Zone Exits and Passing Stats at the Olympic Break: Defensemen

Jon Merrill. Better than we think? - Jim McIsaac

This is a comprehensive review of the zone exit and passing stats for the New Jersey Devils defensemen at the 59-game point in the season. It attempts to rank the defensemen based on possession and shot-generation data that I've collected all season long. Read on for the details.

Season-to-Date Passing and Zone Exit Stats for Devils Defensemen

This is a look at the zone exit and passing stats for the Devils Defensemen from the start of the season through the Olympic Break. The amount of data and words needed to write up the entire team in either category would be overwhelming at this point, so you’ll get a Part 1 and Part 2. You’ll see several new columns compared to the single-game recaps. There are only a few new stats this time: using the NHL’s Even Strength Time On Ice totals, we can identify how frequently a player attempts a pass, creates a shot attempt, and creates a shot. You’ll see that down below and the columns are broken down by Even Strength Minute per Pass (ESM/P), Shot Attempt Generated (ESM/SAG), and Shot Generated (ESM/SG).

All Corsi, Quality of Competition, and Quality of Teammates figures were pulled from ExtraSkater. Time On Ice figures were pulled from NHL.com.

Terms You May See:

Terms

40 game summaries are here and here for your reference. Let’s get to it.

Defensemen

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Marek Zidlicky: Zidlicky’s possession exit rate dropped 2%, but his success rate increased by a half-percent. He saw more attempts per game in the last 19 as he’s now averaging almost 10 zone exits a game. His turnovers per game almost came down ever-so-slightly, though it never quite feels like it, does it? His passing did improve in the defensive zone, however, so it supports his decreased turnover rate. By zone, Zid completes 76% (DZ), 78% (NZ), and 74% (OZ). Only his passing in the neutral zone saw a dip (2%).

Zidlicky creates some solid chances from beyond the offensive zone. Since I started tracking shot generation by zone, Zid has created 10 shot attempts from either the DZ or NZ, and 9 of them have resulted in shots. However, his offensive zone shot generation hasn’t been that great, as only 30% of his SAG result in SG. Overall, nearly 41% of the shot attempts Zid creates result in a shot on goal, which is just about average for the defensemen. But that fits Zid’s narrative: high in quantity, but nothing special in terms of quality.

What does this mean about Zidlicky? It means he’s perhaps the best defenseman on the team at making that long breakout pass or sending someone into the zone and shooting it on net. It also means that the shot attempts Zid creates in the offensive zone are numerous and not the best quality as many are missed and/or blocked. We may have suspected it for a while, but now we can quantify it.

As we move to his contribution rates, Zid is now 2nd on the blue line with a 37.1 CC%. He’s behind Eric Gelinas and Andy Greene in terms of on-ice individual shot attempt percentage, but still leads the group in terms of SAG/CF%. 9% of Zid’s passes result in a shot attempt, while 4.3% of his passes result in a shot.

By zone, Zidlicky’s percentages have remained about the same, with a slight uptick in terms of what percentage of his passes occur in the offensive zone (23.2%).

Looking at Zid’s total time on ice and dividing it by his total pass attempts, SAG, and SG, we can get an idea of how frequently he handles the puck and creates offensive opportunities. Zidlicky attempts a pass every 48 seconds, generates a shot attempt every 8:54, and generates a shot every 22:35. All of these numbers are well ahead of the group’s averages, which is no surprise given Zidlicky’s offensive tendencies. But, it’s another way to evaluate how (in)effective these players are.

Andy Greene: Greene didn’t see much change in his zone exit percentages and averages. The largest change occurred regarding his turnovers as they jumped from 1.4 to 1.5 per game, but, again, if that’s the largest change then not much has really changed. His overall passing didn’t change much (2% increase in the NZ, 2% decrease in the OZ).

Greene’s shot generation is a bit better in the offensive zone compared to Zidlicky in terms of actual shots (35% to 30%), but falls short of Zid from beyond the offensive zone (54.5% to 90%). At the end of the day, they are nearly identical in S/SAG percentage.

Greene’s 34.8 CC% is significantly higher than a the 40 game mark and he’s taking more and more of the team’s on-ice shot attempts, which stands at 26%, up from 16.2%. Someone told Greene to shoot more and he’s been obliging them.

By zone, Greene has upped his neutral and offensive zone time slightly, thereby reducing the number of pass attempts from his own end.

Greene attempts a pass every 0:51, generates a shot attempt every 13:35, and generates a shot every 30:02 of ice time. These numbers are more relevant to the Devils forwards, but it’s also good to compare the defensemen the team has.

Mark Fayne: Fayne continues to slowly improve his zone exits as he now stands at 43 PE%, up nearly 3% from the 40 game mark. Similar to Greene, Fayne had a small jump in his turnovers. Also similar to Fayne, he had small changes to his completion percentages: 3% increase in the neutral zone, 2% decrease in the offensive zone.

