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Is P.K. Subban Changing Neutral Zone Play?

Using the neutral zone as a way to transition defense to offense is one of Subban’s many skills.

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Getty Images/ Christian Petersen

I’m a few games behind tracking the Predators blue liners by zone entry and exit, having spent another weekend bouncing around the southeast for travel sports. This weekend I watched a hockey game in a ballroom on the University of Georgia’s campus. No seriously, I have the pictures to prove it. When I was listening to the Preds-Kings broadcast on Saturday night while trying to get some sleep for said trip to UGA, I heard one of the commentators remark about another one of Subban’s passes through the neutral zone. I wrote this about P.K. through the first five games of the year:

His uncontrolled exits are from him trying to make plays with lob passes through the middle of the ice. If it works you have a potential breakaway, and if it doesn’t the puck gets deep enough to make a change without taking an icing call. If you haven’t taken the time to appreciate what Subban brings to the table, now is time.

After witnessing the same tactic being employed again and again, you realize what once looked like a random event was nothing of the sort. A new strategy for neutral zone play is developing, and it has some tangible advantages for the Preds.

One of the more aggravating parts of hockey is watching some stone-handed defender chip the puck off the glass out to the neutral zone, only to have the opposing team quickly gain possession of the puck for another entry back into the attacking zone. As I continue to track neutral zone play the importance of defenders who can exit the zone with control cannot become more clear. This is part of what makes a guy like Roman Josi so valuable, even if his defensive zone play remains a topic of debate.

Maybe the biggest event I look forward to every year is the U-20 World Juniors that start the day after Christmas. Mostly because I get some time off of work and there is a concentration of young hockey talent on my TV. Most national teams send a collection of highly deft players, many of which are on the cusp of stardom in the NHL. The games are often very entertaining because the creative elements of hockey haven’t been coached out of the players. You will see defenders make mistakes, there will be odd man rushes and a whole bunch of guys carrying the puck up the ice who’ve never been told to make the smart play, rather than let their offensive instincts kick in. It’s fun, it’s unpredictable. Watch last year’s gold medal game if you aren’t convinced.

By the time players matriculate to the NHL, many of them only stick on NHL rosters once they’ve proven they can play responsible defense. Outside of a few truly elite offensive talents, defense is a must if you want to make this hockey thing a lucrative career. Part of being a responsible player is the ability to get the puck out of your own zone.

At all levels of hockey teams really only have a few options in breaking the puck out of the zone. At a basic level the puck is passed to a winger positioned near the boards. That winger either tries to exit the zone himself or pass the puck to the center coming through the middle of the ice. Here are a few basic ones if you want to dig a little deeper. Defenders have been taught to keep the puck out of the middle when exiting the zone; the home plate area is poison. Whenever a defender deviates from this plan he presents an unexpected event to the defense. Hockey is a pattern recognition game, the most dangerous players are the least predictable.

When defenders exit the zone themselves, they can either carry it over the blue line, wheel the puck around the net or push the puck up themselves on the same side the puck has been recovered. These methods become options for the defender when there is a breakdown in how the offensive team has the breakout covered. The last option is a stretch pass or the long lob pass through the neutral zone.

Why Now?

The table below shows NHL scoring rates, power-play chances and other relevant statistics for every NHL season from 2002 through this. Teams were only averaging 2.57 goals per game pre-lockout.

Hockey Reference

In order the clear up the neutral zone the NHL eliminated the two-line pass, in a flurry of new rule changes once the NHL returned in an effort to increase scoring. Scoring shot up after the lockout due to the drastic increase in the number of power-play opportunities each team had. After roughly a decade of adjustment by the league we are now seeing less enforcer type players using up a roster spot, less fighting, and a renewed crackdown on slashing this season. One of the frustrations of playoff hockey is the refusal to call the rule book. Perhaps this year that changes?

The NHL wants to create excitement. Speed and creativity are the tickets to the show. To illustrate the pace of change, take a look at the draft rankings for next spring. There are four defenders listed in the top 14 picks that are under six feet tall. Smallish defenders who can handle the puck are only now getting their just due with guys like Ryan Ellis, Shayne Gostisbehere being lauded for their puck skills rather than reviled for real or perceived defensive weaknesses. Those types of defenders are becoming more common. Even the way we classify defenders might be changing. Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella considers defensive wunderkind Zach Werenski a rover rather than a defender.

