Zone Exits, and Previewing the Predators’ Defense

NOTE: all zone entry stats came from Corey Sznajder and his All Three Zones project, which you can support through the provided links! Corsi numbers are from behindthenet.ca. 

At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the Predators stated they were planning to change the way they entered and exited the zone – most likely based on work done for them by analytics consultants. This didn’t happen: as stated by Corey Sznajder, they had one of the lowest carry-in rates in the entire NHL.

Pekka Rinne was injured at the start of the season, and when he did play, looked nothing like himself. The defense was still young, the combined efforts of Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec couldn’t replace Rinne, and while Hutton improved fairly dramatically over the course of the season, it wasn’t enough.

With the hiring of Peter Laviolette as well as the addition of James Neal and Mike Ribeiro, it’s unlikely the Predators will play the same way in October. Trotz didn’t return as coach because it was clear the Predators needed both a change and more offensive support. This season, hopefully it comes.

Nashville’s defense is, of course, led by Shea Weber. Through the first 50 games last season, the only other veteran defenseman was Kevin Klein. Roman Josi was on his second year as Weber’s full-time defense partner; Ryan Ellis was finally consistently in Nashville instead of Milwaukee. Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm, and Victor Bartley were all rookies. Between that and Rinne being on LTIR, it’s understandable why the system didn’t change.

Weber is controversial when it comes to advanced stats. He’s put in the top tier with Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, and Duncan Keith when anyone talks about top defensemen. He gets Norris nominations, but hasn’t actually won the Norris. People say his Corsi For% should be higher, that he should be driving possession on his team, despite last year’s mediocre numbers.

On the other hand, Doughty is on a team with Anze Kopitar, Chara with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, Keith with Jonathan Toews. The Predators have a decent second line center in Mike Fisher, and a good third line one in Matt Cullen, but last year, that was about it.

Zone entries and exits can tell us a lot about how defensemen play. Furthermore, it can likely help determine what’s happening with Shea Weber: if he’s overrated by the NHL, or underrated by his Corsi.

Player Success% Turnover% Carry% Pass% Other%
Seth Jones 25.10% 7.80% 6.20% 15.80% 3.20%
Ryan Ellis 28.70% 6.10% 6.60% 18.20% 3.80%
Shea Weber 23.70% 4.80% 1.70% 18.20% 3.80%
Kevin Klein 25.10% 7.10% 5.70% 14.80% 4.60%
Mattias Ekholm 22.80% 7.10% 3.30% 14.80% 4.70%
Roman Josi 31.60% 5.80% 8.80% 19.10% 3.70%
Victor Bartley 24.30% 6.50% 7.70% 13.50% 3.10%

At this point, Kevin Klein hadn’t yet been traded for Michael Del Zotto. It’s also worth nothing that Roman Josi was concussed in the second game of the season and Seth Jones played on the top pairing on his off-side. Ekholm and Bartley both played roughly 30 games, often alternating roles as 7th defenseman.

These statistics are all fairly self-explanatory. The first column is the percentage of puck touches in the defensive zone that resulted in exiting the zone with possession, the sum of Carry%, Pass%, and Other%.

A few things stand out. Josi, Weber’s partner, had the highest success percentage by far. Ellis is next, then Jones and Klein. Shea Weber is second from last.

The following columns give some more context. Weber and Josi both had high pass percentages, however, Josi had the higher carry%, and Weber the lowest. No offense meant to Mattias Ekholm or Victor Bartley, but there’s no argument to be made that they’re better defensemen, and they both outpaced Weber: Ekholm by a little, Bartley by a lot.

I don’t doubt Shea Weber has the ability to carry the puck out of the zone. The question is why he isn’t.

The Predators were known for dump and chase hockey. They forecheck hard. They have Pekka Rinne, so they built from the net out. It worked for years– Barry Trotz took them at least to the first round of the playoffs, if not often the second. This started to change in 2012, when Suter left in free agency. It arguably failed last year. They were mathematically in contention for 80 games, but the playoffs weren’t really in sight. There’s no question that Weber took on a lot.

