“Controlled zone entries” – a term that has now entered the mainstream in the NHL. The logic – better to enter the offensive zone with puck possession as opposed to merely dumping it in. However, the numbers tell us that this holds true if you want to create offense at even-strength but not necessarily so if you want to keep the puck out of your own net. Sure, entering with control improves your odds of creating a scoring chance and ultimately a goal. Over the last two seasons, over 50 percent of goals scored off entries, controlled or not, have come within 5 seconds of gaining the attacking blueline. However, there’s another side to the story – the defensive side. As a general rule, the more a team carries the puck through the neutral zone, the more susceptible they are to turning that same puck over and risking a scoring chance against off the rush. With the exception of the Flames, the top 5 teams in controlled zone entries, per game this season, Chicago, Washington, Montreal, Calgary and Tampa Bay, all turn the puck over at a high-rate in the neutral zone, ranking bottom-third in the league in this category.
Three of these teams, Calgary, Tampa Bay and Chicago, also rank bottom-third in scoring chances against off-the-rush.
With that in mind, let’s look at the New York Islanders, the 4th place in the NHL New York Islanders – a low-risk team that prioritizes defense over offense. The Islanders rank 25th in controlled entries per game and dump the puck in more than any team in the league.
As a result, they rarely turn the puck over in the neutral zone, doing so on only 8.9% of their possessions, 4th best in the league. This tactical approach, employed by Barry Trotz, has seen the Islanders allow the fewest odd-man rushes and scoring chances off-the-rush of any team. The change in how the Islanders enter the zone is driving their defensive success at even-strength. Case in point, last season when the Isles allowed more goals than any team and were not a dump and chase team. They ranked top-10 in controlled entries, dumping it in less than half of the time they entered the offensive end. They also turned the puck over at a higher rate in the neutral zone and ranked 26th in odd-man rushes against and 22nd in rush scoring chances against. Barry Trotz has turned the Islanders from the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best, largely by mitigating risk in the neutral zone.
So, while controlled entries are preferable from a pure offensive standpoint, it’s not always the best strategy if you want to come out on the right side of the goal differential at even-strength. The Islanders pick their spots and while they don’t enter with possession often, they do have the 3rd best success rate in the league when entering the attacking end with the puck. Take it if it’s there but don’t force it.
What works for one team doesn’t necessarily work for another and thus far this season Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have clearly done a masterful job understanding what works best for the Islanders. A clear plan of attack, low-risk play in the neutral zone and solid puck retrieval off dump-ins. That’s been the recipe for success for the New York Islanders.
(Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)