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Kicking the Cycle: Scoring Plays

One even strength cycle goal for a top line that loves to cycle. Maybe stop trying that so much!


[Disclaimer: this was a bit delayed by some killer deadlines for our paying jobs. Some of the information is not completely up-to-date, but it was as of last week. Sorry for the delay, but getting paid is great stuff.]

The Anaheim Ducks are ninth in total goals scored in the 2014-15 season, as of the time of this writing (before the home game against the New York Islanders). The team is sixth in goals against, meaning the fewest allowed (not most), which suggests that what some among the mainstream media covering the team have called "good defense" is the cause of their being at the top of the league standings. I wrote a quick article about that here debunking that very thing, but it got me thinking specifically about how the team is scoring versus its advanced stats once more.

Click the link so I can avoid restating info, but broadly the Ducks are right in the middle in terms of possession play (judged by score-adjusted and score-close unblocked shot attempts). The team has a 5v5 PDO of 101 at the moment by shooting at 6.93% (slightly below average) with a save percentage of 94.07 (above). Anaheim's PDO in score-close situations is actually higher, at 102.3, because the team shoots at an inflated 8.97% without a drastic drop in save percentage (93.33).

You know my take: the Ducks have been winning close games by stellar goaltending. There isn't enough strength in its possession numbers to account for the team's high goal differential. One of the reasons I wanted to track each and every goal Anaheim scores was to analyze this very thing. How does this largely average possession team continue to score so many goals and win so many games?

I'm reminded of the earlier post I wrote detailing the Ducks dump-in tendencies. Dumping the puck reduces a team's shot attempts per entry by about half, which would certainly play into the Ducks' middling possession numbers so far. The team still dumps the puck in more than it carries it into the offensive zone. In fact, here's some numbers from that Islanders-Ducks game showing what I mean, thanks to garik16.

But another thing popped out at me that also suggests Anaheim is playing below an optimal efficiency on attack. The concept behind dumping the puck is to "get pucks deep, get on the cycle, wear down opponents, make them chase." Like, we hear that from almost all 30 coaches in the league. What they are describing is the fabled Cycle Game of Dreamy Gritty Hockeying. And they are describing a style of play that largely doesn't work anymore.

I'm not suggesting dumping the puck has no place, nor getting it deep, nor anything like that. I understand the systemic purposes of "smart hockey" and that there's a time for each sort of strategy to exist. In fact, one of my examples discusses this later. What I am saying is that teams are purposefully losing efficiency in offense when attempting to play these styles over attacking more directly: carrying the puck in and shooting it over attempting to start a cycle. Recovering a rebound and cycling it back into a shot attempt should become the new cycle game.

Here's where some info is outdated, but the principle remains intact. The Ducks have scored 35 total goals so far this season. Guess how many have come off of dump-ins to this point? Three. How many have come off the cycle? Two. Meanwhile, Anaheim has eight goals off the rush. This isn't just a Ducks thing either: most goals in the league are scored off the rush every year, regardless of the team. The difference in average zone time before a goal is scored between a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs (widely regarded as a rush team) and the Los Angeles Kings (widely regarded as a dump-and-chase team) is only something like two seconds, and both are under 10 seconds total.

Now to be fair to the data, four goals have come off of turnovers due to a strong forecheck. These are goals that occur as a result of a pressured error or mistake, usually in the offensive zone (but one has occurred at the blue line). Depending on your view, you could chalk those up as dump-in goal types. This is because strong forechecking teams are usually the ones identified as good dump-and-chase or cycle teams.

That's a bit of a mirage in the modern game, however. From the goals we've tracked, a good forecheck can happen off any type of entry, whether it is controlled (carried in) or uncontrolled (dumped in) or even chased off an opponent's regrouping attempt. But on top of that, a good forecheck isn't just related to offensive zone play. Forechecking through the neutral zone has become the staple of stronger possession teams in recent years. Some call it "backchecking" or "back tracking," but the basic forechecking concept of pressuring the puck carrier or his outlets is roughly identical in a game that's increasingly requiring all five guys playing in each zone.

Because of this, I've been comfortable tracking those types of "caused by strong forecheck" goals as separate. When the dump-in is recovered and turned into the scoring play without a cycle, it is a dump-in type goal. When a goal is scored after the puck has been worked around the zone some, it is a cycle goal. The latter involves multiple controlled, successive touches prior to the goal being scored. I have intentions of breaking out cycle goals into subsets, as in those scored from plays that start with controlled possession (clean entry, rush attempts, face-offs) and those scored from dump-ins, strong forechecking, and broken play cycles. So far, each of the two cycle goals have been in separate sets, so I'm waiting for more data.

