Defencemen are sometimes the hardest players to judge. Their success is based as much on what doesn’t happen as on what does. As a result, their mistakes are magnified. The give-away before the goal, the open man in front, the half-step out of position… these become plainly obvious when they result in a high danger scoring chance or a goal.
The subtle plays, though, are less obvious. They’re all about neutralizing a chance before it happens, recovering the puck and quickly finding the open forward back-checking, the tape-to-tape exit pass that only leads to a goal 20 seconds and 4 passes later.
There’s hundreds of these little plays every game. There’s no way to remember them all. Our brains aren’t programmed to record and remember every small event. It would be too much and we’d get lost in every detail if we treated life like that. Instead, we pick out the biggest ones and remember those while the smaller events fade to the background, forgotten. There are structures and patterns in our mind into which we fit the new information we receive. We remember the plays that fit those preconceived notions as reinforcing and let the others slide away. “There’s another dump out off the glass by Defencemen X.” Nevermind the three clean exit passes he made just before that. “There’s Forward Y lazy on the back-check again!” Of course we don’t remember the four shifts before that when he was the first forward back. Those events don’t fit our pre-set pattern.
The fact our brains operate in this way is a good thing. It’s how we organize and make sense of a confusing world with thousands of sensory inputs every second. It’s just that there are downsides as well.
This is where tracking comes in.
What I’ve Been Doing
I’ve been tracking specific plays by Oiler defencemen this season. I’m not the only one doing this. Most notably, Corey Sznajder is tracking a whole host of stats for every team in every game this season. (Follow him on Twitter, @shutdownline, and consider donating to support his project.) I initially had no intention of duplicating his work.
The problem is that, naturally, he’s going to be a bit behind when tracking every single NHL game this season. So I thought I’d continue doing some of the tracking I was doing last year for as many games as I can, so we can discuss them in real-time while we wait for Corey catch up and give us numbers to compare league wide in the areas I track as well as many, many others.
Today, we’re going to focus on Zone Exits.
Who Cares About Zone Exits?
Obviously we know getting the puck out of the defensive zone is important. It’s how we do it that helps a team transition from the defensive zone to the neutral zone and then into the offensive zone. Getting the puck out of the zone while maintaining possession is absolutely key to driving into the offensive zone.
Over the last 7 games I’ve kept track of what happens after the Oilers exit the zone with control. When Oiler defencemen get the puck out of the zone maintaining possession, it leads to the Oilers getting into the offensive zone with control 37% of the of the time. That’s compared to only 6% of the time with an uncontrolled zone exit (dumping it out or missing the pass). Most of the time when you exit the zone with control, you get the puck into the offensive zone in some way, even if it’s a dump-in. At the least you get a neutral zone face-off. In only 7% of cases did it lead to the other team coming right back into the Oiler zone. In comparison, uncontrolled exits lead to the other team coming right back on the attack without an Oiler zone entry 43% of the time!
Dumping the puck out has its place and sometimes it’s your only option. However, it seems clear that the ability to make a solid exit pass is a key skill for defencemen.
The Devil Is In The Details
I’ve only been recording 5×5 events. No special teams, 4×4, overtime, or extra attacker time. These situations require different tactics and so shouldn’t be lumped into 5×5 time.
I count a zone exit every time a defenceman passes or carries the puck over the blue line with one exception. I don’t count a zone exit when there is absolutely no forechecking pressure. So if there is literally no opposing players in the defensive zone or at the Oiler blue line, giving the Oiler defenceman free reign to just carry the puck out, I have not been keeping track of it. My goal is to assess the skill of the defenceman and that sort of free play would just inflate a defenceman’s stat without actually requiring any sort of ability. It also usually happens when the Oilers are trailing and the other team has gone into a more passive shell, so it disproportionately helps defencemen who get more icetime when the Oilers are behind.
Controlled exits are when the Oilers maintain possession of the puck, either through the defenceman carrying the puck out or passing it. This includes plays where the defenceman flips it out and the Oilers get the puck in the neutral zone, even if it’s not a tape-to-tape pass. Those indirect passes, though, are by far the minority of all controlled zone exits.
Uncontrolled exits are any time possession is not maintained. I code a dump-out when I don’t see an obvious pass target. A missed pass is whenever there seems to be a target that just didn’t get the pass for whatever reason.
The play I have the most difficulty with is the “tip-dump”. The defenceman passes the puck to the forward who just tips it into the opposing team’s end. I dislike the play as it rarely leads to regaining possession. However, is it really the fault of the defenceman? I try to deal with this by rewinding and re-watching each of those plays many times. If it looks like the pass was tape-to-tape and the forward chose to tip it in due to a set play or otherwise, I call it a controlled exit. If there is any doubt in my mind over how solid the pass was, I call it uncontrolled. Maybe the forward had to reach for the puck or had a defender all over him. The majority of the tip-dumps end up being coded as “uncontrolled”. They also only make up a minority of all zone exit passes.
