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Analyzing the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ zone entry and exit numbers

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Heather Barry / SB Nation

We’re nearing the fall and the start of a brand new hockey season, and we’re pretty excited and also just about ready to start talking about this coming season. But wait, not so fast! We still have some feelings about last season and we need to work through those first. That’s closure. Or something like that.

By all counts, we could call last season for the Phantoms something of a disappointment. Despite departures of a few key players, they were still a markedly talented team, just one year removed from an appearance in the conference final in an exciting Calder Cup run, and heading into the season hopes were high. Even if they weren’t able to make it that far, surely they’d at least be right in the mix. Right?

Well, not quite. Instead, the Phantoms ended the season fifth in their division, four points out of a playoff spot. After a hot start, goal scoring started to dry up as the season went on, and the team struggled to string together wins down the stretch. They started strong, but the wheels started to come off pretty spectacularly.

So how did this happen? The answer may well lie, in part, in the team’s transition play, that is, their ability to break the puck out of their own zone and get it moving up-ice, ideally with possession. The feeling, coming out of the season, was that these numbers probably weren’t great, but these numbers also aren’t something that the public has access to. So that was my project for the back half of this summer--to go back and track how often the Phantoms were able to exit the defensive zone and enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck at 5-on-5. We’ve got the first 20 games down, and we’re feeling ready enough with that data set to start to draw some conclusions about how and what the team was doing.

I do want to note, before we get too deep in this, that this unfortunately isn’t a complete data set. Because this isn’t a computer tracking these events, it’s just me and my own two eyes, using whatever the AHLtv feed gives me. And that isn’t a perfect system. Sometimes sections of games are missing. Sometimes we still have crowd footage being shown while a faceoff is taking place. Sometimes two guys fall down in the corner and the camera focuses on them instead of the zone exit that’s happening. Sometimes we get stuck looking at the angle from a camera that looks like it’s been mounted on the international space station, and it’s moving, and it’s blurry, and I can’t read the numbers. You get the idea right? It’s a system that’s fallible, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have. And, with any luck, with a larger sample amassed, the couple of exits and entries that slip through don’t carry as much weight.

Okay, good talk, that’s enough disclaiming, now let’s get into the numbers. You can see the totals from the first 20 games below, as well as at this link, where there will also be game-by-game data posted within the next few days.

Exits/Entries- First 20 Games

# Player Games Played Entries Carry-Ins Carry% Dump-Ins/Passes Dump-Ins Recovered Possession% Exits Controlled Exits Uncontrolled Exits Controlled Exit%
# Player Games Played Entries Carry-Ins Carry% Dump-Ins/Passes Dump-Ins Recovered Possession% Exits Controlled Exits Uncontrolled Exits Controlled Exit%
2 James de Haas 7 19 4 21.05% 15 8 63.16% 39 8 31 20.51%
5 Philippe Myers 20 80 30 37.50% 50 17 58.75% 131 42 89 32.06%
6 Philip Samuelsson 19 46 8 17.39% 38 17 54.35% 126 14 112 11.11%
7 Zack Palmquist 20 36 6 16.67% 30 8 38.89% 100 9 91 9%
8 David Drake 1 1 0 0% 1 1 100% 4 1 3 25%
9 Cole Bardreau 19 66 28 42.42% 38 12 60.61% 58 27 31 46.55%
10 Greg Carey 20 67 32 47.76% 35 15 70.15% 60 23 37 38.33%
12 Tyrell Goulbourne 12 31 13 41.94% 18 9 70.97% 37 14 23 37.84%
13 Colin McDonald 18 75 30 40% 45 14 58.67% 52 23 29 44.23%
15 Mikhail Vorobyev 12 32 16 50% 16 6 68.75% 39 13 26 33.33%
16 Nicolas Aube-Kubel 12 61 36 59.02% 25 11 77.05% 60 34 26 56.67%
17 German Rubtsov 14 42 26 61.90% 16 4 71.43% 38 22 16 57.90%
19 Radel Fazleev 11 35 21 60% 14 3 68.57% 36 24 12 66.67%
21 Mike Vecchione 20 56 44 78.57% 12 5 87.50% 52 20 32 38.46%
22 Chris Conner 19 68 37 54.41% 31 9 67.65% 45 22 23 48.89%
23 Taylor Leier 16 75 42 56% 33 14 74.67% 39 19 20 48.72%
24 Carsen Twarynski 17 75 34 45.33% 41 16 66.67% 57 30 27 52.63%
25 Connor Bunnaman 12 34 15 44.11% 19 4 55.88% 18 8 10 44.44%
26 Phil Varone 20 91 52 57.14% 39 13 71.43% 62 33 29 53.23%
37 Mark Friedman 20 65 22 33.85% 43 16 58.46% 148 51 97 34.46%
38 David Kase 17 60 25 41.67% 35 15 66.67% 51 29 22 56.86%
43 T.J. Brennan 20 55 18 32.73% 37 13 56.36% 126 21 105 16.67%
44 Reece Wilcox 13 52 17 32.69% 35 13 57.69% 78 17 61 21.79%
x total 1222 556 45.50% 666 243 65.38% 1456 504 952 34.62%

Who stands out?

