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Dumping the Puck: Scoring Plays

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The Anaheim Ducks like to dump the puck in.

kid&sassy

Two trends have presented themselves through the four even strength goals we've charted in the first two games. At the time of writing, the Anaheim Ducks have added three more even strength goals against the Buffalo Sabres. One of those is only technically even strength, as the power play that preceded it ended mere seconds before the goal went in. I can't look at the game in Buffalo as anything but a massive abnormality, however. There will not be many games ending with 75 percent of the unblocked shots attempted going one way.

The first trend is patently obvious from the charts I will drop in as well as the previous [incomplete] season's zone entry data I have from Corey Sznajder for 2013-14: the Ducks prefer dumping the puck in (about 53% of the time) to attempting to carry the puck in at 47%. This team is currently the heaviest one weight-wise in the league, so dumping in the puck as a broad strategy isn't a terrible plan, as far as plans go. In watching the goal-scoring plays as well as the flow of play leading up to them, I'd say the information from last year is still more or less relevant. This team dumps the puck in often.

The problem is, of course, something advanced analytics people have been saying for a while now: carrying the puck in allows for about 50% more shot attempts per entry. Through around 60 games last year, the Ducks carried the puck into the offensive zone 1,663 times. From those carry-ins, the team generated 1,083 shots. Conversely, Anaheim dumped the puck 1,898 times and only generated 566 shots from those entries.

Right away, we can determine that the team's preference to dump the puck in limits its shot generation. This is showing up in weaker possession metrics despite decent goals for. Where this team defies normal patterns is that it still tends to create a fair share of scoring chances (shots within a specific home plate zone) despite its fewer shots. This makes me think the Ducks' forwards are fully capable of playing a more possession-heavy, through the middle carry-in approach based on their skill, but that talent is only activated when mistakes occur in the offensive zone. It is, in short, very conservative.

Because as you will see below, in most cases additional "Corsi" or shot attempt events are rare after the initial zone entry, while the goals themselves occur in precisely that prime chance area. This has held true in nearly every dump play I've gone back and watched, whether they've scored or not. The 2014-15 Anaheim Ducks are a one-and-done dump-and-chase team on offense right now. (This is of course subject to change as more games are played.)

The second trend is a bit more subtle. I wouldn't say it shows up in these charts at all actually, but the process we've undertaken has brought it to my attention much more. I think the Ducks dump the puck in more by design, and not simply because of the team's weight. Boudreau wants Anaheim to dump pucks as a way of playing a more structured defense. This goes back to the conservative offensive approach mentioned earlier. The risks inherent in making skill plays are safer to make deeper into the zone.

While this philosophy bucks the common theory that having the puck more increases a team's chance to score and decreases a team's chance to be scored on, there may be some logic here, given this team's defense. Teams that have the puck, carry it in more than dump it, and use the middle of the ice (particularly with speed) have thus far given the Ducks fits. Turnovers closer to the neutral zone allow these teams a better opportunity to create those chances against the defense.

And those are the teams Anaheim gets hemmed in by. The Pittsburghs and the Detroits are precisely the sorts of fast, possession-heavy teams hurting this team. Those teams come up the gut and shoot before dump, which puts the puck into the middle of the ice before the Ducks can get bodies back to seal off lanes. Those teams will get multiple shots against in one go because Anaheim is scrambling to get bodies back and, not so much retrieve the puck but, prevent clean shots. Pucks dumped by the Ducks, if turned over, have to come 200 feet, and the team has bodies in place before it arrives.

This became very evident in charting these goals because of the number of mistakes in the defensive zone each goal required to work. While there was plenty of specific skill abounding to make plays work, in each instance there were always at least one or two forced errors that had to occur for the goal to be scored. Usually, possession teams will force those mistakes in the neutral zone. Anaheim gambles closer to the opposing net but, should it not work, there is a cushion before defending occurs.

