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2013-2014 Devils Passing Review: The Transition Game

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This is a look at the neutral zone and transition phases of the game and analyzing how the New Jersey Devils skaters performed in both phases. Read on for the details.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

In my first article in this series, I presented passing data that clearly shows efficiency matters in winning games. The takeaway stat from that article was SAGE (Shot Attempt Generation Efficiency). This next article will look at the neutral zone and the transition phase of the game under the SAGE umbrella. Unfamiliar with Passing Statistics? Check out my primer. Let’s get to it.

All Corsi data was taken from Extraskater.

Linking Play from Defense to Offense

The neutral zone bears significant importance upon each game. This is not news. Important work on Zone Entries can be read here and highlights the importance of entering the zone with possession. By recording passes by zone and pinpointing passes that lead to shot attempts by zone, we learn a little bit more about the neutral zone and its importance on play.

Win_correlation

Looking at the completion percentages over all three zones, teams winning that phase of the game in the neutral zone (NZ) won 57.3% of their games, 6.1% better than in their own end (DZ), and 11% better than in their opponent’s end of the ice (OZ).

Passes completed in the neutral zone will allow the team a better chance at entering the zone with possession and attempting a shot. By controlling the greater number of shot attempts generated (SAG) from beyond the offensive zone (final pass preceding the shot attempt originated in the defensive or neutral zones, abbreviated as D/NZ) a team has a 56.1% chance of winning that game over their opponents. The importance of this stat is made more evident when looking at the winning percentage of teams controlling the shot attempts from within the offensive zone: 37.8%. You are better off circling in center ice waiting for a clean entry rather than dumping the puck in.

Which Devils are the Best Transition Players?

In soccer, people sometimes refer to midfielders as linking play between defense and offense. They have to unlock defenses to generate chances. In hockey, it happens much quicker, but just as important. The average NZ% of a winning team was 81.8%. Naturally, I wanted to see which players were contributing to this team statistic in a positive and negative way. Let’s take a look at which Devils exceeded that.

Nz_def

Only Jon Merrill (84.8%) and Adam Larsson (88.1%) were above that percentage. When I begin tracking potential second assist passes, my hypothesis is that that both Larsson and Merrill would have a higher proportion of A2 Shot Attempts Generated due to their strong neutral zone play. Most other defensemen were between 76% - 79%. Except for…oh, look, the Captain sucks again.

Nz_fwd

When you look at the forwards you see there’s Andrei Loktionov (96.3%) and everyone else for the most part. If you’re wondering about sample size, Loki completed 77/80 passes in the neutral zone, roughly half the attempts of Adam Henrique, just to give you an idea of his volume. Had I been tracking A2 SAG figures this past season, I imagine he would have generated quite a few. Loki was always a passing darling and I would have rather seen him centering the fourth line this coming season; he adds a dynamic that’s missing from the bottom-six forwards.

Besides Loki, Ryane Clowe, Jacob Josefson, Dainius Zubrus, and Tuomo Ruutu were the next highest forwards. As a team, the Devils completed 80.1% of their passes in the neutral zone, or slightly below what winning teams averaged. More evidence the Devils are less efficient that required.

Generating Shot Attempts in Transition

In addition to neutral zone completion percentage, let’s take a look at which Devils skaters generate more shot attempts as the team transitions from defense to offense. The way to read this bubble chart is like this: The X-Axis represents how many shot attempts a skater generated from the defensive and neutral zones (in transition); the Y-Axis represents what percentage of a skater’s overall SAG production across all three zones was generated in transition (D/NZ SAG/(Total SAG); the size of each skater’s bubble represents the efficiency of each shot attempt generated in transition resulting in an actual shot on goal (this percentage is displayed next to the player’s name).

Def_transition

For the defensemen, we see Marek Zidlicky dominating the volume again. After putting this chart together, I’m glad the Devils re-signed Zid for another year as he’s clearly the most dangerous and efficient defensemen in linking play from defense to offense. To put this into context, if the Devils exit the zone with possession, you want Zidlicky involved at some point as the Devils are most likely to get a shot on net with him in transition. He’s the best Devils player in transition. Zidlicky has always had the volume to back that statement up, but here is one area where he really excels in terms of efficiency.

The only knock on Zidlicky is that looking at his offensive contribution as a whole, he generates the lowest percentage of his SAG figures from the defensive and neutral zones. Part of this is because of his ability and desire to move around the offensive zone and generate shot attempts, but if I’m on the Devils staff, I’m doing whatever I can to get Zidlicky the puck in space in transition. If he could generate more in transition, he’d be a much more efficient player overall.

Andy Greene generates a larger percentage of his offense from beyond the offensive zone and posts a respectable 50% D/NZ SAGE considering his volume. His partner, Mark Fayne, was slightly worse all around as we know Fayne’s game is not the offensive side of things.

Eric Gelinas and Merrill were the next highest behind Greene in terms of volume generated. Gelinas was a surprising distributor in transition considering all we ever talk about is his shot. Merrill was slightly better in terms of efficiency, but leaned more towards to generating offense in the offensive zone than Gelinas. Though, the sample size is barely half of Greene and Zidlicky, I’m excited to see where they go with this next season.

