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The Devils Have Dumped the Puck in More than they Carried It Into the Zone

On Thursday, Zach Parise told Michael Russo about how carrying the puck in is superior to dumping it in, something Parise said he did a lot of in New Jersey. This post explores whether that's true based on data from part of last season by Corey Sznajder.

Zubrus has been all about the dumping...well at least more about it than the carrying the puck in.
Zubrus has been all about the dumping...well at least more about it than the carrying the puck in.
Bruce Bennett

Zach Parise may still be considered "persona non grata" in the hearts and minds of some of the New Jersey Devils fans. Yet, like anyone else, he cannot be ignored when he brings some insight to the game that is relevant to any fan.  On Thursday, Michael Russo of the Star Tribune had an excellent column where Parise espoused the benefits of carrying the puck on offense and criticized the dump-and-chase play.  Here is one of the key quotes from the former Devil:

""I just got kind of, not brainwashed, but my last couple years in New Jersey we were so adamant about dumping the puck in," Parise said. "But you lose a lot of your creativity and you lose a lot of good touches. I mean, if a ‘D’s in your face, you’ve got no other options and you have to.

But dump it just to dump it, I’m not a believer anymore in getting rid of the puck when it’s so hard to get. That’s the way we played in New Jersey. We always had a plan: Forwards dumped it in, we knew where it was going and that’s how we got it back. But the more I thought about it, possession is just so much better than dumping it in. Dumping it should be, I don’t want to say your last option, but your second or third option."

Parise is not wrong in his thinking.   Intuitively, it makes sense.  Keeping the puck on your or a teammate's stick allows for far more control than putting into space and then trying to get the puck back on your or a teammate's stick with speed and physical play.  Having physical control of the puck allows many more options.   It's been the subject of a research paper presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which came to the conclusion that getting more controlled zone entries is a driver of success.  It falls in line with what the 1-2-2 tries to do on defense: force the opposing player to dump the puck.

Now, I cannot look back to Parise's last couple years of New Jersey to see whether he's right about whether the team emphasized a dump-and-chase mentality.  I would argue that Parise's style of play would excel in such style, given his propensity for being down low on offense to win pucks.  What I can do is look at what Corey Sznajder is doing.  He has been tracking zone entries for every game of every team from the 2013-14 season and tallying the results.  Last month, I was able to get the data he has done so far for the Devils.  He was roughly 52 games into their season.  He's further along now, but his project still continues.  At a minimum, it gives a glimpse into what the team has done.

Sznajder's tracking summarized the team's zone entries in 5-on-5 play.  The Devils made 3,061 zone entries compared to their opponents, who had a total of 3,070.  Out of the Devils' entries, 1,364 were from carry-ins - instances where the Devils maintained possession as they moved the puck over the blueline with their sticks.  The other 1,697 were a dump-in of some sort.  The Devils carried the puck in 44.56% out of all of their zone entries in the most common situation in hockey.  I asked Sznajder what was the league median at about that point of the season and he told me it was 45.17%.  So the Devils were below the league median, but not by an outrageous amount.

Of course, the Devils weren't a high-event team last season.  They achieved favorable Corsi and Fenwick percentages by limiting their opposition's shooting attempts.  That was clear in the zone entry numbers.  The Devils' opponents only managed to have 1,257 carry-ins out of 3,070 entries.  They were forced to dump it in on the other 1,813 entries. That's a carry-in percentage of 40.94%.  I do not know exactly where that would rank, but it would likely be among the best in the league.

In terms of what comes out of those entries, Sznajder's findings after 52 games were consistent with what Parise learned this summer and the paper he contributed to.   More shots come from carry-ins than dump-ins.   Specifically, the Devils' shot per carry-in rate was 0.64 and their opponents were at 0.61.  Both dwarf the shooting rate from dump-ins, which were 0.26 and 0.22 respectively.  This isn't to say that dump-ins never lead to meaningful offense, but over time, carrying the puck in will yield more shots.

What was more interesting were the breakdowns by forward.  Defensemen rarely get the chance to carry the puck in and when they do, it's usually because they are on a rush and/or have a lot of space ahead of them.  Goalies can only dump the puck in.  After 52 games of Sznajder's data, I noticed that certain forwards were dumping the puck in far more than carrying it in.