NHL coaches are generally a conservative bunch, but on the whole a guy doesn’t make it to the highest levels of hockey without a well of hockey knowledge to tap into. As the game evolves into a more offensive one, there is something to be said for teams who go at it a different way. Nothing will endear a coach to management or the media faster than a coach who’s seen as being able to win with less. One of those guys is Guy Boucher who famously or maybe infamously employs “The System”.Justin Bourne of The Athletic breaks down “The System” here nicely. That being the 1-3-1 neutral zone formation. Ironically it was none other than Peter Laviolette’s Flyers who made a mockery of that system a half dozen years ago. No matter what your thoughts of how Boucher’s Sens play, he took a team that was 22nd in league scoring to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final by playing structured defense and slowing the game down.

Hockey just like all other sports played at different levels throughout the world, coaching and tactics will ebb and flow between action and reaction. You can find examples in any sport from the evolution of passing attacks and personnel changes in the NFL, to baseball’s reliance on strikeouts and home runs.

In hockey we are seeing that transition, maybe reluctantly in some parts into a game where skill and ability to move the puck are becoming paramount. On the defensive side of the ledger more and more defenders are given creativity to create offense. There are less jobs available for brutes from Saskatchewan with six teeth. Players like P.K. Subban, especially in this once famous instance get lambasted for turning the puck over, especially if it leads to a goal against. It’s like coaches and fans forget all the offense these guys create, but focus on the Big Mistake. It was at the heart of the incessant Norris Trophy debate between Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty two years ago.

Skill Set

Not every defender in the league has the skill to consistently attempt long lob passes through the neutral zone. Everyone can pull one out here and there, but its a skill that a select few are given the freedom to attempt. Even Yanick Weber joined the fun with this beauty against the Kings last weekend.

Here’s maybe the best example from the incomparable Erik Karlsson. * my current limitation with video are preventing me from uploading quality Subban clips*

First of all the defender needs to be able to handle the puck, and have a reputation for being able to break the puck out of the defensive zone. Few reasons for this, when teams unleash the forecheck they are likely to forecheck tighter against defenders who can’t move the puck or small defenders they want to instill a little fear into, in the hopes that these guys rush their passes and turn the puck over. If teams attack a defender enough and aren’t able to force turnovers, they will start to target the opposite d-man or try to carry the puck in rather than dump and chase.

The defender has to be able to possess and carry the puck in the defensive zone. These are separate skills but these passes need time to set up. They aren’t blind chips off the glass or bumps to teammates. To be able to do this they need to create separation from the forecheckers with their feet and have the confidence and ability to make plays with the puck in small spaces.

Lastly the player needs the confidence of his coach. Not many coaches will put up with turnovers or risky plays if too many end up in the back of your own net. As much vitriol that has been thrown the way of guys like Karlsson and Subban, their coaches allow them to play that way; at least now that Subban is out of Montreal. The subset of defenders who can handle the puck in small spaces, have the vision to see an opportunity open up, have the skating ability to create separation in the defensive zone and the skills and reputation of being able to exit the zone with control is a small one.

The best defender the Predators have in these skills is P.K. Subban. Due to a busy week at work and on the homefront, I’m a few games behind in my blue line tracking, but it was evident in the first ten games how often Subban foregoes the conventional breakout for something else. Of his 120 zone exits through the games tracked, he’s exited the zone successful 80% of the time. I can count on one hand how many times he’s gone high off the glass or just dumps the puck to center ice to create an exit. Very few of his clearing attempts are from panic.

Subban is unique in his blend of size and skill. Although he’s not tall being listed at 6’0’’, he’s a very sturdy and solidly built 210. He has the ability to gain possession of the puck and the confidence to puck handle the puck through tight spaces in the defensive zone. He’s often times generated exits for himself by carrying the puck around the net against a single forechecker. The forward ends up on his back, and P.K. has the ability to protect the puck from him and the speed to generate a controlled exit from the zone.

Implications for Nashville

I devour pretty much all hockey content, and the first I heard of such a pattern of puck races in the neutral zone was last winter from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The linked article has some video examples, and not all are from defensemen but the general tactic is apparent; move the puck out of the defensive zone and try to create fast break puck races in the neutral zone. If they are successful the offense can generate a breakaway. The Penguins, Canadiens and Rangers are mentioned as teams who employ the tactic. Three of those teams can be considered as having a fast forward group from top to bottom. The Canadiens might be the only team to strike from that list; although the addition of Drouin helps. That tactic idea has manifest in Nashville this year. The Predators perhaps don’t have the 1-9 forward speed like the Rangers or Maple Leafs, but there are a few speed merchants on the team.