Josi appears to have done most of carrying the puck out, when it comes to that pairing, and he did it quite successfully. Josi was also better at puck possession– though worse at puck protection; Weber’s turnover% was low, though there is the converse argument that it’s because he didn’t have it as often as he could– but his relative Corsi% wasn’t astronomically high in the context of the team. In other words, Josi wasn’t carrying Weber around the ice. In fact, Weber was passing to him, relying on Josi to carry the puck out, which he did quite successfully. There’s some indication that he did this with Suter as well. An interesting thing to note this upcoming season will be if Laviolette’s system allows for this to continue, or if Weber is asked to carry the puck in more, especially with healthy goaltenders and a more experienced defense.

The following chart has Corsi, Corsi Rel, and Offensive Zone Start%:

Player Corsi On Corsi Rel OffZone Start%
Seth Jones 0.11 4.5 50.6
Ryan Ellis -1.35 5.4 53.2
Shea Weber -4.98 -1.9 43.7
Kevin Klein -8.64 -10.7 50.1
Mattias Ekholm 0.26 3 50.2
Roman Josi -2.74 1.4 44.2
Victor Bartley -10.83 -7.3 46.8

Besides percentages, there’s also the raw numbers, which can be turned into rate stats for a clearer idea– though, especially due to ExtraSkater being closed, I had to estimate. Total ES TOI for the season could be found on nhl.com; from there I multiplied by the proportion of games played out of 82 for each defenseman to get an idea of time on ice. As many players had wide swings in TOI over the full season– Seth Jones, for example– and I couldn’t find time solely spent in the defensive zone either, these numbers should be taken with a bucket of salt.

Player Estimated ESTOI Touches/60 Exits/60 TO/60 Carry/60
Seth Jones 799.35 77.91 19.59 6.08 4.8
Ryan Ellis 711.88 68.02 19.55 4.13 4.55
Shea Weber 995.33 55.64 13.2 2.65 0.96
Kevin Klein 761.86 56.78 14.25 4.02 3.23
Mattias Ekholm 565.15 70.17 16.03 4.99 2.34
Roman Josi 830.55 60.89 19.21 3.54 5.35
Victor Bartley 440.96 56.6 13.74 3.67 4.35

The main takeway is that Nashville’s defense for the upcoming season should be fairly set, with Volchenkov slotting in on the second pairing– but it emphasizes how much they did need Ryan Ellis to re-sign. Ellis was used against easier competition, and got cushier zone starts, but he consistently had the puck and was excellent at carrying it out of the zone. I think he’ll do extraordinarily well in Laviolette’s system as a third-pairing defenseman (assuming Seth Jones is paired with Volchenkov) and as a bonus, can move up the depth chart when needed. His contract could already be a steal.

I would also expect Seth Jones to have a better season in terms of points production. He did have a lot of turnovers- a common criticism I saw- but that shouldn’t at all take away from what he accomplished. He had the puck in the defensive zone a lot, which means that the opposition didn’t. It wouldn’t be surprising if again, with more forward support, his point production increases. He was extraordinarily good last year for someone who turned 19 on opening night, though there were some ups and down, and should continue to get better and better.

Josi should continue to be really, really good, and the top-pairing spot should continue to be his for at least another year. If his points production goes up, I could see him being a dark horse candidate for the Norris, or at least in the conversation, much like Mark Giordano was last year. His strength with zone exits should help him in Laviolette’s system.

With the addition of Volchenkov, Ekholm will presumably be on the third pairing, and Bartley will be the rotating 6th/7th defenseman. I have absolutely no arguments with this– Ekholm will get some minutes and responsibility to develop, and Bartley is good in his role.

It’ll be interesting to see if Weber’s Corsi For% improves this year with a better forward lineup. He had higher relative numbers prior to 2012, but the last two years have been full of injuries and uncertainty, with or without the loss of Suter. The Predators also weren’t in playoff contention, and didn’t get much attention from the national media, something the addition of James Neal and the goals he can bring may change. If his possession stats improve, and more goals scored overall brings his assist total up (Duncan Keith should probably thank secondary assists for at least some of this year’s Norris win), he could be looking at an award he really should have already won.

The Predators have a good defense that’s only likely to get better. Their low carry-in% should change this year with more solid goaltending and a different system, as well as more support from forwards. This year with the Preds, I would say take the over.

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