The Vicious Cycle of Conservative Defensive Structure

In the Defensive Zone and even in the Neutral Zone, recovering the puck requires an aggressive mindset. Everyone can recall a time when a player made a bid to get the puck from an opponent only to miss and be caught out of position defensively. These are usually seen as reckless plays because the other players did not anticipate the risk that their teammate was going to take and scramble to cover for him. There is a way to avoid this though. A defensive zone system that builds in aggressive puck recovery ensures that the other players will shift their coverage to fill in for the player who is battling to get the puck. These systems take an “attack the puck” approach to defensive zone play. They provide for support on the boards to battle for the puck as well as a “recovery position” player whose job it is to retrieve the puck when it comes out of the board battle.

Building fail safes into the defensive zone system turns what is often viewed as a reckless abandoning of defensive position to make a play for the puck into a systematic approach to puck recovery and helps avoid players being caught drastically out of position. When this systematic approach is not used, teams often start to think they need to tighten up their defensive zone coverage because these reckless plays are resulting in players being caught out of position and the attacking team taking advantage of that to get a better shot on net. This essentially creates a vicious cycle of more and more conservative play in the defensive zone. *click the image to enlarge

conservative dz structure

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Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Puck Recovery

Overview: Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits

SHOT GENERATION AND PUCK RECOVERY

IN THE OFFENSIVE ZONE

When a team enters the offensive zone the obvious goal is to, well, score a goal. Scoring goals requires taking shots. Teams that excel in generating shots have a common habit in the offensive zone: Puck Recovery. These teams aren’t “gaming Corsi” just to trick stats analysts into thinking they are good teams. The spreadsheet darlings of the hockey world control the puck and when they can’t keep possession of it, work like hell to get it back.

Situations requiring puck recovery are numerous in every area of the ice. There are three main ways to go about recovering the puck, which are sometimes used in concert to regain possession, are:

  • Being Quick to the Puck
  • Checking (hitting and/or body position)
  • Anticipation

In the Offensive Zone, puck recovery is the best way to generate shots, wear down the defense and create “mini-rushes” within the zone much as power plays are designed to do. After the play has been low in the zone, the defending team gets possession of the puck and starts to breakout. The attacking team is able to recover the puck before it leaves the zone. With most of the defending players high in the defensive zone or in the neutral zone, there are less bodies available to defend against an offensive attack. This leads to better scoring chances and oddman “mini-rush” situations.

Once the puck is in the offensive zone, the attacking team has to regain possession if they have gained entry by a dump in or chip in. Chipping the puck in requires speed, timing and far more control than a dump in. Some players really excel in this area because of the lines they take, their speed and ability to deceive the defending players. If done properly, the chip in is essentially a pass to the player himself or his linemate providing close support. Dump in entries require the attacking team to use their offensive zone forecheck system to retrieve the puck. This includes waves of pressure on the defending players, speed to the puck and depending upon the situation, hitting. Continue reading

“Watch the Game, Nerds!”

Hockey has long been a sport in which hard work is cherished as the ultimate virtue. You certainly won’t find me arguing that players and coaches do not need to work hard, but somewhere along the line, an undercurrent of distaste for intelligence has developed. Using analytical tools to evaluate players and teams has been met with suspicion and often even hostile disapproval.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about all intelligence being frowned upon here, just the kind that comes from the mouths of those that have never played the game at the NHL level. Intelligent analysis or strategy from “hockey guys” is of course granted a place of almost mythical honor in the sport, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that hockey rejects smartness as a whole. It’s more that hockey often demands that you have the appropriate level of street cred, or rink cred, I guess, in order to be considered to have intelligence of any actual value.

The heart of the now years long stats vs anti-stats battle lies in this mentality. Traditional analysis in hockey tends to put the most stock in experience and knowledge gained from years of playing the game. Statistical analysis in hockey tends to put the most stock in the gathering of data and analysis based there upon. “Watch the game, nerds” and “Your eye-test sucks” spring from the perceived disconnect between those two sides.

