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The Key of Imagination

“It may be said with a degree of assurance that not everything that meets the eye is as it appears.” - Rod Serling

Our supreme overlord, Google, addresses the Twilight Zone as both, the mental state between reality and fantasy, and the deepest depths of the deepest ocean that light can penetrate. Yet we (who are old enough) know it is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition; and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

Recently there has been a lot of press regarding the Ducks’ play. Whether they are, or are not, running a new system. That they’ve got a historically large shot differential. That the team is too good to be playing this poorly. Yet I’ve not seen much to substantiate any of these talking points. Perhaps it’s worth attempting to peel back the layers of the darkness, and to illuminate. To work with science, and increase knowledge. At the very least, will someone with spare time and stats knowledge start writing for AC about the Ducks?!?

The following data was collected during the Ducks vs Rangers game. While it is a stand alone game (and a little dated now), the data itself trends with that of other games tracked this season. That is to say, there are differences, but overall there are enough similarities to suggest that the Ducks are attempting to do certain things while on the ice. While not ground breaking, it can only help us bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.

Initially let’s look into the Ducks defensive stratagem. Firstly because the Ducks are giving up, near enough to, league lows in shot attempts against. Secondly however, because the chaotic nature of hockey most often transitions defence into offence. It’s as good a place to begin as any.

Before going further, I would also point out that the “historically” bad figures the Ducks are currently burdened with are in large part driven by small sample sizes. If the outliers (i.e. the first Sharks and Stars games) are ruled out, the Ducks become just a bad team in this area (still ranked 30-31st), but not abnormally so. That is to say, as the season grows, those outliers will smooth out, and the Ducks will look more normal than they perhaps do currently. Something to keep in mind given that, “prejudices can kill, and suspicion destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout of its own.

Now back to the point at hand. The way I’ve tagged the channels is that the central channel runs straight up the middle of the ice between the outer edges of the trapezoid. The left and right sides are designated by the left and right of the offensive team. That is to say the right offence will come in against the left defence. It may be pretty normal categorisation, but it’s best to clear it up in advance to avoid confusion.

Zone exits by channel, by the Rangers and against the Ducks

Typically speaking the Rangers follow the league norm in terms of defensive zone exits. For comparison sake, the Oilers (because division opponent) and the Wild (because previous coach and everyone likes those comparisons), exit the defensive zone approximately, 41% and 43% on the right side, 19% and 25% through the central corridor, and 40% and 32% on the left side, respectively. That is to say, the wings are typically the exit points, and likely due to the relative safety of bringing the puck out along the boards. Initially, bringing the puck up the middle of the ice, is more likely to result in a turnover. In the Rangers’ case, they were able to retain possession of the puck on 65% of their central exits, opposed to 83% of the time coming out along the left, and 76% of the time coming out along their right. Secondly, if or when the puck is turned over, there are limited directions the puck can be moved, thus mitigating the risk of the counter attack.

If the Rangers numbers appear to you to be an abnormally high rate of puck possession, they are. In keeping with the Oilers/Wild theme, the following chart shows approximate possession retained numbers for exit channels for the Oilers and Wild. As we can see, all are well below even the lowest of the Rangers’ possession numbers against the Ducks.

Percentage of zone exit channels with puck possession maintained for the Oilers and the Oilers

One of the reasons of this may be the lack of defensive pressure the Ducks apply on a full sheet of ice.

The number of defensive exits by the Rangers in which no Ducks skater was within a 2 metre radius of the Rangers skater as they exited the blue line.

Keep in mind that the above chart positions would be reversed for the Ducks. That is to say the right for the Rangers is the left defence for the Ducks. In this instance, I’ve chose to use metres (1 metre = 3.28 feet, for the heathens using the empirical system) simply because it’s easy for me to judge when I’m collecting data. The figure above shows the percentage of the defensive zone exits by the Rangers, that had no (that is zero) Ducks players within a 2 metre (6.45 feet) area of them at the point the Rangers player skated into the neutral zone. For pass entries, this was the defensive pressure about the passing player. In simpler terms, these are the percentages of neutral zone entries (and defensive zone exits) that the were able to make with no pressure put upon them by Ducks skaters.

