Half-season review: The Flames’ penalty kill (Part 1)

So we’ve finally crossed the halfway mark of the season and after much turmoil the Calgary Flames’ penalty kill appears to be trending back from the dead. Despite their early season success there were underlying signs that the whole thing was destined for an implosion (which happened, as predicted).

Let’s establish a few basics while keeping in mind that PK% is a blended metric accounting for any PK at any strength (3v5, 4v5, etc.):

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  • Through the first half of the season they sat at a miserable 25th place at 78.8% efficiency.
  • Since then they’ve moved up to 18th with a 79.9% success rate, which on the surface is a small step in the right direction.

With those basics established we need to keep in mind that the confluence of factors that led to the rise, demise, and sudden rebirth are all linked. The problem is that current public analysis still has a number of unanswered questions. Like the previous work I’ve done we’ll try to shed a little more light on 4v5 play and hopefully get closer to those answers, though the research doesn’t ever end.

Neutral zone forecheck formations

Let’s do a quick refresher for any newcomers or anyone who is a little rusty on the different types of forechecking options I’ll be examining here.

The Flames’ de-facto forecheck is a Passive 1-3 formation (tracked instances: 195 times). There’s a lot of tangible rationale behind this choice, primarily with player positioning in most cases to help mitigate power play breakouts.

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The F1 has a similar role to the wedge +1 in the defensive zone in that they can apply pressure when they’re confident they can force a play, a turnover, or the puck carrier to regroup. F1 will retreat looking to close a gap, attempting to funnel the puck carrier to one side of the ice. F2, along with D1 and D2, need to be cognizant of players getting behind them for stretch plays that can then quickly become on the rush chances.

Everyone at the blue line needs to be confident in attempting to suppress the entry or be prepared for a dump-in. You can see video of it in action (and working) here.

Following behind the passive 1-3 the Flames used the Retreating Box forecheck formation (tracked instances: 119 times). It’s really just as it sounds: a literal retreating box that is atypically down the middle of the ice.

F1 can force the opposition’s breakout (if the option permits) and skates backwards up the ice. F2 follows in unison on the opposite of the ice while D1 and D2 can tighten up the middle portion of ice. Once the puck carrier crosses the blue line, the forwards can force the carrier to his backhand. In many cases for the Flames, I’ve observed players trying to break in up the middle which can be suppressed as well.

Two examples of it working successfully (and one of it failing) can be found here.

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Finally, we’ll touch on the third more common formation in use (we’ll touch on Tandem Pressure further down), which is the Same-Side Press (utilized a mere 19 times):

In this forecheck option, F1 and F2 are primarily using angles and indirect pressure to angle the puck carrier into the boards. The press part comes when F1 and F2 function in a pincer-attack to force the puck carrier to dump in the puck or a turnover. D1 and D2 can be flexibly used here, be it in the middle of the ice to cover for anything up the middle. D1 is ready for puck retrieval depending on a dump in or a timely turnover in their general proximity, and D2 is ready to challenge the far side if the flow of play moves that direction.

Charlie O’Connor, now of The Athletic Philadelphia, has a wonderfully detailed analysis of the Same-Side Press along with other formation materials here that I recommend reading.

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So with recommended material to supplement this piece and some basics covered, let’s dive into the data side of things.

Formation usage and their impact

Formation Times Used Breakup% Carry-In% Dump-In% ZEFR Against%
Passive 1-3 195 24.10% 61.03% 13.85% 37.95%
Retreating Box 119 19.33% 61.34% 15.13% 39.50%
Same-Side Press 19 36.84% 36.84% 26.32% 31.58%
Tandem Pressure 9 66.66% 22.22% 11.11% 44.44%

Note: My defined parameters for breakups right now are forced offsides, entries broken up, and turnovers created when a breakout/entry was attempted. In some later updates I’ll have this data broken down even further.

As you can see, the Flames stick to two formations 91.8% of the time, with some similarities, but a general overall message that things need to change here. Despite 4.77% difference in terms of breaking up entries, the overall carry-in percentage is the same.

The one other positive is the overall ZEFR% drops a bit with the Passive 1-3 utilized vs the Retreating Box option. ZEFR% accounts for on-the-rush chances created after entering the zone and/or setting up into power play formation and getting a shot attempt off.

On the lesser-used end of the spectrum everything is a wash due to the incredibly small sample size. The one positive you can get from them – if there truly is one – is that they have been effective in their extremely finite deployment. There is an extreme need to see the Flames’ PK elect for more direct pressure options like Tandem Pressure over a reliance on waiting for trigger points and then activating on them in the two most commonly used options.

Zone entries against: A crime against nature

Zone entry prevention has been the nagging problem all season for the Flames at 4v5, which reached its height around the 20 game mark. Over the last 21 games things have improved slightly, but remain a concern. Part of this comes with the indirect pressure approach to managing play as it comes through the neutral zone, the other part comes from not directly attacking the power play they’re up against.

