The Caps were a juggernaut during the 2016-17 regular season. The 118 points the team accumulated led the league by seven and, perhaps more impressively, the team’s plus-81 goal differential was 23 better than the next closest team.
While the team’s offense was certainly impressive, good enough for the third most goals in the NHL, the elite goal differential was anchored by defense and goaltending, as the team’s 182 goals-against were 13 better than the next closest team. The fact that the offense, while very good, was outpaced by the defense also shows up in puck possession. The team finished seventh in shot attempts for per 60 and leaped to third in shot attempts against per 60.
Thanks to the tireless work of Corey Sznajder and Ryan Stimson, we’re able to identify a way the Caps can become a major dangerous offensive team.
The Caps can become a more dangerous team by changing up their plan of attack when entering the offensive zone with control of the puck. If the Caps looks to complete more passes before shooting the puck when they enter the offensive zone with control of the puck, it could improve their offense.
Entering the offensive zone with control of the puck has been shown to create twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping the puck into the offensive zone.
On top of this, Stimson’s work has shown that a team’s shooting percentage improves drastically with each pass they make after entering the offensive zone with control of the puck. Here’s Ryan’s graph, which comes from an article that I highly recommend reading:
While we know controlled entries are preferable to dump-and-chase, controlled entries that are followed by a passing sequence before a shot are far more likely to result in goals than a controlled entry with no passes before a shot.
Thanks to Sznajder’s work tracking games, we know that in 2016-17 the Caps were good at entering the zone with control of the puck. The Caps entered the zone with control on 52.6 percent of all entries, fourth best in the entire NHL. But, when it came to generating passes off of these entries, the team was not nearly as good. The Caps generated a passing sequence off just 34.3 percent of their controlled entries, coming in at 26th in the league. Here’s a visualization of this data (designed by the master of viz, Sean Tierney).
(The sample size varies depending on team from about 30 games to 82. Thirty games has been shown to be a sufficient sample size.)
So, again, this plainly shows that the Caps were great at entering the zone with control of the puck (x-axis) but pretty poor at passing the puck once in the zone with control (y-axis).
On top of this, while the Caps were very good at entering the zone with control of the puck, Sznajder’s work found that this didn’t translate into many shot attempts. The Caps’ 0.56 shot attempts per zone entry ranked 29th in the league.
The Caps execution of entering the offensive zone with control of the puck was very good. But the data suggests that they need more passing and shots once they’ve successfully entered the zone with control of the puck. To get an idea of how the Caps can improve their play once they’ve entered the offensive zone, let’s take a look at some clips from last season.
First we’ll look at clips of the Caps’ “shoot first” mentality on controlled entries that led them to be a less dangerous offensive team than they otherwise could have been.
Alex Ovechkin has scored a ton of goals in his career by streaking into the zone with the puck and ripping a shot by the goaltender. When Ovechkin is able to get into a prime scoring area before shooting, this is a good strategy. Take, for example, Ovechkin’s 1000th NHL point. On this play, Ovechkin enters the zone with control of the puck and doesn’t pass. Instead, he works himself into a prime scoring area and releases his lethal shot.
So, if the best goal scorer in the history of the NHL is able to get a shot from the slot without making a pass, this is fine.
But not every player is Ovechkin. Further, even Ovechkin himself sometimes falls in love with his shot and fires off the rush when a more patient play, likely leading to a pass, would have been preferred.
From the same game, here’s Ovechkin turning a controlled zone entry into a harmless shot.
See TJ Oshie hanging out wide open on the right wing? A pass there, with Ovechkin continuing to drive the net, could have done wonders for the quality of the chance the Caps generated off that controlled entry. Safe to say, if a play like this doesn’t work out for Ovechkin, it’s not going to work out for his less-talented teammates.
But it’s not just shooting too much before passing that the Caps do, the Caps also sometimes rush the puck towards the net once they’ve entered the zone. That is, they continue charging towards the goal and sometimes force a pass, when hitting the brakes or having the puck-carrier circle high with the puck may open up more options.
On this play, Marcus Johansson carries the puck into the zone and tries to force a pass towards the middle. While this isn’t a bad idea, Johansson had ample time to hook off with the puck, and let a passing lane develop to a linemate or a trailing defensemen.
To be fair, sometimes a pass is ill-advised. As you can see in the next clip Tom Wilson was surrounded by three Chicago players, so any sort of pass would have been too dangerous. He probably should have dumped this in the corner, but instead tried to take a shot. Maybe not the best decision, but, in this case, better than trying to make a pass.
But, the fact remains that making a pass after a controlled entry should still be a player’s first plan of attack.
Andre Burakovsky led the way in pass percentage, meaning a controlled zone entry was followed by at least one pass on a higher percentage of Burakovsky’s zone entries than any other Caps player.
Burakovsky is crafty. His strong skating skills and great hands make him a very dangerous player coming down the wing with speed into the offensive zone.
But looking for the pass after entering the zone is a mindset Burakovsky keeps even when he’s not blazing in with speed. Here’s a play where he crosses the blue line with minimal speed, stops, and hits Lars Eller with a pass in stride. Eller hits the post on this play.
This kind of pass at the offensive blue line through traffic is a bit risky, but the mindset of looking for a pass after entering the zone is one that benefits the Caps.
In re-watching games from last season focused specifically on zone entries, the third line seemed to make a habit of passing after they entered the zone with control of the puck. Here’s another example:
But it wasn’t just the third line that become dangerous offensively from passing after controlled zone entries. Remember Stimson’s graph above that showed the jump in shooting percentage when passing after a zone entry? Here’s a zone entry by Ovechkin that shows how dangerous an offense can be when completing two passes after a controlled entry.
The Caps could use more plays like this.
The Caps were a great team during the 2016-17 season. But they’ll return in 2017-18 with a less talented roster. While this team should still be competitive, some tactical changes could help soften the blow of all the talent that is gone from last season. One way the Caps can do this is their plan of attack when entering the zone with control of the puck. If the Caps can learn to be more patient and look for the pass on controlled entries, it will make them a more dangerous team next season than they otherwise might be.
Headline photo: Bruce Bennett
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