Alright. Let’s talk some more about dumping the puck in and what we can see from how the Oilers did it last year compared to how they’ve done it this year. In the second post in this series outlining how the Oilers are doing things differently this year with Hall on the ice, I made this observation:
Leaving aside dump-ins that were cover for a change, the Oilers have gone from dumping the puck in on 9.4% of their zone entries with Hall on the ice to doing it on 17% of their zone entries. Worse, they’ve become terrible at recovering pucks that are dumped in – in 2012-13, they were successful, in terms of achieving possession of the puck before the opposition cleared it, on 62.5% of their dump-ins. In the sample I’m looking at, that number’s a smooth 23.9%.
Carries are down, dump-ins are up. That leads to an obvious route of investigation – dig into the dump-ins and see if there’s something different this year about how the Oilers are approaching things. As it so happens, I think that there it is.
The problem with talking about “dump-ins” is that there are a lot of different ways in which a puck can be dumped in. You can have a trio of forwards breaking up the ice who chip the puck past the defence and get after it. You can be running set plays to tip the puck in to the defensive zone. You can have defencemen gaining the red line and hammering the puck deep. Sometimes they time it so the forwards can attack with speed, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot of permutations.
When I think about these topics, I like to build an analytic framework within which I can work. To me, that’s a large part of what analytics is about – finding logical ways to organize information to evaluate decisions or play. One of the things that caught my eye as went through the dump-ins from my samples in 2012-13 and 2013-14 is how much more involved the defencemen seemed to be this year in terms of dumping the puck in.
(A quick refresher on that sample: I watched every seventh shift that Hall played at 5v5 in 2012-13 and every sixth game this year through the home game against Tampa Bay. I recorded when and how the puck entered the offensive zone and defensive zone and when it left. I used this data to generate information about how the Oilers have changed their zone entries this year with Hall on the ice. Hall’s Corsi% has cratered and it’s mostly tied up in the Oilers generating fewer shot attempts with him on the ice. For a more fulsome explanation, read Part I and Part II. Read Part III for odds and ends.)
ANYWAY – defencemen involved in dump-ins. Those of you who are familiar with Eric Tulsky’s work on this subject will know why we care about how a puck goes in to the offensive zone. Those who aren’t may find this post helpful. Those who are lazy and unfamiliar with Eric’s work may appreciate me excerpting the conclusion:
Carrying the puck in is way better than dumping it in, more than twice as good — and it’s not because of odd-man rushes or player skill or any other external factor; it’s just because having the puck in the opponent’s zone headed towards the goal is a lot better than trying to outrace the opponent to try to get the puck in the corner.
Most people don’t recognize just how big the difference is, and the data suggests that teams should be trying harder than they are to carry the puck in. If coaches are telling their third line to dump the puck, they are probably giving away scoring chances. If coaches are telling the players to dump the puck in borderline situations where they think carrying it might lead to a turnover, they are probably giving away scoring chances. Even regrouping and trying again might be better than dumping the puck in, especially when the team has their top line on the ice.
It’s a great post and well worth reading – the bit about coaches being too conservative strikes me as being very true as well. We care about how the puck enters the zone because it impacts on how many shot attempts we expect the team entering the zone to achieve. Zone entries -> Shot attempts -> Corsi% -> Scoring chances for/against -> Goals for/against -> Wins is the relationship. As you might have noticed, we’re starting to get pretty far downstream, to the point where we can intelligently discuss things like tactics.
As you’ll recall from previous posts on this topic, one of the things I noticed in examining the Oilers zone entries in the two samples that I created that the rate at which they dump the puck in has increased significantly this year (it’s roughly doubled from 9.4% to 17%) and the rate at which they carry the puck in has dropped off. They’ve also been terrible recovering pucks that are dumped in. Given this, the decline in shot attempts for (SAF) with Hall on the ice is consistent with the work that Eric and others have done – more dump-ins = fewer carries = fewer shot attempts.
I went through my two samples of Hall’s shifts and examined the video of the dump-ins, creating a record of when a defenceman was involved. My basic rule for defenceman involvement was that he was involved in the entry if he was skating/passing the puck out of the defensive zone or dumping it into the offensive zone. It turns out that my sense was accurate – the Oilers do seem to have their defencemen a lot more involved in dumping the puck into the offensive zone this year. In 2012-13, 11 of 29 dump-ins in my sample featured a defenceman involved in a dump-in. In 2013-14, that number rises to 30 out of 56. (Aside – I reclassified a couple of dump-ins upon further review so the results do not precisely match the earlier post; the conclusions are unaffected.)
After reviewing the video, I was able to sort these dump-ins with defencemen involvement into six basic types.
1. Defencemen Joining Rush
2. Defencemen Returning Pucks to Offensive Zone
3. Neutral Zone Faceoff Wins
4. Defencemen Bringing Pucks Up Behind Forwards
5. Tip Plays
Here’s the breakdown of each type in my 2012-13 and 2013-14 samples.
So, uh, that’s an awful lot of tip plays that seem to have suddenly appeared. And they’re super unsuccessful! Add that to the defencemen bringing pucks up behind forwards and that seems to be where the bulk of the increase of defencemen involvement in dump-ins takes place.
I’ve put together video of most of the dump-ins I’m talking about – I think one or two may not have made it in – for those who want to check my work or take a look.
What does this all mean? Well, it’s kind of hard to imagine that this just happened. The really eye popping thing here is the explosion in tip plays, the vast majority of which haven’t resulted in possession in the offensive zone. It’s big enough that I’m inclined to think that it’s real and that it’s occurring as a result of a coaching decision. It certainly doesn’t seem to have worked out very well for them.
That doesn’t mean that this is inherently a bad tactic but I’m skeptical. If you have a group or a player for whom something worked pretty well last year – like Hall and carrying the puck in more frequently when he’s on the ice – and you change it and it doesn’t work very well, why keep pursuing it?
The obvious reason to keep pursuing it is that you think you need to do it to win or master it to win but I’m skeptical of that. I doubt that, for example, the Hawks are running a dump-in strategy with Patrick Kane on the ice. (This is a pretty good example of how very granular NHL data would allow us to evaluate the tactic much more effectively.) To a certain extent, you want to play to the strengths of your players. In this sample at least (and keep in mind that I chose it because it was pretty representative of overall results), the Oilers seem terrible at proceeding this way with Hall on the ice.
There’s a sort of bigger issue at play here too – for all the talk about the Oilers needing to fix this flaw or that flaw, the first stage should be getting the most out of what you have. It’s hard to argue, when 25% of the shot attempts with Hall on the ice have disappeared, that they’re doing that. Even if this would be a better tactic than what the Oilers did in the past with Hall on the ice with the right personnel, that’s not really a reason to keep doing it now.
I’m also skeptical that finding the fabled big winger or big centre to add to the first line would make the difference. One of the many things that irritates me about hockey commentary is how people talk about hockey teams as if it’s baking a cake. You get some skill, add a healthy dose of size, sprinkle with character (only available in vanilla flavour) and poof! elite team. I’ve come to view the game as a series of processes, repeating over and over and over and the winning team, over time, will be the team that wins more of those processes.
You can watch the dump-ins I’m talking about. Are there a lot there where a bulkier forward would turn it into a recovered puck? I don’t see it, although this is just one slice of the game. I think that there needs to be a bit of an onus on the size people to explain with some more precision where they think a lack of size costs the Oilers beyond as part of some sort of recipe. Or, and this is kind of supplementary to that, even if lack of size is a problem, are the Oilers getting everything that they can out of the guys that they already have?Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org