clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

After a year of tracking Flyers zone exits, what have we learned about the defense?

New, comments

With the regular season over, we now have full 82-game exit statistics for the Philadelphia Flyers, on both an individual and team level. Today, we'll focus on the performance of the defensemen.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Microstat Tracking is a new feature that attempts to quantify the performance of the Philadelphia Flyers in the offensive, neutral and defensive zones. All statistics are manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor. All numbers are at 5-on-5.

Zone Exits - Defensemen

Player Total Defensive Zone Touches Successful Exit Percentage Controlled Exit Percentage Turnover Percentage Exits Per 60
Shayne Gostisbehere 999 40.14% 28.93% 12.41% 25.28
Michael Del Zotto 935 40.00% 24.60% 10.59% 24.04
Evgeny Medvedev 741 37.38% 23.48% 14.44% 23.79
Mark Streit 1104 38.13% 22.83% 12.32% 25.83
Brandon Manning 777 35.26% 21.36% 13.38% 19.70
Luke Schenn 556 34.71% 20.32% 13.67% 26.33
Andrew MacDonald 511 31.90% 18.20% 12.72% 21.12
Radko Gudas 1366 32.43% 16.54% 14.20% 21.46
Nick Schultz 1144 28.76% 14.51% 12.50% 16.93

The first section of our zone exit data include every controlled defensive zone touch by a Flyers' defenseman during 5-on-5 play. However, the inclusion of "in-zone passes," or successful passes to a teammate that do not result in a turnover but also do not push the puck out of the defensive zone, do add some noise to these percentages.

As a result, over the final two months of the season, I began evaluating Controlled Exit percentages with all in-zone passes removed from the data set -- essentially, looking at just controlled exits, uncontrolled exits, and turnovers (since they could essentially be considered "failed exits"). Those metrics proved to be eye-opening in terms of better evaluating the stylistic tendencies of the Flyers players.

Player Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. all Exit Attempts
Shayne Gostisbehere 72.07% 55.05%
Michael Del Zotto 61.50% 48.63%
Evgeny Medvedev 62.82% 45.31%
Mark Streit 59.86% 45.24%
Brandon Manning 60.58% 43.92%
Luke Schenn 58.55% 42.01%
Andrew MacDonald 57.06% 40.79%
Radko Gudas 51.02% 35.48%
Nick Schultz 50.46% 35.17%

Glossary

  • Total Defensive Zone Touches - the number of times that a player had unquestioned possession of the puck in the defensive zone
  • Successful Exit Percentage - the percentage of defensive zone touches that resulted in the puck successfully exiting the defensive zone
  • Controlled Exit Percentage - the percentage of defensive zone touches that resulted in the puck successfully exiting the defensive while possessed by a Flyers player, either by the player carrying the puck out of the zone or passing the puck to a teammate
  • Turnover Percentage - the percentage of defensive zone touches that resulted in turnovers back to the opposition (Ex. failed clears, intercepted passes, misplays of the puck)
  • Exits Per 60 - the number of successful defensive zone exits by a player per sixty minutes of 5v5 ice time
  • Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits - the percentage of a player's exits that resulted in the puck leaving the defensive zone while controlled by a Flyers player, out of the total successful exits (both controlled and uncontrolled) engineered by the player
  • Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. all Exit Attempts - the percentage of a player's exits that resulted in the puck leaving the defensive zone while controlled by a Flyers player, out of the total successful exits (both controlled and uncontrolled) and defensive zone turnovers by the player

Gostisbehere reigns at the top

In my opinion, this exit data shows that the Philadelphia Flyers essentially had four distinct tiers of "puck-moving defensemen" during the 2015-16 regular season. The top tier consists of one person and one person only -- Shayne Gostisbehere. Dimtri Filipovic, who writes for Sportsnet, tracked zone exit data in the playoffs and his data also bore out the conclusion that Gostisbehere is head and shoulders above the rest of the Philadelphia blueline in pushing the puck out of the defensive zone with possession of the puck. During the playoffs, Gostisbehere had a controlled exit rate over twelve percentage points higher than second place on the Flyers (Mark Streit).

Filipovic's categorizing of his data is most similar to the "Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. all Exit Attempts" statistic from above, and my Philadelphia regular season data lines up almost perfectly with his conclusion. Gostisbehere's 55.05% rate tops the nearest Flyers' defenseman by 6.42% percentage points, and that defenseman (Michael Del Zotto) was not available for the postseason. The best zone exit defenseman active in the playoffs for the Flyers after Gostisbehere was Streit, who finished 9.81% percentage points behind Ghost during the season, not far from the 12.19% gap that Filipovic tracked.

But even with Del Zotto included, Gostisbehere is in a class of his own. Over 72 percent of his successful exits were controlled, a mark that not only blew away all of his defensive peers, but (as we'll see tomorrow) also topped all regular Philadelphia forwards. Despite the increased degree of difficulty involved with generating primarily controlled exits, Gostisbehere's Turnover Percentage remained acceptable. His 12.41% rate was third-best among Flyers defensemen, worse than only Del Zotto and Mark Streit. The myth that Gostisbehere's skill results in him being too careless with the puck in the defensive zone is just that -- a myth. In reality, the 23-year old is already an elite puck mover and isn't overly prone to mistakes, at least in comparison to his Flyer peers.