While not telling us anything specifically, what we can surmise from the above data is that the Rangers right side is initially coming into face the better defensive players in the Ducks line up. That is Andrew Cogliano, and Brian Gibbons up front, with Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler on the back end. It makes sense that these players would be willing to challenge the puck handler in a full “court” press.

Similarly we can surmise that the centre icemen and in many cases the player on the left side will either be front of net attempting to screen the netminder, or chasing pucks into the corner, at the point of turnover. The players in these slots are also not highly regarded defensive players (although Ryan Kesler once was), and in many cases are oft knocked for their defensive abilities (i.e. Brandon Montour). Nonetheless, this is a high percentage of defensive zone exits that are allowed with little defensive pressure applied to them. It appears that this is partially a structural, and partially a player ability issue. I would suggest that it will take more than a coaching change, or a change of player to clean this area of their game up. It may very likely require a little of each, or some dramatic development from the players in the centre and left sides.

The long and short of these points taken together, however, is that the Ducks are not challenging the opposition as they exit their defensive zone, and are subsequently allowing them to set up in the neutral zone as they go forward in to offence. It’s certainly a plausible method of zone defence, if the Ducks can get their forwards back quick enough to assist the defencemen, however at the present this doesn't appear to be the case. Which leads us into how the Ducks are defending their blue line.

The way that I’ve looked at offensive zone entries, is either a shot on net within 3 seconds, sustained offensive zone time, or a turnover. The turnover can be from of a long dump in, put in place so that the team can make a change. So keep that in mind. However, it is still turning the puck over, and while many teams do it, many teams also attempt to hold onto the puck until support has come over the boards, or are closer to being able to assist.

The Rangers offensive zone entries, by channel, against the Ducks

As with the Rangers’ defensive zone exits, they typically enter the offensive zone along the wings. For interest’s sake, the Rangers zone entries are similar to those of the Oilers (Left = 35%, Central = 14%, Right = 51%), although somewhat reversed by wing. Teams such as the Wild (Left = 37%, Central = 21%, Right = 43%) seem to use the central corridor more frequently.

Given that the Ducks are allowing the Rangers to maintain possession on such a high number of their defensive zone exits, it seems likely that the Rangers would continue to make rush players along that side, or switch play to the opposite wing if they’re given a chance. That is to say, the Rangers come out of the defensive zone on their right side, and enter their offensive zone along the right side. Continuing along the same wing is the shortest and quickest path into the offensive zone, and this should be considered no surprise that the Ducks would allow these types of entries given the seemingly high number of odd man rushes against them on a game to game basis.

Offensive zone entries by the Rangers against the Ducks. Turnover rates are signified by the right hand axis.

For reference, the long pass and uncontrolled categories in the above figure are: long pass = a long stretch pass either across ice just into the offensive zone so that a skating forward can move onto it, or a stretch pass from just inside the neutral zone to the end of the neutral zone just prior to entering the offensive zone; uncontrolled = is merely an uncontrolled puck, whether a result of a deliberate tip in or a loose puck from a challenge it is not controlled by the offensive team and is considered a loose, or uncontrolled puck/entry.

The Rangers in this game attempted to carry the puck in against the Ducks more often than not. This carry in effort is a trend of the league at large over the past few years, as it allows the offensive team to maintain control, or possession, of the puck. As the above chart shows, the Ducks were only able to regain possession of the puck on a small percentage of the Rangers’ carry in attempts. This entry method may not translate to more shots on net, but the sustained offensive pressure means that the defending team has to exert more effort, and this accumulate greater fatigue. There has been some research in the past suggesting that carrying the puck into the offensive zone is more likely to result in a greater number of shot attempts, scoring chances, and subsequently, more goals being scored.

