2013-14 Zone Entries: Which Sharks excelled at carrying the puck into the offensive zone?

We take a look at just how successful the Sharks were when it came to entering their opponents' third of the ice.

Analytics have been a hot topic of discussion in the hockey world this summer and while shot-based possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick remain the stats du jour, the next frontier is undoubtedly breaking those statistics down into their component parts. Knowing which teams and players are good at puck possession is important and one of the best available predictors of future performance but figuring out and quantifying the factors that drive success (or lack thereof) in that area would be particularly useful. Since there aren't SportVu cameras installed in every NHL arena (yet) to generate the data necessary for that next step, manually tracking events that repeatedly occur in games is an effective if time-consuming way to unearth new information. Perhaps the most useful of these events, at least based on preliminary analysis, are offensive zone entries.

The idea to track zone entries was hatched by former Broad Street Hockey writer and current mystery NHL team employee Eric Tulsky. In analyzing a large sample of NHL games, Tulsky found compelling evidence that a team's shot differential at 5-on-5 is largely driven by their performance in the neutral zone. Specifically, teams usually generate about twice as many shots and goals when they enter the offensive zone with control of the puck as opposed to dumping it in. While conventional hockey wisdom tends to favor getting the puck deep and establishing a forecheck to retrieve it, Tulsky's study seemed to suggest teams that frequently resort to dump-and-chase may not be running an optimal strategy. In order to find out whether these trends persist for the Sharks as well as to identify which players are most responsible for the team's neutral zone performance, I spent last season tracking zone entries in every Sharks game.

Every time a player entered the offensive zone during 5-on-5 play in a Sharks game last season, I noted who the player was and the method by which he entered the zone (whether by carrying or passing it in for a controlled entry or dumping or tipping it in for an uncontrolled entry) as well as the time remaining on the game clock when the entry occurred in order to merge my findings with the NHL's play-by-play files to yield data on how many shot attempts resulted from each entry. Plays in which a team dumped the puck in to execute a line change were excluded. I also tracked failed entries in which a player attempted to gain the offensive blueline with control of the puck but was denied by an opponent. Below is a detailed breakdown of the results.

Team data

Team Total Entries Shots Per Entry Controlled Entries Shots Per Controlled Entry % Of Entries With Control Dump-Ins Shots Per Dump-In Failed Entries
San Jose 4960 0.51 2309 0.68 46.6 2651 0.36 648
Opponents 4939 0.43 2425 0.6 49.1 2514 0.27 662

Curiously, despite ranking third in the league in 5-on-5 possession, the Sharks were not a particularly effective neutral zone team. Where they made their hay was once the puck got into the offensive zone as San Jose generated an above-average number of shot attempts on both controlled and uncontrolled entries. Defensively, the team allowed an above-average number of shot attempts against when their opponents carried the puck in but that did not follow over to uncontrolled entries, where the Sharks allowed a slightly below-average number of shot attempts against.

It's their percentage of 5-on-5 entries that came with control of the puck where the Sharks were far below-average, falling well short of where we'd expect a team with their possession numbers to be. Although they generated more offensive zone entries than their opponents on the whole over the course of the season, they generated substantially fewer entries while retaining control of the puck than they yielded.

David Johnson of Hockey Analysis conducted an interesting study of the correlation between what he calls "Net CarryIn%" (essentially the percentage point difference between a team's proportion of 5-on-5 controlled zone entries for and against) and regular season success that demonstrates how much of an outlier the Sharks were last season in this regard. The vast majority of playoff teams gained the zone with control of the puck more often than they allowed their opponents to while the Sharks were one of the very few net negative neutral zone teams to have a successful year.

So how did the Sharks manage to be an elite outshooting (and outscoring) team despite a sub-par performance in the neutral zone? As mentioned, the rate at which they generated shots off dump-ins was above league average, much like other good clubs that tend to favor dump-ins such as the St. Louis Blues and that slightly successful team down in Los Angeles. Also like the Kings, the Sharks were able to generate shot attempts at an above-average rate on those occasions when they did gain the blueline with control. Additionally, though it isn't shown in the table above, San Jose generated an average of 0.6 shot attempts per offensive-zone faceoff (i.e., in the time between a faceoff and when the puck left the zone, as estimated by the next recorded zone entry) while only yielding an average of 0.4 shot attempts against per defensive-zone faceoff.

