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Matt Read's neutral zone dominance cannot be ignored

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After a poor 2014-15 season, the pressure was on Matt Read to produce a rebound season. While his scoring is still down, Read's play in the neutral zone is making up for that.

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Read's 2014-15 season can be rightfully called a disaster. After three straight seasons of performing like a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, Read posted his lowest full season point totals of his career (8 goals, 22 assists) and a career worst Corsi Relative to his teammates at even strength.

But his struggles were understandable. A month into the season, Read suffered a high ankle sprain and chose to play through the discomfort. From November through the end of December, Read was clearly hampered by the injury, which sapped his speed and his strength in puck battles. When reviewing the season, it became easy to chalk up Read's underwhelming performance to the two lost months.

So far this year, however, Read's scoring totals have not yet bounced back. He has seven points in 28 games - on pace for only 20 points in an 82-game season. As a result, many have argued that his early struggles are an extension of his mediocre play in 2014-15, and that Read is clearly on the decline in terms of true talent.

His teammates disagree. After Read scored the overtime game-winning goal against New Jersey last week, the general consensus was that the forward's play had actually been quite strong despite his lack of production. Linemate Wayne Simmonds was blunt, stating, "I think, especially playing on a line with him, he’s been doing a lot of good things, he’s doing a lot of things right. He just hasn’t been getting some of the bounces."

Simmonds is correct. Despite the lack of point production, the underlying numbers describe a player who is driving play and creating opportunities for his teammates to get in on the attack. His even strength Corsi For percentage of 55.19% ranks second among Flyers forwards, behind only Sean Couturier. Those strong possession statistics are primarily the result of Read's fantastic play in the neutral zone.

Matt Read and Neutral Zone Score

Neutral zone play is very difficult to measure. Since tangible results tied to goals only occur in the offensive (or defensive) zones, a player who thrives by making smart passes in the middle of the ice or by breaking up plays before they develop into cycles can be underrated by those who judge players solely by goals and assists.

One of the benefits of manually tracking zone entries is that it allows us to isolate play in the neutral zone, and focus only on whether a player is helping his team to enter the offensive zone and prevent other teams from doing the same. Using that data, it becomes possible to create statistics that accurately judge a player's performance in the neutral zone.

In my articles last week on the Schultz vs. Medvedev situation and Shayne Gostisbehere's effect on the Flyers' recent improvement, I broke down the importance of a stat called "Neutral Zone Score." Essentially, Neutral Zone Score presents what a player's Fenwick (on-ice unblocked shot attempts) percentage would be if we assume league average performance in the offensive and defensive zones.

The player is being judged only on the entries that occur when he is on the ice - how many times his team enters the offensive zone versus how many times his opponent enters their offensive zone, and the manner in which each team enters said zones. If the player posted a strong Neutral Zone Score, it can be inferred that he is making smart decisions to help his team drive play in the right direction.

These metrics look very favorably upon Matt Read thus far in 2015-16. In fact, no Philadelphia forward has done a better job in the neutral zone this season.

Rank Forward Neutral Zone Score
1 Matt Read 53.32%
2 Claude Giroux 52.03%
3 Jakub Voracek 50.97%
4 Wayne Simmonds 50.84%
5 Sean Couturier 50.18%
6 Michael Raffl 50.13%
7 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 49.38%
8 Scott Laughton 48.02%
9 Chris VandeVelde 47.51%
10 Sam Gagner 46.94%
11 Brayden Schenn 46.53%
12 Ryan White 46.25%
13 R.J. Umberger 45.70%

Only forwards with at least 100 minutes of 5v5 ice time.

The rankings pass the smell test. Out of the top-six in Neutral Zone Score, only Jakub Voracek currently finds himself off the team's first two lines, and that decision seems to be the result of Dave Hakstol wanting to give his third line extra help, not a performance-related demotion of Voracek. But the most eye-catching part of the table is Read, who ranks a full percentage point ahead of second place Claude Giroux.

This does fit with his strong possession statistics, however. Read's on-ice Fenwick percentage (which uses the same components as Neutral Zone Score but includes results in the offensive and defensive zones) is a team-leading 55.56 percent, right in line with his neutral zone performance.

Read's point production hasn't been there yet. But he's driving play, especially in the neutral zone. The extent of his effect on his teammates can be best explained by looking at the Flyers' best line in November - the unit of Read, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds.

