2014 WHL Final Stats
Two evenly-matched teams met in the WHL Final this year. Each team scored 20 goals over the seven game series, four of them on the power play. Their save percentages were .918 and .916. If all you saw were these numbers, you wouldn’t know anything about the Winterhawks or the Oil Kings–their best lines and players, their style of offense, the efficiency of their defense. Looking at more telling numbers can supplement merely watching the series and give us an understanding of the above qualities.
The Importance of Zone Entries
It comes to me as I write this that I’ve done zone entry statistics for the entire series without giving a concrete reason for why they matter, so let me briefly do that. To put it simply, a team that gains the blue line while holding onto the puck is more likely to get shots on net than a team that dumps it in and chases. What is a dump-in but willingly giving up the puck and then hoping to get it back? There are legitimate reasons to dump the puck in–if your line needs a change, or if there are three players waiting for you to try to carry the puck in so they can steal it away on an odd-man rush–but in general it is my contention that dump-ins are foolish and should be avoided if possible. It’s a contention backed up by the work of Eric Tulsky and others. (I link here to a blog post because it’s easy to digest, but if you’re into the math of it, I suggest this paper, especially the table in Section 3).
This work has shown that in the NHL, carrying the puck in at even strength is twice as likely to lead to shots (and to goals) as dumping it in. So what seems to work for teams to get shots/limit opponents’ shots is twofold: 1) Enter the offensive zone more times than the other team, and 2) Use those entries as effectively as possible, primarily by carrying the puck in whenever feasible. I should also pause to say that most of my tracking mechanisms and spreadsheet conventions are shamelessly stolen from Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine), who has graciously let me pester him at odd hours about what constitutes a dump-in.
Zone entries are tracked only at even strength–no power plays, no delayed penalties, and no empty nets at the end of a game. A carry-in is any kind of entry that enables the team to keep control of the puck. This can be crossing the line with the puck, passing it diagonally to another player, or another method. By contrast, a dump-in can be a long pass that is tipped into the zone, or a player simply winding up and firing the puck around the boards. Dump-ins for the purpose of a line change aren’t counted.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the data I gathered from the WHL Final.
Over the series, the Winterhawks had more zone entries than the Oil Kings, a margin of roughly 55% to 45%. They carried the puck in on 74% of those entries as compared to the Oil Kings’ 62%. They were also more successful at converting their entries into shot attempts. My definition of “success” was an entry that resulted in a shot attempt (on net, missed, or blocked). 62% of Portland carries led to shot attempts, while only 24% of their dump-ins did. On the whole, the Winterhawks had more shot attempts at even strength throughout the series by a margin of 380 to 312.
The last item is interesting to me. Other shot attempts includes shot attempts off faceoffs, turnovers, the end of a power play, or any situation that wasn’t a normal zone entry. The Winterhawks were regularly outdueled in this category, and I’m not sure if it’s because they tended to lose faceoffs or gave away the puck more times than they stole it. I wasn’t keeping track of either of those, although anecdotally I have to say that there were times I wondered whether the Hawks would ever win an important offensive zone faceoff.
You may ask, “But Megan, where did the goals come from?” In a seven game series, goals obviously matter more than they do over the course of a season. Goals in hockey are flukey, flukey things, and in general shots or shot attempts are a much better indicator of how a player did. Just ask Chase De Leo how many times he hit the post this playoffs. Anyway, this series was fairly normal. Twenty goals were scored by each team: four power play goals each, one short-handed goal for Edmonton, 14 Portland goals from zone entries (13 from carries, one from a dump-in), 13 Edmonton goals from zone entries (eight from carries, five from dump-ins), and two goals each off faceoffs or turnovers.
Let’s get a little more specific about which lines and players were really good at entering the zone with possession.
Portland Offensive Zone Entries
This table is humongous big, but I hope all of it is useful in some way. Hopefully it’s even intuitive to some extent.
The top line, Zone Entries, is basically a measurement of usage. Which players are relied upon the most to get the puck into the zone? More simply, which players touch the puck a lot? Off the bat, Oliver Bjorkstrand (27) and Brendan Leipsic (28) jump out for the forwards. We can also see that Derrick Pouliot (51) got the puck an awful lot on the defensive end. Something interesting to note is that while the top line of Leipsic, Petan, and Bittner was somewhat similar in how often each player brought the puck in, Bjorkstrand took on the lion’s share of the entries for his line. Without rewatching anything, I suspect that Edmonton saw this tendency and responded by clogging up the blue line to force him to dump the puck in. This explains why his percentage of carried-in entries is so low compared to what I’ve seen for him while tracking regular season games.
it’s also interesting to divide up entries by line. For example, the top line averaged carry-ins 84% of the time, the second line 76%, and the third line (the American line) averaged 73%. And intriguingly, the third line’s carry-ins were successful 71% of the time, but the top line and second line only got a shot attempt on 60% of their carries. This appears to be because the third line wasn’t faced with the formidable pairing of Reinhart-Sautner. More on that later.
