Analyzing the Calgary Flames through the lens of neutral zone data

More often than not, I’ve found that structure limits creativity in hockey. A necessary evil, but not without its cost. The Calgary Flames, for better or worse, aren’t held by these chains.

In fact, one could sum up their approach to the neutral zone in two words: stretch pass. Beyond that, there’s not an awful lot going on with the whiteboard. The Flames use their speed to catch opponents napping and let the chips fall where they may. It’s entertaining hockey, but not without its shortcomings. Bottle up the neutral zone and you’re halfway to stifling the Flames offence. 

[An introduction to my zone entry project] 

Finding out which players are driving these results then is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, the NHL has yet to add neutral zone data to their repertoire. I’ve tried picking up the slack this season, tracking zone entries for all 30 teams. My goal is to hit the 20-game mark. I’ve got 12 for the Flames so far, though, and results to share.

Raw Zone Entry Totals

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Just so we’re clear, a controlled entry is one where the puck is either carried or passed into the offensive zone. An uncontrolled entry is one where the puck is dumped in or brought in by way of a fire drill at the blue line. A failed entry accounts for when either of these fail. There’s some level of interpretation involved, but generally speaking it’s as objective a set of metrics you’ll find.

Johnny Gaudreau, good at hockey as he is, leads the Flames in what I’d consider the most important neutral zone stat, controlled entries. Posting 61 controlled zone entries over a 12 game sample is encouraging in its own right. That Gaudreau is towing a 79% controlled entry rate is gaudy. The next highest flame is Sean Monahan, pulling a 75% controlled entry rate.

It can be easy to undersell the impact defenceman have on their team’s ability to transition play looking exclusively at entry totals. The Flames are an exceptional case, though, with every regular defender not named Deryk Engelland or Kris Russell entering the offensive zone with control north of 30% of the time.

Zone Entry Rate Statistics

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There’s no better spot to be on this chart than the one currently occupied by Gaudreau. There’s about a five-point gap between Gaudreau and the next highest Flame by controlled zone entries per sixty. Of course, his entries in totality trail the odd Flame, but Gaudreau’s going for quality here.

A player that’s shown extremely well in the Flames games I’ve tracked this season is Josh Jooris. I’ve often considered him the ideal bottom-six forward. Can kill penalties, move the possession needle and play harmless minutes in low leverage situations. Throw transitional play among the feathers in his cap. Jooris is the most active Flames skater at attacking the blue line.

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All shot data is used looking at Fenwick events – unblocked shot attempts.

Gaudreau is starting to look human – pedestrian, even. The Flames are generating just 0.35 shots per Gaudreau entry, which is one of the lowest marks on the team. Meanwhile, Markus Granlund, now a member of the Vancouver Canucks, did an excellent job of generating shots. In the near 30 minutes of even strength play that I have Granlund accounted for, the Flames generated 0.75 shots per entry. That number would likely come back to earth over a larger sample, but it’s encouraging for him all the same.

Shots per Entry Shots/60 from Entries Shots/60 from Controlled Entries
Jokipakka N/A N/A N/A
Russell 0.4 4.9 2.9
Giordano 0.32 3.1 2.0
Wideman 0.15 1.4 0.7
Brodie 0.39 4.8 1.8
Colborne 0.32 8.0 6.2
Backlund 0.41 11.7 7.5
Smid 0 0 0
Jooris 0.5 16.0 13.1
Bouma 0.37 9.3 4.0
Stajan 0.34 6.3 5.8
Jones 0.33 7.7 5.8
Raymond 0.23 5.8 4.2
Monahan 0.44 8.3 6.7
Hudler 0.21 4.8 3.7
Wotherspoon 1 4 4
Hamilton 0.3 2.9 1.9
Engelland 0.38 4.1 1.2
Nakladal 0 0 0
Agostino N/A N/A N/A
Bollig 0.55 9.5 8.6
Grant 0.2 3.2 3.2
Granlund 0.75 15.6 5.2
Hathaway N/A N/A N/A
Frolik 0.61 13.2 9.8
Ferland 0.44 12.6 10.2
Bennett 0.38 7.7 6.4
Gaudreau 0.35 11.7 7.5

The Flames lineup has remained relatively consistent all season, so we don’t need to worry too much about results being swayed in either direction by sampling issues.

Usual suspects like Jooris and Gaudreau continue to show well, but we’re starting to see more of their teammates enter the conversation. Michael Frolik, a strong possession player, is generating a high volume of shots, regardless the method of entry – 13.2 shots/60 on controlled entries and 10.2 shots/60.

Neutral Zone Burden Percentage

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Neutral zone burden percentage (NZB%) attempts to take the guesswork out of which players are driving play. If a player is accountable for five of 10 on-ice entries, that player was burdened with 50% of the team’s entries with him on the ice.