So what's a rush goal then, if that is the currency of efficient goal scoring nowadays? Definitions of this will vary by person, but pertaining to our project here, a rush goal is any goal scored before the opponent has set up in the defensive zone. Obviously the basic premise of the play developing off the rush (or in quick transition) applies. All 10 skaters could theoretically be in the zone by the time the goal is scored, but broadly this is a continuation play on the original zone entry that occurs before the defending skaters are properly set up. These goals are rushes and capture everything from the breakaway goals to a team entering the zone three abreast against three defenders and dropping it to a fourth attacker who one-times it.

There hasn't been a ton of work done on this league-wide yet, but the small tracking I've seen certainly supports the idea that most of the goals scored in the league are off the rush. To me, this makes playing a cycle game off uncontrolled entries somewhat foolish. Dump-ins and wall battles aren't leading to goals in most instances. In the Ducks' case, since the team doesn't generate a lot of shots from its dump-ins (as last season's data shows), it is doubly inefficient to play that way intentionally.

If I'm a coach these days, I'm encouraging my entire team to dump the puck in less and to shoot as quickly as possible when entering the zone. Create havoc on every entry. If dumping the puck is still the preferred (or given, depending on defensive structure) method of entry, then at least generate more shots from anywhere when the puck is recovered. I wouldn't abandon the cycle at all but instead instruct my team to get into it after at least one shot attempt has been tried. The key to winning possession in the neutral and offensive zone in the modern game is puck recovery. Enter with control or recover a dumped puck and shoot it at least once, recover it, and then move about in a cycle to generate the next shot.  

And as the metrics have shown us in recent years, shots are the measure of possession for a reason: they correlate to scoring and winning over larger sample sizes.

But charts are sort of the thing here, so let me stop typing so much (as I type equally as many words below).

Here's a good example of a rush goal.

The payoff for making this play seems the most efficient and beneficial to me: a quick entry, a quick shot attempt (corsi event).

Here's how simply that charts up.

Click image to enlarge.

1. Jakob Silfverberg retrieves puck and exits zone (controlled) with pass to supporting breakout winger
2. Andrew Cogliano enters zone (controlled) and passes back to trailing centerman
3. Ryan Kesler carries into the high slot and finishes

If Kesler doesn't finish, he has one winger who has entered the zone with speed who can attempt to recover the puck and begin cycling it toward another shot chance. In this play, the shot attempt is also a scoring chance (shot taken from the slot). While that won't always be the case, even with rush attempts, a shot attempt at least makes the goaltender work. And in this case, miss the puck.

Here's a good example of a dump-in goal.

Most dump-in attempts require a win along the wall or in the path to the puck to recover, and Patrick Maroon certainly does that by bumping his man into the 50-50 puck and coming out with it, as can be seen in the highlight. How Hampus Lindholm gets into the slot without marking speaks more to the opponent than to any real skill or organized attack by the Ducks. What I see here is a very good forechecker taking advantage of a broken play and disorganized defense.

Here's how that looks in chart form, with Maroon's route shown for emphasis.

Click image to enlarge.

1. Ryan Getzlaf intercepts pass into slot and exits zone (controlled) before dumping the puck (uncontrolled entry) and going off for a change
2. Maroon bumps defender once, wins 50-50 puck, and passes back into slot
3. Lindholm finishes

A more organized defense is going to make that slot pass nearly impossible to achieve. In such instances, the forechecker is either going to eat the puck (hold it as long as possible), pass it up high, or switch it along the wall to open up the defense with the low cycle. It appears Maroon has a certain aptitude for knowing when to get loose pucks to prime areas, so the normal outcomes for dump-in attempts can be marginalized by his talent somewhat, the same way it is with Corey Perry. (Both are magnets for the puck.)

However, and I can't emphasize this enough: while Colorado concedes the slot pass very easily, the teams in Los Angeles, San Jose, or Chicago aren't going to give it up like that. Maroon is probably sending the puck up high or eating it against those teams. This ties back into my previous post about dump-ins and how much luck they tend to require to work out.

One thing the zone entry data from last season shows is that Getzlaf dumped the puck in a lot more than his elite center contemporaries. This could partially explain his perpetually low goal totals despite his having a very hard and strong shot. That'd be an interesting thing to study. But I think a credible reason for that is actually playing with Perry, who recovers an obscene amount of dumped pucks. If Maroon has that same dogged determination on the forecheck, it certainly makes the dump-and-chase at least a palatable option for the Ducks, even if it isn't the one I'd propose.

