A few years back, Corey Szjnader led a project where he tracked every single zone entry for every single team in the 2013-14 season. Earlier this month, Alex Novet at Hockey-Graphs used this data to identify neutral zone roles. Offense is more than just producing goals, it includes all of the work that leads to that lethal shot. For the New Jersey Devils, their relative lack of shots and shooting attempts suggests issues in the neutral zone. It’s difficult to create opportunities to score if they have issues in getting the puck in the area where they can attack.
Novet identified five different roles to describe how a player performed with respect to gaining the offensive zone. There are drivers, who are present for more entries by carrying the puck into the zone and tend to be the ones doing the carrying. There are opportunists, who are present for carry-ins but they don’t do it often themselves. There are passengers, who rely on teammates to do the zone entry. There are dump trucks, who tend to dump the puck in and be the ones to do the dumping. There are balanced players who are around league average with respect to carrying it in passenger, and balanced. He identified these players based on the player’s carry-in percentage and their individual entry shares (iES), which represents how much of the entries were done by the player themselves. He also charted it all on an available tableau. Novet carefully points out that these roles are not stand-ins for a player being good or bad and that they’re bad in the neutral zone. That being said, I’m interested in how the Devils forwards rated.
One may ask why is 2013-14 data relevant in the summer of 2016? It’s a fair question. I think it is worth looking at to set expectations for what the Devils forwards can or cannot do for this coming season. Not everyone can be a driver - there is only one puck, after all. I would expect head coach John Hynes to instruct his top two lines to go for carry-ins more than the third and/or fourth lines. By seeing what forwards did a few seasons ago, we can figure out how the lines may be constructed. If there’s more updated information on zone entry data, then I’ll gladly take another look.
First, here are the Devils players in Novet’s tableau from 2013-14.
If you remember Michael Ryder and Damien Brunner, then you’ll be reminded quickly that these stats aren’t stating that the player was particularly good. They do state that when Ryder and Brunner were going forward, the entries were carry-ins. Those are superior entries than dump-ins as the team does not lose possession and have to work to get the puck when they do gain the zone. They’ll have more options to attack. Anyway, despite the faults of Brunner and Ryder, they were at least involved in those options.
The bigger takeaway is that the drivers then aren’t on the team anymore. In fact, I realize that most of these players aren’t even on the team anymore. Still, it raises a question as far as who can be relative drivers in the neutral zone. Jaromir Jagr may have just exceeded the team average for making the entry himself, but those entries were mostly carry-ins. Per Hockey Analysis, Jagr’s most common linemates were Travis Zajac, who’s an “opportunist” here and Dainius Zubrus, who was making more dump-ins. While there’s only one puck, the line shows the different roles - and different results. Likewise, Adam Henrique was more of an opportunist than Zajac and his most common linemates were Ryder, who was the “driver,” and Ryane Clowe, who was more about throwing the puck in and chasing. Stephen Gionta, as a part of CBGBs, were collectively about the dump and chase. So what does that mean for the Devils still in New Jersey? The good news is that we can be at least a little more confident that Zajac and Henrique could be players to make carry-ins for their lines. The bad news is that expecting them to be the drivers for their line may be a stretch.
What about the Devils forwards who will be on the 2016-17 team but were on other teams in 2013-14? Let’s check them out.
Novet called out Taylor Hall as a “top ten” driver. I doubt that Edmonton used him so differently in the following two seasons. Even if they did, this makes me feel confident that if Hynes instructs Hall to lead his line through the neutral zone, he can do so and do so with the puck on his stick. In a lesser role with Anaheim, Kyle Palmieri was able to make most of his entries as carry-ins and make plenty of them himself. Again, more recent data would show whether they stayed as “drivers,” but I think they both can do that for the Devils - assuming Palmieri already wasn’t doing that with New Jersey.
Mike Cammalleri was known for finishing plays with Calgary in 2013-14 with 26 goals in 63 games and 191 shots. When it came to zone entries, he had a role similar to Henrique and Zajac. He was worse off than both, so to speak, from a carry-in perspective; but he had a higher percentage of entries made himself. Beau Bennett actually made the cut-off for minutes and he showed that he was also on the positive side with respect to carry-ins. While he has other issues - namely, being healthy enough to play in games - this shows that he may be able to do more than just dump pucks in a bottom-six role.
Speaking of bottom-six roles, this chart shows the big difference between someone like Vernon Fiddler and Luke Gazdic. Both have been mainstays for their team’s fourth lines in their time in the NHL. Gazdic, well, he was just not making entries happen and I don’t think he was out there for any of that. Fiddler has tended to dump the puck in, but compare him to Gionta, Bernier, and Carter on New Jersey. He’s been able to make more of his entries himself and he was present for a higher percentage of carry-ins than any of the CBGBs. That led to potentially more offensive options for the fourth line in Dallas back then. I think that’s beneficial. This shows that Fiddler can be a part of a unit that does at least little more than just throw pucks in between the red line and offensive blueline. Assuming Hynes does not instruct him to do otherwise.
Let’s sum it all up. Based on this past data, there’s reason to think that Palmieri and Hall would be more inclined to make more entries than their linemates with Henrique, Zajac, and Cammalleri to join in or support as needed. Hall may even be the kind of play-driver the Devils have had not had in recent seasons, which would be a big plus for either of the first two lines. Patrik Elias could also help but that presumes A) he’ll even play this season and B) he can play like he did three seasons. I’m not sure on A and I’m really doubtful in B. We’ll see. Bennett could help make the bottom six be more inclined to go for carry-ins. Fiddler would even be an upgrade over Gionta in that regard, too. The remainder of players are question marks as they weren’t in the NHL then or didn’t make Novet’s cut-off (namely, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jacob Josefson).
I will admit I’m presuming that the idea is that the Devils want to have more carry-ins for their offensive zone entries. I think they should. Again, intuitively, it provides more options for offense as the puck remains in possession just after the entry. Statisically, controlled zone entries that come from a carry-in creates more shots. Jen LC has summed that up in this post, if you’d like more data. That said, if Hynes does not want his players to do that then they’ll be instructed against doing so. I think he should, but everyone’s got their preferences for one reason or another. We’ll see
If there is more recent data, I’d be happy to re-do this and see how the various Devils forwards performed. In the meantime, what do you think of all this? Does this change your opinion on how the forward lines should be constructed? Can Hall continue to be a relative driver in the neutral zone in New Jersey? Can the bottom six be able to have more carry-ins with the additions of Bennett and Fiddler, even only slightly? Should they? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about past zone entry data of current Devils forwards in the comments. Thanks to Alex Novet for his article at Hockey-Graphs that led me to write this post, Corey Szjnader for providing the data to begin with, and you for reading.