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Ins and Outs: Tracking the Coyotes Defensemen

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This season we will be keeping a closer eye on the Coyotes Stats. First, we cover zone entries and exits.

NHL: Preseason-Arizona Coyotes at San Jose Sharks Andrew Villa-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey statistics have come a long way in the past ten years, as there are numerous people doing interesting work both on the internet and in team’s front offices. However, the one common complaint with analytics in the NHL is that we’re limited to what the league makes available. These being only your basic stats like shots, faceoffs, hits, blocked shots, and goals (duh). People have made great discoveries using these stats & even made predictive models out of them, but there is an appetite for more detailed stats, especially at the micro-level.

This is where some fans go the extra mile and track their own events to get a more accurate picture of what happens during the game. It’s something I have been doing for the past few years both as a job and on my personal blog, The Energy Line. Basically, we know that outshooting your opponent is predictive of future success & that if a player is on the ice for more of his team’s shot attempts than the opponent’s, he is playing in the right zone and helping drive results for his team. What each player is going to drive these results is another story, which is where tracking micro events like zone entries, zone exits, and passing plays can help us dive into what exactly each player is doing and how the team is performing overall. It also gives us a better idea at which areas of the game a player excels at and where he struggles.

I tracked stats like this for the entire league last year and will be continuing this season both on my blog and here on Five For Howling. Before we start the season, let’s go over some of the stats I’ll be featuring in my recaps and how they can be used to evaluate players. I went over zone entries and passing plays in my article on Derek Stepan, so this article will focus more on analyzing defensemen.

Zone Exits

Something you always hear coaches and analysts preach is how a defenseman makes a “good first pass” and how important it is to exit the defensive zone cleanly to create any offense. This is a stat that hasn’t been tested as much as others, but it’s one that has been tracked by a lot of people and is an interesting way to look at how good a certain team or defenseman is at breaking the puck out of their own zone.

Tracking exits is pretty simple, albeit tedious. I chart every time a player from the attacking team attempts to exit the zone, whether they were successful and whether they did it by carrying the puck out, passing it to a teammate, dumping the puck out and having someone from their team recover it or simply cleared the puck out. A successful exit is only recorded if the exiting team crosses the blue line without surrendering possession of the puck to the defending team. If not, it is marked as a failed exit. Exits done by carry or pass are regarded as possession exits and are more optimal in theory. Dump-outs & clears are considered Exits Without Possession.

I also chart other things to give context such as whether or not the exiting player was being pressured by a forecheck, the area of the ice where the exit occurred and the intended target of a pass if one was attempted. This is more for strategic & film breakdown purposes, which we may get into sometime during the season.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at what these numbers said about the Coyotes last year.

Zone Exits
Corey Sznajder

For reference, the league average for Exit% last season was 75.3% and 38.8% for Possession Exit% in my sample. Half of the Coyotes defense last year ranked slightly above average or higher in terms of exiting the zone with possession, but most fell under the median line when it came to simply exiting the zone.

So, this tells us that they could lead breakouts but had problems with turnovers & getting the puck out under pressure. Overall, the numbers aren’t terribly surprising when you look at who is at the top and who is at the bottom.

They were probably expecting a little more out of Goligoski and one would think Ekman-Larsson would post higher numbers when he’s fully healthy, which he wasn’t for most of last season.

It is a little surprising to see Chychrun rank so low on the list, as he is a great skater & loved to rush with the puck. Perhaps this shows that he needs to be a little smarter with his decisions? There’s a lot more we can dive into with data like this.

Arizona will have a new look to their defense corps this year, so these stats serve more as a retrospect now, but I will be tracking these throughout the year and we can go over how each player progresses.

Zone Entry Defense

Next up with our defensemen breakdown is looking at how well each player defends their blue line on zone entries. I mentioned in the Stepan article that in addition to tracking which player entered the zone, I’m also charting the player who was defending the zone.

This gives us an idea of which players are forcing lower percentage plays (i.e. dump-ins) at the blue line and which ones are more likely to concede it and give-up carry-ins.

We can also take this a step further by looking at which defensemen are better at preventing passing plays off zone entries, which gives us an idea of how well they are protecting the middle of the ice & shutting off attacking forwards.

The tracking process for this is the same as zone entries, just looked at from the defenseman’s perspective.

Here’s how the Coyotes graded out last year:

Zone Entries
Corey Sznajder

Quick overview: The further you are to the left on this chart, the better you are at defending your blue line. Players on the lower right are also good at defending the blue line but had a tendency to give up passing plays when players did carry the puck in against them.

Players in the upper-right had the most problems defending the neutral zone, as opposing players carried the puck in against them & created passing plays, as well. Most of the defense ranks below the league average here in both regards, but Goligoski especially struggled.

Ekman-Larsson also had some problems stopping the rush, but it’s clear he wasn’t alone here. This is where the addition of Niklas Hjalmarsson should make an impact, as he has been a solid defensive presence on Chicago’s blue line for the past eight seasons and should be a big help for the Coyotes.

The new coaching staff could also play an underrated role in how the team defends their blue line this year. Defending your blue line is a repeatable skill, but it can be influenced by the team’s system & how good of a team you’re playing on.

As most know, Arizona ranked very low in most shot metrics last year & it’s possible that Tippet told the defensemen to play more conservatively when defending the blue line because he didn’t want them to get burned for scoring chances.

Arizona has a new group of defenders, a new coaching staff and hopefully better forwards up front, so will we see a new approach from Rick Tocchet and company?

We’ll have to wait and see and it’s something we’ll keep a close eye on over the season.