Why doesn’t Phil Kessel ever go to the net?

Here’s a thing I keep hearing from Leafs fans: 

“Phil Kessel needs to go to the net.” 

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“Phil Kessel will have more success if he goes to the net.” 

“Goals are scored from the front of the net, Phil Kessel can’t keep relying on his shot.”

This is a theme that’s constantly plugged by guys like Doug MacLean and Nick Kypreos on intermission panels. I tend to listen to them while I’m off during intermissions compiling the notes I took during the period. I only listen sort of off-hand but do realize where people generate these theories about player success.

I only have one question to direct to the people who think Kessel needs to go to the net: Who will get Phil Kessel the puck?

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The eye test tells me that Kessel is the primary play-driver on the Leafs first line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. You can tell who is the play-driver based on which guys move the puck from the defensive zone to the neutral zone, and from the neutral zone to the offensive zone. Once the puck is in the offensive zone it’s a bit of a free-for-all and offensive talent generally doesn’t show.

Darren Dreger went on the radio this morning and said that some general manager is going to pay Tyler Bozak $5-million. This will be an awful deal. Bozak does two things: a) win faceoffs, and b) put his stick on the ice in front of the net and score a few goals. He’s judged by his disproportionate point-production, helped by the three years he’s played with Kessel, who may be one of the best wingers in hockey.

I don’t want to rag too much on Bozak in this space, but I do want to turn your attention to a key bit of hockey research done over the summer by Eric T. of NHLNumbers and Broad Street Hockey. They published a paper that was presented at the MIT Sloan Analytics Sports Conference last month. 

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The key takeaway was that it isn’t performance in the offensive zone that drives success: it’s in the neutral zone. When a team carries the puck in, they’ll generate nearly twice the amount of shots than they would if they dumped the puck in. People who track entries even disregard dump-ins that immediately result in a line change. Essentially, skating the puck in 3-on-2 or 3-on-3 is going to lead to more opportunities to score. 

What does this have to do with Kessel going to the net? Because Kessel is the player on his line who carries the puck in. Corey S. of Shutdown Line has tracked five games for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. The Leafs first line has carried the puck in 59 times with possession. Kessel has been credited with the carry 36 times:

# of entries Shots generated from player’s entries Shots per entry # of controlled entries Shots generated from controlled entries Shots per controlled entry % of entries with control
Tyler Bozak 11 10 0.91 9 10 1.11 82%
James van Riemsdyk 27 18 0.67 14 10 0.71 52%
Phil Kessel 42 22 0.52 36 22 0.61 86%
Total 80 50 0.63 59 42 0.71 74%

If you want to see the disparity in shots for controlled entries vs. uncontrolled, I made up this quick graph. I would recommend reading the paper when you have a few moments, if you haven’t already:

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  Entries Shots Shots/Entry
Controlled Entries 59 42 0.71
Uncontrolled Entries 21 8 0.38

This flies in the face of some conventional hockey wisdom, where the goal is to “get the puck deep and establish the forecheck”. Hockey success derives more from having the puck as opposed to not having the puck. It seems simplistic, but mostly we find that the statistics that indicate which teams have possession, whether it be shots on goal or zone entries, correlate more with winning than things like hits or blocked shots. Even a stat like “giveaways” syncs up with winning higher than “takeaways” albeit only so slightly. But the point is that players and teams that give away the puck have the puck more, and those fighting for takeaways, hits, and getting blocked shots are trying to take it back. 

Just to satisfy the need of a few people who need to see Kessel go to the net, here’s one zone entry I found for Bozak. With just 11 of them, it’s tough to find a common theme.

Here comes Bozak, getting a shot away from outside the scoring area:

Kessel had broken through his man and cut to the net, but Bozak wasn’t patient enough to get him the puck:

The turnover, by the way, was created in the neutral zone by a Phil Kessel check on Matt Carle:

So to Doug MacLean, Nick Kypreos, and others, the reason Kessel doesn’t go to the net is because Kessel is the one carrying the puck. It’s on the other guys on the ice to go to the net. He can’t do it all, but nobody can.

Again, thanks to Corey.

UPDATE: Labelled a couple of things wrong on the graph. The information is correct but was presented poorly at first. My mistake.

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  • Prior to his nasty concussion, T. Kaberle was just the best at gaining the zone. Almost effortless, and frankly, taken for granted for all those years.

    also: J. Gardiner’s game.

    Fun to watch. Wish I could do that…

  • Stop reading when you type “may be one of the best wingers in hockey.”

    as a leafs fan i must laugh this sentence. Better to say worst first line winger in the league. And don’t try say that he has good point production.

    • Miker

      ^^ “[H]e has good point production.”

      I don’t see how being 8th in points makes you the worst first line winger in the NHL.

