On Andrew MacDonald, the neutral zone, and where opinions may vary

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Why do people's opinions on Andrew MacDonald vary so widely? The answer may be based on how he plays in the neutral zone.

When the Flyers traded for Andrew MacDonald near the trade deadline, we here at Broad Street Hockey weren't overly thrilled with the acquisition. I was, however, interested to see him in a vastly different role with the Flyers. What I saw ... was pretty good. It made me think "how are his underlying numbers so bad?". I think the answer lies in the neutral zone.

When I first heard that the Flyers had acquired MacDonald, I took to NHL Vault to watch some tape on him. It's one thing to "watch" a guy in your periphery, as just another guy on the other team, when you only see him four times a season. It's another to "watch" a guy and actually focus on him; so that's what I did.

What I saw then has been pretty consistent with what I've seen out of him in his 19 games with the Flyers. He plays tight man-coverage, something that was, and is, a welcome addition to a Flyers blueline that all too often "puck watches" and loses sight of their responsibility. I even commented that MacDonald almost seemed too dedicated to his man at times, often turning his back on the puck in order to stay tight to his man. Additionally, MacDonald is quite obviously one of the Flyers more mobile defenseman, and he is capable of some pretty adept passing. In short, he's pretty good in his own end. I was pleasantly surprised.

Even ignoring his time on the Island, he still has poor possession metrics with the Flyers. They only get 48.3% of shot attempts while MacDonald is on the ice. They do 5.2% worse when he is on the ice than when he is off of it. Additionally, he and Luke Schenn are drastically on the negative side of the scoring chance battle. But why? I've watched him quite a bit at this point. He looks quite capable in his own zone. So what gives?

Recently over at SBNation.com, our own Eric T. wrote an article about using zone entries to measure defensive contributions. This season, Eric expanded his work on zone entries to include additional information. This allowed him to pull some meaningful data about defenseman and how effective they are at preventing easy entries into their defensive zone. Eric developed three statistics:

  • Target percentage -- when the opponents try to gain the zone with this player on the ice, how often is he the one being targeted?
  • Break-up percentage -- when the opponents tried to carry the puck in against this player, how often did he break the play up (turnover, offsides, etc)?
  • Carry percentage against -- when this player guarded the puckhandler, how often did the opponents successfully carry the puck in (as opposed to dumping the puck in or having the play broken up completely)?

From a defenseman's perspective, it's pretty simple. If you breakup the rush before it comes into your zone, that's ideal. It's hard to generate a shot or a scoring chance if you can't get in the offensive zone. If you force your opponent to dump it in deep, they now have to go get it back, which may or may not happen. The worst case scenario is allowing them to carry the puck into the zone where they are free to take a shot.

What Eric found was that MacDonald was the worst on the team in all three areas among the regulars. He was targeted the most at 47.6%, he allowed carry-ins the most often at 78.1%, and he broke up the fewest rushes at 4.7% (Erik Gustafsson had a lower percentage, but in only 31 games).

If we compare that to Braydon Coburn, who was the best in all three categories, it's quite a difference. Coburn had a target percentage of 21.1%, a carry-against percentage of 62.8%, and a break-up percentage of an impressive 11.7%.

When Eric shared that information with us, I found it quite shocking. I then made it a point to start paying closer attention to MacDonald in the neutral zone.

***

The human mind is a funny thing. We're all susceptible to certain innate biases. Our eyes can see one thing, but perhaps our brain doesn't process and retain all of it, so we only remember bits and pieces. Tyler Dellow recently wrote a great piece about how fans naturally tend to remember big mistakes.

If someone asked me what I think the biggest failing of the eyeball test is, I'd respond that it's the emphasis on the big mistake. There are gigabytes of information contained in a hockey game. So much information that I think it's difficult for anyone to take it in and organize it rationally. The way that our brains deal with that is by focusing on the big mistake.

What is the big mistake? The big mistake is the play that leads to a goal against. When we see a player who's made a bunch of big mistakes in a row, we get down on him.

I think it's easy for the average fan to recognize and remember glaring errors. Matt Carle made a living out of egregious turnovers that would sometimes end up in the back of the net. He was subsequently chastised by many.

Take that a step further and some of the game's more dedicated fans are able to pretty easily recognize something like defensive zone play; not unlike what Flyers fans have been noticing about MacDonald for the most part. Pretty steady positioning, dedicated man-coverage, slick outlet passes out of his own zone.

Where things start to get really tricky is when you go even beyond that to some of the nuanced aspects of the game, such as the neutral zone. Many fans know about concepts such as gap-control, but it's not always easy to recognize it in a game as fast as hockey. More often than not your brain has probably already moved on to the next "big mistake" before you consciously register "hmmm, MacDonald should have challenged a bit earlier and maybe he'd have forced an offsides".

Often times, it's not until you make a conscious effort to watch for things, that you truly recognize them. This is one of the reasons I love analytics so much. Sometimes the statistics reveal something interesting and it inspires me to watch more closely to either A) confirm it or B) deny it while determining why the numbers didn't accurately capture it. This is exactly what Eric's article about MacDonald's poor neutral zone play with respect to zone entries did for me.

***

Over the past few games I made it a point to track MacDonald around the ice. Sure enough, it becomes pretty obvious that he tends to give a whole lot of cushion. That probably explains his ridiculously high "target percentage". If you're giving the opposing forwards all the room in the world ... they're probably going to swing over to your side of the ice and gain the zone.

