re huge turnover risks (and often tailor-made for forechecking).

You may not know that from watching (and the data may not reflect that), because Rinaldo knows his role and gets it deep before he has the chance to turn it over. He’s not in the NHL for hiding secretly awesome dangles – coaches have seen him play enough to know what his success rate is, so his leash has been shortened. He might be able to gain the zone with possession more if he were allowed (everyone would), but he’s in the NHL because he doesn’t make his coach nervous when he gets the puck in the neutral zone.

You practice and train your whole life to condition yourself to make the split-second decision that best suits your skill set. Rinaldo’s auto-pilot is dump. Claude Giroux’s likely isn’t.

If you’re Jaromir Jagr, you’re not going throw it deep and give the other team possession, then work hard on the forecheck to get it back. You have the talent to make a play, you have the long leash from coach to get creative, and frankly, you’re aware that having the puck is better than not. You’re trying to score, not avoid getting yelled at.

You always want to do the safe thing first, but if you have time and space then you read and react.

Sports like basketball and football have fairly even amounts of strategy for offense and defense. Hockey has a ton of strategy for defense, then relies greatly on skill going the other way. (Which is why I so often explain that having a great goal-scorer is not the equivalent of having a great Fill In The Position, barring an exceptional, game-changing defenseman like Chara or Weber.)

While statisticians are just starting to quantify the importance of the neutral zone, coaches have been harping on players about their performance there forever. The faceoffs decide whose zone the play is going to be in. The turnovers result in odd man rushes. The great plays result in scoring chances.

The one thing great players do that others don’t is make defenders miss at the line. They might turn the puck over there more, but they also cause breakdowns and chances with trickery, and that risk-reward can be validated by coaches.

But for every guy who’s got free rein, there’s a dozen programmed to robot mode, allowed to take what’s given and nothing further.

Comments (11)

  1. Good writeup. A couple of comments:

    1) Geoff Detweiler actually did the tracking. Give him a lot of the credit here.

    2) An example of a place where it can help the coaches: Briere was great at gaining the zone, and Simmonds rarely did. They played on a line together. Yet for some reason Simmonds was the one sending the puck in most of the time — much more than he should, given their numbers (see http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1167252/Final_1_-_top-12_forward_puck-handling.PNG ). A coach should be able to go to the video and show Briere the times he put Simmonds in a bad spot, or shot Simmonds the times he gave up the puck too easily.

    3) I think you’re right that a lot of these decisions are hard-wired reactions. But you’re acknowledging the role of coaches in that programming — telling everyone to avoid the blue-line turnover, telling the more turnover-prone guys to be particularly cautious. If it turns out that being less afraid of the turnover improves performances (and it’s generally been found to be true in all sports that coaches are too conservative), then coaches should be working to reprogram their players.

    • I think you are both right and wrong in some of the analysis of this data. The importance and value of carrying the puck in cannot be overstated in terms of the increase in offensive production.

      However, what Justin touches on is that players who dump the puck in more are often the lesser skilled players. There is a lot of difference between Claude Giroux and Zac Rinaldo, and putting those two players in the exact same spot carrying the puck in the neutral zone is not equal. Giroux has the talent to create an entry where Rinaldo does not. But bring that back further, Giroux’s ability will create more space for himself before the entry as well, as a more skilled player will be more skilled all the time, not just at the point of entry. Plays in hockey build, and the build from a series of plays by Claude Giroux (and his more talented linemates) is going to create more space in the neutral zone than a series of plays by Zac Rinaldo (and his less talented linemates).

      The other part lacking in the analysis of neutral zone stats are turnovers and the rate at which the other team gets clean entries. A player like Rinaldo attempting an ill advised entry would probably have a much higher rate of resulting in an odd man rush going the other way. This in turn would lead to more valuable entries for the opponents. So yes, Rinaldo might create more goals by carrying the puck in a lot more, but I would be willing to bet that he would also create more than enough chances against to outweigh the benefit.

