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.