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2013 Memorial Cup: The Saskatoon Blades and the dump-and-chase tactic

Cam Charron
Buzzing The Net

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Saskatoon Blades' head coach Lorne Molleken (CP)

During last season's MasterCard Memorial Cup, it was the London Knights who brought the heat defensively. Led by a five-man unit up front centred by Austin Watson and anchored by Jarred Tinordi on defence, the Knights blocked shots, trapped, and were an opportunistic team that afforded little space to skilled players like Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou.

What a difference a year makes. The Knights were lit up for nine by the Halifax Mooseheads, and their first line is considerably more offensive than it was last season. Domi and Bo Horvat and Seth Griffith have combined for the Cup's most memorable moment thus far, although we're only two-thirds of the way through the tournament.

It's more up-tempo and more flowing. London games have been a treat to watch, unlike perhaps last season where they shut down rushes and restricted scoring chances. No... that title this season goes to the Saskatoon Blades, and Lorne Molleken's underdog, host squad that are pulling out all the stops to win.

In our Buzzing the Net chat for the third game of the series, Kelly Friesen discussed the strategy of Molleken's Blades:

Molleken loves simple dump-and-chase hockey....big reason why the Blades looked so bad against the Tigers was they weren't following Molleken's "simple" game plan.

Do enough analysis, and you'll come to the point in every sport where a traditionally accepted strategy turns out to do more harm than good. In baseball, managers apply the sacrifice bunt. In football, coaches punt on fourth-and-short. Hockey's analogue is the dump-and-chase, a strategy rooted in the idea that a team will be more successful if you give it back to the opposition, and then try to hit them.

Eric Tulsky, a statistical analyst from California, wrote a paper for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, describing the effect of "zone entries" on game flow. By recording the time on the clock, the player that sent the puck into the zone and the manner it was sent into the zone, Tulsky was able to cross reference that with official NHL play-by-play data to determine that "the difference between a zone entry with possession and a dump-in is quite substantial".

"the talent component of shot differential seems to come almost entirely from the neutral zone play, as metrics like entry differential and fraction of entries with possession clearly show reproducible differences from player to player and that collection of talent presumably drives the large differences between teams in neutral zone score."

Translation: skating the puck in will generate more shots and scoring chances.

Using the same methods, I've tracked zone entries for players and teams this tournament, as well as scoring chances and unblocked shot numbers, to show the discrepancy:

Team For Against
London 43 34
Portland 37 33
Halifax 29 35
Saskatoon 32 39

Saskatoon is the lowest in scoring chances rate. The Mooseheads have been able to get by with an absolute dominant powerplay which is why they've gotten themselves into Sunday's final. The Blades have had no such luck.

Here are how each of the teams are doing from open play, that is to say, everything at even strength except for sequences after faceoffs in the attacking end of the ice:

Skate-Ins Scoring Chances Dump-Ins Scoring Chances
Portland 143 23 76 6
London 132 43 93 11
Halifax 121 18 68 6
Saskatoon 106 26 91 5

(I should note that there was a six-minute spell during the Portland-London game where the host broadcaster lost control of the signal and I couldn't track what was happening, so this also excludes that.)

The Winterhawks and Knights are our skate-in leaders. The Knights are so good in the neutral zone that they manage to have a high dump-in total despite their large number of possession entries. It becomes a tactical thing. Dump-and-change plays are omitted from the totals.

What is odd to me is how little success the Mooseheads have had generating scoring chances at even strength despite the number of times they've skated the puck in. It has only been three games, so the results are a little wonky, but generally you'll find that a team will get more scoring chances if they try to enter the zone with possession.

The folly of the dump-and-chase method is that it doesn't seem to be working well for the Blades. Not defensively, where they've given up more scoring chances than any team. Not offensively, where they've recorded the second fewest. They do lack a player like Nic Petan, Max Domi or Jonathan Drouin, who are the players carrying the load for their own teams.

If you break it down even further, you'll find that the skilled players—Josh Nicholls, Matej Stransky and Brenden Walker—are all carrying the puck into the zone at a fairly high clip (all are over 67%). The issue is that the bulk of the dump-ins are coming from the defencemen, who are looking to shoot the puck in rather than make the pass through the neutral zone. This strategy cost the Blades in the round robin, and they don't have the powerplay bodies like Halifax to pull themselves into a situation where they don't have to bank on goaltender Andrey Makarov, who has been exceptional thus far.

Hockey is a game where possession is king, and having the puck beats not having the puck almost all the time. The Blades may have looked toast when they got into a track meet with Portland Wednesday night, but the scoring chances were relatively even in that game, just 14-13 for the Winterhawks.

The Blades' biggest strength in this tournament is their collection of veteran forwards. They ought to be looking to get pucks on those players' sticks as often as possible.

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