Fayne never has been a dominant offensive player, so it’s no surprise that of all the shots he generates for others, only 22.6% of them result in shots on goal, 2nd lowest on the blue line ahead of Gelinas. He’s generating chances at the average rate for the team (6.6% of his passes result in a shot attempt) but they just aren’t finding the goalie/back of the net.

Fayne has increased his CC% by 1.3% and his 55.5 CF% is behind only Greene on the blue line. These two also play against the opposition’s best lines, so to still come out ahead is fantastic.

By zone, Fayne has increased his presence in the neutral and offensive zones slightly, but not by much. 72.7% of his passes are still attempted from the defensive zone.

Fayne touches the puck less than his defense partner as he averages 1:02 per pass attempt, 15:39 per SAG, and 63:30 per SG. Fayne averages 16:17 of even strength ice time per game, so when looking at this totals, one could typically expect Fayne to average 15 or 16 pass attempts, generated 1 shot attempt, and .25 shots per game. Compared to Greene’s pass attempt every 0:51, it’s clear which of the two defensemen handles the puck more often.

Eric Gelinas: Gelinas’ PE% dropped by 3% and now sits at 42.8 PE%. His turnovers continued to climb to 1.75 per game, though that’s not a surprise as he was a regular in the turnover column after several games. It hasn’t been too much of a detriment to his completion percentages. His DZ% dropped slightly, but his NZ% dropped 3%. Gelinas did fare a bit better in the offensive zone, evident by his 1% increase.

Gelinas has only added 9 SAG since the 40-game mark, a sign of his in-and-out of the lineup. It’s not like passing is his first or second option anyways. He has the lowest S/SAG generation rates of any defenseman. Less than 5% of his passes result in a shot attempt, and less than 1% result in a shot. Gelinas’ only saving grace is his shot—The Truth, as John has named it—and how often he shoots. When Gelinas is on the ice, he accounts for 36% of his team’s shot attempts. Because of his, his CC% is the highest on the blue line at 42.6%.

By zone, Gelinas is actually pretty close to Fayne: 73% of his passes are attempted in the defensive zone, 12% in the neutral, and 15% in the offensive zone. These are about the same to where he was at the 40-game mark.

Gelinas attempts a pass every 0:52, a second behind Greene. He generates a shot attempt every 18:59, and generates a shot every 162:17. He’s the guy that shoots, not passes. Still, I was surprised to see how low his shots generated totals were.

Jon Merrill: Merrill has certainly come way down from his early possession exit numbers. At the 40-game mark, he sported a solid 52.6 PE%, but now he’s at 46.2%. Turnovers have increased, but the largest jump was in his chips and failed passes. Merrill is still the blue line’s best passer and found a way to get even better since the 40-game mark. Merrill’s completion percentage by zone are 87.3% (DZ), 89.6% (NZ), and 90.8% (OZ), all of which are improvements over his previous totals.

Merrill has the highest S/SAG % of the defemsen—65.2%, which is over 20% higher than the group’s average. Put simply, the shot attempts Merrill generates turn into actual shots on net more often than any other Devils defenseman.

Considering all of that, his CC% is only 25.5% and he’s below average in both iCF/CF% and SAG/CF% compared to his fellow defensemen. With Merrill, it’s simply a matter of quality over quantity. He picks his spots and when he makes a pass, it’s more likely to be complete, and it’s more likely to result in a shot, not just an attempt.

By zone, Merrill has attempted 70% of his passes from his own end, which is down from 72% at the 40-game mark. He’s ventured out a bit more as he’s attempted 13% in the neutral zone and 17% at the opposition end of the ice.

Merrill attempts a pass every 0:54, generates a shot attempt every 16:10, and generates a shot every 24:42. He’s about average in terms of Minutes Per Pass and Minutes Per SAG, but well ahead of the curve at Minutes Per SG: quality over quantity with Merrill. In fact, only Zidlicky and Greene generate shots more frequently than Merrill (yes, Harrold does to, but it’s only a 3-game sample size).

Anton Volchenkov: A-train has the lowest PE% anyone has had all season: 33.9%. He still doesn’t turn the puck over very often (less than 1 per game), so most of his zone exits are chips out of the zone and failed passes more than anything else. His completion percentages went up and down like most defensemen: his DZ% went down 2%, his NZ% went up 6%, and his OZ% remained about the same.

Volchenkov has yet to generate a shot within the offensive zone and only has 2 to his name. He’s stayed just below the group average for SAG/Pass% at 5.2%, but it’s certainly not part of his game to be generating offense. His CC% is only 25.7%, which is still higher than the Captain’s, so at least he’s got that going for him. Volchenkov still accounts for 20.1% of the shots taken while he’s on the ice, so he’s bombing away more than I thought. Passing stats were simply not made with Volchenkov in mind.