It seems plausible that the Ducks inability to challenge the Rangers’ skaters as they exit their defensive zone allowed them to rush the puck through the neutral zone and carry it into the offensive zone. In fact, the Rangers were able to enter the offensive zone 36% of the time with no defensive presence within 2 metres of them. The lack of defensive pressure, very likely could have been a key reason why the Rangers in this game were able to produce more shot attempts (43-33), scoring chances (17-14), and ultimately more goals. It also fits the profile of many of the other games the Ducks have played this season, and is something they seriously need to consider remedying. Yet “According to the bible, God created the heavens and Earth. It is mans prerogative - and woman’s - to create their own particular and private hell.” Perhaps we see in front of us the hell created by the Ducks for themselves?

The uncontrolled entry number is somewhat higher than is typical. The Wild also enter the offensive zone in this manner, quite often (~31% of their total entries), whereas teams like the Oilers typically are much better (~22% of entries are uncontrolled). Additionally, most teams do not use the long pass to enter the offensive zone, so a not having recorded any isn’t abnormal. Compared again with the Wild and Oilers, the Wild recorded long passes into the offensive zone on 3% of their entries, whereas the Oilers are also closer to 0%.

Where this becomes interesting is the Ducks left defence, or the Rangers right offence. Ducks fans will know that their strongest defensive player, Hampus Lindholm, patrols this side. Thus it is small wonder that he would assist the Ducks in being able to regain possession of the puck. The radar plot below shows the frequency of possession lost by the Rangers by which channel they enter from, and the high frequency of puck turnover on the right side entries confirms that hypothesis.

Zone entries repelled by the Ducks

This is where it begins to get interesting. Or at least where defence is turned into offence.

The figure below shows that the Ducks most commonly exit their defensive zone via the right side. Hypothetically, this suggests that the left side players are able to regain possession of the puck before switching play across ice to the right side where players like Brandon Montour are able to bring the puck up the ice through the neutral zone. This need not only be following the opposition team’s foray into the zone, as we often see Fowler behind the net, skate out to that left side before transitioning to the right.

The Ducks defensive zone exits by channel

It’s worth noting here that it is in many ways a predictable strategy, and that the Rangers clued into it in this game. 67% of the defensive zone transitions were challenged by at least one Ranger player when coming out along this side. While the Ducks managed to retain possession on 74% of their defensive zone exits, the defensive pressure may have prevented them from skating with speed through the neutral zone, and subsequently into the offensive zone.

It is also worth noting that the Ducks use the central corridor far more frequently than other teams. The Rangers typically used the central corridor on 20% of zone exits, whereas the Wild and Oilers use it approximately 21% and 14% of the time. The Ducks, as shown above, float around 30%. In hockey, this is unusual, however in other sports transitioning through the central corridor is an avenue to play faster more up tempo offence. It seems very much that this is a strategy that has been employed for this purpose. It certainly does provide some measure of riverboat gambling, given that turnovers can hurt when the puck turns the other way, yet it provides an avenue to launch breakaways and odd man rushes. That is to say, high percentage scoring chances.

Ducks DZ to NZ transition methods and turnover rates. Turnover rates are charted on the right hand axis

A further point of interest may be the Ducks’ love affair with the long pass, either across the ice, or the stretch pass from the defensive zone to the cusp of the offensive zone. As the figure above shows, this is by far the Ducks’ most common exit strategy. As a point of reference, the Wild use this method on ~23% of exits, and the Oilers on ~35% of exits. The Ducks attempting to perform this method of exit on so many attempts (41%) shows that they’re attempting to move the puck quicker. That is to say, the puck travels faster than the skater.