The impact Lance Bouma and Micheal Ferland have on the bottom-six becomes clear by this metric. When Bouma is on the ice, he accounts for 38% of his team’s entries. Ferland isn’t far behind at 32%. Those are disproportionately high numbers. Finding the odd player or two that could help lift the load of transitioning play might be a task worth embarking upon. 

Team Data

Raw Totals

Successful Entries Uncontrolled Entries Controlled Entries Failed Entries
Calgary Flames 788 398 390 188

Rate Statistics

Shots per Entry Shots per Uncontrolled Entry Shots per Controlled Entry
Calgary Flames 0.38 0.22 0.38

Entries per Sixty Controlled Entries per Sixty Shots per Sixty from Entries Shots per Sixty from Controlled Entries
Calgary Flames 84.7 41.9 31.9 22.7

The Flames are entering the zone with control of the puck 49% of the time, which is a lot better than it sounds. The largest cluster of teams is around the 45% mark. Rarely does a team break even.

Calgary’s also entering the zone a gaudy 84.7 times per 60. Again, they’re ahead of the pack, as most teams hover around the 60 mark. That might be indicative of their inability to sustain pressure in the offensive zone more than anything, though, so I’d caution against getting too riled up by it.

[A breakdown of Eric Tulsky’s work on zone entries]

On the whole, Bob Hartley is doing a lot of things right in the neutral zone. Ideally, the Flames would be a little less reliant on the stretch pass. They’re doing a good enough job of converting these into offensive forays as their positive showings by most metrics would indicate. 

We care about zone entries because understanding how the offensive zone is gained can go a long way towards generating favourable shot totals. The Flames are doing a lot right in this regard. If they can meet their rush offence with more sustained pressure tactics, they could threaten the opposition on a nightly basis.

Games Tracked:

  • Calgary vs Vancouver 2/19/16 [5-2 W]
  • Calgary at Ottawa 10/28/15 [4-5 SOL]
  • Calgary at Vancouver 2/6/16 [4-1 W]
  • Calgary at Edmonton 10/31/15 [5-4 W]
  • Calgary at Vancouver 10/10/15 [3-2 OTW]
  • Calgary vs Detroit 10/23/15 [3-2 OTW]
  • Calgary vs Edmonton 10/17/15 [2-5 L]
  • Calgary vs New York Rangers 12/12/15 [5-4 OTW]
  • Calgary vs Philadelphia 11/5/15 [2-1 OTW]
  • Calgary vs Pittsburgh 11/7/15 [5-2 W]
  • Calgary vs Vancouver 10/7/15 [1-5 L]
  • Calgary vs Washington 10/20/15 [2-6 L]

The Spreadsheet:

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  • DestroDertell

    Are we sure it’s a good thing for a player to have a high number of shots per entry? Given you already made the entry, it might just suggest the player doesn’t/can’t pass the puck when he’s in the offensive zone or simply a lack of control.

  • Petzl

    Great job collecting this data.

    Unbelievable that some of the players people hound on for poor offensive output are the people driving the bus. Backlund, Jooris, Ferland. All very good at zone entries, all quite decent at generating shots off of them. I think these guys are solid pieces, just need to build some more talent around them.

  • CofRed4Life

    Great post. I like this data collection. I will say, I think Calgary is ahead of the pack because we don’t have much of a cycle game. We can’t sustain pressure very long, and so we’re constantly trying to enter the zone again and again when we have the puck. That’s more of a systemic problem if you ask me.

    • piscera.infada

      I agree with you, but let me point out (before we get the “need more beef” comments), that it’s not that the Flames don’t have much of a cycle games because they can’t. It seems as though–as you state–it’s systems. The Flames don’t want to cycle much. I’ll point out that even with Gaudreau and Hudler on the ice (two smaller players) they’ve actually been very effective when they do cycle.

      That’s a problem, if this team every wants to create sustained offense.

      • EhPierre

        I concur. From last year, it was usually Hudler and Gaudreau working low (usually in the left corner) cycling the puck then usually passing it to Mony who’s in the slot. They haven’t done it much, but when they did, it was effective.

        Im guessing management/coach wants to use Calgary’s speed and hi tempo to make plays rather than creating sustained pressure night in and night out. Cycling all the time does wear you out and truth be told, our team just isn’t built for that type of game physically. Sure Gaudreau and Huds were really good at avoiding the stick lifts in the corner and were able to dance away from checks but it’d be hard for players like Gaudreau to do it on a consistent basis just based solely on his physicality.

  • cjc

    Very interesting stuff, though there are four games against Vancouver in there and the Flames are 8-3-1 in those games – so not really representative of our season in general. Still it will be cool to see these numbers when more data is added.