Another surprise was that Larsson generated 42% of his offense in transition, the highest on the blue line. If Larsson generated a shot attempt, there was a 42% chance it was coming on a transition play or controlled entry. This coming season, I think we’d all like to see Larsson’s volume and efficiency improve, but his scouting report at the draft highlighted his ability to make a breakout pass effectively—I think this is revealing some of that. Should this trend of production continue, Larsson should be just fine.

Bryce Salvador and Peter Harrold were more efficient than not in transition, but the volume was not there to see whether this was a strength in their game or a fluke. I’d wager Harrold is effective in transition over Salvador, but neither of them should in a game at the same time as they are sixth and seventh choice defensemen with Volchenkov and Fayne gone.

Volchenkov…we won’t miss you.

Fwd_transition

I was surprised to see Dainius Zubrus lead the team in transition offense, considering he’s…well, Zubrus. You expect him to be battling along the boards in the offensive zone, not generating offense through the neutral zone; however his efficiency was quite low at 36.4%. This undoubtedly was more a side effect of playing with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac than Zubrus being a transition playmaker. The usual suspects dominated the volume…oh, wait, is that Steve Bernier behind Zubrus? Generating the 2nd most shot attempts in transition of the forwards? Hmm…More and more evidence that Bernier is more effective than his usual running mates. And everyone wants to run him out of town, eh? His efficiency could use some work, but passing the puck for a teammate to shoot is half of the equation—the shooter has to be able to get the shot on net sometimes.

Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias generated the third and fourth-highest transition shot attempts, with Henrique converting every other shot attempt into an actual shot and Elias operating just a bit lower than that. Elias makes sense up this far, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Henrique here considering his line mates were all over the place this season.

Zajac’s bubble is directly behind Jagr’s and about half the size if you’re wondering. Ruutu arrived at the trade deadline but still managed to generate more in transition in those nineteen games than Gionta, Brunner, and Carter did all season. Ruutu had a decent amount of efficiency to his game as well. In fact, nearly a third of the offense Ruutu generated was in transition. Nineteen games is hardly definitive or anything, but I’m encouraged to see how Ruutu fares next season.

Not to be forgotten is Ryane Clowe’s effectiveness in transition. He doesn’t have the volume many of the other top players on the team do, but concussions will do that. Nearly a quarter of his production came in transition and 56% of those shot attempts forced a save or went into the net.

Speaking of Carter and Brunner, both of them led the forwards in transition efficiency at 72.7%. Certainly a positive to their games and probably better reflects Carter than Brunner considering the likelihood of their line mates when generating these shot attempts. Though, with their stats in addition to Gionta and Boucher, the sample size is smaller than we’d like to properly assess.

Team Comparison

Above, I highlighted how important it was that Larsson had a higher percentage of offense coming via transition than any other player. The reason for that importance was twofold: 1) Teams generating more offense in transition win more (see winning chart above); and 2) when the Devils generated a shot attempt from the neutral or defensive zones it had a 17% better chance of becoming a shot on goal as opposed to shot attempts generated from within the offensive zone. Teams are more efficient through the neutral and defensive zones when generating offense, so it’s encouraging to see that start from Larsson.

Unfortunately, the Devils as a whole are behind their opponents.

Team_transition

As we see above, teams that won games generally had a D/NZ SAGE figure of 64.5%, and the Devils were below that on that season, finishing at 57.3%. Making it worse for the Devils were their opponents averaging a 60.7% efficiency clip in linking play from defense to offense.

In fact, the only skaters above that winning percentage that generated more than twenty shot attempts were Jagr and Zidlicky.Let’s see how all the players compared against the opposition.

Def_transition_comparison

The way to read this chart is this: 1) The blue bars represent the efficiency of each Devils skater; 2) The red line represents the average transitional SAGE of the opposing position (defense or forward); and 3) the green line represents volume of transition shot attempts generated by each skater.

So, not only is Zidlicky boss in transition, but he’s significantly more effective than the opposition defensemen. This chart also makes it more pronounced that, while efficient, Harrold’s volume is just above Salvador and Volchenkov. Larsson’s efficiency is also more pronounced here as nearly last and so far off the opposition average; however, based on his efficiency within the offensive zone (future post coming), I believe Larsson will improve dramatically in the coming season.

Fwd_transition_comparison

The forwards are all over the place. Compared to the opposition, I’m most intrigued to see how Ruutu plays next season. Generating fourteen shot attempts in transition in only nineteen games is quite impressive. In fact, had he kept up that pace over an entire season, he would have led the forwards. Zubrus, Ryder, Bernier, and Zajac all hovered around the same efficiency rate, well below the average.

Jagr exceeded the opposition. What else is new?

So, What’d You Think?

This was the second article in a summer series looking at all of this data. There will be player analysis, team analysis, and sometimes general rambling by yours truly. Give me your questions, statements, feedback so I can better steer this towards where your interest lies. Sound off below!