If you’ve even been to a “Legends of Hockey”-style old-timers game, you may have noticed a certain, distinct style of play from the old ex-NHLers. It stems from what I believe they would describe as “a general disdain for forechecking,” if you caught them to talk about it before their post-game beers so they could still capably use words like “disdain.” They don’t find working hard to retrieve something they already have appealing. Who does, really?
When they push it up on the rush and find that the d-men are pressuring them before the blueline, they swing it back to their defensemen. They loop back then forward again, looking for the eye of a needle to thread a puck through, don’t see it, then regroup again (usually just the puck regroups, they tend to be too lazy to come all the way back). By then the other team is chasing out of position, the next rush finds a seam, and the puck’s in the back of the net. They’re almost soccer-esque in their attack. Games end 9-2 in favour of 55-year-old ex-pros against 25-year-old firefighters because they control the puck, pick their spots, and don’t dump it in.
As a general rule in hockey, dumping the puck in is never ideal. The goal of the dump is to get the puck in your opponent’s zone then regain possession (while avoiding a turnover), so if you can cut out a few of those steps and just have possession in your opponent’s zone, you would (plus you have it while attacking on carry-entries, as opposed to cycling). The problem is, NHL players are too good to just allow you easy zone access when they have numbers back, and they’re too good to simply run the puck back to your d-men after a stymied rush so you can swing up again like the old-timers. You almost never want the puck moving backwards in the pro hockey game, so when you approach the opposing blue and get cut off, your ideal situation is the soft chip or the hard wrap with puck support – you want to put the puck in a place where your team has the best chance of retrieving it. You don’t want to have to navigate the neutral zone minefield a second time.
Over the past few years hockey’s advanced stat community has done some research on zone entries, specifically the excellent Eric Tulsky of Broad Street Hockey and NHL Numbers, who presented this paper at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I’m not great with numbers, but I’m trying to keep up because I’m terrified of becoming the old guy yelling about plus-minus while the majority of people inside and outside hockey have long since dismissed the weight it used to carry. Anyway, I recognize from a player’s angle, just as Eric did as an analyst, that entering the offensive zone with puck possession gives you a lot better chance of scoring than the dump. Numbers, eyes, common sense, same page.
Here’s the chart from his Sloan paper that shows the data he came up with after a year of research. They charted the Flyers/Wild for a full season, the Caps and Sabres for half-seasons, and the rest of the league for 7-10 games each. Read the rest of this entry »