All Three Zones Overview: Zone Entries/Neutral Zone Play

In case you missed the news, I’m going to be tracking stats for every NHL game in the upcoming season. I’ve used this data extensively in my analysis of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and have spent the last week giving everyone a sneak peek of what I’m going to be tracking, but I have yet to explain what exactly I’m going to be doing. There is a glossary page which goes over the stats I track, but I thought it would be helpful to go over them again and give some practical examples to show how the data can be used to help teams with game planning or fans understand certain hockey systems. Tracking data and analyzing it has been a big help for me learning about the game and I think others can take something away from it as well.

Today’s topic will be zone entries, something that has been the base of most of my work. I started tracking these during the 2011-12 season after reading some articles from Eric Tulsky, currently an analyst with the Carolina Hurricanes, and used them extensively on my old blog, Shutdown Line, for game recaps and most of my articles. I also tracked a season’s worth of zone entries for the entire NHL in 2014, so they are clearly something I’m well versed in. Why so much focus on zone entries, though? We’ll get into that and a lot more after the jump.

The Basics

The whole process of tracking zone entries is very time-consuming but the general guidelines are pretty simple. All you do is track whenever a team entered the zone, which player made the entry and whether they did it by carrying the puck or dumping it in. There are also some entries where neither happens (i.e. a missed stretch pass or a turnover in the defensive zone) and these are logged with their own special category and omitted because we are only looking for plays that happen in the neutral zone. In addition to this, I also track which player on the defending team was guarding the blue line at the time of the entry and a few other things that I’ll get into later.

Zone entries are looked at with such detail because neutral zone play has a big role in teams winning & losing the shot battle, which leads to them outscoring their opponents more often than not. This was something Tulsky studied and made a presentation on at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in 2013. After looking at data from a few hundred games played over the 2011-12 season, it was determined that entries done by carry in lead to twice as many shots as opposed to ones done by dumping the puck in. This intuitively makes sense because teams are more likely to create shots off the rush and setup plays when they immediately have possession after gaining the line instead of dumping the puck in and trying to get it back. He also determined that the ability to carry the puck into the zone is a repeatable skill & something that can be used to predict future success when it comes to teams creating & preventing more shots.

More work has been done on entries since then and the general findings have stayed the same. Carrying the puck into the zone is more optimal, but there have been a few things added to it. For instance, Ryan Stimson of Hockey Graphs combined my zone entry data from 2014 with his passing data and found out that while controlled entries lead to more shots, controlled entries combined with passing plays lead to shots with a higher chance of scoring than ones without it. He also determined that generating these types of entries is a repeatable skill and worth looking at further. It could possibly single out some players who have a talent for this and weed out players who carry the puck in a lot but waste their possession by immediately taking a low-percentage shot. It’s also worth looking at on the defensive side of things because there could be some defensemen who yield a lot of carry-ins but end plays along the wall or shortly after the forward gains the blue line. This was something I hadn’t tracked before, but I will be adding it for the upcoming season.

What data will be available?

Here’s an overview of what is going to be available after every game last year:

  • Zone entries (# of entries, carry-ins, dump-ins, etc.): These are your basic stats and will tell you how successful each player was at carrying the puck in.
  • Shots per entry: This will show how successful each team & player was at creating offense after entering the zone.
  • Passes: Notes whether or not there was a successful pass to a teammate after the player entered the zone.
  • Zone Entry Defense: Notes which player was defending the blue line at the time of the entry. Will note how often he was targeted, how many carry-ins he allowed, how many shots were created off entries against him and how many passes he allowed after an entry.
  • Dump-in Recovery: Notes which player on the attacking team recovered a puck that was dumped in, if at all.
  • Location: Notes which area of the ice the attacking team entered the zone and how often they did it. You can break this down to see how often they were able to carry the puck in on each area of the ice, as well.
  • Raw data: The game sheets with the raw data will also be posted after every game. I’ve posted some of these for the preseason if you’re interested in looking at them.

How can I use this data?

All of this sounds cool, but how can fans use it? Everything is going to be available for download, so people can do whatever they want with it, really. Raw data, game sheets, etc. are all going to be freely available no more than 1-2 days after each game is over and can be used as long as proper credit is given. That said, the sheets can be pretty cumbersome and it’s tough to figure out where to start when you’re just given a bunch of numbers, especially for people who are new to this. To help out, I tracked a random game from last year (which ended up being Arizona vs. Minnesota from 12/11/15, much to my luck) and did a mini-breakdown to show how this data can be used in game situations.

Minnesota-Arizona Example

Arizona won this game in overtime 2-1 but were outshot 34-28 at even strength and had to play from behind from a bit. There was a point in the second period where they had only five total shots on goal and according to Hockeystats.ca, they went long stretches in this game without generating a shot. Arizona still won thanks to a power play goal in overtime, but you can see that they struggled to create much all game. The Wild weren’t much better, as it was a low-event game, but they had a slight edge in the possession battle at even strength.

