Zone Exits & Breakouts: Chicago vs Nashville

Zone Exits and actions taken in the defensive zone are the most intriguing part of microstats to me. I am admittedly a bit obsessed with defensive systems and shot suppression so this is probably not surprising. Defensive zone microstats are key to evaluating players, systems and teams. They can help teams identify areas of weakness or strength in players. In turn, defensive zone microstats can be used to tweak systems to better exploit the strengths of the defensemen and insulate the risks associated with their weaknesses.

Here’s what I do to track defensive zone microstats:

I record every meaningful touch of the puck by the defending players in the defensive zone and categorize them. Incidental actions are not recorded because they create too much noise. I also record the situation in which the action is taking place. Is the team regrouping back behind the net to start a breakout? Is pressure being asserted by the attacking team? Once everything is tracked, I can then parse and analyze the data to get a better picture of how the players performed.

Below are the results of this tracking for the Nashville versus Chicago playoff series along with some analysis of the data. The situations included are for even strength play (5v5, 4v4, etc). (Quick Note: I’m sorry there isn’t more analysis with this right now. My life has decided to be really busy/chaotic lately and I just didn’t have time to get it all written up yet. I did some things with this data that are really neat and applicable to the entire league that I plan to write up soon, so stay tuned and thank you for your patience!)

DG PLAYER ID

FWDS PLAYER ID

**The following information is for even strength play only (5v5, 4v4, etc) and also empty net situations. All data herein was tracked, collected and analyzed by Jennifer Lute Costella. If you share this information, please give proper attribution as this information is not available publicly through any websites or organizations and represents the work product of Jennifer Lute Costella. You may click on each picture below to see a larger image.**

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Defensemen

Series Base Counts and Player’s Share of Defensemen’s Exits

EXITS BASE COUNTS NSH D

Defensive Zone Exits & Touches Rates (Per 60)

Defensive Zone Rates:

/60 = Per 60 minutes

CE/60 = Controlled Exits

UCE/60 = Uncontrolled Exits

CT/60 = Controlled Touches (Passes)

UCT/60 = Uncontrolled Touches

DZX/60 = Defensive Zone Turnovers

DZHX/60 = Defensive Zone Passing Turnovers

F/60 = Failed Exits

NZFX/60 = Neutral Zone Turnovers Created by Player

DZFX/60 = Defensive Zone Turnovers Created by Player

B/60 = Breakout (starting from behind the goal) Touches & Exits

EXITS RATES NSH D

Again, it is important to remember that in small samples, such as a 6 game playoff series, time on ice (TOI) heavily influences rate stats.

Forwards

Series Base Counts and Player’s Share of Forwards’ Exits

EXITS BASE COUNTS NSH F

When looking at turnovers, it is important to remember that players who have the puck a lot will also have more turnovers.

Defensive Zone Exits & Touches Rates (Per 60)

EXITS RATES NSH F

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Defensemen

Series Base Counts and Player’s Share of Defensemen’s Exits

EXITS BASE COUNTS CHI D

Defensive Zone Exits & Touches Rates (Per 60)

EXITS RATES CHI D

Forwards

Series Base Counts and Player’s Share of Forwards’ Exits

EXITS BASE COUNTS CHI F

Defensive Zone Exits & Touches Rates (Per 60)

EXITS RATES CHI F

BREAKOUT FORMATIONS

One thing that jumped out at me in terms of really obvious system differences between Chicago and Nashville was their approach to breakouts. Nashville pulled the defensemen back behind the net fairly often to wait for line changes to be done and then started the attack. This allowed D1 (player behind the net with the puck) to have lower pressure on him while the rest of the team got set to go on the offensive. D2 was most often stationed at the top of the faceoff circle on the halfboards.

D1 would pass to D2 and D2 then had three options. Option 1: Pass straight up the boards to a forward waiting to deflect the puck in deep (or more rarely, accept the pass and carry the puck into the zone). Option 2: Complete a pass to a forward near the middle of the ice in the neutral zone. Option 3: Make a cross ice pass to a forward speeding up the boards wide.  If the forward playing deep for Chicago pressured D1 into coming out from behind the net in a hurry, the same pass to D2 was often available or D1 could skate the puck up farther in the zone and pass to a forward in the neutral zone.

