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2013 - 2014 Devils Passing Review: Does Accuracy Matter?

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This is a look at the impact of accuracy and how frequently players complete and attempt passes. Read on for the details.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In this series I’ve touched on completion percentage in the neutral zone as well as the frequency of player’s shot generation statistics. In this article, I’d like to spend a little more time on accuracy and frequency of passes.

Looking at zone starts and passes by zone gives us an idea as to how much impact a player may have in contributing to moving play from one end to the other: "field position," if you will. Furthermore, tracking passing accuracy also gives us an idea as to how often a player will lose possession.

By looking at how frequently a player attempts a pass in each zone we can get an idea of where the player spends most of their time on the ice. Basically, this tells us how long we may have to wait until the player not only regains possession, but regains possession in which zone, and also how long we must wait before they are in an attacking position again. Looking at a player’s passes by zone gives us the total picture of where they spend their time. Let’s get to it.

Summer Passing Series Links

Primer 

Part One: Efficiency and Winning 

Part Two: The Transition Game 

Part Three: Offensive Zone Analysis 

Part Four: Generating Goals 

Part Five: Corsi Contribution 

Part Six: Frequency of Offense 

"Winning" Possession

Win_correlation

You’ve seen this chart a few times now, but in this piece we’re going to focus on what impact accuracy and possession have on a team winning a game. I have looked at the neutral zone completion piece previously, so I will only briefly touch on that here. Accuracy within the neutral zone mattered more than the other two zones.

Starting with the defensive zone, let’s begin with accuracy. As you’ll see in the above chart, teams more accurate than their opponents in the defensive zone won 51.2% of their games. While of slightly less importance than neutral zone accuracy, completing passes in the defensive zone were more important than successful completions in the offensive zone. Let’s look at the accuracy of Devils defensemen. Completion percentage in each zone is labeled as defensive zone completion percentage (DZ%), neutral zone completion percentage (NZ%), and offensive zone completion percentage (OZ%).

Def_completion

While Larsson and Merrill were the highest at completing passes in the neutral zone, only Merrill maintained a high accuracy in the defensive zone (87.4%). Larsson went from the highest NZ% to a just-below average DZ% of 81.3%. Mark Fayne was second on the blue line behind Merrill in the Devils own zone. Merrill and Fayne also led the group in offensive zone accuracy. Most players tend to be bunched around 80%, plus or minus a few percentage points. What stands out are the outliers like those mentioned above.

Looking at the other end of this, we see Zidlicky behind most other defensemen. Granted, he does attempt more passes than anyone on the team (about a hundred more than Andy Greene and two hundred more than Jaromir Jagr), but while I’ve highlighted a lot of good things for Zidlicky in these articles, here we see that he may have a tendency to overpass or simply take more risks than other players. Considering his production, there’s a reward that comes with that. I don’t think you try to rein in Zidlicky because he’s a few points lower than the rest of the blue line; it’s something that comes with his ability.

Fwd_completion

There’s less consistency with the forwards as there was with the defensemen. While the positional averages for each zone were around 80%, plus or minus a few points again, the extremes were as high as Jacob Josefson’s 95% completion rate in the defensive zone, and as low as Damien Brunner’s 70% completion rate in the offensive zone.

I touched on Andrei Loktionov’s exceptional passing in the neutral zone piece, but also see a strong passing presence in the defensive zone. Going forward in the offensive zone, he was good, but not as exceptional. Granted, passes in the offensive zone are much more difficult to complete. Surprisingly, the most accurate passes in the offensive zone among the forwards was Ryan Carter, besting Travis Zajac by a tenth of a percent. Carter’s accuracy drops considerably in the neutral zone, but rebounds in the defensive zone. Zajac was consistent across all three zones.

Behind Josefson and Loktionov, the forwards most effective at passing in the defensive zone were Tuomo Ruutu, Steve Bernier, Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, and the aforementioned Zajac and Carter. And then there’s Mike Sislo, who completed all nineteen of his passes in the defensive zone. Good for him, but let’s not read too much into that one.

Where Are They Attempting Passes?