And I wouldn't propose it for a really simple reason: how much more dominant would players like Getzlaf and Perry be if they played more efficiently?

Here's a good example of a cycle goal.

As you can see, there's a lot of lateral movement along the wall before this turns into a solid scoring opportunity.

But look how it is from the first touch (not shown in the highlight) until the goal is scored. And talk about inefficiency (from face-off win to goal, it is one corsi event).

Click image to enlarge.

1. Getzlaf wins face-off back
2.  Ben Lovejoy passes cross-ice
3. Cam Fowler dumps puck to forechecker
4. Perry carries it out and turns away from goal, passing
5. Getzlaf area passes (wall dumps, etc.) to switch sides
6. Lovejoy wins contested puck forward
7. Devante Smith-Pelly passes along wall
8. Getzlaf passes cross-ice
9. Perry settles puck and passes into slot
10. Smith-Pelly finishes

The usage of a low cycle kept along the wall isn't an issue for me given the score of the game at this time. A team doesn't want to open up and exchange chances with the lead, which is how trailing teams tend to look more aggressive. The top line taking an offensive zone start, winning the draw, and eating time off the clock is generally good strategy.

But two things still bother me with this play (and many others like it from the Ducks):

1. This is slightly too passive, even given the conservative tactics employed. Sure, the above play burned some time, but other than Perry's brief skate from behind the net at touch #4 and the two passes at the end, there wasn't any threat in the play. One shot attempt (the goal) off this long of a cycle is part of Anaheim's possession numbers problem.

Fowler has the first chance to make the goalie work here. I can excuse his near side dump because a) getting the puck to Perry is always smart and b) defenders are discouraged from taking point shots with the lead for fear of a blocked shot becoming a chance against. Perry obviously has the next chance to make a play on net, but he elects to hold the puck. His reasoning for doing so is also smart (why give the puck up too easily with dominant zone position and possession, which he had at that time) so it makes sense to me.

The problem for me is that until the end of the play, the team loses that edge in dominant positioning as the Blue Jackets set up in the zone after Getzlaf takes a touch at #5. This goes back to my earlier point: goals are generally scored quickly in this league. Without the elite passing of Getzlaf and Perry at the end, this play turns the other way without much threat when two possibilities existed previously.

The Ducks want to run off the clock but not become toothless on the attack. That allows defenses to "cheat," which means more pressure on Anaheim's defense and goalies as it continues to occur.

2. Look how spread out the cycle becomes here. After Fowler and Perry pass up on their respective options, the play reverses twice. That's an awful lot of ice for a turnover to occur, and indeed without Lovejoy's pinch at touch #6, the Blue Jackets are going the other way. (Which goes back to my first complaint: don't waste shot attempt opportunities in this league!)

Because of the personnel on the ice, the time the play takes to proceed, and the number of lateral shifts it takes, if Columbus does manage to regain the puck with any speed, this play is likely a rush attempt against. That's about the worst kind of attack to allow an opponent to have. Due to their deep and wide positioning on the ice when Lovejoy has to make his pinch, Getzlaf, Perry, and Smith-Pelly are in precisely the wrong place to prevent this from happening, had it turned over.

To me, that's the difference between properly wasting time, forcing the other team to work to regain it before attackingand being a bit careless about it by passing up opportunities to make opponents do that work.


Now despite my two concerns, the goal itself is gorgeous. And if you recall the game, Smith-Pelly was a wrecking ball throughout and deserved to score. My gripes are more in the process rather than the result.

The Ducks are once again exhibiting too much dependency on dumping the puck and cycling it down low (often times exposing themselves to turnovers) instead of attacking more directly. This is done either off the rush, where most goals in the NHL come from, or from taking more opportunities to shoot when the team does elect to dump the puck.

This coincides really nicely with the two games that were played between me starting this post and now: Anaheim scored two goals in each but had stretches of dominant possession. While the team's PDO reflects "not getting the bounces" against the Islanders and Coyotes, my assertion is that the Ducks aren't creating their own good fortune. By dumping the puck in too often, or settling into an ineffective (from a shot attempts and chances standpoint) cycle game, the team basically gives itself no margin of error. It is either "generate quality scoring chance" or "turn puck over" with each zone entry, which will eventually show up in games in which the team struggles to score.

Ironic timing for all this, eh?