What can zone entry data tell us about this game?

arimin

The entry stats match what happened in the game pretty closely. Not much offense for either team and the Coyotes struggled to get much going at all, dumping the puck in on almost 65% of their entries and not recovering the puck on many of them either. Arizona obviously has a lack of talent on their roster and probably resorts to playing dump-and-chase out of necessity but even their more talented players couldn’t do much here. The Duclair-Tikhonov-Domi line was held to only five total entries at even strength all game and Tobias Rieder only carried the puck in on one of his four entries. The Wild made it as difficult as possible for them to get up the ice as a group and it led to a lot of solo missions with one player being surrounded by two defenders, giving them no choice but to dump the puck in.

You can see by the individual stats that it was a team-wide problem:

arimin2

The bottom-six dumping the puck in isn’t a surprise and while the top-line had some moderate success, the whole unit struggled overall. The Tikhonov line in particular had a tough game and one of Arizona’s best puck-handlers in Max Domi was held to only one entry. How did that happen? Again, the Wild made it tough for Arizona to get up the ice as a group and they made it especially difficult for Domi’s linemates to get him the puck.

duclair

Here you can see the Coyotes attempting to start a breakout and Anthony Duclair is already surrounded by three Minnesota forwards. They were playing a pretty aggressive forecheck two guys pressuring the defense, but had another layer of defense waiting up the ice just in case the Coyotes got through. Duclair managed to do that and he was still caught in a bad situation. You can see Domi trying to help out, but Duclair doesn’t have many options here.

duclair-2

Duclair tries to go up the ice on his own but the defenseman, Matt Dumba, plays the body on him and this play results in a dump-in. The Coyotes have Domi racing into the zone at full speed, but this probably wasn’t their first option to enter the zone with their most skilled line. Arizona made some quick adjustments later in the shift because they starving for offense (note the shot count) and this is the type of line that would give them a spark. Using their speed & skating the puck up the ice wasn’t working, though, so they had to stretch the defense out a little. Or at least attempt to.

duclair-3

The Wild, again, are coming at Arizona with two forecheckers and the defenseman sends the puck off the boards in hope of getting it to one of the forwards.

duclair-4

They get this part of the play right, as Duclair bumped the puck to Tikhonov and Arizona’s ready to move up the ice. You can see Domi at the bottom of the screen camped out past the red line. Going by the player’s body language & direction, it’s pretty obvious what they’re trying to do: spring him for a stretch pass and hope he can beat the defenseman one-on-one at the blue line. The Wild saw this coming, though and the high forward, Erik Haula, has his stick in the lane so it’s probably going to be a turnover if Tikhonov tries to make that pass.

duclair-5

The play quickly shifts and Tikhonov makes the easier pass to Duclair. Haula tracks this play well, though and he has no lane to enter the zone unless he dumps the puck in, leading the Coyotes right back to where they started.

duclair-6

Duclair has to dump the puck in yet again and this play ends up exactly the same as the last one. Arizona tried this a few times with their first line too and the result ended up being the same. They also tried to make stretch passes to get through the Wild’s forecheck but their defense corps doesn’t pass the puck well enough, especially on the right side. They tried moving the puck from right to left quite a bit (mostly to get the puck to Domi & Rieder on their strong side) and they just weren’t making the passes. More of a personnel problem than a system issue, obviously. They did try to get around this by activating their defense in the neutral zone, but the results weren’t much different.

dahlbeck-1

The Wild’s forecheck has backed off a little, going with more of a 1-2-2 look instead of a 2-1-2 and you can see Arizona try to get through this by having the left defenseman, Klas Dahlbeck, move up the ice with speed. Not a bad strategy, as adding another attacker to the rush can confuse a defense and create something when you’re struggling for offense.

dahlbeck-2

Dahlbeck runs into a similar road block and has to dump the puck in. If he made a pass in the neutral zone, maybe this rush ends different, but it didn’t and Arizona, once again, has to regain possession. Like I said before, it’s probably more of a system issue for the Coyotes because they have two skilled lines and a defense that lacks puck movers & solid passers. Dahlbeck was probably doing as he was instructed here because he plays a simple game and isn’t that good of a play-maker. Minnesota clearly game planned for Arizona well and they had to dig deep into their playbook or hope for a break to get through Minnesota’s defense. This eventually happened when Rieder sprung Boedker for a breakaway goal after the Wild turned the puck over in the offensive zone, but the Coyotes had to wait for mistakes like that to create much of anything.

So, we can infer a few things about the Coyotes neutral zone strategy:

  • They initially tried to use their speed to their advantage and get up the ice as a group. This didn’t work because the Wild had an aggressive forecheck and blocked off most of their passing lanes.
  • They adjusted by having one forward fly the zone but this didn’t work either because the Wild had a high forward blocking off most of their passing lanes. They tried using stretch passes later but these didn’t work because they either missed or weren’t handled cleanly
  • They activated their defense but they couldn’t make plays in the neutral zone because they weren’t skilled enough, outside of Ekman-Larsson.
  • Arizona’s only hope was to wait for Minnesota to make a mistake in the offensive or neutral zone and they generated most of their offense this way. Tough way to play, but it was enough for them to tie this game and win it in overtime on a power play goal.