The solid puck movers

Following Gostisbehere is the second tier of Michael Del Zotto, Evgeny Medvedev and Mark Streit. All three fall in the 45-50% range of "Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. all Exit Attempts," though none really threaten the Ghost Bear's status at the top. Del Zotto's metrics were the most impressive, primarily because he showcased a pathological aversion to turning the puck over in the defensive zone.

In past seasons, Del Zotto frustrated his coaches (such as Alain Vigneault, Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube) with a desire to "do too much" with the puck on his stick. This season, however, Del Zotto found a way to balance his plus puck skills with smart decision making in the defensive zone. It's not surprising that Dave Hakstol rewarded this improvement with dramatically increased ice time.

Medvedev and Streit round out Tier Two. The former actually had the best "Controlled to Uncontrolled Exit" ratio in the tier, but Medvedev's propensity for turnovers (his 14.44% was a team-worst) dragged his overall metrics below those of Del Zotto. The turnovers likely played a large role in Medvedev losing the confidence of Hakstol, who benched him for the final month of the season and the entirety of the playoffs. Streit, on the other hand, was not as dynamic as Medvedev but grades out as the safer passer in the defensive zone. The 38-year old defenseman has definitely regressed in zone exit efficiency as he has gotten older, but Streit remains one of the Flyers' better puck movers on the whole.

The "Just OK" guys

Tier three consists of the defensemen with puck skills that can be best described as "passable." Brandon Manning, Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald all fall in the 40-45% range of Controlled Exits vs. all attempts, not low enough to categorize any as total liabilities with the puck, but not high enough to be viewed as a true threat to consistently push play up ice on their own.

Surprisingly, it's Brandon Manning who makes the strongest case out of the trio for elevation to Tier Two. He actually was more effective than Streit in generating controlled zone exits versus uncontrolled exits, posting a 60.58% rate in comparison to Streit's 59.86%. And while his turnover percentage (13.38%) isn't great, his Controlled Exits vs. all attempts rate of 43.92% is the best of the defensemen that fall into Tier Three.

However, Manning can't be considered a true puck mover simply because he doesn't touch the puck enough in the defensive zone. His Touches Per 60 rate of 55.86 is the lowest on the defense, implying that Manning chooses to primarily take a passive role in terms of zone exits. Some of this is likely intentional, a product of Manning (or the coaching staff) realizing that the defenseman is not blessed his elite puck skills and giving more responsibilities to his partners to push the puck up ice.

However, I suspect that Manning's relatively low amount of defensive zone touches is also a result of an inability to win races to loose pucks or come out of puck battles successfully with control. Once Manning actually has control of the puck, his passing skill is probably a bit underrated, as this data implies. But his puck retrieval game needs work, and fans should hope that Manning works on that in the upcoming offseason.

The problem with the argument that Andrew MacDonald makes up for his passive neutral zone defense with strong puck-moving ability, as some argued in the wake of the 2014 trade that brought the defenseman to Philadelphia, is that the numbers don't really back up the theory. To be sure, MacDonald isn't necessarily a bad passer, but he's far from high-end. He does grade out better after removing in-zone passes from the equation, as he often was patient to a fault in the defensive zone, playing catch with his partner while hoping for a lane to open up. But even then, his metrics pale in comparison to truly above-average puck movers like Del Zotto and Streit.

MacDonald's place alongside Luke Schenn and Brandon Manning shouldn't come as too much of a surprise -- after all, he finished right in that range from a zone exit standpoint last season according to the data tracked by Jess Schmidt. As we continue to delve deeper and deeper into MacDonald at a microstat level, it becomes obvious why his possession metrics are so underwhelming. He's way below average in terms of preventing controlled entries when he doesn't have the puck, and when he does have the puck, he's merely average at pushing play in the other direction. After watching MacDonald for two seasons, I'm fairly confident that his skillset isn't going to change too much through the life of his unfortunate contract.

Gudas and Schultz bring up the rear

There's a steep drop off to Tier Four, which consists of Radko Gudas and Nick Schultz. Both players were staples in the Flyers' lineup all season long, but neither exhibited much success in moving the puck out of the defensive zone successfully on his own.

Gudas was undeniably the more active of the two defensemen. He averaged 66.18 touches of the puck per sixty minutes of 5-on-5 play during the season, while Schultz could muster only 58.87. In addition, Gudas grades out slightly better than Schultz after in-zone passes are removed from the data, leading in Controlled versus Uncontrolled rate (51.02% to 50.46%) and Controlled versus All Attempts (35.48% to 35.17%).

However, it does raise the question as to whether the Flyers want Gudas handling the puck so much in the defensive zone. Schultz clearly functions as a support defenseman to his partner (usually Mark Streit), but Gudas prefers to take a more active role in puck-moving despite his obvious limitations.

The strategy certainly worked for Gudas this year, at least from a puck possession standpoint. As I noted in late March, Gudas was Philadelphia's most effective defenseman in terms of on-ice shot attempt differentials, implying that he was actively helping to push the puck in the right direction. Still, in that analysis I also noted that Gudas' puck-moving skills were probably not driving those positive metrics -- instead, it was sound neutral zone play and underrated offensive zone contributions that likely made Gudas effective.

The question is whether that formula for success is sustainable moving into next season. This exit data clearly shows that there are limitations to Gudas' game, specifically on the puck-moving side of the ledger. Even though Gudas was effective while paired with Brandon Manning at the tail end of the season and into the playoffs, I can't help but suspect that a reunion with Michael Del Zotto next season (assuming Gudas is re-signed) would be the best way for the Flyers to hide the Czech defenseman's weaknesses and let him play to his strengths.