Quite possibly the least interesting play in hockey. A seemingly mindless recourse for a player with no other options in the neutral zone.
There’s a good chance you’ve probably yelled at your television screen watching your favourite team ‘get the puck deep’ but there’s a lot more to dumping the puck in than meets the eye. And there’s a reason teams are doing it more and more despite studies showing that entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck leads to a sizeable increase in scoring chances.
While this may seem counterintuitive, the reason is quite simple. The goal in hockey is not to score as many goals as possible – it is to score more goals than your opponent and there is a statistically significant correlation between attempting to carry the puck into the attacking zone and turning the puck over in the neutral zone. Puck management is a concept many players and coaches seem to value over puck possession.
Reigning coach-of-the-year Barry Trotz –
“It’s all puck management. That’s where analytics, pure possession, entry numbers doesn’t really translate. The math works for the concept of making sure you put the puck in the right areas if you can’t make a play. So, you do have, maybe a little less possession numbers but you guard yourself against counters, you guard yourself against the quick-strike, transition type things but you still maintain possession.”
Intuitively, this makes sense. The less risk you take entering the offensive zone, whether by dumping the puck in at a high rate or being selective in how you attempt to enter the zone with possession, the lower your odds of turning the puck over and risking a dangerous chance against. To determine if this is actually the case, I looked to see if there are statistically significant links between high dump-in rates, low neutral turnover rates and a low number of odd-man rushes against.
This isn’t a research paper and I’m not a data scientist but it is important to determine if a 95% significance threshold exits between these events before a determination can be made that a higher dump-in rate does in fact lessen the risk of a neutral zone turnover and odd-man rush against. To do that, I enlisted the help of David Vallett, Senior Data Analyst at Sportlogiq. For those interested in the specific details on this analysis, there’s a breakdown at the bottom of the article.
If you just want to know what time it is as opposed to how the watch is made, here’s what we found.
Looking at 5-on-5 data over the last three seasons, the long and short of it is, yes – the connection between more dump-ins and fewer neutral zone turnovers as well as fewer odd-man rushes against is statistically highly significant. However, there is not a statistically significant association between neutral zone turnovers and odd-man rushes against.
So, we can support the notion that the more you dump the puck in, the less you turn it over in the neutral zone and the fewer odd-man rushes you allow, despite there not being a statistically significant link directly between neutral zone turnovers and odd-man rushes.
This best explains why so many teams are taking a more measured approach to zone entries and are putting more thought into puck retrieval off dump-ins. Through the first couple of months of the season, dump-in rates are up and neutral zone turnover rates are down from a couple of years ago.
This isn’t exactly a seismic shift in the way teams approach entries as the percentages amount to roughly three more dump-ins and three fewer carry-in attempts per game but the fact that teams are trending away from controlled entries is interesting.
Trotz continued, “We can give up possession at the blueline. We never talk about dumping the puck in as a team. We just say, if the play’s there, make the play. If it’s not, put in in the space where you can get it back or put it in a space where you’re in a position to at least battle to get it back.”
Forget dump-and-chase, this is place-and-chase and there may not be a team in the NHL that does this more effectively than the Islanders have under Trotz.
The Isles ranked 4th last season and rank 2nd this season in the percentage of their dump-ins they recover. Carry the puck in if there’s a safe option to do so, if not, dump it in but with a plan to get it back.
Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck spoke about the differences in Trotz’s approach compared to past coaches, saying –
“More quality dump-ins and a lot more speed on the puck. There’s more of a 5-man unit forecheck going on to try to take away other options. If D-man looks up and he’s got half a second and he’s got a guy barreling down on him and he doesn’t see much, chances are it’s going of the glass or around the boards and you get a chance to get it back.”
Since Trotz took over on Long Island, his team has dumped the puck in at a higher rate than any team in the NHL. They are selective on their entries and have a high zone entry success rate when they do opt to carry the puck into the attacking end.
“Good teams manage the puck and it’s not about possession numbers it’s about possession and recovery numbers for us,” Trotz added. “You have to know when there’s a time to live and fight another day. I think our team understands that pretty well.”
I’d say so. The Islanders were the top defensive team in the NHL last season and have the second best points percentage of any team in the league right now.
Another team that has benefitted from this style of play is the defending Stanley Cup champion, St. Louis Blues.
Last season, the Blues had the 11th highest dump-in rate at 5-on-5, dumping the puck in on 53 percent of their entries. They also had the lowest neutral zone turnover rate of any team. As they proved in the playoffs, the Blues were able win games by limiting dangerous transition chances against while recovering pucks and cycling in the offensive zone to set up scoring opportunities.