With that said, when regarding the Flames’ raw counts of entries against, tracking gives us a richer perspective on how their PK is slowly coming back to life:

  • 237 controlled entries against (136 of those were in the first 20 games, 101 in the last 21 – so it’s improving, slowly!)
  • 130 entries prevented/broken up/forced offside (51 through the first 20 games, 79 entries broken up in the last 21 games – a nice improvement overall)
  • 57 dumped-in entries against (21 in the first 20, 36 in the last 21 – a steady improvement)

When the Flames are dialed in and being effective in making it next to impossible to enter the zone it’s a thing of sheer beautiful. In game 41 against the Anaheim Ducks we see it on full display for fans to marvel at:

The second side of this zone entry conundrum is the rate of shots generated from controlled and dumped-in entries. It’s been a well-established principle that controlled entries lead to more shots while dumping the puck in requires recovery or a turnover followed by getting the shot off.

Here are the Flames through 41 games played at 4v5:

Entry Type Shots Per Entry Fenwick Against Per Entry Corsi Against Per Entry
Controlled Entry 0.49 0.65 0.79
Dumped In 0.22 0.26 0.37

All of this makes perfect sense so far, right? It’s a no-brainer that a team allowing controlled entries is going to see more shots against than a team allowing dumped-in entries.

The need for continued improvement in terms of zone entry suppression has to continue for the second half of the season.

Entry Type Shots Per Entry 1st 20GP Shots Per Entry Last 21GP Fenwick 1st 20GP Fenwick Last 21GP Corsi 1st 20GP Corsi Last 21GP
 Controlled  0.51  0.46  0.66  0.62  0.82  0.74
Dumped In  0.24  0.22  0.24  0.28  0.24  0.44

Overall there have been very mild improvements on controlled entries and limiting shots. Every bit helps, but finding ways to solve this could be a valuable underlying component to a strong final half and push towards the postseason.

This particular facet of the PK is going to be a focal point of future analysis on my part in determining if there are additional factors contributing to these results.

Suggestions for the next 41 games

Nothing is perfect and the Flames are a far cry from where they were last year, but these are the first three things that come to mind in areas of improvement when you account for the data we have here:

Unit Adjustments, in relation to neutral zone results: This will be the focal point of a third piece in this series that I hope to work with Ryan Pike on. There are some worthwhile suggestions or options to be explored when you account for how a player like Mark Jankowski has fared so far; Sam Bennett, like last season, continues to showcase extremely promising value at 4v5; and to a lesser extent Garnet Hathaway has impressed, despite some scant usage.

Spoiler alert: Jankowski and Bennett are worthy of more usage and ice time at 4v5.

Drawing Penalties, a true power play killer: One area that will see increased exploration in this project that also doubles as a suggestion is the emphasis of drawing penalties while shorthanded. Through 41 games played the Flames were 17th at 4v5 penalty differential (nine taken, 12 drawn) and sixth in penalties drawn, which could be a huge increase in overall PK success if they can find ways to put themselves in position to draw a penalty.

The big sticking point on this is studying what penalties have a higher likelihood of being called and finding a way to avoid putting themselves at 3v5 by taking ill-advised penalties.

Increased Tandem Pressure Usage: This is when we discuss the defensive zone results and where the team is with respect to preventing shots/goals an overarching theme. From what we have available in limited tracking, both from this project and Charlie O’Connor’s work on the 2015-16 Flyers’ PK, there appears to be some value utilizing it.

Like Charlie found in his work with the Flyers, the Flames benefited from this formation, though it’s rarely utilized.Its value is its ability to catch weaker power plays off guard on regroups, forcing turnovers which could lead to offensive zone chances, and eating time off the clock.

The risks are not ignored and there are probably bullish individuals reading this now thinking it’s not worth it. The facts stand that in tracking what we have publicly available there’s a value in the risk/reward exchange of using it one out of five or one out of six times you’re forechecking:

Wrapping things up

First off, I hope that part one of this 41-game review has helped frame the penalty kill a little better for casual observers to more tenured observers, or those in between. There’s a few areas that I’ll have tweaked to illustrate the relationship even better come the end of the season. It’s important to me on a personal level that this type of analysis welcomes in everyone and hopefully bridges the gap or fosters a love for this aspect of the game that truly fascinates me.

One important improvement in future updates will be using Prashanth Iyer, Mike Gallimore, and Rushil Ram‘s Tape-to-Tape Tracker for all zone entries against at 4v5. The goal with this is to simply visualize where entries are happening, who is carrying them in, and give a more nuanced look into the Flames’ neutral zone approach. The other facet of this is tracking by formation used to showcase over a larger sample of a particular formation’s strengths and weaknesses.

Secondly, an incredibly important aspect to this project that I’m going to start work on is tracking specifics to the opponent’s power play. How are they attacking? Are they using a Dallas Cut to enter the zone? Are they using drop passes or bump-back entries?

This is the next layer of understanding the true effectiveness of a team’s penalty kill and I’m optimistic that it will give us a richer perspective on the symbiotic relationship in special teams, which I hope removes even more noise from this work.

One last point: All of the work I’ve done is a direct extension and built off of Charlie’s work that has been cited here. He laid the groundwork for evaluating penalty kills and without his work none of this is possible.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the defensive zone which will include a refresher, reiterate some takeaways from here, and then marry them with defensive zone tracking.

