Friday, December 6, 2013

Zone entries: What they are, and why they may be more important than you thought

It happens dozens of times in any period of NHL hockey: An attacking player, usually a forward, carries the puck through the neutral zone. As he crosses center ice and bears down on the opposing team's blue line, defenders start to converge on him.

One of several familiar scenes probably plays out next. Maybe he carries the puck across the line. Maybe he fires it in deep. Or maybe he turns it over and they switch direction to do it all again 50 feet away at the other blue line.

For most fans, those moments aren't memorable or even especially interesting. They're just filler — the back-and-forth part of the game that happens in between the important stuff.

But as the hockey world slowly becomes more open to new ways of analyzing and quantifying what happens on the ice, those filler moments have become the focus for a shift in thinking about how teams generate offense. And it turns out that something as common and seemingly innocuous as a puck crossing a blue line may be surprisingly crucial to getting it into the back of the net.

We'll get to why, and what it means. But first, a bit of background.

The Basics

If a team has possession of the puck in the neutral zone and wants to get it across the other team's blue line and into the offensive zone, it essentially has two choices: control the puck (either by skating with it or passing it across the line to a teammate) or shoot it in deep and chase it.

Each play comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Carrying the puck across the line is more difficult — defensive teams will clog the neutral zone, and defensemen will wait near the blue line to try to poke the puck away. It also carries higher risk; failing means attacking players can get caught out of position as the play turns the other way. But if a team can manage to do it successfully, it gains the zone with possession.

Shooting the puck in is safer. Other than the occasional fluke play where the puck hits someone on the way in, a shoot-in almost always results in the puck going deep. But then comes the hard part: Now you have to go get it, either by reaching the loose puck first or by taking it away from the defensive player who did. That's easier said than done, and often a dump-in ends in a change of possession. But if a team does manage to win back the puck, it will have control deep in the zone and may even be able to manufacture a quick chance off the turnover.

Is one option better than the other? We'll get to that. But first …

A Little History

Both approaches have been around for years, though the way coaches use them has evolved. The North American game has often favored the dump-and-chase, and has attached a kind of workmanlike ethos to it. Keep it simple. Dump it in, skate hard after it, bang and crash, and good things will happen. Don't go getting fancy.

That became especially true in the '90s, when variations of the neutral-zone trap began to infest the league. When executed well, the trap made it almost impossible to carry the puck through the neutral zone, let alone across the blue line. And in a league that had abandoned enforcing its own rules against obstruction fouls, the trap was usually executed very well indeed.

The end of the 2004-05 lockout brought several rule changes, one of which was meant to hamper the trap. The league eliminated the two-line pass rule, meaning teams could send the puck from their own zone to the other team's blue line with one pass. But while that did make the trap tougher to execute, two other rule changes combined to make the dump-and-chase an even more effective strategy.

First, the league added the trapezoid behind the net. That prevented strong puck-handling goalies like Martin Brodeur from acting as a third defenseman, retrieving the puck and firing it right back out before the attacking team could reach it.

And the league also decided to finally start calling obstruction again, which included an emphasis on defensemen holding up forecheckers. It used to be expected that one defenseman would race back for the puck while his partner ran a little interference on the attacking forwards. Nothing too flagrant, but a little pick here or a straight-arm there was part of the job. The NHL put a stop to that, which meant any defender who went back to gather a dump-in could now expect an opposing forward to be bearing down on him at full speed.

So, despite the game becoming faster and more wide-open after the lockout, dump-and-chase remained the strategy of choice for most teams. Which brings us back to the present day …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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