Back To Basics: Offensive Zone Entries

When I first got into writing about hockey, I did some primers on stats to help people learn. I haven’t done much of that in the past year and recently some hockey people asked if I would be willing to do some more, so basically it’s their fault if you don’t like this.

If you are newer to the statistics side of hockey, you may not know what all the fuss is about with regard to zone entries. Analysts on TV will often preach about the virtues of “getting the puck deep” during games, but on your favorite hockey sites or Twitter, you’ll see analysts yelling about carrying the puck into the zone. Who’s right? Which way is better?

Dumping the puck into the offensive zone is a common tactic when teams are trying to get a line change done, so these are not usually tracked by analysts interested in zone entries. The team dumping the puck in is not giving chase, save for perhaps one forward and that is simply to buy time for the line change to get done.

When teams are on the offensive attack, they have several options for getting the puck into the offensive zone.

Controlled Zone Entries:

Carry Ins: The puck is carried into the offensive zone and control of the puck is maintained well past the blue line.

Passes: The puck is passed from one player to another as the attacking team enters the offensive zone with control of the puck maintained well past the blue line.

Uncontrolled Zone Entries: 

Dump & Chase: The puck is shot into the offensive zone, often by a defenseman, and the attacking team goes on the forecheck to get possession of the puck.

Chip & Chase: The puck is angled off the boards or chipped around the player defending against the entry with the attacking players hot in pursuit. The puck does not go all the way to the end boards, but instead is like an indirect pass to another attacking player or the player who chipped it in the first place.

Turnover Entries:

The defending team retreats into their own defensive zone with the puck usually to buy some time and set up an offensive attack through a regroup or controlled breakout. After bringing the puck back into their own defensive zone, a player from the other team forces a turnover or intercepts a pass thereby gaining possession of the puck in their offensive zone.

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My “Nontraditional” Path To Hockey

Growing up in rural Northwest Indiana (about 45 minutes outside of Chicago), we didn’t have cable TV. Basketball, baseball and football were the staple sports in my family. My dad coached basketball and tried his best to make me a much better player than I really was. I watched or listened to Cubs games with each of my grandfathers. Every Sunday was devoted to watching Bears games. I’ve played a lot of sports throughout my life, but focused mainly on equestrian sports for a long time.

Hockey was not a very big part of my life then. Blackhawks games were not on regular TV stations so casual viewership wasn’t really an option. Even in high school in the early 90’s, I was little more than a casual fan of hockey. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really started devoting any of my time to regularly watching hockey. In February of 2013, I joined Twitter because there was a contest to win Blackhawks game tickets on CSN Chicago. I know that seems hilarious, but it’s the awful truth. I quickly found there were lots of people like me who followed hockey on Twitter and started trying to figure out where I fit in that community.

Over the summer between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, I started learning about “fancy stats” as they were so often called then. I thought it was a cool way to gain more understanding of the game I had come to love. In late November of 2013, I had a bunch of thoughts in my head about hockey that were too long for Twitter so I created a blog on WordPress. I was just going to post that one thing and be done with it. The post was about Brandon Pirri and Chicago’s longstanding search for a 2nd line center, in which I gave Pirri the “fancy stats” treatment. I really thought only 3 or 4 people would read it, we’d discuss it on Twitter a little bit and that would be the end of it. As with so many things in life, it didn’t really end up that way. Continue reading

Puck Possession, A Potentially Misleading Principle

Over the years, analytics in hockey have grown and evolved. Shot metrics and measures that provide context to them have become part of the standard toolbox used by many inside and outside of NHL offices. The principle of puck possession, while known to the hockey world since time immemorial, has taken on a whole new level of importance with shot metrics gaining in popularity.

Shot metrics were initially* explored in an effort to discover a decent proxy for time of possession in hockey. Much like you see in other sports such as football, people wanted to get a better handle on quantifying how often and for how long specific teams had the puck as opposed to playing defense, i.e. time of possession. The thought process here was fairly logical. Because the objective in hockey is to score goals, having the puck is better than not having it.

Shot metrics, such as Shots On Goal, Shot Attempts (Missed, Blocked, On Goal) and Unblocked Shot Attempts (Missed, On Goal), were explored as ways to potentially find measures that could reproduce time of possession without necessitating a person with a stop watch timing every possession in every NHL game. As it happened, a strong correlation was found between those metrics, particularly Unblocked Shot Attempts, over the course of the regular season, and success, namely landing a spot in postseason play. That correlation provided confidence in the reasonable reliance on these metrics as tools to measure the strength of teams.

Teams which show well in these metrics are often called “strong possession” teams. “Puck possession” has become a commonly used term and is the generally accepted phrase for the modern approach to achieving success in hockey. “Puck possession” is a bit of a misnomer though in its current usage.

Teams spending long periods of time in the offensive zone, or possessing the puck, is good right? Not necessarily. It’s certainly better than constantly being hemmed into the defensive zone, of course; however, simply having the puck in the offensive zone (passing, running the cycle, i.e. what many term as “puck possession”) is not what has been established as having a high correlation to success. Shot generation (creating shots toward the net) and shot suppression (preventing shots toward the net) are actually the metrics that have been linked to success.

Regardless of how long teams spend in the offensive zone, if they are passing and failing to generate shots, they are not exhibiting the hallmarks of success because they are not generating shots toward the net. If you try to visualize this, these long periods of possession often resemble a power play. The attacking team gains the offensive zone, establishes a cycle and passes the puck numerous times looking for a “perfect shot” instead of creating multiple shot attempts during the possession.

