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A High-Level Analysis of the New Jersey Devils Forecheck

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This piece is a high level analysis of forechecking data of the New Jersey Devils. It focuses on how effective low and high risk forechecking can be and can explain how a team performs with various scores in various periods.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, I introduced a collective project that several people are taking on in order to quantify the impacts of forechecking. This piece will serve as a bit of teaser since we're only seven games into the season with our tracking, but these events accumulate quite quickly, and I believe can be used to identify tactical decisions made by John Hynes and the coaching staff. Specifically, why are the Devils so bad in third periods this season?

I do encourage you to visit the above linked article as it outlines everything we're tracking. Special thanks to both Kevin Winstanley for assisting me with tracking this season, as well as Natural Stat Trick for pulling some of the data I'll be using in this piece. All data you will see is from the Devils first seven games of the season, 5v5 play only. Let's get to it.

Score Effects

This project will largely deal in score effects and how a team's performance changes based upon the period and score state of a game. There has already been work done on this with respect to a team's neutral zone performance by garik16 and this is tackling the same issue using data from a different phase of the game. I encourage you to read that piece as well, but the short of it is this: teams will adopt different styles of play when they are leading or trailing, mostly in the third period. Teams will pick their spots as far when to try and enter the zone when ahead, and teams will get into the zone by any means possible when trailing.

This piece is a high-level look at what we're seeing early in the data with respect to the risk-reward nature of how aggressive should teams forecheck.

So, just how well have the Devils performed in various score states this season?

Period_Score_State_Corsi

Jumping right into it, what you see in the chart above is the Devils' shots for, against, and differential at a per-sixty minute rate based on the period and score state (leading, tied, trailing, or all of them together). What quickly stands out is just how terrible the Devils have been in the 3rd period. This is also disheartening because they have been tied for almost forty-two of the 100 minutes they've played in third periods at 5v5. Also concerning is that they do not play well with the lead and play barely above their competition while trailing. Score effects are a real and powerful thing in sports, but could the Devils do, or not do, something that could improve these numbers?

Part of the problem is how coaches think about defensive play is inherently flawed. Good defensive play isn't about easing off your opponents for fear of allowing an odd man situation, it should be about disrupting your opponent and getting the puck back. Too often, teams drown in risk-aversion across all sports. For example: punting in football, parking the bus in soccer, not staying with an aggressive or even balanced forecheck in hockey.

We will look at forechecking in two groups: those in formation and those from 50/50 situations, specifically rebounds, faceoffs, and offensive zone turnovers. I believe it's important to look at these separately because I think you can be successful at one phase and lacking in another. It doesn't seem right to lump them together. Below are the rates at which the Devils forecheck their opponents by period while in formation.

Formation_Forechecks

What we're observing in this chart is score effects played out by forechecking situations, to an extent. The Devils forechecking capabilities follow a similar pattern for the first two periods, but things change slightly once the third period comes around. They forecheck less often with the lead and more when trailing, which is what we would expect.

But it doesn't appear to much of a drop-off. Or does it? Remember, we're also recording how teams pressure off of things like offensive zone faceoffs, rebounds, and offensive zone turnovers. Let's see how these look in a similar chart to the one above.

Non_Formation_Forechecks

Here we see a little more of a pronounced effect when the Devils have the lead and their lack of pressure from these situations. Let's have a look at some examples of where the Devils are lacking in these situations. First, the contrast.

Faceoff_1

Here, the Devils have the lead and their wingers, Sergey Kalinin and Nick Lappin attack the puck and pressure the Hawks immediately after the faceoff. The center, Vernon Fiddler, follows the play over to support high in the zone. Yohann Auvitu steps up to make a play on the puck. This particular instance ended with the Hawks controlled the puck out of the zone, but the components are there for pressure. Mind you this is an event that takes place in the 2nd period with the Devils holding a 1-0 lead.

Let's move to a third period to see a slight contrast.

Faceoff_2

Here, we see a similar play unfold as the wingers, Mike Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri go forward while Travis Zajac delays. However, here, Palmieri gets higher in the zone rather than rushing towards the Florida defense, as they try to switch sides for a breakout. Zajac leaves the zone prior to any play being made. Jonathan Marchessault is the only player on the far boards, so Palmieri should take a direct line to him rather than the up-and-over indirect, and slower, route he takes. Zajac can occupy a more central role, supporting Cammalleri and cutting off any play Marchessault can make if he tries to reverse through the center. He doesn't though. The play results in a failed exit for Florida and continued pressure from the Devils, but I think it could the play could have been even more direct and aggressive.

A few seconds later, you see the Devils yield the zone completely.

Faceoff_3

Here Ben Lovejoy makes a good play to keep things alive in the offensive zone. However, Zajac, rather than cut across to the boards where the play is likely headed, leaves the zone. Is he going for a change? No, you soon see him set in the neutral zone giving up a controlled zone entry. Likewise, the left defensemen, John Moore, I believe doesn't attempt to pinch in on this play. The Devils are content with letting Florida exit and enter the zone cleanly, which is against their own self-interest.