      • I never said Rinaldo is capable of carrying the puck in as often as Giroux. I’m certain that isn’t true.

        What I’ve said is that if the coach is telling Rinaldo to dump the puck at the first sign of trouble, he is probably costing his team. I can suggest he should push the marginal opportunities a little harder without needing to believe he’ll ever get to Giroux’s level.

        You’re wrong to presume that the neutral zone analysis doesn’t look at the rate at which the other team gets clean entries. I’ve looked at exactly that — both at the rate of having the other team carrying the puck into the zone and at odd-man rushes in particular. All of the evidence points toward teams not being aggressive enough at the blue line, to being overly afraid of that turnover.

        Incidentally, don’t forget that the players Rinaldo is going against are likely themselves not particularly skilled, making his turnovers (like his scoring chances) not particularly dangerous. That cuts both ways. If he happens to find himself on the ice against Crosby, I want him dumping the puck and going for a line change, not playing dump and chase.

    • I see what you’re saying on Briere/Simmonds, that makes sense. I wonder if it was Briere putting Simmonds in a bad spot, or just Simmonds making bad decisions. Either way, you could request that Briere be a little more selfish with the puck on break-ins, for sure.

      Also, yes, coaches are definitely too conservative.

      Response was to your initial comments.

    • If I had to make a guess as to why Briere would rather Simmonds carry the puck, despite being worse at it, is because Briere knows Briere’s tiny and not particularly capable of absorbing checks, while Simmonds is a much bigger guy who can absorb a lot more punishment before going day-to-day.

      It’s probably sounds like I’m saying Briere’s soft, but that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is Briere’s small, slight and smart.

      Briere’s way, his line generates a few less scoring chances per zone entry. Your way, Briere plays 30 games.

      • To reiterate this point, I saw Briere get lit up exactly once this year (Kronwall did try to charge him, but Briere pretty much bailed, saving himself from damage), and he had to sit out two weeks with back spasms. Seems a pretty good reason to me for him to want Simmonds to be the one lugging the mail.

        While the Flyers would score more with Briere carrying the puck per minute he does it than they will per minute with Simmonds doing it while Briere’s on the ice, they’ll score more on the year with DB in the lineup not carrying the puck than they’re going to with DB laying in bed on an orthopedic pillow.

  2. This is great. I coach HS hockey and one of the most difficult things is teaching the kids how to recognize when to dump/carry/pass. If there is a situation where they lose the puck in the Neutral Zone and we tell them “you can’t lose the puck there, you’ve got to get it in deep,” sure as shit the next few shifts, no matter the circumstance, they dump it in. I love your three questions though- I think those are exactly the questions that need to be answered (quickly!) when handling the puck in the NZ.

    • Justin, It’s not really even three questions, because the third (c) should be coached into the player consistently throughout the year. They should know who they are, or what their role is on the team before hitting the ice. So you really only have two questions, in order:

      1) Do we Have Numbers? If yes, everyone is trying to carry it in or hit someone with the pass. Dumping is the last resort, but is still better than a turnover.

      2)We don’t have numbers – am I under immediate pressure? Follow the above.

      • Yeah, I thought the same thing.

        Even if you don’t have an odd man numbers (1v1, 2v2 or 3v3) unless you are immediately pressured at the blue line, you wouldn’t just dump it deep. I don’t think I ever had issues figuring out when to dump it or carry it in. Either you have the room to skate or you don’t so you look for a quick pass (after the blueline of course) or chip it in.

      • Great point, and that’s one of the key things I’m planning on addressing this season (my first after making the jump from asst. to head)- know your role.

  3. Justin, love your blog, love your stuff and Ellen’s, but I hate this headline. We have to stop using that word ‘reactionary’, it just suddenly appeared a couple of years ago, and everyone parrots it because they heard someone else use it. The term describes a person or movement or action that is extremely conservative, and reacts against a perceived flaw in society or politics. It doesn’t mean ‘reflex’.


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