This is just scratching the surface on what we can do with this data because there’s a lot of interesting things to look at with Minnesota’s zone entry stats. If you refer back to the initial chart, you’ll see that they also dumped the puck in quite a bit. Not as often as the Coyotes, but they still only carried the puck in 44% of the time and also had some issues manufacturing offense. You might also noticed that they favored attacking the left side of the ice a bit more, entering the zone 32 times on that side compared to only 20 on the right. Considering that some of Minnesota’s more skilled players play on the left wing, Zach Parise in particular, it’s not terribly surprising and when you break down Arizona’s defense, it’s pretty obvious that this was a strategy.

Arizona’s top pairing is Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Michael Stone. The former has a reputation of being one of the best in the league and plays on the left side, so Minnesota would be attacking from their right when going up against him. Stone, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly as much respect from opponents and the Wild seemed to key-in on him when they attacked Arizona’s defense.

arid

The Wild did whatever they could to take Ekman-Larsson out of the game by just avoiding his side of the ice completely and forcing Stone to make a play. It’s tough to say how much control a team has over this during a game, but it sure looked like the Wild made a point of challenging Stone. It’s also interesting because they only did this against Arizona’s top pairing.

Their plan was pretty obvious from the get-go, as even their third line was challenging Stone’s side of the ice and making it difficult for him to defend his blue line.

coyle-1

Here you see the Wild starting a breakout with numbers coming up the ice and they are already overloading the left side. It’s easier for them to do what they want to here because it’s essentially a three-on-two and Arizona can’t funnel them to Ekman-Larsson’s side of the ice.

coyle-2

They eventually get a little more deliberate with their attack and Coyle makes a pass to Vanek as the Wild get an easy entry into the zone. The play has developed into a two-on-one and Stone has to sit back and watch the play develop because the Wild have a free pass on their goaltender if he goes for an aggressive play and misses.

coyle-3

Vanek continues into the zone and a pass seam develops with Justin Fontaine entering the zone. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Vanek had tunnel-vision and made a play towards the net instead of looking for Fontaine. The Wild had the right idea in mind here. They were able to get to the weaker part of Arizona’s top defense pairing and got a pretty good entry out of it. The execution just wasn’t there.

Despite this, Stone didn’t do that bad of a job even with the Wild consistently going after him. He allowed the Wild to carry the puck in only four times on ten attempts and they generated merely three shots when going up against him. Stone also broke up two entries at the line, so he had a pretty effective night with the increased workload.

He deserves a lot of credit for his play, but Arizona also made some adjustments to help him out and make his job a little easier. Tippett has likely seen this movie before, too. Arizona’s defense is pretty thin outside of Ekman-Larsson and other teams have probably tried to do something similar when playing the Coyotes. What adjustments did he make? It’s all about adding forward help. There wasn’t any of it in the last example because most of them were caught deep in their own zone, but Arizona had more of a handle on things later in the game.

stone-1

You can see the Wild try to overload the left side of the ice again but the Coyotes have more players in position, and they can’t challenge Stone as easily as they did earlier. Ideally, Coyle would make a pass to Justin Fontiane to get into Arizona’s zone here, but Tikhonov is draped all over him and Stone can play more aggressive at the line.

stone-2

Frustrated, Coyle tries to get into the zone by himself and Stone makes a play to break it up, drawing the Wild offside and ending their rush. Minnesota kept going back to this all game and while they had some minor success with it, they weren’t getting into the zone as easily as they were before and the Coyotes were prepared for what they were trying to do. They ended up getting outshot in this game, but they did a pretty good job of limiting the Wild after they fell behind 1-0. They might not have the horses to make all the plays they wanted to, but they could defend well and it at least kept them in this game.

Conclusion

There’s more we can dive into with neutral zone play with just this game alone, but I feel like this is good for an introduction. You can see how we used this data along with some game clips to illustrate both team’s strategies in the neutral zone and what adjustments they made as the game went on. With more data we can use this to get a better idea of each team’s systems, every player’s skillsets and how they do in certain situations. Gathering all of this data takes a lot of work, though and I probably won’t have time to do analysis like this for every game. However, I will have the data from every game posted over the course of the year and I’m excited to get to it.

I need to go at this full-time in order to do everything I want to, so if you want to help, please considering buying a subscription to my Patreon page or make a donation to my GoFundMe page to keep this project going. I want to keep everything free, but it might be hard depending on how much support this project gets. I also want to do something cool/special for donors/subscribers, so I’m open to ideas there.

Tomorrow we’re going to look at passing stats & individual shot contribution.

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One thought on “All Three Zones Overview: Zone Entries/Neutral Zone Play

  1. Pingback: All Three Zones Overview: Passing | The Energy Line

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