Still, despite the Sharks' success at retrieving dump-ins, it's undeniable that gaining the blueline with control of the puck should still be their preferred method of entry. San Jose generated nearly twice (about 1.9 times) as many shot attempts on their controlled entries as they did when dumping it in. The optimist's view here is that the Sharks could be an even more dominant possession team in the coming season if they're able to improve their neutral zone play and either carry the puck in more frequently, allow their opponents to do so less frequently or both. This is where in-depth analysis of video would come in handy, both to identify situations in which the Sharks could stand to be more aggressive at either blueline and to perhaps gauge if a link exists between their reliance on dump-ins to generate shots and their historically low 5-on-5 shooting percentage.

Forward data

Player Total Entries Shots Per Entry Controlled Entries Shots Per Controlled Entry % Of Entries With Control Dump-Ins Shots Per Dump-In % Of Entries That Failed
Joe Pavelski 359 0.51 202 0.63 56 157 0.34 20.8
Marty Havlat 197 0.46 121 0.54 61 76 0.33 15.4
Andrew Desjardins 239 0.47 109 0.63 46 130 0.34 24.3
Patrick Marleau 419 0.54 234 0.65 56 185 0.41 22.8
Raffi Torres 10 0.60 8 0.38 80 2 1.5 20.0
James Sheppard 271 0.52 140 0.62 52 131 0.42 19.1
Mike Brown 106 0.32 33 0.48 31 73 0.25 40.0
Joe Thornton 411 0.54 207 0.65 50 204 0.42 19.1
Adam Burish 29 0.31 13 0.62 45 16 0.06 23.5
Bracken Kearns 87 0.41 26 0.58 30 61 0.34 29.7
Logan Couture 321 0.55 182 0.70 57 139 0.37 16.1
Matt Pelech 7 0.14 1 0.00 14 6 0.17 66.7
John McCarthy 104 0.41 40 0.68 38 64 0.25 24.5
Tomas Hertl 170 0.51 86 0.59 51 84 0.43 30.6
Tommy Wingels 385 0.52 172 0.71 45 213 0.37 20.7
Freddie Hamilton 37 0.43 15 0.60 41 22 0.32 34.8
Eriah Hayes 48 0.42 16 0.69 33 32 0.28 15.8
Tyler Kennedy 341 0.50 159 0.79 47 182 0.26 20.5
Matt Nieto 235 0.60 131 0.78 56 104 0.37 20.6
Brent Burns 322 0.66 176 0.84 55 146 0.44 21.4

As with all tables in this post, the one above is sortable. There's a lot to unpack here so I'll try to do it with the aid of handy charts when I can. Off the top, it's clear that the usual suspects like Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau are flippin' amazing but there are less-heralded players from last season's Sharks roster worth highlighting for their neutral zone abilities as well. Marty Havlat's entry data is part of the reason why I was sort of disappointed to see him bought out this offseason. Despite the (at times, well-deserved) criticism he received during his tenure with the Sharks, the man was amazing through the neutral zone, often making that one extra move or one little delay that would lead to a controlled entry rather than a dump-in. Perhaps most impressively, Havlat not only led the team in the percentage of his entries that came while retaining control of the puck, he also had the lowest rate of failed entries among the team's forwards as shown above. Getting to watch Havlat move through the neutral zone was one of the highlights for me as an entries tracker.

Speaking of somewhat unfairly maligned players, I think I mentioned it on Twitter a few times during the regular season but it's worth repeating: Tyler Kennedy is a monster at creating entries. Only Havlat and Logan "probably the Sharks' next captain" Couture had better controlled entries per 60 minutes rates, showing that TK wasn't just dumping the puck in with wild abandon to goose his gaudy overall entries per 60 number. Kennedy has his shortcomings as a player (his shot selection after gaining the zone leaves a lot to be desired) but it was frustrating to see him scratched for the entirety of the playoffs in favor of inferior forwards. Just look at where he stacks up on this chart:


Kennedy ending up in the doghouse was particularly frustrating because one of the issues with the Sharks this past season was that the players who constituted their bottom two lines at times simply weren't good enough to be consistently playing in the NHL. Adam Burish, Mike Brown, John McCarthy, Bracken Kearns, Matt Pelech and Eriah Hayes (who I'm willing to give a pass in this instance, due to his relatively small sample size in the big leagues) were simply not cutting it when it came to the entries game. To some extent, that's what we should probably expect, given that most coaches insist that bottom line players should just dump the puck in and then crash and bang on the forecheck, but it's hardly ideal. Especially when the Chicagos of the league employ skill players in their bottom six who are more than capable when it comes to moving through the neutral zone with control.

To elaborate on the point made in the previous section about how much more effective the Sharks are at generating shot attempts when carrying the puck into the offensive zone as opposed to dumping it, let's look at a player-by-player breakdown of the number of shot attempts generated per controlled entry vs. uncontrolled entry (click to enlarge).