      Carrying on the basic statistics and math theme from this blog, there are 30 teams, each with 2 wingers on their first line. 60 wingers. 8/60 means he is in the top 13% of wingers based on point production.

      Strong logic moron.

    • Well that’s always handy. I mean, why bother reading analysis and other opinions when you have your own? Awesome way to go through life. You’ll never be wrong.

      You don’t have to agree with the dude, but come on.

  • Miker

    So Kessel has carried it in 42 times, to the tune of 22 shots…all of which were taken by Kessel?

    It’s only a 5-game sample, but that does seem like a somewhat disconcerting trend.

    • If you read the paper you’ll find that offensive zone production isn’t really a talent.

      Whether it’s Jaromir Jagr or Zac Rinaldo carrying the puck in, over time they’ll generate a similar number of shots per entry. The difference between the two is that Jagr carries the puck into the zone substantially more than Rinaldo, hence the difference between the two players.

      • Miker

        No, I don’t mean that Kessel’s entries are producing more/less offense than anyone else. I just found it intersting that all of the shots created by his entries are taken by him.

        Like I said, small sample–I can remember lots of times that Kessel gains the zone, pulls up, and makes a great pass to create a shot–but 22/22 is a pretty interesting number.

        EDIT: Now that I’m rereading it/you’ve changed the formatting a bit, I see that I may have misinterpreted the numbers. I take it that the 22 “Shots generated from controlled entries” includes ALL entries, not just Phil’s?

  • Miker

    Ok this blog can be good. I don’t know conclusion. How i said stop reading after sentence with “best winger” because hockey isnt a math game! How i said i dont buy a points production. How bout defense, checking, heart, chemistry (he can play only with Bozak) with rest players don’t have good chemistry as for example kadri has. All the time a hear kessel need a center a and Kessel need this. What is he doing for teammates? Yeah couple good passes, but how bout help them in corners? How bout some give and go plays? You can’t do this because he is only crazy driving around you and never stop and help you because is scary for hit. How many times he send the puck to nowhere area beacause is scary? (i dont think dump the puck from defensive zone – thats ok). Kessel play is only rush to the offenzive zone a and shoot from long range. This is very low play for “best winger” in the league and any numbers can’t change it.

    • “What is he doing for teamates?”

      This cannot be a real question, can it? I’m sorry bud, but if you can’t see it for yourself you just plain won’t ever.

      “…and any numbers can’t change it.”

      Yeah guys, I mean c’mon, right? Practically a point a game player playing alongside a good #3C, all the while able to score 30+ goals/season (in his sleep) and playing top opposition? Guy’s a bum, trade him.

      • So tell me how he help his teammates? If you can count, you will count less than 5 really good passes in the game. With 20 min ice time…really? His defense man is shooting all the time, No block shoots….yeah nice help for your defense. No help in offensive zone for Bozie and JVR! they are playing hard in corners and he is hidden somewhere. How many time he can catch puck going around the board a let him go out beacouse os his weak play. In 90% scrimmages he loss the puck (don’t win the puck). So tell me where you see support?

        Sory but without last game Kuli has same points in even strengh play with much low ice time. How is possible that point per game player is every year down with +/-. Oh i forgot his teammates /sarcasm

        Better trade him in offseason a get legit forst line player

        • “No blocked shots”

          One of the links above shows that players and teams that block the most shots actually also lose the most games.

          I will have some numbers later this season that show that nobody drives play in the offensive zone quite like Kessel does. In a game against Carolina he was involved in seven scoring chances in the game—usually a good player will get involved in two or three.

          Kessel has become a dominant playmaker this season. He’s incredible to watch and I don’t know why most Leafs fans have embraced him yet.

          Maybe he should fight more.

          • Good argument with block shots. I can consider that “best” players shouldn’t block shots, but only for regular season. In play off he should be falling down against shot as McClement. I am really courious how he step up his game in play off.

            Elite player must have great 4 of 5 games not 1 of 5.

            I think incredible to watch is Kadri not Kessel.

  • Thing is there are so few wingers who CAN do it all. Kessel has done so much in three years in Toronto without really too much help, and takes a lot of blame because he CAN’T do it all.

    But when you think of which wingers do do it all, you come up short.

  • Miker

    I agree and disagree…stats can be shifted to support any argument you want to make… I personally think that chemistry has a lot to do with it…you can have great skilled players on a line together, but if they dont click, it doesnt work (look at the Rangers this year).

    Kessel and Bozak have great chemistry together. they play well off of each other.

    • “stats can be shifted to support any argument you want to make”

      I have yet to see anybody able to manipulate statistics to in any way show that Tyler Bozak helps Phil Kessel or the Maple Leafs in any way.

