Jacques Lemaire was onto something with his trap. It was recognized as a defensive system designed to slow down opponents to limit their offensive opportunities. At it's best, it was utilized as a counter-attacking system where the opposition would have to pay the price if/when the pressure. It all centered around one area: the neutral zone. Something that the larger analytics community is realizing as a rather important part of how a team performs. It's rather intuitive and you've seen it hundreds, if not thousands of times if you watch a lot of hockey games. But in recent years, more and more people are starting to count it.
Here at In Lou We Trust, we do approach it from one end. A reader by the name of Ryan Stinson got interested in looking at the defensive component. He counts zone exits (and passes) for Devils games, such as the last one against Colorado. He did it for many games in FanPosts to refine the reporting and get used to the site. Now, he's a listed writer and we all benefit. We can confirm with evidence what we know, such as that some defensemen are seemingly designated to move the puck out or that forwards tend to carry the puck out more foten. We can also learn which Devils have been the most successful and who's not succeeding, something I know I tend to really harp on if it results in a goal against - but seemingly ignored otherwise. It's work but it's valuable as it provides another metric to determine who's putting in the work and succeeding and who's trying but failing.
However, what's missing is going the other way through the neutral zone. The offensive component: zone entries. And those are just as important. A team that struggles to pass and move the puck through the neutral zone looks slow and disjointed. They don't generate many shots or offensive opportunities. A team that can move quickly, freely, and effectively looks fast, threatening, and likely puts up a lot of offense. The idea with these is to track how the team gets into the other end. We know that the Devils love to get the puck in deep and grind out pucks from the perimeter. But are they dumping it in before or after the blueline? Are they skating it in deep if the dangerous parts of the ice aren't available? Who's leading the way in terms of entries on a line? These are valuable questions.
I firmly believe that these questions most definitely apply to the power play. While ideally, tracking should be done at 5-on-5, the Devils' woeful power play is a great example as to why zone entries matter. We know that the Devils can definitely frustrate fans and viewers alike with how they approach the man advantage. Their success rate is currently at 17.6%, which is 20th best in the NHL. Why isn't there more goals? Because there aren't a lot of shots. According to Extra Skater, the Devils have the second lowest shooting rate in the NHL and the fewest amount of shots in power play situations. Why aren't there more shots? We know the Devils don't get a lot of power play time, but teams with about the same or fewer minutes have been far more prolific at shooting. While the Devils or any other team doesn't just fire away, the answer lies at how the Devils are getting in.
Just look at the last game against Colorado. On their first power play, their attempts at carrying it in faltered if not outright losing the puck in the neutral zone. Players wait at the blueline to go in and sometimes have to chase a puck they're at a disadvantage at getting with penalty killers already backed up. They got no shots on net. On their second power play, the Devils managed to keep a puck in the zone after a successful zone entry. They rang up four shots in quick succession and with the help of some fortunate possession. After another freeze, the Avanlance won a faceoff in their own end, got a clear, and held off the Devils from anything except for a fifth shot for about thirty seconds. Why? Because it took the Devils that long to retrieve the puck, get it back up ice, and then get into their end to set something up. While winning the faceoff always helps in that spot, a quicker response and zone entry may have yielded more shots too. It's one game but it showed a stark difference at how unsuccessful zone entries can waste an opportunity and how even just one success can lead to potential successes like shots on target.
Of course, not that all zone entries lead to shots and goals. But for the Devils, they're not going to get more of either if they're losing pucks to the other team (e.g. turnovers, bad passes, dumping it away, offsides that lead to opposition faceoff wins, etc.) as they try to get in. It's been a potential root cause all season long as to why their shooting numbers are so low beyond their below-median power play success rate. If the new Director of Hockey Analytics for the Devils wants to make an impact right away, then I strongly suggest that he or she start with how the Devils breakout in power play situations. It could lead to a more watchable and effective power play, which could get the Devils some more goals and possibly more wins (or fewer shootouts).
But what I'm interested is what happens at even strength, the most common situation in hockey. From a larger perspective, it's been presented from a technical standpoint how important zone entries are. (Link goes to a .PDF file) For the Devils, I think we all would love to know who's driving that particular aspect in addition to attempts, shots, and points. It may give insight as to how lines are constructed and instructed (I believe some lines dump-in more and on purpose). In conjunction with zone exits, we can have another dimension to how we look and judge's players performances. In other words, how are they handling getting through the neutral zone on a game to game basis?
If these questions interest you and you're interested in diving deep into entries like Ryan does for exits, then please send me an email (It's in the masthead) and we can sort it out. Ryan and I will help you out, and if you show that you can do it and enjoy it for a bit of time, then you could be on here like he is with his exists. Ask and you shall find and all that. If you're not as interested, then consider the larger issue of zone entries. Do you think the Devils' power play woes can be directly attributed to how they gain the zone? From observation, what would recommend they do instead? Off the top of my head, they tend to have one man either carry it in through the middle, have someone go up the side for a short pass a few feet into the zone, or dumbly dump it in. From observation, who do you think is and isn't good at getting the puck in? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about zone entries in the comments. Thank you for reading.