The NHL is a copy-cat league and this season, more teams are trending towards this style of play. Selective entries, more dump-ins and more thought behind how to recover them. Last season, about half the league, 16 teams, dumped the puck in on over half of their zone entries at 5-on-5. That number sits at 22 teams this season with 25 teams dumping it in more than they did last season.
The team that has shifted tactics the most is the Philadelphia Flyers, who are dumping the puck in just over 20 percent more often than they did last season. They’ve cut their neutral zone turnovers by 14 percent and are allowing fewer odd-man rushes and goals against at 5-on-5.
The second biggest shift is an interesting one. The Chicago Blackhawks – a team suffering from an identity crisis in October that has since realized, you know what, we aren’t perfect but we’re going to just be the best version of ourselves.
Short story, the Hawks dumped it in the least of any team in the NHL last season. They also turned the puck over at the 5th highest rate of any team in the neutral zone. Chicago created a ton off-the-rush and gave up nearly as much. Lots of goals for and against. High-event hockey that saw them miss the playoffs. So, this season, they tried to mitigate some of the risk in their transition game by dumping the puck in more – a lot more. Nearly 25 percent more often, to be exact. Well, the transition offense they created so much of last season disappeared and through November 9th, Chicago was the second lowest scoring team in the league at 5-on-5, was still a nightmare defensively and had lost 11 of its first 16 games.
So, full credit to head coach Jeremy Colliton – he opened things up through the middle of the ice. Since Chicago’s game against Toronto on November 10th, the Hawks have gone back to a low dump-in, transition game that creates a lot off-the-rush. They are the highest scoring 5-on-5 team in the league in that time averaging 3.66 goals per 60 minutes.
The Blackhawks roster construction isn’t such that it can produce optimal results playing like the Islanders or Blues but they have offensively gifted players and an elite goaltending tandem. A more free-flowing style through the neutral zone, while not a perfect recipe for success, is what works best for them and they seem to have recognized that.
The Colorado Avalanche are another team that relies less on dump-ins and more on controlled entries. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given the speed they have up front and especially on the back end. What separates Colorado from a team like Chicago however, is it doesn’t give up nearly as much in transition.
So, while mitigating risk in the neutral zone with an effective ‘place-and-chase’ system appears to be an effective overall strategy to produce more offense than you allow, it isn’t necessarily the best option for all teams. Hockey is a messy and chaotic game. Not only is it not practical to attempt to gain the offensive zone with a possession entry every time but for some teams, it’s not something they should be doing a majority of the time either.
That said, ask most players in the NHL and they’ll tell you they want to make plays in the neutral zone. Dumping the puck in isn’t anybody’s first option. However, a lot of players understand that the risk isn’t necessarily worth the reward if there isn’t a high percentage option to gain the offensive zone with the puck.
“There’s certainly times you’re going to make plays, when your going to get to the line and when you see an opportunity you try to make the most of it,” said Islanders forward Josh Bailey. “But, there’s also those times when you don’t want to push the envelope. If they’ve got numbers back you want to be smart. When you’re limiting those turnovers at the blueline, you’re limiting times they can come back down your throat. That’s stuff we talk about.”
“It’s about using your intelligence and really just playing predictable.”
This is especially true for defensemen, who are often the last man back when transitioning the puck. And while dump-ins may seems like a random event, players are conscious of where and how they dump it in, so they can give their linemates the best chance possible of recovering the puck in the offensive zone.
“We try to dump it to get it back,” said Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski. “Whether it’s a rim of a soft chip. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you’re kind of just throwing pucks in. Sometimes it might be your only play but I think for the most part you’re trying to dump it to get the puck back.”
Fellow defenseman, Brady Skjei of the New York Rangers added, “It goes into a pre-scout, you see what the team’s neutral zone is, if it’s a 1-3-1 or a 1-1-2. As a defencemen, you want to try to draw a guy to you then make a pass to the open guy. You can’t be too risky because as a defencemen, you’re the last line of defence back there.”
Speed can work to a teams advantage in many ways. For teams like the Islanders and Blues that can mean establishing an effective forecheking scheme built on puck recovery in the offensive zone and limiting mistakes in transition. For teams like Chicago and Colorado , that can mean a more aggressive transition game. If the Islanders started forcing entries, unfavourable results would likely follow. If the Blackhawks turned into a dump-and chase team……well, just look at their record pre-November 10th.
So, if you see your favourite team dumping the puck in a bunch, wait to see how effective they are at getting the puck back before rushing to judgement. There’s a lot more that goes into these seemingly nondescript plays than you might think.
*Data as of Tuesday, November 26th, 2019.
(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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