Devil # of entries # of carry-ins % of entries with control # of dump-ins % of entries with dump-in
Zubrus 270 119 44.07% 151 55.93%
Ryder 257 142 55.25% 115 44.75%
Jagr 248 183 73.79% 65 26.21%
Zajac 222 131 59.01% 91 40.99%
Bernier 194 83 42.78% 111 57.22%
Elias 175 95 54.29% 80 45.71%
Henrique 167 95 56.89% 72 43.11%
Loktionov 137 85 62.04% 52 37.96%
Brunner 134 85 63.43% 49 36.57%
Gionta 125 47 37.60% 78 62.40%
Carter 120 40 33.33% 80 66.67%
Clowe 93 30 32.26% 63 67.74%
Boucher 64 42 65.63% 22 34.38%
Tedenby 46 23 50.00% 23 50.00%
Olesz 43 19 44.19% 24 55.81%
Josefson 31 16 51.61% 15 48.39%
Sislo 26 11 42.31% 15 57.69%
Janssen 23 5 21.74% 18 78.26%
Sestito 22 8 36.36% 14 63.64%
Ruutu 12 6 50.00% 6 50.00%

Note the fourth liners: Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, Rotislav Olesz, Mike Sislo, and Cam Janssen were all dumping it in more often than carrying it in.  My thinking is that CBGB and other fourth liners have been instructed to play the dump-and-chase unless there's a glorious opportunity to attack.  It's worth noting that the shots-per-carry-in rate for CBGB are all higher than the team's 0.64 rate.  When they have the space available, they will are more likely to get a shot from it.   But either they don't have it or they're not taking that space enough. This goes a long way as to why they have decent possession percentages despite not taking a lot of attempts.  Dumping it in means the opposition is starting from their own end and the Devils can get ready for them, after all.

Ryane Clowe and Dainius Zubrus stick out like sore thumbs, though.  Zubrus has made more entries in what Sznajder has looked at so far and most of them have been to dump it in.   That would explain why Jaromir Jagr - who has been the Devils' best carrier - and Travis Zajac were constantly down in the corners with Zubrus.  They're chasing down his pucks.   Clowe was more in this vein.  That's arguably worse, though. Jagr's big body and strength along with Zajac's experience of doing this before makes them well suited for that approach.  Adam Henrique and Michael Ryder, though, not so much.

Again, this is all based off of the data Sznajder gave me at the time I asked him for it.  He's not done with the whole season, so the data will change and possibly some of the conclusions.  I would love to see how the forwards stack up after 82 games and how the team compares to others at 5-on-5.  (I'd also like to see summaries of special teams, which may help explain why the Devils have done what they done in those situations.)  I do not blame if you take all of this with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless, it appears to me that there was truth to what Parise said: the Devils do dump in the puck more often than not.  This was the case last season and likely the case in seasons before that since Peter DeBoer was coach.  (My memory of Brent Sutter's first season as coach was a ton of dumping too, but I have no data to justify that memory.)  When you have the players for it and how to prepare defensively to force more of the same, it can work well.   For where Parise is now, it may not work so well; hence, his epiphany.

I will also note that Russo's article also has further explanation from Parise and Mike Yeo about how dumping the puck in is a necessity.  If there's no option or a line change is needed, then a dump-in is the correct way to go.  I'll take it a step further. It is because of that necessity that the takeaway from this can not as simple as "The team just needs to carry the puck into the zone more often."   Teams will adjust - if they already have systems in place to defend it.  Again, the Devils utilize a defensive scheme in the neutral zone specifically to guard against carry-ins.   Given that out of 52 games, the opposition in 5-on-5 play has only been able to successfully move the puck in on their sticks 40.94% speaks to it's effectiveness.  If more players and teams try to settle on carry-ins more often, then the Devils and other teams will modify those systems to clamp down on them further. This would lessen their effect and, more importantly, get a few more stops. Good if you're defending, bad if you're attacking.

Moreover, even if there is a carry-in, the benefit is to actually generate offense from it.  In Parise's final year in New Jersey, there was another now "persona non grata" named Ilya Kovalchuk who was excellent at carrying the puck in over the blueline - and then often dump it into the corner if he didn't have a passing lane or space to skate into.  I'm sure he would have had a lot of carry-ins and a favorable percentage for doing so, but not necessarily with the intended effect.  It would still be better than just dumping it in before the blueline, but it still wasn't ideal.  A more appropriate takeaway for DeBoer, Yeo, and other coaches - armchair and otherwise - is to identify how a team approaches the offensive zone such that they can get more opportunities where carrying the puck in is the desired option.  Or, more specifically for New Jersey, how to get the fourth line, Zubrus, and Clowe from just throwing pucks away more often than not and instead get them to do something more constructive within their skill sets.   Far easier said than done, but it may be the way forward.  Minnesota and Parise will do it their way, we'll see whether New Jersey and DeBoer does some other adjustment.