Traditional analysts see statistical analysts basing opinions of a player’s skill or value on numbers and perceive a lack of “hockey knowledge” in the results of a computation. This hockey knowledge has in many cases been built through playing the game at an elite level or being part of the game for many years. No one wants to feel like their hard earned skills are not unique or special and are easily replaced by a nerd behind a computer who didn’t have enough talent to play the game. What they usually mean when they say “Watch the Game, Nerds” is “Watch the game the way my years of experience tell me to watch it. Value the qualities that I value.” Continue reading

Zone Entries, Exits, Targets CHI vs ANA

The following data was tracked from Game 5 of the Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks series. Given that Game 7 is also at Anaheim, this information may be useful for insights into how the matchups on Anaheim’s home ice affected the teams’ performances.

*All data herein was tracked by and is the work product of Jennifer Lute Costella.*

PLAYER ID GUIDE

ana chi g5 roster

ZONE ENTRIES – EVEN STRENGTH

The following data is for 5 on 5 play only during Game 5 in Anaheim. Dump ins include chip and chase entries as well as traditional dump ins from the neutral zone. Carry in entries include both entries accomplished by carrying the puck into the offensive zone on your stick as well as a short direct pass from the neutral zone to a player entering the offensive zone. The player making the pass is credited with the carry in for that situation.

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Clearing the Defensive Zone: The Dangers of Dumping the Puck Out

Over the course of the season, I and others have often talked about the importance of defensive zone exits. On numerous occasions, we have debated (on Twitter) the pros and cons of simply getting the puck out of the zone to relieve offensive pressure versus starting a proper breakout play. People often argue that because players are tired at the end of a shift, particularly one where they have been actively defending for an extended period, simply getting the puck out of the zone without icing helps the team.

Ways the puck leaves the defensive zone:

  • Happenstance: a pass from one offensive player to another misses and the puck ends up in the neutral zone causing the attacking team to regroup and restart their attack;
  • Controlled Exit:
    • Carry Out: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and skates it across the blue line;
    • Exit Pass: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and makes a tape to tape pass to a teammate in the neutral zone;
  • Uncontrolled Exit:
    • Dump Out: One of the defending players gains control of the puck and shoots it into the neutral zone:
      • Missing the intended target;
      • Without an intended target, i.e. simply to get the puck out of the defensive zone;
      • To execute a line change.

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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.

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Breaking Down Chicago’s Defensive Breakdowns

As the season creeps ever closer to the finish line, the Blackhawks have started a home stand that many thought would bring a nice points boost in the jam packed Central Division. After the first two games, Chicago had one point from a shootout loss against the Arizona Coyotes and a point from an overtime loss against the Vancouver Canucks. At the same time, the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues continued to gain points.

Chicago’s daily topic of conversation has revolved around the defense. Michael Rozsival and Johnny Oduya have come under heavy scrutiny all season, but at this point, fans have just had it with them. Both players have had rough seasons for Chicago and deserve some criticism to be sure, but Chicago’s problems go deeper than one bad defense pairing.

ZONE EXITS

One of the most noticeable problems has been on zone exits. When trying to exit the defensive zone, the defenseman will often win the puck from the attacking team near the boards. At this point, it is time for a breakout play to move the puck up the ice. Virtually every breakout play used when the defense is under pressure in the defensive zone (i.e. not simply moving the puck back into the defensive zone to regroup with perhaps one forechecker pressuring) involves moving the puck up the boards to a waiting forward. There is usually too much pressure and congestion for a defenseman having just won the puck from the attacking team to simply skate the puck out of the zone. Trying this with heavy pressure often leads to turnovers and players being out of position to effectively execute their defensive zone assignments.