This helps to explain the glaring discrepancy between MacDonald's piss-poor possession numbers versus what I, and most everyone else, see in the defensive zone where he appears to be quite good. While he may be good in his own end, it appears as if he struggles mightily in the neutral zone, allowing his opponents to gain the zone with possession far too often. So he ends up spending a lot more time facing shot attempts in his own end.

As it turns out this isn't the first time someone has reached this conclusion with regards to MacDonald. Our friends over at Lighthouse Hockey specifically looked at their team's neutral zone play last season and then again earlier this season, and MacDonald was scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Hamonic-Amac both are losing the neutral zone battle by a good deal - opponents seem to be able to carry the puck in on these guys at will, more so than the other Isles' D Men. In other words, Isles' Opponents aren't being forced to dump the puck in against Hamonic and AMac, but carry it across the blue line a LOT.

Instead, Hamonic-AMac did post above average results in the defensive zone (and offensive zone). However, their D Zone excellence was not enough to compensate for their neutral zone failures. This, mind you, doesn't appear to be a one year thing - in the 11 games I tracked of 2011-2012, this pair also allowed a lot of carry ins by opponents.

Two amusing outliers - PMB allowed very few opposing entries, but allowed a bunch of carries, and Calvin deHaan has allowed a lot of entries, but very few by carry-ins. Both guys are thus overall decent defensively in this area. By contrast, Andrew MacDonald is in the upper right for a second straight year, which is....not good.

I went through BSHer Andrew D.'s scoring chance summaries, as well as the zone entry data (graciously provided by Jessica Schmidt), to try to find some glaring examples of where MacDonald is struggling versus someone like Coburn, who seems to be excelling. (Full disclosure: these are cherry-picked examples of successes and failures. Clearly not every entry is this poor for MacDonald, or this successful for Coburn or Timonen.)

Here against the Rangers on March 26, we actually have MacDonald paired with Coburn. The Rangers get the puck in the neutral zone and start up ice. Truthfully, Coburn probably could have been aggressive and stepped up on a neutral puck and broken the play up himself, but I digress.

Macd_and_coburn_gap_control_medium

MacDonald leaves a pretty sizable cushion, and sure enough, the Rangers take it. Nash receives a pass and gains the zone, attacking MacDonald. He then cuts to the slot, as his teammate drives the net for a scoring chance. If Giroux wasn't backchecking, it might have ended up in the back of the net.

Macd_and_coburn_gap_control2_medium

In this next sequence against the Bruins on April 5, Boston gains control in their zone and heads up the ice. Luke Schenn is in the picture, but MacDonald is not. To be fair, MacDonald was knocked down earlier in this sequence so he probably was not yet able to rejoin the play.

Macd_and_schenn_gap_control_boston_2

Now we see MacDonald enter the picture.

Macd_and_schenn_gap_control_boston_2

Finally, we have the Bruins approaching the blueline and MacDonald is conceding it. Granted, it is a three-on-two, but an aggressive play at the blue-line there likely forces a chip in or an offsides if the puck carrier is forced to try to leave it for the trailer.

Instead, Shawn Thornton gains the zone, unopposed. Thornton ultimately opts for a backdoor pass for Dougie Hamilton who is driving the net, but it doesn't connect.

Macd_and_schenn_gap_control_boston_2

By comparison, here we can see Timonen and Coburn and what helps make them successful at times. Here they are being fairly agressive at the blueline. Timonen is making a play on the puck before the opposing forward reaches the blueline.

Despite that, Rick Nash does gain the zone with possession, however Timonen forces him to pull up at the top of the circle. Nash pulls kind of a desperation spin-o-rama backhand pass to a Ranger driving the net that results in a chance. So the end result here was still not ideal; and perhaps if Timonen was able to commit to challenging Nash a bit earlier, as opposed to at the circle, he could have prevented the zone-entry altogether. That said, at the minimum, the difference in gap control is obvious.

Kimmo_and_coburn_gap_control_medium

Lastly, here is a fantastic sequence by Coburn in which he aggressively challenges at the blueline, on Phil Kessel -- one of the faster players in the league -- no less.

Coburn_gap_control_vs_leafs_1_medium

Coburn swoops in and quickly closes the gap before Kessel reaches the blueline.

Coburn_gap_control_vs_leafs_2_medium

Finally, Coburn pokes the puck away and effectively neutralizes the rush before they ever gain the zone. The puck ends up in the corner; defeated, Kessel and his linemates decide to go off on a line change.

Coburn_gap_control_vs_leafs_3_medium

***

I write this article not because I need to find something wrong with MacDonald. In fact, it's the opposite. I was so encouraged by his play in his own end, it drove me to dig a bit deeper. Eric's new analysis provided a snippet of information we have never seen before, and it seems to provide an explanation as to why MacDonald struggles with puck possession despite looking like a strong defensive player. I find it slightly fascinating because, as our Charlie O'Connor put it, "it also helps to explain why he's a guy where the eyes and the stats tend to differ."

It's uplifting to an extent because if MacDonald is able to tighten up in the neutral zone and hold the blueline a bit better, it appears as if it would go a long way in making him a more effective player. Yet, it's still concerning because you have to wonder if it's something he can correct at this point.

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