By looking at where a player attempts his passes, you can track that player regarding where they spend their time on the ice with possession. In the charts below, I’ve compared the Devils and their passes by zone (PBZ). These bars represent the percentage of their total passes that occur in the defensive zone (%DZ P), neutral zone (%NZ P), and offensive zone (%OZ P). In the future, I’ll be able to illustrate the percentage of passes made into the scoring chance area as well.

The orange bar represents the player’s zone start percentage (offensive zone starts / offensive + defensive zone starts) as a way to gauge how often they advance play territorially. A player can move the puck from one end to the other, but if no shot is attempted, that phase of play goes unrecorded, but it should matter where players spend a majority of their time.

You’ll also see a line representing the volume of passes for each player.

Def_pbz

Defensemen attempted anywhere from 8.5 – 13.7% of their passes in the neutral zone. As I’ve shown, completing passes in the neutral zone mattered more than the other two, so you’d want an accurate defenseman to be the one attempting passes in the neutral zone. Merrill led the group in overall accuracy and was second in NZ%, so it’s not a bad thing that he had the highest %NZ P at 13.7%. When he was on the ice, it was more likely that Merrill would attempt a pass in the neutral zone than any other defensemen. 17.1% of his passes were attempted in the offensive zone. Both his %NZ P and %OZ P were above average for the team, despite only an average zone start percentage of 55.5%.

Zidlicky (25.5%) and Harrold (20.5%) were the only defensemen to attempt over twenty percent of their passes in the offensive zone. Zidlicky received more favorable zone starts to Harrold (58.9% to 50.8%), so Harrold’s percentage actually looks more impressive. Though his shot generation and efficiency totals were of mixed results, Harrold definitely helps the Devils territorially. Zidlicky had the lowest %DZ P at 61.9%, as he was active everywhere on the ice.

Greene and Fayne had nearly identical breakdowns across the board. The only difference was Greene attempted 2% more of his passes in the offensive zone than Fayne did. Both of them were just behind Merrill in terms of %NZ P, so strong play in the neutral zone from this pairing. Their zone starts were separated by a tenth of a percent (Greene: 47.2%, Fayne: 47.3%) as these two saw the toughest deployment on the blue line. Considering the volume they put up in transition and in the offensive zone, the zone starts make it that much more impressive. Greene especially.

Eric Gelinas received the most favorable zone starts among defensemen, yet he had a below-average distribution in his %OZ P. This is probably a product of him being the shooter rather than the distributor in the offensive zone, but with such favorable starts and only 14.4% of his passes being attempted in the offensive zone, that could suggest the team loses territorial control when Gelinas is on the ice. Of course, Gelinas is above average in %NZ P, suggesting he will make a pass in the neutral zone slightly more often than the next Devils defensemen.

Adam Larsson had the third most favorable zone starts (58%) and 80.8% of his passes were attempted from the defensive zone, strongly suggesting that of all the Devils defensemen, when Larsson was on the ice, they were losing the territorial battle and being pushed back into their own zone. Larsson was solid at breaking out of the zone and generating offense in transition, but it would be nice if he attempted more passes and was more involved elsewhere on the ice rather than his own end.

Fwd_pbz_1

Fwd_pbz_2

I had to split this up into two charts as it was quite busy. In the first group, Henrique and Zubrus were the only forwards to attempt over 1000 passes. Interestingly enough, Henrique attempted 6% more of his passes in the defensive zone, despite have slightly easier zone starts. Another thing that stands out are the zone starts Coach Pete Deboer gave to Stephen Gionta (41.1%), the most difficult on the team. In this light, Gionta looks okay as he attempted 47.7% of his passes in the offensive zone, a 6.6% increase over his zone starts, which would suggest that territorially, Gionta does okay.

In the second group of forwards, Zajac, Elias, and Jagr all exceeded 1000 passes on the season, with Jagr leading the forwards with 1719 passes. To continue the comparison among fourth-liners, Carter and Bernier received the second and fourth most difficult zone starts of the forwards, yet both managed to post 9% increases in their %OZ P, which were both greater increases over Gionta. So, in the context of his line mates, Gionta looks slightly worst again.