      • jasken

        To tell you the truth I think the only reason Bozak is even thinking about signing here is because of kessel.

        If I am Bozak no offence to what your stats say I win face-off and then 80% of time I come out of circle my team dont have puck or its in net. I dont wanna be on that team either. Explains why elite players wont come here.

        People wanna pay 7 mil for center to run into that yeah good luck on finding one maybe there’s a washed up one in euro league looking for employment. When stuff like that improves then you get a topline center til then. Work on your team problems then look to see where to improve

  • jasken

    Dont look to much into the kessel thing. Its the past on who he was a one-dimensional player. Its been fixed he thought he had to score all the goals,or get lots of shots and they were there to get x amount of goals through scoring on chances from rebounds.

    This is a poor game plan. Kessel although wants to have puck going in to zone which is great but he has to play make. Play pass percentages no high risk passing, or low percentage shots until players are setup. Get the zone wait for players and get the cycling going, create open space. Going in and shooting is not what he should be doing unless looking for stoppage in play or line change.

    Team effort its not the kessel show. I dont care if he scores 100 goals. Its team first it dont matter who scores the goals. This is Randy Carlyle hockey this is real hockey. Hockey where you get it to your fastest skater and goal scorer has 1 place on the pond where it belongs.

  • Back in Black

    One thing about carrying in the puck, IMO, is that not all players can do it. It’s not as simple as telling them to carry it rather than dump it; for many players the dump-in is still the best choice because they don’t have the talent to make the better play.

    Also Note: hockey IS a math game. At the end, they add up the goals and whoever has more wins.

  • whichonespink

    I don’t like advanced stats much. They make my head hurt. Sometimes they tell me a player is not very good, when I know he is. I understand its a niche and these numbers give a more complete picture of a player or team. I don’t think I need advanced stats to tell me that Kessel is a good hockey player. His first yr in TO to now, the difference is night and day. I wish he could go to the corner first and come out with the puck, but there are many other parts of his game that he does better than anyone else on the team. I noticed last year he became a better backchecker and playmaker all while putting up career highs in goals. It’s not Phil’s fault that Burke paid 2 1st and a 2nd for him. It’s not Phil’s fault the team came in second last that same year, so give em a break. He delivers goals, he sets up goals, now more than ever, he’s 25 did you expect he’d be a complete player by 22? As far as getting a #1 centre, I’ll get clobbered here but I say we have one. His name is Kadri, I don’t know what he’s waiting for, the coach needs to see more maybe? He is and will be a 1st line centre, and in the minors they are brewing another 1st, maybe 2nd in Colbourne. He was set back a year by that wrist injury and is only now coming into form. He won’t be able to show it playing 10 shifts with 2 face punchers but note this he is an NHL centre, 1st or 2nd,not this year but next or the year after. I’d say we don’t have to go out and trade a bunch of picks for a 1st centre, when we have 1 now and a 2nd in a year or 2. Kadri on the first and reunite the Grabo line and we we’ll still be able to spread the offence around so we can’t be checked into the ice. Not this year but next look out. We are finally strong up the middle and with Kenneth in goal, we are set, the long nightmare is almost over and I’m glad Kessel is going to be here for it.

  • I’ll first acknowledge that I am an unabashed Kessel fan, and a New Englander who really only started watching the Leafs after Kessel was traded.

    His game certainly has shortcomings.It would be nice if he were willing take a hit along the half wall in his own zone to make a play. ( his compete level in the offensive zone is actually pretty good-making it more frustrating when he doesn’t compete in his own zone.) He s not the most coachable player. I would say his not working out in Boston is 25% on Julien and 75% on Kessel (I assign Julien some blame because Kessel was never on the first PP unit , even his last year on the Bruins when he scored 36 goals in 72 games). Despite having a great wirst shot, he muffs a fair amount of one timers

    However, I think some of his bad rap is undeserved. To review, Kessel’s first start geting a bad rep as freshman year at U Minnesota, his draft year, where he was a labeled a ‘ bad teamate’, and his draft stock fell. I take this with a grain of salt. Anyone familiar with Minnesota hockey will tell you that the U of M is an extremely provincial hockey culture, they didn’t recruit non-Minnesotans until the mid 90s. He was a third line player in college. Now, how many high 1st round picks are 3rd liners in college hockey? Not too many. I can’t help but think his being an outsider hurt him.

    I believe this reputation has followed him around unfairly.

    But to any objective observer there is no denying his shiftiness, quickness, vision and hands. He is easily one of the better playmakers in all of the league. He doesn’t consistently wire his wrist shot but when he does it is one of the better releases in the league.

    All in all he is one of the more entertaining players in the league.

    Let’s hope his game continues to mature, and here’s hoping the Leafs make a deep run in the Playoffs!! ( until they play the Bs of course)