Neutral Zone Playing Styles

Player A is a sniper. Player B is a playmaker. Quick: If the two of them get a 2-on-1 break, what do you expect each of them to do? Odds are you would expect the playmaker to pass and the sniper to shoot. You may not know how good each of these players is, but the monikers give you a rough idea of this player’s relative strengths and how they generally try to succeed.

We have plenty of different names that explain a player’s general “role”. We use words like sniper, dangler, two-way player, and power forwards (even if we can’t agree on what that last one actually means). However, these names are usually limited to the offensive zone. We have no easy way to describe what a player does in the neutral zone.

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Entry Generation and Suppression


Hockey analysts have repeatedly shown the value of neutral zone play. If a player performs well in the neutral zone, he or she is helping generate offense for their team and limiting the opponent’s chances. In addition, neutral zone play is repeatable, and the player is likely to continue to drive possession for their team. If you can identify players who thrive in the neutral zone, you are in a position to help your team improve.

But while neutral zone play is important, we still have a very limited understanding of it. Between the distance from the goal, the fluidity of play, and the relative scarcity of data, most people don’t know how players perform in the middle third of the ice. Furthermore, we don’t even have a complete idea of how to make those evaluations. When figuring out how good a player is in the neutral zone, should offense and defense be evaluated separately, or are overall results enough? What skills translate to strong neutral zone play? What playing styles?

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ZEFR Rate: A New and Better Way to Evaluate Power Plays

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Some day we will reach the point where we can comprehensively analyze which power plays are the best, which players drive that success, and most elusively, what roles to place players in to maximize a unit’s output, but statistically, our special teams cupboard is pretty bare. This season, as many of you know, I took on the long and arduous task of hockey tracking in the interest of trying to get us even one step closer to our objective: how can we better evaluate and predict power play success? So let’s dive right in. Continue reading

A Guide to Neutral Zone Tracking Part 2 of 2: How to track the Neutral Zone

A carry-in just waiting to be recorded by someone.

Okay so in our last post, we discussed why tracking the Neutral Zone is important.  We also briefly discussed what we track when tracking the neutral zone.  But in this post, I’m going to provide you with a detailed guide and the resources you will need to actually track the neutral zone yourself.

What You Need For Neutral Zone Tracking:

Neutral Zone tracking doesn’t require much.  At a minimum you only require:
1.  Access to NHL Games
2. Something to record Neutral Zone Entry #s (Usually a spreadsheet)
3. A place to compile your total #s (Usually another spreadsheet)

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A Guide to Neutral Zone Tracking Part 1 of 2: Why Neutral Zone Statistics Matter


Frans Nielsen is incredibly good in the neutral zone.  But How important is that really?  And how can we tell that’s the case to begin with?

A while back, Hockey-Graph’s own Matt Cane wrote the following tweet:

Matt was referring to a statistic commonly found in “Neutral Zone Tracking,” which purports to measure the quality of individual and team play in the Neutral Zone.  Neutral Zone Tracking was pioneered by a bunch of guys at Broad Street Hockey (Eric Tulsky and Geoff Detweilier) back in 2011 and in the years since, a bunch of individuals have also began to do the same.  The work that’s been done on this area, on other sites as well as on this one suggests neutral zone tracking results in some extremely important data that we should be very interested in.

What is Neutral Zone Tracking:

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Rebounds, Extended Zone Time, and the Quest For More Offense

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Long has it been argued that sustained zone time is a reliable way to not only prevent your opponents from scoring but as a way to produce offense of your own. The argument that is often made, or at least the one that’s often heard, is that the longer you are in the offensive zone the more likely it is that the defense will become fatigued and make a mistake that leaves someone open for a prime scoring opportunity. 

So let’s test that theory by asking a more data driven question; does sustained zone time lead to an increase in shooting percentage?

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Individual Skill, Coaching/Systems, or Randomness: What is driving open play results in the Offensive, Defensive and Neutral zones?

Can a team lose the neutral zone and still drive possession in the other zones to win the possession battle? Todd McLellan thinks so.

These days, when we talk about possession, we’re typically talking about a player’s corsi/fenwick/shot numbers overall, or we break them down into shots for and against.  The thing about doing this is that while it gives you a decent picture of what overall is happening while a player or team is on the ice, it doesn’t really give you a specific picture – does a player have a good corsi because he’s an elite offensive zone player or is it his performance in neutral and defensive zone causing this?  Even separating into shots for and against doesn’t narrow this down – for instance, a player can suppress shots by being in the neutral (or hell, even offensive zones), which doesn’t say anything about him necessarily in the defensive zone.

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How repeatable is performance in the Offensive, Defensive and Neutral Zones?

A few years back, Eric Tulsky (and others at Broad Street Hockey) pioneered the start of neutral zone tracking, or rather the tracking by individuals of every entry each team makes from the neutral zone into the offensive zone during a hockey game.  The idea of this tracking was simple:  Neutral Zone play is obviously important to winning a hockey game, but NHL-tracked statistics contain practically no way to measure neutral zone success overall.   Zone Entry tracking remedied that, by giving us both individual and on-ice measures of neutral zone performance.

An overall measure of neutral zone performance that we can find with zone entry tracking is called “Neutral Zone Fenwick.”  By using the average amount of Fenwick events resulting from each type of zone entry (Carry-in or Dump-in), we can create an estimate of what we’d expect a player’s Fenwick % to be with them on the ice based on the team’s neutral zone play with them on the ice.  In essence, this is a measure of a player’s neutral zone performance, helpfully done in a format that we’re already pretty familiar with – like normal Fenwick%, 50%=break even, above 50% = good, below = bad.

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An Introduction to Analyzing Neutral Zone Data (with Graphs)

Goons like Eric Boulton tend to break Graphs featuring Neutral Zone Data in very……..not-good ways.

A little over 2 years ago, Eric T. introduced us to the idea of tracking play in the neutral zone, in the form of tracking “Zone Entries.”   Zone Entry Tracking is now being done by trackers for a few different teams (Isles, Canes, Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Flyers, Caps, and more here and there) although not most teams’ data has not been collected yet such that people can compare players across teams.

That’s something I’d like to change, so I will be using this space to acquire data from various teams and compare teams and players.  That said, I’d like to explain how we analyze neutral zone data in the first place.

Most Neutral Zone trackers track using a spreadsheet created by Eric, which collects the time, player, and type of each entry.  That sheet compiles the 5 on 5 and 5 on 5 close individual #s of each player (How many entries, What % of entries were via carry, how many shots per type of entry, etc.) and the team.

Using a tool created by Red Line Station (@Muneebalummcu) and with some help from Eric T, we can then use this data to get on-ice data for every player.  This is to me, the real gold mine of neutral zone data – we can see not just how often a player carries in, but how often the opponents do so against him, and whether opponents are carrying it in or instead dumping.   We can also use this data to determine which players aren’t getting it done once the puck is in the offensive or defensive zones, although how repeatable that data is is still in question (More on this in a bit)

There are a few neutral zone stats I think are most worth highlighting: Continue reading