Looking at both charts, Ruutu, Boucher, and Jagr led the group with 22.1%, 22.5%, and 23.7% of their passes originating in the neutral zone. Gionta, Clowe, Brunner, and Josefson each exceeded 30% of their passes as occurring in the defensive zone. Clowe and Brunner were more involved with zone exits than the others, but generally if you’re passing the puck more in your own end, you’re not as involved going forward.

How Frequently are these Passes Attempted?

Now, the winning chart at the beginning of the article highlighted completion percentage as more important in the neutral zone first, the defensive zone second, and the offensive zone third as it relates to winning a game. We looked at how accurate each Devil is in each zone and also a breakdown of what percentage of their passes occurs in each zone. Using a player’s time on ice, we can also get an idea of how often a player attempts a pass in each zone as well.

Def_pbz_frequency

Looking at the distribution of a player’s total passes by zone, we can approximate how often a player will be in that zone by looking at how often they make a pass there. This will allow more analysis below when compared against the opposition, but quickly you can see the infrequency of Salvador, Volchenkov, and Larsson as being involved in the neutral zone, and how often Zidlicky and Greene are involved just about everywhere. Merrill continues to look very good in comparison. While Larsson has the draft pedigree and Gelinas the big shot, Merrill may prove to be the steadiest of the group.

Fwd_pbz_frequency

Moving to the forwards we see the opposite trends as most of their passes are in the offensive zone, naturally. Jagr, Elias, Zajac, and Sislo attempted passes in the offensive zone at the quickest pace. Jagr, Elias, Ruutu, and Boucher led the group in the neutral zone. As mentioned above with the PBZ distribution percentages, zone starts will influence how long between a pass occurs in a specific zone for a player.

How do the Devils Compare to the Opposition?

Similar to the opposition frequency charts in my last post, the bars represent the amount of time between passes in each zone by Devils players and the corresponding color line represents the average of the opposition in that same category.

Def_pbz_frequency_opposition

Here we see the amount of time it takes a player to obtain the puck and attempt a pass in each zone. What’s surprising about the defensemen is how frequently they attempt passes when compared with the opposition. This begins to lend weight to the idea that the Devils a strong puck possession team. After all, passes represent a true sense of possession rather than shot attempts because there are so many of them comparatively. If the Devils pass the puck more often than their opponents, it makes sense they’d generate more offense. Of course, we’ve seen that efficiency matters more than volume.

Fwd_pbz_frequency_opposition

Here we really see a pronounced difference in offensive zone possession time for the Devils over the opposing forwards. Unfortunately, that difference, while still present, dissipates somewhat in the neutral and defensive zones, which are more likely to influence winning percentage. Simply put, what the Devils do best (generate shot attempts and control possession in the offensive zone) matter least when it comes to winning a game.

Conclusion

So what can this tell us? Well, if we look at the winning correlation chart above we see that teams that control the larger share of passes attempted in the defensive zone win more often than any other zone. If a Devils player is attempting passes more frequently in that zone than their opponents, that’s a positive sign.

Why the defensive zone? Well, I feel it has to do with how teams set up a breakout and transition into the offensive zone. I’ll get into this more in future articles, but one team I noticed doing a lot of this was the Detroit Red Wings. Their defensemen would pass it back and forth in the defensive zone, waiting for the right opportunity to break out. A few quick passes later and the Red Wings would have a decent scoring chance against the Devils.

Neutral zone possession was close behind. Both were several percentage points above offensive zone possession (something the Devils excelled at and will be discussed in another article). However, one point that needs to be made is that teams that controlled possession lost more often than not. If score effects influence shot attempt totals, they undoubtedly influence passing totals.

This concludes my review of the passing statistics on an individual level. In my next piece, I’ll look at the Devils as a team and how they compared versus their opposition average. After that, there will be four pieces reviewing how the Devils stacked up against their opposition from each division.

So, What’d You Think?

This was the seventh article in a summer series looking at all of this data. What did you think of this data? What methods could be employed to improve the process? Give me your questions, statements, feedback so I can better steer this towards where your interest lies. Sound off below!