The main bonus to this set up is that it gives more time to the defensemen to read the coverage in the neutral zone. Because the first pass on the breakout is the most important, this conservative option is attractive. If the team has young or inexperienced defensemen working the breakout, this could be a major benefit. Further, have the net between the defenseman and the forechecking forward creates far less opportunity for turnovers. This system also pulls the forward who is pressuring the breakout deeper into the zone. If the defensive zone passes can be made effectively, that forward is even farther behind the play and thus the forwards in the neutral zone have less defending players to circumnavigate in order to gain the offensive zone.

The drawbacks of this set up are that it takes a lot of time and allows the players working the neutral zone forecheck extra time to read the play as the breakout starts. It also leaves a lot of time for the forwards in the neutral zone to lose their speed and momentum if they have to wait for very long at all for the pass out of their defensive zone. The highly structured nature of this method also discourages creativity from the forwards and defensemen. Creativity may be risky, but it is also a valuable tool to cause confusion among the players trying to defend the zone entry.

Chicago started their breakouts from behind the net at even strength less frequently. In fact, if Patrick Kane was not on the ice, they barely used this formation at all.  The majority of Chicago’s attacks started from a motion regroup high in the defensive zone. The defensemen rarely got as low as the faceoff dots during these regroups. This allowed Chicago to quickly launch a counterattack which gave less time for the neutral zone forecheckers to read the play and react. This type of system also cuts down on the loss of movement and speed by the forwards in the neutral zone. The danger of this system is turnovers. More than once during the series, a particularly aggressive forechecker was able to gain possession and get a scoring chance by picking the pocket of a defenseman or forward during a motion regroup.

Early in the series, Chicago used a drop pass play up the middle of the ice to create space for the forwards to carry the puck into the zone. This was in response to Nashville’s use of a style similar to the trap to defend entries. As the forward tried to skate the puck in, 4 players would form a collapsing box around him with one defenseman taking away the pass , a second defenseman engaging closely with the puck carrier (poke checking, holding the puck carrier up to  slow his momentum, etc) and the backchecking forwards applying pressure from behind.

This system is designed to create turnovers at the blue line. Chicago started running a breakout that had three forwards in the neutral zone with one of the defensemen skating the puck out of the defensive zone near the middle of the ice. As the defenseman skated up, one of the forwards (often Kane or Saad) would swing back into the defensive zone and come up behind the defenseman with speed. The defenseman would drop the pass back to the speeding forward while also engaging the stick or slowing up the forechecker closest to him.

This created space for the speeding forward to get through the neutral zone or to get a pass off to one of the forwards waiting near the blue line. This type of play is only really effective if the forward who will ultimately receive the drop pass is a real threat to carry the puck into the zone and also a passer capable of getting the puck to the forwards swinging wide in the neutral zone.

After Shea Weber went out with injury, Nashville had to modify their defensive pairings a great deal and while still formidable, their neutral zone forecheck became a little bit easier to get through. This allowed Chicago to return to a more straight ahead approach to gaining the offensive zone and as a result the drop passes were used far less.

Because I found this difference interesting, I took a look at whether these breakouts worked as effectively during the series as the motion regroups the teams used higher in the defensive zone.

ALL V BREAKOUT ENTRIES

Both teams actually fared better in gaining the offensive zone by using motion regroups as opposed to breakouts starting behind the net. Chicago and Nashville failed to enter the zone or, in dump and chase situations, to recover the puck after gaining the zone between 45-49% of the time when the teams elected to use a breakout formation originating from behind the net. Considering that both of these teams pride themselves on defending zone entries well, it is not surprising to see this kind of failure rate. The teams were each simply too prepared and well trained to be fooled very often when they had extra time to read the play.

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2 thoughts on “Zone Exits & Breakouts: Chicago vs Nashville

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