Going back to last postseason, I'd say the Ducks lost to the Los Angeles Kings not because there was any radical change to systems by either team (although the Kings stopped trying to win the wall and did begin going up the middle more). Anaheim lost that series because Los Angeles stopped making the sorts of mistakes that dump-in hockey absolutely requires to work in terms of scoring. Early in the series, the Kings were lapsing into over-challenging the Ducks play. When Los Angeles shored up its defensive zone play, the Ducks scoring couldn't outpace the possession difference, and series over.

It looks like this "defend by dumping, create by forcing errors deep" method hasn't much changed from last year, so far. However, there's some better personnel to make it work, so not all is lost. For instance, Ryan Kesler is a very effective forechecker who can thrive in a dump-in, force-error system, especially if played with other good forechecking forwards.

Without further ado, the beautiful even strength, dump-in goals scoring charts through two games! As is normal now that the season has started, the goal highlight comes first.

This is the second goal scored against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

The scoring chart for the goal.

Here's the play:

1. Getzlaf collects loose puck in NZ, dumps puck on goal
2. Maroon wins rebound, sends pass into slot
3. Getzlaf shot on goal, blocked or saved
- Lovejoy pinches and contests rebound, rushes clearing play (no clear touch)
4. Fowler collects clearing attempt, circles back into NZ
5. Perry receives pass, turns toward middle, and dumps puck into corner
6. Maroon pressures goalie stop/clear, steals puck, passes to slot
7. Perry into an empty net

In keeping with this post, the main takeaway from this sequence is that it required three lost puck battles or forced errors to work. On the initial dump in (on goal), the goalie holding the puck ends the play. Likewise, if the retreating defenders were first to the puck, there is a decreased chance of regaining the puck from the dump in.

The second lost battle is after the shot on goal at touch three. If Lovejoy isn't aware, quick on the puck, and able to force a clearing attempt along the wall instead of, say, back into open ice, the play could get away from the Ducks. And obviously, as the highlight shows, the third mistake is the puck handling by the goalie that leads to the steal by Patrick Maroon before he gets the puck to Corey Perry.

Maroon and Lovejoy, to me, exhibit the most skill in this sequence. Maroon did a solid job getting pucks, which along with his ability to hold pucks along the wall is becoming something he's earning a reputation for doing. Lovejoy's decision to challenge the loose puck instead of back off, which is something he and Fowler do more than other pairings on account of both being mobile, was also a smart one.

But at any of at least three points, the play could have been shut down. I would call this one a bit lucky.

A side note/observation: I wonder if Ryan Getzlaf dumped the puck in on net here because of the gameplan on Marc-Andre Fleury or because it is one of the tricks Kesler brought with him from Vancouver? I've seen it a few more times than just here so far from this crew.

This is the first goal scored against the Detroit Red Wings.

Here is the scoring chart.

The play:

1. Fowler retrieves the puck off a clear (Detroit changing), skates it up to the blue line for tip-in dump
2. Kesler tips Fowler's pass/dump and goes for a change
3. Maroon pressures Howard, disrupts play, strips puck, sends to slot
4. Perry attempts to bring it into his body for a shot, puck flutters off stick
5. Getzlaf collects loose puck and buries shot on scrambling goalie

This is one of the times when dumping the puck is quite understandable. The goal scorer is on the ice in place of the man who tipped the puck in, so this was clearly a line changing situation. The perseverance of Maroon to get in on top of the Detroit defense and goaltender and retrieve the puck is what made this a scoring situation. This is another goal that is almost entirely born from the work he's done.

And yet, if Howard touches the puck and simply sends it on its intended path instead of trying to reverse it back (into Maroon), this entire play falls apart. It once again relies on a forced error that may or may not occur from a team expecting the Ducks to apply such pressure on the forecheck. Maroon's hard work here is aided by Howard, similar to Fleury in Pittsburgh, being a hot disaster when he decides to play the puck.

Here is the second goal from the Red Wings game.

The scoring chart!