Once a defenseman has won the puck, he must quickly read his options and his defense partner must do the same. D1 is the defenseman with the puck and D2 is his partner. D2 will usually call out the breakout play so that D1 can quickly complete whatever maneuver he needs to make to begin the breakout. Whether the breakout is an Over, Wheel, Reverse, Rim, Up, etc…, the defense ends up moving the puck to a forward at or preferably, above the faceoff circle near the boards. This cuts down on the risk associated with making a cross ice pass with heavy pressure from the attacking players in the defensive zone. This also requires the defending forwards to keep a sharp eye out for what the defensemen are doing so that they can move to the correct position to receive the puck and break out of the zone.

Very often recently, Chicago’s forwards have not been ready to execute the breakout when the defensemen have retrieved the puck. You may have noticed recently when one of Chicago’s defenseman has gained possession of the puck and moved it up the boards where he expects one of the supporting forwards will be waiting, there is no one there but one of the point men for the opposition. The puck is held in the zone and the whole process starts over again. Not only is this sustained zone time problematic because it obviously leads to more shots against and chances for the opponent’s to score, but it has another effect as well. When there has been a board battle, particularly when it is below the faceoff circles or near the end boards, the defensive formation tends to collapse down toward the net creating a lot of congestion and traffic. The intention here is to put sticks and bodies in passing lanes near the net. This isolates the players in the board battle so that if the attacking player wins the puck, he has very limited options to move it to a better shooting area.

One way attacking players try to create shooting lanes when the defensive formation is compressed or collapsed down low in the zone is to move the puck back up high in the zone. This causes a lot of movement by the defensive players and provides an opportunity for the attacking players to find a lane to get a shot off. What has been happening to Chicago quite often is this: the defensemen win the puck low in the defensive zone, they move it up the boards where a forward should be waiting to carry on the breakout, no forward is present, the puck ends up on the stick of the opponent working the point, the defensive formation has to shift from low in the zone to high in the zone, passing or shooting lanes open up during this transition, the opponent is given the opportunity to get a better scoring chance. Essentially, the defense is doing the job of the attacking forward by moving the puck back to the point and decompressing the collapsed defensive formation because the forwards are not ready to execute their part of the breakout.

This is not entirely the forwards’ fault. The defensemen are well conditioned to execute these breakouts almost as a reflex. Quick decisions with the puck are a necessary skill of any NHL defenseman, but if the forwards are not ready to break out of the zone, blindly rimming the puck up the boards will not work. Just because a forward is pressured along the boards does not take away the forward as an option, so continuing the play and relying upon the forward to win the puck is not a bad plan.

Again, the big problem I have seen repeatedly in recent games has been the blind passes up the boards when no forward is present to battle for the puck. The additional problem with this is that when the defenseman looks to see if a forward ready to help and finds none, he has to decide what to do. That extra second or two holding the puck low in the zone is a recipe for disaster. Still under pressure from the attacking team, the defenseman must now either skate the puck to another location or find someone to pass it to. Standing there hesitating invites turnovers and poor decisions, so it is imperative that the forwards get to the right spot and that the defensemen make a quick decision for “plan B” to avoid these problems.

NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK

Another area of concern is combating the breakouts of the opponent. One of the Blackhawks biggest strengths last season was shot suppression. This season, shot suppression has been a real struggle for Chicago. One of the tools used very effectively last season was the neutral zone forecheck. Not only did the defensemen pressure the puck carrier trying to enter the offensive zone, but the forwards in the neutral zone did as well.

Chicago often uses a 1-2-2 formation with various motions therein to combat the opponent’s attack. One forward plays in the defensive zone to take away passing lanes and pressure the puck carrier to make a poor decision or force the puck carrier to pass into a specific area where other forecheckers are waiting to close off the routes into the offensive zone. This cuts down on controlled zone entries, which are known to lead to more shots against and offensive zone pressure.