While it was Brendan Leipsic who tended to carry the puck into the zone the most for Portland, we can see some evidence of Nic Petan (19) being a ‘playmaker’ in other entry stats. He averaged the highest rate of shots per carry-in and shots per zone entry for his line. Similarly, it was Bjorkstrand who led his line’s stats by a whole lot. Alex Schoenborn (22) seems to be the weak link on the third line, with a notably low success rate on carries. In a tactical sense, this corresponds to plays where I saw him enter the offensive zone with the puck but then get stripped of it by pretty quickly.
To call out a stellar defenseman, Mat Dumba (24) managed 12 carries on 13 zone entries, quite a feat. At 77%, he had a carry-in success rate higher than most of Portland’s forwards. He was able to pick up some of the slack left by Edmonton’s defensemen targeting Pouliot, who was forced to dump the puck in more than usual, as well as being stripped of the puck more often than I have tracked. On the other side of things, Anton Cederholm (2), not an offensive defenseman, carried the puck in 3 times and dumped it in 9 times.
Edmonton Offensive Zone Entries
Looking at Edmonton’s zone entries, it becomes immediately apparent that they don’t look to their defensemen for a source of offense when it comes to zone entries. Over seven games, the six carried the puck in over the line as many times as Derrick Pouliot had zone entries. We can also see that the drop in carry-in percentage between the Winterhawks and the Oil Kings isn’t due to, say, a third line that dumps the puck in whenever it touches it. Where Portland’s top six carries in around 80% of the time, Edmonton’s is content with 70-75%.
Edmonton’s third line production is interesting. Look at how often Bertolucci (11) carried the puck in–an astounding 85% of the time. His linemate Keiser carried the puck in only 42% of the time. This corresponded to .67 shots per entry for Bertolucci, but only .33 for Keiser. While some of this difference is due to Bertolucci carrying it in, some also seems related to Bertolucci making more out of his entries, whatever form they take. It seems that, barring some weird system where players are encouraged to dump the puck in even when they could gain the blue line, better players tend to carry the puck in.
Mitch Moroz (39) is also intriguing. Somehow he managed to retrieve and get shot attempts off on over 50% of his dump-ins on a team where the success rate was 24%. I’m not sure if that’s just a fluke or if he’s genuinely good at dumping the puck in well, but it’s interesting for sure. Curtis Lazar (27) led Edmonton with 75% carry-ins and 72% of those carry-ins leading to a shot attempt. Just on carry-ins alone, had his dump-ins never led to a shot attempt, he would be guaranteed shot attempts on 54% of his zone entries. That’s okay, I guess. It was odd to me that even though he was that successful, he didn’t get as many zone entries as his linemates. I’m not sure why that happened, but
It’s easy to see which of Edmonton’s defensemen are considered offensive juggernauts and which aren’t. Blake Orban (4) had the puck 11 times and dumped it in 11 times, and only 2 of those entries amounted to anything. Griffin Reinhart (8) was decent offensively, carrying the puck in a fair amount for a defenseman. His partner Sautner (5) was even better, albeit with more limited touches.
Portland Zone Entry Defense
Just as an attacking team attempts to gain the blue line with the puck, so the defending team attempts to stop that from happening, either by forcing a dump-in or by breaking up the entry at the blue line. I limited players shown here to those who had 5 or more ‘targets’ or encounters with Oil Kings approaching the blue line. Just as the offensive entry tables were color-coded, so is this one as well. Green is good: defensively, we want fewer carry-ins, more dump-ins and break-ups, and fewer shot attempts per every entry attempted on our team.
Let’s ignore defensemen for a moment and just talk forwards. Bittner, Schoenborn, and Turgeon showed great defensive chops throughout the series, albeit in flashes and with a small sample size. Bittner is particularly impressive to me as a rookie, as they tend not to have two-way instincts. On the other side of things, De Leo and Petan weren’t especially flashy. Despite the fact that they’re centers and are supposed to take on more of a defensive role, I’m not too upset. They’re both smaller players who just can’t stand up someone at the blue line. Petan backchecks hard, but his defensive strength tends to be more tactical, winning board battles with smarts instead of skill and stealing pucks so cleanly that Marian Hossa would be proud.