As we can see in the graph above, every player (except Torres and Pelech, both of whom barely played) saw more shot attempts generated when they entered the offensive zone with control as compared to entering without it. We can also see that Tommy Wingels is awesome, but I'm sure we all knew that already. In order to provide another perspective on why Wingels is awesome, let's look at a different graph, this one showing the percentage of the team's entries a player is responsible for while he's on the ice as well as what percentage of those entries come while retaining control of the puck.


Here's where we take note that despite the fact that last year was a rocky season for Dan Boyle (highlighted by his woeful 5v5 points/60 production rate), he was far and away the team's best defenseman when it came to entries. On his best nights, Boyler was an absolute joy to watch carrying the puck through the neutral zone (how 'bout this ol' beaut?), and that will certainly be missed this year unless another one of the team's defensemen (hello Brent Burns) suddenly steps up his puck-rushing game. While we're on the subject here's a table of complete defenseman entry data:

Defenseman data

Player Total Entries Shots Per Entry Controlled Entries Shots Per Controlled Entry % Of Entries With Control Dump-Ins Shots Per Dump-In % Of Entries That Failed
Jason Demers 107 0.47 32 0.72 30 75 0.36 25.6
Brad Stuart 89 0.35 18 0.61 20 71 0.28 35.7
Dan Boyle 139 0.53 63 0.70 45 76 0.38 13.7
Scott Hannan 84 0.58 17 0.82 20 67 0.52 45.2
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 171 0.42 42 0.83 25 129 0.29 20.8
Matt Irwin 100 0.64 21 0.90 21 79 0.57 32.3
Justin Braun 172 0.39 45 0.56 26 127 0.33 27.4

As you'd expect, defensemen don't play a huge role in zone entries, at least not directly; successfully exiting the defensive zone with possession and pace matters a great deal to whether a subsequent offensive zone entry is successful and defensemen have a huge hand in exits. Still, there's some interesting information to parse here even beyond Boyle's impressive numbers. Here's the above data broken down in chart form:


This graph doesn't show us much that's new but definitely solidifies some points made earlier. Boyle was far and away the team's best defenseman when it came to gaining the zone with control but Vlasic and Braun sure did their part to chip in with entries in addition to being extremely effective players in most other facets of the game.

Speaking of effective hockey players, let's look at how effective the Sharks were when it came to entering the zone successfully, period, with a look at their failed entries per 60 minutes vs. percentage of entry attempts that failed numbers, organized beautifully into graph form. First up, the forwards:


As we can see here, Sharks forwards were all relatively similar in their success through the neutral zone when strictly speaking in failed (i.e., attempted carry-ins that were denied by the opposing team) or successful (either carried or dumped in) terms. Except, that is, for everyone's favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl. I don't think anyone will ever say that Hertl's first season in the NHL was a disappointment (well, except for the fact that he only got to play like, half of it), however it does appear he could learn a little something from his Czech former teammate Marty Havlat when it comes to entering the zone with a bit more success. Now for the defensemen:


I actually struggle to find words to describe Hannan's spot on this graph. As a defenseman, a player who generally doesn't find himself having to get involved in the entries game often, averaging over three failed entries a game (0.99 failed entries per 60 minutes at 5-on-5) is ridiculous. The Sharks are a huge fan of the "win the faceoff back, have a defenseman dump the puck in" strategy when it comes to faceoffs occurring just outside the opposing team's blue line, which makes it all the more bizarre that Hannan tried to carry it in as much as he did, let alone failed to do so this often. He was re-signed this offseason but Doug Wilson hinted at the time that Hannan would only be coming back in a depth and mentorship capacity rather than a full-time role, for which we should all be grateful. These numbers only back up what I'm sure our eye tests all told us about Hannan: dude just isn't an effective hockey player at this stage of his career.

For anyone looking to compare the Sharks' zone entry numbers with those of other teams, or simply interested in doing more reading on the subject, you can check out the Kings' 2013-2014 regular season entry numbers via Jewels From The Crown, the Leafs' numbers from Pension Plan Puppets (spoiler alert: Phil Kessel is amazing), Islanders data via Lighthouse Hockey, Flyers numbers from Broad Street Hockey, Hurricanes numbers from Shutdown Line and Red Wings data via Winging It In Motown. Also if you're interested in supporting Corey Sznajder's amazing effort to track entries (including entry defense statistics) and exits from all 1,230 NHL games that were played last season, I'd seriously recommend making a donation.