How this unfolds:

1. Vatanen comes away with the puck after a great [pink] puck battle in the corner and skates it toward the blue line until a centering forward option presents itself
2. Cogliano receives pass and is herded toward the left side (classic Detroit left-side lock), he opts to dump it in
3. Kesler pressures the clear by the backchecking Red Wings player, comes away with puck, and sends a puck off another opponent into the slot
4. Beleskey finishes

This is actually another line changing situation, as Andrew Cogliano exits the ice after he dumps it in. Jakob Silfverberg is the other forward on when the goal occurs. Again, dumping the puck in when going for a change is not a bad time to dump the puck, and the Ducks ability to make something of it is pretty great.

But it is still lucky or due to mistakes. In this event, there's really two places the play could fall apart: if the Red Wings player wins the dump in retrieval from Kesler, the play dies. Likewise, if Kesler's slot pass doesn't bounce off another player and deflect out to a Ducks player joining the play in just the right position, this doesn't go down as easy.

This goal, of all the ones I'm sharing here, strikes me as the closest to legitimate as possible. There's no goalie error. There's no uncalled penalty. Kesler is known for his tenaciousness in getting in on the forecheck and retrieving pucks. That's a skill, I'm comfortable saying. But that little deflection the puck takes before coming out into the slot is still an awful lucky thing and not skill. But...it sure does look like Kesler is looking square at that defending player. "Almost" like he aimed for that deflected pass. Almost.

Finally, here's the last goal of the game in Detroit.

Here's the scoring chart.

The sequence:
1. Lindholm collects puck, quick touch over to less pressured player with better clearing lane
2. Beauchemin attempts to clear but the attempt is blocked/stopped, puck deflects up wall
3. Perry collects puck, turns, gives it to forward who has speed
4. Getzlaf carries out of DZ, goes around one checking Red Wings player, and dumps the puck after crossing the red line, (off-puck, Getzlaf fights through obstruction to catch the Red Wings defender, who has a step on him due to it and hooks his wrists)
5. Getzlaf strips puck off fallen defender, drives to the front of the net and commits the fanciest stickwork and backhand dangle you'll ever see

Getzlaf is incredibly good at hockey. From the fourth touch in the defensive end until the goal is scored, this entire play is one driven man attacking the tired Red Wings players on the ice. Before getting into anything else, his skill in getting past the neutral zone check, fighting through the obstruction, regaining the puck, and finely handling the puck in such tight quarters before his backhand is awesome.

But the sheer amount of times this play could have broken down is obvious. If Beauchemin gets his clearing attempt through, Anaheim is likely lining up for a face-off after an icing infraction. Getzlaf has to make four specific skilled or power moves to complete his part of the scoring play but are also where the play could end. And ultimately, if the referee was calling the game correctly with under one minute to go, there's two infractions he could have whistled play dead for that would have ended it: the obstruction or the hooking.

In all four goals outlined above, a lot has to go right for the plays to succeed. These aren't the best examples of pure skill plays or of systemic breakdowns of an opponent through strong play. These four even strength goals, all off dump ins, required either forced errors, outright mistakes (made by goalies), or sheer luck (good bounces).

Now, this is only four goals through two games. That's a very small sample. There will be a lot more goal types and situations after the next two games, I'm certain. But going back to last season, when this team played much the same way (middling possession metrics) but posted insane amounts of goals, there sure seems to be a continuation of that luck going. Most NHL goals require a mistake or systemic breakdown to occur. In these four goals, it isn't just one or the other, it is often two or three (or five) things that have to go just right.

Eventually, this sort of luck figures to run out. When fewer shot attempts occur per dump in, the Ducks have to work much harder to score enough goals to overcome the weaker in transition defense we've seen so far. (On an unrelated note: I could write an entire post about how I think this is Boudreau still overreacting to his superior Washington Capitals being trounced in the playoffs by a very hot Montreal Canadiens goaltender. If he knew stats better, he'd go back to his previous "open" system in a heartbeat.)

To me, the real focus on battling these trends is improving the team's play in the neutral zone. This is probably a combination of improving the neutral zone defensive structure and encouraging more carries with the puck. One thing is clear: staying safe only got a team like the Ducks so far in the postseason the past two years.