How defencemen transitioned the puck out of their zone in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs
I decided to manually track all 89 games from the 2022 edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, going back to the well after how much fun we had doing last year's project. Yesterday we focused on transition, this time we're going to focus on zone exits, which is something that everyone should appreciate the importance of by now.
Similar to what we discussed in the previous section about defending entries, the cat-and-mouse game that transpires on the rush has become such a massively influential part of today's NHL product. If you to hope to score goals, you need to be able to attack quickly before the opposition can get set defensively. The best way to do that is by breaking out of your zone cleanly and transporting the puck up the ice without having to keep stopping and retreating.
We just got the perfect crash course on what being able to successfully beat a forecheck can do for your bottom line on the biggest stage. The Stanley Cup Final was defined by the relentless pressure Colorado Avalanche forwards put on Tampa Bay Lightning defencemen, and the latter's inability to navigate it. Valeri Nichushkin was the best player in the series, fully earning his $49-million pay day with a puck pursuit clinic for the ages. The Lightning simply did not have enough good solutions for getting around it.
The Avalanche, on the other hand, dealt with no such problems, thanks in large part to the three-headed monster they have on the back end. Their top blue liners proved able to chew up and spit out whatever roadblocks were thrown in front of them. That brilliance on the break out helped fuel much of their offence, putting the team in advantageous positions to keep moving forward time and time again.
This is a good time for us to quickly distinguish between an exit with possession and an exit without possession. The former is the preferred outcome because it means that you can attack downhill without having to waste energy battling for the puck again in the neutral zone. You can do it by either skating out of the zone yourself, or passing it out to a teammate. The latter is better than a turnover because you've at least cleared the puck out of immediate danger, but it can still be a troubling sign if it's something you keep having to resort to.
There's undoubtedly a time and place for the 'glass and out' approach. Like when you don't have a better play to make, and you're looking to briefly relieve pressure. Or if you have particularly quick forwards, who you can expect to go and retrieve it more often than not. But while I acknowledge that it's sometimes a necessary evil, that doesn't mean that I have to like it.
The reality is that hockey is a frustratingly conservative game by nature. If a player makes a highly visible mistake, they'll draw the ire of their coach and their fan base, even if it was the right idea and just didn't work out. Someone like MacKenzie Weegar can make nine consecutive subtly excellent plays to help break the puck out and fuel his team's transition game.
But if the tenth is a brutal turnover that winds up in the back of the net, that's what people who are watching are going to latch onto and remember most vividly after the fact. It's been wild to see just how dramatically the opinions on a player of his caliber can shift because of a few turnovers, the way they have this offseason.
That risk-averse approach to thinking about the game kind of stinks though, if we're being perfectly honest. Give me the player who is ambitiously trying to make good things happen, even if it doesn't always go the way they planned. That's what will ultimately help the team win, which should be prioritized over merely trying not to lose.
The player who defaults to the "safe play" may look like they're hurting you less in isolation, but in reality, the damage of punting the puck out of the zone every time has an even worse accumulating effect in the aggregate.
Using data like this can hopefully paint a more accurate picture of those choices that each defenceman has to make over the course of any given game, and help us better quantify their contribution to their team's offensive output. That's exactly what we're going to try and do here today.
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