This mentality of puck movement over skater movement would seemingly match with the rhetoric that GM Bob Murray asked for after their last season playoff exit, when he discussed the puck movement and speed of the Sharks team. While it may not be working out as team management would have planned, it’s certainly worth considering that the Ducks are implementing changes based on their previous commentary, and that the current coaching staff are leading that charge. For those discussing a potentially new coach, it may be somewhat difficult for the administration to make a change after publicly backing their guy, and watching him make the changes they requested - maybe doubly so after the recent news that we was guaranteed a front office position somewhere (come on, we all know where the somewhere is). However, what do I know. As they say, “Every man is put on earth condemned to die. Time and method of execution unknown.” Any day now, could be Carlyle’s last as the Ducks head coach.

With the potential reward of faster skating and a greater number of breakaway attempts (and presumably goals) comes the risk. Turnover rates are relatively high with this exit method as opposed to skating the puck out. It’s a small sheet of ice and the guys are bigger than ever with long sticks. It doesn't take much to get a stick to the puck and disrupt its trajectory, turning the Ducks offence into defence once again.

Nonetheless, the Ducks maintain possession on most of their defensive zone exits. However, it could be that the defensive pressure exerted on them slows them down in the neutral zone, and limits their choices going forward. While it would appear conventional to carry the puck in to the offensive zone, thus maintaining possession of the puck and increasing the likelihood of creating scoring chances, the Ducks don't attempt this as often as could be expected. Unusually for an NHL team in the current era, the Ducks dump the puck in at a relatively high rate.

This high number of dump ins has a couple of supporting mechanisms. Initially, the high rate may be indicative of the Ducks being shut down at the defensive exit and through the neutral zone, thus not being able to enter the offensive zone freely. Similarly the Ducks have been challenged in some capacity at near every offensive zone entry, further causing the potential for turnovers. The second mechanism is that its a concerted effort to perform this as part of the offence for reasons that maybe mystify the mind. We heard during a game earlier in the season, Coach Carlyle call for more “chip and support,” and it could be that “dump and chase” has been overtaken by this newer, fresher, faster, terminology. We often hear about getting pucks in deep, thus maybe this is a method the coaches are actively looking to employ. I couldn’t surmise the hearts and minds of the coaches, but perhaps it’s a method to the psychological arousal levels of the players. The call to battle to regain the puck they just lost, awakening them in ways that other plays cant. “If theres any moral to it at all, lets say that in any quest for magic, in any search for sorcery, witchery, legerdemain, first check the human heart.” Who are we outsiders to know?

Ducks Entires versus the Rangers

While the data contained in the figure above is from the Rangers game, it hasn't been unusual for the Ducks to dump the puck in more than they carry it in, over this season as a whole. In most games they are near enough to 50/50 splits, with some going the way of the carry in, and some going the way of the dump in. Given the choices between an active coaches choice for producing offence, and a break down in the system going forward, I’m going to side with the coaching staff and surmise that the high frequency of dump ins has less to do with an offensive strategy, and much more to do with not having anywhere to go.

With that said, when the Ducks are able to move the puck to a forward, they most often continue along the right side and enter through that channel (Right = 40%, Central = 31%, Left = 29%). Small wonder when the newly crowned King of Forwards, Pontus Aberg, is on that side to carry the puck in. That's no hyperbole by the way, Aberg is by far the most adept forward on the roster at carrying the puck in. He may have his flaws, as expected of a waiver wire pick up, but so far as moving the puck, he’s one of the best the Ducks have. Perhaps moving him off the top line suggests, as CJ Woodling wrote, a stealth tank is in the works.

The high number of turnovers off the dump in, once again cycle back to the opposition defensive breakout. We fans are asked once more, what came first: The dump in, or the ‘watch Gibson play hockey’ defence? Nonetheless, seeing how the Ducks go about their business maybe peels back the curtain just a little, and lets us allow a little more light into that deep dark part of the ocean. I don't truly presume to understand the Ducks strategy, yet the data is there to be looked at. Do with it as you will.

Corsi, and scoring chance, data was collected from All other data pertaining to zone entries and exits was collected by myself.

All quotes in italics are from “The Twilight Zone,” written by Rod Serling. And shame on you for not knowing it.