The common thinking that may be leading some teams to this is that a shot toward the net creates the opportunity not only for a goal, but for a rebound or miss that could be collected by the defending team and thus necessitate getting back on defense themselves. It may be that some coaches feel long periods of possession, despite a lack of shot generation, are a form of shot suppression or at the very least, in keeping with the principle of puck possession. Technically, this is true; however, the teams using this form of possession often seem to be lacking in solid defensive systems.

Shot suppression is not achieved simply by keeping the puck out of your defensive zone by holding it in the offensive zone. Every team in existence has to get back on defense. Denying the attacking team’s entry to the offensive zone, aggressive backchecking, sound and well executed breakout plans from the defensive zone and the like are far more effective in achieving shot suppression than trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone for extended periods of time. These strategies are also more effective for shot generation because they are all ways to help the team get back on the offensive attack using a quick transition.

It is intriguing to think that the quest for a good proxy for time of possession has actually led to a finding that success is not really a matter of time of possession, but a matter of shot generation and suppression, which are far more complex than simply being in the right zone of the ice.

Teams like the Colorado Avalanche seem to understand the long held tenet of “puck possession”, but have attempted to adhere to that principle using the possession time strategy as opposed to the shot generation/suppression strategy. The Avalanche are not the only example of this in the NHL to be certain. It probably isn’t a coincidence that they use systems which, on their surface, seem in keeping with the principle of puck possession, but which, upon closer inspection, display a failure to grasp the true meaning of the principle.

As the decision-makers are afforded a more informed, nuanced approach to the principle of puck possession through the adoption of shot based analytics, it will be interesting to see the changes made to their strategies for adhering to that principle.

*Shot metrics were explored for several reasons initially, not simply for time of possession. Work was done to see what meaning shot metrics and scoring chances had within the game of hockey by bloggers in the Edmonton Oilers fan base after learning that the team tracked scoring chances. Thanks to Garret Hohl for mentioning this to me so I could edit and include this for the sake of accuracy.

Keep the Conversation Going

Recently, I wrote about how issues regarding sexual assault, abuse and violence are tough to grapple with as sports fans and received an overwhelming response from men and women saying they were feeling many of the same things. Yesterday I posted a few things on Twitter regarding sexual assault statistics and applied them to hockey. I have included those below.

I make a lot of space for hockey in my life and so I thought that may help me and other fans get a better handle on this overwhelming societal issue. Many of the responses I got completely ignored the societal issue and instead were filled with accusations that I was holding one sports star out as a “sacrifice to the movement” despite the fact that I did not refer to him in any of those posts.

It seems like many are having trouble seeing the difference between the necessity of reevaluating the way we as a society view sexual assault, abuse and violence, and the guilt or innocence of one sports star. The discussion so many people have been having this summer and for years prior is about centering victims and tearing down the barriers that so often keep them suffering in silence. Continue reading

On a Personal Note

**Quick word of warning: this deals with the Patrick Kane situation so if that is not something you feel you want to or can delve into, please do not read.**

First things first. I want to make it absolutely clear that my feelings as a sports fan are pitifully irrelevant when compared with anything victims of abuse or assault go through. My intent here is not to diminish victims’ experiences in the slightest.

My intent is just to get a few things off my chest and I freely admit they are entirely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I’m just writing this because I find writing things out to be cathartic. Read or don’t read. Care or don’t care. It’s entirely up to you. I’m not trying to teach you a lesson or telling you how to feel. I just need to write this down so I can start to process it.

If you would have told me in June, right after the hockey team I’m a fan of had won the Stanley Cup, that I’d feel like this on the first day of training camp in September, I wouldn’t have believed you.

From the standpoint of my forays into trying to be an “analyst”, I am still excited for hockey season to start. From a team specific fandom standpoint, I find myself filled with anxiousness, but not in a hopeful kind of way. I’m not saying I’m right to feel this way, because I don’t know if I am. I’m not saying anyone else is obligated to feel this way either. Right or wrong, I just know it’s how I feel. Continue reading

Competitive Advantage: Putting 2 and 2 Together

With expansion plans in the works, the NHL and the teams that comprise it are under pressure to increase revenue. Sports are entertainment and in the entertainment business, fun is money. It’s not rocket science to link a rise in the number of fans to a rise in the amount of money coming in. Every team in the NHL wants to win. Even the teams that have been rumored to have tanked for attractive draft picks want to win, albeit just a little bit farther in the future. All things considered, winning, or even the hope of winning, is good for the bottom line.

Hockey teams are businesses comprised of human beings. Most human beings, like it or not, allow their feelings about a person to dictate how much latitude and gratitude they are willing to give. If a player is well liked, works hard and listens to the coach, the coach will often like that player. That player will get more latitude for the mistakes he makes and more gratitude when he does something well.

The coach’s feelings about a player will often direct his eye away from the player’s deficiencies and toward his strengths. This works the opposite way as well. If the coach is not very fond of a player for whatever reason (preconceived ideas of the player’s skill level, work ethic, personality, etc…), he is more likely to see that player’s mistakes or shortcomings than his talents. This is often referred to as “confirmation bias” and it is just basic human nature inside and outside of sports.

The problem with this part of human nature is that it leads to decisions based on skewed information. Looking at this through the lens of hockey as a business, this can have a negative impact on the bottom line. The business of sports is about gaining a competitive advantage and confirmation bias often hinders this. Gaining a competitive advantage when management and coaching are not on the same page can be a monumental chore.

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