Winning the battle of the neutral zone is an instrumental part of winning game strategy. Control your blueline by foiling zone entries and exploiting the other team’s weaknesses in defending theirs and teams will produce better shot generation and suppression.
Zone entries gained prominence with landmark research conducted by Eric Tulsky, when ‘advanced stats’ were on the rise to prominence. Tulsky is now Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes. To further understand the impact of neutral zone play, click on the link above and read through the pdf document. It’s a treasure trove of information.
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CARRY IN PERCENTAGES
The emphasis on hitting the offensive blueline with four players has forced defensemen to activate and participate. You will hear the phrase ‘four at the line’ a lot more in the upcoming season by coaches and analysts, understanding the necessity to have mobile and active defensemen. By position, of course, forwards comprise a greater percentage of zone entry attempts. I wrote about that in more details here, but will go back and analyze anew the theory, as new data becomes available.
In regards to data, it was amassed by Corey Sznajder – who has a patreon page for this gargantuan effort and invaluable service. Along with zone entry data, there’s a glut of passing data accessible through the Patreon that I will address in a future writing. This is 2017-18 data and doesn’t encompass the entire season. A different amount of games were tracked for different teams. Offering percentages in this situation, will potentially be with small sample sizes.
In accordance to the changes in the way defensemen are being used, I have an interest in their carry-in percentages. Blueliners aren’t just skating the puck out to the center red line and dumping it in for forwards to retrieve. While they don’t normally lead the rush, they’re more active in a transitionary capacity more often now, as teams ignite the transition from non-controlled breakouts.
Defensemen are isolated in the table here, with some interesting names among the leaders in carry-in percentage.
Ottawa youngster, Thomas Chabot in an NHL audition in 2017-18 generally performed exceptionally well when trying to take the offensive blueline. He rarely made a pass across the line, with no results to show for his efforts, unable to generate a shot on goal from his entries.
Still, this small window offered a glimpse into Chabot’s potential and with Erik Karlsson now having moved on, he becomes the best mobile option on the Senators blueline.
It’s no surprise to see Connor McDavid topping the list of successful carry-ins by centers, with his skill, and speed of execution, but this list features some fascinating names.
Islanders sophomore phenom, Matt Barzal, put on display his ability to skate and gain the line as a rookie, and ranking second on this list is impressive. Once again, shots off entries weren’t necessarily a strong suit, however that speaks to the talent around him as well.
Left wingers are led by the Flames dynamo, Johnny Gaudreau, a puck wizard with skating and stickhandling ability to weave his way through traffic and blueline pressure.
Brandon Saad finally scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday night against the Ducks – and then scored his second shortly after – and has struggled offensively since his return to Chicago. He ranks high on this list. Former Blackhawks winger, Vinnie Hinostroza is another player listed here, and performances like this can be potentially one of the reasons he was acquired by the Coyotes.
Vlad Namestnikov is one of the greatest examples of a ‘pump and dump’, placing him alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos to bring up his box car stats and even some of the microstats. They traded him to the Rangers as a result – and he hasn’t been exactly the same.
Two prominent Maple Leafs appear on this list, further illustrating the explosiveness available up front to get into the offensive zone. Mitch Marner is gaining the blueline in 59.3% of carry-in attempts, which seems a little low considering his ability to get pucks passed the first engagers and into the zone. The other Leaf, William Nylander has yet to come to terms with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
DEFENDING THE ZONE ENTRY
Teams are finding new ways to defend their blueline, including methods that begin at the opposition blueline in the event of a turnover. The Athletic’s Justin Bourne outlined how retreating defenseman will charge the puck carrier through the neutral zone before they even get to the blueline for the zone entry, aggressively trying to get the puck back – the essence of defense – in a safer matter.
Aggressiveness is a key attribute to keeping pucks out of the defensive zone, but it can’t be done independently of proper support. Blueliners can’t charge puckcarriers at center ice if there isn’t someone to cover up in case the effort to get the puck back fails.
More names will get bandied about as being proficient in maintaining the blueline with staunch attention to thwarting opposition zone entries. Or, at least offering enough obstruction to weaken the chances of a play occurring in the defensive zone that leads to a scoring chance.
For me, defensemen are only as effective defending the blueline as their support. Combining good sticks, reach and anticipation, in one-on-one situations, defensemen should have the advantage over forwards where speed isn’t an overlying factor. Defending even-man situations offer similar forms of aggressive attack of puck carriers.
In odd-man situations the back end will retreat deeper into the neutral zone rather than stand up men at the blueline, even with backside pressure. Backside pressure capitalizes on quickly starts to the transition and the dance continues back the other way until a team makes an error that ends up in their own net.
I’ll go a bit deeper into zone entries and exits with a focus on defense pairings in a future writing. For the purpose of today’s post, an introduction to the data, how it is tracked and some of the usages was key.