By zone, Volchenkov has attempted the same amount passes in the defensive zone as he did at the 40-game mark. The percentage of his total pass attempts for the other two zones has stayed about the same—only a .7% shift from OZ to NZ.

True to form as the stay-at-home defensemen, Volchenkov attempts a pass every 1:04, the longest time between pass attempts of the Devils blue liners, generates a shot attempt every 20:38, and generates a shot every 95:35.

Bryce Salvador: Salvador’s turnovers per game has skyrocketed to 1.9, up from 1.2. If not for the Olympic Break, he’d have surpassed Harrold in another week as being the defenseman most likely to turn the puck over—not a place you want your Captain to be in. His PE% bottomed out at 34.8%, which is only above Volchenkov. Since the last summary, Salvador’s passing has decreased slightly in the DZ and NZ, but improved 7% in the OZ.

The rates at which Salvador generates shots is actually quite good (above 50% across all zones). His 52.6 S/SAG% is second only to Merrill. 6.1% of Sal’s passes result in a shot attempt, and 3.5% of his passes result in a shot. Those are surprisingly decent numbers for Sal. Of course, he is the only defensemen with a sub 50% CF% (49.9%), so it’s fair to say that when he’s on the ice, more than any other blue liner in Jersey, play will likely end up at the Devils end of the ice.

His CC% is 22.1%, which is the lowest among defensemen. Salvador attempts a pass every 1:03, generates a shot attempt every 17:34, and generates a shot every 32:39.

By zone, Salvador spends about the same about time in each zone now as he did at the 40-game mark. In fact, there’s a small decrease in the percentage of pass attempts in the offensive zone, but not much has changed.

Adam Larsson: Larsson hasn’t played in forever, so no change regarding his zone exits. However, we can look at how frequently he attempted passes and created shot attempts. Larsson was right at the average for minutes per pass at 0:56 and slightly below average in terms of minutes per SAG at 17:15. His offensive abilities saw a spike after being paired with Gelinas, so maybe that’s the key to getting Larsson more involved: pair with an offensive defenseman.

Peter Harrold: Harrold came back into the lineup the last week before the Olympic Break. He improved on his PE% by 2% and lowered his turnovers per game to 2.13, but that’s still highest on the team. With 3 games added to his passing totals, he was able to show improvement over his last couple of showings in 2013. Harrold increased his completion percentages in the defensive and offensive zone, but dropped off slightly in the neutral zone.

3 of the 5 shot attempts Harrold generated in the past week resulted in shots on net, which is a promising stat. Unfortunately, based on Harrold’s previous 21 games, I don’t expect it to continue. He’s been playing well though, so we’ll see how he does after the Olympics. He’s also been shooting it more often, as his iCF/Team CF% has increased 2% to 20%. What that means is that Harrold is taking 20% of his team’s on-ice shot attempts. His CC% is now 28.9 after his increased shooting.

Only Zidlicky attempts a larger percentage of passes in the offensive zone than Harrold. He is almost to that 20% mark (19.6%), but he did lower his DZ% to 69.8%, so nearly a third of Harrold’s passes are attempted away from the Devils net.

Every 0:54, Harrold attempts a pass; every 15:57, he generates a shot attempt, and (again, based on only his last 3 games), every 16:45 he’s generating a shot. Those won’t quite match up since I have 21 games of Harrold generating shot attempts, but all 21 of them were before I started tracking actual shots generated. He’s had a good three games though.

It’s a lot to digest, I Know, so Here’s a Summary of What it All Means

It might be tough slogging through all of the data and individual player summaries, so this section will expound on what might be most important. In the spirit of the Olympics, I’ll hand out a Gold, Silver, and Bronze to the Devil’s defensemen in terms of how, when you consider all of this data, just how valuable they are to the team and why. This is for those that maybe aren’t as interested in the actual data.

If this were the Olympics for the blue line, each defenseman would compete in 6 events: Possession Exit %, Defensive Zone Turnovers Per Game, Corsi For %, Shot Attempts Generated/Pass Attempt %, Overall Accuracy, and Corsi Contribution %. Why these events? I kept to those related to possession and shot-attempt generation as those the more commonly accepted and debated stats in the hockey analytics community. I ranked each player based on their totals (the best defenseman received a “1” for that category and the worst received a “9”, etc.) and then ranked them overall based on who had the lowest total number. This was done to determine who was not the “best” player, but the most efficient and possession-friendly player. Before we get to the results, let’s look at a few of the events themselves.

