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A Look at the New Jersey Devils Zone Exits and Entries

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This is a series focusing on the passing and shot generation statistics for the New Jersey Devils and their opposition. Today, we take a brief detour and look at "how" the Devils are doing things, rather than just the numbers. Read on for the details.

Al Bello

In this series, I’ll show you how many there were, from where on the ice they were created, and who was involved in each of the offensive chances created from the passing of the New Jersey Devils and their opponents. If unfamiliar with passing statistics, please refer to my primer. This is a different type of article dealing with passing statistics. I wanted to take a deeper look at exactly how the Devils were creating offense and who was linking up with each player. This article focuses on the recent matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The recaps is here. Let’s get to it.

Devils and Penguins

For the Penguins game, I wanted to look at exactly how the Devils were trying to exit, enter, and set up in the Penguins zone. I will do this from time-to-time during the season, but it takes a bit longer to track, so it won't be on a weekly basis. So, here's what I saw.

Brunner_Entry

Here, Brunner gains the zone on a pass from center ice by Andy Greene. He goes wide and then slows. He has two options: Ryane Clowe centrally, and Patrik Elias on the far boards. The spacing between the forwards allows for Brunner to either make a pass to Clowe for a shot in the slot area; or, and what I think is the preferred option, Clowe's movement opens up a lane for Brunner to make a pass to Elias. In theory, this would give Elias a chance to shoot, or, if the Penguins left defenseman commits to Elias, he could make a pass to Clowe for a chance as well. What actually happens is far less exciting: Brunner tries to go to Elias, but it's not a great pass.

This happens just a minute later in the game. It's a similar approach, presented in gif form. Take a look.

Entry_Vs_Penguins

This is the same type of entry as the above screenshot. Jaromir Jagr makes a pass to Damon Severson, who enters, slows, and stops, much like Brunner did. Dainius Zubrus and Travis Zajac enter the zone and offer similar passing options for Severson. Zubrus heads to the net, while Zajac follows a bit behind and off to the left. Jagr, after making the pass, enters alongside Severson and creates space for the young defenseman by providing an option down the boards. However, we see the play develop a little further this time and as Zubrus goes across goal, Zajac loops back slightly in case Severson passes to him near the top of the circle. Let's stop it right as Severson makes his choice.

Severson_Entry

Okay, so Zubrus has beaten his man across the face of goal and has his stick down, presenting an easy target for Severson to make a pass for a deflection, creating a scoring chance for the Devils. It's not a bad play, but is it the best play he could make? Look at Zajac, who's now all by his lonesome, just inside the face-off circle. Chris Kunitz could present a problem in getting this puck over to him, but this is an entry they attempted twice in the first six minutes of the game. Brunner looked for the far option, but didn't have as much time as Severson (most likely because on Brunner's entry there wasn't a Devil creating space for him like Jagr did for Severson), whereas Severson went with the safer choice. Safe to say, the play worked in design if Zajac is an option.

Now, those are both controlled entries. About six minutes later in the first period, the Devils dump it in, Jagr, Zubrus, and Zajac go to work, cycle it a bit, and then complete a play that I posted as a gif in the Week 2 Passing Stats that shows Jagr come up the far boards, pass to the right point defenseman, who then passes to Eric Gelinas at the left point for a shot from near the top of the circle. Honestly, Gelinas is practically against the boards when he shoots as there is no angle here. It's not a great quality shot, yet we see this same set up, time and time again. Take a look in three screenshots.

Jagr_Cycle_1

Jagr makes the pass to Jon Merrill at the point.

Jagr_Cycle_2

Merrill makes the pass across to Gelinas, who has tons of room.

Jagr_Cycle_3

Unfortunately, Gelinas doesn't have a great first touch of the puck and it rolls off to the boards. There, he doesn't have many options except to take a shot that Marc-Andre Fleury easily stops (though I'm not sure how many easy stops there are for Fleury).

The next entry involves Clowe, Brunner, and Elias. Clowe will receive the puck from Merrill, skate up into the neutral zone, and then be converged upon by two Penguins. Clowe flips the puck past them into the space Elias is entering. See below.

Clowe_NZ_Pass_Elias

Now, the puck is bouncing a bit, but Elias is able to flick it ahead as he has Brunner entering the zone behind him. Elias recognizes Brunner will get into the zone clean because Simon Depres is about to cut down Elias.

Elias_Entry

The puck is now on its way to meeting Brunner as he enters the zone. He's allowed to get a shot off due to the time and space Elias' pass gave him.