Positively

There are a handful of forwards who jump right off the page/spreadsheet, if you will. Mike Vecchione ran away with the lead in Carry% by almost 17 percent, and with five of his 12 dump ins being recovered/passes being received, he ended up with an overall Possession% of 87.5%, which is really just otherworldly good. We can’t even pretend to not be very impressed with that. His controlled exit percentage is less impressive, but still above the team’s average, so fine enough.

Coming in with more well rounded numbers are Radel Fazleev, Nic Aube-Kubel, and German Rubtsov. With each hovering around 60 percent in carry-ins, they’re about 15 percent above the team’s average, and just about eight percent better than the forward corps’s average of 51.96 percent. And while we don’t tend to think about forwards being the ones to be starting the breakout, when these three were tasked with it, they did well. Each of Aube-Kubel (56.67%), Rubtsov (57.9%), and Fazleev (66.67%) came in in the top four of controlled zone exits on the team, clocking in well above the team average of 34.62%, and the forwards corps’s average of 48.44%.

We should also quickly extend a hat tip to David Kase, here, as he’s the missing piece in that top four, as he came in with a 56.86 controlled exit%.

We also have two defensemen who have pulled themselves head and shoulders above their teammates, and we shouldn’t really be surprised by it. Mark Friedman and Phil Myers, hello! Their stat lines don’t look quite as flashy as the forwards’ that we talked about above, but, while below the overall team’s average, their controlled entry percentages and controlled exit percentages lead the defense corps, and their controlled exit percentages (32.06 percent for Myers, and 34.46 percent for Friedman) come in well above the defensemen’s average of 22.48 percent. All while also being the team leaders in individual exits generated.

Negatively

If it’s Friedman and Myers that stand out positively in the defense corps, it’s just about the whole rest of the lot that’s performing negatively. Indeed, when you remove Friedman and Myers’ contributions, you’re left with a pretty measly 14.8 controlled exit% for the remaining defensemen. And this more or less confirms what the eye test was telling us—that the Phantoms were doing a whole lot of off-the-glass-and-out zone exits, and not getting too many chances to move the puck up-ice with control.

What does it mean?

We have a couple of main takeaways from this first data set, and the first is that the Phantoms generated a good few more exits than they did entries, suggesting that they were having some trouble moving through the neutral zone. Over those first 20 games, they had 234 more exits than entries, which works out to just under 12 per game. And this is bound to happen—there are miscues on passes, turnovers happen, and the other team is going to try and defend the blue line so you can’t move past it. But 12 times per game where you get the puck out of your end and then are immediately sent back in isn’t nothing, and if it becomes a trend, that adds up. That’s offense against being allowed, and sooner or later, that’s going to burn you.

The second piece is that, at this time, the Phantoms were still averaging a 3.55 goals per game and holding onto a 12-6-2 record, while being out-shot in all but seven of their first 20 games, and putting up an average controlled exit percentage of 45.50%. So, knowing what we do about controlled entries tending to result in more chances generated, and shot-based results being more predictive of future success, these numbers suggest that the goal based results that they saw early in the season might not be sustainable, that the wheels may be bound to eventually come off.

And finally, if you’re noticing a trend in those leaders and starting to sweat a bit, that’s reasonable. What stands out about that group beyond the fact that they have strong statistical profiles is that the Phantoms would be missing many them for long chunks of time, later in the season. At this point, Rubtsov is done for the season with the shoulder injury. Aube-Kubel is back from Philadelphia, but he’ll miss time with two separate injuries in the coming months. After just four more games, Fazleev will pass through unconditional waivers to have his contract terminated so he can go play in Russia. And in February, Myers will be called up to the Flyers and will be missing until the very last game of the season. It’s just Vecchione and Friedman who will prove more or less constant presences for the duration of the season. And we’re right to wonder what this will do for the team’s underlying numbers and that potential for regression.

And we’ll see if that ends up happening! We sort of have an inkling that it does, but in a bit we’ll be looking at their numbers from the end of the season, just to see how hard regression hits.