At times this season, Chicago’s neutral zone forecheck has looked impressive and the efficacy of the system they use has shown in the stifling of their opponent’s zone entries. At other times, the system has been exploited by teams skilled in stretch passing or has outright broken down because of missed assignments, players being caught flat footed and sloppy play in the neutral zone.

I manually track Chicago’s zone entries and zone exits among other things. This data, often referred to as microstats, helps paint a picture of how effectively the team and their opponents are getting into the offensive zone and getting out of their own zone. Below, I have included data from 5 games in January of 2015 so that we can explore what this information tells us about how the team is performing. The games include Arizona (1/20/15), Pittsburgh (1/21/15), L.A. (1/28/15), Anaheim (1/30/15), and San Jose (1/31/15).

Below is a table of data from my tracking regarding Chicago’s defensemen. It is important to keep TOI (Time on Ice) in mind while looking at raw numbers. Players with more ice time will have higher numbers of course. The data in the chart directly below is during 5 on 5 play only. I track all situations, but this is the largest share of the data and most useful for our purposes here.

21415 table 1

 At 5 on 5, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook played the most minutes during this stretch of games followed by Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival, Duncan Keith and David Rundblad. Hjalmarsson and Seabrook handled the lion’s share of faceoff duties in all three zones and particularly in the defensive zone. Rundblad was used very sparingly on faceoffs and then almost always out of the offensive zone. Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Keith were paired with Oduya and Rozsival sporadically during games on a shift by shift basis, usually when Rundblad was not being used.

In order to make the data above more palatable, I have converted the values into percentages. The first table below breaks down each type of entry as a percentage of the player’s total entries against. So for example, of the 51 times (100%) that Keith was targeted on an opponent’s zone entry, 12 times the puck was carried in resulting in 23.5% of Keith’s entries against being Carry Ins.

21415 table 2
Rundblad had the lowest Carry In Against % of the defensemen, but also had the lowest number of targeted entries against because of his rather limited ice time. The thing that stands out the most here is Rozsival’s stat line. 43.1% of the time that he was targeted by the opposition as they entered the attacking zone, they were able to carry the puck in. As we know, carrying the puck into the zone historically produces more shot attempts than dumping the puck in and trying to get it back. The really interesting thing here is that in tracking this data, I also track whether a forward was able to assist in pressuring the entry through the neutral zone forecheck or aggressive backchecking.

21415 table 3

As you can see, the percentage of carry in entries against the defensemen occur largely when the defense does not have the assistance of any forwards through either the neutral zone forecheck or aggressive backchecking. These are often situations where the defensemen are forced into a retreating type of coverage to take away the center of the ice and wait for reinforcements in the defensive zone. If the defenseman gets too aggressive in pressuring the entry in this situation and fails in his endeavor, his defense partner will end up defending the play on his own. That is a risk that teams try to avoid obviously. This also shows that when a forward was able to help pressure the zone entry with the defenseman, for the most part, the opponent was not able to carry the puck into the zone and either the entry failed or became a dump and chase situation.

When we look at the percentages from a comparative perspective, i.e., of the six defensemen, what percentage of the total was each responsible for, we start to see a fairly clear picture of what happened during this 5 game span.

21415 table 4

39.1% of the carry in zone entries where a forward was there to help pressure the entry with the defenseman came against Rozsival. He also had the highest share of the carry in entries against him when no forwards were there to assist. The highest shares of the entries that failed with forwards assisting in pressuring the attacking players belong to Oduya, Keith and Rozsival.

When the defenseman was on his own to thwart the attacking player’s attempt to enter the zone with the puck on his stick or by passing it to a teammate, Seabrook had the highest share of successfully defending against the entry. Hjalmarsson was close behind him with Oduya in third. Keith was last in this category, but again he had the second lowest ice time and targets as well during this period of time.