Tracking Nashville’s defensemen has been an interesting experience and has brought me into that conjunction of analytics and the conventional eye test. Having watched every entry and exit against Nashville’s defense has led me to some assumptions of skills and patterns of play. Granted these assumptions may change as the data set gets larger but there are emerging patterns. Subban is in the bottom right quadrant of the following chart. He’s been good at preventing controlled entries against and in creating controlled exits for. He has a positive effect on what happens coming into or coming out of the Predators own zone.

Changing the data into a per-20 rate stat, P.K. is generating more exits per 20 minutes of ice-time than any other defender on the team. Compare him to Josi, who has exited the zone more often with control, but generates less exits per 20 minutes than Subban does. This is tied directly to Subban’s home-run chances through center ice.

Josi has a very low rates of zone failures and transition attempts against. By transition I mean that the attempted exit by the defender leads to a quick reentry of the puck back into the defensive zone. I’ve categorized many of Subban’s exit attempts as clears when infact they may have been attempted passes, which clouds that rate stat a bit. If you’re attempting more low probability plays through the neutral zone you have to be willing to love with the chance at quick reentry. Although Subban’s numbers aren’t bad here his 5.8% rate is better than only Bitetto, Ekholm and Girard have been lower through the first ten games.

The October 19th game against Philadelphia was the clearest example of the separation between P.K. Subban and everyone else. in zone exit attempts. He attempted 16 exits, got the puck out of the zone 12 times, but only had a possession exit rate at 38%. I also listed each exit type. I recorded five passes and six clears. Some of those clears could have been these neutral zone puck race passes but without the benefit of a proper camera angle its nearly impossible to tell his intentions. The only obvious clears are when there have been breakdowns in the defensive zone and by judging by the method or where his head is when making the exit that he’s just trying to get the puck out and not make a pass to a forward.

The end result we’d like to see from this type of play is an increase in goals. The results there aren’t as clear at least at this point of the season. Nashville’s scoring woes have been discussed ad nauseam, especially during the acquisition of Kyle Turris, but Subban is second among Nashville defenders in xGF/60. This can be seen as a positive since his expected scoring numbers are better than his possession numbers whether those be Corsi, Fenwick or just plain old shots on goal. Even using high danger scoring chances, the numbers are going to be awfully noisy because of the low number of events these passes comprise in the overall numbers, nevermind who’s on the receiving end of the passes. Are these plays a positive good? We can’t say for certain yet since the tactic seems like a new one. What we can say though is that it will change how defenses forecheck or how their own defenders play in the neutral zone.

Implications For the NHL

Taking more long shot chances through the neutral zone may net a few extra high danger scoring chances per game, but at what cost? These passes inherently come with lower success rates; meaning the team is exiting with control at lower rates, or that possession will be given back to the opposition more quickly than before. They can create more high event hockey, but are coaching staffs willing to trade chances at both ends? Possession numbers are likely to suffer as well if after having turned the puck back over upon exit a team is now forced to concede the blue line in a quick transition against. You’re likely to get a scoring chance for or nothing at all; but with how tight the entire league is now it’s a risk worth examining. The right goal at the right time could make all the difference in the world in April.

Consider a few of the implications not only for Nashville’s opponents but the league as a whole. Defenders may be forced to back off the blue line as soon as the opposing team gains possession in the defensive zone. If they are less sure where the breakouts will be occurring we might see less pinches along the wall and more space created for forwards. Defenders might be forced to play tighter gaps in the neutral zone because those forwards are now receiving threats. Maybe more teams will give up the controlled zone exits to establish their structure in the neutral zone like the infamous Boucher video.

Although change may occur at a snails pace in the, I think coaches are willing to adapt a new strategy if it proves beneficial. Take for instance how early a team pulls a goalie when trailing. An old 538 article highlights this shift, and remember when Patty Roy pulled his goalie with 13 minutes left?

Drafting smallish players used to be something reserved for later rounds because they were seen as more risky picks who’s bodies might not be able to stand up to the rigors of the NHL. Last spring’s draft saw 5’10’’ Cale Makar go to Colorado at 4. 5’10” Erik Brannstrom went to Vegas at 15. The dimunutive Kailer Yamamoto went to Edmonton at 22, and even Eeli Tolvanen is only 5’10” 175. The size bias has been largely conquered.

Will we see teams start allowing their defenders to use creativity in how they exit the zone? Creativity is on the rise in other aspects of the game, it’s only natural as the defensive position transitions away from size and brute force to puck movers when those are the guys being drafted in the earlier rounds. After skating ability, skill is the most desired attribute for a player to possess. Having both, Subban is the forefront of how this skilled defenders are changing the game, but not just on offense, but in how teams exit their own zone.