Neutral Zone Playing Styles and the Leafs

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Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS

Alex Novet recently did some interesting work building off of Corey Sznajder’s ambitious (and awesome) zone entry project from the 2013-2014 season. Today, I’m going to take a Leafs-centric look at what Alex came up with last month.

WHAT THE HECK IS A NEUTRAL ZONE PLAYING STYLE?

Basically, what Novet did is combine a given player’s carry-in % with their entry-share %.

Before we go any further, let’s quickly clear up what those two terms mean. Novet says it more clearly than I can, so let’s use his words:

One avenue to understanding neutral zone playing style is carry-in %,
which measures how many of a player’s entries are carry-ins with
possession. Carry-in % is a reflection of the player’s tendencies and
also a measure of results since carry-ins tend to lead to more shots on
net than dump-ins.

Another avenue to measure style is individual entry share. Individual
entry share (iES, also called burden) takes advantage of the fact that
most neutral zone tracking includes both the player who completed the
zone entry and his or her on-ice teammates. Using this, we can calculate
the proportion of on-ice team entries where the skater made the play
with the puck. A high iES player is a player who gets the puck into the
offensive zone himself, no matter how he does it.

As a quick example, Phil Kessel is someone that would have both a high carry-in % and a high entry-share %, because not only does he carry the puck in over the blueline with possession for many of his zone entry attempts, but he also makes a lot of attempts. Conversely, Tyler Bozak would have a high carry-in % but a low entry-share %, because while he’s fairly good at carrying the puck over the blueline with possession when given the chance, he doesn’t make a lot of individual attempts.

So, where am I going with this?

Basically, Novet combined these two numbers for a given player in an attempt to define certain neutral zone player types.

Ultimately he came up with five distinct player types. Here’s his definition of them (he describes the “Balanced” player type later on in his article, but I’ve edited it in for formatting purposes):

  • Drivers: These players “drive” play in the neutral zone. They frequently possess the puck during entries and carry it in.
  • Passengers: The opposite of drivers, these players rely on their
    teammates to conduct zone entries. When they do enter the zone, they
    tend to dump it in.
  • Balanced: Players who perform near the league average in both [categories].
  • Opportunists: These players don’t enter the zone often, but when
    they do, they do it well. They have high carry-in rates but do not enter
    the zone as often as their teammates.
  • Dump Trucks: As the name implies, these players dump the puck in and
    dump it often. They are tasked with getting the puck into the zone, and
    they do so by giving up posession.

THE LEAFS

Alright, now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s move on to the fun stuff. What I did is really simple: I looked at Sznajder/Novet’s data on the 2013-2014 Leafs and put them into their categories. As a bonus, I also went and found the data for players that weren’t on the Leafs in 13-14, but that are expected to be on the team next year.

Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 4.01.51 PM

It’s interesting to consider the old Van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Kessel line, which at least in terms of offense was fairly productive. I wonder if a lot of successful lines have a Driver-Opportunist-Driver setup. It would make sense, as traditional hockey thinking says you put your play-driving goalscorers on the wing and your playmaker down the middle.

There aren’t too many surprises for me, but the placement of Raymond, Rielly, Bolland, McClement, Polak, and Holland stand out at least somewhat.

Also, damn, the Leafs had a lot of Passengers that year. I expect part of that might be the influence of Carlyle and how bad a puck possession team the Leafs were. But, it’s also probably partly descriptive of why the Leafs were just so bad that year — they didn’t have enough players that could drive play in any sort of meaningful way.

This also gets me thinking about the Leafs next year and some of the players we don’t have data for. The Leafs, as we saw in the categories above and as I’m sure you can picture in your head, seem a little thin in terms of having guys that can gain entry into the zone and drive play.

Looking ahead to next season, though, I think the likes of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Zaitsev can help offset that.

CONCLUSION

There are obvious limitations to this data. For one, the sample is now over two years old, so if we had up to date data, some of these players might appear in different categories. Off the top of my head, I wonder if Holland might now belong in the Dump Truck category or even the Balanced. I also think Morgan Rielly might now be more of an Opportunist as opposed to a Driver.

We should also take note that we’re comparing players across multiple teams here, and thus multiple situations, which could skew what we’re looking at. In other words, in a different system, and with different teammates, maybe guys like Laich and Martin got either less or more opportunity to fit a certain player role than they would’ve on the Leafs.

Lastly, we should note that the intention here isn’t to say “X category is good and Y category is bad”. This isn’t a long-winded attempt by me to say Peter Holland is terrible just like everyone else who isn’t a Driver. What it does though is give us even a marginally clearer way of thinking about the Leafs roster, and as Novet notes, understanding this data has many potential benefits for coaches and managers.

Novet takes more of a league-wide approach in his article and further fleshes out some of the things I’ve talked about here. His article includes a top ten list for players in each category, and multiple Leafs show up, and I’ll just leave that as further incentive to go and read the full article here.

He also provides a Tableau link with his full data-set for you to play around with, so if you weren’t enticed before maybe that’ll do it for you.

Anyways, like I said, this is just something to consider. I’m not saying certain Leafs are overly good or bad based on this data, and I’m not saying this data is entirely relevant anymore or entirely indicative of the type of team the Leafs have going forward. It’s just another interesting way of defining player types, and one that in my opinion makes a lot of sense. It would be cool to get a look at some more up-to-date data and see how the Leafs hold up there.

  • Sorry in advance for being That Guy:

    “Also, damn, the Leafs had a lot of Dump Trucks that year.” – Troy Bodie is a lot of dump trucks? Did you mean to say Passengers, or did you swap the last two headers in your image?

    Also, Comic Sans? You should be ashamed.

  • JB#1

    Thanks for this article Shawn.

    A little peek behind the curtain to see what kind of stats, and I’m sure MANY other kinds as well, are being tracked by NHL front offices.

  • Stan Smith

    So the Leafs problem wasn’t too many dump trucks, but too many passengers. As for Carlyle’s so called dump truck coaching style, it was obvious watching the games that his defensive plan was to dump, whether it was out of the defensive zone, or into the offensive zone. Offensively he relied on the rush for his teams scoring chances, and in doing so, wanted the team to enter the zone in possession of the puck.

  • Harte of a Lion

    With the influx of new talent that will dress for the team this coming season, the first thing we all should witness is far more successful zone entries. Anyone who watched the team last year witnessed the impact on possession and how it seemed to improve with the addition of the kids after the trade deadline.

    Anyone who watched the Marlies on a regular basis knows the team rarely dumped and chased the puck. These are the kids who will bring the same game to the Leafs

    With the addition of any or all of the following during the course of the season; Marner, Nylander, Matthews, Soshnikov, Hyman, Leivo, Brown and on the back end Reilly (this will be his first 50-60 point campaign and his first all star selection) Gardiner who continues to get better each season, Carrick who found another gear after playing for Babcock and then dominated the AHL playoff scoring race and finally Nikita Zaitsev, who will start the season as a #4 D but could grow into a #2 the way we hope Matthews will grow into our #1 C.

    This team is going to surprise many opponents and observers.