One clear takeaway is that Merrill (88.2% Overall Accuracy) is the team’s most accurate passer by far. Fayne is the next highest at 84.8%. Then there are 5 defensemen in between 79.6 % and 81.9%. Zidlicky (75.7%) and Harrold (76.7%) are the team’s least accurate passers. Merrill is only behind Greene/Fayne in terms of Corsi and he has the highest PE% on the blue line. Using all of this data, one can reasonably conclude that Merrill has been one of the Devils best, if not the best, defenseman from a possession standpoint. We need more Merrills.

Fayne looks quite good by these rankings: he’s the 2nd most accurate, has the 2nd strongest CF%, and the percentage of his pass attempts that result in shot attempts is 2nd only to Zidlicky. Greene is right there with Fayne, scoring a bit higher in the CC% and CF% events, but slightly lower in terms of Accuracy and turnovers.

There’s a significant drop off after these three in terms of overall rankings. Some have their specific events they excel at (Volchenkov leads the group in fewest turnovers committed, Zidlicky generates the highest amount of shot attempts per pass, and Gelinas holds the highest CC%), but when looking at everything, it’s clear who the medal winners on the blue line are.

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Gold: Fayne. His total from all 6 events was only 19. The quiet, unsung type who plays a smart, two-way game, Fayne is perhaps the most underrated of the Devils defensemen.

Silver: Greene. Totaling 21, Greene was only 2 behind his regular partner. Greene probably loses the top spot due to his below average (in terms of position ranking) turnovers per game and accuracy.

But Who is Deserving of Bronze?: Merrill. Only 1 point behind Greene, Merrill could easily have been top if not for his quite low CC% and SAG/Pass%. If he can get going offensively, he might be a stud.

As I mentioned above, there’s a clear drop off after the medal winners. The next four (Zidlicky, Larsson, Gelinas, and Volchenkov) were all bunched up between 28 – 33 total points. Harrold finished 8th with 41. Oh, and Bryce Salvador didn’t make the Devils Olympic Team due to a poor showing in Nationals, so he wasn’t ever in contention for a medal. Sorry Bryce. Better luck 4 years from now. His total was 45, the worst ranking among the defensemen. Where have we heard that before?

Reviewing the Pass by Zone and Minutes Per Pass Sections

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These are relatively new to you, readers, so I wanted to take some time and discuss them. If you’ve been reading since October, then you know I’m using soccer stats as a template for how I approach passing and shot-generation stats for ice hockey. Soccer tracks a lot of things by the minute as to how frequently a player creates a chance, completes a dribble, wins a tackle, etc. Naturally, I wanted to know how much a player was doing with their ice time.

Dividing a player’s total even strength ice time by their total pass attempts gives us an approximation on how frequently that player has the puck and how involved they are with the play. This also gives us a snapshot of the different in SAG quality among skaters, i.e. if a player is generating a shot attempt every 10 minutes of ice time, but only generates a shot every 60 minutes, chances are those are the best shot attempts to begin with.

This furthers our cause to identify the true shot-generators on a team, not just by volume, but by frequency and quality as well.

The Pass by Zone that I introduced last time has made its way into my single-game recaps if you haven’t noticed. I’ve referenced it and am thinking about posting the pass totals by period in the recap to see how each period unfolded and who controlled more of the possession. It’s taken the viewing even further in terms of identifying just who was spending time in which zone and how well the team was performing. Let me know your thoughts on this and how you might like to see it incorporated along with the other stats. Right now, it’s simply a measure of territorial presence.

Using this data and the Olympic Rankings, I’d like to see a defense core look like this:

Fayne – Greene

Merrill – Zidlicky

Larsson – Gelinas

Volchenkov as the 7th D

Harrold and Salvador are so far behind the others in every measurable way that they should be traded or waived at this point. Actually, Harrold has played better recently, so keep him as the 8th D, but the longer your Captain is arguably one of the worst players on the team, I think that has a negative effect on the players. How can you preach accountability?

This lineup is barring a trade of some sort, but this is the best the team has right now when I look at it. If you think Gelinas isn’t ready, then throw Volchenkov in. Larsson should be up here though. There’s no reason he needs to be in Albany.

In the Next Review

Throughout the Olympic Break, I’ll be posting examples of pass totals from games involving Devils opponents, i.e. how well did Nashville pass the puck against the Devils on January 31st? How about the Avalanche? Capitals? Oilers? From this, we can get an idea of who controlled the puck more than the other team and look and possible new ways to evaluate how the team is doing. Also, if Corsi is based on which team is attempting more shots than the other, this might lead into another discussion on how much passing stats matter if one controls one of these stat categories more than the other: 1) Offensive Zone Attempts? 2) SAG? 3) SG? 4) Specific SAG/SG by zone? 5) Overall Pass Attempts? 6) Offensive Zone Completion %? There are so many new ways to analyze a single game with this data and that is the next step in this process.

Are there any specific games the Devils played this season you’d like to see the passing stats for the opposing team? Sound off below and I’ll get on it. I hope to get quite a few done over the break. Don’t be shy.

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