Elias_Entry_2

Notice the referee has his arm raised for Depres' penalty on Elias. Brunner takes his shot, but it's blocked. The play drew a penalty, so it was a success. Also, any play that ends with Brunner in space an able to attempt a shot is a decent play as well.

Now, let's look at some of the ways the Devils were exiting the zone (or tried to) against the Penguins.

Devils_Exit_1

The first example is an open play break out, meaning it's not the result of a defensive zone face-off. You'll see Andy Greene pass up to Severson, who skates out of the zone. Adam Henrique is to his left against the far boards, but is being marked closely by Pascal Dupuis. Reid Boucher is cutting across the neutral zone, perhaps hoping for a pass to gain entry in the Penguins zone, but none comes. This may be because by taking the course Boucher does, he and Michael Ryder end up in the same area of the ice, covered quite easily. Severson is left no choice but to dump the puck.

In this next example, I've broken it down into screenshots. The Devils recover a loose puck in their own end and move out. First, Jagr skates away to the near boards while passing ahead for Zubrus to break out.

Jagr_Exit

In the next still, we see Zubrus, Jagr, Zajac, and Gelinas all rushing up the ice in the neutral zone.

Jagr_Exit_2

Zubrus has a lot of options here: he can dump it, pass across to Zajac, or drop it to Gelinas. Let's see what he does.

Jagr_Exit_3

Zubrus enters the zone and throws the puck in deep. There are eight skaters clustered in about one quarter of the Penguins zone, so it's probably the smart move since any pass will either be intercepted or deflected. Poor spacing doesn't give the puck-carrier any options and suddenly a dump-in becomes the best play available. The Devils would cycle and settle for a shot from the point. Woo hoo.

Let's take a look at the next Devils exit. Here, Severson makes a lead pass for Boucher to latch onto.

Severson_Exit

Now, Boucher will have speed and space to move through the neutral zone. Unfortunately, he won't have many options on his entry.

Boucher_Entry

This looks promising. Space for a young player, teammates about to enter the zone and perhaps present passing options akin to Brunner and Severson's entries from the first period. Nope.

Bouher_Entry_2

Ryder nearly goes offside and Henrique goes to the net, yet two Penguins are on Boucher as soon as he enters the zone. Boucher attempts a weak shot on net from distance. Yet, there were better options. See below.

Boucher_Entry_3

Now, it may be difficult for Boucher to make a pass back across the top of the zone to Ryder, who is wideeeee open. However, all five Penguins are covering both Boucher and Henrique, which, I'm sure, is not the way they want to play defense. This could have been a great opportunity for Ryder had the pass come.

Here's another look at the Devils break out from open play. Spoiler alert: it ends with an unnecessary dump-in and losing possession. Here's how it happened.

Merill_Exit

It begins with Merrill advancing out of his own end with possession. He draws a Penguin and dishes it to Zajac at center ice.

Merrill_Exit_2

Zajac now has Ruutu on his left, who he sees, and Gionta on his right, who he may not know is there. He should know there will be another forward on his right, but I can't fault him for not making a play on something he may not know is there. That being said, he should have made a better play here. He could continue skating and draw Paul Martin towards him, and make a pass into the space behind Martin that Ruutu would be entering. Or, he could make a lead pass to Ruutu and still charge Martin, though the first option would be best.

Now, most of the Devils zone exits had a defenseman behind their own net and an option on either board. They'd make a pass or skate it out themselves. About forty seconds after this series of play, they tried something different.

Devils_Exit_2

Here, you can see Gelias, Merrill, and Zajac all behind the net. Ruutu presents an outlet as he flashes across in the slot. Gelinas gets him the puck and Ruutu is off to the races. It doesn't amount to much, but it at least flips the ice rather than get hemmed in. I'd rather they have an option through center rather than the options on the boards as that seems to limit the options for that player.

Your Thoughts

What'd you think? This is a little different as a lot of times I track stats and what to know more of the "how" and "why" things happen rather than just the "what," so this was an attempt to understand a little bit about the Devils exits, entries, and how they set up. Next time, I'll be adding another wrinkle: how many times players linkup with each other to generate shots. I wanted to get a few games of this data, so you'll see, for example, of the ten shots Elias generated, how many went to Henrique? Zidlicky? Jagr? Also, which players were the most efficient combinations? Let me know any other ideas you'd like to see (within reason) and I'll see what I can do.