The Numbers So Far
With all that out of the way, how have the Oiler’s done so far?
I have tracked 18 of the Oilers 19 games this season (missing only Game 14). Below is how each defender stacks up when it comes to zone exits. Davidson and Fayne are excluded until they get a bit more ice time. Time on ice is taken from www.naturalstattrick.com, except the most recent game, which was pulled from https://oilersnerdalert.wordpress.com/ as the former site hadn’t updated in time for me to write this post.
Darnell has handled most of the puck movement from the defensive zone for his pairing this season. What’s interesting to note with this number is how often Nurse carries the puck out versus passing it out. About half (51.6% to be exact) of Darnell’s controlled zone exits are from carrying the puck out. That’s about 20% higher than the next Oiler defenceman (Gryba and Russell are at around 30%). Nurse’s wheels are a great skill-set to have. Whether him carrying the puck out is more or less efficient than passing it out is something I plan on digging in to in a future post. However, it’s worth noting that even if you take away all of his controlled exits via carries and include just his passing, he’s still getting the puck out with control about as frequently as Benning and Gryba.
Dreamy. He is the Oiler’s number one defenceman with a bullet, in my opinion. This number is particularly impressive given Klefbom often gets the tougher minutes. The Oilers live and die by McDavid, Talbot, and Oscar Klefbom.
Andrej is a genuine top four NHL defenceman, but I do find him to be a bit volatile game to game. He’ll have games where his puck movement is just phenomenal and then others where he’s missing passes left and right. That’s true of every defender, of course, but it seems more so with Sekera. Maybe that’s why I often see Sekera getting flak. We remember those bad games or periods, but keep in mind that on average, Sekera plays a solid game and the Oilers need him… especially with Davidson injured.
Matt Benning seems to be settling in to the NHL level. I find he defends pretty well. He’s prone to at least a couple rookie defenceman gaffes every game. Where his weakest point is, though, appears to be as a puck-mover. That’s getting better with every passing game. He’s still a low frequency puck mover, getting the least number of zone exits among all Oiler defencemen. When he does move the puck, though, he’s reasonably efficient. He’s got potential. We’ll see if this continues to improve with more games.
Before the season started, Chiarelli famously said Russell was “second in the league as far as clean entries into the offensive zone and the neutral zone, whether it’s a pass or skating.” I don’t know where Chiarelli got his data. I also haven’t been tracking zone entries into the offensive zone by defencemen. I’ll be curious to see what others who are tracking this find. I can say that so far this season, Russell has been decidedly average at exiting the zone with control.
Puck-movement is not Gryba’s strong suit. He has largely been playing with Nurse and has been relying on the sophomore for much of the puck movement responsibility. I will say, though, that Gryba has done a bit better as the season has wore on, attempting to handle and make a play a little more regularly. Still, he is probably the least complete defender among Oiler defence regulars.
I’ve noticed as the season has wore on that Larsson has been dumping the puck out more… not exactly a trend I’ve been a fan of. He’s had a couple of particularly poor games lately that has dropped his number below Gryba’s. Larsson doesn’t shy away from puck movement and so his frequency of controlled exits is much greater than Gryba and Benning’s and more in line with Sekera and Russell, but his efficiency remains poor. Regardless, this has not been Larsson’s strong suit early in the year by my eye.
Puck movement is but one aspect of a defenceman’s game and zone exits are but one aspect of puck movement. It is, however, an important one.
So far, in the early part of the season, what we see is Klefbom and Nurse rising above the rest, albeit in entirely different ways. Sekera has a reasonably clear spot in third. Russell is likely 4th, with Larsson 5th and Gryba last. The emergence of Benning may change these rankings as we’ll see if he continues to get more comfortable handling the puck and brings his zone exit frequency up higher. As of now, I’d place him around Larsson’s level despite better zone exit efficiency on account of his poor frequency and the fact that he’s mostly playing softer competition.
Next up, we’ll visit zone defence and how well the Oiler defencemen prevent the opposition from gaining the blue line with control of the puck. Spoiler alert: just because you’re poor at zone exits doesn’t mean you’re poor at defending the blue line… and vice versa.
Note: I haven’t included the raw totals in this post mostly because I don’t have them in a format that’s easily read and I’m not sure how useful they would be on their own. I do include the raw totals after most games that I track and post them on this site. If you want any specific information, I’m more than willing to share. Send me a message on Twitter (@wheatnoil|) or email (email@example.com).