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Zone Entries and the Red Wings

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Jared Wickerham

As so-called "advanced stats" that are not very advanced at all start to go mainstream, even here at WIIM it's safe to say most readers are comfortable with Corsi as a tool to measure player performance. We're pretty comfortable here with the idea that if the Wings drastically outshoot the other team with one player on the ice, he must be doing something right. However, there are many more developments in the hockey stats world, and one of them is a greater understanding of what happens when you carry the puck into the offensive zone versus when you dump the puck in. A couple years ago at the Sloan Sports Conference, Eric Tulsky (who has since been hired by an NHL team) presented a paper which concluded that entering the zone with possession resulted in two times as many shot attempts as when you dump the puck in. The obvious conclusion is two-fold:

1) If you want to increase your shot attempts, you should carry the puck into the offensive zone as much as possible.

2) Players who are exceptionally good at carrying the puck into the offensive zone and maintaining possession are extremely valuable, and in turn this means they are significantly aiding in driving possession while they are on the ice.

I'm over-simplifying a bit here, but these are important things

The first objection may be to ask what of the LA Kings - who have spent the last couple years at the top of the league in possession despite playing a lot of dump & chase hockey. The answer is - yes, the LA Kings don't carry the puck into the offensive zone as much as other teams. Do you know who carries the puck in even less? The answer is whoever the Kings are playing against. While LA isn't exceptionally good at carrying the puck in with possession, they are as elite as it gets at preventing the other team from doing so, which is why shot attempts for LA games are notoriously low. The point is that winning the neutral zone battle is key, and measuring offensive zone entries is a nice way to measure which team is outplaying the other in the neutral zone. To give you an idea of how much carrying the puck in with possession means, the Red Wings managed .66 shots every time they carried it in, while managing just .27 shots every time they dumped it in.

For our purposes, though, we're just going to take a look at the offensive side of things for the Wings today. Which Red Wings forwards are best at entering the zone with possession? Normally this would be nigh- impossible to answer without tracking every single game. As it happens, there is a blogger named Corey Sznajder who goes by the handle @ShutdownLine on twitter who is doing exactly that this summer - he is watching every single game from this entire season for every single team and tracking zone entries and exits. I've donated to his project, and from some contact with him I've been able to get my hands on Red Wings entry/exit data for the first 48 games + the nightmare game against Carolina at the end of the season - so 49 games of data. Considering a key player like Nyquist only played in 27 of these games, it's admittedly a very limited sample size. Given this, we'll definitely plan on revisiting this once we have a full season's worth of numbers to look at, but I think we can take a good look at what we've got so far and learn some things.

First off, let's just start real simple and look at forwards and see what percentage of their offensive zone entries were successful carry-ins. I was going to pick minimum 100 carries as our qualifier, but Weiss had 98, so I chose that as a minimum. Here they are, sorted by percentage, but also including total number of zone entries to get you an idea of sample size since injuries and not starting the season on the roster is skewing the samples quite a bit.

Name # of entries # of entries with control
Datsyuk 233 72%
Nyquist 103 65%
Tatar 196 63%
Zetterberg 240 57%
Weiss 98 54%
Franzen 144 50%
Bertuzzi 119 50%
Cleary 184 45%
Andersson 127 44%
Alfredsson 202 43%
Miller 164 38%
Abdelkader 228 38%

It should immediately wow you that Nyquist and Tatar are way up there between Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Datsyuk is one of the best in the entire league at this skill, and Zetterberg is considerably above average. Somewhere around 50% or a tad lower is pretty average, so that's a significant jump. I'm really interested to see where these numbers shake out once we have the full season's worth of data, but this should intuitively make some sense. We've noted here before that whenever somebody gets to play with Tatar or Nyquist, they get a notable bump in possession. In this sample of data, the Wings generated .57 shots per Nyquist entry (whether by dump or carry), while they generated just .44 shots for every Joakim Andersson entry. Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot, but let's project that over the course of a full season. Nyquist was on pace for about 400 entries of any kind over the course of the season. In a world where both players had 400 entries, Nyquist's entries would be worth 52 more shots over the course of the season, or 4-5 goals. That's probably worth 1-2 points in the standings, which means the Wings play a much more beatable Pittsburgh team in round 1 instead of the Bruins.

For fun, let's take a quick glance at the defense. Most of the time you assume forwards are carrying the puck in, and defensemen tend to be more dump-happy. With the Red Wings it seemed like a worse than normal problem - the team just seemed to completely lack solid puck movers on the back end. Well here's a look at how frequently each of them carried it in during the half-season sample.

Name # of entries % of entries with control
Smith 92 47%
Ericsson 56 29%
Kronwall 73 19%
Lashoff 33 18%
Kindl 77 17%
Quincey 99 16%
DeKeyser 60 10%

All hail Brendan Smith. Can you look at this list and take a stab at which of these guys increased the corsi of every player he played with? Of course, that was Smith too. The clincher is that Brendan Smith attempted to carry the puck in and failed only 6.5% of the time, which was the best rate on the entire team regardless of position. So not only is he attempting to carry it in a lot more than the rest of the defense, he's also succeeding far more consistently.

Most interesting to me was to see the Quincey/DeKeyser pairing come in at the bottom of the list, with DeKeyser in particular very prone to dumping the puck. It's been documented around here that these two struggled in possession far more than they should have (especially when paired together), and perhaps we've identified here a good area for improvement. That of course doesn't necessarily mean they should be forcing a carry-in of their own every time, but perhaps when these guys are on the ice they're a little too willing to make the "safe" play and dump it in. This seems to suggest they've been a little too safe, and their poor possession numbers back that up.

This is just meant to be a birds-eye view, but we're going to take a few more looks at this data while we wait for actual hockey things to commence. If you're like me and you're very interested in supporting Corey's project as he painstakingly watches well over 1,000 hockey games, he has a page where you can donate here. It's a nice way to contribute to the increase in hockey knowledge that this project will give us. All stats used here are courtesy of the All Three Zones project.