  • Off the wall

    I love reading this analysis each and every time. It’s interesting to note that we were top 5 in PK in October, yet haven’t been able to sustain it. Passive 1-3 system used too much?

    It appears when you employ a passive PK system it tends to lead into more zone entries and subsequently more shots against.

    When I watch the Capitals I’m always amazed at how quick they get into formation on the PP. Very little time is wasted, often they use Ovechkin as a decoy for zone entries. It’s a sight to behold.
    If we could study their PP zone entries, would could have the best PK in the league.

    Using a tandem forechecking press has great advantages, often breaking up plays and forcing the opposing team to regroup. I don’t know why we haven’t used it more. Too aggressive, if it fails?

    One thing that has stood out to me, is that Bennett and Jankowski work well together on the PK.

    I’m not sure why we’re using Brouwer, his numbers indicate he shouldn’t be used anywhere near the PK, yet GG stubbornly continues to unleash him. Please stop the insanity..
    I think Lazar should be getting Brouwer’s PK time, he’s much faster and has more defensive awareness. Duh

    Regardless, I love all the insight you have provided Mike, it’s always appreciated!

    • RE: Passive 1-3 over used

      I think on the surface it’s a possibility, but looking over Charlie’s work from 15-16 the Flyers in 80 games tracked were 50% carry-in this formation. So with that in mind it could be that the “standard” approach might not be the best option or conducive to long-term success. Then again we can really only compare this info against existing public data and against other formations in the datasets.

      One thing that will be interesting is whether or not they find ways to force opposing power plays to dump in more, which hasn’t always been the case.

      RE: PP Zone Entries

      This is where my head is at in terms of finding the microscopic details of how formations challenge specific breakout schemes. If a passive 1-3 is more successful to say an up the gut/up the middle approach than a retreating box then we need to explore that avenue. I’m hoping to get something publicly available as soon as possible once I start tracking. Though this is more likely to be showcased at the Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference in March that I’ll be attending.

      RE: Tandem Pressure

      It could be risk adverse coaching and/or an emphasis on trigger points (waiting for specific cues, signs, etc. to attack) which makes perfect sense to me. The other element I’m curious about in terms of forecheck formations is whether or not game-state and score-state play into it. If you’re down by two goals and it’s late in the game, is there value in taking a risk and playing a more direct pressure approach via Tandem Pressure? Or is it better to wait for an opportunity in the neutral zone and activate on a botched entry or pass?

      Honestly from a fan perspective it’s one of the more interesting and exciting intricacies to special teams. We saw similar tactics at the World Juniors with Team Sweden’s PK (coached by Anders Johansson) and it was breathtaking. Still, it’d be nice to see them employ it a little more, especially against weaker opponents.

      RE: Player Usage

      I hear you, buddy! I really do enjoy how Bennett and Jankowski play together shorthanded. Given Bennett’s overall impact last season as an on-the-fly/secondary unit guy it’s shocking he isn’t playing more over Stajan or Brouwer. I’ve been beating the Bennett for permanent PKer drum for a few years now and I’ll continue to do so.

      • Off the wall

        Thanks Mike, I can’t imagine how much time this takes for you to extrapolate all this information and hand it to us in such an easy, readable format to understand.

        When you consider 10 to 20% of our beloved game is spent on special teams any given game, it’s imperative we need more comprehensive depth in understanding the nuances of how this translates into winning vs losing.

        You have a great hockey mind and we’re lucky to have you providing all this to us.

        I look forward to Part 2. Keep up the great work!

  • Squishin

    Wow, Mike. Such detail in your analysis! I firmly believe this site is the best of the nation networks, and it’s because of the writers.
    I’m also in favour of using Bennett on the PK way more. He is strong and relentless on the puck. Pair him with Jankowski (also strong, and a long reach) we could have 2 excellent PK units.

  • Scarface

    One of the many reasons Engelland was such an asset to the team was his play on the PK. He was aggressive positionally sound. One play which he mastered was the play down low where opponent has puck around goal line off either post and is looking across the crease or to the slot for a passing option. Engel had the timing down pat laying out his body and stick to eliminate both passing lanes, and thwarted many chances this way. The current Flames PK units have tried to employ this play (Gio, Hammer, and Brods most notably) and in my opinion have only recently begun to figure out the nouances of how to do it effectively (because the downside risk of it not being done effectively are quite costly). I’m not suggesting this is the only reason the PK has been better but I do believe it is a contributing factor.

  • freethe flames

    I just watched the Ryan Leslie interview with Frolik; it seems he is coming around well. In the drills you could see that he had a little jump in his step.

  • freethe flames

    With 18 games left before the trade deadline; what does BT do? If the Flames go 12-6 or better does that make BT a buyer? If so what should be on his shopping list? Can he get a Backlund deal done before then? If not should he trade him or keep him and risk losing him for nothing at FA? If a buyer what assets does he have to use? What kind of record between now and then makes BT a seller? BT has a lot to ponder these days. Only one more get up till the Flames play again and the journey will continue.