When we split up the team total in each category of zone entry, we can see which defensemen were responsible:

21415 table 5

So, from this information, we know that during this recent span of time, Rozsival had the most obvious struggles keeping opponents from entering the attacking zone with control of the puck. Despite being 4th on the 5 on 5 TOI depth chart, he had the highest share of the controlled entries (carry/pass in entries) of the defensemen. Oduya had the highest share of pucks being dumped in against him, but also the highest share of those dump ins being successfully retrieved. Seabrook had the highest share of failed entries against or put another way, had the most success at denying the attacking player to get into the zone. Both Hjalmarsson and Oduya had impressive marks in this regard as well.

Once the attacking team gained the zone during these games, how did Chicago get the puck out? Zone exit data can help us explore this. I only know of a handful of people who track exit data and all of us seem to keep track of different things, so frankly it is tough getting any comparison data around the league to give a decent gauge here. The only thing we can really do at this point is compare Chicago’s players against each other with the understanding that particularly when it comes to forwards, the defensive formation and breakout formation being used at the time will influence who is carrying the puck out of the zone.

Below is a table showing which players were responsible for getting the puck out of the defensive zone. Many of these plays happened after other players forced turnovers, made good passes or got the puck to an area of the ice where a teammate could retrieve it so I have included those as well. They are broken down into controlled and uncontrolled actions. The controlled actions include passing in the zone, carrying the puck out of the zone and passing the puck out of the zone. The uncontrolled actions include tossing the puck to an area of the ice where a teammate is likely to retrieve it and dumping the puck out of the zone.

21415 table 6

As you can see, during this span of games and frankly all the time, the defensemen are largely responsible for moving the puck in the defensive zone.

21415 table 7

The table above shows the percentages for the touches by defensemen only. The more the puck can be moved while under control the better. Many of the actions I have labeled as “Dump Outs” are actually passes to players in the neutral zone that missed their mark and carried on into the attacking zone with forwards in pursuit. Others include simply shooting the puck out of the zone and causing the opposition to have to go back, retrieve the puck and regroup in their own defensive zone.

When passes into the neutral zone miss or the puck is dumped out and icing is called, this is considered an unsuccessful zone exit and is not included in the data above. Below is a table of turnovers in the defensive and neutral zone forced by Chicago players and committed by Chicago players. Again, the defensemen are largely responsible for getting the puck back from the attacking players and moving the puck in the defensive zone so it is expected that they would have higher numbers in these areas.

21415 table 8
For the defensemen, the passing turnovers are largely due to trying to move the puck to an area of the ice where the player believes one of his teammates will be waiting to receive it. This is particularly good evidence of the problems Chicago has had on breakout plays under heavy defensive zone pressure that I referenced at the beginning of this article. 74 of the 97 passing turnovers were committed by the defensemen. This also includes passes into the neutral zone from the defensive zone that went directly to the stick of an opposing player allowing the attacking team to immediately put the puck back in, i.e. failed zone exits.

Another troublesome indication from the table above is the lower number of turnovers forced by Oduya. While he may not have had the struggles Rozsival had on zone entries during this span of games, his inability to get the puck from the opponent allowed them to have more zone time. Another thing to keep in mind here is that often during this period of games, once play was stopped after the goalie made a save, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook were brought on to handle the defensive zone faceoff. This pairing has borne the brunt of the defensive lapses committed by their teammates as a result.

The recent call up of Kyle Cumiskey and the injury to Rozsival may alter the dynamics of the defense enough to stir up some changes in how the team is playing, but the systemic issues facing the team on zone exits will require a larger adjustment. It remains to be seen how long Rozsival will be out of the lineup, but if the defensive pairings show an improvement in their play without him, the right move will be to keep him out for a while longer. He is an older player with a history of injuries that have caused significant wear and tear and affected his skating. Rozsival has good instincts and still makes good plays, but it just seems that his age and mileage are catching up to him. He certainly tries to make the plays that made him a valuable defensive asset in the past, but simply cannot physically perform in the manner necessary to be as effective as he once was.