When only a few players pressure, it's quite easy for the opposition to move through you. Small decisions like this are showing up in the early numbers for the Devils. Notice that this is a tie game in the third period. While teams routinely play conservatively and sit back, soaking up pressure in an attempt to close out a game, this is a mistake and, with enough data, something we'll be able to quantify just how much damage a team inflicts upon itself by adopting this strategy.

Lastly on this point: I believe we'll be getting data specifically related to and impacted by coaching/player decisions as a result of score effects and game state. There will be nuance associated with this, so there may be some stop-start in our analysis of these topics.

Aggression and Risk

Finally, I'll take a look at some other factors at work when trying to analyze these situations. These are threefold: 1) What benefits do you see in terms of added aggression, defined within the scope of this project as how many forecheckers the team has below the faceoff dots?; 2) How can you measure the success of a team's forecheck?; and 3) How many entry attempts does a team's forecheck give up?

So, let's look at the first two and see whether forechecking with one, two, or three aggressive forecheckers leads to more success. One way I feel you can objectively measure the success of a team's forecheck is by quantifying the percentage of forechecks that force a turnover. Here are those forechecks that are in formation.

Turnover_Aggression

This shouldn't surprise anyone: you are more likely to create a turnover with more forecheckers than fewer. An interesting data point is that the Devils opponents see about the same level of success, thus far, with one or two aggressive forecheckers. Now let's look at out-of-formation pressure situations.

Turnover_Agression_NF

Here we see a bit of a departure from the above chart. When the opposition pressure the Devils following rebounds, faceoffs, or offensive zone turnovers, they are successful at regaining possession significantly more so than the Devils are in those situations. Why would this be? Are other teams simply better at pressing in these situations? Are the Devils simply that much worse at breakouts and coverage in their own zone? Until we have enough data to regress the results of forechecking and breakouts on team performance, we have to operate under the assumption they are both of equal importance.

Now, what's the risk associated with increasing the number of forecheckers in these situations? Let's look again at formation forechecks.

Entry_Against_Formation

What stands out immediately is that the Devils are getting zone entry attempts at roughly the same rates regardless of the opposition's forecheck aggression. It is just the opposite for the Devils. When the Devils up their pressure, their opposition has a far lesser chance of attempting an entry. Let's break this down even further by looking at the Devils' entry against percentages based on aggression and game state. Again, we're sticking with formation only here.

Formation_Entry_Against_Score_State

Again, we see that the more aggressive the Devils are, the greater a chance they have at denying their opponent a zone entry. Playing safe doesn't seem to be the ideal game plan, thus far in our project, at least for the Devils.

Lastly, let's look at the same thing, but for non-formation forechecks.

EA_Non_Formation

Different picture here as the Devils would be better off committing one or three aggressive forecheckers, but not two. Opposition numbers significantly less varied. One last chart: this same idea with score effects added in.

Entry_Against_Non_Formation_Score

We see a much changed shape in this graph compared to how the Devils perform while in formation. In-depth video review will be a staple as I dig into this further to identify what changes the Devils make based on score state. Or, it could be the opposition's changes that the Devils aren't reacting well to. There's a lot of in-game tactical analysis and adjustment that we may be able to get at through this project.

Conclusions

This piece was to introduce some of the data we're collecting and set the table for questions we will look at this season. The fact that the Devils have poor shot numbers in the third periods could partially be influenced by their relative lack of forechecking events. I know that coaches are risk-averse and try to play conservatively when tied or leading, especially in the third periods, but I think of a good poker analogy for this: often when in one of the last positions at a poker table, players will make raises in an attempt to steal the blinds of the players in first and second position. This can lead to a player staying alive in a tournament and building their stack by playing aggressively. It forces the players in the small and big blinds to pay up to have a shot at keeping their blinds, when they could have any two cards, but the raise put to them implies a stronger hand.

In hockey, when play is tied late, or a team is leading in the third, you will often see a team take it to the other team because one is playing conservatively. When tied, the blinds in this hockey analogy are likely the second point that's up for grabs, given that two teams are tied in the third period. The Devils have lost points from a tied or winning position in the third period on multiple occasions this season. Early on, it appears they could stand to be more aggressive and up the tempo of their forechecking from open play as well as off of offensive zone plays.

This project is still in its early stages, so these numbers will certainly change as more data is accumulated, but, at least early on, we can certainly begin to question the conservative nature of the Devils play in the third periods as the reward far outweighs the risk associated with aggressive forechecking.

Future Posts: I'll be trying to post semi-regularly this season on this new project. Next time we'll focus on breakouts, as those are the flip side of forechecking and could better explain the Devils third-period deficiencies, in addition to more player analysis. One thing I'm interested in looking at is how often the Devils aggression is able to equal or outnumber the oppositions breakout support (also the number of players below the faceoff dots), so that will be analyzed in coming posts. There's a lot to work with. Sound off below with questions.