Analyzing the Toronto Maple Leafs Through the Neutral Zone

If nothing else, Mike Babcock brings structure with him to a franchise devoid of it for over a decade.

That’s meant changing the way this team approaches their offence, defence and transition. The Leafs don’t swarm the puck carrier in the defensive zone, and their breakout is much more sophisticated than glass-and-out. Offensively, they’re much less rush oriented and tend to cycle the puck more than in season’s past.

[An introduction to my zone entry project]

Observing minor tweaks in the neutral zone is nowhere near as easy. The pace is quicker, there’s an awful lot more noise and making sense of it all can prove to be an exhausting exercise. Its importance shouldn’t be understated, though.

I’ve been trying to bridge the gap this season with a neutral zone project geared towards tracking entries. My goal is to get 20-games for each team so that my data might carry some level of predictive value. I’m not there yet – not with most teams – but I’ve got 13-games for the Leafs and results to share.

Raw Totals

TML Raw Zone Entry Data

It’s often said that a “new” or untested statistic has to confirm what we already know, as much as it challenges previously conceived notions about the players involved. The Maple Leafs are an excellent example of that marriage between traditional and analytics-based approaches meeting halfway.

Daniel Winnik, a traditionally strong possession player, leads the charge with 84 entries total. Just as impressive given his neutral zone contributions as a whole, Winnik has just six failed entries. Winnik’s 6.7% failed entries rate indicates he does as good a puck protecting the puck as he does driving play into the offensive zone. The Washington Capitals got a damn good player when they acquired Winnik near the trade deadline.

James van Riemsdyk isn’t far behind Winnik. van Riemsdyk has a high entry total, one behind Winnik at 83, but controlled entries account for 34 of those, so it’s fair to suggest van Riemsdyk as marginally ahead.

Defencemen are rarely showcased by zone entries. You shouldn’t place a tonne of emphasis on zone entries when evaluating defencemen. If a defender shows well by this metric, hell, that’s a bonus.

That makes Morgan Rielly’s high entry totals the cherry on top. Rielly leads all Leafs defenders with 49 successful entries – Matt Hunwick is second to Rielly, 14 entries behind at 35.

Rate Statistics

TML Zone Entry Rate Statistics

Raw totals are the starting point. They might not paint the fullest or fairest picture, but they’re not nothing, either. They’re nowhere near as indicative as rate production, though.

Winnik (35.6 successful entries per sixty) and van Riemsdyk (33.18 successful entries per sixty) are leading the charge, again. Although van Riemsdyk’s controlled entries rate of 13.59 trumps Winnik’s 11.89, the latter is generating shots off his entry at much higher rate – 19.9 shots on entries to van Riemsdyk’s 16.3. 

Byron Froese makes an appearance near the top in most of the metrics included – fourth in entries per sixty (28) and sixth (10) in shots per sixty on entries. Have to imagine Froese’s shot data is being significantly impacted by Quality of Teammate, too. 

Fenwick Data

TML Zone Entry Shot Data

For clarity’s sake, when I say “shot data” what I really mean is Fenwick data – unblocked shot attempts. The drawback to this statistic is that it can be subject to huge swings in either direction over the course of a small sample. Frankie Corrado, for example, is likely less dynamic than his shot data might indicate on a per entry basis.

[A paper published by Eric Tulsky for Sloan Sports Conference on the value of tracking zone entries]

If you’re noticing a recurring theme, it’s that Winnik is showing very well no matter the metric. Winnik leads the Leafs in shots per carry-in (1) and is second in shots per entry (0.56), among regular skaters. Jake Gardiner is first on the Leafs in shots per entry, with 0.64. 

Neutral Zone Burden Percentage

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 6.47.40 PM

Neutral zone burden percentage aims to take some of the guesswork out of the equation with regards to who’s doing the legwork on entries. The way it’s calculated is by finding out which percentage of on-ice entries are done directly by that player. So if a player has 15 entries, but is on the ice for 30, his neutral zone burden% will be 50%. 

Interestingly, Winnik’s accolades using raw and rate statistics are muted by this metric. So while it appears as though Winnik is a high-volume neutral zone event player, his impact on the Leafs ability to transition play might be getting overstated by these metrics. 

Joffrey Lupul is on the other end of the scale. While his raw and rate neutral zone statistics indicate he’s an average player between the blue lines, NZB% indicates that might be an effect of QoT. Lupul accounts for north of 30% of his team’s on-ice entries.