To add defensemen back in, let’s look at contributions by pairing:
Anton Cederholm…yikes. For a supposed shutdown defenseman, he was ineffective in preventing players from gaining the zone and ineffective in getting the puck out. The average entry on Cederholm–dump-in or not–led to greater than one shot attempt against. And even if we correct for a higher number of carries leading to more shot attempts, Edmonton still averaged only .7 shot attempts per carry, so I hypothesize that something weird was going on defensively–beyond defending zone entries. By contrast, Cederholm’s defense partner Derrick Pouliot, who before this year was primarily seen as an offensive defenseman with average-at-best defensive instincts, was surprisingly aggressive at the blue line and was rewarded for it. In addition to being great offensively as previously mentioned, Mat Dumba was a shining beacon of defensive achievement, leading in all categories among those targeted 10 times or more. And Keoni Texeira had himself an effective rookie playoffs, breaking up a good percentage of carry-ins and causing a fair few dump-ins as well. The future is bright.
Edmonton Zone Entry Defense
Watching the series, it seemed to me that Edmonton’s forwards made an effort to engage themselves in zone entry defense, whether by acting as a third defenseman or by forcing a dump-in or break-up by attacking from the side. This is born out in the data: where Portland’s forwards averaged 4.7 targets, Edmonton’s averaged 6.2. Edmonton’s forwards were also more effective, allowing 44% carries where Portland allowed 52%. Notably, Curtis Lazar was the only forward for either team to have greater than ten targets, and he was pretty effective.
Let’s look more specifically at defensemen, again separated by pairing:
What is there to say about Griffin Reinhart? Here’s a guy who played probably every even strength shift against the Petan line or the De Leo line, two monster entry and possession lines. At the beginning of the regular season, those six players carried the puck in an average of 84% of the time. And yet, playing against that top competition, he had the greatest percentage of break-ups and fewest shot attempts against per entry of all Edmonton’s defensemen, rivaled only by Irving, who played cupcake minutes. To see the true impact he had on entries, we can look at his defensive partner Ashton Sautner, no slouch himself, and see how he got burned. After seeing this, I don’t disagree with his choice as MVP of the series.
The Impact of the Reinhart-Sautner Pairing
After the losses in Games 3 and 4 in Edmonton, I became curious to know two things. What tangible impact did playing against that pairing have on Portland’s production, as opposed to facing Edmonton’s other defensemen? And was Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal taking advantage of last change to put his top defensive pairing out against Portland’s top lines in a way he couldn’t at the Rose Garden?
This is my simple version of a WOWY chart. The top line of each section is those players’ stats when facing Reinhart and Sautner; the bottom line is their stats versus all Edmonton’s other pairings. I had expected that pairing to force more dump-ins and break-ups than others, but the opposite was true. Playing against Reinhart and Sautner, the Petan and De Leo lines tended to carry the puck in more. However, the last column on the right shows the true strength of Reinhart and Sautner. Even allowing more carry-ins than the pairings I compared them to, which would tend to artificially inflate their shot attempts against per entry, Reinhart and Sautner allowed half as many shots per entry as other Edmonton defensemen, regardless of which line they defended against.
I also wanted to answer the question of Laxdal’s deployment of that pairing, so I separated out home and away stats:
The italicized percent in the leftmost column is the percentage of total entries for which each line faced Reinhart and Sautner, either at home or away. You can see that at home (which is, to clarify, in Portland), they were put out against the Petan line and the De Leo line pretty much equally. In addition, both lines’ effectiveness against that pairing increased dramatically at home, where the Petan line carried the puck in an unheard of 92.6% of the time.
Looking at the difference in percentage of entries between home and away, it’s apparent that Laxdal focused specifically on shutting down the Petan line, leaving the De Leo line open to second pairing minutes, had they taken advantage. I’m still curious about why Mike Johnston didn’t try more shifty maneuvering to get his top 6 optimum matchups against lesser pairings and lines. As I noted on Twitter during the series, more than once I saw Laxdal send out Reinhart-Sautner on the fly and Johnston follow up with the Petan line, as if he was seeking the matchup as much as Laxdal was. Was it an attempt to open up the De Leo line for production that just never came?
All in all, this was an incredible series between two teams. Evenly matched comes off as a typical hockey platitude, but it’s true. Despite their differing styles of play, each team has incredible talent and heart. As much as it pains me to admit it, I would be pleased to see the Oil Kings bring home the Memorial Cup.