Breaking Down the Postseason Teams Using Four Revealing Microstats
Manually tracked data from Corey Sznajder provides insights into how teams like to play.
At this point, whether from reading my work or many other previews, if you’re interested in hockey analytics you are probably already familiar with how the various postseason teams match up in terms of their underlying numbers - their expected goals, Corsi, save and shooting percentage above expected etc. These metrics provide insights into the macro-level strengths and weaknesses of teams (e.g. Toronto: good offence, bad defence; Columbus: good defence, bad offence) but there are also insights to be gleaned from manually-tracked microstats. While I’ve been critical in the past of over-relying on microlevel data when making judgements about players, these metrics are extremely useful for figuring out how teams like to play. With that in mind, I thought I would briefly run through a handful of the many stats tracked by Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine), the living proof that being an analyst does not preclude you from watching the game (or in his case, hundreds and hundreds of games).
It has long been held that entering the offensive zone with possession generally leads to offensive success more than dumping it in. In the words of one of the pioneers of hockey analytics:
Maintaining possession of the puck at the blue line (carrying or passing the puck across the line) means a team will generate more than twice as much offense as playing dump and chase.
That doesn’t mean that good offensive teams are uniformly the ones who enter the zone with possession. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes (whose assistant GM happens to be Eric Tulsky, the author of that quote) were the second best xGF team in the league and yet finish near the bottom in this category. But we can observe that many of the teams that are more ambitious offensively, like the Avalanche, Blackhawks, and Golden Knights prefer to hold on rather than play dump-and-chase. The Avs finish first by far here, with guys like Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri finishing near the top of the league and even the bottom six generally avoiding dumping the puck. Near the bottom we can see more conservative teams like the Wild, Islanders, and Stars who are mostly concerned with risk avoidance.
But “dump-and-chase” involves two tasks: dumping the puck in and retrieving it. Let’s see how teams fare at that task?
Dumped Puck Retrievals
If you’re going to dump the puck a lot, you’d better get it back at a decent clip. That’s exactly what the Lightning, Penguins, and Wild do. Tampa Bay boasts a set of tenacious and speedy forwards like Carter Verhaeghe, Blake Coleman, and Yanni Gourde who each ranked near the top in terms of puck recoveries per 60 minutes. The Penguins appear to have a designated guy on their forward lines; Conor Sheary on the top line, Jason Zucker on the second, and Zach Aston-Reese on the fourth. As for the Wild, the loss of Zucker likely will reduce their proficiency in this category moving forward.
Some teams who dump the puck infrequently also retrieve it at a low rate, as three of the top-six possession entry teams rank in the bottom four here. Intriguingly, the Flyers dump the puck in 40% of the time, but only retrieve 20% of those dump-ins. That didn’t seem to impede their ability to create offence, as they ranked 12th in xGF, but it is a curiosity for sure.
Exiting the zone with possession of the puck is a crucial part of a team’s transition game; as Alex Novet has found, they lead to a zone entry almost 90% of the time, while dumping the puck out of the zone leads to offence less than a quarter of the time. With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see Colorado at the top of the list. Samuel Girard and Cale Makar rank near the top of the league in both possession exit frequency and success rate. Leading the way for the Maple Leafs are recent AHL grads Rasmus Sandin, Justin Holl, and Travis Dermott (Jack Han told me that this was a skill that the organization emphasized from both a coaching and drafting perspective). Interestingly (but perhaps predictably), the Jets’ defencemen are conservative and lead the exit relatively infrequently - it’s the forwards who are most often relied upon to do so, with Nik Ehlers finishing near the top of the league.
The Stars finish last here, yet another indication of their low-risk defensive style. This surprised me, because John Klingberg led the NHL in possession exits per sixty minutes and exits per 60 in general. In contrast to the Jets, it’s the forwards here who are instructed to chip it off the glass instead of leading a transition; only three Stars forwards finished even above average in possession exit %.
Zone Entry Denial
Finally, let’s take a look at a defensive stat, zone entry denials. This measures the percentage of zone entry attempts against are broken up by the defence at the blueline, and functions as a proxy for how aggressively a team likes to defend their zone. While you might notice some strong defensive teams near the top and weak ones near the bottom, this isn’t a measure of player defensive ability: stepping up at the line can be risky and some excellent chance-suppressing defencemen and teams prefer to play conservatively and protect the slot rather than take a chance at turning away an opposing forward. Breakups can be seen as a function both of coaching instruction and player skill, and it’s impossible to fully suss out the weighting of each.
The king of zone entry denials is Jaccob Slavin, who shuts down 22% of zone entries and does it at the highest rate in the NHL (5.8 times per 60 minutes) and leads the Hurricanes to first place here. As mentioned above, the Rangers love to enter the zone with possession, so it will be interesting to see how those two teams match up in transition. Erik Cernak is the standard bearer by far for the Lightning (Victor Hedman is much more risk-averse at the line). Everyone on the Wild’s blueline is relatively active except for Ryan Suter, who might be less confident in his agility and ability to recover if something goes wrong.
At the bottom of the list is the Rangers, who universally give up the blueline with the exception of Adam Fox, who evidently didn’t get the memo and ranked near the top of the league. The other New York also prefers the low-risk option and is more focused on closing up shop in the slot that keeping opponents out of the zone entirely.
Stats like xGF% are incredibly valuable to find out how well teams performed in the fundamental areas of the game, but aside from broad strokes they don't explain how those results came to be. That's where manually tracked microstats can be uniquely valuable.
We're unfortunately limited in the microlevel data that we as the public can access, but the hard work of trackers like Corey adds another piece of the puzzle to understanding how teams achieve the results that they do. His Patreon allows access to not only the stats listed here and others at the team level, but painstakingly tracked figures for all players. If you're interested in diving deeper and understanding how your favourite (and least favourite) players play, I absolutely recommend checking out the rest of his work.