Team Data

Raw Totals

No. of Entries Controlled Entries Uncontrolled Entries Failed Entries
Toronto Maple Leafs 587 219 368 131

Well, if you’ve ever taken the speed of the game for granted, consider this for a second. The Maple Leafs have nearly as many successful entries as they have even strength ice-time played – 587 entries to 595 minutes played.

Fenwick and Rate Statistics

Entries/60 Shots/60 from Entries Controlled Entries/60 Shots/60 from Controlled Entries
Toronto Maple Leafs 59.1 24.6 22.1 14.2

Shots per Entry Shots per Controlled Entry Shots per Uncontrolled Entry
Toronto Maple Leafs 0.42 0.64 0.32

If you’re wondering how there can be so large a disparity between the per sixty and per entry statistics, with the controlled entry data especially, it’s simple. The difference in volume between controlled and uncontrolled entries is huge – 368 uncontrolled entries to 219 with control.

We care about neutral zone data because it impacts your ability to produce favourable shot and goal differential. Studies have found that controlled zone entries (where the puck is either skated in or passed into the offensive zone) produced twice the shot volume of uncontrolled entries (dump-and-chase plays, broken plays or errant passes that still enter the zone). Finding out which players are driving these results is of the utmost importance.

[A breakdown of Eric Tulsky’s work on zone entries]

The Maple Leafs are a franchise in transition, but there are encouraging systemic results found in their neutral zone data. Although one would hope for a more evenly distributed ratio of controlled entries (which account for 37% of the grand total) it’s encouraging that they’re producing so high a volume of shots on controlled entries.

If you have any questions pertaining to the data I’ve displayed, please, feel free to reach out by email or in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get back to you. Also, you’ll find links to a better, larger picture in the tweets below. I realise the pictures posted aren’t the easiest to read.

Games tracked for this data:

  • Toronto at Vancouver 2/13/16
  • Toronto at Ottawa 2/6/16
  • Toronto vs Ottawa 10/10/15
  • Toronto at Buffalo 10/21/15
  • Toronto at Detroit 10/9/15
  • Toronto at Montreal 10/24/15
  • Toronto at New York Rangers 10/30/15
  • Toronto at Pittsburgh 10/17/15
  • Toronto at Winnipeg 12/2/15
  • Toronto at Washington 11/7/15
  • Toronto vs Montreal 10/7/15
  • Toronto vs Pittsburgh 10/31/15
  • Toronto vs Vancouver 11/14/15

  • J.D. Burke

    “Studies have found that controlled zone entries (where the puck is either skated in or passed into the offensive zone) produced twice the shot volume of uncontrolled entries (dump-and-chase plays, broken plays or errant passes that still enter the zone).”

    This seems a little misleading. For a few reasons.
    Isn’t the volume of controlled entries much more than uncontrolled? So, obviously more shot volume should result from the former.

    Even if true, it doesn’t necessarily mean it would apply to all teams. Some teams (LA, for example) are notorious dump and chase teams. And they do it extremely well because they are terrific puck retrievers – big and deceptively quick.
    Teams like Toronto or Calgary would logically be advised to do more controlled entries because (although quick) they are both small teams and would often get out-muscled when battling to retrieve the puck.

    Dump and chase vs. Controlled entries, although mutually exclusive, still impact one another when you consider possession.
    One method is going to be progressively less successful if you continue to do it, as you’ll be more predictable, and the opponent will adjust. If D know you are likely to dump it, they won’t be as high up on the gaps and will cheat towards the dump. Vice-versa if they know you like to carry it in.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big follower and advocate of the advanced stats, but I don’t think they should be followed blindly without some pause.
    It’s like saying that passing plays in football will always get you to the red zone quicker. Well, sure, that’s true.
    But passing plays will also be less and less successful if you don’t run the ball enough. It’s the only way to keep the D guessing.

  • J.D. Burke

    By this marincin is the worst dman and rielly the best. At forward, Colin Greening is a monster and Bozak is the worst.

    Bozak and Rielly are not surprising. But Marincin and Greening are surprising especially in light of Burtch and other anal heads saying how great marincin is and washed up greening is.

    • J.D. Burke

      Well, the thing to remember is that I’m looking at play in one very specific part of the ice. My data, in and of itself, doesn’t indicate that any of these players are ‘the best’ or the ‘the worst’. Just that they are good, or bad neutral zone players, in this 13-game sample of Leafs data that I have.

      Greening’s sample includes one (maybe two) games. So, really, I would caution against putting too much stock into those numbers, specifically.