Pat Holden contributes regularly to Russian Machine Never Breaks. His work has also appeared on The Washington Post and ESPN.com.. You can follow him on Twitter at @pfholden
Analytics inroads into the NHL, as well as portions of the NHL’s resistance to analytics, has been well documented. While a statistic like Corsi, or shot attempts, is not a strategy, but instead a tool to evaluate players, there are some instances in which analytics have crossed over from a tool to evaluate players to a tool to inform strategy. This is probably most true when it comes to zone exists and zone entries.
Eric Tulsky did a lot of the early work on zone entries, and Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones Project continued to break ground on zone exits and entries. For those not familiar with the work, the quick and dirty takeaway is that it’s generally better to not relinquish control of the puck, with a clear or a dump in, on exits and entries.
Bridging the often exaggerated divide between analytics and strategy is one of the next big steps in the process of analytics coming to hockey, which is why the headway made in regards to zone exists and entries is particularly noteworthy and encouraging. Part of doing this is showing plays that embody what the data supports.
Recently, the Washington Capitals scored a goal that was a great representation of why controlled exists and entries are preferable. A few caveats before taking a look at the goal and breaking down the decision making on the play
Sometimes it is a better decision to simply dump the puck out of the defensive zone, giving up possession. However, in general, this will lead to less puck possession than exiting the zone with control of the puck
Sometimes it is a better decision to simply dump the puck into the offensive zone, giving up possession. However, in general, this will lead to less puck possession than entering the zone with control of the puck.
To build any sort of sweeping conclusions or broad narratives off of any singular play (or game) is erroneous. The point below isn’t “See, controlled exists and entries are great because they worked this one time for the Caps.” Instead it’s more “this play includes a really nice example of what the data supports regarding zone exists and entries, and it ends in a goal.”
The plays starts with the Caps winning the draw just outside of their own zone. The puck comes to Mike Green’s (indicated by the vertical red arrow) backhand and two Stars’ forecheckers (indicated by the two green arrows) begin to pursue him.
This is a situation where the easy play for Green might be the safest play. That being, he could backhand the puck out of the zone to the empty ice on the far side boards. A less skilled player may have made that play. But Green, under forechecking pressure, calmly swings the puck to his forehand and sends a bank pass off the right side boards to Troy Brouwer (indicated by the horizontal red arrow), who has gotten himself open in the neutral zone.
Brouwer gathers in the pass. The pass was a little behind him, so as he turns up ice, he’s flat-footed, with two Stars defenders (indicated by the green box) blocking his path into the offensive zone.
Despite the puck being on his forehand and facing the middle of the ice, the most obvious play here for Brouwer is to dump the puck in rather than risk a turnover on entry. Those familiar with Brouwer’s skill set would likely predict that he’d dump the puck in more times than not when faced with a situation like this.
But he doesn’t. He passes to Evgeny Kuznetov (indicated here by the horizontal red arrow). Kuznetsov, who performs poorly as the first option on power play entries for the team’s second unit, does beautifully on this even strength entry.
Once in the zone, Kuznetsov dishes the puck to Curtis Glencross, who puts home his own rebound.
This isn’t to say that controlled exits and entries are always the best play. And indeed, the high risk play will sometimes result in a dangerous turnover. But the data shows that giving up possession on exits and entries is generally detrimental to a team’s success over the long haul. On this play, the decisions by Green and Brouwer aligned with what the analytics say are best, and the Caps just so happened to score a goal on the play.