Something you may have noticed is that I've expanded my game recaps this year and have included analysis of both zone entries and zone exits. Why? Because hockey analytics are growing and there are enough tools out there for us to look at the game beyond just goals, points and stats that are tracked at arenas. I've always had kind of an obsessive personality and would rather have a good idea of everything that happened on the ice before I analyze a game, so I've been taking my stat tracking to a new level the last couple of seasons by charting both zone entries and zone exits.
If you haven't been following my recaps or need a refresher on the importance of zone entries, the basic gist of it is that more offense is created off entries that are done with control of the puck compared to ones that are done through dump-ins. Previous work done by Eric Tulsky, Bob Spencer and Geoffrey Detweiler illustrates this point well. However, there are still only a limited number of games tracked and we are hoping that more things can be revealed about neutral zone play in the coming years.
In my analysis of the Hurricanes last year, I noted that the Hurricanes were strong in the neutral zone early in the season, but began to play more of a dump-and-chase style game in the second half and saw their possession numbers decline with that. Injuries played a pretty big role in that, but I also believed some of it had to do with Kirk Muller's system. When Muller first arrived, he was all about getting the Hurricanes to play a more up-tempo game and usually gave defensemen the green light to jump into the play if they wanted to. As time went on, injuries and losses began to pile up and the Hurricanes reverted to playing a more "conservative" game with the defense & bottom-six mostly playing dump-and-chase.
The Hurricanes were still a positive possession team, but it was only because they were able to enter the zone more than their opponents during five-on-five play, and they were treading water in that department by the end of the season. Carolina had more overall entries than their opponents, but they were entering the zone with control only 48-49% of the time and allowing their opponents to carry the puck in regularly. Had that continued, they would likely be a sub-par possession team in a full-season if previous analysis on zone entries stayed true.
So how have the Hurricanes been in the neutral zone this year? Have they improved or have they gotten worse from last season? After the jump, we'll look at their performance through one month.
Overall, the Hurricanes performance in the neutral zone hasn't been very good. They have fewer entries than their opponents and when they do enter the zone, they are dumping the puck in a lot. This partially explains their mediocre possession numbers this year, as their overall shot attempt percentage has hovered around the 48-50% mark. To make things worse, the Canes are allowing a lot of shots off their opponents controlled entries, which doesn't bode well for them at all. However, an interesting observation here is that the Hurricanes are creating more shots off their own entries than their opponents, which is odd considering they dump the puck in a lot.
The reason for this is because the Hurricanes are creating a decent amount of shots off their own dump-ins compared to their opponent's. They are creating twice as much offense the times they do carry the puck in, but the Hurricanes aren't exactly being completely shut down when they do not. Muller seems to be emphasizing dump-and-chase play more this year, so I guess this isn't too surprising but I didn't expect Carolina to be outshooting their opponents overall. I'd still like to see the Hurricanes try to carry the puck in more since they have enough skilled forwards to be a better possession team than they are now.
Speaking of which, another interesting thing to look at is how much of the team's dump-ins are coming from defensemen. Some coaches instruct their defensemen to simply "get the puck deep" any chance they can get (John Tortorella & Claude Noel come to mind), which might drag down the team's numbers in some instances. I mentioned earlier that Muller encouraged his defensemen to jump into the play earlier in his coaching tenrue, is that true now?
It appears the answer is no, as Carolina's defensemen have had control on only 29% of their five-on-five zone entries. I'm not sure how this compares to other teams but overall, that's pretty low. Their forward average is also pretty low when you consider that they are more likely to carry the puck in on a regular basis. That said, the amount of shots the Hurricanes are creating off entries by their defensemen isn't drastically lower even though they are dumping the puck in a lot.
So, as a whole, Carolina's neutral zone play looks pretty mediocre. Now it's time to look at how each player has performed.
# of entries
Shots generated from player's entries
Shots per entry
% of entries with control
Well this is odd to say the very least. We are told that controlled entries are what leads to more offense yet, Carolina's top three players in terms of shots per entry are all guys who dump the puck in a lot. This could be just small sample size magic, but some of this does make sense. Take Patrick Dwyer for instance. He leads the team in shots per entry despite dumping the puck in a lot and his linemates play a large part in this. For the most part, he has been playing with Jordan Staal & Nathan Gerbe, two of Carolina's best players along the board and frequently win battles to loose pucks. So if anyone is going to be playing dump-and-chase, Dwyer should be one of them.
The Canes producing a lot of shots off Ron Hainsey is also interesting at first glance, especially since they are mostly dump-ins, but this isn't as surprising when you consider that he is usually playing behind Jordan Staal's line. These has been, by far, Carolina's best territorial unit this season and while it has yet to translate to points, they have creating a lot of zone time for the Canes thus far. In other words, Hainsey & Dwyer's strong numbers here are more reflective of their teammates play than anything because of how much they dump the puck in.
Ryan Murphy is another story. The young defenseman has always been criticized for his high-risk style of play and this chart does a good job of showing his value to the Hurricanes. Murphy has more carry-ins than any other defenseman and the Canes have been able to translate it into a decent amount of offense. His play in his own end is obviously a concern but Murphy is dynamic with the puck and the offensive side of his game was on full display during October.
Performance vs. Workload
This chart is pretty similar to last year's, as the Staal brothers & Semin are taking on a big workload in the neutral zone and have been able to carry the puck in frequently despite that. The only difference this year is that Eric Staal appears to be doing more heavy-lifting there than he did last season. He, and the rest of the first line, have taken a lot of heat for their "slow" start but he and Semin should be fine if they continue to win the battle in the neutral zone. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Jiri Tlusty, who looks like a complete passenger this season.
Both Jordan Staal and Nathan Gerbe have accounted for approximately 20% of Carolina's forward zone entries and it appears that Jordan is the one making that line go. Although, Gerbe's performance hasn't been bad when taking his workload into consideration. I'd like to see him carry the puck in a little more often, though. This statement can be applied to the rest of the team's forwards.
Aside from the Staal brothers, Semin, Skinner, Ruutu & Lindholm, every Carolina forward has dumping the puck in a lot this year and I suppose some of it relates to Muller's system. He seems to want the bottom-six to just "get it deep" and play more of a puck retrieval game instead of carrying it in and risking a turnover at the blue-line. I don't have much of a problem with that, but I think players like Tlusty and Bowman should be carrying the puck in more, as they have a decent amount of skill and are capable of making plays on their own.
Going into the year, my hope was that Murphy could take over Joni Pitkanen's role in the neutral zone and well...he's done that and more so far. I can't remember the last time the Hurricanes had a defenseman who jumped into the play as often as him and while it has led to some scary moments, Murphy really adds another element to this team. With so many forwards dumping the puck in, it's nice to have a high-risk defenseman like Murphy on your roster.
If anyone has been more comparable to Pitkanen, it's Andrej Sekera. He is no Ryan Murphy, but his control entry rate is around the same as Pitkanen's last season and has been very solid as a mobile defenseman early in the season. As for his partner, Justin Faulk, his neutral zone performance is about the same as it was last year, although he is playing a bigger role now. The rest of the defensemen have been dumping the puck in on over 85% of their entries, which isn't too surprising when taking their skillsets into account.
There are some positives with Carolina's neutral zone play, mostly concerning their top players, but there is definitely room for improvement overall. Hopefully things start trending in the right direction tonight against Tampa Bay.