Second line = best line

The line of Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds has received praise over the past two weeks due to their recent point production, especially against the New York Rangers on November 28th and against Ottawa on December 1st. But their strong play together dates back to late October, when the line was first brought together by Dave Hakstol.

So far this season, the unit has a Corsi For percentage of 61.6 percent, a rate that would rank their collective fifth among all NHL forwards. Their performance has come despite being deployed in the defensive zone more than the offensive zone, as they've faced 73 defensive draws and only 51 offensive faceoffs.

But who on the line has been most responsible for its success? One way to try and determine this is by looking at each individual player's puck possession performance away from the three-man unit. This "With Or Without You" (WOWY) strategy sheds some light into whether a player is being "carried" by his linemates, or if he performs well regardless of teammates.

While this is not a perfect methodology (it does not account for the linemates a player receives when stationed elsewhere, nor his zone starts), it does give us an idea of which player is receiving the most benefit due to the creation of the Read-Couturier-Simmonds line.

WOWY Couturier Line

Unsurprisingly, everyone's possession statistics fall when Read, Couturier and Simmonds are not grouped together. But Simmonds' percentages fall the most, implying that he is most likely not the primary possession driver on the line. On the other hand, Couturier and Read's Corsi For percentages away from the line are almost identical.

So case closed, right? Sean Couturier and Matt Read are equally responsible for the second line's puck possession dominance.

Not so fast.

Matt Read - possession driver of the Couturier line?

Instead of evaluating the WOWYs of Couturier and Read's overall even strength play, let's isolate their play in the neutral zone when together and apart. When we do that, Matt Read comes out looking very, very strong.

WOWY Neutral Zone

When on the ice with Matt Read, Sean Couturier has been a dominant neutral zone forward. But away from Read? He falls to 45.08 percent, in line with Brayden Schenn, Ryan White and R.J. Umberger.

Read, on the other hand, seems to flourish in the neutral zone regardless of teammates. At least in the middle of the ice, Matt Read is most likely the one driving play on the second line.

But why is Neutral Zone Score important? After all, Couturier and Read's WOWYs away from the line in terms of Corsi For are nearly identical. What this means is that Couturier's play in the offensive and defensive zones has been better than Read's thus far this season. That's how he's made up the difference in neutral zone play.

Unfortunately, that performance may not be sustainable. Garik16 of Hockey-Graphs explored the repeatability of offensive and defensive zone play this summer using Corey Sznajder's 2013-14 data. What he found was that for individual players, neutral zone performance appears to be repeatable, but on-ice shot generation in the offensive and defensive zones is far less so.

This implies that Read's neutral zone dominance is more likely to endure than Couturier's stellar play on the attack and in coverage.

Still, I'm not ready to discount the possibility that Couturier could possess sustainable skill in the offensive and defensive zones. He's long owned a reputation as a fantastic defensive player, and via the eye test this season, he's been nearly impossible to knock off the puck in the cycle game.

If we assume that Couturier may be able to sustain his above-average play in the attacking zones, it helps to explain why the second line has been so good over the past month. Even without Couturier, Matt Read was driving play in the neutral zone - he and his linemates simply weren't doing a good job of generating and preventing shots in the other two areas. On the other hand, the Flyers were struggling in the neutral zone in the early season when Couturier skated, but were almost breaking even possession-wise due to above-average play while attacking and defending.

Combine Read's neutral zone prowess with Couturier's stellar performance in the offensive and defensive zones, and the result has been a possession juggernaut.

Conclusion

Matt Read may not be scoring at the level of his first three NHL seasons, but his underlying possession statistics have skyrocketed. The Flyers are driving play when Matt Read is on the ice, at a clip comparable to some of the best forwards in the game.

The neutral zone play of Matt Read has been a primary cause of his puck possession dominance. His Neutral Zone Score tops all Flyers forwards, implying that his decisions in the center of the ice are producing more and better entries for Philadelphia than their opponents. As coach Dave Hakstol put it, "[Read's] doing the little things the right way - and doing things consistently."

Read's play in the neutral zone has been invaluable to the second line's run of fantastic play over the past six weeks. Adding Read to Sean Couturier's wing has given the centerman a linemate who can push the play into the offensive zone, allowing him to use his puckhandling abilities to engineer an effective cycle game. In fact, Read's neutral zone performance may actually be more sustainable over the long term than Couturier's offensive and defensive zone dominance.

It's time to stop criticizing Matt Read, and start appreciating "the little things" that have made him an effective player thus far this season.

All statistics generated from War-On-Ice, Puckalytics.com, or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.