The most important zone in hockey is the smallest.
Several studies released this month on numerically-minded hockey blogs have used manually collected information as well as the available data from the NHL.com play-by-play charts to determine this.
Eric T. of Broad Street Hockey and NHL Numbers wrote a terrific “wow” post that, if you missed, there’s an important takeaway: there is no substitute for moving the puck. Even the best offensive players in the league will do as well in the attacking end once they’ve gained the blue line:
The Flyers’ fourth line (Couturier-Talbot-Rinaldo) averaged 0.29 shots per time they dumped or deflected the puck in, while the top line (Giroux-Jagr-Hartnell) averaged 0.28. The fourth line averaged 0.56 shots per time they carried or passed the puck in, while the top line averaged 0.53.
The reason Giroux has a better shot differential than Rinaldo isn’t that he does more with each entry; it’s that he wins the neutral zone more often (more total entries) and does so more decisively (gaining the zone with possession).
If it’s true that the less-skilled players are being coached to just dump the puck in—and I suspect it is—then the coach might be doing more to limit their offense than their own lack of skill is. This is the kind of inefficiency that can be identified, fixed, and exploited to gain an advantage over the rest of the league.
The major difference, as shown by Eric, was that the elite players like Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr would gain the zone with puck possession rather than dumping it in often. There isn’t a number available to use to show a player’s success at doing this, since certain lines and teams are coached differently.
The way Eric came to these conclusions was that for every Flyers game, he counted every single time the Flyers gained the attacking zone and how they did. The publicly-available data helped him to determine what would happen next.
This is only available for the Flyers, but I think this is is something that applies to probably every single team except in certain rare cases. There’s just so little difference in shots per entry if the players carry the puck into the zone, whether they’re thugs or they’re exceptionally skilled players.
The next article that was written, yesterday by SnarkSD over at Fear the Fin, showed how teams do in the first shift after a face-off. The meat of the article lies in the penultimate table that shows that the improvements teams have in the first shift after a neutral zone face-off have a greater impact on the game than the first shift after offensive or defensive zone draws.
For the non mathematically-inclined, Snark was pleasant enough to write a few practical take-home points. The post is well worth taking 10 to 15 minutes to soak in, but here are the major points:
- Corsi after a neutral zone faceoff, without changing any skaters, is predictive of future success. Likely more so than Corsi after offensive or defensive zone faceoffs.
- Over 50% of “Corsi For” events happen after either an offensive zone faceoff win or neutral zone faceoff win.
“Corsi For” event refers to any team goal or shot—whether it was saved, missed or blocked—and that’s divided by the overall number of Corsi events on both sides to determine a team’s Corsi rate. All eight teams that took more than 52% of score-tied shots made the playoffs, while just one of the nine teams that took fewer than 48% didn’t. [Behind the Net]
The second point is tastier, though. Over half the offensive events a team will get come directly after a win in the neutral or the offensive zone and not in the defensive zone. My theory is that teams will do better if they have a specialized player to win defensive zone draws and get the puck to the neutral or offensive zones. From there, the offensive players will take over, the ones who are best suited to bring the puck into the zone.
Of course, that opens up a whole new can of worms. Perhaps it is easier to move the puck into the offensive zone with possession rather than leaving the defensive zone with it. Zone entries and exits will be the new standard next season for evaluating teams’ and players’ neutral-zone play. A lot of junior hockey clubs already designate a player to track a team’s success in getting the puck out of the zone, the next step is charting which players do it the best.
I feel like entries and exits are a spot where numbers and success rates sync up very well with Xs and Os. Coaches ought to work with players to ensure that their best method of entry is the one most often used, or the players with the highest success rates of entering the zone ought to carry the puck. It’s really prevalent in Toronto where there’s such a clear gap between the top and bottom players on the roster: Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel always seem to be the ones carrying the play, but there’s no public data on whether that’s true or not, just hunches.
A lot of Justin’s systems analyst or rec hockey tips are about what happens in the neutral zone. It’s the more tactical of the three ends, you have to worry about gap control, alignment, filling holes, creating spaces, all in an attempt to prevent the opposing team from entering the zone.
The community has had a lot of success in getting volunteers to count scoring chances for about half the teams in the league, but with the determination that scoring chances are not really better than Corsi for determining how teams or players fare, the next step ought to be about entries and puck touches.