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Improving zone exits could put Wild over the top

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Limiting unnecessary turnovers out of the zone will help drive puck possession for Minnesota

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to nitpick a team that has won 14 of the last 16 games. Often it’s called out for being too negative, especially for a team with so much positivity to talk about at the moment. But just like the head coach of the Wild had his concerns, even while the team was winning, I have my concerns. Why? Well, this team needs to be a finely tuned machine heading into the post season if it wants to capture the best trophy in all of sports.

Often a detail that is overlooked, exiting the defensive zone, for the Wild, has to be corrected. It’s where the offense stops and starts for any hockey team at any level. To be successful, a team must move the puck from one end of the ice, to the other end, and into the opponents goal; to explain hockey in the most simplest of terms. However simple that description of hockey that is, it still is crucial to move the puck from the defensive zone end to the offensive zone.

Why? That’s where the puck retrieval starts. Jen Lute Costella (Jen LC @RegressedPDO on Twitter) has a brilliant piece on the importance of aggressive puck retrieval in the defensive zone and controlled zone exits leading to a team not only suppression shots, but generating chances themselves. Too often this season, the Wild has gotten itself trapped in its own end for long chunks of time. While a good defensive team, Minnesota tends to get into zone exiting issues that compound on itself.

Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar?

Courtesy of The Vicious Cycle of Conservative Defensive Structure by JenLC
Jen Lute Costella

The little chips off the boards, the dumps out to neutral, and failed head-man passes all lead to elongated time in the defensive zone. It’s akin to dumping the puck in on an offensive rush - the team is willingly giving up clear possession of the puck, and therefore has to work harder to re-gain possession. By chipping the puck out to neutral, the team willingly gives up possession of the puck and allows the opposition to get a quick reset before going back on the attack.

For those that would like a different analogy, think of the field position battle in football. If a team is unable to move the football down the field, there is a decision to punt the football away. No matter how good the punter is, if they are punting from deep in their own territory, the other team has a much shorter field with which to drive the ball for a score. By having good field position, your team 1) has a better chance of finding the end zone, and 2) if the team must punt, the defense has more of an ability to allow certain plays , but still not allow a score.

Poor zone exits has led to the Wild losing the shot attempt battle. Ranked 22nd in the league with a 48.17 Shot-Attempt For percentage, a team good enough for second place in the Central Division and the Western Conference should be controlling the shot-attempt battle. Granted, Minnesota has won despite those numbers and can continue having success. A simple clearing play use to work in an era of the NHL that didn’t allow touch-up offside. When that rule changed after the season-long lock out came to a close and the “new NHL” was introduced that simple play no longer became an effective one. Puck possession, as an idea and a practice, should be encouraged as should controlled zone exits and entries.

If a team uses anything but a controlled zone exit to get out of their defensive zone, they are leaving their entry into the offensive zone up to chance and they odds are stacked against them. In research I found that when the team exited the zone with control (through a tape to tape pass or by carrying the puck out), they registered the next offensive zone entry attempt 88% of the time. That same work found that only 28% of pucks dumped out of the defensive zone led to an offensive zone entry attempt on behalf of the team dumping the puck out.

Excerpt from - Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits by JenLC

Clean exits cut down on shots against and, according to JenLC, leads to getting the puck to the offensive zone where shots and goals can take place. But more than that, playing offense means the team is not defending. We’ve seen that in action as recently the loss on New Year’s Eve to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets took advantage of a poor zone exit to take an early lead, and never looked back.

In the play, Christian Folin gathers the puck after a defensive zone faceoff win by Erik Haula near the boards. Folin has both Marco Scandella and Haula as options for shorter passes to carry the puck out of the zone as both Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville begin to fly the zone to push the Blue Jackets back. Instead, Folin chooses to flip the puck toward Pominville. The chip and flip play isn’t handled by Pominville and is turned over in the neutral zone. By that time, both Scandella and Folin have reached the blue line heading in the wring direction as the puck is quickly moved back up to Cam Atkinson, who has all the momentum, and the puck for a clear breakaway and goal.

We saw it a lot in the December 7th game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. A poor decision to flip the puck out by Mikko Koivu, instead of looking for an option to pass for someone else to skate the puck out ended in the back of the Wild net. Koivu had both Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker as options rather than just clearing to neutral. The option to Granlund would have been through a Leaf player and thus was lower percentage with needing to thread the needle through a stick and legs, and likely needing a saucer pass to complete the pass at the Wild blue line. However, he also had the option to reverse to Zucker, who had a better angle to complete a pass to Granlund on the breakout. Instead, it’s turned over, the Wild can’t make a change quick enough, and it ends up a goal for Toronto.

That was just one example of many plays in that game, let alone the 3rd period in which Minnesota was caught in the defensive turtle from the beginning of the stanza. It was the “Vicious Cycle” that JenLC so eloquently described in the flesh.

Troubles with zone exits aren’t a new thing with the new coaching staff. Not in the least. Mike Yeo helped drill some of these habits into the current roster, because making the safer, more conservative play by just plain clearing the puck out of the defensive zone was considered a great play in Yeo’s eyes.

Making subtle changes on the breakout to exit the defensive zone cleanly, and with possession, is just as important to creating offense and suppressing shots. The Wild already limit scoring chances by forcing teams to the perimeter. By limiting the amount of unnecessary turnovers, the Wild can make success easier for themselves.

Stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, and a big thanks to JenLC for her fantastic system breakdowns and research on zone entries and exits. Read her work on her Wordpress blog.